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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Brian Eno: Drums Between The Bells


1) Bless This Space; 2) Glitch; 3) Dreambirds; 4) Pour It Out; 5) Seedpods; 6) The Real; 7) The Airman; 8) Fierce Aisles Of Light; 9) As If Your Eyes Were Partly Closed...; 10) A Title; 11) Sounds Alien; 12) Dow; 13) Multimedia; 14) Cloud 4; 15) Silence; 16) Breath Of Crows.

So apparently this guy Rick Holland is a «poet and independent artist», as Wikipedia tells us (but really, isn't «independent artist» sort of a pleonasm? I always thought that the more «dependent» you are, the less you are of an artist), and his first book, Story The Flowers (how deliciously de­lightfully ungrammatical!), was published in 2010 and was constructed in the tradition of psycho­geography. Up to now, I thought «psychogeography» meant getting naked, taking acid, and wrapping yourself in a world map, but oh boy was I ever wrong about that.

Knowing what we know of Eno, it was only a matter of time before he'd enter into a collaboration with an expert on psychogeography — besides, he'd had joint albums with all sorts of musicians before, and written music for all sorts of artistic installations, but this is the first time that he tried out a symbiosis between ambient music and recited poetry, and if anything, the album was at least instrumental in introducing yet another word to the oversaturated English language: poet­ronica, the ingenious art of hybridizing verbal textures with digital sounds and breathing new life into two established forms of artistic expression.

Immediate disclaimer: I am almost totally desensitized to any form of modern poetry — conser­vative, innovative, English, Russian, whatever — and leave it to you, much more sensitive or much more pretentious reader, to decide for yourself whether the words of Rick Holland elevate you to a new level of consciousness or degrade you to the state of thinking really bad thoughts about people. One sample, I believe, is enough: "Bless this space / In sound and rhyme / As we suspend it / Arrested from the race / For meaning / By these slices / Of cityscapes / Each one / To the site of a thousand Londoners / The reburied and reborn / Brought together / In one life". Per­sonally, I think the word ʽLondonersʼ does not belong, but then I'm not an editor or anything.

However, somewhere deep inside I nurture a hope that Eno did not really choose Holland as a collaborator for the unfathomable beauty or deeply hidden meaning of his words — but rather just because the rhythmic basis of that poetry was eccentric and diverse enough for him to ex­periment with various ways of not only setting it to music, but also of playing around with the words themselves. Besides himself and The Poet, there are five extra ladies and one extra gentle­man delivering the words in a variety of silver-and-gold vocal tones, to which Eno may or may not add psychodigital processing, depending on his mood, the weather, and stock market values. And it works! Some people have said that they liked the completely instrumental version of this album better (it is available as a separate CD in the Deluxe Psychogeography Edition), but I dis­agree — the music here is not jaw-dropping on its own, but is made more fun and less predictable by the addition of this varied set of vocal overdubs.

The record begins in «clubby» mode, with a couple rhythmic tracks (ʽGlitchʼ, in particular, comes close to acid house, and has the most robotic-sounding vocals on the album), but then switches over to a more comfortable ambient mode, with recitations accompanied by minimalistic piano (ʽDreambirdsʼ), Lanois-style guitars (ʽPour It Outʼ), cloudy synth hum (ʽThe Realʼ), industrial grumble (ʽFierce Aisles Of Lightʼ), and... well, suffice it so say that, amazingly, no two tracks here sound the same — there's 15 of them here, and each one is a separate autonomous part of the sonic kaleidoscope. In a way, it is almost as if Brian took this concept as a pretext to run a con­densed retrospective of everything he made so far — you will find echoes of Thursday After­noon, of Apollo, of the Budd collaborations, even of Brian's vocal pop glories (ʽDowʼ, where his merry listing of Holland's groups of objects somehow reminds me of ʽKurt's Rejoinderʼ). So even if the album does not have a specific point to make, at least it's never truly boring.

Two of the tracks, ʽThe Realʼ (near the middle) and ʽBreath Of Crowsʼ (the finale), take nearly seven minutes to wind down to a close, but there's got to be something on an Eno album to put you in trance, right? A bit too much Autotune on ʽThe Realʼ for my tastes, making the lady singer sound like a chromium clone of Björk, but ʽBreath Of Crowsʼ is a fine, stately conclusion, all chimes and deep bass vocals, like a mourning song without dread/desperation or a last lullaby before the inevitable apocalypse. The sort of stuff you'd expect from a Dead Can Dance on a dark day, or from Current '93 on a bright day.

I do urge you, even if it runs against your modernistic / futuristic / nihilistic attitude to A-R-T, to ask the question «what the hell does this whole thing mean?» every once in a while, if only for psychological sanity reasons. The album title, actually, does sound meaningful to me — remin­ding me of The Bell And The Drum, a classic monograph on ancient Chinese poetry with which Brian may very well have been acquainted and whose major point was to seek out the origins of the poetic form in ritual music and dance; and what we have here is a reverse merger of the poetic form with ritual music, so that's hardly a coincidence. Let's be real stupid, then, and say that Eno's major purpose here is to generate magic through the marriage of spoken word and played sound. Whether he succeeds in that or no depends on whether, upon playing this record in its entirety, you are able to uncover a hidden portal in your wardrobe. If you're not, this probably means that your faith was insufficient, so go on and do it once more, this time with feeling. But if you are not floating in space third time around, Rick Holland will be happy to return your money and go back to coal mining, panhandling, and ghostwriting for Dr. Seuss.


  1. Okay, read the Wikipedia article and still not sure if psychogeography is a philosophy, art form, game, or all of the above. I love geography and wandering about aimlessly but not sure I want to turn it into an "urban situationalist" experience.

  2. Thank you for introducing me to the word "pleonasm," George.
    I AM an editor, and for what it's worth the lines of Holland's poetry that you quote tend to degrade me into thinking bad thoughts about (some) people.

  3. "To the site of a thousand Londoners / The reburied and reborn"

    I'm sure this is a reference to The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot ... Yes, that makes sense.

    I love to read you, by the way.