Daniel Lanois may not be a household name, but his accomplishments in music are matched by few. He’s not just an artist but an engineer; not just an engineer but a producer; not just a producer but an acclaimed studio general – and long-time Brian Eno collaborator – whose mixing desk credits include such seminal works as Bob Dylan‘s Oh Mercy, Peter Gabriel‘s So, Us, Emmylou Harris‘s Wrecking Ball and, along with Eno, three of U2‘s most important albums: The Joshua Tree, The Unforgettable Fire and Achtung Baby. He has been labelled, in fact, “the most important record producer to emerge in the ’80s.”
Quebecer Lanois – a seven-time Grammy winner and Canadian Music Industry Hall Of Fame inductee – is also eight albums into a solo career that stretches back to 1989’s Acadie, a French-English LP generally considered one of the finest Canadian records of its time. Yet Acadie’s relatively accessible melodies are a far cry from the Lanois of 2014. He’s a 63-year-old non-prescriptivist whose current efforts aren’t so much songs as soundscapes; a multi-instrumentalist who has “deployed every sonic weapon in his arsenal” in order to create the ambient, experimental Flesh And Machine.
So before the record has even begun, the classic image of the music nerd has formed before our eyes: he’s spending hours tweaking volume envelopes, staying up late to add yet more layers to the mix, missing meals as he dabbles in effects pedal alchemy. Is that how Flesh And Machine came to be? Has Lanois, so often the man behind the scenes, decided to make music for his enjoyment and his alone? Are we faceless eavesdroppers on a private jam session?
As ever, it’s not quite as simple as that: from Rocco’s eerie, plaintive vocal harmonies to Forest City’s long-chord dirge, this is a dense aural experience that’s never easily pinned down. Lanois throws a curve ball as early as track two, The End, which crashes chaotically into existence – a barrage of percussion, an electric guitar that sounds like it’s being tortured – only to usher in relatively subdued successors. The trip hop-esque Sioux Lookout is simultaneously funky and downtrodden; Tamboura Jah’s ambient characteristics veer perilously close to vanishing into the background, requiring the listener to invest attention; the wave-bending synths on Two Bushas make it eloquent but uneventful.
Space Love, the album’s axis track, is rather more conventionally beautiful – shimmering strings and Lanois’s trademark slide guitar combining delicately – while Iceland is similarly warm, its simple acoustic guitar riff and brushed percussion contrasting with the sound-manipulation of its trackmates; Flesh And Machine indeed. There’s even room for a touch of pop as the comparatively playful and melodious My First Love bears a passing aural resemblance to Gorillaz‘ Pirate Jet.
But it doesn’t last: lead single Opera takes up the reins with a slightly unnerving brand of symphonic techno, while Aquatic signals the beginning of the album’s end with slow, intertwining tones and harmonics that exhibit tangible (and, one assumes, intentional) underwater qualities. It leaves the listener with little doubt that Flesh And Machine is a record made with an abundance of indulgence; a collection of sounds that requires cynicism – and hopes for instant gratification – to be checked at the door.