Distributed Being: Brian Eno

One of the treasures of my collection is Brian Eno’s Instrumental Box, a three disc set released in 1994, a year after the equally apportioned Vocal box. Long out of print, it’s a desirable rarity these days, if the used market is any indicator. (And I admit I made a wee profit reselling the Vocal box after most of its excerpted albums were reissued in 2004.) The instrumental set draws from solo Eno works like the Music for Films series, Music for Airports, and On Land, and also from collaborations with David Bowie, Daniel Lanois, Harold Budd, and Jon Hassell, among others. I’ve got some of these reissues as well, but the box set makes a good comprehensive listen. I like some of the edits, too. Trimming the consonant loop piece “Discreet Music”, the dreamy mosaic “Thursday Afternoon”, and the bleak “Neroli” preserves their hypnotism but fades them before they get dull.

A lot of Eno’s music has sat well with me over the years, and I agree with most of his musical theorizing. Some of the things he’s said about playing, listening, and producing are amazingly spot-on. (I’m not as keen on his sociological musings, or his attraction to the non-will of the John Cage school.) On the downside, Eno sometimes drowns in deliberation - evidenced in interviews and books - and I wonder if he might have achieved his enlightenment quicker by really learning to play those instruments lined around the studio. Many of his concerns - texture, tone, appropriateness, clarity, obscurity - are exactly the concerns of the real musician, but Eno has always feted himself as the “non-musician” who can thus think (deeper?) about a given situation. I assume this conceit was intended to keep him in good stead with the Art crowd, and in any case, he utilized primo musicians throughout his career.

Eno’s first two solo albums after leaving Roxy Music, Here Come the Warm Jets (1973) and Taking Tiger Mountain (1974), were primitive exercises in avant-pop goofing, with an emphasis on Eno’s bizarre vocals. As such, these albums for me stand mainly on their instrumental contributions, like Robert Fripp’s terrifying guitar solos in “Baby’s On Fire” and “Blank Frank”, and the menacing push of “Third Uncle”. The clever musicianship continued into Another Green World (1975) and Before and After Science (1977), both featuring the inventive Brand X rhythm section of Percy Jones and Phil Collins. Another Green World was more contemplative than its predecessors, and the vocals are in the minority, like rock-steps amidst a pond of miniature instrumentals. Simple, moody, and lovely, Another Green World is rightly considered a classic. Before and After Science was more song-oriented once again, with Eno in maturing voice, and some of the tunes like “Spider and I” and “Julie With” still have a chilling resonance. To my ears, “Spider and I” sets the scene of a peaceful, private death, while outgoing tracks like “No One Receiving” and “King’s Lead Hat” are melodic and catchy.

The wordless vignettes of Another Green World were like a test run for 1978’s Music for Films, a collection of short instrumentals that represent what I like best about Eno. With only fragments of melodies, chord sequences, and rhythms, he paints beautiful little scenes, mostly on keyboards, but with touches of guitar, bass, and percussion in some cases. Atmospheric detail comes from rolling off the high frequencies, adding discreet reverb, playing with pitch to achieve unusual timbres, and mixing each track in an interesting way. Most of the pieces have a dual feeling of distance and intimacy, and they evoke some of my fascination with space (the mysterious, peaceful frontier) and nature in general. Sometimes, the tracks simply sound cool, like the droning darkness of “Alternative 3”, or “M386”, which slows down the rhythm track of “No One Receiving” to make Percy Jones’ bass fills yawn like monstrous chasms. Conceptually, I like the idea of this record being ‘pretend’ film music, too, where the song titles work as starting points for the imagination.

Another favorite of mine is On Land (1982), part of Eno’s Ambient series. This album is less overtly musical; the tracks instead are like natural dioramas of sound, where, as Eno explains in the liner essay, the foreground and background merge into one. The instruments are often treated beyond recognition, and one might consequently envision such images as wind, lapping waves, clouds, soft metal clanks, breaks of sunshine, moonlight, amphibian signals, and so on. Jon Hassell’s voice-like trumpet and Michael Brook’s guitar make appearances, too. This remarkable album works equally well for background mood or close listening. In a similar vein, Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983) has some slow, naturalistic moments that depict the infinite majesty of outer space.

One of Eno’s early milestones is his collaboration with Robert Fripp on No Pussyfooting (1973). The main attraction of this album is the sidelong “Heavenly Music Corporation” wherein Fripp’s guitar lines are fed into a tape-loop system to create a swelling, morphing landscape. In 2008, this album was reissued as a two-disc set that includes the original remastered album plus the same in reverse and “HMC” at subterranean half speed. The follow-up Eno/Fripp outing, Evening Star (1975), featured one side of consonant pieces backed by the lengthy terrordome “An Index of Metals”. This music fits nicely within Eno’s mindset of organic systems, and of course Fripp would develop the techniques of delay-loop layering throughout his career.

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981) came from the equally formidable pairing of Eno and David Byrne, who got along like ghostbusters during Eno’s tenure as Talking Heads’ producer. Ghosts was groundbreaking for the time, linking ethnic rhythms, urban funk, and sampled vocals, and as the 2006 reissue proves, it’s still a fresh sounding record today. Something about Eno and Byrne’s DIY studio approach - real instruments, analog hardware - is more sensuous than the digital cut-and-paste records that followed in its wake. I’ve always been philosophically suspicious of sampling, but it was the right idea for Ghosts, with Eno and Bynre pulling Middle Eastern vocals from records or taping radio voices to mix into their worldly backing tracks. For example, a wicked funk groove is intensified by an exorcist’s commands in “The Jezebel Spirit”, the percussive riff-fest “Help Me Somebody” is overlaid with a preacher in full sway, and the microtonal inflections of a female singer from another time and place add to the moods of “Regiment” and “The Carrier”. The reissue doesn’t include the original album track “Qu’ran” (which was present on the cassette I owned as a teenager), but that’s fine with me, as I haven’t yearned to hear anything from the Koran in, oh, forever, and “Very Very Hungry” is a decent enough replacement. Some interesting bonus cuts are appended to the main program, too. Ghosts is a landmark of early-80s pop/rock globalization and remains an entrancing listen.

Nerve Net (1992) was a very contagious album for me at its time, specifically for the instrumental intensities of “Distributed Being”, “Web”, “Wire Shock”, and “What Actually Happened”. It also has some less substantial moments, but I try to be a glass-half-full person. Too bad this album did not include the track “I Fall Up”, which appeared on the “Ali Click” maxi-single and also in shortened form on the Vocal box. “I Fall Up” is a gnawing funk-rock groove with decent Eno vocals, cool basslines (Laurence Cottle), and yet another startling guitar solo from Mr. Fripp.

So there are a few selected highlights of the Brain One catalog. I don’t listen to his music often, but when I do, I’m thankful that he bothered to break down assumptions, try new strategies, and find some great results.

Back to Essays