Small Craft on a Milk Sea
By Joel Elliott | 20 November 2010
I tend to avoid reading comments when previewing new music, but with Soundcloud the comments pop up in sequence right on the track’s time-line as you’re listening. I read some of these while listening to “Horse,” off Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea. Allow me to provide an entirely random sample, ala Oblique Strategies:
“Eno is (still) God”
“Ohh my. This texture is insane!”
“whats the big deal? a looping beat, Absynth and Guitar Rig. Yawn.”
“Love the jittery guitars Right up my DNA!!!”
The effect is like being in a theater with a group of obnoxious cinephiles, each trying to preempt your first impressions. It is the entire blogosphere at a hyper-accelerated rate: one listen through and you’ve already seen the cycles of hype and backlash and re-hype played out over and over again. I’m sure Eno loves it, he of Windows tones and (admittedly kind of awesome) iPhone apps and Coldplay/U2 on his C.V. At this point it seems like he wants nothing more than to be the soundtrack to daily life: apparently he told collaborators Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams to play what they imagined popular music in the future might sound like. Is he trying to anticipate trends or influence them? Small Craft wants to be the grand statement of non-statement albums from a man who seems to reach for ubiquity and invisibility simultaneously. Unsurprisingly, it’s kind of a mess.
Much has been made of his association with Warp this time around, a pairing that in retrospect seems inevitable: the aging genius marks his return to form under the wing of a label that owes a good deal of its aesthetic to him. Beyond the prospect of unfathomably lavish packaging, however, a rehashing of ’70s ambient/prog/kraut tropes within the post-IDM 21st century identity crisis that Warp still seems to find itself stuck in serves as a reminder of probably a whole host of more enticing options. There was a time when Eno was the ultimate catalyst: his self-declared “non-musician” status forced his collaborators to enter into his sphere of serendipity. Now he seems to work exclusively with artists past their artistic and/or commercial peaks, seemingly too set in their methods to embrace any radical shifts in sound. Sadly, rather than using a lower profile release as a way of reintroducing himself to the zeitgeist, Eno reaches below him, and worse yet, to producers who have attempted to take on a similar role as his. Both Hopkins and Abrahams belong to that class of shape-shifting sound designers-for-hire who think “electronica” is actually a genre title that still means something, and like Eno, have become more used to languishing in the background as soundtrack artists, session players and producers for readily-identifiable performers. Small Craft on a Milk Sea is in desperate need of a center of gravity.
Like much of his ’70s work, the album is marketed as a collection of soundtrack work for films that don’t exist (although some of the tracks are actually outtakes from his work for Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones). The problem is they work a little too well. Eno’s talk of embracing “incompleteness” would be fine if he meant utilizing space and ambiguity, but more often than not it means tracks which cry out for images just to make them meaningful and less anonymous. For all his willingness to allow his music to fade into the background, the best of his non-pop solo work—Ambient 1 (1978) & 4 (1982) and even most of Music for Films (1978)—has a tension that spans a huge emotional range and provides a plenitude that any film would be hard-pressed to expand upon. This is why a lot of great so-called “cinematic” artists actually don’t work that well in films, because they seem like an easy way of imbuing otherwise rote images with depth.
Film music this is, though, film or no film. Small Craft falls mostly into two categories: the Thomas Newman/Ryuichi Sakamoto brand of semi-minimalist ambient art film soundtrack, and the technocrat spy thriller. The former, if done more effectively on past records, at least affords some possibilities for emotional resonance. The gently see-sawing acoustic guitar picking on “Complex Heaven” leaves the notes hanging in the air, while the title track has that rare balance of space and momentum, simultaneously suggesting a lull in action and the tension of uncertainty.
The latter tracks belong to a different album entirely. No sooner does “Small Craft on a Milk Sea” fade out then “Flint March”’s jittery Clint Mansell-beats come in. It’s interesting that Eno is finally contending with IDM, though its also been about a decade and a half since industrial rhythms and a vague sense of menace seemed relevant. Music that seems to be about its own technology in a somewhat ambivalent way is tiring (with the exception of a band like Supersilent, whose sense of dynamics and the human interaction with technology places them on a level that barely justifies a comparison), and ironically in Eno’s case, dated. On first listen, these tracks sound technically impressive (and seem to be laboriously produced and clinically executed) but leave me colder the more I listen. The latter half of “2 Forms of Anger” coalesces into a kraut rhythm, but the idea that this music has anything to do with rock or improvisation in the sense of an audible interaction between performers, is pretty far-fetched. When the album does hint at musicianship, it does so to its detriment, as in the Yngwie Malmsteen-esque guitar shredding of “Paleosonic.”
Eno at least partially redeems himself with “Calcium Needles,” which appears to be a direct response to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works II (1994), chimes and muffled percussion resonating and fading in what sounds like the dankest, most cavernous space you could imagine. Finally picking up on a dialogue that stretches across decades, the track is a geek-out fantasy for anyone (me) who came into this kind of music through these two. “Written, Forgotten” is another highlight, reverbed acoustic guitar spread with broad strokes over a deep bass rumble, with barely-audible disembodied voices adding a sinister dimension to what is otherwise a totem to melancholy. What makes these tracks stand out is the way in which they at least create a space where emotional reactions are possible, though in keeping with Eno’s principle of neutrality, never provoked. In contrast, the rest of this material too often feels either suffocating or vacant.
Am I being too hard on an artist who clearly had his day some decades past? Perhaps it’s frustrating because it seems only now that Eno seems to have fully worked his way into popular consciousness. Also because, for better or worse, he seems to have found a way to at least subtly influence the relationship between new technologies and music in a way that goes beyond the album, or at least beyond the semi-solo reappropriating of old ideas album. Rather than anticipating something new, Small Craft on a Milk Sea ultimately feels like one of the final surges of a style and format that Eno himself is outgrowing. If it points towards the future, it does so with a mind to its own growing irrelevance.