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Brian Eno

Innovator, pioneer and champion of ambient, synth-based experimental muzak, interpolating everything from glam-rock, proto-punk and avant-garde techno, self-assessed “non-musician” and influential “Midas Touch” producer ENO has immersed himself in all aspects of modern-day pop since his few years spent as cerebral sidekick to BRYAN FERRY and ROXY MUSIC in the early 70s. Born Brian Peter George St. John Le Baptiste de la Salle Eno, 15th May 1948, Woodbridge, Suffolk in England, this bizarro electro-boffin has been at the forefront of his craft since beavering away in a cape and feather boa on Roxy sets `Roxy Music’ and `For Your Pleasure’; the man pretty much singlehandedly invented the concept of ambient music, while one can trace his lineage back to fronting art-school improv-heavy outfit, Maxwell Demon and a stint as clarinetist with the Portsmouth Sinfonia Orchestra. He himself was influenced by American doo-wop and consequently minimalist merchants such as Terry Riley, John Cage, Steve Reich and LaMonte Young.
ENO’s first post-FERRY venture was with KING CRIMSON guitar maestro (Robert) FRIPP on `(No Pussyfooting)’ (1973). This was nothing more than extreme experimentation of synth-electronics and treated guitar – “Frippertronics”. However, it did provide art lovers with an ad infinitive photo-shot of the introit pair in a multi-mirrored room. FRIPP & ENO would subsequently work on a second ambient construction entitled `Evening Star’ (1975).
With the aid of ROXY MUSIC pair PHIL MANZANERA and ANDY MACKAY plus Paul Rudolph and FRIPP on guitars, ENO’s solo career kicked off in January 1974 by way of HERE COME THE WARM JETS {*7}, a record that disappointed the critics at first, who gave it the thumbs down bar one proto-punk gem `Baby’s On Fire’. Both singer ENO and the aforementioned Manzanera were behind two of the set’s better-known dirges `Needles In The Camel’s Eye’ and `Cindy Tells Me’, while FRIPP stuck in his two-penn’orth on `Blank Frank’. Relying on the pastiche doo-wop of the 50s, the bubblegum-psych of the 60s and the OTT-glam of the early 70s, the jury was certainly out on cuts like `Some Of Them Are Old’ and `On Some Faraway Beach’, but darker dirges such as `Driving Me Backwards’ and the BOWIE-esque `Dead Finks Don’t Talk’ gave the Top 30 set its oblique identity.
Always the perfectionist, perturbed by the industry’s response to his craft and in a fit of depression, he joined The Winkies (alongside Canadian, Phil Rambow) for a short tour during February and March; after being hospitalised with a collapsed lung he had to leave the short-lived outfit who were in the process of laying down tracks for a proposed LP. Group recordings of `Baby’s On Fire’, `The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch’ (another gem from his solo debut) and a rendition of Peggy Lee’s `Fever’ were aired on a BBC Radio 1 session for John Peel.
ENO recovered to land himself an integral role (alongside stable-mates KEVIN AYERS, NICO and JOHN CALE) on “Island Records” concert bill and subsequent seminal set, `1st June, 1974’.
Sophomore LP, TAKING TIGER MOUNTAIN (BY STRATEGY) (1974) {*8}, took the receding rocker to creamier climes; consciously complex and conservatively conceptual (Chinese Communism – `China My China’ – and espionage get a look in) and a definitive improvement to “Warm Jets”. Darker and deeper, the record delivered different aspects of ENO’s meandering mind, best example stemming from another proto-punk ditty `Third Uncle’, while `Fat Lady Of Limbourg’, `The Great Pretender’, `Burning Airlines Give You So Much More’ and the title track finale were pulsating, luminous and shimmering in equal measures. One curiosity that was thankfully bypassed by record buyers was his pastiche cover in 7” form of old doo-wop nugget `The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh)’.
