Posts Tagged ‘brian eno’

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Halloween Albums

October 24, 2008

Halloween is near, and I have started to pick out some spooky favorites from the music library. I figured it might be appropriate to acknowledge some of the more genuinely scary or creepy albums I have come in contact with over the years. Six might seem like a rather arbitrary number, but these releases are of a rare breed and I find each one to be essential to the list. Of course there’s nothing wrong with traditional Halloween music (the Monster Mash, sure), or some other fun retro music that might be appropriate for the holiday (The Cramps!), but if you want something that might really creep you out, this list might be able to help.

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Alice in Chains – Dirt

Alice in Chains’ second album Dirt arrived just in time for the Halloween season in 1992, and took over the grunge scene with its spooky hard rocking style. The album is almost unbelievably advanced past the band’s debut album Facelift, every song taking on its own texturally rich identity. In terms of technical skill, every member of the band is in prime form despite their drug addictions which are reflected heavily in the album’s lyrical themes. The late and great Layne Staley spits “what the hell am I/thousand eyes a fly/lucky then I’d be/if one day deceased” on one of the album’s underhand knockouts Sickman. We can hear both the anger and anguish associated with personal breakdowns and drug abuse. The consistency of the album alone makes it one of the finest albums that grunge had to offer, with a killer lineup of singles, the hammering Them Bones, Vietnam reminiscent Rooster, and possibly the greatest grunge single ever, Would?. But the highlights don’t stop there; the album also has a slew of brooding, slow moving, moody masterpieces (Dirt, Rain When I Die, Down In A Hole), as well as many other sleeper highlights (God Smack is the origin of the name of AiC knockoffs Godsmack, to exemplify the album’s influence). Although Alice in Chains’ best work may be scattered throughout their albums and EPs, Dirt is easily their most representative and possibly most accomplished work, a scary, fun, and emotional masterpiece of its genre.

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Slint – Spiderland

Considered the premier post rock album, Slint’s second and final album Spiderland is made by a band with absolutely nothing to lose. Perhaps it is this that makes it so startlingly affecting. How out of no where the album must have seen at the time is also probably a reason that it was as vastly influential as it is. But legacy aside, Spiderland is quite a scary album by all accounts, softly building damaged melodies out of nothing and then disassembling them again. As soon as the opening arpeggiated harmonics of Breadcrumb Trail start, it sounds like the beginning of the end. This mysterious, slow urgency pulls the listener through the albums six unsettling songs with great anxiousness. All of Slint’s weaponry is fully formed here; their percussive anger, David Pajo’s atmospheric guitars and sense of instrumental tension, and Brian McMahan’s oft whispered creepy poetry. These elements make for six completely perfect songs, the rocking Nosferatu Man, the quiet, brooding Don Amon, the sadly beautiful Washer, and the extremely quiet instrumental For Dinner… It all seems to lead to something, and when it does, we get one of the single scariest and most beautiful songs of the nineties, Good Morning Captain, which evades all explanation. It may disappoint fans that the subsequent two song Slint EP was as far as the band would ever go, but Slint’s three releases, and particularly Spiderland were all they needed to be one of the most important bands of their genre.

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Boards of Canada – Geogaddi

With Board’s of Canda’s second major full length release Geogaddi, brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin make certain that their love of degradation and psychosis plays itself out on more than just their own production values. In fact, one might be given the false impression of their own mental degradation while listening to the album, it is so elaborately and eerily constructed. Although its format is essentially the same as its championing predecessor Music Has The Right To Children (long pieces dispersed with very short pieces, beat driven IDM), their style is distinctly advanced over their previous works. The album is almost extravagantly detailed with myriad fascinating jigsaw pieces of sound; reversed beats, distorted vocal samples, dissonant chords, and heavy aural contrasts provide the album’s basic groundwork. Although some pieces here are vaguely reminiscent of previous fan favorites (Sunshine Recorder, 1969, Dawn Chorus), every song is highly advanced and vaguely unsettling. Throughout the album Boards of Canada paint as they call it a vast, winding, labyrinthine “journey” through a beautiful and horribly warped dreamland. Once you follow the white rabbit down the hole, something immediately seems very, horribly wrong, and this feeling is played with, turned upside down and inside out at every turn of the album. The more you think about it, the more it scares you, and the more one recognizes its intricacies such as mathematical structures, biblical references, and distorted fascination with the occult, the more one wants to dismiss Geogaddi as pretentious and supersaturated. However, it is a genuinely creepy album, and its ominous atmosphere cannot be denied. And yet the brothers state the ultimate innocuousness of the album in interviews. “…If we’re spiritual at all, it’s purely in the sense of caring about art and inspiring people with ideas.” (interview “Play Twice Before LIstening” by Koen Poolman). Despite what its message is, Geogaddi is an album that genuinely brings you to the brink of your own mind and refuses to let you forget the experience.

