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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Brian Eno: Another Green World


1) Sky Saw; 2) Over Fire Island; 3) St. Elmo's Fire; 4) In Dark Trees; 5) The Big Ship; 6) I'll Come Running; 7) Another Green World; 8) Sombre Reptiles; 9) Little Fishes; 10) Golden Hours; 11) Becalmed; 12) Zawinul/Lava; 13) Everything Merges With The Night; 14) Spirits Drifting.

Attention all instrumental album composers! Remember this — if you're going have minimal vocals on your record, or no vocals at all, the only thing that's going to explicitly speak up for you is SONG TITLES. So if you have this really frenetic, delirious, free-form mess instrumental going on, well, I know you like being cool and all, but come on now, it does not make rational or irrational sense if you call it ʽAunt Jemima Goes Shopping For Proustʼ. And if you have this slow, soothing, transcendental electronic hum thing, with minimalist overdubs, you are not going to convert any extra fans by calling it ʽMore Salami, Pleaseʼ. You might claim that by forcing the listener's brain to search for available connections between the words and the music, you are unblocking previously unknown neural pathways — but you wouldn't exactly have scientific proof for that, and without scientific proof you'd just be a pretentious dick here.

What I really love about Another Green World, which one could alternately call «the most ambient of Eno's pop albums» or «the most pop of Eno's ambient albums», is how it all makes sense largely because of perfect matches between song titles and the music. He has created an alternate universe here — a very natural, organic world completely represented by sound — whose elements, while not being perfectly unambiguous, still take on far more concrete shapes than almost anything you previously heard on «otherworldly» psychedelic records. It is probably the closest equivalent, in art-pop music, of Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition — a series of vignettes that transmit particular impressions and situations, except that the whole thing takes place in a parallel world rather than our mundane reality (then again, ʽBaba Yaga's Hutʼ was not exactly a local landmark, either).

First, the very title of the record. It is «another world», yes, but it is also a «green» world, which is an important connecting link — so it's got chlorophyll, and oxygen, and we can all breathe in it and relate to it, and the music reflects that: as many odd types of sound as Eno manages to get out of his electronics and effects this time, they all have an emotional stratum in them. You can go ahead and call these tunes «gorgeous», «romantic», «playful», «somber», «threatening», etc., as much as you like — this is a very deeply human approach to electronic equipment, unlike the contemporary robot-like approach of Kraftwerk (which was still very much understandable) or completely abstractionist electronica à la Autechre, which is all about «what the heck is this and how am I supposed to wire my brains to ʽlikeʼ it?»

The song sequencing is probably the only thing about which I'd like to voice a second opinion. For instance, ʽSky Sawʼ is a brilliant composition, but I am not sure that our introduction to this «green world 2.0» should be dominated by a lead guitar that does sound like a «sky saw», threa­tening to saw the sky in half in manual regime first, and then (in the «solo» section) in chainsaw mode. Phil Collins and Percy Jones, soon to become partners in the fusion band Brand X, pro­vide the rhythm section; John Cale plays the whirling (dervish) viola part; but it is Eno's own «snake guitar» that provides the tune's major unforgettable hook, and if you play it loud enough, the effect can be really terrifying. Whatever is happening out there sure ain't pretty, and should have at least occurred after the title track. Then again, maybe it's just like one of those modern novels that have to immediately plunge you into the action on the very first page, even if they have to start the story from the middle that way — because otherwise they run the risk of losing your attention and failing to make the New York Times bestseller list in time for Christmas.

In any case, now that the playlist era is upon us, you can divert yourself by making these tracks segue into each other any way possible — and since there are 14 of them, this means you can have any of your own 14! (where are you, calculator?) journeys to make. For instance, in order to arrive at your destination you could first take ʽThe Big Shipʼ — a steamer, judging by the puff-puffing percussion, whose mighty engines not only work perfectly, without any glitching, but also instill a regal-heroic feel in the listener. At a certain point in time, the ship becomes a flying ship and takes you ʽOver Fire Islandʼ — this is not at the center of our green world, but a separate location where you can look but you'd better not touch: dominated by Jones' bass work, the track only gives you a very faint glimpse of what is happening down below, and it ain't pretty.

Once you're finally there and your new habitat welcomes you to the threshold with Eno's «desert guitars» fanfare, you are free to roam in the green world's enchanting spaces (the transcendental meditation piece ʽBecalmedʼ), its playful areas (ʽLittle Fishesʼ use a number of prepared pianos to produce a very vivid impression of said fishes jumping in the air), or its dark and creepy con­fines (ʽSombre Reptilesʼ — I bet they eat little fishes for breakfast; ʽIn Dark Treesʼ — dare to enter that and you are bound to get confused and disoriented by the echoes, oscillating howls, and rhythm generators that sound like wild pigs foraging in the bushes). And, of course, ghostly presences are a must — a parallel world without dematerialized entities would be of no use, so ʽSpirits Driftingʼ give you exactly that, with synth tones that are neither friendly nor hostile, just... substanceless. Either it is the spirits drifting through you, or you are drifting through them.

