Brian Eno has long been a musical chameleon, since his early days in Roxy Music, through his creation of ambient music, with compositions such as Discreet Music and Music for Airports, and through his “song” albums of the 1970s, such as Another Green World and Before and After Science. Over the years, he has created music for installations, soundtracks, and the ubiquitous “Microsoft Sound,” which was the start-up sound for Windows 95 and later. As each decade has passed, Eno has explored new types of music, constantly changing and defying expectations.
Throughout his career, he has pushed the boundaries of music, both as composer and as producer, working with David Bowie (“Heroes” and others), U2 (The Unforgettable Fire, etc.), Coldplay (Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends), and many others. The 1990s were, for Eno, a period when he produced much more than he recorded. Nevertheless, this decade saw the release of four Brian Eno albums, all very different, which cover the range of his musical creation. All Saints Records has just released expanded editions of these albums, full of extra content.
I remember when I first heard the 1992 Nerve Net. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) I had found the CD in a used record store, back in the pre-internet days when you couldn’t find this type of music easily. I had no awareness of what Eno had been recording since the last records of his I had bought in the early 1980s. Nerve Net is a kick in the head, an aggressive collection of electronic music that begins with the catchy, reverbed beat of Fractal Zoom, and continues through 12 songs that redefine electronic music. There are synthesizers, of course, but these are harsh, metallic, industrial sounds, all bearing, nevertheless, the marks of Eno’s layering and textures. The searing guitar of Robert Fripp comes to the forefront on Wire Shock, and Pierre in Mist features a quirky, jazzy sound that Eno would later use on The Drop. The best track on the album is Web (Lascaux Mix), a dark, droning ambient work with Fripp’s guitar sounding like a demon trying to break out of a rhythmic prison.
At the time, this wasn’t an easy album to listen to. I probably spun it a few times, then put it aside for a decade. But over the years, I’ve listened to it more and more, appreciating how far ahead of its time Nerve Net was; many of the sounds on this album are now common in electronic music.
The bonus disc with Nerve Net is the 1991 album My Squelchy Life, which, after being completed, and after promotional copies circulated, was withdrawn and never released until now. Some of the songs have appeared on various other collections or recordings, such as Eno’s Vocal Box Set, Shutov Assembly, and even Another Day on Earth (Under). It’s a mixture between Eno’s more accessible side and the dark sounds of Nerve Net, and it’s delightful to hear it. (Though it has been widely bootlegged, and isn’t hard to find.)
The 1992 The Shutov Assembly (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is the alter ego of Nerve Net. Where the latter is dark and metallic, The Shutov Assembly is liquid, smooth and atmospheric, recalling the sounds of Music for Airports or Discreet Music. The lush synthesizers play slow music, that puts you in a different state of mind than Nerve Net. Recorded between 1985 and 1990, this is a collection of works of the same style that were written to accompany installations. As All Saints Records’ description of the album states:
“Reissue of Brian Eno’s 1992 album dedicated to Russian artist and friend Sergei Shutov, and a continuation of the atmospheric ambient work found on records such as On Land and Thursday Afternoon. Eno had discovered that Shutov often painted to his music but was unable to obtain many of his records in then-communist Russia. He resolved to collate a tape of previously unreleased material (recorded between 1985 and 1990) to give to Shutov and upon listening himself discovered a previously unnoticed thread that ran through the pieces, creating an unintentional full length work. Each piece is named after and derived from one of Eno’s audio-visual installations. “
Notable on this album is the 16-minute Ikebukoro, which reminds me of the music from the Myst game. It sounds very much like Discreet Music, in the way that small phrases repeat, but it has a spooky undertone that makes it very moving. Eno said about this album, “”it’s the association with danger that I didn’t use to like, and it’s exactly that, what I do like now …. The Shutov Assembly is sort of the out-of-town version of it, the outside-the-city-limits version of danger”
The bonus disc with The Shutov Assembly features seven tracks that don’t really have the same feel as the original disc; many of them sound more like the types of music Eno would explore on The Drop, and pieces like Storm and Rendition are much more in the vein of Nerve Net. Nevertheless, this disc has 34 minutes of great music and is worth owning.
