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Brian Eno
Small Craft On A Milk Sea Frances Morgan , December 3rd, 2010 11:34

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Brian Eno's Music For Films was released in 1978. A compilation album of short, fragmentary instrumentals, it was pitched somewhere between conceptual and functional: some of the tracks did, in fact, end up in films, but Music For Films was also an exercise in soundtracking the cinema of the imagination, trying to synthesise imaginary, filmic moments and blur the divisions between sound and vision.

His new album, the first Eno release on Warp – the fact of which sets it up as some kind of brave new beginning – is something of a sequel to that album, and to More Music for Films (1983) and Music For Films Vol 3 (1988), with its short tracks, impersonal, cyclical melodies and mood-led sonics. It is, more literally, film music: Small Craft On a Milk Sea's genesis was as unused music for Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, reworked and jammed on by Eno and current choice collaborators Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins. So it is not a new idea, nor a new collaboration, nor a very new-sounding album, but Eno's music has always aimed at timelessness, at once new and not new, eschewing rock's linear narratives to swim around in numerous parallel nows.

It is not Eno's fault – although it's not been to his disadvantage either – that the 'soundtrack to an imaginary film' concept is now so commonplace that it no longer stands up as a concept, it's just a thing, a clump of words, no more meaningful than 'rock' or 'punk'. Nor is it his fault that he's now releasing this would-be conceptual mood music in 2010, into a hungry data-stream of sounds and images in which it can seem as if everything is functional, everything has its place and its reference points, and each sound has a visual analogue already. This multiplicity can be exciting, but take too much notice of it and it can also be enervating, flattened, dry like a guitar going straight into a Powerbook; choice can alchemise into blandness, as if everything has been compressed into one narrow bandwidth. Unfortunately, a fair bit of Small Craft inhabits that bandwidth.

Small Craft is not literally lacking in dynamics or diversity of instrumentation, but perhaps that's the problem - there is too much at Eno, Abrahams and Hopkins' fingertips for them to achieve that lovely, ominous and slightly clunky fragility you hear in Eno's best ambient works. The best tracks, 'Complex Heaven', ‘Slow Ice’, Old Moon' and 'Late Anthropocene', keep it murky and simple, hinting at things unheard and unseen and holding back overly smooth melodic gestures. In almost direct contrast to Small Craft's distant forebear, Music For Films, the fragmentary feel (most tracks are around three minutes long) is unsatisfyingly noticeable. On the 1978 album, the equally short tracks – most around the two-minute mark – drift and cluster like a phrases in a conversation, their brevity just part of a more detailed whole. Here, the best track is probably the longest, 'Late Anthropocene', because it feels the most committed and developed.

The middle, 'fast' section of the album has commanded some attention for its 'abrasive', rocking feel, but it is here that those compressed, flattened qualities really come to the fore. These tracks do indeed sound like film music – 'Horses' reminds me of the bit in a cyber-thriller where someone does some high-level hacking before running down some stairs really fast, while 'Flint March' and 'Paleosonic' summon stylish, CGI urban dystopias – but in the sense that, were it to come booming from the surround sound at your multiplex, you'd barely notice it. It's skilfully delivered – Hopkins is an experienced film soundtracker – but some film music only really works when you can watch a building blowing up at the same time.

Abrasiveness is a delicious quality, properly done. Here, and on 'Two Forms of Anger' most of all, the idea of abrasion is delivered with an unappealing good-manneredness, the airless, amp-less guitar interjecting little post-punk scrapes and squiggles at just the right intervals over a rumbling drum sequence and synth squelches. The track then breaks into a joyless, NME-friendly, bloke-motorik that's even more of a disappointment for being delivered by one of the few Krautrock contemporaries who really 'got' what kosmische music was about, who really dug its playfulness and strangeness.

Eno is cleverer than I am, and has made some of the most distinctive music of the last forty years; I've listened to and loved it for almost two decades myself, never tiring of it, often turning to it. So it baffles me that he picked 'Two Forms of Anger' to the be the album's trailer, releasing it two months ahead of the whole thing, given the better, less 'rock', tracks on the record. Perhaps he asked his collaborators what people were listening to at the moment; perhaps he had a chat with Rother about the success of Hallogallo 2010. Perhaps this is his reading of the current state of alternative rock music – that it's shallow, insular, obsessed with namedropping the past and getting things 'right' – and he's feeding it back to us, mischievously. As a fan, I might be making a leap of logic too far, but perhaps Small Craft on a Milk Sea is the Eno our generation deserves.

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Dec 3, 2010 4:45pm

you always think people are cleverer than you! it's never true. and you don't make bloody embarassing art, betray your contemporaries, or produce Coldplay albums. so think on, lady.

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Dec 3, 2010 5:15pm

In reply to Petra:

Thanks, Petra! That made me laugh out loud - and you're right, I have never produced a Coldplay album. Although in a way I don't think that's the worst thing he's ever done. I like that Eno does things that are naff; I like that he doesn't really care. It would be cool to think that one could do that and still make interesting work alongside it, but not on the evidence of this album, I don't think :-(

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Dec 3, 2010 5:23pm

In reply to Frances :

(I don't think *so*, is what I meant to say!)

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Dec 4, 2010 12:37am

Go to More Dark Than Shark at for everything about Brian Eno...

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Johnny Nothing
Dec 4, 2010 12:10pm

This appears to be another case of the world catching up and perhaps overtaking. And if even Eno can't find new shapes and textures then either we have come to the end of it all or he is a spent force. I imagine it's likely to be the second of these.

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Dec 11, 2010 4:03pm

Dear Frances, your review is the first I've read of Small Craft, although I've been told there have been many other negative reactions. Increasingly nowadays I seek out reviews only after I’ve given myself sufficient time to make my own sense of a record, film or book. Like you, I’m long acquainted with Eno’s ouevre, but I don’t share your low opinion of this new record. What I hear is a set of small group improvisations informed by and collaged against Eno’s ambient sensibilities.

I find compositions like Late Anthropocene to be delicate, beautifully judged performances and I’ve also been really enjoying the sense of live performance on the more abrasive tracks. I wish the trio would stretch out and explore these at greater length. At times there's a strong sense of hyper-sterility that I hear as very contemporary and deliberate on Eno's part (particularly audible also on the much less engaging The Drop). I really enjoy the rubbing up against and occasional merging of two of Eno’s key narratives: the ambient minimising of sonic activity and the small group creation of abstract narrative a la Another Green World and more recently Nerve Net - both of which I think are more appropriate comparisons than Music For Films. Just as Kraftwerk’s Tour de France Soundtracks deepens, extends and subtly reconfigures their narrative without radically reinventing their music, I don’t hear Small Craft as revolutionary, but at this stage I don’t expect that.

I hear a sense of disappointment that might be a reaction to the pre-release marketing undertaken by Warp. I think your final paragraph and the reference to "NME-friendly, bloke motorik" undermines the well-made arguments in the rest of the piece: Eno clearly doesn't work in such ways. I would like to hear Eno continue to develop and explore the possibilities heard on Small Craft rather than move on to a different project. To these ears it's the best thing he's done in years.

PS my coverage of Small Craft's design can be seen here:

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Frederick Harrison
Dec 14, 2010 4:15am

Was the "soundtrack to an imaginary film" concept pioneered by Jack Bruce with "Theme from an Imaginary Western" (later covered by Mountain)?

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