Monday, June 26, 2017

Eno in NYC

Taking Manhattan (By Strategy) - Brian Eno in New York

director's cut version, The Daily Note, 2013 

by Simon Reynolds

It could be argued that Brian Eno is the most consistently creative figure in rock history, someone whose innovation rate over the decades eclipses even his shape-shifting collaborators David Bowie and David Byrne.  From his disruptive presence in Roxy Music, via his alternately quirky and contemplative solo albums and his invention of ambient music, through to his recent explorations of “generative music”, it’s a career that has, well, careered,  zigzagging from extreme to extreme, between pop and antipop, between febrile rhythm and near-immobile tranquility. Then consider the panoply of his partnerships with other artists-- Bowie, Devo, Talking Heads, U2, John Cale, to name just a few—as producer or collaborator / catalyst. 

Eno is also a musical philosopher, someone whose interviews, critical writings and sundry musings about sound, art, and culture deserve to be compiled into a book. (His published diary A Year With Swollen Appendices was hugely entertaining but didn’t capture the full scope and provocative richness of his thought).  

It could also be argued that Eno’s most creative phase of music-making, collaboration, and conceptualizing  took place during a period in the late Seventies and early Eighties when he lived in New York.  1978-84 were Eno’s surge years, and New York’s art scene and music culture were the climate that stoked his ferment.

“I’ve got this feeling that I really know New York very well and will be at home there...  I feel there are two places I’m emotionally based in...  One is the English countryside, where I was born and bred, and the other is the heart of New York City.”  So said Brian Eno on the eve of his first visit to the city, speaking to Disc magazine in October 1972.

There are perfectly logical reasons why Eno would feel a profound attraction to New York. After all, the two biggest influences on his approach to music, The Velvet Underground and Steve Reich, came from there.  Eno also intuited that London, pop culture’s energy center during the Sixties, had ceded that power spot status to New York by the Seventies.  Within a few years of the Disc interview, he was spending extended periods of time in Manhattan. Then he moved wholesale and made New York his base for over half a decade.  The ensuing period is without doubt the most fertile and impressive stretch of his life work, which included not just music but video art.  Eno fed off New York’s border-crossing artistic energy, but he also catalysed and contributed to it. There were more playful, “lifestyle” reasons why Eno settled in Manhattan too. “I moved to New York City because there are so many beautiful girls here,” he told Lester Bangs in 1979. “More than anywhere else in the world."
His first visit, in late ’72, was with Roxy Music on their debut US tour. The next couple of trips he came as a solo artist.  The second of these, in 1975, was to promote Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy. Eno was accompanied by Richard Williams, the former Melody Maker writer who was the first journalist to rave about Roxy and then became an A&R at Island Records. Williams had heard the buzz about Television, so the two Englishmen headed down to CBGBs to see them perform. 

Although Eno at this point had zero pedigree as a producer, he and Williams worked with Television on demo recordings. This could easily have turned into a debut album for Island. But the results totally failed to capture the fierce majesty of live Television. “I didn’t care for the sound he got on tape or the performance much either,” Tom Verlaine once recalled.  “The rest of the band felt the same way. So we didn’t finish the ‘album’ they wanted those demos to be.”

An inauspicious start to Eno’s New York Period. And so it would be not Television but a different CBGBs band (also with a TV-oriented name, funnily enough) who cemented Eno’s connection to the city. Talking Heads first met up with Eno in London, though. During this May 1977 hang-out session they discovered many common interests both musically and intellectually.  Eno played them an album by Fela Kuti and declared that Afrobeat was the future of music. He suggested that this was a direction Talking Heads and he could jointly pursue.  

Later that month Eno was back in New York, where he accompanied his friends and intermittent collaborators David Bowie and Robert Fripp to a Max’s Kansas City gig by Devo, the hot hype of the season.  So captivated was Bowie by their robotic theatrics and angular sound, he took to the stage to announce Devo’s second set of the night.  Hailing the Akron, Ohio band as rock’s future, he vowed to produce their debut album in Tokyo later that summer. In the event it was Eno, not Bowie, who would produce Are We Not Men? and it would be a whole year later, in Cologne.

As for Talking Heads, the first album Eno made with the group, More Songs About Buildings and Food, was recorded in Nassau. But the mastering was done in New York and Eno flew in on April 23rd 1978 to oversee the process. He planned to stay a few weeks, taking care of some other pending projects away from UK distractions, before heading home in time for his thirtieth birthday.  But New York provided plenty of distractions of its own and as it turned out it would be seven months before he returned to Britain. Recalling, a few years later, this first substantial sojourn in  New York, Eno admitted to enjoying the attention he received as a cult figure operating on the cutting edge of rock: “Everywhere I go, people are running up with cassettes... The first five weeks I was in New York this time I had 180 cassettes given to me”. But he spoke also of the stimulating conversations he was enjoying thanks to a cross-town traffic between different fields of art—music, painting,  theater, modern dance—that didn’t exist in England.

A common syndrome experienced by first-time U.K. visitors to New York is that they’re electrified by the city’s kinetic (and cinematic) energy, then immediately crash into a depressive slump upon arrival back in hum-drum England.  Eno refused to unplug. 

By the middle of May 1978, he was enconsced in an apartment in Greenwich Village,  a sublet from Steve Maas, who also owned and lived in the apartment above, and who was in the process of  launching the soon-to-be-legendary Mudd Club. “The first time I heard of the Mudd Club, somebody said ‘Eno’s got a new bar below Canal Street, let’s go’,” recalls Glenn O’Brien, in those days the music columnist for Interview magazine and host of the New York cable music show TV Party

“Actually Eno had nothing to do with it, except I think he consulted with Maas on the sound system.”
Through Maas, Eno met Anya Philips, who was involved in the initial conception of the Mudd club. She hipped him to No Wave: a cluster of  harsh, dissonant, uncompromisingly experimental groups (among them the Contortions, whom Philips managed, and whose frontman James Chance she would  later hook up with) that had emerged with the express intent of making the first-wave CBGB punk bands seem passé and mired in rock’n’roll tradition.  “I happened to be in New York during one of the most exciting months of the decade... in terms of music,” Eno recalled. “It seemed like there were 500 new bands who all started that month.” In the first week of May, Eno attended a five-day festival of the No Wave at Artists’s Space, a gallery in Tribeca. Impressed by the music’s extremism, he proposed the idea of a compilation to Island Records, focused on the four key groups in the scene: Mars, DNA, the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Intuitively he grasped that No Wave was destined to be a brief spasm of unsustainable intensity and that therefore urgently required documentation before it passed.

