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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Brian Eno: Before And After Science

BRIAN ENO: BEFORE AND AFTER SCIENCE (1977)

1) No One Receiving; 2) Backwater; 3) Kurt's Rejoinder; 4) Energy Fools The Magician; 5) King's Lead Hat; 6) Here He Comes; 7) Julie With...; 8) By This River; 9) Through Hollow Lands; 10) Spider And I.

In my life, this little record holds a very special position. There are musical pieces that you learn to respect or at least tolerate, there are those that you «sort of like», but could live your life with­out, and then there are albums that serve as your own personal «gateways» into certain spheres, of which, prior to this, you were unsure if you could ever connect with them on some deep per­sonal level — to the «this is it!» point. Selling England By The Pound, by Genesis, was my such introduction or, more correctly, initiation into the world of progressive rock which, up until then, I preferred to treat, at best, on a «politically correct» level. But Before And After Science was an even more major turning point — ultimately, it was the one album that convinced me, much more than formally, that the spirit of music did not die circa 1975, and that, most impor­tantly, there is no such musical form that cannot, one way or another, be properly inhabited by the musical spirit, if the artist is endowed with one.

Why do I bestow this praise on Before And After Science, an album that has earned its right­ful share of averaged critical acclaim but is hardly ever considered on the same level as Talking Heads, Joy Division, or U2 when it comes to lining up masterpieces from the punk / post-punk / New Wave era? There is no simple answer to this question, so let us first talk a bit about the al­bum in general, as well as some of its particular points, and maybe the answer will gradually crystallize out of all the different observations — on its own.

The record was not specifically intended to become the «swan song» for Eno as a pop-rock per­former — it just so happened that after its release he concentrated on various ambient projects — but it does eerily sound like a certain «wrap-up» of all the different directions that he pursued in the mid-1970s. It combines and stratifies both his energetic/dynamic side, as previously seen on Warm Jets, and the transcendental/ambient side of Another Green World, but with a new level of maturity and sonic depth that neither of these albums had seen. Formally, Side A is «rocky» and «bouncy» while Side B is slow, moody, and intimate, but the album is sequenced in a way that does not make the shift jarring (ʽHere He Comesʼ, which could technically be classified as a «folk rocker», is really a transitional point between the two halves), and many of the textures on both sides are quite comparable in style. Furthermore, both sides show a state of spiritual calm­ness — if there is one single difference from all that was before, it is that Before And After Science is no longer the album of a seeker; it is the album of a finder.

If Side A is to be considered the «Before Science» part, this implies that rhythm and energy are a vital force only for those who have not yet made the big intellectual leap — but make no mistake about it, these are rhythmic and energetic tunes that are as intelligent as it gets. The sci-fi funk of ʽNo One Receivingʼ, driven by a vivacious polyrythmic percussion track from Phil Collins (with which Eno has some additional fun as he loops the drums into mysteriously fading out rolls, as if the drumkit were located on a giant see-saw), takes James Brown's inventions and turns them into a strangely beautiful alien-tribal ritual. The dark seriousness is then immediately alleviated with ʽBackwaterʼ, which sounds like an oddly deconstructed McCartney «nursery ditty» of the ʽAll Together Nowʼ variety, with completely nonsensical lyrics and a highly catchy melody, simple as heck but gradually layered over with more and more synth and guitar overdubs until it becomes a three year old's equivalent of the Ode to Joy — repetitive, intentionally silly (the song, that is, not the Ode to Joy), but infectious like no other Eno pop tune.

ʽKurt's Rejoinderʼ, featuring Percy Jones on bass, is instrumentally reminiscent of contemporary Brand X — no wonder, since both Percy and Phil were key members of that quirky fusion outfit, and a bit of a wonder considering the additional fun elements that Eno brings to the formula, so much so that one can only guess how much more memorable could the Eno touch actually have made those already impressive Brand X workouts. The lyrics are once again delivered in a chil­dish style (they almost sound like a counting rhyme), but what really matters is the interaction between the propulsive rhythm section and the minimalistic electronic overdubs: the whole track is like a non-stop maniacal run through a musical jungle with flurries of ghosts hovering over your head the whole way. Percy and Phil are the heroes here, but without the electronic over­dubs and the odd «kid vocals», the song would never be so effectively visualized.