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Coil – The Ape of Naples

If any album has ever been literally haunted, or at least come close, The Ape of Naples is the culprit. Created posthumously after Coil frontman John Balance tragically fell to his death over the banisters of his Mansfield home in a drunken stupor, The Ape of Naples is actually a collection of the industrial/electronic band’s leftover material. This makes the overall cohesion of the album nothing short of a small miracle of planning. In fact, it makes little to no sense that this album is more than a rarities compilation, and it is more, much more. Through it’s lengthy textural songs it develops many stories with real life reference points, perhaps outlining both the experiences of the unsettling said ape on the cover art as well as John Balance’s descent into alcohol addiction. The haunting opening chords of Fire of The Mind (the original title of the album) set the stage for an album loaded with treasures, all uniquely disturbing and affecting. Songs call on an eclectic selection of instruments such as accordions, marimbas, horns and pipes, and as always carefully synthesized melodies, beats, and atmospherics. Songs range from gentle to violent, and the album’s transformation is downright scary. The Ape of Naples is an all around great performance from all those involved, but John Balance remains the album’s key player. His voice touches every song in different ways, and his emotion is fluid, sometimes gracing songs with subtle melancholy and other times with spitting anger. The album comes to a close with a cover of the British sitcom Are You Being Served?’‘s theme song Going Up, featuring vocals from Balance’s final onstage performance at the Dublin Electronic Arts Festival in 2004. And with John Balance’s final vocals, locations of bedding materials, tea, and travel products as well as the final direction of an elevator, it isn’t hard to hear him simultaneously falling down and going up.

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Merzbow – 1930

Many non-noise fans may turn on Japanese noise godfather’s quintessential album, 1930, and be disgusted. It is, to put it one way, a deliberately disgusting album, barely music in any traditional sense, and more of a terrifying sound assault. Perhaps best at home in a torture chamber (just how the bondage obsessed Merzbow would like it), listening to 1930 at loud volumes is a potentially terrifying experience that can push one’s sanity to the limit. Once again, it is barely even music, but more an aural representation of a mile high battleship with cannons filling every square inch, all firing at the listener at the same time. Reach for the off switch and the terror goes away temporarily, but curiosity will make you turn it on again at some point, and when you get curious enough to listen to the entire thing, you probably won’t be able to turn it off as much as you want to. There is something almost inhuman and unearthly about 1930 that manages to consistently fascinate here, and even if you can’t bear to turn the volume up higher than a whisper, it is unspeakably overbearing. Everything from the fiery title track to the dizzying cacophony of Degradation of Tape to the final explosive, twenty two minute, ever changing Iron, Glass, Blocks and White, everything here is sheer chaos. For how brutal and unpredictable it is, it is no surprise that this horrifying album is considered a cornerstone of noise music. To say it is good or bad is irrelevant, because it definitely shouldn’t be judged by the same standards as any other album on this list, let alone any form of “art” on this planet.

