Icon: Brian Eno
Surely few could have foreseen, watching the Top of the Pops in 1972, that the silver-gloved gentleman playing an alien-looking electronic gizmo would go on to become one of the late-20th century’s most influential musicians. But once he left Roxy Music and shed the feather boa, that’s exactly what Brian Eno did.
A lesser musician could have banked an entire career on any one of the paths Eno has followed – his art-rock records of the ’70s; his ambient explorations, which all but invented the genre, later in the decade; his unofficial role as Krautrock’s British ambassador; his installations and multimedia work, including the Oblique Strategies; and, of course, his productions for U2, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Devo, Ultravox, John Cale, Jon Hassell, David Byrne and a million other acts from across the spectrum, right on up to Coldplay.
Nearly 40 years since going solo, Eno is still a force to be reckoned with, recording experimental electronica for Warp, performing video manipulations alongside Ben Frost and writing his own brand of pop music with longtime collaborator David Byrne. Explore the breadth of Eno’s accomplishments in this selection of his solo albums, collaborations and productions.
For listeners who have come to Brian Eno via his ambient records or his polymath reputation — which will be most anyone born after this record's release — Here Come the Warm Jets might come as a surprise. Recorded in late 1973 after his departure from Roxy Music, Eno's solo debut (not counting Fripp & Eno's No Pussyfooting, released around the same time) follows a herky-jerky line from Roxy Music and... its follow-up, For Your Pleasure, twisting and distending strands of '50s and '60s pop into long, taut, wiry formations. With contributions from his former band-mates Phil Manzanera, Paul Thompson and Andy Mackay, along with King Crimson's Robert Fripp and various members of the Canterbury progressive-rock scene, the record infuses British art-rock with a healthy dose of country blues. You can hear reminders of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and even Captain Beefheart echoing through punchy group interplay and arrangements that roll out like spooled cable, but it's all been turned slightly on its ear.more »
The album opens with "Needle in the Camel's Eye," a searing, serrated rave-up somewhere between the Bowie at his most aggro and the Velvet Underground's narcotic rock 'n' roll; "Here Come the Warm Jets" closes the record in a similar stream of chugging 8th notes — or it would if it weren't so strangely mixed, with a torrent of overdriven guitars gushing forth like a chorus of molten kazoos. It's tempting to read the arc between those two songs as a kind of transformative process, a teasing apart of the rules of pop music, crafting songs as catchy as any in the canon, but frayed at the edges. To do that, Eno employed the kind of free-associative writing and chance techniques that eventually came to define his process-based approach. Based in Dada-esque wordplay, the lyrics were "there just to give the voice something to do," said Eno. He also made the most of the studio, using tape effects, electronics and the surgical abilities of multi-track recording to create an oddly proportioned final product, which flickers almost holographically in its representation of some bedrock pop ideal.
Recorded a year after Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) was a rock record on its surface, full of tightly crafted pop songs with a sturdy, bass-heavy footprint that evoked the mountain of the title. But it also represented another step in Eno's quest to turn music "cybernetic"; it's fair to say that he "programmed" his band in much the same way a software engineer might design an... application.more »
Working with the artist Peter Schmidt, Eno designed a set of cards with koan-like instructions — "From nothing to more than nothing"; "Think of the radio"; "Remove ambiguities and convert to specifics" — designed to redirect the creative process in unpredictable ways. These cards, which eventually were collected in a set entitled Oblique Strategies, deployed such cues as "If/Then" statements to send the music on its own circuitous journey through the players' hands and Eno's mixer and effects. (Some of them — like "Always give yourself credit for having more than personality" — served as a way for Eno himself to escape the rock-star mystique that he had developed as a member of Roxy Music.)
