Synapse MARCH/APRIL 1978 - by Andy Capraro


"I notice that many of the more significant contributions to rock music and, to a lesser extent, avante-garde music have been made by enthusiastic amateurs and dabblers. Their strength is that they are able to approach the task of music-making without previously acquired solutions and without a too firm concept of what is and what is not musically possible." - Brian Eno

What was there before science? Magic. Nowadays, when theories have been stretched tight as drum heads over observations and statistics, then played upon with technology's mallets, what's left? Magic, if you know where to look. Brian Eno. Eno creates music with an artistic blend of thought and carelessness; one finds surprises not only in the music, but frequently in his execution of the music. I seldom write record reviews. That I've chosen to put in print my opinions concerning Before And After Science surely indicates the depth of my feelings for Eno's work. Unfortunately, I also have strong feelings about music 'critics'. In the spirit of the American composer Charles Ives, I say, who are we to tell music how to sound?

During my writing, these feelings occasionally would turn viciously inward, resulting in a state of mind closer to catatonia than creativity. Once when this happened I consulted a deck of oracle cards called Oblique Strategies. These small, black and white cards were created by Eno and associate Peter Schmidt in 1975. Intended as an aid to creative work, they contain a number of vague suggestions, amusing instructions, questions and statements, such as, "Honour thy error as a hidden intention", and "Mechanicalise something idiosyncratic". One of my favourites is, "Go somewhere else". According to Eno the cards were used a great deal in making this album. The idea is to break down overwhelming problems by stimulating creativity through random process. Example: you are stuck at a certain point while composing or recording a piece of music. Pick a card. Does it apply to your problem? If not, pick another and try to connect the two in a way that does. Even if the readings don't always strike home, the cards are useful as a device - similar to a mantra; concentration shifts, the mind relaxes for a while, and mental blocks dissolve. Anyway, the card I picked told me, "Don't be afraid of things because they are hard to do", so I forced myself to keep writing.

Eno is probably best known as a founding member of Roxy Music, a band whose name symbolises for many the ultimate fusion of avante-garde and rock styles. A self-proclaimed "non-musician" (i.e. no formal training), he used tape machines, synthesizer components, and presumably any other available devices to alter music being produced by the other band members. In addition, he played the synthesizer. Lacking a strong background in traditional keyboard techniques, he was free to attack the synthesizer as an instrument in itself, with an expansive spectrum of sound, and few limitations. The results were highly imaginative, and can be heard on the first three Roxy Music albums. Since then, Eno has been involved in many projects, including appearances on records by former Roxy members Phil Manzanera (guitar) and Andy Mackay (sax/oboe). He has played concerts with droning guitarist Robert Fripp (ex-King Crimson), and recorded several solo albums of material ranging from humorously demented rock songs (as on Here Come The Warm Jets), to experimental works involving self-contained musical systems (Discreet Music). The founder of Obscure Records, he has recorded and produced the work of several other artists and groups. His instrumental treatments, synthesizer, and influential presence are noted on albums by John Cale, Genesis and, most recently, David Bowie.

Before And After Science finds Brian surrounded once again by a large, flexible team of excellent musicians. Percussion and rhythm are dominant factors on side one, as evidenced by No One Receiving, a Bowie-esque tune lamenting alienation "in these metal days". Typical of Eno is the haunting synthesizer riff buried beneath the bass and percussion, and audible at an almost-subconscious level. Synthetic percussion blends well with Phil Collin's echoing drum licks to form seething layers of sound.

Kurt's Rejoinder bounces like one of those big, multi-coloured plastic balls they sell in Thriftymart, kicked along by Percy Jones on analogue delay bass and Shirley Williams on brush timbales. Eno babbles in the background. Both Kurt's Rejoinder and the next cut, Backwater, have terrific melodies, melodies that a child might write, if a child had a sophisticated enough sense of rhythm. Backwater is pure fun; the fluid stream-of-consciousness lyrics should appeal to anyone with a well-developed sense of the absurd, and the beat is infectious on an epidemic level.

Energy Fools The Magician is a short, moody piece, seeming to have escaped from a longer, moody film soundtrack, and King's Lead Hat is discordant and noisy enough to be classified "new wave"; its mindless drive and energy make it similar to material on the previously mentioned Here Come The Warm Jets LP in 1973. Interestingly enough, Eno vocals here remind me of bass player John Wetton, who performed on Here Come The Warm Jets. (Eno has always been an innovative vocalist; his phrasing is unique, and he sometimes does imitations. On an earlier album he sings a line or two like Roxy's vocalist, Bryan Ferry.) Another point to ponder about King's Lead Hat is how many rhythm guitars are being played? At first listening I'd have guessed ten, but I might've been, shall we say, over-sensitive at the time.

Side two is more "mellow" (throwaway lines often ring true), with an emphasis on Brian's more gentle vocals, uncomplicated lyrics, and some very pretty songs. Acoustic and electronic instruments settle comfortably together throughout the entire side. Moog, Mini-moog, and AKS synthesizers are used subtly; they sigh, drift, and occasionally meander into the dreamy realm of ambience, as in Julie With..., my favourite cut on the album because of the synthesizers and the mood they help to induce - that of being stranded, timeless, floating on a raft with a girl somewhere. Eno plays some tasteful guitar on this one.

Notable, if only for being pleasantly different from anything else I've heard him do, is the opening cut, Here He Comes. It's probably as close as Eno will get to The Eagles - close enough.

By This River is my second favourite cut, featuring Achim Roedelius, Möbei Moebius, and Eno, all on keyboards, a trio managing to sound like a single pianist. A nice effect. Brian's vocals are soothing, and the song has a distracted, lilting quality: "You talk to me, as if from a distance and I reply with impressions chosen from another time, time, time, from another time..."

Though Hollow Lands has Fred Frith (late of Henry Cow) playing slow cascades on guitar, and Spider And I is a perfect closing piece. It could be a sing-along. Eno employs a rich, soaring combination chime/drone chorus, and the result is near-hypnotic; the song makes you sway...

I tend to question the way Before And After Science was recorded. No noise-reduction systems were used, and unfortunately the record seems lacking in textural and spacial aspects when compared to some of his others. Another Green World, for instance. Also, those interested only in synthesizer may be a little disappointed; the album doesn't sound as electronic as one might expect, but then why should it? In the spirit of Charles Ives... Besides, Eno's music embodies something more important than mere technology; it holds a 'realness' borne of efforts to create something other than the ordinary. Brian Eno has invented another universe of music both entertaining and challenging to a listener. I urge anyone interested in advanced musical expression to listen to Before And After Science several times, regardless of whether you like it on first impression. Wait a week, then listen again. Listen very quietly, behind closed doors. Listen with your mind on something else. Listen at high volume, listen at low volume. You may hear something different every time.

May you hear something different every time.