The Word NOVEMBER 2010 - by Andrew Collins


Brian Eno latest suite of songs-without-words, and an unexpected collaboration from David Gilmour and The Orb.


A witticism round the Algonquin Round Table of the NME office in the early '90s - traceable, we believe, to David Quantick - in which the latest ambient album by Brian Eno is reviewed by a man in a Zulu film wearing a pith helmet: "I don't like it. It's too quiet."

The gag masked a serious point: how does a mere writer, programmed to deconstruct lyrics, admire fretwork and compare the market, usefully describe pure instrumental music, especially that which is designed to create atmospheres and textures?

In his own sleeve notes for the pioneering and phrase-coining Ambient 1: Music For Airports in 1978, Professor Eno wrote, "Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty... Ambient Music retains these qualities." Unimpressed by muzak's avowed intent to "brighten" a public environment by "adding stimulus", his effected to "induce calm and a space to think". When presented with an album uncomplicated by language and unencumbered by verse or chorus, the reviewer's mind is not just allowed to wander, but actively encouraged to do so. On, then, with the pith helmet.

Small Craft On A Milk Sea is Eno's first solo album since 2005's lively Another Day On Earth - itself notable for being his first dominantly vocal collection since 1977's Before And After Science - and is recognisably his. A wordless suite of fifteen songs, it moves from gentle piano dispositions that recall his work with Harold Budd on Ambient 2 - and, on the lilting Complex Heaven, even hint at "the Arena from Another Green World - to electronically pulsing, riff-driven numbers like the pendulum-over-an-intercom of Horse and the cinematic Flint March, a cousin perhaps of Force Marker, that amazing rhythmic shoot-out the ever-adaptable Eno supplied for the Heat soundtrack.

With additional guitar by Leo Abrahams and keyboards by Jon Hopkins - both of whom appeared on Another Day On Earth and contributed to Eno's score for The Lovely Bones - this is a pleasingly varied and tasty album; while largely prone to undulate and meander, it might equally explode into a four-four rock workout, as on 2 Forms Of Anger and Dust Shuffle. (Ironically, these more conventional songs cry out for a vocal.) The more challenging sounds, such as the somersaulting insectoid guitar on Paleosonic, and the chimes from some distant mountain temple duelling with sci-fi signals on Calcium Needles, remind us that Eno is a man locked into a constant rummage of discovery. He tries stuff out so that you don't have to. It's not hard to hear the eerie, John Carpenter-esque Bone Jump re-looped on some future solo project by a minor satellite of The Wu-Tang Clan.

What's most fascinating about ambient music is how it adapts to survive. A century on from Erik Satie's Musique d'ameublement - which bucked classical orthodoxy in its brief to provide tailored background music for receptions, vestibules and lunches - the artform was formalised into modernism by the likes of La Monte Young, John cage and Terry Riley in the '50s and '60s, its deviation and repetition subsequently folded back into rock in the '70s, and its synthesised modes into '80s pop. But who foresaw its practical application as comedown balm during the rave era?


The Orb - essentially Battersea's Dr Alex Paterson and an ever-revolving carousel of studio and concert hall accomplices - have been making chill-out by appointment for more than twenty years. Their eleventh slab, Metallic Spheres, grew organically, as these things sort of should. Last year, David Gilmour covered Graham Nash's 1970 protest song Chicago to promote the plight of Gary McKinnon, the nerd célèbre awaiting extradition to the US for hacking military computers. An extended guitar jam for an ambient mix with longtime Orb satellite Martin "Youth" Glover has now been massaged up into a full-blown symphony by him and Paterson. (According to a post on Gilmour's blog, the Floyd man wasn't aware he was working on the next Orb album. But neither were they.)

The result takes the form of two "sides", Metallic and Spheres, around twenty-five apiece, themselves gently divided into five overlapping movements. unsurprisingly - having previously remixed Rick Wright, Gong and Mike Oldfield - this post-rationalised collaboration with Gilmour produces a natural, pleasing and unforced cross-generational melding of minds. In trademark Orb style, snatches of found speech drift in and out of earshot, while Gilmour noodles imperially away over lolloping, actually-played beats. The refrain from Chicago ("can you believe in justice") ghosts through occasionally as if over a cosmic crystal set.

With its eastern/aboriginal passages, whale-song and dub intervals, Metallic Spheres is far more coherent than the sketches that comprise Eno's Small Craft On A Milk Sea. And although both tug ambient in accessible, big-name directions, I doubt either will be piped into Stansted or Glasgow International just yet.