Brian Eno is MORE DARK THAN SHARK
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Sounds JANUARY 15, 1977 - by Tim Lott

BOWIE: INNOVATION TO INNOVATION

Tim Lott plots the high contrast in the Thin One's new Low record

DAVID BOWIE: LOW

PH-Ph-Ph-PHASES.

Bowie has been through - created - so many.

Innovative; the rock 'n' roll of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. Retrospective; the bizarre reworking of Pin Ups. Pre-emptive; the prophetic white soul of Young Americans. Mainstream; the simple power of Station To Station. Always the phases fascinate. Always, they prove impermanent. Bowie don't sit on his laurels, he shreds them to pieces and thinks again.

In the past the stylistic gaps between albums have been invariably wide. But never to the extent of Low, which is just about as unlike Station To Station - or any other earlier album - as any piece of music could be.

The new directions of Low are not so much surprises as wide-eyed shocks.

For instance; lyrics have always been inseparable from Bowie's inarguable importance to '70s rock consciousness.

The words to Low are few, and simple, and non-essential.

For instance; Bowie's vocal communication has always before been the pillar of his appeal.

Singing on Low is occasional, in fact through side two, practically non-existent.

For instance; Bowie has never before been atmospherically dominated by a co-musician, Low is inexorably and radically influenced by Brian Eno, who appears to lay the groundwork for every track.

The early pressing has no credits; it is uncertain if Bowie is the sole composer. Tracks like Always Crashing In The Same Car and A New Career In A New Town display distinctively Eno-esque titles. Maybe Low is a dual effort. It certainly sounds that way, for synthesisers and electronic treatments are the pivot of the album, Eno trademarks unmistakably.

The two sides are quite separate in concept.

Side one is rhythmic, sometimes obscure, sometimes disco kraut rock, sometimes drifting, sometimes compact and careful. Each track could loosely be classified as a song i.e. there is an identifiable melodic/structural thread running through every individual piece.

Side two is primarily free form, wordless vocals, tidal electronic waves, Eastern atmospherics, abrupt percussive backdrops. A completely strange, alien effect pervades. Music of the subconcious.

Often the sound is distorted and gothic as on the album opener, Speed Of Life, a synthesised instrumental with an oddly blurred effect as if it was recorded too loud. The effect is surprisingly immediate, and Carlos Alomar's (or conceivably, Bowie's) friction guitar scrapes insistently behind George Murray's precisely jagged bass.

Sound And Vision, the fourth track, is probably the pinnacle of Low.Demi-funk intro culminates with a subterranean sax note and Bowie, with rhythmic precision provides inspired vocal. His singing, as always, is more mechanical than melodic, but in context, the perfect foil for the harsh guitar and sliding synthesiser. Metallic beauty.

Nothing on the album is obvious single material, but the least unlikely track is What In The World, which apparently features Iggy Pop on vocal backup. Eno synthesiser bubbles in Roxyesque fashion, while sandpaper guitars exorcise any gremlins of crassness.Bowie is emotionless in his vocal punctuation but the sound remains bleakly instant.

Side one opens and closes with instrumentals, Speed Of Life and A New Career In A New Town (grotesque, impressive mouth harp superimposed over pastoral electronics).

Lyrically, Bowie has avoided the abstracts of past albums. In fact his chosen subject matter for the incongruously aggressive Be My Wife is nuptial bliss - "Please be mine / Share my life / Stay with me / Be my wife."

Breaking Glass is the shortest piece, sandwiched between Speed Of Life and What In The World. Its main distinguishing factor is the insistent bass coupled with Bowie's cracked half-spoken vocal, cooly functional and juxtaposed with Eno's fluid synthesiser. Again, obliquely instant.

Always Crashing In The Same Car is the only slow-pace number on side one. Warped distended guitar, upfront in the mix, bends the sound toward a low-key depressive feel.. But still the insistent rhythm/lead guitar combination redeems and peps up the atmosphere into a hard-edged future symphony.

And side two.

It might have come from a different album. The electronics are there, true. But the guitar frontage is missing or at least massively altered. There are four tracks but no songs. The sound is... strange.

Warszawa opens the side and is atmospherically fairly typical. Slow, meandering noise vibrations, pure electronics, space orchestral. Almost, but not quite something early Floyd might have attempted. In fact more than anything else it reminds, almost sacrilegiously, of Split Enz, but less frantic, more inaccessible. Half into the track, a chant takes up, wordless and ritualistic, assumedly Bowie; possibly Iggy Pop but Bowie as he has never sounded before. Difficult to assess because of its very uniqueness - there is no appropriate yardstick to use.

Art Decade is more melodic, with unmistakeable Eastern undertones. A central synthesised pivot persists throughout with obscure percussive effects behind. Fascinating and baroque; but where does Bowie come in? It seems to be primarily Eno's creature as, perplexingly, does much of side one.

The overwhelming sense of the bizarre persists with Weeping Wall - more wordless vocals, some of them apparently doctored through the console. Vibes dribble starkly here and there again, throbbing white noise densely constructed by Eno. Indefinable, disturbing.

Subterraneans ends the album. Characteristically, it is patently weird. What sounds like a string synthesiser dominates, and gradually other components infiltrate: more gothic chanting, loosely structured lead, scattered bass.

And Bowie, almost in defiance of Eno's pervasive influence over the other contributes a sticky, basement level, smooth gravel sax passage which makes you almost sigh with relief to hear a recognisably orthodox instrument.

Side two is the most difficult piece of music Bowie has ever put his name to. Like anything totally new or experimental, the listener has to work - hard - for the music to communicate.

But in the last word, it works, though only on an unusual, half-hidden level. Innovation is always difficult to judge; Bowie's massive talent and Eno's sublime grasp of the more tenuous aspects of music make it uncommonly possible.

So this album is not

Ordinary,

Immediate,

Commercial,

Or compromising.

(a lot of Bowie fans are going to hate Low)

So this album is

Remarkable.

Unique.

Odd.

Arguably triumphant.

And inarguably innovatory.

So. This album might be

Bowie's best ever.

Eno's best ever.

A mechanical classic.

So. Whatever. Prepare for shock treatment.


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