Eno had plenty in common with the No Wavers. Most came from art school backgrounds similar to his own. Like him, they approached music-making with a conceptual mindset and a dilettante’s disregard for craft. “The New York bands proceed from a ‘what would happen if’ orientation,” Eno informed New York Times critic John Rockwell in July 1978, contrasting that approach unfavorably with expressionistic, emotion-driven New Wave songsmiths like Elvis Costello.  In other 1978 interviews, he praised No Wave using terms and concepts that he clearly would like to have seen applied to himself: these “research bands” took “deliberately extreme stances that are very interesting because they define the edges of a piece of territory. They say 'This is as far as you can go in this direction'.”  Pioneers like No Wave (or earlier the Velvet Underground) generated a “a vocabulary” of ideas that later artists could use in more palatable ways and that could ultimately become the basis of mainstream pop in the future. “Having that territory staked out is very important. You achieve a synthesis by determining your stance in relation to these signposts.”

But although there was a mutual admiration pact between Eno and the No Wavers (who revered their patron for his work in Roxy and solo), there were big differences too.  No Wave was based around an aesthetic of assault and confrontation. Lyrically, it stretched from deadpan nihilism (James Chance) to tortured expressionism (Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus) to explorations of psychotic states (Mars).  There was a huge gulf between No Wave and Eno’s alternately quirky and placid music, especially the proto-ambient directions pursued on Another Green World and Discreet Music.  Lunch speaks warmly of Eno today but at the time she made a number of public jibes, describing Eno’s music as “something that flows and weaves...  It’s kind of nauseating. It’s like drinking a glass of water. It means nothing, but it’s very smooth going down.”

Yet Eno-ification is strikingly absent from the compilation No New York.  There’s nothing like the “wet” finish to certain songs on Are We Not Men or More Songs About Buildings and Food that clearly bore Eno’s production fingerprints.  “It was done totally live in the studio, just like a document,” says Chance.  Mars, the most forbiddingly abstract of the No Wave outfits, benefited from a smidgeon of  Eno’s studio sorcery: for “Helen Forsdale”, he put an echo “on the guitar part's click, and used that to trigger the compression on the whole track, so it sounds like helicopter blades.” But DNA’s Arto Lindsay was actually infuriated by Eno’s hands-off approach: “he was reading some studio instrument magazine while we were recording, and I wanted to throttle him!” He hastens to add that “Eno is a fabulous man...  He was generous. I was dead broke, and he was such a gentleman he would call me up and say ‘I’ll buy you lunch’. As a relative veteran of the music industry, Eno also dispensed advice: Lindsay recalls  Chance showing Eno a contract that he’d been offered by Michael Zilkha of ZE Records.  “Brian said, ‘Nobody would sign that but a desperate man’. James immediately signed it!”

At the end of 1978 No New York slipped out into the world via Island’s jazz subsidiary Antilles, to meager fanfare. No Wave had already splintered, with most of the groups heading towards more accessible music (discofunk in the case of Chance). But the record would gradually accrue cult status, as much for the challenge of getting hold of a copy as for the challenging music on it. The legend of No Wave has swollen over the decades, in part because of intermediaries like Sonic Youth who (as Eno predicted, sort of) turned its innovations into rock music, and partly as the marker of a historical moment of absolute uncompromising purity. The movement, which lasted barely two years and whose bands didn’t make many records or find many listeners in their own time, has been the subject of no less than three lavishly illustrated histories in recent years.   

In the winter of 1978/79, Eno went peripatetic, spending time in San Francisco, London, Montreux, and Bangkok. When he returned to New York in the spring to work on Talking Heads’s Fear of Music, he had the germ of a new approach in his head: the merger of hypnotic dance rhythms and found voices.  Through immersion in Fela and P-Funk, he had turned onto the idea of densely-layered ethnofunkadelic polyrhythm. But on his Thailand vacation, he had taken with him a recording of British dialects and become fascinated by the “redundant” information in these heavily accented utterances.  Regional cadences meant that the speech contained its own musicality, something that he thought could be combined excitingly with dance grooves.  This merger of found voices and trance rhythms would become the governing concept for much of the music he made in the next few years, both solo and in his increasingly collaborative partnership with Talking Heads. 

The new obsession’s first manifestation appeared on Fear of Music as the opening track “I Zimbra”. It bore Eno’s clear imprint, from the  Afrobeat-style percussion to the use of sound-poetry originally written by the Dadaist Hugo Ball but here incanted by David Byrne.  “I Zimbra” was pretty much the reprise of what Eno had done on “Kurt’s Rejoinder,” from his 1977 solo album Before And After Science, albeit using a different Dadaist (Kurt Schwitters).  But it was Fear’s closing track “Drugs” that proved to be most prophetic.  Talking Heads tried recording the song, originally titled “Electricity”, in the conventional way, but couldn’t get it to work. So Eno and Byrne took the accumulated takes and effectively remixed the song into existence. “We kind of deconstructed it, tore it down to its basic elements, then built it up again with new stuff,”  recalls Byrne.  “We took instruments out, replayed bits, added other sounds.  It became a mixture of a live band and sound collage. Which was what ended up happening with My Life In the Bush of Ghosts and Remain In Light”.