The core ensemble consisted of Eno, Roxy Music's Phil Manzanera, the Winkies' Brian Turrington and Freddie Smith, and Soft Machine's Robert Wyatt on percussion and backing vocals; others, including Roxy Music's Andy Mackay, Genesis drummer Phil Collins and the radical amateur orchestra Portsmouth Sinfonia sat in. Lester Bangs wrote, "At least a decade ahead of its time, that record's rich textures, rhythms dancing against each other, and exotic synthesizer treatments of standard rock instrumentation revealed that Eno had already mastered his ultimate instrument: the recording studio." As on its predecessor, the record's sound is one of pop music unraveling, from the prepared piano of "The Great Pretender" to the rhythmic typewriters that punctuate "China My China." Slow and ominous, "The Fat Lady of Limbourg" has a rickety drum machine beat and tinny saxophones that sound almost like dub reggae; the jagged synths of "The True Wheel" anticipate new wave by five or six years. "Third Uncle," later covered by Bauhaus, is an explosion of double-time riffs that sounds somehow violently surgical — a vision of the moment, a decade hence, when punk musicians would finally learn to play their instruments, even then exacting only half the fury that Eno and company managed, and but a fraction of their precision.
Compared to Another Green World, Discreet Music feels like a minor work, but it nevertheless represents an important step in Eno's lifelong quest to free music from human intention and ego. As Eno wrote in the liner notes, "Since I have always preferred making plans to executing them, I have gravitated towards situations and systems that, once set into operation, could create music with little or no intervention on my part. That... is to say, I tend toward the roles of the planner and programmer, and then become an audience to the results. [...] It is a point of discipline to accept this passive role, and for once, to ignore the tendency to play the artist by dabbling and interfering."more »
Ironically, the record is Eno's first true solo venture, as opposed to the collaborative efforts of the three preceding records, but two other figures loom over the proceedings. One is Eno's frequent collaborator Robert Fripp, who helped Eno develop the system of loops and tape delays, extensively used on their 1973 album No Pussyfooting, that shapes Discreet Music. On the 31-minute title track, the system allows Eno to feed in a handful of placid synthesizer notes, sit back, and reap a harvest of slowly blossoming tones, which wax and wane as surely as a garden captured by time-lapse video.
The other figure is Johann Pachebel, whose "Canon in D" Eno heavily reworks — today we would call it "sampling" — by looping short phrases and creating new counterpoints. The three pieces gradually proceed from an almost mushy literalism — Eno cites the recording he chose to rework for "its unashamedly romantic rendition of a very systematic Renaissance canon" — to something more tentative and abstract. The final variation is the masterstroke, locating a thoroughly modern sense of dissonance in the Baroque chestnut, drawing it out like a latent energy that had lain dormant for centuries.
Recorded nearly two years after the avant-pop masterpiece Another Green World and the humble, process-based Discreet Music, and one year before Ambient 1: Music for Airports, 1977's Before and After Science represented the collision of Eno's hyper-productivity with a nagging self-doubt. "I used to be led by the work," he explained to NME at the time. "Something would happen and I'd just follow it. This time it wasn't as easy as that.... Things seemed to be going in directions which weren't interesting to me any more...I was working against the technique, to some extent."more »
Again, Eno designed various behavioral processes — classed as technological, personal, social, "and one to do with compositional mathematics or something like that," he said — to direct his players, who included Robert Fripp, Fred Frith, Phil Manzanera, Brian Turrington, Rhett Davies and other frequent guests; the Krautrock musicians Conny Plank, Dieter Moebius, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Achim Roedelius contributed to "By This River." Building up a massive backlog of material — he wrote 120 tracks in the course of creating the album, and abandoned it three times before finishing it — he ultimately stitched the material into 10 tracks of understated, experimental pop.
For all that, it doesn't break any significantly new ground; even Eno described it as "less brash than other things I've done." There's a more distinct funk undercurrent than in previous Eno records, particularly in murky songs like "No One Receiving" and "Kurt's Rejoinder"; elsewhere, Eno and his collaborators continue to deconstruct pop across songs like the chiming, cod-R&B of "Backwater," the iridescent barroom rock of "King's Lead Hat" and "Here He Comes," a lilting ditty that sounds, at first, like kitschy Christian music. These are offset by slower, more expansive tracks like "By This River" and "Through Hollow Lands (For Harold Budd)," whose title is self-explanatory. For all the record's jumbled qualities — none of them disagreeable — the final four songs are a gorgeous stretch of liquid melancholia, culminating in the bright-eyed lullaby "Spider and I," with its refrain, "We sleep in the morning/ We dream of the ship that sails away/ A thousand miles away." Eno explained, "They're to do with either drifting away or getting lost or being part of the flow of things. And what they're drifting away from is the condition where everything is clear-cut and knowable and everything is in its place and easy to see. Which is a cause partly for celebration and partly for melancholy. It's both exciting and unnerving."