His third and final set for Island Records (coming as it did after a serious car accident left him bed-ridden), 1975’s ANOTHER GREEN WORLD {*10} represented the fruition of ENO’s aural experimentation, sculpting instrumental, insidiously melodic soundscapes, while the title track was subsequently utilised as the theme tune for the BBC TV Arts series, Arena. From the opening “Frippertronic” riffs of `Sky Saw’ and into `Over Fire Island’, this record marked a detachment from ENO’s previous slumber song structures. Of course, there were infrequent remnants of his past glories; `St. Elmo’s Fire’, `I’ll Come Running’, `Golden Hours’ and `Everything Merges With The Night’ are still regarded as classics, but it was the hypnotic worldbeats of `In Dark Trees’, `The Big Ship’, `Zawinul – Lava’, `Spirits Drifting’ and the oriental `Little Fishes’ that spread the word that ENO had come of “new” age. With the concept of using the studio itself as a compositional tool, he not only revolutionised songwriting, but also intuitively married sound and melody to create the first bona fide “ambient”-pop/rock albums.
Veering away from the pop industry in one fell swoop, DISCREET MUSIC (1975) {*7} heralded a wholehearted detour into the world of electronic ambience – one of his first pieces on his `Obscure’ imprint. With one title track piece transcending over one side and the other `Three Variations In The Canon In D’ (from the quill of Johann Pachelbel) settling on the flipside, the instrumental BRIAN ENO (as he was now billed) had taken shape.
This diversion would have seismic implication for popular music in general and qualify ENO as a natural candidate for film scoring. His first brace of commissions, included Derek Jarman’s homoerotic Roman drama, `Sebastiane’ (1976) and a little later (with Michael Nyman) Peter Greenaway’s `Vertical Features Remake’ (1978). Sandwiched somewhere in between these two landscape scores was his contribution to Jarman’s other new wave masterpiece, `Jubilee’ (1977), although the majority of the OST was snatched by punk acts of the era. This coincided with some of his most enduring 70s studio work and, the fact that they were never issued in their own right set a frustrating precedent for almost all of his cinematic endeavour. More significantly, ENO had began working with BOWIE on a trilogy of sets that kicked off with the 1977-released `Low’ and the equally ground-breaking `Heroes’, while he moonlighted with 801 (PHIL MANZANERA’s post-Roxy breakaway outfit).
Released towards the fall of ’77, BEFORE AND AFTER SCIENCE {*7} was as his initial triumvirate, an equally brilliant, if colder sounding, tapestry of sonic delights. Deconstructing and eliminating the concept for “studio composition” as an abstract or lyrical form, Brian and his newfound friends from Germany, CLUSTER (plus BRAND X pair Percy Jones and PHIL COLLINS), switched on to pop again. `Backwater’, the beefy `Kurt’s Rejoiner’ and `King’s Lead Hat’ (an anagram of TALKING HEADS, whom he duly hooked up with for three sets between 1978 and 1980) were greatly received by his ever-faithful new/no wave disciples; DEVO had also booked his services.
The first of a series of “Music For…” sets, MUSIC FOR FILMS (1978) {*7} – his first Top 60 entry since his debut! – wasn’t actually a soundtrack at all, rather a culmination of fragments for imaginary films from ’75-‘78, much the like the pseudonymous PASSENGERS project he’d later work on with U2 and Pavarotti. Entitled AMBIENT 1: MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS (1979) {*7} featured extremely lengthier and stripped-down creations; ROBERT WYATT and Rhett Davies would be involved in the four atmospheric soundscapes that graced this rewarding late-night sleepover of a set.
The aforementioned CLUSTER (aka Moebius and Roedilius) were the first to collaborate with workaholic ENO (on the album `After The Heat’), while later in ‘79, the ambient scientist worked with trumpeter JON HASSELL on the album `Fourth World Vol.1: Possible Music’; in 1980, HAROLD BUDD and ENO supplied `Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror’.
