These pieces actively seek to impose themselves on the listener and their environment.
Chris Power 2010-11-10
Brian Eno’s work cuts a distinctive swath through the last 40 years of rock and electronic music. He played synthesizers in Roxy Music; created two of the great avant-rock albums of the 1970s (Here Come the Warm Jets and Another Green World), and collaborated on three with David Bowie (Low, "Heroes" and Lodger); recorded with the German group Cluster; introduced the fluidity of African pop into Talking Heads’ angular art-punk; and in 1981 collaborated with David Byrne on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, an early example of sample-based pop. In the past two decades, between assorted art shows, multimedia projects and iPhone apps, Eno has produced albums by Depeche Mode, U2 and Coldplay.
Exhaustive as it might seem, that brief summary misses out a key part of Eno’s career. In early 1975 he was knocked down by a taxi. While recovering, unable to get up and change the volume of a record of 18th centrury harp music playing almost too quietly to hear, the idea of a new form of environmental music – "as ignorable as it is interesting" – occurred to him. Eno called it "ambient".
While not quite sitting within it, this is the strand of Eno’s work that Small Craft on a Milk Sea – instrumental, and eschewing traditional structures – is closest to. The difference is that while Discreet Music and the Ambient series contrived to subtly tint the listener’s environment, these pieces actively seek to impose themselves. Edited together from improvised sessions with guitarist Leo Abrahams and electronic producer Jon Hopkins, Eno has described them as "attempts to end up with... a landscape, a feeling of place and perhaps the suggestion of an event... sound-only movies".
This might explain why Small Craft... underwhelms at first: its largely smooth, featureless surface offers little purchase. The more you listen and synchronise with its rhythms, however, the more rewarding navigating by its obscure landmarks becomes. Sounds that seemed incidental, like Complex Heaven’s Satie-like piano strokes or the chimes percolating out of the sub-aquatic drone of Calcium Needles, become resonating hooks.
Bucolic at the outset, the middle third of Small Craft... is dominated by a series of guitar and drum-based tracks: the charred, buzzing core of Horse and 2 Forms of Anger’s eruption of no-wave guitar are highlights. In the album’s closing section the pace decelerates towards the darkly glimmering drone of Late Anthropocene. At various points, in particular on Slow Ice, Old Moon and Lesser Heaven, Eno makes a partial return to the opiate drift of Evening Star, his 1975 collaboration with Robert Fripp.
Small Craft... isn’t an album that’s going to change the world forever, but listened to in the right environment it sometimes does just that for a few minutes at a time.