Stylus AUGUST 11, 2004 - by Matthew Weiner


Give them this much: art rock roots aside - one in apocalyptic doom rockers King Crimson, and the other from the first incarnation of Roxy Music - Robert Fripp and Brian Eno were hardly the most obvious of pairings. Where Fripp had all the showmanship of a grade-school piano teacher - practising for hours on end, employing correct technique, playing stadium shows sitting on a stool, for Christ's sake - egghead Eno, among the British art student posse of the late-'60s, delighted in spurning those very conventions, famously (and somewhat preposterously) referring to himself as a "non-musician." Whatever their respective methods, each saw in the other a desire to expand the breadth, scope and, perhaps most importantly, the routine of making popular music. And between them, playing crucial roles on David Bowie's "Heroes", Public Enemy/Bomb Squad favorite My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and a good chunk of the downtown scene in NYC during the late '70s, not only did the pair expand pop music - they came damn close to making it over.

For all their accomplishments, however, the pair's work as a duo (1973's No Pussyfooting, a follow-up two years later, as well as several aborted sessions) has always seemed more like warm-ups for the big show - experimental and freewheeling for sure, but not exactly major entries in the catalogues of either. And The Equatorial Stars, the first Fripp & Eno collaboration proper in almost three decades, will do little to change that. Another darkly textural work that drifts through the ether (but not easily enough to quite qualify as "ambient"), the results do reflect the pair's work apart in recent years; opener Meissa, with its gently stuttering guitar delays, recalls Fripp's solo records, while follow-up Lyra shades more to Eno's oeuvre, specifically evoking his collaborations in the '80s with Harold Budd for which he set up elaborate chains of studio effects the pianist could play off. Both show Fripp at his most lyrical and Eno at his most painstakingly delicate.

Yet beginning with third track, Lupus, a certain lifelessness starts to creep into The Equatorial Stars. It's not entirely unexpected: rumors abound that Eno has lost it - evidenced by efforts in the last decade that have traded on past glories (Bowie's 1. Outside, U2's aptly-named All That You Can't Leave Behind) or wandered about aimlessly (1997's listless The Drop). I'd suggest, rather, that the problem is that Eno, perhaps the premier analog synthesizer pioneer in pop, has never gotten comfortable with digital technology. From his wild, careening solos with Roxy to his groundbreaking instrument "treatments" with the EMS Synthi One suitcase synthesizer he utilized on the Bowie and Talking Heads records, Eno always sought to infuse an element of sonic chaos into the proceedings. But listening back to Pierre In Mist from 1992's Nerve Net, one is struck by how utterly ill-at-ease Eno sounded as he played rambling solos on saxophone presets, pitch-bending to poor, often embarrassing effect. It's been more or less that way ever since, as he's searched in vain for a sonic palette that can give him the same measure of (non-) control with which he sculpted such pioneering studio-as-instrument recordings as 1982's On Land and the trio of Talking Heads records Eno helmed at the dawn of the '80s.

And based on the evidence here, he hasn't found it yet; MIDI guitars and digibell sounds that are flat and uninviting dominate the proceedings, occupying space instead of capturing the imagination - the bland, undistinguished results a far cry from the otherworldly textures the pair created with the "Frippertronics" looping system that birthed Eno's 1975 landmark Discreet Music and Fripp's masterpiece of punk-pop minimalism, Exposure. The resultant formlessness of endless closer Terebellum would have found no place on those records.

Of course, it takes two to do the robot; if Eno is like the old dad trying to work a computer mouse, Fripp has sidled up all too easily to his new toys in recent years, having long ago pawned the rewired Revox tape machines integral to Frippertronics for digital pedals and guitar synths that sacrifice personality for convenience. More disappointing still, as tracks like Ankaa illustrate, is the pair's insistence on a static pedal point harmonic structure, which robs Fripp - possessed of a jaw-droppingly poignant melodic sensibility - of any opportunity to shine as a soloist, as he has from Blondie's shimmering Fade Away And Radiate to 1995's deeply-felt tribute to his mother's passing, The Blessing Of Tears.

Alas, that spark is missing here. After their last record together, 1975's Evening Star, Eno went on to make his first unabashed masterpiece, Another Green World, while Fripp left the music industry entirely for the better part of three years. Maybe it's just a momentary lull, but this time it sounds like both could use a nice vacation.