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Brian Eno – Ambient 4

Brian Eno’s final installment in his Ambient series is possibly the most emotionally startling ambient album of all time, and may be considered to be the first dark ambient album. In that sense it is hard to imagine the entire genre of demonic dark ambient texture without this album as a precursor, although Ambient 4 is anything but paganistic or demonic. In fact, there is little to nothing subversive about Ambient 4 in the slightest, except perhaps its one odd song out, the deliberately creepy Shadow featuring Jon Hassell on trumpet, although if we are talking about scare factor the song is the album’s clear winner. Beyond this song, the album makes its goals known almost instantaneously and follows through with its goals systematically, like the other members of the beautiful ambient family. Moreso than any other album on this list, Ambient 4 carries a wide range of emotions with it, of which horror is only one. The collection of soundtracks to geographic locations here range from touchingly calm (A Clearing) to impendingly scary (The Lost Day). The distant chains of Lantern Marsh, the distorted miasma of Tal Coat, the birds and frogs of Leeks Hills…The album is startlingly emotional in ways that can be simultaneously relaxing and unsettling. On one hand, you get the feeling that at any point during the album someone could appear behind you and cause your heart to skip a beat, and yet at the same time the soundscapes are warm and completely safe sounding. The wide range of emotion here is mostly due to simple skill in production and crafting of music. The soundscapes sound so deftly realistic that the emotion comes quite naturally and makes the overall product quite moving. This may be the one to play on the boombox outside when the trick-or-treaters come by.

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Brian Eno – Ambient 4: On Land

July 1, 2008

Returning to the artist which the series started out with, Ambient 4 falls into the hands of Brian Eno alone. As the name suggests, On Land clearly seeks to recreate emotions and characteristics of particular geographical locations. In doing this, Eno crafts simple but evocative synthesizer melodies and accompanies them with natural soundscapes. The end result is the most dense and consistently fascinating member of the Ambient family.

In making Ambient 1, it seemed as if Eno was concerned primarily with the mindset of the listener and the practical uses of ambient music to relax and comfort the mind. It seems as if within Ambient 2 and 3’s less practical, more emotional performances, Eno now has the desire to make his music more visceral, realistic, close to the human condition.

He succeeds in this on six of the eight tracks here, and the other two were clearly intended for a different goal. One song can be used as an example to represent the rest. Track six, Unfamiliar Wind (Leeks Hills), is a combination of a synthesizer part and a barrage of natural touchups. The basis of the song is a low, wavering inner tone that seems to teeter back and forth between two notes, which is accompanied on rare occasion by a subtle, gliding, guitar part, a thump of a low bass, or what sounds like a nebulous vocal part in the higher tones of the background. These more traditional instruments are supported by recordings and extremely realistic electronic representations of birds, frogs, wind and water. The result is a piece that is so subtle in melody and so supersaturated in texture and detail that one could simply sit and listen to it on loop for an hour and not get tired of it, in the same way that people might go out and sit in their yard at night and listen to nature.

However, Leeks Hills is only one of eight songs on the album, and most of them are just as pleasing and detailed. Lantern Marsh is just as comfortable with itself as Leeks Hills, and makes use of the sound of distant, clattering chains. Both of these songs are arguably the most relaxing, save perhaps A Clearing, which is the only outwardly major toned piece on the album. The Lost Day has more tension than any other song on the album. The opening Lizard Point is also an accomplishment, its changing dynamics almost ceaseless throughout the song. These songs can be listened to loudly or softly, with the listener either carefully paying attention and examining details or letting the music create a subtle atmosphere. Most of the album follows the Music For Airports logic that good ambient music should be simultaneously listenable and ignorable. During times of great stress, one might find comfort and safety in the pieces, and in times of great optimism, one might be disturbed.

Disturbing is the goal half the time, though. Ambient 4 is often cited as the premier dark ambient album, and it is not unlikely that Eno invented yet another genre here. One song in particular aims to disturb more than others. Shadow is a shocker of a song, not necessarily fitting in any way with the rest of the album. It is purely a scare tactic, but it works. John Hassell takes the spotlight with a strongly manipulated trumpet sound that one has a hard time believing did not in fact come from a set of human vocal chords. The trumpet is played over springloaded dissonant bass tones under cricket sounds, and it would make any remotely normal person soil themselves if they played it while sitting alone in the dark outside. It’s just that disturbing. Impressive, yes. But it doesn’t fit in. Also somewhat out of place but not inappreciable is Tal Coat, less of an ambient soundscape and more of a medium for sonic experimentation. It does, however, vaguely resemble what some poisonous miasma from a bog might sound like on a foggy day. Maybe the existence of that previous sentence justifies the song.

