Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Rock Beyond

Post-Rock, published as "The Rock Beyond"
director's cut version, Village Voice, August 1995

by Simon Reynolds

What to do when the industry calls the underground's bluff (all those complaints about  unresponsiveness, denial of access) and in the blinking of an eye mainstreams the entire Amerindie matrix of attitudes, sounds, tropes and traits? After punk reintegrated with metal to form a populist all-American hard rock (that's GRUNGE), how to revive la difference, resituate "us" on the other side of the pale?
Lo-fi was the US underground's response: a weak response, since lo-fi is just grunge with even grungier production values.  As the ersatz folk culture of used vinyl store clerks, record collectors and fanzine editors, lo-fi was always gonna prove a stylistic and cultural dead end (which won't stop Pavement, the genre's REM, from taking the sensibility into the mainstream, four albums down the line).

In Britain, grunge provoked the jingoist backlash of 'Britpop', whereby bands like Blur, Suede, Elastica, Oasis, Supergrass, Gene ad nauseam rallied around a fetishized
Englishness. Beatles and  Pistols,  Who and Jam,  Buzzcocks and Smiths, have all been boiled down into an insular amalgam of anthemic choruses, tinny production and lashings of attitude; a white power-pop that symbolically erases not just America (grunge), but Black Britain (jungle, trip hop) and pan-European prole pop (rave).

But for other, smarter Brit bands, grunge provided the impetus to make a final break with rock.  In America too, the underground is rustling with the cogitation of a new breed of guitar-based experimentalists trying to think their way past the impasse of lo-fi's  retro-eclectic obscurantism.  Together they form a loose trans-Atlantic movement: POST-ROCK. The 'post' signifies a break with both the formal traits and the ideological premises of rock'n'roll. Post-rock means bands who use guitars but in non-rock ways,  as a source of timbre and texture rather than riff and powerchord (Main, Flying Saucer Attack, Skullflower, LaBradford, Stars of the Lid). It also means bands who augment gtr/bs/drms with digital technology such as samplers and sequencers (Techno-Animal, Scorn, Disco Inferno, Laika, My Bloody Valentine), or who tamper with the trad rock line-up but prefer antiquated analog synths and non-rock instrumentation (Pram, Stereolab, Tortoise, Long Fin Killie).

Post-rock has its own sporadic but extensive history, which these bands draw on as much for the suggestiveness of its unrealized possibilities as for actual achievements.  In terms of electric guitar, the key lineage runs from the Velvet Underground, through Krautrock (Can, Faust, Neu!, Cluster et al) and Eno/Fripp, to such late '80s proto-postrockers as Jesus & Mary Chain, Spacemen 3 and A.R. Kane.  Bypassing the blues roots of rock'n'roll, the VU melded folkadelic songcraft with a wall-of-noise aesthetic that was half Spector, half La Monte Young. In the process Cale & Co invented 'dronology', a term which loosely describes 50 percent of today's post-rock activity.
Main offers a perfect illustration of the way post-rock emerges from rock's  chrysalis. Main-man Robert Hampson used to be at the helm of Loop, a bunch of  long haired acid-freaks with a fetish for the wah-wah pedal. Hampson's desire to go beyond the Stooges/MC5 matrix expressed itself through covers of  Can's "Mother Sky" and Pop Group's "Thief Of Fire",  but Loop never quite made the break with rock'n'roll. Forming Main, Hampson shed both his lank locks and, step by step, every last vestige of rock'n'roll: first riffs and song structure, then backbeat, eventually even distinct chords.

Main isn't so much a band as a studio-based research unit dedicated to exploring the electric guitar's spectrum of effects-wracked timbres and tonalities; said research is made public via EP's and LP's of bleakly bewitching ambience, dub concrete, and homages to electro-acoustic composers like Stockhausen and Berio. Appropriately, where Loop played gigs alongside sub-Hawkwind biker-psych bands, Hampson is now to be found collaborating with experimentalists like Jim O'Rourke, whose work in Brise-Glace and Gastr del Sol bridges the gap between Sonic Youth's 'reinvention of the guitar' and the 'prepared instruments' of avant-garde classical.
A clutch of American bands--Sabalon Glitz, Jessamine, Bowery Electric--are currently poised to cross the brink between neo-psychedelia and ambient, following in the footsteps of Loop/Main, Spacemen 3 and its sequels Spectrum and Spiritualized, and Skullflower and its offshoot Total.  If Sabalon, Jessamine et al finally lose the backbeat, they'll probably levitate into the stratospheric vicinity of The Stars of The Lid, Dissolve, LaBradford and Flying Saucer Attack: lustrous, meditational noisescapes, permeated with dub's echo and reverb but devoid of any audible traces of Jamaica

The other major strand of post-rock endeavor has jettisoned the dronologists'  guitar-fetish. It also avoids the potential aesthetic cul de sac that is pure ambience, by looking outside rock for different forms of  kinetic energy. Some use the looped beats of hip hop and rave (Techno-Animal, Scorn); others merge live funk and programmed rhythm (Laika, O'Rang, Moonshake).  On their seductive debut "Silver Apples of The Moon" (Too Pure/American), Laika blends hands-on playing and sequenced riffs, sounding  like they're equally influenced by Can at their fizzy flow-motion peak circa "Soon Over Babaluma" and by the jungle streaming out of London's pirate airwaves. Another Too Pure band, Pram, is releasing two brilliant albums via American this year, "Helium" and "Sargasso Sea".  Less technophile than Laika, (it prefers antiquated synths, home-made theremin, the wheezing respiration of the harmonium), Pram nonetheless often sounds like trip hop irrigated with the folky-jazzy fluidity of early '70s cosmonauts like Tim Buckley, Robert Wyatt circa "Rock Bottom" and John Martyn circa "Solid Air".  Completing this Too Pure triumvirate, Long Fin Killie's glistening braid of pulses, tics and chimes warrants terms like 'systems folk' or 'Celtic gamelan'.

Tortoise is the closest American parallel to the Too Pure acts' fluent rapprochement between studio-magick and real-time improvisation. Its self-titled debut of last year
offers an unclassifiable all-instrumental hybrid of organic jamming and dub-wise aural anamorphosis, sounding at times like the missing link between Slint and Seefeel. With this year's "Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters", a collection of drastic reworkings of tracks from the debut, Tortoise has plunged headfirst into the remixology that's all the rage in England (where God, Scorn and Main have gladly offered their work up for butchery).  Other American groove-oriented combos--Cul de Sac, Ui, Run On--shun sweatless studio trickery and instead locate models of post-rock dynamics in the flesh-and-blood rhythm-engines that powered Can and early '70s Miles Davis.  Another sub-strand of post-rock activity (Stereolab, Trans-Am, Six Finger Satellite, Medusa Cyclone) aligns itself with the metronomic pulse-beat of the motorik aesthetic, as coined by Kraftwerk and Neu!, who
bridged the gap between the Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner" and Giorgio Moroder's Eurodisco.

Although these strands of post-rock stretch across the Atlantic, there are real and telling differences between British and American post-rock, and most of them revolve around British bohemia's susceptibility to the influence of black music, whether African-American, Caribbean or homegrown. US post-rock can almost be defined by the absence of dub as a living legacy, and by the avoidance of hip hop.

Dub's vast impact on British left-field rock goes back to the late '70s, to the kinship punk rockers felt with Rastafarian reggae's spiritual militancy and millenial imagery of exile and dread. And so The Clash covered Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" and Willie Williams' "Armagideon Time", while Johnny Rotten went from the metallic KO of Sex Pistols to the anti-rockist Public Image Limited, whose "Metal Box/Second Edition" introduced a significant segment of his following to Lydon's true loves, dub and Can. Brit-bohemia's enduring open-ness to the Jamaican sound-world, from ska to dub to ragga, explains so much of what's bubbled up from UK subbakulcha in the last two decades: you can trace the reverberations of Jah Wobble's bass through Killing Joke and On U Sound to The Orb, or witness how Specials-fan Tricky ended up collaborating with  Mark Stewart (formerly of '70s avant-funksters the Pop Group,  later a solo artist with On U).

Nearly as important as dub as an influence on the Brit post-rockers is Brian Eno. From the early '70s onward,  Eno was connecting, in both theory and practice, the dots between the dub of Lee Perry and King Tubby, Teo Macero's labyrinthine production of Miles Davis, Can's fractal funkadelia, Cluster's Op Art guitar-tapestries, and so on.  Eno's notions--the studio-as-instrument,  recording as the architectonics of 'fictional psycho-acoustic space'--are the organizing principles of post-rock. Most rock producers strive for a glossed-up, embellished simulation of the band in performance. Dub's fluctuating mix tampers with that 'realism', makes the band's presence  hazy and mirage-like; although Tubby et al worked with live bands, they halo-ed different instruments, different parts of the drum kit, with echo and reverb, so that each strand of sound appears to exist in its own distinct acoustic space.  Following Eno and dub, post-rock uses effects and processes to sever the audible link between what you hear and the physical act of a hand striking a guitar-chord or pounding a drum-skin. Where a rock record creates a mental picture of a band onstage engaged in strenuous collective toil, post-rock offers a blank canvas for the imagination.
Sampling and a related technique called 'hard disk editing'  (where sounds are chopped up and rearranged inside the computer's virtual space) dramatically increase the possibilities for disorientation and displacement. With sampling, what you hear could never possibly have been a real-time event, since it's composed of vivisected musical fragments plucked from different contexts and eras, then layered and resequenced to form a trans-chronistic pseudo-event.  You could call it 'deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence'; you could also call it 'magic'.

