BRIAN ENO: NO PUSSYFOOTING (w. Robert Fripp) (1973)
1) The Heavenly Music Corporation; 2) Swastika Girls.
«Both of these compositions are terrific, or both are crap, I can't decide» — that's what I wrote ages ago about this album. So much time has passed, though, and now I believe I can.
In 1973, albums with just one track per side were nothing new, and neither were lengthy droning compositions that took ample time to explore a single musical groove, idea, chord sequence, believing that there was no better way to go totally transcendental. What did not happen yet was a fortuitous meeting between two musicians — one with a beyond-the-ordinary vision for electric guitar playing, another one with an above-the-common understanding of the possibilities of electronic keyboards — who could pool their talents together and come up with a deeply intellectual conception for how The Perfect Psychedelic Record could sound.
Eno and Fripp began working on No Pussyfooting in 1972, back when the former was still an official member of Roxy Music, but already felt uncomfortable about having to compromise his vision for the sake of Bryan Ferry's flamboyance. The main pretext was to test out the tape-delay system commonly known as «Frippertronics», because nobody was ever able to figure out how it works except for Fripp himself. Actually, it shouldn't be all that complicated — essentially, it's just a special technique, requiring two tape-recorders trading signals back and forth so that your guitar sounds like it's being played in a deep, multi-sectioned cave with a great echo system. But, of course, you have to coordinate the recorders so that the delays and echos do not turn the whole thing into an atonal mess, and in order to do that, you probably have to be Robert Fripp.
Still, when it's just one guitar, even hallucinating like that, one can feel a little lonely, and this is where Eno really comes in. On both these tracks (which were, by the way, recorded almost a year apart of each other), it is his ambient loops that provide the foundation for Fripp's guitar. On ʽHeavenly Music Corporationʼ, the loops are mostly droning buzz, wobbling in amplitude and continuously yielding a cello-like sound, as if you were stuck in some fifteen-minute snippet from a particularly dark Wagner passage. On the much more merry sounding (and even more merrily titled!) ʽSwastika Girlsʼ the loops are completely different — high-pitched, ringing, more imitative of a fairy-tale harp sound than anything else.
Whether Fripp actually coordinates his guitar playing with Eno's loops or not is hard to say, especially since a lot of work was done by Eno at the mixing stage — apparently, he had himself a lot of fun with Robert's tapes, cutting and splicing at will. In any case, the best thing about both of his extended and transformed solos is that they are actually solos — not one-chord drones or anything, but thoughtful improvisations along the same lines as contemporary King Crimson. On the first track, the solos come quickly and are stern, dark, brooding, but not particularly angry or unhappy — sometimes they resolve themselves into majestic swoooooops that sound like birds of prey unleashed by the «heavenly corporation» upon the listener, but they don't cause any damage or anything. On the second track, there are many more overdubs, including what seems to be a droning acoustic guitar loop mixed with Eno's vibes, and the actual soloing arrives later, around the eighth minute — and it sounds a lot happier. In fact, I've got a hinch that they originally wanted to call the composition ʽRainbow Girlsʼ, but changed their minds at the last moment and called it ʽSwastika Girlsʼ instead. Not that much of a difference anyway.
So how good is it? Groundbreaking — for sure, but is this something that is still worth listening to? Personally, I now believe it all totally works as an emotional experience. On one hand, the pieces can be classified as «ambient», but on the other hand, they are not really «minimalist», since there is simply too much going on there. The first track is actually quite tempestuous in nature, and the second has this resplendent, kaleidoscopic nature that sort of celebrates diversity and singularity of everything at the same time. And if you can see the beauty in Fripp's guitar playing at all, then these fourty minutes will be anything but boring: inspiration and soul-seeking dominate both tracks.
Ultimately, it is the combination of these two powers that wins me over. Eno's dark-wobbly or shiny-clinky loops + Fripp's multi-layered «intellectual drones» are a perfect combination, it's a joy watching them making this «pseudo-conversation» with each other, and it does sound somewhat transcendental. It would never be the same with just a regular keyboardist, who probably would have just played some Bach tribute instead of Eno's Terry Riley fetish. And best of all, there is not a single ounce of noise on the record — no feedback, no crunch, nobody trying to drown the proceedings in a sea of nasty distortion to mask the lack of talent. Nope, it's all clean and melodic in its own way, even humorous, as Fripp sometimes makes the guitar grumble, growl, or croak in laughter. Great record, totally worth a thumbs up after all these years.