Also particularly poignant is the final piece, Dunwich Beach Autumn 1960. It is perhaps the thesis for the album. There is a particular place, at a particular time, where someone is there feeling something, and here it is, in sound. The ending is completely memorable. It cuts off suddenly, like many of the other songs on the album do, and if you are listening to the album on a CD player or computer where silence follows the final track of an album, you will be floored by the destruction through silence of the environment that is meticulously created and reinforced in Dunwich Beach. Part of what makes Brian Eno’s ambient music so beautiful is that the music can almost be treated like visual art. What is there is seen, and viewed from afar with joy in the same way that one might view a painting over and over again time after time. The more you listen to these songs, the more they become yours. Ambient 4: On Land is undoubtedly the most advanced album in the Ambient Series and a perfect ending statement.

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Laraaji – Ambient 3: Day of Radiance

June 29, 2008

Sometime in 1979, Brian Eno met a man in Washington DC named Edward Gordon performing in a park on a zither, an eastern stringed instrument. Eno liked what he heard so much that he decided to utilize Gordon’s talents in his Ambient series. It almost seems too perfect to be true, but Eno did record with Gordon who then became known as Laraaji. The result of their collaboration was Gordon/Laraaji’s first internationally distributed release, Ambient 3: Day of Radiance. It could be said that Eno discovered Laraaji and was the spark to ignite his long, prolific career in new wave music, particularly through the use of eastern stringed instruments.

What is unique about Ambient 3 is that it is the only member of the Ambient series to not be recorded under Brian Eno’s name. Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror was penned under the names of both Brian Eno and ambient guru Harold Budd, while Ambient 1 and Ambient 4 are both credited solely to Eno. However, Ambient 3 is treated in much the same way as Ambient 2. Both Harold Budd and Laraaji are the sole performers on Ambient 2 and Ambient 3 respectively, while Brian Eno produced both albums with great care. Eno may have had some more input on Ambient 2, because the production on said album is much more present, and sometimes the lush production and sound effects cannot be attributed to a piano. Although Eno produced Ambient 3, it is still credited soley to Laraaji. The fact that Ambient 3 is the odd duck suggests that its music will be different, and it is.

It was Brian Eno’s theory from the start that ambient music should be as ignorable as it is listenable. This was the idea that he laid out in Ambient 1, what many consider to be Eno’s ambient manifesto. Out of the Ambient series, Ambient 3’s first piece, The Dance, segmented into three parts, is the only piece that simply cannot melt into the back of your mind, with the possible exception of a single track on Ambient 4. The beginning of The Dance #1 foreshadows an ambient experience. Beautiful chords cascade down Laraaji’s fingerboard like water, and if this continued on for a half hour, it could be quite an ambient track. Instead, Laraaji takes a different approach utilizing the utmost of his talents with his instruments.

At 0:53, the downward flourishes stop, and loud, fast arpeggiations on the hammered dulcimer start. The far eastern instrument is as ethereal as it is muscular, and strong melodies unearth themselves between the multiple parts upon each listen. Brian Eno’s production only does the already breathtaking sound more good. He echoes each strum and pluck carefully, and yet the notes keep on coming through the river of sound with the same quickened intensity. The effect is downright hypnotic in its complexity. The movements of The Dance descend in tone, in that the first movement is the fastest with the highest tones, the second is slightly lower with more string parts to support the solo dulcimer and create even more intertwining melodies, and the third is the lowest, slowest, and densest of three. All three are excellent on their own terms as variations of the same melodic structure.

