BRIAN ENO: NERVE NET (1992)
1) Fractal Zoom; 2) Wire Shock; 3) What Actually Happened?; 4) Pierre In Mist; 5) My Squelchy Life; 6) Juju Space Jazz; 7) The Roil, The Choke; 8) Ali Click; 9) Distributed Being; 10) Web; 11) Web (Lascaux Mix); 12) Decentre.
The revival of Eno's «pop» career ended as quickly as it began: in 1991, Brian almost finalized what would have been his first completely solo pop record since the Seventies, ironically calling it My Squelchy Life — but at the last moment, the project was scrapped, shelved, and ultimately replaced with Nerve Net, an allegedly much less accessible affair that did incorporate some material from MSL, but on the whole, did not look much like a «pop» album, let alone anything even remotely close to the nostalgic spirit of Wrong Way Up.
What Nerve Net is, actually, is an attempt to modernize and «harshen up» the man's electronic sound. Throughout the Eighties, Eno was largely following his own path, making all sorts of becalmed ambient albums that fit in with nothing else. But he may have eventually noticed that, in doing this, he had pretty much fell out of time — and even as a producer, he'd hit his cutting-edge peak with Talking Heads in 1979-80 and, well, that was that. Nerve Net sounds like a conscious, even desperate attempt to catch up, and since the hottest thing around to catch up with was IDM (well, actually, the term IDM itself wouldn't be coined until 1993, but still...), this is what he is catching up with here. Electronic textures set to dance rhythms — produced by a man who hadn't really come close to a dance rhythm in at least a decade.
Saying that Nerve Net is a «bad» album wouldn't be meaningful at all. Rather, it is the stereotypical useless album: an old-school pro treading on the turf of younger artists who are much more agile and knowledgeable in this department — I do not think that many a fan of Aphex Twin will think all that highly of Nerve Net in comparison. It is creative and moderately diverse, but the tunes are neither memorable nor all that powerful, and one reason behind that may be their compromising nature: the rhythmics may be modern enough (although the actual rhythms are rarely techno — more like good old syncopated funk), but the guest stars, including old friends Robert Fripp and Robert Quine on guitar, are old school veterans, and are just doing their usual schtick, not looking particularly excited about Eno's call for rejuvenation.
Problem is, if you're making a dance album (and this is a dance-oriented album), it has to go all the way, but this one does not. It sets up groove after groove with tense, nervous atmospherics (hence the name Nerve Net, right? right?), but it's almost as if Eno's decade of creating relaxed ambient sounds were refusing to let go off him, and every groove that tries to go for a harsh, grim, merciless effect ends up sounding soft and tender. In fact, about half of them sound like Brand X reprogrammed for drum machines and keyboard loops — atmospheric jazz-funk that tended to get boring even with live players, and gets useless with machines.
Attempts at singling out «better» tracks have been fruitless for me. Maybe it is the ones that have Fripp soloing all over them, like ʽWire Shockʼ with its vocoder-ish guitar tone vomiting all over your living room. Or maybe it is ʽAli Clickʼ, just because its funky groove sounds more loose and cocky than any other, and there's also this fade-in-fade-out piano line swooping down, and Eno is rapping something out on top of the music as if this were a surrealist pop number out of the past? Or maybe it's ʽWebʼ, because its «web» of distorted synthesizers and scared piano tinkling is the most ominous soundscape on the album? Whatever be, to me these observations do not come naturally — I have to concentrate really, really hard on the tunes to be impressed by them. Not that they aren't professional or creative or anything like that: they are simply too busy and fussy to be «ambient», yet too reliant on atmosphere and repetitiveness to be properly «dynamic».
Disturbing bit of trivia: apparently, the vocoder-distorted vocals on ʽWhat Actually Happened?ʼ encode the discussion of a rape situation. You wouldn't notice it unless you listened in very attentively or checked the lyrics online, but there it is. The words would agree with the general tone of the album — nervous, paranoid, deranged, psycho — but their blurriness also agrees with the general timidity of the album: Selected Ambient Works it sure ain't. On the other hand, those who still like to have their dynamic, kick-ass electronica with a bit of a humanoid face to it (all these guitar solos and drum loops that give the impression of being hand-generated) might still want to give this a try. Eno's mediocrity does have growth potential, you know.