BRIAN ENO: SMALL CRAFT ON A MILK SEA (2010)
1) Emerald And Lime; 2) Complex Heaven; 3) Small Craft On A Milk Sea; 4) Flint March; 5) Horse; 6) 2 Forms Of Anger; 7) Bone Jump; 8) Dust Shuffle; 9) Paleosonic; 10) Slow Ice, Old Moon; 11) Lesser Heaven; 12) Calcium Needles; 13) Emerald And Stone; 14) Written, Forgotten; 15) Late Anthropocene; 16) Invisible.
Chocolate milk sea, that is, if there is any significance in the album sleeve; but perhaps Eno thought that an extra word like that would make the whole thing seem too childish, particularly for an album that marked his formal entrance into the world of Warp Records — the sanctuary of Aphex Twin and other IDM geniuses. Not that Eno hadn't tried (mostly unsuccesfully) to tread on that turf for years now: he'd capitulated before the army of Modern Electronics as early as 1992, with Nerve Net, and there was hardly any reason to expect that, since he was now with Warp, this would somehow enable him to put out product that would be totally on the level.
Then again, in 2010, who the hell can tell what's on the level when it comes to electronica? It's more of a fluctuating fashion thing now than of anything having to do with indisputable breakthroughs, and this works fine for Brian — where those Nerve Net-era pieces sounded tentative and half-hearted against contemporary cutting edge artists, in 2010 he already knows this stuff on the same level as decade-old formerly-cutting edge artists, and these albums seem far more self-assured and reasonably meaningful. And above all, Eno is still Eno, an artist with a love for well-organized beauty, rather than flashiness and coolness.
On this record, Brian is assisted by Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins (co-credited for all the tunes), the former mostly contributing guitar parts, the latter more commonly responsible for piano; this does not mean that this is not primarily an electronic record, but it is very «naturally textured» on plenty of the tracks, sometimes hearkening back to the days of collaboration with Harold Budd and sometimes to Daniel Lanois. The compositions themselves are split between «soft / atmospheric / ambient» and «hard / groove-based / IDM-ish», the latter mostly concentrated in the middle of the record, so that the whole milk sea journey seems to consist of three complex movements — the serene set-up, the shaky-stormy climax, and the dark-mystical denouement; this promises more spiritual excitement than you've had in years.
The opening pieces, in fact, feature quite a few lovely passages — ʽEmerald And Limeʼ is more like a 19th century romantic piano ballad with floating electronic overtones than mere sonic wallpaper; ʽComplex Heavenʼ places Heaven at an intersection between serenely Budd-ian minimalistic piano chords and an echoey stairway of acoustic guitar notes, while Eno's synth clouds and winds occupy all empty space; and the title track has probably the most chime-dependent impersonation of a milk sea that you've ever heard (not that it sounds much like a craft crossing a sea, but perhaps milk seas behave in their own milky ways?).
Once the synthesized drums kick in and we find ourselves in techno / house territory, though, things get predictably less seductive — this is not Eno's forte, and his collaborators aren't exactly making much of a mark on such rump-shaking tracks as ʽBone Jumpʼ or ʽDust Shuffleʼ, either. It's all just one forgettable IDM panorama after another. ʽPaleosonicʼ tries to make a difference by throwing in bits of finger-flashing jazz-fusion guitar solos (!), but it's more like a «let's be different» post-modern trick than a sincere, well-placed tribute to Alan Holdsworth.
On the other hand, if you think of that 12-minute sequence as a slightly overextended bookmark, separating the warm atmospherics of the album's start from the cold atmospherics of its finish, then it's not that bad — beginning with ʽSlow Ice, Old Moonʼ, we enter familiar, but still haunting territory, where spirits of black nights, cold winds, subterranean caverns, and aquatic depths come back to do their, you know, spiritual schtick. Our small craft makes it through the calm, but subtly threatening zephyrs of ʽLesser Heavenʼ, wobbles through the weird wind-and-bone rattle of ʽCalcium Needlesʼ, and eventually ends up in the age of ʽLate Anthropoceneʼ, which, according to Eno's musical philosophy of humanity, sounds like subtle organic processes within a well-isolated cocoon — I'm not sure if Eugene Stoermer, who allegedly invented the term, would agree with this futuristic interpretation, but we'll just have to come back in a couple thousand years and see whether Eno was right after all.
On the whole, this might just be the best instrumental Eno album since Apollo — not as «shock-oriented» as Thursday Afternoon or Neroli, not as catch-up-with-the-times-oriented as Nerve Net, not as static as Shutov Assembly, not as filler-clogged as Drawn From Life, etc. It is not, and probably could not be, formally «innovative», but it is still a fresh update on Eno's conception of the musical form, and it's got enough pure loveliness to just enjoy it out of any particular context. The journey continues, even if you have to invent yourself a milk sea to keep it challenging and imaginative.