The whole of the 80s found ENO in further collaborative fields or in production mode (for U2 from `The Unforgettable Fire’ in ’84 and `The Joshua Tree’ in ’87…), BUDD and Canadian DANIEL LANOIS. Back in 1981, one of his brighter enterprises was his joint effort with DAVID BYRNE on the ethnic-flavoured MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS {*9}. A heavyweight of samples, rhythms and beats from all over world, ENO and his TALKING HEADS cohort spliced field recordings from as far afield as the Lebanon and Egypt to the street preachers and erratic talk radio hosts on their immediate doorsteps to combine a seminal piece of work. Fuelled by the funk, `Help Me Somebody’ was the call to arms and a recording that recalled missionary man himself, JAMES BROWN, in his 60s heyday. Ditto the mantra-ic and hypnotic `The Jezebel Spirit’, which also preached the faith by exorcising one’s demons in one fell swoop. The mixing of bass and percussion (supplied by either Bill Laswell, Tim Wright or Chris Frantz), and pioneering sampling, some buyers just might’ve thought they’d bought a scratched record. The myriad of Middle Eastern rhythms on `Moonlight In Glory’ or the sublime Muslim chanting on `The Carrier’ and `A Secret Life’ were equally mind-blowing and a positive to future world-fusion composers such as PETER GABRIEL, DAVID SYLVIAN, COCTEAU TWINS, DEAD CAN DANCE and The ORB.
Subsequent dreamscapes such as the gorgeous AMBIENT 4: ON LAND (1982) {*7} – with Laswell on opener `Lizard Point’, and APOLLO: ATMOSPHERES & SOUNDTRACKS (1983) {*8} – crediting both brother Roger Eno and LANOIS – were beguiling fusions of sub-conscious country and ambient music; the latter was as `Weightless’ (track 10) as a groovy cosmonaut on acid and with space-scapes such as `Under Stars’, `Signals’, `An Ending (Ascent)’ and Daniel’s `The Secret Place’, one was pulled back to “Another Green World” or indeed the Moon; the collaborative `Deep Blue Day’ was later used on the 1996 “Trainspotting” soundtrack.
While one can only scratch the surface on his plethora of works during the 80s (numbering further material alongside BUDD, LANOIS, Roger Eno, MICHAEL BROOK, CLUSTER, etc.) including the solo MUSIC FOR FILMS 2 (1983) {*6} and the hour-long CD-friendly THURSDAY AFTERNOON (1985) {*6} composition, BRIAN ENO was out there in a world of his own.
On a more conventional mainstream note, and with a foothold in the glam-70s (if not garage 60s), ENO’s collaboration with ex-VELVET UNDERGROUND art-rocker JOHN CALE on 1990’s WRONG WAY UP {*8}, stirred up fans from both quarters. John’s chilling viola and vocal tones (especially the haunting `Cordoba’), and ENO’s simplistic keys flirted outside the box so to speak; `Footsteps’, `Lay My Love’ and `The River’ were destined to get the pair back on track.
1992 saw the release of a long-awaited ENO solo album NERVE NET {*5}, a slightly average comeback of sorts which took its cue from the burgeoning ambient techno scene. Professor ENO (as he was sarcastically dubbed by the NME) was regaining some of the spotlight he’d gained some two decades previously. Messrs FRIPP, Roger Eno, JOHN PAUL JONES, Robert Quine and Benmont Tench all gave the set a human touch, albeit slightly funky/R&B; check out its single `Fractal Zoom’. Marking out a distance between the latter and recordings made and produced the latter half of the 80s, entitled THE SHUTOV ASSEMBLY (1992) {*5} – based on the works of Russian artist/painter Sergei Shutov – ENO would be hard to pigeonhole. :NEROLI: (1993) {*6} was much like his earlier “Thursday Afternoon”, set, in respect that it was around an hour long and one piece of instrumental music; it was intended to be used as a meditative mantra in maternity wards to assist childbirth! The jury is still out whether this worked or not.
