Album Reviews

Brian Eno – Small Craft On A Milk Sea

(Warp) UK release date: 15 November 2010

Brian Eno - Small Craft On A Milk Sea Brian Eno‘s latest album is a collaboration with Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins, themselves composers and guest producers/musicians/sound arrangers in their own right. Unfortunately this has the sound of three men who are masters of slight ingredients, getting together for a bit of a back-slap session.

Having worked together before – the most high-profile occasion being Hopkins’ guitar-playing appearance on Coldplay‘s Viva La Vida – and being of a similar mindset, Eno and company have produced minimalist, slow compositions which are sparse, sometimes beautiful and always wonderfully paced. From the opening of Emerald And Green, piano dunks and water-drop sounds chime against each other, escalating through scales with a Satie-esque lack of assumption. Quite why they’re drenched in effects from some ’80s keyboard and LA piano setting is difficult to fathom. Still, crumbling harmonica lines help in overlooking the garishness of ill-chosen effects and settings.

In a released statement and insight, Eno said that this album is an incomplete series of soundtracks that listeners should complete by involving themselves in the process. Whilst that’s painfully obvious and a pretty poor sell-in (obviously ambient/instrumental music narrates actions where there are no words to recount a defined past) it, of course, works.

Indeed, it works to astoundingly painful effect with compositions such as Horse and Two Forms Of Anger buzz like a teenager’s first attempts to emulate Atari Teenage Riot and gate sounds. If this soundtracked anything, it would be being chased by Danny Dyer, Ross Kemp and Jason Statham so they could all shout at you for a vein-bulging contest. Music library composition has moved on beyond this, and there’s a world of current thriller composers soundtracking anti-bootlegging adverts the world over more worthy of your time.

Which leads to a rather difficult question. Why does a past of innovation allow musicians and composers to claim ongoing relevance or significance? Parts of this album were improvised, then edited together, and other parts constructed by one member writing down a series of numbers, another jotting down a chord sequence and the result is the duration for which the chords should be played.

Maybe the answer is simply that Eno’s done great things, and added a lot of new sounds to the collective memory banks of today, so he can do whatever he likes. He’s a foundation stone. It seems silly, but it’s irrefutable; to argue will only get two fingers.

In this regard – and if you play the sycophant – there’s no denying that there’s some use of minimal instrumentation that sounds absolutely immense. Written, Forgotten shimmers, snippets of syllables drop in as pleasing snatched melodies and the track transposes the dustiness of Ry Cooder‘s Paris Texas to the utopian closing credits of a somehow completed Second Life. There’s no doubting that sounds are placed together, weaved and treated expertly and Small Craft On A Milk Sea can, save its more aggressive moments, flow over and around you therapeutically.

Similarly if you want to profile each sound generated you can listen and be enthralled by the soft bubbles, sinister pops and even hear the sound of the transcendental spheres – as in Late Anthropocene – reverberating to ensure existence continues. Or you can see this as a sound-doodling exercise using settings 2B and 4R from bank 5 of some ’80s keyboard by three accomplished composers who should know better. Unfortunately this album doesn’t engage enough not to outlaw the latter.

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