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The Telegraph NOVEMBER 17, 1995 - by Neil McCormick
AMBIENT IS ALL AROUND
It's the latest sound - and Eno thought of it twenty years ago. Neil McCormick meets the man they call Brain One.
The biggest rock band in the world have returned to the charts not with a bang but a whimsy-a series of mainly instrumental sci-fi mood pieces featuring assorted bleeps, strange synthesised sounds and the soaring warble of one Luciano Pavarotti.
Not content with contributing music to films as varied as Golden Eye, In The Name Of The Father and Batman Forever, U2 have reconvened under the name Passengers to release an album of themes to imaginary movies. Only on Original Soundtracks 1 can you find the gentle electronic space noodlings that comprise Plot 180, from the fictional Peter Sedgely's non-existent classic Hypnotize (Love Me 'Til Dawn). Confused? Blame Brian Eno. Bono does.
"It used to be said that a lot of English rock 'n' roll bands went to art school. We went to Brian," says Bono, of the former Roxy Music keyboard player-turned-producer. "Brian has been part of our set-up for the past ten years.
"We just wanted to make a record where he was in charge. It won't be for everybody, but it's a real trip. Sort of late-night-in-a-fast-car music. We were just happy to be in his backing band."
This must be a moment to savour for Eno. Sometimes anagramatically referred to as Brain One, the chrome-domed intellectual has long existed on the fringes of popular music. As rock 'n' roll's resident boffin, he has collaborated on offbeat projects with artists such as David Bowie, David Byrne, John Cale, Robert Fripp and The Neville Brothers, while producing strange soundscapes of his own. In 1995, not only did Eno persuade U2 to experiment with his particular brand of background atmospherics, he also rekindled his creative partnership with Bowie. On the sessions for Bowie's 1. Outside, Eno handed the musicians flash cards on which he had written instruction such as: "You are the last remaining survivor of a catastrophic event, and you will endeavour to play in such a way as to prevent feelings of loneliness developing within yourself."
Last week, at the rock magazine Q's annual awards, Eno received a special honour for inspiration, recognition that his warped vision of the future of music has been largely vindicated.
More than twenty years ago, Eno formed Ambient records to create a new kind of listening experience. "I invented ambient music," Eno happily boasts, perhaps forsaking modesty in the glow of his achievements. It was music that was non-narrative, textural (concentrating on sonic details rather than melodic or rhythmic ones) and utilitarian. "It was obvious to me that people were using records in their life like you use a piece of furniture, or you use lighting. They would come home and put on this record to do the washing-up with and another one to have dinner with.
"So the concept of use is one thing, but the particular type of usage is another. It isn't dance music. It's more like trance music. It's music for drifting off somewhere. And it is distinct from most other pop music in that respect."
Eno released only four albums on Ambient, on what he says was "the very optimistic assumption that everybody would realise what a brilliant idea it was and do the rest for me. I like having ideas but I'm not particularly keen on flogging them to death."
Neither, apparently, was anyone else. Ambience remained an underground, minority concern, until it was revived by acid house clubbers trying to recover from the brain death of repetitive beats. In 1989, Alex Patterson, a part-time DJ and A&R man at Eno's label EG, dropped the drums out of a track he was mixing and released the resulting twenty-three minutes of sampled sounds as a single by The Orb, coining the phrase "Ambient Music for the E-Generation."
Now no club is complete without a chill-out room playing psychedelic, amorphous, electronic music by bands with names such as Aphex Twin, Higher Intelligence Agency and Seefeel. When even mainstream rockers such as U2 are influenced by this post-rock, post-rave music, the sound of the Beatless and the Stoned, you know that ambience finally has us surrounded.
"I was always very confident this is one of the ways music would go," says Eno. "I'm only surprised it took this long." The soft-spoken musical pioneer has more predictions for the future. "Ambient is closer to heavy metal than anything else. Because it's to do with immersion and so is heavy metal. It's obvious to me that the next step is going to be something like metal ambient, some extremely harsh, hostile but intriguing sonic environment."
Now there's something to look forward to.