Release Date: Jul 5, 2011
Record label: Warp
Genre(s): Electronic, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Club/Dance
An album of poetry set to music might not be what the world wants from Brian Eno: Collaborator on some of the most-loved albums by U2, David Bowie, and Talking Heads, the veteran super-producer is also the father of ambient music, yet nothing hogs a sonic stage like someone talking. Enter British poet Rick Holland, whose concise, alliterative abstraction conveys an innate musicality. Playing most of the accompaniment himself, Eno surrounds a small cast of speakers (barring strong accents and precise diction) with sounds that recall Eno's career highlights.
There’s probably only one musician who could gracefully meld poetry with ambient and electronic music without losing important aspects of either, and as expected, it’s the indomitable Brian Eno who has managed it. Drums Between the Bells is another collaborative album from a man who reshaped the face of modern popular music, and for this installation, he joins with poet Rick Holland to continue pushing at pop music’s fundamentals. In the process, Brian Eno has released something as evocative as anything he’s done in 20 years.
For all of his prolificacy, his repertoire, his universal influence and all the hushed tones surrounding his name, Brian Eno has never really made music for singing. He’s certainly played around with the idea; his landmark work through the ‘70s featured intermittent vocal support, and his partnership with David Byrne has produced some honest-to-god pop songs—but most of these moments seemed entwined to the very essence of the music, the songwriting becoming a primary instrument. This isn’t the case with Drums Between the Bells; while texturally it runs the gambit of Eno’s various guises over the years, the voices present are coming through clearer, and more deliberately than ever before.
Brian Eno started working with poet Rick Holland when they met in the late 90s. On Drums Between The Bells, the result of this long-standing relationship, Holland provides the lyrics, Eno plays the lion's share of instruments, and both, with many collaborators, do the vocals. We hear Eno first, on Bless This Space, though it's the heavily accented, synthesized voice of Poland's Grazyna Goworek on Glitch that grounds the album.
Drums Between the Bells is a collaboration by producer Brian Eno and poet Rick Holland. It was recorded just after Eno finished work on 2010's Small Craft on a Milk Sea, his debut for Warp, and it followed on the release schedule less than a year later. In that sense, the timing was good for such a risky project. Music and poetry are often difficult companions, and combining them is best left to experts; fortunately, Eno is just such an expert.
It would be wrong to call Brian Eno a blank slate, but the tenor of his output in the least 30 years, and in some ways throughout his entire career, has been largely influenced by his choice of collaborator. Starting with his monumental work with Robert Fripp on 1975’s No Pussyfooting, Eno’s oeuvre has been increasingly defined by his partnerships, so much so that he’s only released one proper solo album in the last 10 years—compared to six collaborative efforts. Paired with years of celebrated production work, his role in defining Bowie’s best period, a lingering legacy as the mad genius behind Roxy Music, and his stellar work with David Byrne and John Cale, Eno stands out as one of music’s best sidekicks, a probing mind who takes a backseat even when he’s doing most of the work.
Brian Eno completed the artwork for his latest Warp release, Drums Between The Bells, after spending time in São Paulo, “the most city-ish city in the western world. ” The results, his photos of that cityscape put through the Photoshop grinder, look like Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1972 Walls Paper series, or posterized versions of Gerhard Richter scrapescapes, or the stuttering spread of an image under the pixel-thin incisions and misguided approximations of video codec failure. Although I’d be very willing in any case to judge a book (or any other text) by its cover, I feel it’s especially justified with Eno, an orchestrator — or should I say enabler — of images who intertwines his panmedial, inter-arts endeavors so thoroughly.
Who's your Brian Eno? The art-pop savant of Here Come the Warm Jets? The ambient theorist of Discreet Music? The prog-jazz dabbler of Nerve Net? Or the film music composer of Small Craft on a Milk Sea? Maybe you think of him mainly as a virtuoso technician, an innovative pop producer, a prodigious collaborator, or a visionary mixed-media artist. His broad range of talents and activities makes getting your head around his catalogue about as plausible as giving him a haircut, and it's natural for us to establish our own versions of what his baseline aesthetic is. Whoever the "real" Eno is to you, he's bound to show up at least once on his second LP for Warp Records, a mercilessly erratic collaboration with the poet Rick Holland.
