Eno Does It Again

Brian Eno -- "Small Craft on a Milk Sea" -- Warp Records -- 4.5 STARS

Courtesy Warp

Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno: a prodigious name for a prodigious man. Eno is a pioneer of music, and his iconic and unsurpassed visionary steps into unmarked musical territory have inspired multitudes of followers. A former member of British art-rock band Roxy Music, Eno has myriad of talents: composer, theorist, singer, musician and producer. He has collaborated with Devo, Robert Fripp, and John Cale, and is venerated as “father” of ambient music following the release of the genre’s landmark album “Discreet Music” in 1975. He was one of the principle creative forces behind the conception of generative music—a system by which chords are generated randomly via a series of algorithms. Eno’s musical legacy is both innovative and extensive, and his latest creation “Small Craft On a Milk Sea” signals anything but a stem to this creative flow.

With albums such as “Ambient 1/Music for Airports” and “Another Day On Earth,” Eno has proven a master of hauntingly subtle ambient sounds which are often simultaneously non-intrusive and distortive. In this vein, his newest creation “Small Craft On a Milk Sea” does not disappoint. However, unlike Eno’s earlier ambient work—such as the Ambient Series, released between 1978 and 1982—this newest record drives up the intensity with the inclusion of greater electronic distortion and more persistent drum beats. “Small Craft On a Milk Sea” has its own organic totality—threads of chords, notes or sounds remain consistent throughout the record’s progression. Eno himself describes this record as a “macro-environment” as it is continuous and regenerative, functioning as its own living system.

The opening track “Emerald and Lime” is both romanticized and fantastical with a slow and progressive introduction. A piano repeats a sultry chord, forging into and out of silence. Various ambiguous instruments both subvert and contribute to the sublime lyricism of the piece. The music demands an exploration of the subconscious as it delves deeper into mystical depth. However, the song ends abruptly without satisfying the exploration it encourages. This is a trend repeated throughout the album: tracks finish without warning, preventing the fulfilment of accumulated suspense. In doing so the tracks are lent a beautiful elusiveness as they allow one to project individual interpretations onto the music.

Songs such as “Small Craft On a Milk Sea” and “Horse” champion this mysterious function. In “Small Craft On a Milk Sea” the rhythmic beats exist apathetically beneath a continuing descent of chords. The beats seem to mimic the human heart and thus, despite their emersion in layers of chord variation, evince a heightened intensity and foreboding. In “Horse” the same rhythmic beats are present, but are faster and more distorted. This ritualistic rhythm is accompanied by electronic distortions that feed into the growing intensity. The resultant effect induced by “Horse” is the sound of schizophrenic mayhem, although it retains a consistent subtlety.

Electronic distortion is a common feature of this collective body of work. “Flint March” is characterized by a dull electronic murmur resting below resurgent, ritualistic drumbeats. However Eno does not solely employ distorted sounds in order to engender chaos. “2 Forms of Anger,” somewhat ironically, employs electronic distortion in order to achieve calmness and tranquillity. Sounds remain perverted but the mild insistence and low drones lend themselves to a sense of peace. The guitar strumming almost sounds like trickling water along the edges of the track. “2 Forms of Anger” is hauntingly sublime, achieving a divine balance between serenity and intensity and between lyricism and distortion.

However, the balance attained in the majority of the tracks in “Small Craft On a Milk Sea” is sadly absent on “Bone Jump.” The overall mood of the song is ethereal, but an electronic keyboard infiltrates the slow, ambient sounds with a virulent march. This intrusion is almost farcical amidst the delicate subtleties of ambient sounds and chords. Unlike on other tracks where the excess shies away before becoming overbearing, the intrusions within “Bone Jump” are left unrestrained. The subversions within this track appear reminiscent of a clichéd movie soundtrack, in sharp contrast to the subtlety of creation on the other tracks.

This sound can be attributed to Eno’s method of creating this record: he took chords or periods of music from movie soundtracks, randomly cohering them together and filling in the gaps with his own creation. Consequently, there are moments when the nuanced atmosphere is strained by predictable chords and virulent emotion such as in “Bone Jump.” However, “Small Craft On a Milk Sea” is overall a fantastic collection of work that Eno can add to his bounteous collection. Most tracks achieve a balance between ambient passivity and gentle perversions of sound, whilst the whole of the work ceaselessly feeds into itself, growing and regenerating with a life of its own.

—Staff writer Sarah L. Hopkinson can be reached at shopkinson@college.harvard.edu.

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