BRIAN ENO: HIGH LIFE (w. Karl Hyde) (2014)
1) Return; 2) DBF; 3) Time To Waste It; 4) Lilac; 5) Moulded Life; 6) Cells & Bells.
Usually, when an artist releases a quick follow-up to a recent project, stating that the point is to "extend some of the ideas we'd started" (in Eno's own words), what you think of is a collection of outtakes that weren't good enough for the main record — a collector's item for the way too deeply impressed individuals. This is definitely not the case with High Life. It does extend some of the ideas they'd started, sometimes almost literally so (ʽDBFʼ sounds like a longer, funkier, slightly more developed version of ʽBrazil 3ʼ, for instance), and it did come out just one month later than Someday World, but it has a very different spirit. If you merged them together as one release in one 2-CD package, it would be like... well, like the difference between the first two LPs and the Apple Jam segment of George Harrison's All Things Must Pass.
Of course, that is a mediocre analogy, because Apple Jam had no conceptual purpose, was completely spontaneous and was only valuable inasmuch as some stellar musicianship was involved. But it did place the magic of the groove over the magic of pre-meditated composition; and likewise, High Life is also all about the groove, where Someday World was more about the spiritual-beautiful aspects of music-making. Basically, it's like this: we have said all we wanted to say about our vision 2.0 for the future, so now let's just drink to it and be merry. And dance, provided you share our perspective on certain dance moves for the future.
Personally, I do, and I particularly welcome the lengthy running times it takes these guys to expand their grooves to full strength. There are vocals here occasionally, but they do not mean much next to the instrumental pastures, where Hyde supplies the simplistic guitar drone and Eno dresses it up in select rainbow colors. ʽReturnʼ and ʽLilacʼ are the best examples. On the former, Hyde strums two guitar chords like a slightly more robotic shadow of Lou Reed for nine minutes (well, most of it is probably tape-looped anyway), with happy electronic bells and whistles, as well as Arcade Fire-style schoolboy-choir harmonies surrounding him — the effect is that of a speedy, monotonous train ride through a hustlin'-bustlin' Elysium. ʽLilacʼ is far more focused on the guitars, with two (or more?) rapidly droning parts superimposed and only slightly attenuated by electronics: the sound reaches its loudness peak around the fifth minute, and from then on it's four more minutes of smooth, repetitive, trance-inducing funkiness. It should be boring, but there's something so mysteriously daring and teasing about the whole thing that you just get caught up. Maybe they are slowly shifting volume levels in the mix, because somehow it gives you the feel of an inescapable crescendo wave without there actually being a real crescendo. In any case, it's absolutely infectious in its measured rush.
Two shorter tracks, ʽDBFʼ and ʽMoulded Lifeʼ, are even more funky, with more sexy syncopation going on than seen on any Eno album from the past several decades — if not for all the tape manipulation, you could easily mistake it for a special King Crimson experience. ʽMoulded Lifeʼ, however, also has industrial overtones on top of the funkiness, plus some Eastern phrasing in the synthesizer passages, plus psychedelic harmonies, and I must state that it works much better with Hyde's guitar as the foundation than if it were simply a 100% electronic track (a subtle cue for all you IDM fans out there). At the same time, ʽTime To Waste Itʼ has a notable reggae influence in the rhythm, and although it is yet another example of treated electronic vocals spoiling the cake (I will probably never get used to this idea of vivisectioning the human voice, of which Eno has become a major fan lately), on the whole it is also quite celebratory and life-asserting.
Finally, ʽCells & Bellsʼ is a far more typical and convincing finale than the prog-balladeering at the end of Someday World — a textbook example of a transcendental Eno mantra. The crazy rhythms fade away, we find ourselves stranded in an odd electronic swamp, with duralloy frogs croaking and titanium trees swaying and silicic acid dropping from the skies and The Master himself reciting some distantly futuristic form of The Lord's Prayer, with the line "cells and bells and flesh skins build a new career" replacing the traditional Amen. Well, I suppose that cells and bells may have actually built a new career for Eno, but I don't even want to know what he means by "flesh skins". And, as is often the case, the conclusion is neither optimistic nor pessimistic in itself — like the best tracks on Before And After Science, this is a meditation whose extreme emotionality comes from being fully detached of any emotions.
I will conclude by re-stating: despite the short time gap and the obvious similarities, High Life is a completely autonomous piece of work, and it may very well be that you can get bored by one of the Eno/Hyde collaborations — any one, depending on whether you're in the mood for a song or in the mood for a groove — and get thrilled by the other. I am glad to find myself delighted by both, in two different ways, and also to find that they perfectly complement each other. Given Eno's usual promiscuity, it is not very likely that Brian and Karl will ever go for a third one, but most likely this is as close to perfect as it is ever going to get with them, anyway. Thumbs up for what turns out to be one of the most successful team projects for the man ever, well on par with his work with Fripp, Byrne, and Cluster: no mean feat for an artist past sixty-five, I'd say.