Brian Eno: Discreet Music / Music For Films / Music For Airports / On Land – reissue review
UMC / Virgin EMI
Deluxe LP / LP / CD / DL
Four seminal Eno ambient albums get the reissue / remastered treatment. Simon Tucker finds there’s more to this music than background noise.
Ambient music. What is it exactly and what purpose does it serve? Over the years the genre label has been applied to some of the most inspiring and also insipid releases. Sometimes the label of ambient is lazily placed on any music that dares to be slow and instrumental. In a brilliant piece for The Quietus, William Doyle (ex East India Youth) discussed this very issue and how it lives today in the world of Spotify and online algorithms. Yes ambient may have become, in the hands of some, lazy and tired full of cliche and “new age” bells and whistles. What a timely reminder then these reissues are as not only do they highlight what is so right about the genre when created by someone with heart and intelligence they also highlight the negatives in those who think ambient music is just repeating a single wishy-washy piano motif over some field recordings of the ocean.
This series of albums starts with 1975’s Discreet Music the inspiration for which began when Eno was hospitalised after an accident. Whilst bed-ridden and listening to a record of eighteenth-century harp music, the volume was too low and he couldn’t reach to turn it up. It was raining outside, and Eno recounts he began listening to the rain and to “these odd notes of the harp, that were just loud enough to be heard above the rain”.
“This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music – as part of the ambience of the environment, just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience”, he observed.
With the whole of side A dedicated to one long piece, Discreet Music remains a powerful piece of music. Ever since Little Richard had Bop bopa-a-lu a whop bam boo’d the world, Western music had been focused on a fairly rigid musical formula full of middle eights and choruses. Sure there were deviations away by those willing to soak up the influence of Jazz and to use the influence of acid and weed but these were songs that were anomalies and not widespread. The real progression in style and sonics was not coming from America but from places like Jamaica with their kaleidoscopic Dub and in post-war Germany where the seeds were planted ready for the youth of that country to create a pop music that did not hold the ideals of UK/USA releases and instead branched out to forge a new.
Inspired by being bed ridden and the sounds emitting from Germany (like his collaborator Bowie, Eno really had an ear for the underground) Eno creates Discreet Music. This is a revolutionary moment for music as it was the first time many people in the world had heard such music. Even those that were deemed “hip” were mostly still looking over the Atlantic for their new musical heroes. Imagine hearing this album back when it was released. It’s a big a shock to the system as punk would be a year later and is in fact as much a middle finger to society as the three chord thrash that was to follow. This was riot music with a slow pulse. Music that forced you to deal with your own inner monologue and wring out the demons. Listening now it still has the power to paint vivid pictures and is one of the great works of the 1970’s. This was a complete throwing out of the imagined rule-book and what is apparent here is we are in the hands of a master. Eno shows that ambient is a music that is precise but not rigid. Repetitive but also not static. Every slight change in tone or key throws a different shade onto the canvas.
‘Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel’ featuring the Cockpit Ensemble takes up side B and sees the musicians repeating brief excerpts from the score but with slight changes every now and then plus added alterations. The three tracks are a work of aching beauty and still have the power to reduce a listener to tears. In an age where everything with strings is being labelled “neo-classical” it is a relevant reminder that Eno was there on the bridge guiding us all those years ago. A landmark album that sounds even better thanks to the remastered treatment.
1976’s Music For Films is a different beast entirely from Discreet Music and is more akin to the work Eno would do with Bowie on the famed Berlin trilogy. Made up of tracks ranging from the very brief to the more standard running length (the longest song here comes in just over four minutes), Music For Films is more eclectic listen that Discreet Music but that does not mean it is disjointed in any way. There is a thematic thread that runs throughout Music For Films and the incorporation of more stringed instruments allows Eno to once again highlight music from around the world including the beauty of Asian music and the dreamscapes from Germany. Like Discreet Music, Music For Films feels rebellious in nature and a thumbing of the nose to those who would say only “this” or “that” music would appeal to the youth. Looking back at it today you can see its influence still raging strong and with the help of musicians such as John Cale, Robert Fripp and Phil Collins, Music For Films remains a cultural touchstone. It would lead straight to Bowie and when you influence the influencer you know you have done something magical. Beautiful, unsettling, gorgeous and uplifting, Music For Films is true World Music made by a master.