This is not and cannot be the ambient music that Eno describes, as it demands and will inevitably receive full attention. This is not music you can fall asleep to. Yes, perhaps dance to. Daydream to. Live to. The life force that spirals outward from The Dance is simply wonderful and the piece is one that will stick in the listeners mind for a long time and will likely never be forgotten. This still says something for Eno’s ability to arrange such a wonderful musical occurrence…This music evokes images and creates an atmosphere, but is not the same kind of ambient music found elsewhere in the series, and thus feels out of place. Make no mistake, The Dance is an extremely accomplished work. Laraaji has complete command over his instruments, the hammered dulcimer and the zither. This will be a compelling work, especially for Eno fans who most likely already have extremely open minds and would enjoy world music like this in the first place. But this is not Ambient music in the sense that we might know it as. Whether we need to change our definition of ambient music for it to fit in is completely up to us.

The second piece, Meditation, is also titled to fit its intention perfectly. Its two movements are different in form, but could both be considered ambient music in the classical sense of the word. Meditation #1 is the albums longest song, and moves continuously, at a snails pace to keep the music relaxing. The high notes in the repeated phrase can be somewhat distracting when subtlety is the goal, however. Meditation #2 is similarly slow and, well, meditative, this time with the strings moving almost exclusively in glissandos that range from extremely quiet to very loud, which may also work against ambient sensibilities. Eno’s production shines here moreso than anywhere else. Even after a particular flourish has stopped, it echoes into the silence, making every moment feel complete. This is the piece that is worthy of Day of Radiance being included in the Ambient series. It can be listened to passively despite its compelling nature, but it is so interesting that it becomes hard to be discreet.

Ambient 3: Day of Radiance is the most lively album in the Ambient series, and is probably the hardest to treat as ambient music, thus causing it to stick out like a sore thumb. Although it is questionable whether or not Day of Radiance should have ever been in the Ambient series, it is a glowing piece of world music from an extremely talented musician treated by an equally talented producer, and is a timeless classic of its genre. It should also be noted that the album gave Laraaji his true start as a professional musician. This fact along with the music’s sheer quality justifies the release, but even if you feel like it doesn’t belong, Ambient 3 raises even more important questions about the nature of ambient music.

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Harold Budd & Brian Eno – Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror

June 25, 2008

After Ambient 1: Music For Airports, Brian Eno decided to immediately bring another ambient artist in for the second album of the series. The choice was Harold Budd, a pianist who had played minimalist music in the past and had recently released his first album, The Pavillion of Dreams, produced by Eno. On Ambient 2, Eno is seen as the producer and overseer, while Budd is the solo performer.

And to be sure, Budd takes the spotlight extremely well. Very little in the ambient world can compare to Budd’s playing. He is classically trained, and thus tastefully restrained, but at the same time his versatility is great and he never seems to do the same thing more than once on Ambient 2. At times he focuses his energy on the subtle melodies, while other times letting the notes loose in harp-like glissandos. What stays constant is his talent. Every note seems to matter. Some notes ring out, sounding warm yet hollow, while others feel like necessary side notes in decorative flourishes. Signposts and hooks however are few and far between. In fact, a lot of the album feels improvised, mostly due to the pacing, which says all the more for his talent and restraint considering how easily the music can melt into an environment.

And in fact, he did improvise a significant amount. What Eno has said of his producing of the album is that he would often create complex production setups that Budd would experiment with improvising on piano. The two artists would then bounce ideas off of one another. One such occasion is undoubtedly the first song, First Light. Budd’s notes are echoed and spread out like ripples over a subtle background of ambient tone. Eno plays the same card later on Above Chiangmai, and equally impressive song with just as much density and detail. But this is one of the few occasions where he tries the same thing more than once, and the album is anything but overproduced. The second song, Steal Away, is conversely left bare, in fact, and it is almost always Budd at the focal point of all of these songs.

The closest Eno gets to the spotlight is Not Yet Remembered. Eno utilizes a synthesized vocal part which Budd wrote and Eno cleverly reversed to somehow miraculously make one of the album’s most memorable tracks. Although this vocal part sometimes overpowers the piano, the melody is still the backbone of the song. Budd is the solo performer and the highlight of the album, but The Plateaux of Mirror feels like more of a collaboration than any of the other albums in the series, even Ambient 4 which featured a multitude of guest artists such as Daniel Lanois and Jon Hassell. Ambient 4 is actually foreshadowed here. We hear many drones and electronic touchups meant to represent nature here, and they all came back in full force on Ambient 4. They are much more subtle here, in the form of an occasional side drone or the sound of a bird, but they still add to the experience.