Which brings us to hip hop, and once again the contrast between the avidity of its embrace by British underground rock versus the hesitancy of the US post-rockers. It was the weird noises on rap records that first inspired My Bloody Valentine to invent its 'glide guitar' sound; later, the band looped beats and sampled their own feedback on "Soon" and the "Loveless" LP; currently, MBV is struggling to incorporate the breakbeat-science of jungle, hip hop's successor, into its swoon-rock tumult. Similarly, Hank Shocklee's densely layered Bomb Squad production for Public Enemy is cited as a crucial influence by the likes of Disco Inferno and Techno-Animal, while Scorn creates paranoiac groovescapes strikingly similar to those stalked by East Coast horrorcore rappers Jeru the Damaja and Nas. In Britain, staying unaware and uninfected by hip hop and its homegrown offshoots (trip hop, drum & bass) can only be achieved by a strenuous feat of cultural inbreeding (congratulations,  Britpopsters!).  But in America, where you'd think it'd be even harder to ward off rap's influence, white bohemians shy away, perhaps feeling hip hop is the cultural property of African-Americans, and not to be dabbled with lightly.
As for techno-rave having any impact on American post-rock, forget it. A cluster of bigotries form a near impenetrable barrier: the premium on live performance, the
lingering legacy of 'disco sucks', the hatred of machine rhythms. The upshot of all this is that UK post-rock outfits, influenced by various admixtures of dub, hip hop and techno, tend to be studio-centric sound laboratories for whom live performance is an irrelevance; whereas American post-rockers remain deeply committed to the band format and playing live.  Instead of drawing on contemporary black and club music, they revisit those brinks in rock history when eggheads pushed rock's envelope beyond bursting point: Krautrock, obviously, but also Tim Buckley circa 'Starsailor'; the Canterbury scene (Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt, Henry Cow etc); the freeform passages and proto-ambient lulls that punctuate the Velvets, Stooges, MC5, and were developed further by Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth.


If you wanted to trace the tangled lineages of post-rock, you couldn't do much better than to check out two landmark anthologies compiled for Virgin by Techno-Animal's Kevin Martin, 
"Isolationism" and "Macro Dub Infection" (both released over here by Caroline).  Each unravels the cat's-cradle of connections radiating from the figures of Brian Eno and King Tubby respectively. "Isolationism" was conceived as a riposte to 'ambient', at least in its degraded modern version as womb-muzak for raved-out spliffheads. Returning to Eno's original idea of ambient as environmental music, and cueing off Uncle Bri's musical peak "On Land", 'isolationist' music artists create entropic hinterlands of sound;  a nowhere-vastness that externalizes the inner void left when the utopian imagination withers and dies.

 While the "Isolationism" anthology spans guitar-freaks like Main,  techno renegades like Aphex Twin and avant-droners like Zoviet France,  "Dub Infection" is even more wide-ranging, encompassing trip hop (Tricky, New Kingdom), techno (Bedouin Ascent, Wagon Christ) jungle, (Omni Trio, 4 Hero) and post-rock (Laika), as well more obvious dub resurrectionists. (Significantly, the only white American outfit to appear is Tortoise, with the awesomely peculiar sound-maze "Goriri"). Perhaps this multiracial mix prophesies the dissolution of 'post-rock' itself into a broader anti-category, a sort of perimeter region where all the post-s gather to trade ideas: refugees from rap, from rave, from jungle...  anybody who feels shackled by genre, by the expectations attached to identity and community.    


What does the emergence of  post-rock say about the Zeitgeist? If music, as Jacques Attali famously claimed, is prophecy, mirroring-in-advance future changes in social organization, then the 'post' in post-rock seem to chime in with other tendencies in the culture (e.g. computer games, virtual reality etc), ones which seem to indicate the emergence of a new model of post-human subjectivity,  organized around fascination rather than meaning, sensation rather than sensibility.

Form and ideology go hand in hand, as ever. With its droneswarm guitars and tendency to deliquesce into ambience, post-rock first erodes, then obliterates the Song and the Voice. By extension, it also parts with such notions as the singer as storyteller, the song as narrative, source of life-wisdom or site of social resonance. The more 'post' a post-rock band gets, the more it abandons the verse/chorus/verse structure in favor of the soundscape.  A band's journey through rock to post-rock
usually involves a trajectory from narrative lyrics to stream-of-consciousness to voice-as-texture to purely instrumental music. In the process, there's a dismantling of trad-rock mechanisms like "identification" and 'catharsis' (which is replaced by plateau-states of bliss, awe, uncanny-ness, or prolonged sensations of propulsion, ascension, freefall, immersion). In post-rock,  'soul' is not so much abolished as radically decentered, dispersed across the entire field of sound, as in club musics like house, techno and jungle, where tracks are less about communication and more like engines for "the programming of sensations" (as Susan Sontag said in 1965 of contempoary art from Rauschenberg to The Supremes). Music that's all surface and no 'depth', that has skin instead of soul.
Above all, post-rock abandons the notion of rebellion as we know and love it, in favor of  less spectacular strategies of subversion; ones closer to notions of 'dissidence' and 'disappearance', to the psychic landscapes of  exile and utopia constructed in dub reggae, hip hop and rave.  At the heart of rock'n'roll stands the body of the white teenage boy, middle finger erect and a sneer playing across his lips. At the center of post-rock floats a phantasmic un-body, androgynous and racially indeterminate; half-ghost, half-cyborg. 

For the time being, the margins must remain the zone for this future-music's research-and-development. On both sides of the Atlantic, popular taste and critical opinion clutch tightly to the certainties and satisfactions of song and singer, and their attendant fictions of community and resistance, while the biz demands 'charismatic personalities' (Juliana Hatfield! The bloke from Live!!!) as the focus of its marketing schemes.  For post-rock to go mainstream would require a Dylan figure--a Stipe or Vedder, say--shocking his folkie audience by appearing onstage with a sampler, as Dylan did when he went electric.  (And what is the electric guitar now but the new acoustic guitar, signifier of grit and earth and folk-blood?).

A final, emotionally-ambivalent thought about the difference between rock and its post-. Let's consider the Stones' "Gimme Shelter", described by  Greil Marcus, accurately, as the greatest piece of recorded rock'n'roll ever. Consider specifically the all-too-brief instrumental prequel, the way Keith Richards' soliloquy of a solo conjures a shattering pitch of ecstatic anguish and longing.  For a multitude of reasons, the historical conditions that made 'Gimme Shelter' not just possible, but of oracular significance, are gone; not only has rock's grand narrative petered out into a delta of micro-cultures, but the possibility of writing a redemptive narrative itself seems to be fading.  A post-rock band would take that intro's appalling poignancy, loop it, stretch it out to six minutes or more, turn it into an environment. Because that limbo-land between bliss-scape and paranoia-scape, narcosis and nightmare, is where we postmoderns live.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

after "Chime" - Orbital's later releases

Orbital 2

Melody Maker? 1993

by Simon Reynolds

Orbital would deserve a place of honour in the pantheon of
'spiritual techno' if they'd only ever recorded 1990's shimmering,
hymnal "Chime" and the poignant cyberdelic symphony "Belfast".  After
an undistinguished phase (a so-so debut LP, the indifferent
"Mutations" EP), the Hartnoll Bros had something of a creative
renaissance with last autumn's entrancing "Halcyon". Now this new
album (untitled, like the first) puts them firmly back in the
firmament, only a couple of clouds below The Aphex Twin.

     Orbital know their drone theory, and the opening "(Time
Becomes)" reworks an idea of systems-music pioneer Steve Reich: two
tape loops of the same phrase ("time becomes a loop") run in and out
of synch. Actually, this Moebius-mantra irritates rather than
mesmerises, so it's a relief when they abandon conceptualism for real
substance, in the form of a four-part electro-symphony.  "Lush 3-1"
is a tantalising, tremulous shimmer-swirl of synth-textures that
feels as sensual as spring rain. Orbital ooze a panoply of plangent
tones that seem to sing from the deepest chambers of your heart; an
inner choir of babytalk oohs-and-aahs that resembles nothing so much
as the hyperventilating harmonies on MBV's "Loveless".

    "Lush 3-2" introduces an ethereal girl-voice whose ecstasy could
be either ecclesiastical or sexual, an unearthly horn-section, and a
rubbery bass-line that itches in your bloodstream.  "Impact (The
Earth Is Burning") slips deeper into a squelchamatic Roland 303
acieeed groove, topped with Seventies sci-fi movie dialogue.  The
symphony's last movement, "Remind", is their drastic remix of Meat
Beat Manifesto's "Mindstream", stripped of every last trace of the
original so that it's all Orbital and even more luscious than before:
a brimming, blossoming efflorescence of ever-widening wonderment, the
sound of a cup of joy overfloweth-ing. The goosepimples run riot!

     On the flip, "Planet Of The Shapes" is a hissing and clicking
contraption that could belong on LFO"s classic "Frequencies" LP. It's
dank and morbid, until the sunburst entrance of sitar chimes and
flute-twirls. "Walk Now" shimmies nicely, but the didgeridoo (which I
always thought was the ancestor for the Roland 303 acid drone) is
already a techno cliche.  The Detroit-styled "Monday" is crisp-and-
spry, glassy-and-classy, but a bit inconsequential.

    Best comes last, with "Halycon & On & On", a fully-developed
version of the last single.  Here, the tremulous New Age euphoria of
Kirsty of Opus III is modulated on a sampling keyboard and swollen
into the full-blown mystic bliss of Saint Teresa. Kirsty's breathless
gasps are looped into a locked groove of almost unendurable ecstasy,
such that your insides shimmer and shudder.  "Halcyon" is further
proof that rave culture is all about clitoris envy.  Where the multi-
orgasmic disco of Donna Summer's "Love To Love You Baby" invited male
lust, techno's sped-up girl-vox conjure a hyper-real, supra-human
rapture that (male) ravers identity with and aspire to.  It's what
postmodern theorists call "gender tourism" (in rock terms, think of
Brett Anderson's swoony languour). As warm as plasma and as eerie as
ectoplasm, Orbital's (out-of-)body music is the true sound of

[tk - review of Snivilisation, 1994]

The Middle of Nowhere
Spin, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

            Orbital's place in the Rave Hall of Fame would be secure if they'd only ever released three tracks--1990's spangly-tingly "Chime"; its original B-side, the heart-string tugging techno-symphony "Belfast"; and 1992's "Halcyon+on+on,"  9 minutes of densely braided, wordlessly rhapsodic vocals that make you feel like you're hovering on the brink of a swoon. "Halcyon," especially, showcases Orbital's forte--melody and harmony, as opposed to dance music's real domain (rhythm, timbre and space). Orbital's beats, rarely more than adequate, are generally relegated to a relatively low position in the mix;  texturally, Phil and Paul Hartnoll favor plangent, plinky, melodious timbres that barely stray from the orchestral spectrum (pianos, strings, woodwinds, and so forth).  All of which explains why Orbital's music is simultaneously utterly lovely and yet somewhat conservative, at least from the stern perspective of  purist club fiends and avant-technoheads.
  In truth, after Snivilisation's  flirtation with jungle breakbeats in '94, Orbital lost interest in keeping up with the state of the art. The Middle of Nowhere picks up where 1996's In Sides left off--stirring soundtrack music in search of a movie. With its piping string cascades, trumpet solo and wonderstruck female vocal, opener "Way Out" recalls John Barry's James Bond scores. Throughout  the album,  Orbital eschew the infinitesmal subtle shades of the digital palette in favor of deliberately quaint synth-tones--the soundpainter's equivalent of using only primary colors. As if to signpost this deliberate retrogression, "Style" starts by sampling  instructions for playing the stylophone, an incredibly rudimentary toy-synth popular with Brit-kids in the early 1970s.