Brian Eno didn't invent ambient music; he drew much of his inspiration from Erik Satie's desire to make music that could "mingle with the sound of the knives and forks at dinner," as he acknowledged in the liner notes to Discreet Music. But Ambient 1: Music for Airports, with its utilitarian title, codified the genre in the popular imagination for the first time.more »
In the liner notes, Eno explained, "Over the past three... years, I have become interested in the use of music as ambience, and have come to believe that it is possible to produce material that can be used thus without being in any way compromised." The "compromise" he meant was the "lightweight and derivative" nature of Muzak and its brand of elevator music. Rather than blotting out the surroundings with bland bubble-gum, he aimed to create music that would enhance a given environment — not so much "wallpaper music" as a tinted film to be projected over the walls. "Ambient Music," he explained, "must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting."
The album, divided into four numerically titled tracks ("1-1," "2-1," "1-2" and "2-2") offers just that: 48 minutes of limpid pianos, silken synthesizers and disembodied, wordless voices that hang in space, shifting like a mobile turning slowly in mid-summer air. Devoid of drama or even narrative, it moves even more aimlessly than Discreet Music's earlier ambient experiment; the sense of stasis is reinforced by the fact that "2-1" and "1-2" are variations upon a single theme, laying out angelic choral parts like stepping stones to a horizon far beyond the album itself. Only with the closing "2-2," the album's third-shortest track, does a sense of closure come over the music: a progression of reassuring major chords as irrefutable as gravity, as sure as a river carving its millennia-long signature.
If Brian Eno's processes were designed, in large part, to remove the composer's ego, his utilitarian, ambient output sought to downplay the ego of the music itself. In Music for Airports, this took the form of rendering the music transparent, ephemeral, "as ignorable as it is interesting." On the same year's Music for Films, he shifted the conceit slightly, positing the album as a set of "possible" soundtracks to "imaginary films." It's... a conceit that's been copied far too many times since then, but Eno's implementation carried a subtle twist: in the context of his ambient project, it implied a subtle downgrading of the music's intrinsic value, as though it were incomplete by design, fully realized only in relation to a visual image; he might have called it Music for Second Fiddle.more »
In fact, it wasn't the first time Eno worked this way; Discreet Music began as a set of backing tracks for Robert Fripp, and he often explored cinematic or incidental terrain in his albums' shorter, more sketch-like pieces. In contrast to Music for Airports' long, static expanses, the tracks on Music for Films are far shorter and more traditionally melodic. There are 18 of them, mostly just a minute or two long — just enough time to suggest the outline of a melodic theme or to plot, briefly, a constellation of electronic timbres.
Although the concept of "standout" songs runs counter to the very idea of the project, there are a few clear highlights: "There Is Nobody" is a delicately percolating cup of Krautrock; the synthetic harmonies of "Quartz" are as densely luminous as its title; "A Measured Room" is a clean distillation of Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, all clear, jellied funk.
In retrospect, Eno's project might not have been as radical as many have claimed; he and his crew of longtime collaborators (John Cale, Phil Collins, Robert Fripp, Fred Frith et al) were not so different in their aims than the groups of session musicians employed by outfits like the DeWolfe Music Library, a company that has provided readymade soundtracks to the moving-picture industry since the 1920s. But it's only since the '90s and its culture of hip-hop digging that library music has become valued in its own right; Music for Films, as much as it cast musical autonomy in doubt, was prescient in presenting castoffs from the cutting floor, as it were, as worthy objects on their own terms.
