Last year Brian Eno's appearance on the Warp Label heralded a new period in his work and a fresh approach to the kinds of appearances of those efforts. "Small Craft on a Milk Sea" was an unsettling, transporting and entirely unique blend of several different styles that Eno has developed over his long career. And as great a release it was, nothing prepares one for the utter genius of "Drums Between The Bells". Building on a long tradition of avant garde seers who pioneered the use of the spoken word over top of music, Eno has collaborated with poet Rick Holland to produce a body of work that utilizes the inspiration of what's already been done in the field and quantum lept it forward into exciting new territory. But what else would you expect from Mr. Eno?
Eno acknowledges in his, always welcome and usually self effacing notes, composer Arnold Schoenberg, dadaist Kurt Schwitters, jazzists Christopher Logue and Tony Kinsey, even popsters The Shangrilas and Mike Berry all as having fomented in him a life-long interest in achieving a form of art that successfully weds music and the poetic word. Many of his pieces throughout his career were motions towards this end. With "Drums Between The Bells" he has finally done this in such a way as to contextualize his own musical sensibilities with a particular poetic practice. It is in Rick Holland that he found the right match. It IS interesting to note that there is no mention of Allen Ginsberg's achievement with his "Poetry in Motion" work, nor that of any of The Beats, who most assuredly, at least, were inspired in their rhythm and syntax by the free-flows of be-bop and jazz. So-called 'serious' composers, as well, have more than given a shot at this kind of work. Philip Glass' "Einstein on the Beach" and his later opera, "La Belle et La Bete" , which worked a very original approach by scoring musical notes to the exact speech in the dialogue of the famous Jean Cocteau film of the same name, are both significant experiments in non-traditional or avant garde approaches to song. Ironically as well, Rap/Hip Hop is mentioned only in passing, being seen as a more "visceral" form, which is a 'nice' way of putting it. So precedents a plenty exist for this kind of work. Nevertheless, Eno's contribution is a fitting, striking, 21st century addition to an august history of similar explorations.
Holland's poetry is both luxuriously physical and simultaneously transcendental. It is very visual, serving up arresting and unusual collisions of images that spark unforseen associations. There is wonderful sense of restraint and yet a universe of exploding 'seed-pods' lays waiting in every line. Not quite haiku, not quite minimalist, Holland writes with a deep, intuitive understanding of how the ( at least the western ) mind works, and uses that to send thought-forms and imagery curling out into consciousness. There are many dark, possibly disturbing images but there are many more that are filled with a sublime light that is almost tangible. He's a good fit with Eno too as he seems to share with him what I might call "Scientific Romanticism", if you will. Eno has many times sung lyrics that reference scientific and natural phenomena and somehow turned those subjects into things of great beauty and wonder. Holland's verbal imagery does exactly the same. This is a poet to watch out for. How the words are visually arranged on the page also lends a hand in facilitating just how they are taken, how they set the mood. It is not clear from the credits as to who is responsible for that, be it Eno or Holland, or whether it is designer and typographer Nick Robertson. Whoever it was, a very insightful and impeccable job was done of it.
The beautifully designed and bound, hardcover book/sleeve of the Deluxe 2 CD edition is a thing of wonder in itself. It elegantly juxtaposes Photoshopped cityscape images from Eno's own photography, song lyrics ingeniously laid out on the page and old scientific and naturalist textbook illustrations. The book, then, acts as a visual resonator of the auditory product. Impeccably woven elements of a brilliant whole. The second disc contains that same pieces without the vocals. Their playing order has been re-arranged as well, so it isn't just a rote repetition with just the vocals lifted out. It works too. So this package, the double discer, is really for true fans. What also really works is putting on Eno and Holland's EP, "Panic of Looking" immediately following the vocal/sung disc of "Drums".
Holland and Eno worked in a completely collaborative way on this project, exercising several approaches, where each presented their efforts first then asking the other to come up with a response to that input. Eno states that it was an organic and mutually rewarding time and cites Holland's zen-like brevity and mood as being very consonant with his own musical approach. Listening to "Drums Between The Bells" you can hear this perfectly.
Like "Small Craft" there is just about every musical style or idiom that Eno has ever written appearing here in all it's bewitching glory. From frantic menace and electronic muscle flexing to Satie-like, almost silent, meditations, to the outright Hymnal and some funky funky, 21st century digital jazz, there is a hugely rewarding cornucopia of colours, timbres, emotive evocations and sheer technical flourish. And all of it though, finely honed to the moods, syntax and semantics of Hollands truly amazing poetry. You can pretty much hear just about every 'period' of Eno's work coming through as the 15 pieces progress. None of them are very long but each one has a potency and power that, once stated, needs not to be drawn out.
Eno's choice of voices to perform the poetry is a stroke of genius. The readings were done by a host of 'non-professionals' all around Eno in his daily life. He chose each of these people for the unique qualities in their speaking voices, the way they work with consonants or if they were "vowel-y", and so on. And it works in a strikingly honest, idiosynchratic and original way. No one is trained or studied and the result is far more unique and fascinating because of that. Some voices are recorded 'straight', with little processing, while others are heavily treated, suiting the mood and timbre of each piece accordingly. "Drums" is less disconcerting than "Small Craft on a Milk Sea" as the strict arc format is not adhered to as it was on that CD. One is not 'surprised' by the entry of stronger pieces after being lulled by the ambient ones. On "Drums" the musics 'flow chart', if you will, is more varied and organic. There is, therefore, a marvellously constructed unfolding moving in crests and valleys that makes the music curl and flow in a more complex line.
It's funny how, with each new release, Brian Eno does two things without fail. First he surprises and delights you with the stunning originality of his talent and after the 'glorious shock' of it fades with familiarity, his work then fully impresses you with just how right and natural an idea it actually is. This is a mark of real talent. Even if others have worked this path a bit before him, "Drums Between The Bells" still stands up there with the very best contributions of his predecessors. While the concept of spoken words over music is not entirely in Eno's authorship, what he has presented here, in his own unique idiom, is breathtakingly original. Quintessentially Eno. It is probably one of the best things he has ever released. Brian Eno seems to have a natural facility in his talent that allows him to put into expression ideas and forms that both surprise and reassure you. His work is grounded with the realization of the absolute wonder and the utter strangeness of the every day. Macro concepts and micro detailing. For him, the quantum is every bit as much a feature of the everyday and art of the future is going to follow him one day ........... when it catches up. For now, Brian Eno is an artist several dimensions more articulate than almost anyone else.
Truly GREAT WORK.