            The riffs too are enjoyably oldfashioned--corrugated, rectilinear stabs that flashback to  vintage rave anthems by Cubic 22 and The Scientist, the 1991 Euro-hardcore sound  dissed as "heavy metal techno".  The guitar-laced "I Don't Know You People" actually recalls English punk bands like The Ruts and The Stranglers, right down to the thuggish bassline and baroque organ vamps. But then Orbital basically are a rock group in electronic clothing. They've played the Royal Albert Hall,  they've released a live single, and they sell shitloads of albums to a hugely loyal fanbase. In the high turnover world of dance culture, Orbital have endured, precisely through downplaying any rhythm-science that might confuse your average beat-deaf  rock fan, and concentrating instead on crafting tunes that sing in your heart. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Paula Abdul

Paula Abdul

New York Times, May 12th 1991

by Simon Reynolds

Just as there are those who worry about additive-riddled junk food, so too there's an unofficial "campaign for real music."
Adherents fret about the unauthenticity of mainstream pop performers who, in the tradition of Milli Vanilli, mime to backing tapes when supposedly performing live. For these people, Paula Abdul has become the focus of the latest crisis of confidence.
The session singer Yvette Marine has claimed that the lead vocal on two tracks from Ms. Abdul's first album, Forever Your Girl, which has sold seven million copies, is a composite voice. Ms. Marine claims that her original "guide vocal" was used to beef up Ms. Abdul's singing and has filed a false-and-deceptive-packaging suit against Virgin Records, which has denied the charges.
Although the allegations are not as threatening to Ms. Abdul's credibility as the Milli Vanilli revelations were to theirs, they are timed to cause maximum embarrassment: Ms. Abdul's second album, Spellbound (Virgin 91611; all three formats), will be released this week. The controversy has reawakened familiar anxieties about the dehumanizing effect of technology on music. As pop production grows steadily more complex, it also becomes increasingly specialized. The person who sings the song is less and less often the person who wrote it, while the sound is more and more the creation of the producer.
Most songs on Spellbound consist of rhythm tracks and keyboard sequences programmed by the album's producers, V. Jeffrey Smith and Peter Lord. Session musicians were occasionally employed to lay down rhythm guitar parts or saxophone and violin solos, but they sound incongruously "organic" amid the inhuman perfection of the metronomic beats.
This way of making records was the norm in the Tin Pan Alley era of the '50s, and it has continued to be the rule in black pop and dance music. But such division of labour cuts against the notion of authenticity that emerged in the countercultural '60s, when it was expected that singers would be responsible for the meanings of their own songs. This notion is what lies behind the hostility toward manufactured pop. The fear is that the artist's style will be totally superseded by the producer's trademark commercial sound, and that the gritty spontaneity of rock-and-roll will lose out to programming expertise.
It has been a long time since pop records documented live performances; instead, their simulation of them is constructed painstakingly in the studio. No longer is it necessary for musicians to play in one another's presence. Vocals rarely take place in "real time" but are a collage of the best-sung phrases edited from numerous vocal takes. Bad notes can be corrected by altering the pitch; weak voices can be thickened by multi-tracking.
For most people, this surgical procedure seems distant from the "raw expression" of Elvis Presley or the Rolling Stones or the Sex Pistols. It's hard to accept the fact that this techno-pop is music, but it's also unlikely that today's 16-year-old pop consumers care; all they hear is the immediacy and effervescence of the product.
Paula Abdul's unusual route to pop stardom was via her award-winning choreography for promotional videos of artists like Janet Jackson, ZZ Top, George Michael and INXS. This background makes her particularly emblematic of the state of modern pop, the suspicion being that she was given a recording contract because she's videogenic rather than a gifted natural singer.
Ms. Abdul's 1988 debut, Forever Your Girl, was clearly modeled on Janet Jackson's 1986 album, Control, whose widely influential techno-funk sound was created by her producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Like Ms. Abdul, Ms. Jackson has a serviceable rather than astounding voice, and so Mr. Jam and Mr. Lewis devised a breathless, dynamic electro-pop sound based around clipped, urgent hooks rather than complex melodies and soul diva singing.
Ms. Abdul's debut album cleaved to the same effective formula. The crucial difference was that Ms. Abdul replaced Ms. Jackson's soft-core feminism with a more traditional female persona, as can readily be seen by contrasting the album titles Control and Forever Your Girl.
Spellbound builds on that winning approach. Musically, Mr. Smith and Mr. Lord have constructed a state-of-the-art dance pop that mixes influences from house, swing beat, rap, Prince-style pop-funk and "Euro-black" groups like Snap. Lyrically, Ms. Abdul's persona is flirty but wholesome. Although tracks like 'The Promise of a New Day' and 'Rock House' feebly gesture at the social-awareness-by-numbers of Janet Jackson's second album, Rhythm Nation 1814, most of the songs are gushing tributes to boyfriends.
New songs like 'Rush Rush', 'Spellbound', 'To You' and 'Will You Marry Me' reiterate the sexually apolitical attitude of previous hits like 'Knocked Out', 'It's the Way That You Love Me' and 'Forever Your Girl'. Even when wronged in love ('Foolish Heart', 'Blowin' Kisses in the Wind'), Ms. Abdul's persona is aggrieved but hopelessly devoted, her voice tremulously verging on a Betty Boop whine.
The best tracks on Spellbound are those that make the furthest departure from the Abdul norm. 'Vibeology' combines Parliament-Funkadelic influences and contemporary house mannerisms with results as sultry and engaging as Deee-Lite; Ms. Abdul sings dance-floor doggerel like "I'm in a funky way" in a cartoonish chipmunk squeak. 'U', one of the handful of tracks not produced by Mr. Smith and Mr. Lord, is also excellent. Composed and produced by Prince's Paisley Park organization, the track combines a military beat with a staccato, hard-rock riff and jazzy harmonies – Prince's trademark – to eerie effect. It's the best thing Prince has been involved in since his 1988 album Lovesexy.
The main vein of Spellbound, however, is precisely what one expects from Paula Abdul: brisk beats, stuttering synthesizers, stammering bass lines, nervous tics of rhythm guitar and a profusion of hooks designed to snag consumers by the ear. The music sounds spectacular; its endless crescendos and hyperactive rhythms are designed to go in sync with the rapid-fire quick cuts of the videos, the jut and thrust of the choreography.
A phenomenal number of man-hours go into each of these spectacles of effortlessness. For the videos, there's storyboard writing, makeup, lighting, interminable takes, editing, tinting, special effects. Musically, there's programming, arranging, treating, remixing and, in the case of Spellbound, processing the entire album through Q-sound, a technique that makes records sound more three dimensional, so that every snare kick hits the listener in the gut.
If it seems like there's no spontaneity involved in this process, it's best to remind yourself that this isn't rock-and-roll. Ms. Abdul belongs to the tradition of show-biz entertainment in which every inflection and gesture is choreographed and rehearsed to the point of robotic precision. She has said that it wasn't a rock or rhythm-and-blues icon that inspired her to enter the business, but Gene Kelly. What Ms. Abdul's music offers is the sterile exhilaration of a Hollywood blockbuster, where every edit and sound effect is designed to fit into the listener's reduced attention span.
Just as these spectacles are diverting at the time but leave you feeling empty afterward, Spellbound is louder than life but lacking in resonance. As with junk food, you might occasionally want to get high on all the empty calories and additives, but you can't live off the stuff.

Thursday, August 3, 2017


TechGnosis: Myth, Magic + Mysticism in the Age of Information
by Erik Davis
(Serpent's Tail)

The Guardian, the year it came out whatever dude

by Simon Reynolds

Science and spirituality have long been considered enemies. The Englightenment consigned mystical impulses into the murky netherworld of superstitious unreason. In reaction, the Romantic tradition generally rejected technology as a force of disenchantment---in The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzche blamed science for banishing the mythopoeic, Dionysian spirit from modernity, while Henry Adams's famous dichotomy of the Virgin and the Dynamo presented sacred mystery and scientific mastery as mutually incompatible aspects of the human condition.

            American critic Erik Davis aims to complicate this received opposition.  The punning neologism that titles his  book *TechGnosis* condenses his core assertion--that   there has actually long been a mutual entanglement of the scientific and spiritual imaginations.  Davis argues that "magic is technology's unconscious."  For their practitioners, spells and rituals aren't mumbo-jumbo but rather (like "proper" science) attempts to manipulate laws of nature to achieve practical results. Sometimes yesterday's magic becomes tomorrow's science. Alchemy was a prequel to chemistry, a sort of proto-science that blurred the distinction between "ritual" and "experiment", "vision-quest" and "research". Similarly, mesmerism--today regarded as mere smoke'n'mirrors charlatanry--actually laid the groundwork for psychotherapy and Freud's discovery of the unconscious. In one of his most provocative feats of  knowledge archaeology, Davis traces the origin of  the complex "data architectures" of  contemporary cyberculture all the way back to the "memory palaces"  that Renaissance hermeticists  mentally constructed--a mind's eye technique that enabled these scholars of esoteric knowledge to store vast amounts of  information in their own brains. 

            The flipside of  Davis's argument concerns the way that the mystical and Romantic imagination has repeatedly seized on the scientific, technical, and engineering developments of the era as a source of metaphor.  TechGnosis's stand-out chapter, "The Alchemical Fire",  investigates the many manifestations of  what Davis dubs "the electromagnetic imaginary." These include  theories of an "electrical"  life-force (such as Mesmer's  animal magnetism and Theosophy's etheric body)  and Spiritualism's debt to the newly invented telegraph and Morse Code (the movement's leading periodical was called The Spiritual Telegraph).

