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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Brian Eno: The Ship


1) The Ship; 2) Fickle Sun (I); 3) Fickle Sun (II): The Hour Is Thin; 4) Fickle Sun (III): I'm Set Free.

Back to solo territory, and to (almost) pure ambience again. The major difference being that this is the first of Eno's ambient albums where his own voice serves as one of the ambient instruments: the original plan was to simply have the whole thing as another «installation», but then, as Brian told Rolling Stone, he suddenly discovered that he was able to sing the lowest notes of the piece due to the aging of his voice — and this impressed him so much that he decided to add vocal support for the whole piece. Which certainly does not make it «poppier» or more accessible — merely adds another layer of sonic support to the picture.

ʽThe Shipʼ in question is the Titanic, of course — the idea is that of a conceptual piece that is probably focused on the adventures of the broken Titanic underwater (where «adventure» is to be understood philosophically — in a sense, if nothing whatsoever happens to you, this is by itself quite an adventure). The «lyrics» to the piece were not written by Eno himself, but rather selected by him from a string of sentences randomly generated by a Markov chain algorithm from a data pool that included a passenger's account of the sinking of the boat, plus some translations of dirty French songs from World War I for a change (although that last detail might be a hoot — don't see any particularly dirty tidbits in the lyrics; perhaps the algorithm included a modesty clause); fun, but ultimately pointless, in my opinion — although, come to think of it, quite consistent with Eno's general fatalism, belief in luck, and fascination for stuff like Tarot cards (and maybe help­ful in some way — he did rant, for instance, about the greatness of the line "the hour is thin" that was totally computer-generated, and, uh, he just might have something there...).

Anyway, what's really good about The Ship is that its ambience is of a stern, metallic character, with elements of the industrial style consistently incorporated throughout — for ʽThe Shipʼ, you really do get the impression of being placed underwater and watching the huge metal monster groan and moan while tiny currents and occasional biological organisms swish and swoosh past the metallic covering. Ropes and seams are creaking and straining, little gas bursts escaping, and multiple vocal overdubs sound like a mix of ghost apparitions and aural hallucinations. After twenty minutes of completely static ambience, the first part of ʽFickle Sunʼ comes on in a much more dynamic manner — as a slow anthem of death, with almost Gothic overtunes, gradually gaining in intensity, with grinding feedback waves and quasi-orchestral pomp (reminiscent of classic Coil, really) — and then, again, somewhat randomly, the same «suite» continues as ʽPart 2ʼ (with a professional, but boring voiceover by Peter Serafinowicz over a simple ambient piano melody) and as ʽPart 3ʼ, which, out of the blue, is a very 1970s-sounding cover of The Velvet Underground's ʽI'm Set Freeʼ, beautifully sung by Eno and once again featuring Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins on additional instruments.

Fans of Eno's melodicity will most definitely want the album for that cover — it is quite prover­bially gorgeous, stripping away all the lo-fi «ugliness» of the original and replacing it with a paradisiac atmosphere: violins, violas, layers of keyboards, and, above all else, the semblance of a beautiful tribute to Lou Reed, who, upon finally being «set free», certainly does deserve an ange­lic tribute from the man who, after all, forty years back, raised the «angelic standard» to nearly unreach­able heights: this is a fascinating cross-breed of Velvet Underground values with Eno values, even if I still struggle to see its relationship with the bulk of the album. But as for the bulk of the album, well, it's not generic Eno by all means, but it is neither the beautiful ambient Eno nor the dark and mysterious out-there-in-space ambient Eno, and I am not sure I am capable of squeezing yet another ambient Eno in my storage room — I'd just say that the album is sufficient­ly atmospheric to be a curious listen, but I can't say it really gave me a whole new perspective on what it would be like to spend 100 years in incorporeal form at the bottom of the ocean.


  1. "I'd just say that the album is sufficient­ly atmospheric to be a curious listen, but I can't say it really gave me a whole new perspective on what it would be like to spend 100 years in incorporeal form at the bottom of the ocean."

    Jean-Michel Jarre's "En Attendant Cousteau" took care of that back in 1990 anyway.

    1. Or British composer Gavin Bryars' "Sinking of the Titanic" perhaps?

    2. Must mention Peter Bellamy's 'My Boy Jack' for the lost at sea theme.