BRIAN ENO: AMBIENT 4: ON LAND (1982)
1) Lizard Point; 2) The Lost Day; 3) Tal Coat; 4) Shadow; 5) Lantern Marsh; 6) Unfamiliar Wind (Leeks Hills); 7) A Clearing; 8) Dunwich Beach, Autumn 1960.
Once you have travelled long enough in the ambient microcosm, the realisation that not only does it not all sound the same, but that it is actually capable of showing an impressionistic palette as broad as anything else will eventually come. For instance, On Land may seem just like «another Eno ambient album» — but in reality, it sounds like nothing he'd ever done previously. Most of his previous ambient albums focused on minimalistic keyboard melodies — short, meaningful phrases placed under a sonic microscope. On Land, allegedly recorded over a period of three years, was the first attempt to completely break away from that and go further, into the realm of sheer sonic atmosphere that is more hum and noise than melody. Nothing generally revolutionary about that — Krautrock authorities, among others, had pioneered that approach a decade earlier — but somewhat revolutionary on a personal level.
Above everything else, it would be interesting to see how Eno, a guy with a very traditional-emotional understanding of music deep in his heart, would handle such a transition to «non-melody»: and indeed, he handles it in the most melodic way possible, if we mean «melody» in its etymological sense, which is «limb-song», implying a harmonious and logical combination of parts into a whole. If the action of On Land really takes place on land, this is a dark, creepy, uncomfortable type of land — something in between the Forest of Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains, if you pardon my resorting to Tolkien for a second — but also a very naturalistic type of land, every bit as believable as Another Green World, even if this one seems anything but green (and it is no wonder that Eno would go from here straight on to Apollo Atmospheres).
It is curious, though, that many of these tracks are actually named after various locations in England — ʽLizard Pointʼ, ʽLantern Marshʼ, ʽLeeks Hillsʼ, etc. — implying that these are, after all, musically transformed and deconstructed impressions of real landscapes that Eno was familiar with; if so, this is definitely one of the gloomiest depictions of non-industrial England ever put to tape, and one good reason to refuse knighthood for Seigneur le Baptiste de la Salle if the issue ever comes up (that and the man's unconcealed pornography fetish, of course). Even if nothing much really happens on ʽLizard Pointʼ — basically just the wind blowing over some humming synth tones — but midway through, the wind gets joined by ghostly voices, as if it were carrying around the spirits of all those unfortunate who happened to drown there (Lizard Point, the most southerly tip of England, actually has a rather nasty history in that regard).
«Ghosts» are, of course, an almost obligatory presence on almost any Eno ambient album, just because it is so easy to get «ghost tones» out of your synthesizer — but, let's face it, the man has perfect control over his ghosts, and a perfect understanding of what a ghost is all about. Above all, a ghost is not something that is actually supposed to harass you — a ghost usually just floats around, minding its own (rather mindless) business, so neither on ʽLizard Pointʼ, nor on the somewhat less creepy, but not less evocative, ʽLantern Marshʼ do these ghosts sound personally intimidating — the ghosts on the ʽMarshʼ are just whistling and hustling past you, creating an illusion of being in a hurry, when in reality they just spin in circles. And in ʽUnfamiliar Windsʼ they just seem to huddle together and hum their own ghostly little requiem, provided it makes sense for ghosts at all to sing their own requiem.
Or maybe not their own. The final track of the album is ʽDunwich Beach, Autumn 1960ʼ — no idea what happened there in 1960, when Brian was just 12 years old (but he did grow up in nearby Ipswich, so perhaps some childhood recollection is involved), but Dunwich itself is a textbook example of the rise-and-fall thing, having once been the capital of the Kindom of the East Angles and having since then deteriorated into a depopulated village due to coastal erosion. The track is as gloomy and fatalistic as (almost) everything else here, lonesome droplets of electronic water trickling down the grooves to a mournful electronic hum — and suggests that the entire On Land be taken as one huge mourn for something. A lost childhood, a lost England, maybe a lost world or universe altogether, something that once stood firm but now is only represented by echoes, murmurs, and wordless ghosts. Once that understanding falls into place, On Land really begins to work as a whole, and scores another non-triumphal triumph for the man.
For the record, Jon Hassell, the famous trumpet player, is present here on ʽShadowʼ, where his sporadic blows are almost unrecognizably merged by Eno with the vague-fuzzy female vocal part; guitarist Michael Brook is responsible for some of the mentioned «droplets» on ʽDunwich Beachʼ; and various frogs, insects, and other organic compounds have also been credited for contributing, although I am not so sure about the royalties. But don't get any ideas — you are not going to get any «nature sounds» stuff here, because everything is processed through the Enochip before getting back at you from the speakers, so occasionally you might have a hard time distinguishing the frogs from the trumpets, not to mention guitars from keyboards. Nothing is what it seems, even if at first it may all seem like one big nothing.