            Like other paradigm-shifting innovations in telecommunications such as the telephone, wireless, and Internet, the telegraph was hailed as the advent of the New Jersusalem, an earthly paradise of peace, prosperity and global village-like intimacy among all mankind. A fifth-generation Californian, Davis tends to look on the bright side himself;  in a sense, his stance is "why can't spirituality and technology be friends?". But he's too sharp to ignore technology's darkside, its potential for control and cataclysm. Accordingly, TechGnosis explores how technology's  dystopian aspect has been  mirrored by a darkside spirituality. In Medieval times, paranoid schizophrenics expressed their dread through the demonology of witches, fairies, and  incubi; in the Modern era, technology possessed the troubled imagination. Within a few years of Alexander Graham Bell's invention,  one benighted soul suffered the delusion that his enemies were telephonically transmitting "fiendish suggestions" directly into his brain via an subcranial implant. Today, similar persecution complexes involve controlling rays beamed from satellites or  microchips implanted behind the eyes. Science fiction author Philip K. Dick based his later novels like  Radio Free Albemuth on his own paranoid hallucinations that he'd been contacted by a sort of   Cosmological Internet called VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System).

            Davis identifies this sort of delusion as a technologized update of Gnosticism, the early Christian heresy that bypassed faith and doctrinal obedience in favor of direct knowledge of  God.  Each human soul contains a latent "spark" of divinity which can be reawakened by a signal from the higher realm--a notion Davis likens to satellite radio transponders that are designed to remain dormant until an activating transmission is received. The most recent example of  this syndrome is the Heaven's Gate cult, who shared the Gnostics' distaste for the human body  and couldn't wait to be beamed up from this fallen world by the Hale Bopp spacecraft. Then there are the Extropians--technophiliacs who believe that humans can become godlike via bionic prosthetics and smart drugs, and look forward to the day when they can defeat death by downloading their consciousness into immortal machines.

            Drawing on a slightly staggering range of erudition, and written in a  vivid style that oscillates between earthy ("the tangled noodles of the collective mind") and flowery  ("blueprints inked upon the fiery heart"), TechGnosis succeeds brilliantly in revealing the unexpected interdependence of science and spirituality. If the book has one flaw, it's  Davis's well-meant  attempt to walk a "sane" midpath between non-judgemental generosity towards the often preposterous expressions of the mystical imagination and  postmodern distrust of belief  (including the theology of science as salvation).  Endorsing Vaclav Havel's rather hazy notion of "post-religious spirituality," Davis aspires to be something oxymoronic:  "a sacred ironist or a visionary skeptic... dancing between logic and archaic perception, myth and modernity."  Yet  surely one of the things that spirituality and science share is the aspiration to truth;  both say "this is how reality/the cosmos really works."  Postmodern irony, which makes every assertion provisional, is ultimately the real enemy to the scientific and spiritual impulses,  which are both based on the conviction that we can know something for certain.

Monday, July 24, 2017


Various Artists
Exotic ésotérique Vol.2

Various Artists
Jungle Judgin' / Holypalms remix compilation

The Wire, June 2017

by Simon Reynolds

A visually pleasing palindrome, “Artetetra” also secretes within itself a clue to the concerns of the Italian label of the same name.  “Tetra” means “four” and the Fourth World, Jon Hassell’s Eighties term for audio hybrids of West and non-West, is the placeless place out of which emanate Artetetra musics.  The label goes one better at its bandcamp page, claiming citizenship of Quinto Mondo: the Fifth World. That slight escalation points to the internet’s impact on a new generation of music makers whose creative headspace is utterly deterritorialised, omnivorous audio-tourists able to scavenge influences galore without ever leaving their desks. Indeed INTERNET HOLIDAYS™ is the sly title of a joint project by Artetetra artists Hybrid Palms and Cheap Galapagos.

The “Mondo” in Quinto Mondo further winks at the Italy-spawned Sixties genre of exploitation films: documentaries whose voyeuristic enjoyment at ethnic curiosities paralleled the exotica boom of faux-Polynesian easy listening and tiki bars.   Blithely unbothered by issues like exploitation and misappropriation, not just refusing to fret about the danger of ethno-kitsch but actively enjoying the ersatz and fictitious, Artetetra inhabit a free-for-all world where time and space, history and geography, get guiltlessly jumbled up.

Officially based out of their Adriatic coastal hometown Potenza Picena but operating mostly from Bologna these days, Artetetra is a little over two years old. During that time it’s released eleven single-artist albums and two compilations: Exotic ésotérique Vol.1, which launched the label, and the polemically-themed collection My Goddess has a Crazy Bush, a protest against pubic depilation and a celebration of “the natural look”.  Now come two more compilations: Exotic ésotérique Vol.2, and Jungle Judgin', on which the Artetetra roster rework tracks from   labelmate Holypalms’s 2016 album Jungle Judge.

A Moscow-based producer whose music is a frenetic, glittering meshwork of West African and South Asian rhythms, Holypalms is a typical Artetetra outernationalist. Other names seem like they might be alter-egos for the enigmatic duo behind the label. And still others come with colourful back stories that may have you wondering if they’re fabulations.  King Gong’s Erhai Floating Sound, for instance -  the label’s stand-out release so far – was supposedly recorded  on the Chinese lake Erhai from a fishing boat connected by underwater cables to four other boats each carrying a speaker. “Pull the other one!” was my instant thought, but it seems that King Gong really is the alias of independent ethnomusicologist  Laurent Jeanneau,  who roams the Far East archiving vanishing folk musics and then electronically modulates the source sounds ( voices, gongs, Chinese mouth organs, etc)  into creations like Floating Sound.

King Gong is oddly absent from Exotic ésotérique Vol.2 (although he does contribute one of the more low-key moments on the otherwise rambunctiously energetic and entertaining Holypalms remix album).  Indeed Vol. 2 is as much a foretaste of signings and releases to come as it is a showcase of output to date, featuring unfamiliar names like The Mauskovic Dance Band and Los Siquicos Litoraleños.  Described as a wunderkammer, a sonic cabinet of curiosities, and blended  seamlessly in the mix-tape style,  the compilation is far more assured and intriguing than its predecessor  (now regarded as a juvenile stumble by the label). The first side “Exotic” is – as the title suggests – blatantly worldy in vibe,  a beguiling safari through ethnological forgeries and far-fetched hybrids.  Afropop guitars are fed through postpunk flange; Wally Badarou synths quiver and shimmy; gnarly fuzzed acid-guitar rears up against a skyline of minarets; Hassell trumpet direct from Possible Worlds or “Houses In Motion” woozes like smog draping itself over a tropical megacity.  Now and then things verge on full-of-Eastern-promise cheese:  BICIKL’s “Penga” features belly-dance percussion, gong-crashes, scimitar-flashing Arabian guitar. But mostly the cosmopolitanism is scrambled, the sonic cartography suggestive of magic-realist extensions to the map rather than actual existing countries.  Sometimes the music suggest off-land strangeness: Los Siquicos Litoraleños’s  “Misterios del Amazonas,”  all glassy tinkles and bobbing splodges of keyboard, moves with the absurd-yet-effective underwater gait of a manatee. 

“Esoterik”, the second side, is less ethnodelic, more abstract.  Tracks by Vacuum Templi and Tacet Tacet Tacet recall the amorphous grey zones of industrial’s ambient-leaning outfits, such as Zoviet France.  Other artists intersect with recent online-underground styles like vaporwave, or that texturally splattery, event-crammed style of digital experimental composition associated with labels like PAN. Electro Summer Arcade’s “ラテックスキリスト” is beached yacht rock, the hull corroded and pocked with holes. Jealousy Party’s “Polymorphic stomp” describes itself perfectly:  Deleuze & Guattari’s body-without-organs trying to shake its floppy ‘n’ oozing stuff on a crowded dancefloor. As the track devolves further, imagine a musique concrète jam session involving actually sticky stuff - preserves, syrups, marmalade – as sound-sources. 

Recently there’s been a discernible uptick of interest in the Fourth World concept: from Optimo’s Miracle Steps (Music From the Fourth World 1983-2017) compilation, through labels such as Discrepant, to music-sharing blogs with a penchant for the “neo geo” Japanese style of Eighties exquisiteness that blurred the borders between ambient, new age and exotica (think Midori Takada).  Indeed “nat-geo 3.0” is another word Artetetra deploy on their bandcamp page, but less as a nod to Sakamoto’s neo-geo concept, they say, more as a play on National Geographic, the periodical that brought the aliens already on this planet into suburban homes and dentist waiting rooms across the West.

You could place Artetetra as the latest outcrop of a long, discontinuous tradition. Most recently, there’s been Sublime Frequencies and hypnagogic tape explorers like Spencer Clark, Sun Araw, and Lieven Martens Moana. Before that, the Nineties techno-travelogue school of Loop Guru and David Toop.  The Eighties, decade of the world music boom, teemed with tourism: Holger Czukay, Malcolm Mclaren, Aksak Maboul,  Byrne/Eno, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, to name just a handful. But even in the Seventies you had Joni Mitchell sampling a Burundi beat on Hissing’s “The Jungle Line,” ethno-tinged side-projects by progressive musicians like Steve Winwood, not forgetting Ginger Baker’s godawful Africa 70.  Artetetra acknowledge many of these predecessors but point to the original exotica of Les Baxter and Arthur Lyman as a deeper affinity. 

Exoticism – or to phrase it less problematically, an openness to sounds, instruments, and rhythmss from outside Western pop and unpop traditions – seems to come in waves, linked most likely to lull phases when renewal through external influx seems necessary or alluring. You could easily critique these practices as a hipster version of globalization: an End of Geography to match an alleged End of History, in which xenomania joins forces with  retromania in a desperate ransacking drive to fill up our voids with the reinvigorating riches of  other cultures, other eras.  But in the disorienting new context of a world that’s furiously reterritorializing itself – I write as Le Pen and Macron face off to determine the future of Europe - the light-hearted cosmopolitanism and Other-directed curiosity that characterise Artetetra and their kindred spirits starts to seem not only valid, but valorous.  

Monday, July 17, 2017

Lo Five / Patterned Air Recordings

Lo Five

When It’s Time To Let Go

Patterned Air Recordings CD/DL

The Wire, April 2017

by Simon Reynolds

Perhaps the uncanny persistence of hauntology shouldn’t be that surprising.  A genre based around the stubbornness of memory, around that ontologically suspect and temporally elusive non-entity known as the ghost, wasn’t likely to shuffle punctually offstage once its time in the spotlight was up.  A dozen years after its emergence, hauntology’s themes and traits have long since settled into a stable repertoire (mind you, the same could be said about many genres covered in The Wire: improv, drone,  extreme metal...).  But original prime movers like Ghost Box, Mordant Music, and Moon Wiring Club still put out good, sometimes great records (eMMplekz’s last long-player was one of 2016’s very best ), while newer operatives like Robin the Fog’s Howlround project and the label A Year in the Country  find fresh angles on familiar fixations. 

