Echoes’ #1 Icon, Brian Eno Holds a Dark Tiller on Small Craft on a Milk Sea
German bands like Neu!, Harmonia, and Cluster have been getting a lot of attention lately, constantly named-dropped as influences on younger bands. Of course, almost no one knew about these artists back in the 70s when they laid down their seminal work. But Brian Eno did. On his way to producing David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, he stopped off and worked with all the members of those bands and brought some of their sound into his own music.
With Small Craft on a Milk Sea, he returns to that experimental electronic spirit,albeit with updated technology and a couple of consummate musicians and sound manipulators, guitarist Leo Abrahams and keyboardist Jon Hopkins.
It’s been 5 years since his last solo release, Another Day on Earth, but Small Craft isn’t the groundbreaking album one might expect. Instead, it has the feel of an artist shaking out ideas that have been contained and restrained after several years producing music for Coldplay, Paul Simon and U2. There are no clever pop songs like his David Byrne collaboration here. Based around jam sessions with Hopkins and Abrahams, Small Craft sounds like he just spewed out all the experimental, non-pop sounds he’s held in check.
The album is a three-part arc that begins in ambiance, crests at rhythmic angst and returns to ambiance, but shaken. The first three songs, “Complex Heaven,””Small Craft on A Milk Sea” and the opening “Emerald and Lime,” (although the on-line clips list it as “Emerald and Stone”) are gorgeous melodic themes that owe a debt to Cluster in their Sowiesoso/Grosses Wasser period. Channeling their inner Harold Budd, Hopkins and/or Eno, sculpt these pieces with tremulous keyboard lines on songs that recall some of the most haunting themes from Eno’s Another Green World.
The calm is quickly slashed and burned by the juggernaut groove of “Flint March” which lock-steps into the psychedelic Krautrock of “Home” with a double-speed jungle rhythm and jagged slabs of sound. Machine-shop tools riff in mechanistic fury while Leo Abrahams mutates his guitar, every now and then letting out a distorted, Krimsonesque cry. Apparently Eno has found his new Fripp in this now long-time collaborator.
You can hear elements of Faust on some tracks while “2 Forms of Anger” begins with a tribal beat redolent of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts before it slips into a rock solid motoric groove straight out of Neu! with Leo Abrahams ripping out slash and burn guitar riffs. Jon Hopkins has a big influence on this middle section of the album. He’s a sonic mutator who revels in distorted, discordant sounds and Abrahams isn’t far behind him. It’s on these violently aggressive tracks that Small Craft hits heavy seas.
With “Slow Ice, Old Moon,” Small Craft makes a sudden tack into avant-garde waters, dipping deeply into the sound of Morton Subotnick, Bebe & Louis Barron and Pierre Henry. Looping haunted house sounds and Dark Shadows-organ set up for a descent into the ever abstract sound world of “Calcium Needles” with it’s clangorous bells echoing into the abyss of sub-bass groans and descending electronic bongs that sound like something off of Eno’s Bloom iPhone App.
“Written, Forgotten” begins the return home to more gentle, ambient spaces, the journey into nightmare over, peace reigns again, until we slip back into dreams and beyond.
Creative restlessness is at the heart of Small Craft on a Milk Sea which makes for some neck-breaking twists and uncomfortable collisions. The jam session aspect often locks into a formless repetition riveted by machine rhythms. But this trio is pursuing a different kind of music that eschews form, melody and hooks in favor of joyful, yet aggressive noise. These are boys at play, sometimes pensive and thoughtful and living inside their own heads, but also destructive, torturing sounds on tracks like “Horse.” For three musicians with such vast melodic and textural gifts, much of Small Craft sounds like outtakes and half finished concepts. When Neu! and Harmonia hit those long, crushing, hypnotic grooves like “Hallogallo” and “Negativland,” you could listen to them forever. I can’t say the same for many of the vignette length pieces on Small Craft on a Milk Sea .
John Diliberto ((( echoes )))