The Village Voice MAY 20, 1981 - by John Piccarella


John Lydon supposedly gave up his extremist stage persona with the name Rotten, just as Brian Eno did when he left Roxy Music. Disavowing rock and roll as "dead," as concert/product retrace, Lydon, like Eno, sought a contemporary experimental music created in the sober solipsism of the recording studio. Eno's mild-mannered elitism can be as obnoxious as Lydon's sneering arrogance. But his often self-effacing ubiquity makes Eno's eternal drone of extemporaneous theories far less offensive than the sophomore fuck-youisms to the Public Image Ltd. Eno conceals his snobbery by simply not performing, while PiL deliberately provoke outrage on state, as if, like Werner Erhard, they believe insult is good or you. That PiL think a conceptualised ripoff is like the one at the Ritz last Friday night is an effective challenge to what Robert Fripp dismisses as "The vampiric relationship between audience and performer" clearly delineates the stupid limits of their iconoclasm. Farting around with a pickup drummer behind a giant video screen and then taunting the crowd about its "money's worth" is like raping somebody to teach her that sex is a power game. But while the distaste with which one watches artists behave like assholes has to shrivel our regard for their vision and intent, that shouldn't be the standard by which we measure their work, anymore than we should assess Reagan's budget by his good humor.

Eno's recent collaboration with David Byrne, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, and the just released Public Image Ltd. Album, The Flowers of Romance seems, in part, a product of reactionary rock-sucks aesthetics, staking out similar alternatives to the new-wave dance music these artists once helped invigorate. The critical consensus that dismisses these records as pretentious seems to me like a serves-them-right refusal to hear music that finally makes good on these guys' past claims to uncompromising experimentalism. The two records do frustrate expectations by abandoning former strengths - Byrne and Eno offer no vocals or lyrics; PiL abandon both their hypnotic dance grooves and their lyrical guitar-noise - but that's what makes them interesting. Third-world rhythms and melodic influences permeate both albums, roughly according to Eno's "fourth world" idea: primitivist-ethnic percussion patterns embellished with sophisticated electronic sounds to create futurist-exotic musical geography. PiL, like Eno and now Byrne, discover their music by playing in the studio, on tape, and then refining and releasing what they think works. Byrne and Eno usually settle into a characteristically buoyant lyricism and lambent funk, while Public Image tend toward darker dirge-dub and gritty abrasion. While the new records reflect these signature textural preferences, they arrive at analogous results.

Both the "found" taped materials that act as vocal tracks for My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and the almost gothic imagism of Lydon's chants for The Flowers of Romance make repeated spiritual references - citations of prayer, apparitions and spirits, echoes of distant cultures. I don't think this imagery reflects the artists' concerns - it inheres in the music itself, like primeval dream images haunting some Jungian anthropological inquiry. In My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, American politicians, announcers, evangelists, exorcists, and gospel singers mingle with Middle Eastern songs in an unlikely alliance. Bongos, congas, and exotic percussives animate funky rhythm guitars and lush synthesizers to resolve musically a clash of Christian and Arab voices. Because there is no translation of the words of Lebanese singer Dunya Yusin or Egyptian Samira Tewfik, their melodic affinity with Qu'ran (chanted by Algerian Muslims) reinforces the assumption that this is spiritual music. A striking cross-reference occurs in Moonlight In Glory, when the soloist in Georgia's Moving Star Hall Singers could almost be performing in Arabic.

The Flowers of Romance, which begins with the word Alla, is it's own bouquet of ghosts, full of claustrophobic settings: tombs, mosques, prisons, dungeons, locked rooms, cadavers escaping out of walls. "Down in the dark / Tell us a story / From the room below" is the opening of Phenagen, a horrific supplication that ends "No more, no more / Amen, amen, amen." Though the music sounds crude and unfinished, built like the Byrne and Eno record on vigorous drum patterns, the relatively brief tracks of The Flowers of Romance are generally more complicated than the self-propelled grooves of earlier PiL, whose musical center was the thunderously visceral bass of Jah Wobble. Phenagen's two-and-a-half minutes, for instance, begin by constructing a rhythm from bongolike cross-rhythms and gamelan-like prepared piano. The middle section finds Lydon chanting the lyrics over a solitary drum beat as unrelenting as the row-or-die pulse of a galleyship. Then the piano returns to liven up the rhythm behind Keith Levene, who double-tracks atonal guitar runs that branch out like lightning bolts seeking a place to touch down and finally strike a vocal reprise. Track 8 sets first a sing-song vocal and then an intentionally thin and arbitrary guitar solo against an impossible rhythm, a two-beat synthesizer oscillation colliding with a three-beat drum part.

Because Byrne and Eno worked largely without a rhythm section - there are few basslines and kit drummers on only four cuts - the basic tracks are constructed of layers of wooden, metallic, and electronic percussion, decorated with their own bass, guitar, and synthesizer inventions. The most accessible tracks, Regiment and Help Me Somebody, are the ones in which the taped vocal material is complemented by some kind of conventional guitar. In Regiment, what must be a Fripp solo (he's credited on the label as co-arranger but not listed as a musician on the album jacket) imitates the Arabian modality, spirals, and trills of Dunya Yusin's vocals. On Help Me Somebody, a conventional chord change is sketched out by the guitar, first in between and then together with the evangelist's phrase "Ahhhh... I know," which is looped into the album's one genuine hook.

Similarly, former drummer Martin Atkins lends PiL something of an accessible rock beat on The Flowers of Romance's three longest tracks: Four Enclosed Walls, Under The House, and Banging The Door, which bounces off a single droning bass note, as does Byrne and Eno's Qu'ran. But the almost total lack of brass parts (rumor has it that Wobble's lines were erased when he left the band) refocuses PiL into tribalistic amateur drum essays and spare instrumental surprises, with a touch of Ant-rhythm here and there. There are a few but not many other apparent influences - the clipped Eno washes of Under The House and Hymie's Him, the sound-effect Arabianism of the violins in the title track.

Eno has said that his newest music is an attempt to create imaginary environments, a combination, I suppose, of his ambient and "fourth world" aesthetics into science-fiction landscaping. Both My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and The Flowers of Romance attempt this kind of reinvention of cultures into theoretical land masses. That the final product is experimentally tentative and not pop-polished is what opens this "possible music" into a metaphorical continent. Without the cosmetic gloss of the cinematic, this montage of snapshots is like a TV travelogue robbing the cradle of civilisation. Wholly fictitious, some would say, but the electronic media don't lie, really. The TV eye just absorbs and projects images of and in a world where every culture is mangled by others.