Let’s just get this out of the way: the last Brian Eno album was terrible. Like, embarrassingly unlistenable, especially when you remembered that this was, you know, Eno. His 2011 collaboration with Rick Holland, Drums Between The Bells, felt cobbled together at best. The music itself wasn’t awful, reminiscent of the mix of beat driven and atmospheric tracks on 2010’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea. It was the poems that ruined the mood, making for a jarring and unpleasant experience that left one wondering whether this wasn’t some sort of favor Eno did to his poet friend. Telling, then, that Drums was released as a 2CD set, with the second disc containing instrumental versions of the songs.
Vocal tracks can break up the flow of electronic albums and their addition is a pitfall that artists often make later in their careers (cf. the latest, otherwise excellent, Andy Stott album). While Eno is certainly an old hand, his three most recent albums mark a new period for him. Since Small Craft he has been signed to Warp Records, a label that put out groundbreaking albums in the 1990’s by artists such as Autechre and Squarepusher. The first two for Warp were a good fit in terms of tone, sounding like an update of his own 90’s efforts like Nerve Net. Eno’s latest, Lux, is a different beast and a welcome reminder that this is indeed the man who came up with the idea of ambient music and makes music that, at his best, sounds like no one else.
Eno has two modes when releasing albums: numerous short tracks (like Small Craft and Drums) or a few long tracks, which is what we get here. The music on Lux was edited down from an installation into 4 long, untitled tracks, a sly nod to the format of Music for Airports, Eno’s 1978 album which established the ambient genre. There is a lot of interplay between Lux and Airports: the pieces on both move very slowly and the various instruments interact in ways that are not always easy to discern on first listen. It is as if the different melodies are running in parallel and lining up in a way similar to the cells in 20th century minimalism or the Tintinabulli period of Arvo Pärt.
The music here is scored for synthesizer, “Moog guitar,” violin and viola and the pieces feel more cohesive than those on Airports, with consistent instrumentation throughout. A few phrases feel cribbed from Airports, particularly at the beginning of the first piece (another nod?), but overall this is certainly a progression rather than a throwback, with more complex musical structures. Eno’s stated inspiration for the Lux installation was light coming into the window of his studio and, while that may sound banal, it fits since it is hard to describe the mood of this album. It is for the most part melancholy, even dark at times, and yet never despairing. While things do get a little heavier (and I use that word very loosely) around the middle, we are safely back where we started with at the end: a palindromic meditation on nature.
An important thing to realize about Eno’s ambient is that it belongs to a category of music, like Sunn0))) for example, that just doesn’t work on headphones. This is music that demands to be heard in a physical space so that one can discern the way that one instrument picks up the melody from another (not unlike on the two final Talk Talk albums). Much of his output makes one think of John Cage, in the sense that the works of both are often better in theory than in practice. Both are brilliant writers, with timeless ideas about music and art in general. On Lux, Eno proves that he can still create incredibly powerful music that feels out of time and is distinctly his; cohesive yet never stale.