Then, after a brief moody instrumental intermission (ʽEnergy Fools The Magicianʼ — more cool «scrambled» bass lines here), comes the first side's conclusion and its most representative track. Although ʽKing's Lead Hatʼ is well known to be an anagram of ʽTalking Headsʼ, by this time Eno was not yet involved with the Heads as such, and the song itself, with its straight 4/4 beat and insane tempo, is not particularly reminiscent of the band — it just shows Eno as a big lover of anagrams and other word games, which he is (is that "the kilocycles, the kilohertz" or "the killer cycles, the killer hurts"?). More importantly, this is one song where we all so desperately needed a Jon Landau to come along and say something like "I have seen the future of rock'n'roll, and its name is ʽKing's Lead Hatʼ", because, unlike most Springsteen songs, ʽKing's Lead Hatʼ really does have (or at least credibly emulate) the true rock'n'roll spirit, and it does so in a technological­ly updated way that shows how electronics, tape manipulations, and other technological trickery are in no way an obstacle to just ripping it up like there was no tomorrow.

There are just so many things to love about that song — the maniacally strummed phased guitar, the little electronic mosquito-sting pings punctuating the beat, the weird «quaking» electronic pulses, and, of course, that insane half-Jerry Lee Lewis, half-John Cale pummeling of the piano (did the poor instrument even survive that instrumental break?). Throw in the hilarious lyrics that make no sense as usual but contain some of the most brilliantly absurd word combinations this side of Dylan ("the biology of purpose keeps my nose above the surface" has been my personal motto of existence for almost twenty years, and, come to think of it, "the passage of my life is measured out in shirts" may be much deeper than it seems at first sight), and the awesome «mer­curial explosion» of the electronic signals that Brian saves up for the coda, and you have yourself a modernistic rock'n'roll masterpiece that I can never tire of hearing.

Most people that I know of, however, believe that it is not until the second side, where the absur­dity and the childishness gives way to a much more relaxed, philosophical, meditative pace — now we are in the «After Science» territory — that the record truly hits its stride, and I am okay with that (these are probably the same people that prefer Lennon over McCartney as well). No need to worry, though: all these slower tunes have every bit as much melodic bliss and catchiness, even if their «ambient» nature can occasionally bore a not particularly easy impressionable lis­tener. But who could ever dislike at least the mid-tempo folk-rock of ʽHere He Comesʼ, which is somehow produced so that you really feel yourself gradually "rising above the clouds", not to mention "rising above reason"? There is the same kind of vocal melody here that you'd encounter on a record by some magical folk queen like Sandy Denny, but Eno, as usual, has it his own way: just barely speeding up the tempo so that nobody gets dulled out, dressing the jangly folk-rock guitars in silky electronic overcoats, throwing on New Age-y harmonies, and then coming up with the awesome idea of a bass solo — other people would probably just add some extra jangle, but the master of contrast tries out something completely different, so that you can expressly get yourself a distinct dark shape making a beeline through the guitar-jangle and synth-hum clouds. If this ain't ethereal beauty, nothing is.

Then, just to show you that beauty comes in all sorts of different shapes, including uncomfortable and dangerous ones, he switches from the day-light, cloudy ambience of ʽHere He Comesʼ to the twi-light, foggy ambience of ʽJulie With...ʼ. As the tempo slows down to a crawl and the lyrics suddenly become one with the music ("I am on an open sea, just drifting as the hours go slowly by..."), time begins to stand still and the slow rocking of the musical boat becomes so mesmeri­zing that you have no intent of wondering whether this slice of «suspended beauty» is of a good or of an evil nature (as somebody rightfully observed, the song could be seen from the perspec­tive of a romantic poetic admirer every bit as completely as from that of a serial psycho killer). Special mention should be made of the occasional one-note guitar «sighs» that punctuate the song at certain moments, minimalistically resolving the gradually accumulating tension — it would still be great without them, but they give it so much more, don't they? This is probably the most perfectly Taoist piece written by Eno in the «pop song» format — dark, mysterious, impenetrable, all-pervading, and completely devoid of «action», not to mention Brian's vocals that seem to be full of feeling by being completely stripped of feeling.