From this second (or is it third?) wave of spectral audio action, Patterned Air Recordings might be the most alluring and intriguing of a busy bunch.  Barely a year old, the label is the creation of Matt Saunders, whose prior discography includes the 4AD-signed duo Magnétophone and solo alias Veil, and who currently records as The Assembled Minds.  As far as the music’s outer husk goes – its framing and wrapping – the signifiers that Patterned Air traffic in fall squarely within hauntology’s known terrain:  that  wired / wyrd mixture of homespun analogue electronics,  acoustic textures and invocations of English rural landscapes (with a tinge of pagan past). There’s also allusions to childhood and pedagogy (Cukoo’s Woodland Walk features a schoolteacher’s voice and Nature Studies titles like “Pine Cones” and “Hedgehog”). You’ll often also find a vein of Nineties technostalgia: Assembled Minds’s  Creaking Haze and Other Rave-Ghosts, the sporadic jungle-breakbeat flashbacks in RunningOnAir’s  superb self-titled debut.  

Another hallmark, which Patterned Air shares with fellow nu-skool imprint A Year in The Country, is a quaintly exquisite attention to design and packaging. The label’s four releases so far come in see-through pouches cutely fastened with a leather twist-tie (easy to lose, be warned) and into which are stuffed an array of brightly-coloured inserts, including manually ink-stamped cards and printed tracing-paper squares. 

So far, so not entirely unpredictable, then.  But the music itself is less easy to pin down, at its best wriggling loose of the H-zone nearly entirely.  Patterned Air’s latest – When It’s Time To Let Go, by Lo Five, a/k/a Neil Grant from the Wirral peninsula - is their most unusual.  The opening track “Infantile Progenitor” stirs up memoradelic flashbacks, certainly, but not to any of the standard coordinates (Seventies spooky children’s TV, Public Information Films, et al). Rather the glinting chord-chimes and gauzy keyboards teleport me to the middle Eighties – Prefab Sprout, The Blue Nile, Lloyd Cole. Those evocations may well be unintended, accidental side effects of the instruments and effects Grant is drawn to, but  the effect for me personally is potent: taking me back to the self I was then - awkward, ardent, unprotected and yet wide open, teetering on the brink of starting my life. 

Throughout When It’s Time To Let Go, the music is cloaked by a lambent ambience of blurry reverberance (again mid-80s redolent: specifically, “Driving Away From Home” by It’s Immaterial).  The sound is like a watercolour with a little too much water in it, capillary rivulets of paint mingling into each other.  Bright but muzzy, the smushed-into-each-other textures can sometimes feel alarmingly intimate and up-close, a glare that makes you want to shield your ear’s gaze.  Field recording sounds –unsourceable rustles and creaks, laughter, a stream rippling over stones - weave through the tone-palette in a low-key, unobtrusive way that adds to the un-clarity of the mix.  Often there’s a school music room feel:  instruments like wistful piccolo, woodblocky percussion, bell-sound twinkles, the plink of mallets against glockenspiels or xylophones, are juxtaposed with more technotronic vamps and pulses.  Walking a winning diagonal between variety and homogeneity -  different grooves, same sound - When It’s Time moves through the early-Nineties bleepy pump of “Sabre Contusion,” past the wavering-off-pitch ambient lull of “A Pivotal Moment,” into the clanking Cumbrian dubstep of “Death to Innovation” and peaking with “Almost”: Harold Budd plays an out-of-tune piano, with the sustain pedal pressed full down, from the bottom of a crevasse, turning each chord into a craggy overhang of echo.

Every Patterned Air plastic baggie includes a label statement about the record printed on a colourfully illustrated insert. Somewhere between a liner note, a record review and a press release, these are uncredited but obviously written by Saunders himself.  The framing is always evocative, always appropriate, but sometimes I wonder whether this move - common to hauntology as a whole - of establishing the terms on which a recording is heard and understood might not actually be holding back the music to some degree, or at least, overly containing it.  If, say, Creaking Haze and Other Rave-Ghosts had a totally different title and the tracks inside weren’t called things like “Summoning of the Rave”, would you actually think of Nineties techno-pagan vibes while listening?  It may well be the case that this mise en scene – Spiral Tribe meets The Wickerman- was what guided Saunders towards the strange sound he achieved on what remains the label’s best release so far: shrill, peaky synth-yammers edging ecstatically into dissonance.  Yet once it’s served its catalytic purpose, does retaining and  articulating the concept add surplus value for the listener, or does it actually confine and slightly diminish the alien-ness? 

The same goes for Lo Five. The Patterned Air text refers to sounds “suffused with the traces of people and places humming with life, or emptied of everything... human lives caught up in the passing of time, the passing of people and things... the passing of place”. Yet the music doesn’t feel especially elegiac: its emotional palette hews mostly to primary-colour, primary-school naiveté, suggestive of total immersion in NOW. If there’s nostalgia at work here, the yearning is for a time before the emotion or sensation of nostalgia even exists in the child’s consciousness.  What I’m wondering, then, is whether it really is “time to let go”. To shed not just hauntology’s specific (and slightly shopworn) set-and-setting, but also the wider tendency rampant amongst today’s conceptronica artists that impels them to over-determine the reception of their music. Time, once again, to let sounds be. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom / Jackson and his Computer Band

"Progtronic Space-Funkers Blast Disco Ball Deep into Galaxy"
Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom, The Days of Mars
Jackson and his Computer Band, Smash

Village Voice, December 6, 2005

by Simon Reynolds

Performance art duo Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom created some people’s fave track of 2004 with their side project Black Leotard Front. A 15-minute odyssey of space funk, “Casual Friday” reconfigured the nightclub glitterball as a wondrous polyhedron-faceted planet. It also pointed to an underacknowledged interzone connecting prog and disco, based in the genres’ shared penchant for long instrumentals, flashy musicianship, and post-hippie utopianism. On their debut album, DG & GR continue their kosmisch quest to locate the missing link between Manuel Gottsching's E2: E4 and Sueño Latino’s “Sueño Latino.” But they’ve dropped the beat, leaving just the pulse. The sequenced flutter of “Rise” creates a paradoxical feeling of serene tension, “Relevee” braids arpeggiated synth lines into a gently writhing spire of sound, “13 Moons” wafts veil after veil of shimmering translucence, and the closing “Black Spring” is like tantric sex, minus the sex. Fabulous stuff, but make no mistake, DFA hip factor notwithstanding, this isn’t “the latest thing.” It’s actually a time-travel trip back to ’70s analog synth rock. The sheer expanse of The Days of Mars (four pieces in 50 minutes) recalls the album-side-long canvases daubed by such as Edgar Froese, Klaus Schulze, and Tim Blake. Russom, his beard blending indistinguishably into his long, lank locks, even resembles one of those Kraut-rockers who turned New Agey, like Deuter.

Frenchman Jackson Fourgeaud approaches the prog-disco zone from a different angle, tapping into the ’70s monsterbands’ proclivity for bombast, disjointed structures, and ornate arrangements. It’s not just the title of the opener, “Utopia,” that recalls Todd Rundgren, it’s the high vocal (beseeching “Have you really thought about utopia?”) and the production’s quality of “altitude” (what Graham Massey of progtronica outfit 808 State identified as the studio wizard’s hallmark). At times Smash resembles the step beyond Discovery that some of us hoped Daft Punk would make with Human After All. But truthfully the album ranges much further afield, connecting DAF’s industrial disko to ELO/10cc-style art-pop kitsch, and welding heavy rock’s juddering thunderbeats to house and trance’s rippling, ecstastic riffs. Sometimes it’s all too much (curse perhaps of this being a Computer Band and therefore prone to that digital temptation to nuance and layering, as opposed to Delia & Gavin’s analog-induced minimalism). But in the end, you gotta say yes to this excess. Yes please and merci beaucoup.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Eno in NYC

Taking Manhattan (By Strategy) - Brian Eno in New York

director's cut version, The Daily Note, 2013 

by Simon Reynolds

It could be argued that Brian Eno is the most consistently creative figure in rock history, someone whose innovation rate over the decades eclipses even his shape-shifting collaborators David Bowie and David Byrne.  From his disruptive presence in Roxy Music, via his alternately quirky and contemplative solo albums and his invention of ambient music, through to his recent explorations of “generative music”, it’s a career that has, well, careered,  zigzagging from extreme to extreme, between pop and antipop, between febrile rhythm and near-immobile tranquility. Then consider the panoply of his partnerships with other artists-- Bowie, Devo, Talking Heads, U2, John Cale, to name just a few—as producer or collaborator / catalyst. 

Eno is also a musical philosopher, someone whose interviews, critical writings and sundry musings about sound, art, and culture deserve to be compiled into a book. (His published diary A Year With Swollen Appendices was hugely entertaining but didn’t capture the full scope and provocative richness of his thought).  

It could also be argued that Eno’s most creative phase of music-making, collaboration, and conceptualizing  took place during a period in the late Seventies and early Eighties when he lived in New York.  1978-84 were Eno’s surge years, and New York’s art scene and music culture were the climate that stoked his ferment.

“I’ve got this feeling that I really know New York very well and will be at home there...  I feel there are two places I’m emotionally based in...  One is the English countryside, where I was born and bred, and the other is the heart of New York City.”  So said Brian Eno on the eve of his first visit to the city, speaking to Disc magazine in October 1972.

There are perfectly logical reasons why Eno would feel a profound attraction to New York. After all, the two biggest influences on his approach to music, The Velvet Underground and Steve Reich, came from there.  Eno also intuited that London, pop culture’s energy center during the Sixties, had ceded that power spot status to New York by the Seventies.  Within a few years of the Disc interview, he was spending extended periods of time in Manhattan. Then he moved wholesale and made New York his base for over half a decade.  The ensuing period is without doubt the most fertile and impressive stretch of his life work, which included not just music but video art.  Eno fed off New York’s border-crossing artistic energy, but he also catalysed and contributed to it. There were more playful, “lifestyle” reasons why Eno settled in Manhattan too. “I moved to New York City because there are so many beautiful girls here,” he told Lester Bangs in 1979. “More than anywhere else in the world."
His first visit, in late ’72, was with Roxy Music on their debut US tour. The next couple of trips he came as a solo artist.  The second of these, in 1975, was to promote Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy. Eno was accompanied by Richard Williams, the former Melody Maker writer who was the first journalist to rave about Roxy and then became an A&R at Island Records. Williams had heard the buzz about Television, so the two Englishmen headed down to CBGBs to see them perform. 