If “Drugs” was the practice, the theory got expounded by Eno in July when he gave a lecture entitled “The Studio As Compositional Tool” at the New Music New York festival. Hosted by The Kitchen, this ten-day event was a triumphant end-of-decade celebration of a diffuse and varied but coherent movement of downtown Manhattan composition that during the Seventies defined itself against the uptown classical music establishment (still in thrall to post-Webernite serialism and dissonance).  Reporting on New Music New York, Village Voice’s Tom Johnson identified two distinct waves of downtown music: the founding minimalist elders (Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Reich, Terry Riley, Robert Ashley) and a new generation forging connections between composing and popular music (Laurie Anderson, who used elements of performance art, video and electronics, or Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, who deployed amplified electric guitars).  Eno fit perfectly right smack in the middle of all this: he was profoundly influenced by Reich’s repetition and use of tape-delay loops, but also embraced dance rhythms, electric noise, and the sound-sculpting possibilities of the recording studio, just like emerging downtown composers such as Arthur Russell, Peter Gordon and David Van Tieghem.

But there was a problem with the studio-as-compositional-tool concept, at least when applied to a rock band:  it empowered the “composer” (the producer-arranger) at the expense of the musicians. The expanded authorial role for Eno & Byrne on “Drugs” effectively relegated the other members of Talking Heads to session musician status, something that would cause enormous friction on the next album, Remain In Light.  The burgeoning relationship between Eno and Byrne didn’t just unsettle the balance of creative power within the band, it frayed emotional ties too. Bassist Tina Weymouth would acidly claim the pair reached the point of merging into a symbiotic unit,  even wearing similar clothes like some postpunk  Gilbert & George. Byrne himself talks about the relationship as “mutually beneficial and co-dependent in a way. We had musical things to gain from one another—each one could offer something slightly different to the other.” It went beyond music collaboration to shared “art and philosophical” interests like cybernetics or the spiritual role of music and dance in tribal societies. “We had a surprising number of things to chat about.”

Although Remain In Light and the Byrne/Eno masterwork My Life in the Bush of Ghosts would be the main canvas on which he would explore these obsessions, such was Eno’s nomadism in the New York years that he also pursued them with other collaborators like Robert Fripp (also living in Manhattan at that time) and Jon Hassell.  Eno’s very first attempt at spoken-voice collage had actually occurred in the UK back in late 1977, with “R.A.F.”, a track made with the New York female punk duo Snatch (one of whom, Judy Nylon, was a former girlfriend).  In retrospect, he would decide that this Baader-Meinhof inspired collage,  released as the B-Side to the single “King’s Lead Hat” (an anagram of Talking Heads!), was the very earliest germ of Bush of Ghosts

In late 1979 Eno and Fripp closed in on the idea with a series of tracks called “Healthy Colours” that combined hypnotic drums and warped bass with vocal fragments from a radio program clipping in and of the groove.  Although they were eventually released much later on the 1994 anthology Essential Fripp & Eno, the four-part “Healthy Colours” series was originally made for a never-completed album called Music For Healing.

That title fits much better the other major strand of Eno music made during his New York years:  idyllic-yet-eerie ambient soundscapes.  The Plateaux of Mirror, his collaboration with pianist Harold Budd, began with the LA-based pianist sending his compositions to Eno in New York, but the actual recording was done in late 1979 in a studio in Hamilton, Ontario owned and operated by Daniel Lanois.  

Around that time Eno also produced Day of Radiance by Laraaji, a zither-player he discovered playing in Washington Square Park on the edge of Greenwich Village. A spiritual seeker exploring yoga, t’ai chi and Eastern philosophy and who today holds workshops in laughter therapy, Laraaji’s quest for “cosmic music” had taken a decisive turn in the mid-Seventies when he traded his guitar for an autoharp, which he then adapted and electrified.   He came to believe that metallic chimes--bell-ringing, gongs, cymbals, gamelan ensembles, and the instruments he favored, zither and hammered dulcimer—put the listener “in touch with the higher presences... in Tibet they are used to break up  concentration, get you outside linear time, into a trance state.” Laraaji had been playing in the same spot in Washington Square Park for a few years, sitting always in the lotus position with his eyes shut, when one day he opened them to see that someone had left a message in his busker’s hat. “It was from Brian Eno and it said ‘would you like to meet to consider a recording project?’”.

In their post-Eno careers Budd and Laraaji would both go on to make music so tranquil and gently rhapsodic it verged on New Age. But Plateaux and Radiance—Ambient 2 and Ambient 3 in the series of releases launched by Eno’s Music For Airports --have a certain uncanny edge. In both cases Eno’s role largely consisted of creating the ambience in which the compositions were situated, using reverb, harmonizer and other studio techniques to smudge the edges of the sound into oneiric soft-focus.  Both projects prefigure the preoccupations that would lead to Eno’s other supreme masterpiece of the New York era, 1982’s On LandPlateaux’s titles like “Above Chiangmai”, “Among Fields of Crystal” and “Wind in Lonely Fences” speak of Eno’s mounting interest in creating the musical equivalent of landscape painting, while “Meditation #2”, the final track on Radiance, is based on Laraaji’s mental image of New York’s Central Park Reservoir on a moody winter day.

Another inspirational collaborator Eno hooked up with in 1979 was Jon Hassell, whose post-Miles, raga-influenced music Eno had encountered when the trumpeter-composer performed at the Kitchen that summer.  Hassell’s knowledge of many forms of exotic ethnic sounds and his concept of “Fourth World Music” (hi-tech modernity meets pre-industrial tribalism) would be massively influential on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Indeed, at its inception that album was conceived as a three-way collaboration.  Byrne recalls “all hanging out together, talking and exchanging records”.  At his Tribeca loft, Hassell played Eno and Byrne field recordings on ethnomusicological labels like Ocora.  The idea emerged that “we would hole up and make a fake ethnographic records, with the sleeve notes and everything,” says Byrne. “We’d invent a whole culture to go with it.”