ʽBy This Riverʼ was co-written with Cluster, which is maybe why it sounds like the saddest, coldest, and most fatalistic track on the entire album — then again, with Eno there is no real sadness to be spoken of, because the man is at such a stage of enlightenment that he never lets pure emotion overcloud reasoning. The song's minimalistic piano melody is just one phrase that could well be inspired by some Schubert sonata — forming a soft backdrop for yet another mag­nificent vocal: the transition from the almost romantic-sounding "here we are, stuck by this river, you and I..." to the doom-laden "...underneath a sky that's ever falling down, down, down, ever falling down" that he finishes on his lowest note is just harsh. You know there's no escape... but somehow, you don't care, because at this point, tragedy is as much an inescapable and natural condition of being that it is no longer tragic. In fact, it is more beautiful than tragic.

Skipping the instrumental ʽThrough Hollow Landsʼ (nice, but I still cannot view it as anything other than a brief intermission between the two final major movements), we then go to ʽSpider And Iʼ, which ends this bliss on a perfectly transcendental note. If ʽBy This Riverʼ had a deeply intimate, piano-based sound, this one employs organ tones to mimick grand cosmic waves to which the protagonist attaches his personal conscience — "Spider and I sit watching the sky on a world without sound...". More Taoism here, perhaps, but what I am really amazed at is how the heck the man gets to create the illusion of such depth and broadth with just a bare handful of polyphonic notes — and the illusion actually grows as the song goes by. As the final blasts fade away, you begin to realize that, perhaps, after ʽSpider And Iʼ the man really had nothing left to say in the «song» format, that he is being carried away on the waves of nirvana, and now all we have to do is listen to him put three notes on an album for the rest of our lives, which are short enough, and his life, which is most likely eternal and not measured out in silly concepts like time, space, or Grammy awards.

If, by now, you have not yet glimpsed some of the possible answers to that question I asked in the beginning — why this record and not some other one? — you probably just need to listen to this thing for yourself. But the review still necessitates a conclusion, so I will try this. The balance of cutting-edge musical technology; pop sensibility; accessible, but not watered-down, mystical metaphysics in music and lyrics; and general humanity of it all (from humor to silliness to ten­derness) — there is not a single album in the «New Wave and later» era of modern music making that has this kind of balance to it, and yet, somehow, at the same time, «getting» Before And After Science has, at one point, allowed me to «get» so much more of everything else. A mini­malistic spiritual masterpiece that is almost too good for a routine thumbs up, but then again, let us not become too carried away and get way too ecstatic about it — such a reaction would, after all, be somewhat against its very nature.

6 comments:

  1. I envy you, GS. No single piece of music - not even the extremism of Ustvolskaya - has ever been able to do this for me for two reasons:

    1. I never held the position that some musical form cannot, one way or another, be properly inhabited by the musical spirit; for instance I strongly dislike

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zangeres_Zonder_Naam

    but the song "Luister Anita" managed to chill my spine. Plus she sang one of the best covers of Rock around the Clock ever.

    2. "There is not a single album that has, at one point, allowed me to «get» so much more of everything else."
    No single piece of music has ever done that for me.

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  2. I nominate "Kurt's Rejoinder" as the best song from the "fast" side. As for the "slower" side this honour goes to "By This River" which you described as doom-laden this time around for which I must say I'm glad. I can't help but associate it in my mind with some devastating tragedy and for a very simple reason - they used it in an Italian movie called "The Son's Room" where I first heard it years ago.

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  3. The four Eno "pop" albums are really essential listening; thanks for motivating me to go after them. Right now my favourite by a hair's breadth is Tiger Mountain, if only because it is the one that more often makes me go "now where thid *that* came from?". As for Another Green World v. Before and After Science, I can't decide - the former is perhaps easiest to admire, while the latter is easiest to love.

    P.S.: If you feel like looking at something silly, check the Pitchfork review of this album...

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  4. fantastic review

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  5. Interesting review -- I should go back and reexamine this album. I actually have owned it for years, and really like ambient music in general, so I thought this was something I should like. But I just could never get past the cloying lyrics and delivery in "Backwater." Personally I think Eno was at his best as a producer -- Laid by James would probably have been a generic folk-rock album without him, but with him it turned into a haunting masterpiece.

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