Not since Jack Kerouac recited over a piano has poetry had much pop life. Ambient icon Brian Eno aims to reanimate that tradition with Drums Between the Bells, taking the minimalist poems of Rick Holland and setting them in another digital world. The glitch distortions and keyboard drones are well chosen, even when guest readers (including a woman from Eno’s gym) prove hit and miss.
Where do song lyrics stop and poems begin? Unless you happen to be one of those rabid Dylanologists who aim to dissect every last line of the groaning walnut’s output – including ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ – it’s usually not hard to tell the difference. Of course, staking your syllabic tent in the muddy middle ground where words don’t fit neatly into the boxes marked ‘poem’, ‘lyric’ or, indeed, ‘prose’ can lead to all sorts of wonders, and little would be added to the greatest work of, say, Patti Smith, Gil Scott-Heron, Ivor Cutler, Arab Strap or MF Doom by printing it on archival paper and poring over it in silence. But at the same time, one definition of ‘poetry’ is a kind of self-sufficiency that lyrics lack: it makes its own music.
In David Byrne's tour film, Ride, Rise, Roar, Brian Eno admits he doesn't really like lyrics, and in the accompanying notes for this second Warp album in only a few months, he admits the "liberation" of realising that a song needn't involve singing. Hence this album of musical speech, which involves Eno sculpting music around voices he likes, from poet Rick Holland, to a woman he met on the street near the studio, and a lady from the local health club. Although this sounds as if he is taking the mickey, the results are often rather highbrow.
Ambient purveyor Brian Eno and poet Rick Holland have had a quiet partnership going for over ten years now. It started with a chance encounter at the highly academic Map-Making Project and led to some recording sessions in 2003, where Eno and Holland would take a stab at sound collages that fused their fortes together. Time went on and the two men worked on these sound poems at a leisurely pace.
Fairly or not, Brian Eno has the reputation of a mad genius, the proverbial man behind the curtain, the powerful, if hidden, force behind many influential musical moments. For example, when a member of art rockers Roxy Music, he reportedly stayed back at the mixing board for the first few tours, adding synths and adjusting sounds. Some of his legendary ambient recordings sound post-human, as if the intent were to remove himself from the equation.
Veteran musical pioneer teams up with “thinker and writer”. Wyndham Wallace 2011 It’s hard to know what’s more surprising: the fact a man approaching his mid-60s continues to release groundbreaking music in such quantities that this is his second album in less than a year, or the fact that this latest, a collaboration with poet Rick Holland, is arguably as exciting as anything he’s done for a while. It’s up against stiff competition, too: his last, 2010’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea – his debut for the dependable Warp Records – proved he remains as relevant as ever, and it was preceded two years earlier by a welcome reunion with David Byrne for Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.
Art rock, by its very name, implies a certain level of pretention not common to other subgenres and categorical demarcations. Bubblegum pop, acid house, chillwave, folktronica, you name it – none of these styles have that uncanny ability to evoke highfaluting snobbery like those tagged with the “art” prefix. Brian Eno – famed songwriter, producer, electronic innovator, and musical demigod – might have become part of our collective consciousness through his pioneering ambient compositions back in the 1970’s, but the man’s backstory with Roxy Music and partnerships with the likes of David Bowie and Robert Fripp over the years also mean that there’s almost always a foray into more esoteric fare on the horizon.
According to many of his friends, the most striking talent of former president George H.W. Bush is for the accumulation of names on the world's best Rolodex. For all his manipulations of space and sonics, ear for the gauche and the sublime, and fondness for the grand gesture as much as for the quiet, sustained synth block chord, Brian Eno accepts projects like the scion he is: he may turn a modest profit, and it might be fun.