Although Eno at this point had zero pedigree as a producer, he and Williams worked with Television on demo recordings. This could easily have turned into a debut album for Island. But the results totally failed to capture the fierce majesty of live Television. “I didn’t care for the sound he got on tape or the performance much either,” Tom Verlaine once recalled.  “The rest of the band felt the same way. So we didn’t finish the ‘album’ they wanted those demos to be.”

An inauspicious start to Eno’s New York Period. And so it would be not Television but a different CBGBs band (also with a TV-oriented name, funnily enough) who cemented Eno’s connection to the city. Talking Heads first met up with Eno in London, though. During this May 1977 hang-out session they discovered many common interests both musically and intellectually.  Eno played them an album by Fela Kuti and declared that Afrobeat was the future of music. He suggested that this was a direction Talking Heads and he could jointly pursue.  

Later that month Eno was back in New York, where he accompanied his friends and intermittent collaborators David Bowie and Robert Fripp to a Max’s Kansas City gig by Devo, the hot hype of the season.  So captivated was Bowie by their robotic theatrics and angular sound, he took to the stage to announce Devo’s second set of the night.  Hailing the Akron, Ohio band as rock’s future, he vowed to produce their debut album in Tokyo later that summer. In the event it was Eno, not Bowie, who would produce Are We Not Men? and it would be a whole year later, in Cologne.

As for Talking Heads, the first album Eno made with the group, More Songs About Buildings and Food, was recorded in Nassau. But the mastering was done in New York and Eno flew in on April 23rd 1978 to oversee the process. He planned to stay a few weeks, taking care of some other pending projects away from UK distractions, before heading home in time for his thirtieth birthday.  But New York provided plenty of distractions of its own and as it turned out it would be seven months before he returned to Britain. Recalling, a few years later, this first substantial sojourn in  New York, Eno admitted to enjoying the attention he received as a cult figure operating on the cutting edge of rock: “Everywhere I go, people are running up with cassettes... The first five weeks I was in New York this time I had 180 cassettes given to me”. But he spoke also of the stimulating conversations he was enjoying thanks to a cross-town traffic between different fields of art—music, painting,  theater, modern dance—that didn’t exist in England.

A common syndrome experienced by first-time U.K. visitors to New York is that they’re electrified by the city’s kinetic (and cinematic) energy, then immediately crash into a depressive slump upon arrival back in hum-drum England.  Eno refused to unplug. 

By the middle of May 1978, he was enconsced in an apartment in Greenwich Village,  a sublet from Steve Maas, who also owned and lived in the apartment above, and who was in the process of  launching the soon-to-be-legendary Mudd Club. “The first time I heard of the Mudd Club, somebody said ‘Eno’s got a new bar below Canal Street, let’s go’,” recalls Glenn O’Brien, in those days the music columnist for Interview magazine and host of the New York cable music show TV Party

“Actually Eno had nothing to do with it, except I think he consulted with Maas on the sound system.”
Through Maas, Eno met Anya Philips, who was involved in the initial conception of the Mudd club. She hipped him to No Wave: a cluster of  harsh, dissonant, uncompromisingly experimental groups (among them the Contortions, whom Philips managed, and whose frontman James Chance she would  later hook up with) that had emerged with the express intent of making the first-wave CBGB punk bands seem passé and mired in rock’n’roll tradition.  “I happened to be in New York during one of the most exciting months of the decade... in terms of music,” Eno recalled. “It seemed like there were 500 new bands who all started that month.” In the first week of May, Eno attended a five-day festival of the No Wave at Artists’s Space, a gallery in Tribeca. Impressed by the music’s extremism, he proposed the idea of a compilation to Island Records, focused on the four key groups in the scene: Mars, DNA, the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Intuitively he grasped that No Wave was destined to be a brief spasm of unsustainable intensity and that therefore urgently required documentation before it passed.

Eno had plenty in common with the No Wavers. Most came from art school backgrounds similar to his own. Like him, they approached music-making with a conceptual mindset and a dilettante’s disregard for craft. “The New York bands proceed from a ‘what would happen if’ orientation,” Eno informed New York Times critic John Rockwell in July 1978, contrasting that approach unfavorably with expressionistic, emotion-driven New Wave songsmiths like Elvis Costello.  In other 1978 interviews, he praised No Wave using terms and concepts that he clearly would like to have seen applied to himself: these “research bands” took “deliberately extreme stances that are very interesting because they define the edges of a piece of territory. They say 'This is as far as you can go in this direction'.”  Pioneers like No Wave (or earlier the Velvet Underground) generated a “a vocabulary” of ideas that later artists could use in more palatable ways and that could ultimately become the basis of mainstream pop in the future. “Having that territory staked out is very important. You achieve a synthesis by determining your stance in relation to these signposts.”

But although there was a mutual admiration pact between Eno and the No Wavers (who revered their patron for his work in Roxy and solo), there were big differences too.  No Wave was based around an aesthetic of assault and confrontation. Lyrically, it stretched from deadpan nihilism (James Chance) to tortured expressionism (Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus) to explorations of psychotic states (Mars).  There was a huge gulf between No Wave and Eno’s alternately quirky and placid music, especially the proto-ambient directions pursued on Another Green World and Discreet Music.  Lunch speaks warmly of Eno today but at the time she made a number of public jibes, describing Eno’s music as “something that flows and weaves...  It’s kind of nauseating. It’s like drinking a glass of water. It means nothing, but it’s very smooth going down.”

Yet Eno-ification is strikingly absent from the compilation No New York.  There’s nothing like the “wet” finish to certain songs on Are We Not Men or More Songs About Buildings and Food that clearly bore Eno’s production fingerprints.  “It was done totally live in the studio, just like a document,” says Chance.  Mars, the most forbiddingly abstract of the No Wave outfits, benefited from a smidgeon of  Eno’s studio sorcery: for “Helen Forsdale”, he put an echo “on the guitar part's click, and used that to trigger the compression on the whole track, so it sounds like helicopter blades.” But DNA’s Arto Lindsay was actually infuriated by Eno’s hands-off approach: “he was reading some studio instrument magazine while we were recording, and I wanted to throttle him!” He hastens to add that “Eno is a fabulous man...  He was generous. I was dead broke, and he was such a gentleman he would call me up and say ‘I’ll buy you lunch’. As a relative veteran of the music industry, Eno also dispensed advice: Lindsay recalls  Chance showing Eno a contract that he’d been offered by Michael Zilkha of ZE Records.  “Brian said, ‘Nobody would sign that but a desperate man’. James immediately signed it!”

At the end of 1978 No New York slipped out into the world via Island’s jazz subsidiary Antilles, to meager fanfare. No Wave had already splintered, with most of the groups heading towards more accessible music (discofunk in the case of Chance). But the record would gradually accrue cult status, as much for the challenge of getting hold of a copy as for the challenging music on it. The legend of No Wave has swollen over the decades, in part because of intermediaries like Sonic Youth who (as Eno predicted, sort of) turned its innovations into rock music, and partly as the marker of a historical moment of absolute uncompromising purity. The movement, which lasted barely two years and whose bands didn’t make many records or find many listeners in their own time, has been the subject of no less than three lavishly illustrated histories in recent years.   

In the winter of 1978/79, Eno went peripatetic, spending time in San Francisco, London, Montreux, and Bangkok. When he returned to New York in the spring to work on Talking Heads’s Fear of Music, he had the germ of a new approach in his head: the merger of hypnotic dance rhythms and found voices.  Through immersion in Fela and P-Funk, he had turned onto the idea of densely-layered ethnofunkadelic polyrhythm. But on his Thailand vacation, he had taken with him a recording of British dialects and become fascinated by the “redundant” information in these heavily accented utterances.  Regional cadences meant that the speech contained its own musicality, something that he thought could be combined excitingly with dance grooves.  This merger of found voices and trance rhythms would become the governing concept for much of the music he made in the next few years, both solo and in his increasingly collaborative partnership with Talking Heads. 

The new obsession’s first manifestation appeared on Fear of Music as the opening track “I Zimbra”. It bore Eno’s clear imprint, from the  Afrobeat-style percussion to the use of sound-poetry originally written by the Dadaist Hugo Ball but here incanted by David Byrne.  “I Zimbra” was pretty much the reprise of what Eno had done on “Kurt’s Rejoinder,” from his 1977 solo album Before And After Science, albeit using a different Dadaist (Kurt Schwitters).  But it was Fear’s closing track “Drugs” that proved to be most prophetic.  Talking Heads tried recording the song, originally titled “Electricity”, in the conventional way, but couldn’t get it to work. So Eno and Byrne took the accumulated takes and effectively remixed the song into existence. “We kind of deconstructed it, tore it down to its basic elements, then built it up again with new stuff,”  recalls Byrne.  “We took instruments out, replayed bits, added other sounds.  It became a mixture of a live band and sound collage. Which was what ended up happening with My Life In the Bush of Ghosts and Remain In Light”.

If “Drugs” was the practice, the theory got expounded by Eno in July when he gave a lecture entitled “The Studio As Compositional Tool” at the New Music New York festival. Hosted by The Kitchen, this ten-day event was a triumphant end-of-decade celebration of a diffuse and varied but coherent movement of downtown Manhattan composition that during the Seventies defined itself against the uptown classical music establishment (still in thrall to post-Webernite serialism and dissonance).  Reporting on New Music New York, Village Voice’s Tom Johnson identified two distinct waves of downtown music: the founding minimalist elders (Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Reich, Terry Riley, Robert Ashley) and a new generation forging connections between composing and popular music (Laurie Anderson, who used elements of performance art, video and electronics, or Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, who deployed amplified electric guitars).  Eno fit perfectly right smack in the middle of all this: he was profoundly influenced by Reich’s repetition and use of tape-delay loops, but also embraced dance rhythms, electric noise, and the sound-sculpting possibilities of the recording studio, just like emerging downtown composers such as Arthur Russell, Peter Gordon and David Van Tieghem.

But there was a problem with the studio-as-compositional-tool concept, at least when applied to a rock band:  it empowered the “composer” (the producer-arranger) at the expense of the musicians. The expanded authorial role for Eno & Byrne on “Drugs” effectively relegated the other members of Talking Heads to session musician status, something that would cause enormous friction on the next album, Remain In Light.  The burgeoning relationship between Eno and Byrne didn’t just unsettle the balance of creative power within the band, it frayed emotional ties too. Bassist Tina Weymouth would acidly claim the pair reached the point of merging into a symbiotic unit,  even wearing similar clothes like some postpunk  Gilbert & George. Byrne himself talks about the relationship as “mutually beneficial and co-dependent in a way. We had musical things to gain from one another—each one could offer something slightly different to the other.” It went beyond music collaboration to shared “art and philosophical” interests like cybernetics or the spiritual role of music and dance in tribal societies. “We had a surprising number of things to chat about.”

