Bald, British big-wig producer Brian Eno is back with a new solo album. Having served a short tenure as the keyboardist and master of all things synthesizer in the exalted Roxy Music, Eno’s street cred in the music biz is pretty much as golden as you can get. He has curated a festival in Australia, scored films (“The Lovely Bones”) and produced for some of the most titanic names in music (Coldplay, U2).

Brian Eno

Small Craft on a Milk Sea

Eno pioneered electronic art-pop in the 1970s with albums like Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) that were highly influential and stylistically ahead of their time. But Eno is also known for a lingering interest in constructing what he calls “sonic landscapes.” He has put out several “ambience” albums, minimalist in instrumentation but complex in atmosphere and 100 percent lyric-free. His latest, Small Craft on a Milk Sea, is a spare, spacey and emotive array of tracks that are most effective when listened to in their collective entirety.

Don’t expect the glam melodic punch of a “Prairie Rose” or the grandiose pop of a “Life is Long” on this album. However, if you have ever wondered what a robot’s thoughts sounded like, Small Craft on a Milk Sea would be a good starting point.

“Flint March” sounds perfectly suited for the backdrop of a “Battlestar Galactica” chase scene. The looping synth provides the foundational backbeat, as the percussion and screeching who-knows-what slowly climb to a tense, frantic crescendo. Spaceship industrial bleeps puncture the song, adding to its futuristic space-age sound.

“2 Forms of Anger” begins with a beatboxing drum loop and smatterings of bongos underneath a white-noise soundscape. As the bongos speed up, a distorted electric guitar is introduced for the first rocking sound on the record. With uncharacteristically traditional electric guitars and drums, Eno tempts listeners into thinking a melody will emerge somewhere amidst the chaos. But alas, once it all culminates in the most traditionally rock‘n’roll sound on the album, it abruptly ends.

The album has clear shifts in emotional direction; the anxious and choppy tone of the first half mellows out considerably to a sweeping, relatively serene (but still eerie) second half.

“Bone Jump” sounds like the score to a robotic version of “Law & Order.” The clean bass line cuts through the rudimentary drum track while the old-school synth and creepy ascending notes add an element of suspense to the song. By the time the track comes to a close, it sounds less “Law & Order” and more like the score to the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Milk Sea is unlike anything in popular music today; it requires patience and a high level of tolerance. Let’s just say you’re not going to blast it in your car stereo while cruisin’ the strip anytime soon, unless you live on Jupiter. There are no singles, no standout pop-oriented tracks, no booming choruses or jangly guitars. The peculiar space sonics are finely crafted and pristinely layered (thanks to two collaborators Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams), but they aren’t something you can whistle on your way to class.

Though there isn’t the instant gratification of easy-to-love tunes, Small Craft on a Milk Sea lends poignancy to the most ordinary of activities. Listen to it while walking down the street; suddenly the tedious scenes of everyday life are given movement, the most mundane activities are ennobled. That is the key to an ambience album: It allows you to see and feel from a different perspective. Brian Eno can do that better than almost anyone.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.