Both Hassell and Laraaji were present at the first sessions, in August 1979, for the album that  became My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Also contributing to the dense mix of sound was David Van Tieghem, whom Eno had seen doing a gizmo-based piece called A Man and His Toys at New Music New York, and two bassists: Tim Wright from DNA and Bill Laswell, then playing in a band called Zu (later to mutate into Material).  Of these early sessions, Eno would later wryly comment that “what was so weird was that at first I thought I'd wasted my money. I just couldn't understand it at all.” But gradually, sculpting down “ this barrage of instruments playing all the time”, an audio-concept emerged:  a “jungle music” sound, embedded in a spacious widescreen production he’d never achieved before. Profiling Eno for Musician towards the end of 1979, Lester Bangs got advance glimpses of the work-in-progress: “It sounds like nothing we've ever heard from Brian Eno before; like nothing ever heard before, period. The influence of the move to New York is unmistakeable: a polyglot freneticism, a sense of real itching rage and desperation... It gives intimations of a new kind of international multi-idiomatic music that would cross all commercial lines, uniting different cultures, the past and the future, European experimentalism and gutbucket funk.”

Work on Bush-to-be was sporadic and at a certain point Hassell dropped out of the equation – a turnabout that enraged him to the point of making public accusations of being ripped off. He and Eno would reconcile fairly swiftly, however, resulting in the collaboration Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics and the appearance, or rather apparition, of Hassell’s ghostly gaseous trumpet on the Remain In Light track “Houses In Motion”.

Working in Los Angeles and San Francisco for a while, before returning to New York, Byrne and Eno added an extra element to the mix: alongside field recordings (Muslim devotional singing, the gospel chants of Sea Islanders off the coast of Georgia), they found themselves increasingly obsessed with the ranting and raving of talk radio hosts and evangelists.  This proto-sampling approach would be hugely influential on later soundbite-based genres like hip hop and jungle. What’s less well known is that Bush of Ghosts was itself influenced by very early hip hop. Not the first rap records, though, so much as breakdancing

Ironically, this connection with hip hop would be forged not in New York but when the duo were out in LA. “Brian and I met Toni Basil, a choreographer who later had a hit single with ‘Micky’,” recalls Byrne. “She was working with this street dance group the Electric Boogaloos and was going to do a whole show based on popping and locking. Brian and I thought it was the most amazing dancing we’d ever seen. In a way, some of the music we were making we thought was slotted for her to use in a television program with these dancers.  But it never happened.” Eno, for his part, thought that the future of video, a form with which he had just started to experiment, would be non-narrative: involving either ambient imagery (close to stationary) or dance (extreme kineticism).  Both would be endlessly rewatchable, because ambient images would become like décor while the fluid intricacy of experimental dance would be so sinuously complex you could never get bored with it.

Byrne and Eno’s work on Bush of Ghosts was interrupted when they joined the rest of Talking Heads during the sweltering hot New York summer of 1980 to start work on the group’s fourth album.  Initially titled Melody Attack, the album quickly became a “pop” version of the ideas being explored on Bush . Ideas like the Fela-meets-Terry-Riley’s-In-C approach of  “having lots of instruments all playing very simple parts that mesh together to create a complex track”, as Eno explained to one interviewer. “For example there were five or six basses on 'Born Under Punches', each doing simple bits.”  Unfortunately this methodology reduced the other Heads—Weymouth, drummer Chris Franz, keyboard player Jerry Harrison—to raw content generators, producing material to be assembled into constructions by Eno and Byrne. There was also a kind of deconstruction of the band itself:  with bass parts being provided by people other than Weymouth, roles became fluid and uncertain.  Even Byrne himself had to change his approach: rather than go into the studio with written songs, he improvised clipped, chanted melodies to suit the roiling rhythmic density of the new direction. His vocals became increasingly percussive, verging on rapping in sections of “Born Under Punches” and “Cross Eyed and Painless”. On the shimmering dreamscape “Seen And Not Seen”, he abandoned singing altogether for recitation, speaking the story of a man who learned to change his facial appearance by willpower.  

Remain In Light was an artistic triumph. But it was also a disaster: pushing for the new direction and thereby assuming a vastly expanded degree of creative control, Eno irreparably damaged what he had earlier described as “the best working relationship I've ever had within rock music."  Talking Heads-- even his symbiotic other half Byrne-- started to suspect that Eno was trying to turn to the group into a new Roxy Music where he was the leader, not Bryan Ferry.  That there was an inverse ratio between the creative fulfilment of the band and that of the producer had been apparent to Eno as early as More Songs About Buildings: as he told Melody Maker, with that album “the songs that were least complete going into the studio came out best for me”.  Fear of Music was better still  because “there were even fewer complete songs” at the start of the recording process, leading to the formation of a “group mind,  a recording identity” with him at the center.  Remain was the culmination, resulting in music so complex that its live performance required the expansion of Talking Heads into a nine-piece.  

Yet despite  his steering role in the project, Eno had his own misgivings about Remain:  he felt that the album could have been taken much further. Those frustrations would take on a bitter edge when My Life In the Bush of Ghosts came out within a few months of the extravangantly praised Remain. (Originally Bush was meant to come out first, but  it got delayed due to sample clearance issues).  Although Bush is now revered as a groundbreaking classic, at the time it received a mixed critical response, suffering both from a post-Remain backlash and from having its innovation-thunder stolen by the Talking Heads LP. Some critics accused Byrne and Eno of being coldblooded eggheads and, worse, neo-imperialistic appropriators of world music. 

“One day in early 1981 I arrived at the studio and Eno was on the couch, he was reading the English music papers and he had the most downcast expression on his face. The reviews of Ghosts were out... “ So recalls Material keyboard player Michael Beinhorn, then  participating, along with his bandmates, in an amorphous Eno project. “My sense is that Brian at that point decided, ‘I’m never going to make rock music again.’”. 

