David Sheppard reviews
Brian Eno – Small Craft on a Milk Sea
Today sees the worldwide release of the latest Brian Eno album Small Craft on a Milk Sea on Warp Records. To mark this occasion, we asked David Sheppard to write an extended review on the release. David Sheppard is an authorized biographer of Brian Eno with his latest book On Some Faraway Beach – The Life and Times of Brian Eno.
“Described by Eno as “sound only movies”, the 15 wordless essays that comprise Small Craft on a Milk Sea, the sexagenarian ambient avatar’s first solo album since 2005’s Another Day on Earth and his debut for Warp, will be manna to long-time aficionados, or at least those for whom Eno’s facility for immersive atmosphere is matched by his way with a serpentine melodic hook and fugue-like synth counterpoint. Those latter caprices, alluring hallmarks of benchmark ‘golden era’ Eno albums from Another Green World (1975) to Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983), remain under-heralded in an oeuvre more commonly celebrated for its sonic strangeness and arty methodologies and for its author’s choice in stellar collaborators. So, to hear ‘Emeralds and Lime’ and ‘Complex Heaven’, Small Craft’s wistful opening brace, unfurl with soaring, oddly emotional mellifluence will be a cockle-warming experience for Enophiles d’un certain age – evidence for younger listeners too, perhaps, that there’s more to the erstwhile Roxy Music flâneur than yesteryear’s glitz and questionable latter-day dalliances with Coldplay, the Liberal Democrats, et al.
While the album welcomes back Eno the sublime melodist, it is also a vehicle for aching ambient tone baths (think Plateaux Of Mirror-meets-Neroli), skewed, stuttering rhythmic essays (a la Nerve Net) and the odd detour into sci-fi jazz noodling (The Drop but less aggravating). In fact, ‘solo’ album is something of a misnomer as Eno gives second billing to guitarist Leo Abrahams and keyboardist Jon Hopkins, regular co-conspirators with whom these tracks were teased out during innumerable, essentially improvisational sessions over the last three years. Together they fashion a luxuriant, chrome-clear sound, digitally buffed to a deluxe sheen of almost tangible lustre which at times, as on the frenetically throbbing, cyber-funk workout ‘Flint March’ or relentlessly rasping ‘Two Forms Of Anger’, threatens to burst out of the speakers in eruptions of ultra-vivid frequencies.
These more abrasive pieces, like the equally angular Bone Jump – all zigzagging, faux jazz organ and creepy film noir insinuation – provide contrast with the lovely, meditative drift of ‘Slow Ice, Old Moon’ and ‘Lesser Heaven’. The sub-aquatic echo soundings of ‘Calcium Needles’ and the discreetly pulsing ‘Written, Forgotten’, meanwhile, swathe ethereal keyboard drones and hyper-processed droplets of guitar in subterranean caverns of reverb to create ineffable soundscapes that somehow evoke both tectonic movement and the cold vacuum of outer space.
The geological inference is made explicit on the closing ‘Late Anthropocene’, a fluttering, murmuring, Möbius strip of discreetly interleaved, mildly disquieting digital tones which might have been a choice off-cut from Eno’s 1982 ambient opus, On Land and which, for all its musical economy, somehow suggests myriad embedded narratives – music as fossil analysis, almost. Indeed, while Small Craft… fails to take its author anywhere he hasn’t visited before, his document of the journey is consistently compelling and this is surely the most finely wrought Eno album in a decade-and-a-half.”
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