1978 saw the arrival of the first album explicitly described as “ambient music”. Ambient 1 (Music For Airports). Conceived whilst spending several hours in Cologne Bonn Airport (Eno was getting annoyed at the obtrusive and jarring music playing over the airports speaker system) Eno decided to give himself fully to the concept of ambient music with the intention that the finished project would be a continuous sound-art instillation played in airports to help alleviate the tension and boredom that is created in such places.
Make no mistake about it, Music For Airports is an absolute masterpiece. The way in which Eno and his collaborators (Robert Wyatt and Rhett Davies) paint a picture is bold and sublime. Each track has its own personality and atmosphere and is not in any way background music regardless of what its author may have stated. Music For Airports is a complete experience. The way the wordless vocals harmonise on 2/1 and 1/2, or the way the piano motif loops on 1/1 gives us a new path to walk on and a new set of ideals to follow. There’s nothing lazy on display here and you can picture Eno in his studio meticulously going over every second making sure it is exactly as he wants it. Music For Airports is also a romantic experience and contains some of the most emotionally stirring music from the last fourty years. The way the wind instruments on 2/2 seem to hark back to the days of brass bands and of cobbled streets adds a subtle melancholy and nod to post-war Britain whilst still retaining a futuristic gaze.
A balm for the soul, Music For Airports is perfect for these fractured times. As we constantly switch between apps on our phones, scrolling scrolling scrolling, with news headlines telling us about division and false tales, putting on Music For Airports and turning everything else off around you is one of the best things you can do for your mental and spiritual health. Bathe in its beauty.
The final installment in Eno’s famed Ambient series came in the form of 1982’s Ambient 4: On Land. On Land was another departure from what had gone before in the way that Eno decided to turn away in the large part from conventional instrumentation and instead decided to use lots of field recordings, found sounds and even remixing his own work. Eno would take unheard of tapes of his music and re-edit them, slowing them down or speeding them up. He would incorporate the natural world with recordings of rooks, frogs and insects. This technique allows On Land to be full of an autumnal sensibility. It is woody and dense and much more unsettling than its predecessors (The Lost Day being a case in point). On Land is more abstract than any of his previous works in the field of ambient music and it contains a weightier atmosphere. The album does have some conventional instrumentation in the form of Jon Hassell’s trumpet and Bill Laswell’s bass and it also features contributions from Michael Brook and Daniel Lanois but what these do is to add an underlying feel of dread. Tracks like Tal Coat and Lantern Mash are more synthetic in feel than anything on Music For Airports and make for really interesting listening especially considering the fact you can hear so much of their influence in the work of those currently creating music for film and television. On Land has an air of dystopia about it and plays like the deepest days of winter is encroaching into your living room. Absorbing and twisted, On Land is nothing less than addictive and essential.
With these remastered versions we get another glimpse of what makes Brian Eno one of our greatest ever artists. His constant need to change and thirst for discovery of new styles and sounds should hold up as an inspiration to any artist thinking of creating their own universe. Coming, as the first three did, on the build up to and during the UK punk explosion they remain pivotal examples of rebellious artistic endeavors. The music here is as system-smashing as anything that came out spitting and swearing (they could of being called Never Mind That Bollocks) and whilst punk was vital, you can see why many of its main protagonists were always following Eno and his output. These reissues also serve as a reminder of what real majesty can be created in the field of ambient music when made by someone with a thirst for discovery and a passion for the new. This is music to dive headlong in to and to come out a changed person. These albums have the power to induce a myriad of emotions in the listener and remain a powerful force for good. Each one essential.