Brian Eno albums are like electric buses – you wait for ages, and then two come along very quietly at once. That’s the theory, at least – for lest we forget, Eno bears the title ‘godfather of ambient’. He does so with good grace, but his two albums since moving to Warp illustrate emphatically how his music is so much more than that title suggests.
Despite passages of ambience that were relatively easy on the ear, last year’s Small Craft In A Milk Sea was shot through with tension, releasing barely concealed energy in its central section as it expressed anger and fear among its emotions. Drums Between The Bells works as a counterpart to partially resolve that tension, but not without inner momentum of its own.
It is the result of a cultivated friendship between Eno and the poet Rick Holland that goes back eight years, though not all of the pair’s musical thought is shown here. The album finds Eno reacting to the prose rather than providing explicit settings, the pieces showing their standalone worth on the instrumental second disc.
Responding to the prose in this way gives Eno a greater sense of musical freedom, enhanced by his own sonorous voice on five of the 15 tracks, navigating an array of richly textured styles. Eno’s standing as a man of many media forms is reinforced by the striking visual references accompanying the text, themselves inspired dually by the music itself and a trip to Sao Paulo.
After all of this you would be forgiven for thinking there might be too much stimulus at work, that the result might be an unfocussed mismatch of styles. Occasionally Eno does over-egg the pudding, with some bewildering excursions into far-flung keys or rhythms, but these exceptions serve merely to keep the listener on their guard.
Sounds Alien is the most vivid departure, percussion heavy but featuring heavy brass artillery before it fades away. The similarly strange Fierce Aisles Of Light is set to very deliberate prose, as if trying to keep its balance on the train, whose motion in the background evokes a vaguely queasy inner city atmosphere. Glitch, meanwhile, supplies offbeat funk, the harmonies leaning in at an angle.
By contrast Eno is master of economy in Dreambirds, then providing a lush, string-rich backdrop for Pour It Out. The Real and the final Breath Of Crows hang suspended in the hot air, meanwhile, the latter given extra weight with a preceding silence, programmed into the album experience and immensely valuable.
Where Small Craft In A Milk Sea took place under threatening skies, this follow-up finds itself in a relatively calm, blue setting – and as a result the two work well in tandem. At times Drums Between The Bells is too busy, too packed with musical style and incident, but its patchwork nature reveals itself over subsequent listens to be a largely rewarding one.