The album follows the same piano based theme throughout, but there is actually a lot of variation. The songs are played mostly on acoustic piano and occasionally on electric piano. These two styles foreshadow many of Budd’s later solo albums that used either acoustic or electric piano. Many songs feel content and tranquil, others sad and melancholy. Occasionally a dash of jazz or a romantic suspension is included to add to the variety. The result is an emotionally fluid album that can at once seem to draw on past memories, while evoking a sense of contentment with the present, and also a sense of tension towards the future. Actually, this is one of those rare albums that seems to agree with whatever the listener is feeling at the time.

What is truly striking about Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror is that all of the songs are interesting and memorable. All of them. And we have Budd to thank for that, but Plateaux is also one of Eno’s most notable production jobs, and the two stand side by side in its creation rather than Eno taking the backseat. Harold Budd and Brian Eno are both talented, humble artists that know how to work together, and Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror is a perfectly formed album, and probably the best album in the series, because their chemistry works so well.

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Brian Eno – Ambient 1: Music For Airports

June 20, 2008

Brian Eno was not necessarily the founder of ambient music. I am not an expert on early ambient music so I cannot cite any earlier artists except perhaps Tangerine Dream and Cluster, but by the time Brian Eno created his first ambient album, Discreet Music, music as atmosphere was an idea that had already been toyed around with in modern music. In fact, even Brian Eno had experimented with ambiance before Discreet Music, in particular with his atmospheric instrumentals on his other 1975 album released two months earlier, Another Green World, and on his 1973 joint effort with Robert Fripp entitled No Pussyfooting.

However, it was not until 1978’s Music For Airports that people started taking notice of Brian Eno’s ambient music. I would even go so far as to say that Music For Airports was the breakthrough ambient album that skyrocketed the genre into the public conscience. Why, then, did Another Green World, No Pussyfooting, Discreet Music, or any of the other ambient works created before 1978 such as Evening Star and Music For Films do the same job? In fact, Another Green World might have. It reigns as Eno’s masterpiece, but it was not focused in one direction, and while it did experiment with ambiance, it was also a vocal pop/rock album. No Pussyfooting was a bit of a departure. It is the first known piece of “system based music” coming from Eno, as he and Robert Fripp pioneered the “Frippertonics” technique that involved bouncing recordings off of one another. Discreet Music was also created in a similar generative technique with minimal intervention from the musician.

All of the aforementioned albums are important, or at least quality recordings. It is hard to overshoot Brian Eno’s importance in most any of his early work, in either his solo releases or collaborative releases. But Music For Airports is often considered his definitive ambient statement because it was the first to ever be created for a practical purpose. It is in some ways generative, but unlike Discreet Music it is less of an experiment and has a stated goal that it pursues and fulfills (and unfortunately Discreet Music is occasionally impossible to be discreet). Yes, for many previous ambient pieces the practical purpose was to relax, but “relax” is a fairly general, subjective term. Music for Films may have been made for cinema, but this is also a pretty broad purpose. As he states in an old interview, Eno started to consider what it meant to make ambient music for a specific environment.

“So I thought it would be interesting to actually start writing music for public spaces…And I started to think; so what kind of music would that have to be? Obviously it must not interfere with human communications, so it has to be either higher or lower than voice sounds are. It should last a very long time, because you don’t want changes all the time. It should be possible to be interrupted by announcements and so on without suffering. So I started to imagine a kind of music that would work in public spaces.”

O’Hare International Airport in Chicago is hands down one of the most stressful places on the planet. The place is huge, and might be the busiest airport in the nation. If it isn’t, it’s a close second to Los Angeles. It is also extremely loud. If you are like me and only take flights once or twice a year, you enter off of the busy street not knowing where the hell you are. You most likely end up standing in line for an hour to get your bags checked and tickets cleared. Then, you go through security for what feels like another hour, being whisked in and out of lines. You take your shoes and belt off too, that’s always fun. If you are lucky, ethnic, disabled or otherwise funny looking, you get screened individually. Then you walk a lot to get to your terminal. It’s possible that you might start your flight anxieties by then. By the time I get on a plane in O’Hare, I’m drained and kind of angry at everything.

