The Wire AUGUST 1997 - by Matt Ffytche


There's a joke in Eno's publicity quotes for his three year project The Drop. The disc, he claims, "consolidates my position as the Cecil B De Mille of the modern LP, the Cecil Rhodes of ambience,m the Cecil Taylor of the synthesizer." The joke is that most of Eno's 'new music' projects, from Ambient in the '70s to current experiments with Generative Music software, have been intentionally unspectacular, non-powerful, anti-confrontational.

Of The Drop's seventeen tracks, the first sixteen are mostly two minute colour swatches the recall David Toop's descriptions of nightlife on Alpha Mercurius: "digitised Tru Life clubs with their post-sentient karaoke." What if, alongside the history of jazz and pop, there was an alternative synthetic history of music designed precisely not to grab your attention? Think of a hologram of Gary Numan expounding Messiaen's colour theories in a Buddhist temple. Synth melodies hover between Erik Satie and Bill Frisell, the notes hanging in the air like soap bubbles. Harmonically disconfigured scales drift vaguely along, now evoking zen-like koto, now a pallid tonality, now karaoke. Pop and jazz are there impressionistically, but in a dimensionless, non-stick way. MC Organ has a definite bass popping swing, but without any punch, and beneath a synth line like a perfumed blanket. Boom Cubist could have a dub feel if the on-the-one beat wasn't just a hollow 'chock'. Elsewhere there's funk without the funk; suspense without drama; nostalgia without memories. An enervation sampler.

To bond with music where gestures are purged of instinct and as soft as cotton wool, you need to in habit a space cleared of humdrum pressures. "It's often been painters and writers - people who use music while they work and want to make for themselves a conducive environment - who've first enjoyed and encouraged this work," he wrote in a piece and Ambient in '96. Eno's experiments with repetition and artificial eternity conjure up the work of Andy Warhol, but where Warhol had one fott in trash culture, Eno seems to exit from a world of solid objects into one of tints and perfumes. His last album, Neroli, is systems music masquerading as aromatherapy, while 1975's Discreet Music is a favourite in maternity hospitals.

That's Eno paradox as an innovator. For all the McLuhanesque electricity of his ideas, his projects have a built-in anti-disturbance factor - cutting edge in an edgeless way. The Drop's last track, Iced World, is over thirty minutes long and perfectly captures an air of unchanging expectancy, a soundtrack for a moment cut off from movement. Satie is on the piano over looped chords, sugary but trembling, and a soft, inscrutable double nudge on the bass. It's like a trapped moment of poise from Can's Future Days, only with Liebezeit's drumming replaced by an executive toy. There's quiet here, but only as a tonal component, a sweetly frozen uncertainty. Hence the overtones of melancholy and emptiness. For the person who has everything: a charm against remembering something else. Which reminds me of a dream Eno recounts in A Year With Swollen Appendices: "I dreamed I was erasing my past in Photoshop, but it turned out that I was using the 'clone tool' - so instead of erasing I was just copying chunks of the past into the future." In The Wire 161, Eno made a heartfelt pitch for musicians creating a world that they wanted to inhabit, and that sense of life flooding over the edges of the recording and out to the listener. The Drop is different and faintly intriguing, but its echoes of vitality, trapped in the delicate indifference of the shopping mall, couldn't be further from this ideal.