Further work with alt-pop outfit JAMES on the collaborative `Wah Wah’ set in 1994, spurred on the ambient master to issue the ENO/WOBBLE (Jah, that is) ambient collaboration SPINNER (1995) {*6}. Unlikely as it seemed, with tracks lifted from Derek Jarman’s posthumous biopic, `Glitterbug’, it worked in some aspects; BRIAN ENO turning over the master tapes to bass/dub soloist (and former John Lydon/PiL cohort), JAH WOBBLE. Not so much of a team effort then, more of a patched-up companion piece to an unissued project. There were of course the untouched ENO treatments such as opener `Where We Lived’, and others `Garden Recalled’ and `Space Diary 1’; certainly not “Music For Films” per se, more “Music For Unfinished Films”, just as most of ENO’s (in)complete cinematic scores ended up. ENO and WOBBLE combined efforts on seven cuts, the best example of their distant interplay comes via `Like Organza’, a dubbed collision of bass and Eastern-inspired chimes.
Throughout the 90s, electronic auteur ENO continued to work on a dizzying array of music and other multimedia projects, even publishing a volume of diaries in 1996, `A Year With Swollen Appendices’. Following on from his 1997 solo “trance without dance” disappointment THE DROP {*4}, and others of limited-release status, DRAWN FROM LIFE (2001) {*6} once again proved that ENO was probably most effective when he had someone to bounce ideas off. This time around it was Jan Peter Schwalm, a German DJ with whom he’d previously worked on a Japanese-only release. LAURIE ANDERSON also contributed her inimitable vocals, although the bulk of the tracks were instrumental. At the turn of the millennium, “Passengers” ENO, BONO and The MDH Band, pulled off a great score to the avant-garde Wim Wenders movie, `The Million Dollar Hotel’.
ENO subsequently turned to the inner workings of the humble bell, exploring the tonal complexity of various models across 75 meditative minutes: the project was released under the title JANUARY 07003: BELL STUDIES FOR THE CLOCK OF THE LONG NOW (2003) {*6}, with all proceeds going to the American foundation currently building the clock of the title. Released around the same time as another bit of “Pussyfooting” by FRIPP & ENO, `The Equatorial Stars’, the man’s almost as long-awaited solo follow-up to his “conventional” mid-70s classics finally arrived in 2005. ANOTHER DAY ON EARTH {*5} wasn’t exactly met with quite the same enthusiasm as back in his post-ROXY MUSIC days. Nevertheless, it satisfied long-time fans. ENO even gave his vocals (amongst others) a rare outing on the likes of opening track, `This’. Augmented by Steve Jones (former SEX PISTOLS axeman) and Leo Abrahams, his unmistakable polymath sound was again taking tiger music by his own strategy. COLDPLAY would duly give the man a call, reserving him a place at the controls for their 2008 chart-topper `Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends’.
The avant-garde experiment that was BYRNE and ENO, surfaced once again in 2008 (first time in 27 years!) on the `Everything That Happens Will Happen Today’ set, while ENO’s latter-day solo/collaborative excursions have taken his ardent fans to a SMALL CRAFT ON A MILK SEA (2010) {*6} and DRUMS BETWEEN THE BELLS (2011) {*6}. Both released on Warp Records (once home to his ambient protege APHEX TWIN), the former co-effort was recorded (alongside the aforementioned Abrahams plus Jon Hopkins). It was turned down for the `Lovely Bones’ movie; innovative poet Rick Holland would combine on the latter project.
LUX (2012) {*7}, meanwhile, was an ambient soundscape commission for the Great Gallery of Turin’s Palace of Venaria. Comprising four lengthy pieces that captured the essence of the inner structure of the building and its art installations, ENO had once again led the way in instrumental muzak.