Whether it was as clearcut as that—after all he’d already been making ambient music for years and the ethnogrooves of Bush of Ghosts and Possible Worlds were situated some distance from rock—it does seem that the lukewarm response to Ghosts encouraged Eno to move even further  from song-based pop forms and into atmospheres and soundscapes. That trajectory reached fruition with his ambient pinnacle On Land, an album whose genesis  can be traced back to the sessions with Material in January 1981.

Although Eno’s relationship with Byrne continued fitfully (he contributed to the Head frontman’s solo project The Catherine Wheel) it would be eclipsed by a new kindred musical spirit who  entered his life in the latter months of 1980.  Eno became close friends with Robert Quine, formerly the guitarist in Richard Hell and the Voidoids, discovering they shared a passion for psychogeographic drifting through the streets of New York and  “a feeling for music that was ‘at the edge of music’”, as Eno put it. Although they never directly collaborated, Quine is one of several people prominently thanked in the sleeve notes of On Land. (Laraaji is another).  “I actually encouraged him to put out On Land,” Quine has said. “He was going to dump parts of it.” Eno himself wrote, in a tribute to Quine following his 2004 death, that  “without his interest, I'm not sure I would have ever finished and released that record.”  As well as morale elevation, Quine steered Eno in the right direction aesthetically: he introduced him to the 1974 Miles Davis’s piece “He Loved Him Madly”, a 32 minute long requiem for Duke Ellington, so slow-moving and low-spirited it’s as if the music’s own vital signs have been suppressed to a life-threatening degree. 

Eno was particularly entranced by Teo Macero’s “revolutionary production” on the track, which provided him with a model of  the “spacious quality” he wanted to achieve in his own music. “Madly”,  Eno said, “has a very strange atmosphere, as if you are standing in a clearing hearing different instruments at different distances from you. It was mixed with that feeling of distance, and that interests me a great deal.”  Another influence was his own experiments on a trip to Ghana with outdoor field recordings, where he held up a mic to the capture the nothing-in-particular waft-and-murmur of town and field. 

On the first day of the sessions with Material, which took place at the newly equipped studio in Brooklyn operated by the group’s sound-man Martin Bisi, Eno arrived with photographic slides that he purchased that very morning at the Museum of Natural History. “He called me on the way over, asking if I had white sheets because he wanted to project images on the walls,” recalls Bisi. Eno turned up in a cab with his German friend Axel Gros, whose resume includes contributing “noise production” to Holger Czukay and Conny Plank’s experimental postpunk project Les Vampyrettes, and promptly set up projectors all around the room. “The idea was to play music and record surrounded by images of animals like impalas and water buffalos. Landscapes too-- Kilimanjaro, the savannah.” 

The session wasn’t super-productive. Bisi, by his own admission, was an amateurish sound-engineer in those days (later he would become an accomplished, in-demand producer), and actually annoyed the typically calm and mild Eno so much that the latter hurled a chair at one point. Material bassist Bill Laswell would in his subsequent career make ambient records himself but at that point his background was Southern funk bands and he just couldn’t get into the Eno vibe.  

Laswell and Beinhorn are actually given co-write credits for “Lizard Point”, On Land’s first track, but Beinhorn says “I can’t pick out a note that actually comes from me. Maybe it’s in there as half-speed tapes or processed in some way.” Most likely the co-credits are Eno’s way of honoring the first stirrings of a direction that developed during the month-long session. One thing that does definitely make it onto the record is the tape of frog sounds on “Unfamiliar Winds (Leek Hills)”, which came from Laswell’s friend Felipe Orrego, who recorded them in Honduras.

Beyond musical affinities (Material’s own avant-funk evolution paralleled Bush of Ghosts) Eno had opted to work from the group’s base in Gowanus in part because of a longstanding inclination to avoid expensive recording studios, where time-is-money pressure could  paralyze creativity.  The cheque for a month’s time in advance Eno gave Bisi actually enabled the aspiring producer, then only 18, to equip the place.  After that session, however, Eno created his own workspace in his new apartment, a large loft on Broadway and Broome that he bought and moved into with his girlfriend Alex Blair and their cat Poo-Poo.  Although there were other sessions at proper studios-- in New York, in Ontario, in London—much of the work for On Land was done in this mini-studio.

The album’s working title was Empty Landscapes. But the African mise-en-scene that backdropped the Brooklyn session faded out as inspiration, a residue of the Remain/Ghosts phase (Eno had even talked to interviewers then of wanting to move to Africa). Instead, the landscapes gradually took on a decidedly English atmosphere, a nostalgic direction influenced by Fellini’s Amarcord with its dreamlike recreation of small town life in 1930s Italy.

Upon its release in 1982, Eno described On Land as an attempt to conjure up the atmosphere of the Suffolk countryside of his childhood: desolate and melancholy, but also familiar and comforting, “a nice kind of spooky”.  He told Musician, “that mood is very much a feature of the environment where I grew up. It's a very bleak place and most visitors find it quite miserable. I don't think it's miserable but it's definitely a sort of lost place in a lost time--nothing has changed in this part of England for many hundreds of years.”  His goal was to create a heightened version of this landscape of memory, partly by using audio-tricks that were non-naturalistic (a 70-second echo, for instance). He titled “Lantern Marsh” after a phosphorescent marsh in East Suffolk that he had seen on a map but never actually visited. Other titles and sounds had actual memories attached to them.  Leek Hills, as in “Unfamiliar Wind (Leek Hills)” was a wood in which he used to play, while “The Lost Day” featured a “little bell sound” that worked on Eno like the audio counterpart to  Proust’s Madeleine cake. On a Christmas visit to his parents in Suffolk he discovered the reason why it attracted and affected him so much: he went for a windy walk along the river Deben and heard the sound of “the metal guy wires banging against the [metal] masts of the yachts”. It was virtually the same sound that he’d generated using a Fender Rhodes electric piano played extremely softly. A sound that tugged at his buried memories with uncanny power. Hence the title “The Lost Day”, so close to Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu.