Although Remain In Light and the Byrne/Eno masterwork My Life in the Bush of Ghosts would be the main canvas on which he would explore these obsessions, such was Eno’s nomadism in the New York years that he also pursued them with other collaborators like Robert Fripp (also living in Manhattan at that time) and Jon Hassell.  Eno’s very first attempt at spoken-voice collage had actually occurred in the UK back in late 1977, with “R.A.F.”, a track made with the New York female punk duo Snatch (one of whom, Judy Nylon, was a former girlfriend).  In retrospect, he would decide that this Baader-Meinhof inspired collage,  released as the B-Side to the single “King’s Lead Hat” (an anagram of Talking Heads!), was the very earliest germ of Bush of Ghosts

In late 1979 Eno and Fripp closed in on the idea with a series of tracks called “Healthy Colours” that combined hypnotic drums and warped bass with vocal fragments from a radio program clipping in and of the groove.  Although they were eventually released much later on the 1994 anthology Essential Fripp & Eno, the four-part “Healthy Colours” series was originally made for a never-completed album called Music For Healing.

That title fits much better the other major strand of Eno music made during his New York years:  idyllic-yet-eerie ambient soundscapes.  The Plateaux of Mirror, his collaboration with pianist Harold Budd, began with the LA-based pianist sending his compositions to Eno in New York, but the actual recording was done in late 1979 in a studio in Hamilton, Ontario owned and operated by Daniel Lanois.  

Around that time Eno also produced Day of Radiance by Laraaji, a zither-player he discovered playing in Washington Square Park on the edge of Greenwich Village. A spiritual seeker exploring yoga, t’ai chi and Eastern philosophy and who today holds workshops in laughter therapy, Laraaji’s quest for “cosmic music” had taken a decisive turn in the mid-Seventies when he traded his guitar for an autoharp, which he then adapted and electrified.   He came to believe that metallic chimes--bell-ringing, gongs, cymbals, gamelan ensembles, and the instruments he favored, zither and hammered dulcimer—put the listener “in touch with the higher presences... in Tibet they are used to break up  concentration, get you outside linear time, into a trance state.” Laraaji had been playing in the same spot in Washington Square Park for a few years, sitting always in the lotus position with his eyes shut, when one day he opened them to see that someone had left a message in his busker’s hat. “It was from Brian Eno and it said ‘would you like to meet to consider a recording project?’”.

In their post-Eno careers Budd and Laraaji would both go on to make music so tranquil and gently rhapsodic it verged on New Age. But Plateaux and Radiance—Ambient 2 and Ambient 3 in the series of releases launched by Eno’s Music For Airports --have a certain uncanny edge. In both cases Eno’s role largely consisted of creating the ambience in which the compositions were situated, using reverb, harmonizer and other studio techniques to smudge the edges of the sound into oneiric soft-focus.  Both projects prefigure the preoccupations that would lead to Eno’s other supreme masterpiece of the New York era, 1982’s On LandPlateaux’s titles like “Above Chiangmai”, “Among Fields of Crystal” and “Wind in Lonely Fences” speak of Eno’s mounting interest in creating the musical equivalent of landscape painting, while “Meditation #2”, the final track on Radiance, is based on Laraaji’s mental image of New York’s Central Park Reservoir on a moody winter day.

Another inspirational collaborator Eno hooked up with in 1979 was Jon Hassell, whose post-Miles, raga-influenced music Eno had encountered when the trumpeter-composer performed at the Kitchen that summer.  Hassell’s knowledge of many forms of exotic ethnic sounds and his concept of “Fourth World Music” (hi-tech modernity meets pre-industrial tribalism) would be massively influential on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Indeed, at its inception that album was conceived as a three-way collaboration.  Byrne recalls “all hanging out together, talking and exchanging records”.  At his Tribeca loft, Hassell played Eno and Byrne field recordings on ethnomusicological labels like Ocora.  The idea emerged that “we would hole up and make a fake ethnographic records, with the sleeve notes and everything,” says Byrne. “We’d invent a whole culture to go with it.”

Both Hassell and Laraaji were present at the first sessions, in August 1979, for the album that  became My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Also contributing to the dense mix of sound was David Van Tieghem, whom Eno had seen doing a gizmo-based piece called A Man and His Toys at New Music New York, and two bassists: Tim Wright from DNA and Bill Laswell, then playing in a band called Zu (later to mutate into Material).  Of these early sessions, Eno would later wryly comment that “what was so weird was that at first I thought I'd wasted my money. I just couldn't understand it at all.” But gradually, sculpting down “ this barrage of instruments playing all the time”, an audio-concept emerged:  a “jungle music” sound, embedded in a spacious widescreen production he’d never achieved before. Profiling Eno for Musician towards the end of 1979, Lester Bangs got advance glimpses of the work-in-progress: “It sounds like nothing we've ever heard from Brian Eno before; like nothing ever heard before, period. The influence of the move to New York is unmistakeable: a polyglot freneticism, a sense of real itching rage and desperation... It gives intimations of a new kind of international multi-idiomatic music that would cross all commercial lines, uniting different cultures, the past and the future, European experimentalism and gutbucket funk.”

Work on Bush-to-be was sporadic and at a certain point Hassell dropped out of the equation – a turnabout that enraged him to the point of making public accusations of being ripped off. He and Eno would reconcile fairly swiftly, however, resulting in the collaboration Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics and the appearance, or rather apparition, of Hassell’s ghostly gaseous trumpet on the Remain In Light track “Houses In Motion”.

Working in Los Angeles and San Francisco for a while, before returning to New York, Byrne and Eno added an extra element to the mix: alongside field recordings (Muslim devotional singing, the gospel chants of Sea Islanders off the coast of Georgia), they found themselves increasingly obsessed with the ranting and raving of talk radio hosts and evangelists.  This proto-sampling approach would be hugely influential on later soundbite-based genres like hip hop and jungle. What’s less well known is that Bush of Ghosts was itself influenced by very early hip hop. Not the first rap records, though, so much as breakdancing

Ironically, this connection with hip hop would be forged not in New York but when the duo were out in LA. “Brian and I met Toni Basil, a choreographer who later had a hit single with ‘Micky’,” recalls Byrne. “She was working with this street dance group the Electric Boogaloos and was going to do a whole show based on popping and locking. Brian and I thought it was the most amazing dancing we’d ever seen. In a way, some of the music we were making we thought was slotted for her to use in a television program with these dancers.  But it never happened.” Eno, for his part, thought that the future of video, a form with which he had just started to experiment, would be non-narrative: involving either ambient imagery (close to stationary) or dance (extreme kineticism).  Both would be endlessly rewatchable, because ambient images would become like décor while the fluid intricacy of experimental dance would be so sinuously complex you could never get bored with it.

Byrne and Eno’s work on Bush of Ghosts was interrupted when they joined the rest of Talking Heads during the sweltering hot New York summer of 1980 to start work on the group’s fourth album.  Initially titled Melody Attack, the album quickly became a “pop” version of the ideas being explored on Bush . Ideas like the Fela-meets-Terry-Riley’s-In-C approach of  “having lots of instruments all playing very simple parts that mesh together to create a complex track”, as Eno explained to one interviewer. “For example there were five or six basses on 'Born Under Punches', each doing simple bits.”  Unfortunately this methodology reduced the other Heads—Weymouth, drummer Chris Franz, keyboard player Jerry Harrison—to raw content generators, producing material to be assembled into constructions by Eno and Byrne. There was also a kind of deconstruction of the band itself:  with bass parts being provided by people other than Weymouth, roles became fluid and uncertain.  Even Byrne himself had to change his approach: rather than go into the studio with written songs, he improvised clipped, chanted melodies to suit the roiling rhythmic density of the new direction. His vocals became increasingly percussive, verging on rapping in sections of “Born Under Punches” and “Cross Eyed and Painless”. On the shimmering dreamscape “Seen And Not Seen”, he abandoned singing altogether for recitation, speaking the story of a man who learned to change his facial appearance by willpower.  

Remain In Light was an artistic triumph. But it was also a disaster: pushing for the new direction and thereby assuming a vastly expanded degree of creative control, Eno irreparably damaged what he had earlier described as “the best working relationship I've ever had within rock music."  Talking Heads-- even his symbiotic other half Byrne-- started to suspect that Eno was trying to turn to the group into a new Roxy Music where he was the leader, not Bryan Ferry.  That there was an inverse ratio between the creative fulfilment of the band and that of the producer had been apparent to Eno as early as More Songs About Buildings: as he told Melody Maker, with that album “the songs that were least complete going into the studio came out best for me”.  Fear of Music was better still  because “there were even fewer complete songs” at the start of the recording process, leading to the formation of a “group mind,  a recording identity” with him at the center.  Remain was the culmination, resulting in music so complex that its live performance required the expansion of Talking Heads into a nine-piece.  

Yet despite  his steering role in the project, Eno had his own misgivings about Remain:  he felt that the album could have been taken much further. Those frustrations would take on a bitter edge when My Life In the Bush of Ghosts came out within a few months of the extravangantly praised Remain. (Originally Bush was meant to come out first, but  it got delayed due to sample clearance issues).  Although Bush is now revered as a groundbreaking classic, at the time it received a mixed critical response, suffering both from a post-Remain backlash and from having its innovation-thunder stolen by the Talking Heads LP. Some critics accused Byrne and Eno of being coldblooded eggheads and, worse, neo-imperialistic appropriators of world music. 

“One day in early 1981 I arrived at the studio and Eno was on the couch, he was reading the English music papers and he had the most downcast expression on his face. The reviews of Ghosts were out... “ So recalls Material keyboard player Michael Beinhorn, then  participating, along with his bandmates, in an amorphous Eno project. “My sense is that Brian at that point decided, ‘I’m never going to make rock music again.’”. 

Whether it was as clearcut as that—after all he’d already been making ambient music for years and the ethnogrooves of Bush of Ghosts and Possible Worlds were situated some distance from rock—it does seem that the lukewarm response to Ghosts encouraged Eno to move even further  from song-based pop forms and into atmospheres and soundscapes. That trajectory reached fruition with his ambient pinnacle On Land, an album whose genesis  can be traced back to the sessions with Material in January 1981.