There are a few vocal numbers here, too, whose main function seems to be commercial (they relieve the atmosphere for those of us who are too unused to completely instrumental pop albums) but who nevertheless fit in fairly well. ʽSt. Elmo's Fireʼ is a catchy and welcoming little travelog, sort of Brian's answer to ʽYellow Submarineʼ, though decidedly less childish; ʽEverything Merges With The Nightʼ is like a piano pop song to which somebody wrote the introduction but forgot to write everything else, and thank God for that; and ʽI'll Come Runningʼ is probably the only song here that could qualify for hit single status — provided you could get 1975 kids to hum "I'll come running to tie your shoe, I'll come running to tie your shoe" all day long.

The vocal numbers may be a little disrupting, since they are not nearly as otherworldly as every­thing else, but then they give you another dimension — you could, for instance, think of them as reflecting a sort of reality, with everything else being a dream (or vice versa), in and out of which you keep floating throughout the album, like a chronologically more complex variant of Alice In Wonderland. In any case, individually they are as pretty, catchy, and «gallant» as anything Eno ever wrote, so no need to make a big conceptual fuss over that.

The critical status of Another Green World has aggrandized so much over the years that it is now very commonly regarded as the ultimate peak of all things Eno-related, and it is not uncom­mon to hear people complain «ah, if only all his ʽregularʼ ambient albums sounded like this!» There is no question that the album was a milestone in the emergence of what is now sometimes called «post-rock», and you can feel its influence on everyone from the Cocteau Twins to Sigur Rós, but I would never say that it stands head and shoulders above any of the rest of the «classic four», even if it has a very distinct personality. In particular, if we are allowed to use the clichéd term «spirituality», I would say that some of these instrumentals now sound like a grand rehearsal before the genuinely breathtaking minimalist epiphanies of Before And After Science — that the music here strives a little too much to describe the fantastic worlds without us rather than the no less fantastic ones within us. But then again, this just might be the subjective reaction of an intro­verted personality. Maybe some day a team of neuroscientists and anthropologists will discover a connection between fanboyish love for AGW and extreme tourism, and another team will find a similar connection between adoration for BAAS and shutting oneself in dark basements. Until then, we will just tacitly assume that there is no accounting for taste, particularly when it comes to musical masterpieces like these ones, nitpicking over which can be intellectually stimulating, but materially unrewarding. So, just a big thumbs up here.


  1. While I'm not as familiar with this one as I am the preceding two or the following one (of the big 4 only, that is), I must say I adore the album art. After reading the review, I can see it fitting your description of the album's contents as a fantasy world. Great job as usual, George.

    1. If you have yet to hear the album, make sure to listen to the remaster - the first CD from 1990 or so is unpleasantly thin and trebly, and the original vinyl, from what I've heard, is muddied with too much bass. The perfect sound of this album deserves the best presentation.

  2. "then again, ʽBaba Yaga's Hutʼ was not exactly a local landmark, either"
    To prevent misunderstandings: neither is Baba Yaga's Hut ambient! It's one of the roughest pieces you can find in entirely classical music. The closest the great Mussorgsky came to ambient (very close, actually) is Catacombs. Indeed he makes contact with another world here - the world of the dead.

    1. No misunderstanding, since AGW is not exactly ambient, either. 'Sky Saw' is quite comparable with 'Baba Yaga's Hut' in terms of roughness.

    2. "one of the roughest pieces you can find in entirely classical music"

      Eh, it gets rougher.

  3. Hmmm. I wonder what band that you've been covering recently could have inspired that note in the first paragraph?

  4. I adore The Big Ship. I frequently listen to it on repeat and conceive of myself as traveling on a zeppelin to distant lands. I connect it with Sky Saw, which for me is the same vehicle but cutting through obstacles.

  5. I cannot understand why all you people go apenuts about the ambient stuff here and not mention "Golden Hours" - one of the best Brian Eno's compositions EVER. I have to say that some of the ambient stuff, as cool and ahead of its time as it may be, still sounds pretty much like a half-finished arcade game music when compared to the best vocal tracks on the record. Or maybe i'm just very fond of Brian Eno's voice in general and want to compliment it before he'll finally decide to keep his larynx inactive during studio recordings for the next thirty years or so. I'm equally fond of the lighter vocal numbers on here. Much more respect and attention should have gone towards "St. Elmo's Fire" and the bizzare guitar part by Fripp which encourages you to spin on your haed like a madman.

    1. "I cannot understand why all you people go apenuts about the ambient stuff here and not mention "Golden Hours" - one of the best Brian Eno's compositions EVER"

      Perhaps their brains are old and scrambled? :)