However, O’Hare Airport is one of my favorite buildings. I love going there. I love sitting in my terminal and watching people. It is also a gorgeous building. Most airports are gorgeous. High ceilings, walls and ceilings of glass, marble floors. Inside, we have a representation of our busy, fast moving, diverse world, and outside we have wide open spaces that are filled with some of our finest technology that will bring us essentially where ever we want to go. O’Hare International Airport is the kind of building that we will look back on one thousand years from now and learn a startling amount about people today.

O’Hare International Airport is missing two things.

1. Rows of public rocking chairs in front of big glass windows.

2. Music For Airports.

If the airport had these two things, the stress of flying would virtually disappear. Rocking chairs really are that comfortable, and Music For Airports really is that good.

Is it his best ambient work? Hell no. Ambient 4 kills it. Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks is also considerably more enjoyable. However, the album fulfills everything it works towards, while Ambient 4 and Apollo sometimes falter. Music For Airports is a work of art as well as a perfectly formed tool.

The album is divided into four parts. These parts are long, and only 2/1 dips under the ten minute mark. Each song consists of mostly repeating loops of something or other. Pianos, vocals, and synthesizers make up the entirety of the album. However, the songs are played slowly enough that the repeating does not show. This is also because different parts, such as the piano parts on 1/1, are looped at different speeds so that the parts intertwine at different intervals. Eno created each track according to the aforementioned rules, and thus we have a musical album of non music.

1/1 is played with both piano and electric piano, and is probably the most optimistic and well known piece on the album. It’s effect is the most readily felt. Even at loud volumes, the lead piano part somehow avoids being annoying. 1/2 and 2/1 are vocal tracks, the former comprising of only vocal drones and the latter vocal drones and piano. These pieces are somewhat more melancholy than the other two. The last piece, 2/2, consists solely of synthesizers.

Yeah, the pieces are excellent if you like ambient music. I am listening to the album very loudly right now, because it is just my kind of sound. But if you gave the album to a random person in an airport, they would most likely play it, be bored with it, and throw it out upon dismissing it as muzak or the kind of music that people played in documentaries in the 80s (1/1 was in fact used in the 1985 PBS Special “The Creation of the Universe”). Music For Airports was never intended to be an album for close listening. It was meant for Airports. It was meant to play softly in the back of your mind, for the listener to not notice it, and to act as a sort of relaxant for the stress that an airport can cause. The happier pieces, 1/1 and 2/2, are not so happy that they are unrealistic, which Eno claims that most airports end up being. The more melancholy pieces, 1/2 and 2/1, are less sad than they are tranquil.

It’s one thing to consider that these pieces actually work on their intended purpose with wonderful success. What really matters is that this is music for airports, and that is somewhat of a statement, or maybe a question, about what music does and is intended to do. This is the start of a beautiful series of albums and an ambient masterpiece.

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Brian Eno – Neroli

May 20, 2008

In the mid 1990s, Brian Eno went through a string of albums that felt somewhat generic, even manufactured. This is not unusual or necessarily bad, considering Eno’s love for system based music, music that should be manufactured. Also, even the worst Brian Eno albums are compelling and fun. Neroli is a return to basic minimalist ambient music from the complex electronic beat oriented album Nerve Net and the dark ambient of The Shutov Assembly. The liner notes of Neroli explain that the album is yet another system based album, but does not really explain how. The entire album consists of warm synthesizers doodling in the Phrygian mode with a sparse rhythm. The Phrygian mode is mysterious and somewhat dissonant, and the tonic of the scale rarely shows up. But what is the system that is the framework, besides the Phrygian scale? How are the notes arranged and why? What dictates the rhythm? The lack of evidence in these areas suggests that Eno had a somewhat stronger influence on the music creatively than, say, Discreet Music. Which makes the fact that the music is on the threshhold of melody and silence that much more interesting. It is hard to say whether the album is deliberately simple minded or another of his postmodern albums that are of poor quality (see The Drop, probably his worst album. Although it contains a few keepers, the majority of the album was obviously thrown together rather quickly). Neroli can be quite relaxing. The fifty minute length is long, but I doubt Eno expects the listener to sit through its entirety, listening closely. The Phrygian scale is contemplative and relaxing the way it is treated, but it is the Phrygian scale. This is a rare album that you could have probably made yourself, given the right equipment. However, you didn’t. Brian Eno did. Thus, it is a part of his repertoire of sonic tools, and is desirable for those fans that love his ambient music. If you want a place to start on ambient music, this is the last place you would want to look. In fact, if you are looking for something here, the album technically isn’t doing its job. This should be ignored, and while in the background, on the bottom end of your aural register, it should lightly stimulate your mind. Eno has clearly learned the secrets of the human mind and its interaction with sound, and Neroli is another exploration.