The third installment in Eno's ambient series was not one of his own, but rather a record he produced for the electronic zither performer Laraaji. But with 1982's Ambient 4: On Land he proved not only that his atmospheric research hadn't dried up; he crafted an album that suggested the principal directions that some of the best ambient music would follow in the '90s and '00s.more »
It was darker, to begin with, characterized... by artificial whale-song bleating against basso throb and long metallic tones; it could sound like the wind playing high-voltage cables on the prairie, or the music of the spheres. "I regard this music as environmental: to be experienced from the inside," Eno begins his liner notes, before an extensive discussion of the technical modifications a listener might make to her hi-fi system in order to optimize the listening experience; he never returns to discuss either the music or the process behind its making. In the notes to the 1986 edition, however, he elaborates on his interest in mapping sound to certain spaces, both metaphorically and psychoacoustically: "I wanted to be situated inside a large field of loosely-knit sound, rather than placed before a tightly organised monolith (or stereolith, for that matter). I wanted to open out the aural field, to put much of the sound a considerable distance from the listener (even locating some of it 'out of earshot'), and to allow the sounds to live their lives separately from one another, clustering occasionally but not 'musically' bound together."
To do that, Eno turned away from the synthesizer in favor of electronic processing of acoustic instruments and "non-instruments like pieces of chain and sticks and stones." Several talented players lend their instrumental skills to the recording, including Michael Brook, Jon Hassell, Daniel Lanois, and Bill Laswell. But Eno writes that the album's direction was influenced by "an increasing interest in found sound as a completely plastic and malleable material. [...] In this category I included not only recordings of rooks, frogs and insects, but also the complete body of my own earlier work. As a result, some earlier pieces I worked on became digested by later ones, which in turn became digested again. The technique is like composting: converting what would otherwise have been waste into nourishment."
The results are as organic as his description implies, suggesting not so much composed music as the background noise of some vast ecosystem, contact-miked and lovingly EQed. Moving away from the melodic, figural nature of his earlier ambient records, On Land maps more abstracted timbres and textures, and as a result it actually becomes more enveloping, its overtones pealing just out of earshot, its bass become a full-body thrum. Where Music for Airports echoed Erik Satie and Music for Films still showed its connection to Krautrock, On Land offered a new model for ambient music, drafting the blueprint for what a decade later would be termed "isolationism," marked by bowed metal clang, seismic rumble and terminal delay; a music of virtual geography and endless interior space.
Elvis Costello once wrote about collaborating with Brian Eno that he "really admired Brian's ruthless and creative use of the erase button." Both Eno and David Byrne do their best work when they've got a creative foil - someone they clearly want to impress, who can offer them the gift of erasure as well as the gift of addition - and their first collaboration in a quarter-century is a return... to their curious, push-and-pull synergy, with some of the most solidly crafted songs Byrne has sung since the end of Talking Heads.more »
Still, anyone expecting it to sound like their previous collaboration, 1981's epochal sound-collage My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, is likely to be surprised: Everything presents eleven straight-ahead rock songs, with Byrne singing and Eno mostly providing backing tracks for him, along with the occasional liquid-milk-chocolate backup vocal. (Eno's old compatriots Robert Wyatt and Phil Manzanera put in cameo appearances, too.)
In fact, if there's any previous Byrne/Eno collaboration that Everything That Happens Will Happen Today takes after, it's their first, Talking Heads' 1978 album More Songs About Buildings and Food. As on that record, the songs here are very simple on their surface, but it's the kind of simplicity that comes from stripping down something much more complicated.
Byrne has talked about how Everything That Happens was inspired by gospel songwriting, and that's true of the songs' tone of hope in despair and emphasis on phrasing more than their structure and sentiments. There are hints of gospel in Byrne's lyrics here, like the line "chains and bars but I am still free" in "Life Is Long"; most of them, though, circle around thoughts of mortality and aging. The album's highlight is "Strange Overtones," a bubbling dance song that obliquely addresses Eno and Byrne's creative process and the worry that music's fashions have passed them by. And the title track is a sort of secular hymn, a profession of faith from which everything beyond what's plainly evident has become subject to the erase button. - Douglas Wolk
The album begins, somewhat confusingly, as if in mid-song, but Low nevertheless represented an important break in David Bowie's career, as he fled the cocaine-induced paranoia of Los Angeles and headed to Berlin. Where the milk-and-peppers diet of the "Thin White Duke"-era had fed Station to Station's jagged fusion of glam rock and R&B, Cold War Berlin produced the minimalist, ominous strains of Low, "Heroes" and Lodger, the three albums in his... so-called "Berlin trilogy." Bowie had gone to the divided city to walk in the footsteps of Brecht and Isherwood, but it was the ultramodern, extraterrestrial aspect of German bands like Cluster and Neu! that had the greatest impact on the albums' sound, thanks in large part to the input of Brian Eno.more »
Bowie, producer Tony Visconti and the band had already laid down basics of Low by the time Eno joined the project; he told NME, "I arrived after the band had done their work and did it all with overdubs." There are fleeting appearances of Eno's synthesizer in several of the A-side's tracks, but for the most part those seven songs hew to a terrain that's recognizable, if not always familiar - a murky mixture of blues, disco and barroom rock 'n' roll. But flip the record over, and you're immediately reminded of the studio collages and ambient experiments of Eno's contemporary albums.