As well as an exercise in personal hauntology, On Land was a conceptual project. During the making, Eno wrote “25,000 words on general thoughts about music. In doing that I started getting a much clearer idea of what I was doing than I've ever had while I was actually in the midst of making a record.”  Thematically, he was exploring “a general set of feelings about northern hemisphere living, as true for Norway and Belgium as for England: the big variation in the length of daylight, the endless summer evenings, the endless winter nights – the importance of seasons and their continuous reminder of the passage of time.”   Musically, he was developing an approach to composition and mixing that made no distinction between foreground and background. “Everything that happens is a part of the landscape.”  One inspiration was the Breton landscape painter Pierre Tal-Coat, after whom the album’s third track was named.  He even used “landscape” as a musical instrument, generating sounds using stones and sticks as well weaving in recordings of wildlife like rooks and frogs.  Finally, there was a technological aspect to On Land: on the original LP sleeve he provided a diagram of a simple three-way speaker system he had devised to realise fully the music as a listener-enveloping environmental experience.

Some of On Land’s glinting, diaphonous music soundtracked his first major video work, Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan,  which comprised glacier-slow images of the New York skyline at sunset captured from the window of his downtown apartment.  Both the audio and video reflected a desire to slow down the city’s hyped-up metabolism, transform New York against its will into a more tranquil and ethereal place. “Medieval” was a sideways allusion to an experience of culture shock and stimuli-overload in Chinatown, when his senses were assaulted by strange smells and sounds.  Eno decided that to survive in the city he needed to imaginatively transform the place into something less overwhelming for a Suffolk native raised amid the “aloneness” and “very slow pace of things” that characterized that unpopulous coastal region of Eastern England.  The idea of New York as a “strange, medieval, huge complex town in the middle of nowhere ...  suddenly it made the place tolerable for me....  You can easily live in New York and just see the mess of it. I wanted to make it mysterious again.”

Eno had started messing with video back in 1979. His first installation was accompanying a Frippertronics performance at the Kitchen (Fripp dubbed it “video Muzak”). The early roof-scape work was also shown at Grand Central in early 1980 and at La Guardia to accompany an airing of Music for Airports.  Eno also used a Polaroid snap of “video feedback”, created by pointing the camera at its own monitor, as the cover for Bush of Ghosts.   His interest was to create what he call “video painting”: something that could be left playing in someone’s living room, watched inattentively or not at all, working (like ambient music itself) as a tint in the environment, closer to perfume or incense than a narrative-based artform. The concept was hatched partly in opposition to how rock videos had evolved.  Pop promo directors “all think if we want to make a thing interesting we've got to put more and more action into it. But that just gives you a blur which takes maybe five watches to work out, and after that you don't want to see it again. My solution to this problem was to take the video away from being a short film, a little story and turn it into something beautiful to look at, like a picture.”

Recalling Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan in a 1989 interview, Eno said: “Like the music that accompanies them, the films arise from...  a desire to make a quiet place for myself. They evoke in me a sense of 'what could have been' and hence generate a nostalgia for the future." But in truth they seemed to be more simply a product of nostalgia, in its original sense of homesickness.  While still living in downtown New York, even dabbling a little on Wall Street after eavesdropping on the conversation of brokers at the gym, Eno was little by little absenting itself from Manhattan.  He started to lead an increasingly reclusive life, spending most of the day in his apartment, holed up in the small studio, which he described as “a sort of sacred space somehow”.  He would tinker with music, experiment with perfumes (one of his obsessions), read and think. Picking up on this cloistered vibe, People magazine’s Arthur Lubow  described a typical day in the life of Eno as “self-indulgent and monastic,” and wrote of his music’s drift towards  “an Arcadian kind of yearning.”  Girlfriend Alex spoke of Eno’s “social claustrophobia. He doesn’t like sitting around gabbing.”

Back in 1972 Eno had told Disc that he’d “always been attracted to whatever place on the planet seemed to be the centre of the most tension and energy.” London had been that place; now it was New York. By by the Eighties, it seemed that all the things  he once found so magnetic about New York-- the border-crossing conversations, the musical ferment—had become negatives: a form of  mental crowding threatening to his own creativity and equilibrium. 

 His last North American musical projects—Apollo: Atsmopheres & Soundtracks, made to accompany Al Reinert’s film about NASA and the Moon landings, and The Pearl, made with Harold Budd and Daniel Lanois—were both recorded in the relative seclusion of Hamilton, Ontario. There was also a  video painting of a nude woman, shot in San Francisco, and designed to accompany his most vaporous ambient album yet, Thursday Afternoon.

Once upon a time Brian Eno had talked of being emotionally based in two places: “the English countryside, where I was born and bred” and “the heart of New York City.”  But in the end the heart tug of his homeland would prove stronger. A burglary at the Broom Street apartment sealed the deal of his utter alienation from Manhattan. In the middle of 1984, Eno returned to England.  

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Golden Hour of the Future

The Golden Hour of the Future
(Black Melody)

Uncut, 2002

by Simon Reynolds

It began with musical vomit in the meatwhistle. 

That sounds gross, and possibly perverse: let me elaborate. 

Musical Vomit, a noise/Dada/proto-punk ensemble, was Ian Craig Marsh's first group, and it was spawned and nurtured at  Sheffield's Meatwhistle, a  Council-funded arts laboratory/performance space for bright teenagers. Post-Vomit, Marsh teamed up with fellow electronics enthusiast Martyn Ware as The Future. Then, with a haircut called Philip Oakey displacing original singer Adi 'Clock DVA' Newton, the Future evolved into The  Human League: the first post-punk group to loudly talk up Pop as a Better Way, only to spend three years of thwarted agony as an, ugh, "cult band" (a dirty word in League lingo), all the while watching synthpop peers like Numan and OMD and even John bloody Foxx beat them to the charts. In the face of internal acrimony and creative deadlock, it took an inspired management suggestion (by Bob Last, whose Fast Product label had released the debut single "Being Boiled") to transform one quasi-pop failure into two massive, fully bona fide pop successes: the Human League of "Don't You Want Me", the Heaven 17 of "Temptation".