Although Eno’s relationship with Byrne continued fitfully (he contributed to the Head frontman’s solo project The Catherine Wheel) it would be eclipsed by a new kindred musical spirit who  entered his life in the latter months of 1980.  Eno became close friends with Robert Quine, formerly the guitarist in Richard Hell and the Voidoids, discovering they shared a passion for psychogeographic drifting through the streets of New York and  “a feeling for music that was ‘at the edge of music’”, as Eno put it. Although they never directly collaborated, Quine is one of several people prominently thanked in the sleeve notes of On Land. (Laraaji is another).  “I actually encouraged him to put out On Land,” Quine has said. “He was going to dump parts of it.” Eno himself wrote, in a tribute to Quine following his 2004 death, that  “without his interest, I'm not sure I would have ever finished and released that record.”  As well as morale elevation, Quine steered Eno in the right direction aesthetically: he introduced him to the 1974 Miles Davis’s piece “He Loved Him Madly”, a 32 minute long requiem for Duke Ellington, so slow-moving and low-spirited it’s as if the music’s own vital signs have been suppressed to a life-threatening degree. 

Eno was particularly entranced by Teo Macero’s “revolutionary production” on the track, which provided him with a model of  the “spacious quality” he wanted to achieve in his own music. “Madly”,  Eno said, “has a very strange atmosphere, as if you are standing in a clearing hearing different instruments at different distances from you. It was mixed with that feeling of distance, and that interests me a great deal.”  Another influence was his own experiments on a trip to Ghana with outdoor field recordings, where he held up a mic to the capture the nothing-in-particular waft-and-murmur of town and field. 

On the first day of the sessions with Material, which took place at the newly equipped studio in Brooklyn operated by the group’s sound-man Martin Bisi, Eno arrived with photographic slides that he purchased that very morning at the Museum of Natural History. “He called me on the way over, asking if I had white sheets because he wanted to project images on the walls,” recalls Bisi. Eno turned up in a cab with his German friend Axel Gros, whose resume includes contributing “noise production” to Holger Czukay and Conny Plank’s experimental postpunk project Les Vampyrettes, and promptly set up projectors all around the room. “The idea was to play music and record surrounded by images of animals like impalas and water buffalos. Landscapes too-- Kilimanjaro, the savannah.” 

The session wasn’t super-productive. Bisi, by his own admission, was an amateurish sound-engineer in those days (later he would become an accomplished, in-demand producer), and actually annoyed the typically calm and mild Eno so much that the latter hurled a chair at one point. Material bassist Bill Laswell would in his subsequent career make ambient records himself but at that point his background was Southern funk bands and he just couldn’t get into the Eno vibe.  

Laswell and Beinhorn are actually given co-write credits for “Lizard Point”, On Land’s first track, but Beinhorn says “I can’t pick out a note that actually comes from me. Maybe it’s in there as half-speed tapes or processed in some way.” Most likely the co-credits are Eno’s way of honoring the first stirrings of a direction that developed during the month-long session. One thing that does definitely make it onto the record is the tape of frog sounds on “Unfamiliar Winds (Leek Hills)”, which came from Laswell’s friend Felipe Orrego, who recorded them in Honduras.

Beyond musical affinities (Material’s own avant-funk evolution paralleled Bush of Ghosts) Eno had opted to work from the group’s base in Red Hook in part because of a longstanding inclination to avoid expensive recording studios, where time-is-money pressure could  paralyze creativity.  The cheque for a month’s time in advance Eno gave Bisi actually enabled the aspiring producer, then only 18, to equip the place.  After that session, however, Eno created his own workspace in his new apartment, a large loft on Broadway and Broome that he bought and moved into with his girlfriend Alex Blair and their cat Poo-Poo.  Although there were other sessions at proper studios-- in New York, in Ontario, in London—much of the work for On Land was done in this mini-studio.

The album’s working title was Empty Landscapes. But the African mise-en-scene that backdropped the Brooklyn session faded out as inspiration, a residue of the Remain/Ghosts phase (Eno had even talked to interviewers then of wanting to move to Africa). Instead, the landscapes gradually took on a decidedly English atmosphere, a nostalgic direction influenced by Fellini’s Amarcord with its dreamlike recreation of small town life in 1930s Italy.

Upon its release in 1982, Eno described On Land as an attempt to conjure up the atmosphere of the Suffolk countryside of his childhood: desolate and melancholy, but also familiar and comforting, “a nice kind of spooky”.  He told Musician, “that mood is very much a feature of the environment where I grew up. It's a very bleak place and most visitors find it quite miserable. I don't think it's miserable but it's definitely a sort of lost place in a lost time--nothing has changed in this part of England for many hundreds of years.”  His goal was to create a heightened version of this landscape of memory, partly by using audio-tricks that were non-naturalistic (a 70-second echo, for instance). He titled “Lantern Marsh” after a phosphorescent marsh in East Suffolk that he had seen on a map but never actually visited. Other titles and sounds had actual memories attached to them.  Leek Hills, as in “Unfamiliar Wind (Leek Hills)” was a wood in which he used to play, while “The Lost Day” featured a “little bell sound” that worked on Eno like the audio counterpart to  Proust’s Madeleine cake. On a Christmas visit to his parents in Suffolk he discovered the reason why it attracted and affected him so much: he went for a windy walk along the river Deben and heard the sound of “the metal guy wires banging against the [metal] masts of the yachts”. It was virtually the same sound that he’d generated using a Fender Rhodes electric piano played extremely softly. A sound that tugged at his buried memories with uncanny power. Hence the title “The Lost Day”, so close to Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu.

As well as an exercise in personal hauntology, On Land was a conceptual project. During the making, Eno wrote “25,000 words on general thoughts about music. In doing that I started getting a much clearer idea of what I was doing than I've ever had while I was actually in the midst of making a record.”  Thematically, he was exploring “a general set of feelings about northern hemisphere living, as true for Norway and Belgium as for England: the big variation in the length of daylight, the endless summer evenings, the endless winter nights – the importance of seasons and their continuous reminder of the passage of time.”   Musically, he was developing an approach to composition and mixing that made no distinction between foreground and background. “Everything that happens is a part of the landscape.”  One inspiration was the Breton landscape painter Pierre Tal-Coat, after whom the album’s third track was named.  He even used “landscape” as a musical instrument, generating sounds using stones and sticks as well weaving in recordings of wildlife like rooks and frogs.  Finally, there was a technological aspect to On Land: on the original LP sleeve he provided a diagram of a simple three-way speaker system he had devised to realise fully the music as a listener-enveloping environmental experience.

Some of On Land’s glinting, diaphonous music soundtracked his first major video work, Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan,  which comprised glacier-slow images of the New York skyline at sunset captured from the window of his downtown apartment.  Both the audio and video reflected a desire to slow down the city’s hyped-up metabolism, transform New York against its will into a more tranquil and ethereal place. “Medieval” was a sideways allusion to an experience of culture shock and stimuli-overload in Chinatown, when his senses were assaulted by strange smells and sounds.  Eno decided that to survive in the city he needed to imaginatively transform the place into something less overwhelming for a Suffolk native raised amid the “aloneness” and “very slow pace of things” that characterized that unpopulous coastal region of Eastern England.  The idea of New York as a “strange, medieval, huge complex town in the middle of nowhere ...  suddenly it made the place tolerable for me....  You can easily live in New York and just see the mess of it. I wanted to make it mysterious again.”

Eno had started messing with video back in 1979. His first installation was accompanying a Frippertronics performance at the Kitchen (Fripp dubbed it “video Muzak”). The early roof-scape work was also shown at Grand Central in early 1980 and at La Guardia to accompany an airing of Music for Airports.  Eno also used a Polaroid snap of “video feedback”, created by pointing the camera at its own monitor, as the cover for Bush of Ghosts.   His interest was to create what he call “video painting”: something that could be left playing in someone’s living room, watched inattentively or not at all, working (like ambient music itself) as a tint in the environment, closer to perfume or incense than a narrative-based artform. The concept was hatched partly in opposition to how rock videos had evolved.  Pop promo directors “all think if we want to make a thing interesting we've got to put more and more action into it. But that just gives you a blur which takes maybe five watches to work out, and after that you don't want to see it again. My solution to this problem was to take the video away from being a short film, a little story and turn it into something beautiful to look at, like a picture.”

Recalling Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan in a 1989 interview, Eno said: “Like the music that accompanies them, the films arise from...  a desire to make a quiet place for myself. They evoke in me a sense of 'what could have been' and hence generate a nostalgia for the future." But in truth they seemed to be more simply a product of nostalgia, in its original sense of homesickness.  While still living in downtown New York, even dabbling a little on Wall Street after eavesdropping on the conversation of brokers at the gym, Eno was little by little absenting itself from Manhattan.  He started to lead an increasingly reclusive life, spending most of the day in his apartment, holed up in the small studio, which he described as “a sort of sacred space somehow”.  He would tinker with music, experiment with perfumes (one of his obsessions), read and think. Picking up on this cloistered vibe, People magazine’s Arthur Lubow  described a typical day in the life of Eno as “self-indulgent and monastic,” and wrote of his music’s drift towards  “an Arcadian kind of yearning.”  Girlfriend Alex spoke of Eno’s “social claustrophobia. He doesn’t like sitting around gabbing.”

Back in 1972 Eno had told Disc that he’d “always been attracted to whatever place on the planet seemed to be the centre of the most tension and energy.” London had been that place; now it was New York. By by the Eighties, it seemed that all the things  he once found so magnetic about New York-- the border-crossing conversations, the musical ferment—had become negatives: a form of  mental crowding threatening to his own creativity and equilibrium. 

 His last North American musical projects—Apollo: Atsmopheres & Soundtracks, made to accompany Al Reinert’s film about NASA and the Moon landings, and The Pearl, made with Harold Budd and Daniel Lanois—were both recorded in the relative seclusion of Hamilton, Ontario. There was also a  video painting of a nude woman, shot in San Francisco, and designed to accompany his most vaporous ambient album yet, Thursday Afternoon.

Once upon a time Brian Eno had talked of being emotionally based in two places: “the English countryside, where I was born and bred” and “the heart of New York City.”  But in the end the heart tug of his homeland would prove stronger. A burglary at the Broom Street apartment sealed the deal of his utter alienation from Manhattan. In the middle of 1984, Eno returned to England.