"Warszawa" opens the side with six minutes of meandering keyboards and culminates in a chorus of multi-tracked chanting; it's slow, ritual music, a soundtrack in search of a film. Eno plays virtually all the music - piano, Moog, E.M.S. Synthi, and a primitive electronic instrument called the Chamberlin, a precursor to the Mellotron that played back tape-recorded tones. (You can hear its signature warble in the song's tremulous, string-like sounds.) "Art Decade," co-written by Eno, proceeds in the same vein, with broad, arcing synthesizer counterpoints describing sweeping Martian vistas; beneath, a pokey drum pattern sounds like Kraftwerk spun at 33, completing the picture of some anti-gravity Weimar ballroom. "Weeping Wall," credited to Bowie, shows the influence of Steve Reich's pulse minimalism in its chugging, chiming mallets; it's overlaid by distant, dissonant synthesizers and guitar. "Subterraneans" closes the album with a stately procession of guitars and synths, with long, legato attacks and tape run backwards suggesting the motion of seaweed, or ghosts. If "Sound and Vision" was the sound of Berlin's infectious springtime coaxing Bowie out of his muddled past few years, "Subterraneans" was his search for the city's sepulchral side - the silence of the snowy courtyard, the lamplight scraping the top of the Wall.
Like Low, like Berlin itself, "Heroes" is divided starkly down the middle. The A-side, with the monumental title song at its center, offers five tracks of incendiary rock 'n' roll; from the robot gospel of "Beauty and the Beast" to the gleaming metallic shards of "Blackout," it's as electrifying as anything Bowie had created until then, thanks to Robert Fripp's searing guitar sound and merciless attack. On the B-side, however, Brian... Eno's ambient inclinations once again come to the fore.more »
"V-2 Schneider" opens the side with a mid-tempo rocker, as Bowie's sax squares off against chugging pianos and Fripp's nimble fretwork. Odd phasing effects and goose-pimpled slap-back delay reference the electronic investigations of Kraftwerk's Florian Schneider, one of the title's namesakes; the other, the WWII-era V-2 rocket, is evident in the song's roaring intro and outro. (It might as well have been called "Gravity's Rainbow," given the way the song seems to channel the famous opening lines of Pynchon's 1973 novel: "A screaming comes across the sky.")
The next three songs, however, jettison rock for Eno's brooding, atmospheric style. "Sense of Doubt" shuttles between ominous bass figures and airy chords; suffused in static and rumble, it could easily serve as the soundtrack to a film about space flight. "Moss Garden" pairs Bowie's twinkling Kyoto melodies to Eno's slow, aquatic synthesizer pads, while in "Neukoln," keening sax and guitar cut crosswise against fluid synths that anticipate Eno's Ambient 1: Music for Airports and Music for Films, released the following year. Only with the closing "The Secret Life of Arabia" does the band come around to more conventional song structure, in the shape of lilting, melancholy disco.
"It was much harder working on "Heroes" than on Low," Eno admitted to NME. With "Heroes", Eno got in on the ground floor, rather than joining the recording after the bulk of the material had been laid down, but he was often bewildered by Bowie's approach. With the exception of "Sons of the Silent Age," the entire album "was evolved on the spot in the studio," and all first takes, at that; Fripp came in and played all his parts in about six hours.
"It was all done in a very casual kind of way," said Eno. "We'd sort of say 'Let's do this then' - and we'd do it, and then someone would say 'Stop' and that would be it, the length of the piece. It seemed completely arbitrary to me.''