These 1977 basement tapes, dating from before Marsh/Ware/Oakey even had a record deal, are fascinating because they show how post-punk was in large part simply the resumption of progressive and art-rock, after the brief back-to-basics blip of ramalalama three-chord rock that was punk. It's not insignificant that the League were signed by Virgin (alongside Charisma and Harvest one of the premier prog-rock imprints,  home of Henry Cow and Tangerine Dream).  By 1979 Virgin had smoothly repositioned itself as a premier label for  "modern": basically, prog with better hair, streamlined sonic aesthetics,  and a  less-is-more attitude to musical chops. So the title of one tune on this CD, "New Pink Floyd", isn't entirely ironic.

What decisively shifted them pop-wards was hearing Giorgio Moroder. Opening track "Dance Like A Star" resembles a homespun "I Feel Love", cobbled together in a garden shed.  "This is a song for all you bigheads who think disco music is lower than the irrelevant musical gibberish and tired platitudes that you try to impress your parents with", announces Oakey, "We're the Human League, we're much cleverer than you." His sneer makes plain the streak of hipster one-upmanship behind pro-pop proselytizing: basically, highbrows aligning themselves with lowbrow pulp and against middlebrow student notions of "cool" and profundity. Driven by an idea of pop, The Human League only reached it when they found their own Moroder in Martin Rushent.

In these spindly song-sketches and buzzing lo-fi instrumentals from 1977---half-a-decade before "Love Action" and "Fascist Groove Thang"---what you hear is a group that has as much  in common with Faust and Heldon as with Abba and Chic (the reference points circa Dare and Penthouse and Pavement). Much of Golden Hour is brilliant; the remainder is either charming or, at bare minimum, interesting. Standouts include the early Cabaret Voltaire-like pulse-maze of "Daz";  the doomy, tenebrous 23rd Century Gothick of "Future Religion"; an instrumental version of the Four Tops "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" that's like Joe Meek at his  most ethereal;  "Blank Clocks", an experiment in automatic lyric-writing, in which a restricted number of nouns ("blank", "time", "heart", "face",  "clock", "talk", etc) and qualifiers ("my", "your", "the", "a") reshuffle in endless combinations. 

Best of all is the closing "Last Man on Earth": ten minutes of cold electronic beauty that fully lives up to the poignancy and desolation of its title. Overall, Golden Hour shows how under-rated both Human League and Heaven 17 (just check Side Two of Penthouse, essentially an extension of Reproduction/Travelogue) have been as electronic pioneers. "We are the Human League, there are no guitars…"


Friday, June 2, 2017

Trance + psy-trance (1998)


The New York Times, November 29th 1998

by Simon Reynolds 

The Esperanto of electronic dance music, trance is probably the most popular rave sound in the world. Although this kinetic, hypnotic music has maintained a presence on the American rave scene since the style emerged in the mid-90's, trance seems to be rising to a new level of prominence in this country.
Where early trance was generally harsh, minimal and coldly cosmic, more recent strains of the genre emphasize melody, recognizably human emotions and a warmly devotional aura. All this makes trance a populist, accessible alternative to the experimental abstraction of hip rave styles like techno and drum-and-bass. In particular, trance's dewey-eyed sentimentalism seems to be attracting younger American ravers who are still in the honeymoon phase of using Ecstasy, an illicit drug that many users believe heightens feelings of tenderness and empathy.

Encouraged by the expanding American audience for trance, Paul Oakenfold, Britain's leading mainstream trance DJ, has launched an offensive on these shores, with regular club tours and the major-label release of his CD Tranceport. The German trance pioneer Paul Van Dyk also released not one but two albums in America this fall. And there's a growing following for the fiercer underground style known as psychedelic trance, with a flurry of parties in New York and the start of an American offshoot by the English label Blue Room Released.

Trance's roots lie in the pulsating metronomic rhythms of Eurodisco, a sound pioneered by the Munich-based producer Giorgio Moroder in 1977 and popularized by his protege Donna Summer. But trance really emerged as a distinct subgenre of rave music in Berlin and Frankfurt around 1993. Some aficionados identify 'Visions of Shiva', a 1992 collaboration between Mr. Van Dyk and the producer Cosmic Baby, as the first trance tune.

 Another seminal track was the group Hardfloor's 'Hardtrance Acperience' (1992), which resurrected the classic Roland 303 bass synthesiser sound of the late 80's genre called acid house. With its squeaky timbre and snaking patterns, the 303 remains a trance staple, driving dancers into a Dionysian frenzy.

Recently voted the world's No. 1 DJ in an industry poll conducted by the English dance magazine DJ, Mr. Oakenfold is famous for his role in kickstarting Britain's rave movement with his 1988 acid house club, Spectrum. Having dominated British club culture for a decade, Mr. Oakenfold is now directing his energy toward America. For the next two years, he plans to play at least 50 DJ dates a year in America. On the recording front, Tranceport, a collection of trance tracks by various artists mixed and blended by Mr. Oakenfold, has just been released by the Reprise subsidiary Kinetic, alongside the group Binary Finary's single, '1998', the year's biggest trance anthem. Tranceport features Mr. Van Dyk's remix of '1998'. Mr. Van Dyk's two albums, 45 Rpm (1994) and Seven Ways (1996), sold so well as imports that they have recently been released domestically by Novamute; his new album, Avenue of Stars, will follow next May.
Despite its crowd-pleasing power, trance tends to be despised by dance cognoscenti, who prefer more avant-garde styles like techno (a synthesizer- and drum-based instrumental music) and jungle (a hyperkinetic hybrid of hip-hop and reggae). These hipsters regard overt melody and explicit emotion (both of which trance features in abundance) as "cheesy" — that is to say, too close to normal pop music.

