From Village Voice, 4th March 1978, by Lester Bangs.
I've never seen anybody make it harder on himself than Brian Eno. He keeps making these beautiful, brilliant records by processes so arcane that discussion of his music often results in the conclusion that he's some flipped-out technological whiz kid or art-school dilettante.
That's how droves are driven away from same beautiful, brilliant albums, a clear case of methodology getting in the way of desired results, i.e. (supposedly), mass communication. But since explication of said methodology is essential to adequate description though not simple enjoyment of the music, I'll attempt a brief translation: this cat thinks if you know where you're going to end up, you might as well not get moving in the first place, so he's devised all sorts of little diversionary tactics (Oblique Strategies, he calls them, and has marketed them as playing cards; "Honor thy error as a hidden intention" is the first one) to ensure that whenever you set out in pursuit of a work of art you'll get hopelessly lost and thus end up with a masterpiece.
Of course, artists in all media have been dicking around with variants of this approach for years, and no matter how assiduously Eno applies it through endless retakes (Before and After Science, his new album of songs, took two years and 120 tracks to complete) it still seems to bespeak a certain yearning for passivity, a desire to let some nameless Other take creative control and dictate the resultant piece through its own mysterious processes.
I'm not putting Eno's methods down, though. They're boring as shit to talk about at much length and probably unnecessarily complicated, but they've given us some of the most amazing albums of the decade: Here Come the Warm Jets' "Baby's On Fire" alone surpasses anything by Roxy Music in conceptual audacity and feral force, and his second sonic collage, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) was endlessly intricate, teeming with so many unheard of inspirations that it may be another 10 years before the rest of rock catches up. (And the last time I made so fulsome with the superlatives I was reviewing Miles Davis' In a Silent Way, so listen before you laugh!)
Another Green World -- his first solo experiment with what he called "unengaging" music -- certainly had its fans, though I found much of it a bit too, well, "Becalmed," as one of its precisely programmatic titles declared. Those little pools of sound on the outskirts of silence seemed to me the logical consequence of letting the processes and technology share your conceptual burden -- twilight music perfectly suited to the passivity Eno's approach cultivates. It's certainly relaxing -- I even know people who do yoga to it -- and at its extremes it produces lovely sonic wallpaper, like the two Fripp and Eno albums, the lulling Discreet Music, or the new German import, Cluster and Eno, an ECMical instrumental meditation with two German keyboardists who make music so placid you realize how much heavy-metal edge Fripp's feedback pastorales had all along.
Me, I'm a modern guy, but not so modern I don't still like music with real heavily defined content that you can actively listen to in the foreground. That's why I'm pleased to say that, while I still don't think it matches Taking Tiger Mountain, Before and After Science is an inspired and inspiring album. And, as usual, Eno says his mouthful about which way his muses are blowing; he claims that this album is "ocean music," as opposed to the "sky music" of Another Green World. Shamelessly, he even employs the kind of effects -- bells, synthesizers, etc. -- that a good movie soundtrack composer would use to suggest the slow-motion world of undersea and nautical references keep cropping up in the lyrics.
Side two seems to drift on currents with a logic of their own which, interestingly enough, lead his melodies very close to the spawning ground of lullabies (maybe that's where flirtation with the Other leads: regression). I bet small children wouldn't need any involved techni-conceptual explanations to relate to this music. They might even be able to explain the lyrics of "Here He Comes," a song about a boy whose "sad blue eyes... fill the deep blue sky," better than I ever could. Eno says he gets lyrics purely by association and is not particularly interested in what they might actually mean, which leaves the listener to impose his own scenarios on even the most specific songs. Here's "Julie with...": "I am on an open sea, just drifting as the waves go slowly by/Julie with her open blouse is gazing up into the empty sky/Now it seems to be so strange here/Now it's so blue/The still sea is darker than before/No wind disturbs our colored sail/The radio is silent, so are we/Julie's head is on her arm, her fingers brush the surface of the sea/Now I wonder if we'll be seen here/Or if time has left us all alone/The still sea is darker/Than before..." It could be a murderer's ruminations, or simply a lovers' retreat... or Julie could be three years old. Anyway, in this song, which contains not a wasted note or word, a perfect little world is realized. Like all the songs on Before and After Science and its predecessors, it's program music but, as always, the listener is ultimately left to complete the picture himself.
On the other side of the album a variety of musicians permutated from track to track cook in a way that makes you forget all abut Eno's theorems, and suggests that this may be the real lost chord in rock-jazz-experimental fusion music. "No One Receiving" has a discoish rhythm that seems to arc off into space with haunting vocal "in these metal ways/in these metal days," "Kurt's Rejoinder" is a whirlpool of plucked strings, percussion, and synthesized voice, and "King's Lead Hat," emphasizing Eno's affinities with New Wave in its rushed mechanical rhythms and clacking dissonances, has more of the dense Velvet Undergroundish charge and churn of Tiger Mountain's "Third Uncle." All of it is music that you can almost literally see, as befits Eno's current interest in movie soundtracks. The album is being marketed in conjunction with four offset prints from water colors by artist Peter Schmidt, paintings that parallel the music in portraying little (usually interior worlds, lonely and haunted, where often the only human presence seems to be the passive eye of the beholder).