Eno may have found Bowie's strategies arbitrary, even - pun intended - oblique. But somehow, the two very different musicians obviously gelled; for proof, look no further than the title song, cowritten by Bowie and Eno, and one of the most enduring songs in Bowie's entire catalog.
IIn 1974, the same year that Brian Eno released his first two solo albums, he and his former bandmate Phil Manzanera were hired as executive producers for John Cale's Fear. Cale's fourth studio album, it was the first in a trilogy of releases for Island, where he was also working as an in-house producer (Patti Smith, Squeeze, Sham 69) and A&R scout. Both sonically and musically, it's a more... straightforward album than either Here Come the Warm Jets or Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy): pianos still sound like pianos, and guitars like guitars. Still, it's a decidedly less naturalistic sound than Paris 1919, a record where you could still hear traces of Cale's work with Nick Drake. The crisp "Barracuda" bears a hint of dub reggae, a style that Eno cited in his own approach to using the studio as a musical instrument in its own right, and it explodes into the kazoo-like guitar squawk of Eno's records from the period. The balladry of "Emily" is balanced by sheets of white noise and glacial reverb, while "The Man Who Couldn't Afford to Orgy" hides a cooing, come-hither female voice beneath jokey '50s rock. Robert Christgau called it "the perfect sleazy-slick background rock for the glass-table scene in a porn flick." Brian Eno would know, having acted in a few blue movies himself.more »
"I write for people rather than instruments," said Simon Jeffes, founder of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. In this, he was much like Brian Eno, who often approached his recording projects more like a casting director than an arranger. The idea for the Penguin Cafe Orchestra came to Jeffes in a dream; inspired by ethnic music and the otherworldly qualities of electronic instruments, he referred to his music as "imaginary folklore" and "modern... semi-acoustic chamber music," utilizing a core lineup of electric piano, electric guitar, cello and violin along with more unconventional instruments like spinet, ukulele and ring modulator.more »
In 1976, Jeffes met Eno, who invited him to record for his fledgling Obscure label, an Island-distributed imprint that had previously released albums like Gavin Bryars's The Sinking of the Titanic, David Toop and Max Eastley's New and Rediscovered Musical Instruments and Eno's own Discreet Music. Despite Eno's credit as an executive producer - bandmember Steve Nye also produced - the album displays little of the electronic artifice that would distinguish most of Eno's work; instead, the album's frisson comes from a collision of acoustic and electric timbres. Musically, it makes an interesting counterpoint to the avant-garde intentions of Bryars or Toop and Eastley, emphasizing pastoral melodies and rich, consonant harmonies - folk music, essentially, albeit from a tradition entirely of Jeffes's own making.
On their second album, Talking Heads began their fruitful three-year alliance with producer/auxiliary member Brian Eno, whose experimental techniques weren't yet fully integrated into the band. It's a transitional record - David Byrne's still wrestling with the conventions of pop songs, and still sarcastic enough to write lines like "ooh girl, you can initiate an impulse of love." But the album's also full of juicy hints at what the band was about... to become, like the funk riffing of "Found a Job." Best of all, there's the Heads' first Top 30 single: "Take Me to the River," a sinuous cover of Al Green's soulful classic on which Byrne's tremulous, bobbing-Adam's-apple performance signifies not sanctified grace but an outsider's longing for it. - Douglas Wolkmore »
When Talking Heads' fourth album appeared in 1980, nobody had ever made an album like it - and nothing much like it has been heard since: a startling, chattering amalgamation of Afrobeat, downtown NYC avant-garde sounds, the hard funk that had evolved alongside disco, snarling rock 'n' roll, and the cadences of frothing-at-the-mouth radio preachers. Expanding their lineup to include lacerating guitarist Adrian Belew, Labelle singer Nona Hendryx and producer/conceptualist Brian Eno,... the band built these songs from the groove up, with liberating results. "Born Under Punches" is magnificent information overload, seemingly six different songs accidentally falling into synch; "Once In a Lifetime" is half prophecy, half midlife crisis, and all dancefloor-packer. - Douglas Wolkmore »