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Brian Eno - Small Craft on a Milk Sea


Warp Records

Warp Records! B.P.G.S. le Baptiste de la Salle Eno! Together at last! AKA: two great dinosaurs of British electronic music meet, realise they share a mutually dubious recent existence and get down to business. The result: a £70 box set (sold out), a £250 box set (sold out), an already quasi-legendary takedown in The Wire and, incidentally, some music.

Ten tracks are additions to the “good Eno” oeuvre: soothing ambience with moments of excellence and some smooth new age cheese. The remaining six are an argument for why anyone over 60 should never be allowed near a DAW, with exceptions for a limited number of Germans. Unfortunately, on the album proper the former bookends the beat-heavy latter, like silk wrapping a turd, leaving me with no option but to rearrange it. This left me with a vaguely furtive sense of destroying a £250 artwork, but also a 40-minute album with some real highlights that bears repeated (non) listening.

Presented this way, the three melodic and forgettable-in-a-good-way opening tracks segue into Slow Ice, Old Moon, whose title describes itself perfectly. This is followed by the drones of Lesser Heaven and the monolithic Calcium Needles, which is hopefully a vignette for the next “Eno + label” project - a 2-hour drone album on Raster-Noton (due 2011, in my dreams). Slight weak spot Written, Forgotten is a cheesy Badalamenti pastiche, perhaps belying the origins of this album as a possibly-failed soundtrack commission. Finally, Late Anthropocene and Invisible are the album highlights, with low-key electronic disturbances and digital artefacts disfiguring some epic droning expanses in a way that would not have been possible when Eno was busy inventing ambient music. Despite what I wrote above, perhaps this is what sixtysomethings should be doing with digital technology: revisiting their past glories and embellishing them.

The shame is that covering two-thirds of an album is not a review. For sake of completeness, there are six other tracks. Imagine taking a lame miltary drum tattoo and adding some pointless electronics (2 Forms Of Anger) or layering trebly Yngwie Malmsteen shredding over derivative Warp-hop beats (Paleosonic), and you have some idea of what they sound like: dated, over-produced, cod-industrial advert music. There are a couple of moments outside the mediocrity - Bone Jump has a certain childlike 8-bit charm, and the last 30 seconds of Paleosonic offer some abrasive pleasure. But it’s all eminently skippable, if not downright bad.

To return to the extravagance of the box sets, in no way is this worth £70, let alone £250. If I had paid £250 for this I’d be putting it on eBay ASAP to recoup a poor investment. But I would like to be fair, and I know that Eno is about more than the music. So, to make a cross-media comparison: as Oblique Strategies is to the I Ching, is the good part of Small Craft on a Milk Sea to Ambient I-IV. Just forget the middle.

Sam Stagg

Reader Comments (3)

I can't comment on the album, though I did wonder with all the hype and expense of the various packs, as to whether this would stand on its own musically.
I do think however your ageist comments on Eno, are out of line. Do you really think a person gets to a certain age and that 'modern' electronics are suddenly beyond them or incomprehensible to them ? Of course not. People like Eno have been living and breathing electronics, hell - developing them, probably longer than you have been alive.
Diss the release package by all means, but don't bring age in to it. It's irrelevant.

December 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPete

Fair enough, it was a cheap shot. In my defence, I'd like to think I was making a slightly more subtle point: the particularly bad tracks on this album sound like a transparent attempt to cover up poverty of ideas with digital tricks. And that's something that, rightly or wrongly, is often associated with successful musicians/producers getting older, from Bowie to Prince.
I have to question "irrelevant" though. Is it irrelevant that Eno had a hand in some genre-defining albums in the 70s? Should the album be reviewed without reference to them as well?

December 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSam

I was surprised by how well this did stand up musically - I can't say I had the same negative reaction to the more abrasive tracks on the album although I think they're generally less strong than than the "quieter" tracks on the album. I wonder if the more abrasive tracks were slipped covertly into an Emeralds LP, whether anyone would have same reaction to them? Still...that military tattoo drum is bad...agreed there.

December 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJames G

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