ENO was always known for some educated and inspired collaborations over the years, but none expected – probably even the man himself – that UNDERWORLD lyricist/frontman/musician Karl Hyde would be his next conspirator. A mutual love of African polyrhythms and brass, which stretched as far as to feature Middle Eastern trance, SOMEDAY WORLD (2014) {*7} sold well enough to reach the Top 50. Co-produced by greenhorn Fred Gibson, with the aid of COLDPLAY’s Will Champion and Brian’s old mucker ANDY MACKAY, there was certainly inspiration stemming from all directions: DAVID BYRNE, JOHN FOXX and early 80s KING CRIMSON come to mind on `A Man Wakes Up’; ENO old-style for `Daddy’s Car’. The tracks creep up on the listener with each repeated press-to-play, echoing and linking (as with `The Satellites’ and `Who Rings The Bell’) to previous decades when dreamy, synth-pop was king.
With time to spare running over from their previous session, ENO & HYDE emerged from the studio with another record, HIGH LIFE (2014) {*7}; the double vinyl album contained two extra pieces. It was indeed a pity then that fans had to fork out some further cash, when it was released only a matter of weeks after their first outing. Lengthier tracks played over repetitive rhythms, more at home with Brian E, only the ADRIAN BELEW-styled fast-funk of the 4-minute `DBF’ shook the speakers. The Caribbean was the musical setting for `Time To Waste It’, its shaky structure and feisty female-backing almost blowing smoke from The WAILERS’ peace-pipe. It was clear that without Hyde, ENO just might’ve left these ideas and concepts – on both sets – in the can.
Who could’ve imagined the ambient BRIAN ENO back in the Top 30? But that’s exactly what happened in spring 2016 with the surfacing of his first solo set in four years, THE SHIP {*8}. A transient chamber of undulating waves that ebb and flow with a rolling rhythm that at first comes across as nauseating, the side-long title track featured a monotone ENO on “Donnie Darko” vox and synths, all suggesting that all on board had sunk to the bottom of the ocean. The less dramatic side two was split three ways for `Fickle Sun’: part (i), an 18 minute submergence into a Hadron Collider of soundwaves and dead-pan singing building to a climax: part (ii), a near-3-minute poem (`The Hour Is Thin’) with bleak piano accompaniment: and the concluding part (iii), a sedate and serene version of The VELVET UNDERGROUND’s `I’m Set Free’.
There’s no getting away from it, BRIAN ENO is his own man. Any relevance to modern-day ambient affiliations are thrown out the window when it comes to fresh recordings; FYI he’s the Godfather of the aforesaid genre. Therefore, by the hypnotic, heavenly soundclouds on the one-hour-long track/album, REFLECTION (2017) {*7}, long-time minimalist acolytes knew that this would be another discreetly-disguised “Music For Airports”-meets-“Thursday Afternoon” affair. Sombre and sedate in God’s fictitious waiting room, the build-up is slow and the crescendos almost null-and-void; but just experience the trip if recovering from a Sunday morning hangover. By the end of the year, the almost-70-something artist conjured up another collaboration, this time alongside pianist Tom Rogerson (of Three Trapped Tigers) on FINDING SHORE {*7} – a slightly more upbeat proposition in comparison.
What better an album than ENO’s 1983 collaborative set, “Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks”, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings. Aired consistently July 2019 as theme to this celebratory time capsule, the remastered update (complete with bonus CD: “For All Mankind”) even managed to sneak a No.16 place; his second highest spot ever!
For many years ROGER ENO (an ambient pianist in his own right), had dropped a plethora of albums, though none ostensibly with older brother Brian; 1983’s “Apollo” was credited alongside DANIEL LANOIS. So, when the pair launched `Mixing Colours’ (March 2020), there was a degree of anticipation in some quarters. Recorded over the previous decade and a half, its cinematic-like swathes of mood music new age was the calm before the Coronavirus storm.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS/MCS-BG // rev-up MCS Apr2012-Apr2020

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