In contrast, Mr. Van Dyk talks of trying "to create little songs, not just rhythm tracks" and stresses the importance of expressing feelings through music. Where techno and jungle producers use terminology from astrophysics or biogenetics in the titles of their tracks, Mr. Van Dyk's most famous anthem, 'For an Angel', was inspired by meeting his girlfriend. Trance's melodramatic expressiveness often makes it verge on being a computer-era update of 19th-century symphonic music. In a similar quest for harmoniousness, Mr. Oakenfold doesn't simply synchronize tracks by tempo but combines them according to musical key, arrangement and dynamics.

Trance comes in several subgenres. As well as the lushly textured, lovey-dovey end of the spectrum represented by Mr. Oakenfold and Mr. Van Dyk, there's also a more bombastic strain of trance pioneered by labels like Noom along with a ferocious variant known as filthy acid techno that's popular in Britain's underground network of illegal raves in abandoned buildings. 

But the most significant subgenre is psychedelic trance. Where Mr. Oakenfold and Mr. Van Dyk's brand of trance favors wistful, naive melodies, psychedelic trance features ornate riffs and mandala-swirly patterns, plus an array of sonic effects that mimic LSD-induced sensations like synesthesia and quicksilver light-trails. The sound is rising in popularity on both the East and West Coasts of America. In New York, promoters like Tsunami and In-Trance-It hold parties with increasing regularity. Vain, a downtown club, holds a weekly psychedelic night, and House of Trance, a record store in the Village, is devoted to the genre.

Psychedelic trance was originally associated with Goa in South West India, the drug-and-dance paradise that lures raver tourists from across the world. By 1996, clubs had sprung up throughout Europe offering a surrogate version of the Goa experience. In September 1996, the promoter John Emmanuel Gartmann held America's first psychedelic trance rave, Return to the Source — a now legendary party at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. These days Mr. Gartmann's company, Tsunami, holds a psychedelic party every second Friday at Vinyl, a club in TriBeCa.
In the beginning, Tsunami events drew a crowd that was 80 percent European expatriates, members of what Mr. Gartmann calls "the international traveling set" — nomads who spend the winter party season going to raves in India and Thailand. For a long time, the only Americans at Tsunami parties, it seemed, were students from Harvard, Princeton and Yale. "My only explanation is that maybe they'd traveled a lot during their vacations," Mr. Gartmann said. Now Tsunami parties consist of 60 percent American ravers, who are turning on, tuning in and dropping in on the psychedelic scene because of its euphoric energy.
Psychedelic trance parties simulate the Goa experience as closely as possible. In India, parties on the beach or in the jungle run from sunset to dawn, whereupon dancers pick up flutes and conches to invoke the sun. In this spirit, Tsunami raves are structured so that the music progresses from "night music" (hard and sinister) through spiritually uplifting "sunrise music" to the sheer elation of "morning music".
The fashion and decor that accompany psychedelic trance also originated in India. "We like to get dressed up for the festival," said Mr. Gartmann. "Women get adorned. They look like goddesses. It's a celebration, an honoring, infused with the spiritual energy of India." Dancers wear fluorescent-patterned clothes that glow under ultraviolet light, T-shirts decorated with fractal-like patterns and sweat pants made of paisley and tie-dyed fabric. Some women adopt a beach bum look (white halter-tops, hair swept away from the face using white plastic sunglasses), accessorized with luminous nose rings, bracelets and bindis. Fluorescent face-paint and hair dye are also popular. For men, a common look is the unshaven backpacker style. At Tsunami's parties, the walls and ceilings are covered with gaudy streamers, papier-mache sculptures of magic mushrooms, butterfly mobiles and retina-scorching mandala tapestries.
As might be expected from the name, the psychedelic trance scene is surrounded by neo-hippy rhetoric, a syncretic mish-mash of mystical notions drawn from Buddhism, Hinduism and other non-Western religions. As such, it resonates with the vogue for Eastern spirituality in late-90's pop culture, from the Beasties Boys' devotion to Tibetan Buddhism to Madonna's flirtation with the kabbalah and yoga. Coincidentally, Madonna's latest album, Ray of Light, is steeped in the influence of the poppier end of trance, courtesy of its producer, William Orbit.
Eddie Bang, who works at the New York techno store Satellite, says that for psychedelic trance fans the music itself is like a religion. "They're tribally devoted to the scene," he said. In many respects, they are like Deadheads, another movement of mostly white, middle-class youths drawn to gaudy neo-hippy clothing, trance-dancing and tripping on hallucinogens like LSD and Ecstasy.
Spiritual vibes and loud colors aside, what makes the psychedelic scene so attractive to its devotees is the joyous frenzy of the crowd, which bounces and flails with a fervor rarely seen on New York dance floors. And although the music is generally held in critical disdain, psychedelic trance can be exhilirating. Performing live at Tsunami's recent Totally Twisted rave, the British producer Hallucinogen transported the dancers into a sonic maelstrom of phosphorescent filigree. Where many trance artists are minimalists, Hallucinogen is a maximalist. His tracks are continually morphing; every couple of bars, a new arpeggiated riff comes writhing out of the amazingly intricate mix.

Because of its Teutonic roots, trance is sometimes criticized as an unfunky form of dance music. In trance, creativity does operate largely on the level of melody and layering of texture rather than rhythm (the usual province of dance music). But adventurous producers like Hallucinogen are expanding trance's rhythmic palette of clockwork beats and chugging bass lines by weaving in dub reggae-style echo effects and speeded-up hip-hop beats. From the growing sophistication of the music to the irresistible energy it catalyzes on the dance floor, psychedelic trance is ready to explode into wider popular consciousness.