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Harold Budd and Brian Eno – The Pearl

October 7, 2007

My favorite member of Brian Eno’s ambient series has always been Ambient 2. Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror is an utterly beautiful record that showcases the brilliant talent of two already seminal artists. Released in 1980, the record came at a time when both Budd and Eno were pioneering ambient methodology. Harold Budd is one of the twentieth century’s most recognizable pianists, not through technical skill but his distinctive minimalist style. Brian Eno always innovates at every step of his career, and he excels in producing just as much as music making. In Ambient 2, the dream team was assembled and an album of airy, minimalistic beauty was crafted. Ambient 2 is an album that carries a shocking amount of emotion with very little sound. Only simple, delicate piano chords are in the music, permeated by Eno’s excellent production. Ambient 2 really is the best ambient album of it’s kind. It’s the kind of album that is engaging when you want it to be, and discreet when you want it to be in the background. You can have just as much fun listening carefully as falling asleep on your couch when it is playing.

Four years later, Budd and Eno decided to collaborate again and release an album in the vein of it’s predecessor. The Pearl is very similar to Plateaux. Enough so that it could be considered a direct sequel. While Budd has a very distinctive style, Eno has always been about changing and developing his own style, making The Pearl a rare case, something familiar. So if you are not into minimalistic piano music, or ambient music, then this is not for you. But if you liked Ambient 2, then this record is completely triumphant. Ambient 2 left listeners begging for more, and The Pearl delivered the goods, and then some. The Pearl is more delicate, relaxing, better produced, and memorable.

Budd has opted for a more varied approach here. Ambient 2 was essentially full of happy, momentous ambient music that did not challenge the listener much. The Pearl has some vaguely dark moments. In songs such as Dark Eyed-Sister and Foreshadowed, the mood is slightly melancholy and mysterious. This is good because, these moments seem to make the album more realistic and engaging. There are also some songs where Budd makes some of his chords dissonant and even accidental, namely The Silver Ball and The Pearl. When he does this, those chords mixed with the subtlety of the music makes for a kind of mystery that is biting, and yet somehow searches for no resolution in the ears. Even when he hits an odd chord, the music is soft, and there is no shock here. It’s that production, though, that cements the bond between the listener and the artists.

The album is better produced than Ambient 2, which already had fantastic production. While Harold Budd’s piano sounds very bare and natural on Ambient 2, it sounds more softer, more produced here. His playing is just as strong, but easier on the ears. Eno and accompanying producer David Lanois are just as important as Harold Budd, who is obviously center stage. While Budd is the backbone and the real draw of the music, Eno and Lanois create the atmosphere with a backdrop of ambient sound that makes even the melancholy numbers feel warm and enveloping. This record is truly a safe place to let your mind wander. Always relaxing, even when it is stimulating.

The first time I listened to this album, I was blown away. I can think of very few other albums that I felt the same love for on the first listen, mostly unanimously great records such as Loveless, OK Computer, and maybe Siamese Dream. That’s all obvious stuff. I was skeptical about The Pearl and I was completely enthralled from the beginning. Upon turning on the album, it seemed to end far faster than it should have despite it’s regular length. And I could not deny that everything I just heard was amazing. Great ambient record.