BRIAN ENO: APOLLO: ATMOSPHERES & SOUNDTRACKS (1983)
1) Understars; 2) The Secret Place; 3) Matta; 4) Signals; 5) An Ending (Ascent); 6) Understars II; 7) Drift; 8) Silver Morning; 9) Deep Blue Day; 10) Weightless; 11) Always Returning; 12) Stars.
One thing I really love about Eno is his sense of realism, which almost always shines through even the most bewildering of his experiments. As much as the guy likes challenging conventions, he is really not an abstract artist — he produces logical, reasonable soundtracks to different universes, some of them real, some imaginary and fantastic, but still perfectly visualized with the minimum effort. This, I believe, is the main reason of this big demand on his music when it comes to soundtracks for movies that challenge our imagination: it's not just that Eno is the «obvious choice» because nobody knows any better, it's that he has this ability to sort of jump right in the middle of any given ambience and convert its chemical substance to sounds so efficiently that you, the listener, will be able to reconvert it back even without any clues.
No better place to make this point than the review of an actual soundtrack to a universe that is not entirely imaginary, but for most of us, is no different from imaginary — the world of space travel. Curiously, looking back upon all of Eno's projects before 1983, I fail to see anything that would be directly related to space: most of his soundscapes took place here on Earth (or, alternately, there on an alternate Earth), anywhere from jungles to high mountain peaks, sometimes rising as high as the stratosphere, but never really making a dash for deep space. Perhaps he thought these associations to be too trivial or something, already well explored by everybody from Pink Floyd to Tangerine Dream. But when he was approached by director Al Reinert with a request to provide a musical backing for a documentary about the Apollo Moon missions, well... as a dedicated public servant, Seigneur De La Salle just couldn't refuse.
What also makes a big difference is that this is his first major collaboration with guitarist and sound guy-extraordinaire Daniel Lanois — from here, you could draw a straight line to The Joshua Tree if you so wished, which kind of makes sense seeing as how The Joshua Tree was, after all, U2's big attempt to shoot the moon, which is what Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks is all about. Although Lanois, as anybody familiar with his production style knows well, also has a penchant for minimalism, he is not extreme about it, and cares more about depth, echo, and suspense than about riding atop a single soundwave for thirty seconds. This makes the collaboration ideal for the purpose, and the purpose ideal for the collaboration.
The record, even if it might be supposed to just represent a collection of incidental music for an ambitious documentary, actually seems divided in two parts — call them «the Atmospheres part» and «the Soundtracks part» if you like, but here's the deal: the first part, from ʽUnderstarsʼ to ʽDriftʼ, is largely electronic and «atmospheric», but starting with ʽSilver Morningʼ, the compositions begin to feature a lot more guitar, and you feel... well, you may feel as if your scary voyage through black holes and cosmic anomalies has finally led you out towards a brand new world, be it an imaginary Moon or an imaginary summer resort for Jon Anderson. In other words, this is by no means a static album — despite all that we know about Eno, and despite all that we know about incidental music for films, it can be construed to tell a story.
Even at its most purely atmospheric (in the first half), the music still acts — on ʽUnderstarsʼ, for instance, which mostly consists of pulsating electronics representing the various heavenly bodies, there is this odd creepy bassline, sounding as if it were an unexpected intruder from some jazz-fusion universe, like a black snake spirit writhing its way through the twinkle. ʽMattaʼ portrays some sort of quietly bubbling primordial soup, yet every once in a while some early predatory life form bursts through to the surface and emits a deep solitary howl. When the music does not act, this, too, follows a certain logic — ʽSignalsʼ is a melodic interpretation of radio waves flowing through ether, and ʽDriftʼ... well, you don't expect much of anything to happen when you're just drifting, do you? But then ʽDriftʼ takes you directly into ʽSilver Morningʼ, and that is the point of arrival where the natives send out a greeting delegation that plays you a nice welcome tune, somewhat influenced by Indian music... oh wait, it's the Moon, there's nobody there. Well, seeing as how we're listening to this outside the documentary, why not just make one more step and allow a bunch of Moon people inside your imagination?
Granted, these Moon people also seem to have developed a strange taste for blues and country-western: tracks such as ʽDeep Blue Dayʼ and ʽWeightlessʼ, defined by Lanois' reserved, but melodic and even somewhat memorable guitar melodies, alternately bring to mind either Bob Dylan's soundtrack to Pat Garrett or some of David Gilmour's bluesy musings. But there is nothing really wrong with that, and some of the chord changes in ʽWeightlessʼ reveal a nice understanding of musical depth on Lanois' part — after all, Brian does not choose his partners straight out of the blue, does he? This duet with Lanois sounds and feels nothing like the Eno/Fripp musical marriage, but is every bit as natural, simply replacing wild movement and aggressiveness with safe, cozy, and introspective calmness.
The last track, ʽStarsʼ, brings us back into the «atmospheres» camp, as if it were a last reminder: Moon people or no Moon people, all of us are just dust in the... sorry. Anyway, it is a nice conceptual come-around, where you start out with electronic imitation of The Cosmic Conscience, progress to having guitars imitate organic life infused with said Conscience, and then zoom out back to the point of magnification where said organic life ceases to be significant. And oops, all of a sudden this is a multi-layered conceptual album like The Dark Side Of The Moon, rather than just a bunch of ambient tracks for movies. All it took on our parts was a benevolent desire to bury ourselves in the little details for a bit. See, not all of Eno's post-pop-rock career is really worthless — you just have to wait for the right moment to hit you, and then you can trace the ups and downs of this ambient stuff the same way you trace the ups and downs of somebody really dynamic in comparison, say, David Bowie. But yes, it takes a little getting used to.