The 1993 Neroli (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a 58-minute ambient piece, much in the style of Discreet Music. Titled “Neroli: Thinking Music, Part IV,” this piece features essentially a keyboard playing a series of single melodies, in the Phrygian mode, with just single, soft, rubbery notes echoing for a long time. Short melodic phrases are repeated in a number of variations, then it’s over. As Eno described this album, the music is designed “to reward attention, but not (be) so strict as to demand it.” It’s a beautiful, soft piece of music, with no rough edges; light years away from the 1992 Nerve Net.
This new release comes with a bonus disc, the 61-minute New Space Music. Where Neroli is sparse and tentative, New Space Music is a long drone work, with waves of sound, and slow, gradual melodic change. It’s never quiet; there are no spaces between the notes, as there are in Neroli. It sounds more like Discreet Music with the volume turned up (though, ideally, one should listen to it at a low volume).
The 1997 The Drop (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) has long been one of my favorite Eno albums. It is made up of mostly short pieces, only a few more than three minutes long. After a couple of slow, introductory pieces (Slip, Dip and But If), which sound more like his standard ambient music, the record shifts to a quirky, rhythmic sound that is maintained throughout most of the album. The Drop is a fun record. It sounds strange at first, but then it sounds normal. If you’re used to listening to Brian Eno’s music, you won’t be surprised by this direction.
In an interview with the BBC, Eno said:
“The Drop is the name of the record and Drop is the name of the new type of music invented and explored on this record. It’s as if you had explained jazz to someone from a distant planet without ever playing them any examples of it and they tried to do some on the basis of your rather scant explanation. It’s quite melodic, actually, this record. There are lots of melodies on it, although they move in an angular and slightly irrational fashion, so they are very long and rambling. They remind me a little bit of heat-seeking missiles; they keep changing direction, trying find out where they are going. They don’t have a very strong focus to them. I like this; I like the vagueness to them.”
The highlight, for me, is the final piece on the album, Iced World, one of my favorite Eno works. It’s a subtly rhythmic piece of atmospheric music with a sinewy piano solo playing over a background of drum machines and sonic textures that has a perfect chill-out sound. Two competing rhythms keep the piece moving: a fast, bright sound, like wood blocks and cymbals, and a slower bass sound, somewhat like a heartbeat. A shorter version of this piece is on the Eno/Wobble album Spinner, from 1995; it’s the final, “hidden” track which comes in after a bit of silence following Left Where it Fell. On the original release of The Drop, Iced World ran over 32 minutes; curiously, on the reissue, the track is just under 19 minutes. Comparing the two versions, it seems as though the shorter version is exactly the same as the longer version, and just fades out earlier. So if you like this track, and you have the original version of the album, hold on to it for the long version of Iced World.
The tracks on the bonus disc that comes with The Drop are a strange mixture. Never Stomp sounds like it could be on Nerve Net; System Piano is a slightly different version of Rayonism, from The Drop; Luxor Night Car sounds a lot it would have fit on the Brian Eno and John Cale album Wrong Way Up; Cold is a short version of Iced World; and Little Slicer is a version of Out/Out. The final bonus track is the 19-minute Targa, which is a sort of segue of several different types of music. There’s a mellow soundscape at the beginning, with wind blowing in the background and a synthesized trumpet; it then shifts to a bleeping melody over droning synths; then to a section with slightly chromatic melodies; then to a drone-and-bass drum section; then back to more bleeping, and more drone. This isn’t a good description, but it’s a hard piece to pin down, because it has no character; it’s more of a medley. And it’s musically unrelated to another bonus track, Targa Summer, which is more of a soundscape with a slow 4/4 rhythm, and some a cappella singing.
Taken individually, each of these albums presents a very different aspect of Brian Eno’s music, but when you hear the four of them together, you get a much better idea of what there is in common between very different types of music. The only common thread is Eno himself, and these four albums show how much of a musical polymath he is.