Artist: Brian Eno Release Date: October 1978
Label: E.G. Records Running time: 40m 53s
John Cale - Viola
Phil Collins - Percussion
Rhett Davies - Trumpet
Brian Eno - Synthesizer, Keyboards, Vocals
Fred Frith - Guitar, Guitar (Electric)
Robert Fripp - Guitar, Guitar (Electric)
Percy Jones - Bass, Guitar (Bass)
Bill MacCormick - Guitar (Bass)
Dave Mattacks - Percussion
Roderick Melvin - Keyboards
Paul Rudolph - Guitar
Arranged, Engineered & Produced by Brian Eno, Rhett Davies, Fred Firth, Percy Jones
All songs ©1976/1978 E.G. Music Ltd.
Musical Context :
Ambient music - though not yet labeled as such evolved out of the experimentalism of the minimalist avant-garde mode in musical composition and academic music theory. Already well established in France and Germany (by figures like Klaus Schulze & Cluster), Tangerine Dream’s prog classic Phaedra had extended the popular influence of the genre into the UK and across the Atlantic - bringing the music out of art installations and into record stores. By 1976, though the musical underground was largely seen as related to punk or industrial (Throbbing Gristle had already formed, taking one page from the Germans, another from Pink Floyd’s early psychedelia), other artists were co-opting electronic sounds for another direction.
Brian Eno, in other words, certainly didn’t invent ambient music. He started out in 1974 with Here Come The Warm Jets doing material far closer to the glam of Roxy Music, David Bowie or Marc Bolan. But by the '75 release of Another Green World his records moved further and further away from traditional pop song structures and began to dispense with lyrics altogether for some pieces. Then, finally, Eno breaks with rock music entirely (though not for long) and records Discrete Music in December 1975. If you have ever wondered why any New Age record label can record Pachelbel's Canon over breaking waves, crying loons, whale sounds or chirping crickets - and still some freak will buy it - blame this record. Eno's Discrete Music records three variations of the notorious string piece, and since then everyone from Zamfir & Kitaro to FSOL & the Orb have obligatorily mucked about with it.
That sealed it - and Eno borrowed from Erik Satie's the idea musique d'ameublement ('furniture music', which was to act as the audio equivalent of incense or wallpaper) which would act as a background soundscape and not draw overt attention to itself. In fact, Eno frequently told reviewers and fans they were listening to his records too directly and loud if they could actually remember whole songs. He said they were best heard barely audible - and this certainly holds true for Music for Films, which is essentially a collection of incidental recordings and miscellaneous experiments recorded solo or with others while working on other projects.
Does it rock? Can I put it on at a party?
Sure, go to town ~ nobody will hear it of course, if you’re playing it at the right volume, and if you turn it up it’ll likely creep people out enough to kill most of the conversation. Like most ambient music, it actually can be great to play while having people over and are in the midst of doing something else relatively mellow, conversational and social - ex. embroiled in party games, arguing politics with a friend over chess, having a refined sit-down dining room type dinner, etc. That said, however, it really is rather solitary music - that is really perfect (daresay designed for) accompaniment to lone creative non-physical tasks: writing, reading, sketching - yes - washing windows or refinishing your coffee table - no.
What’s it sound like though?
The album is an amalgam of snippets, experiments and interludes taped over a three year period as incidental music - so as a result there is really no real unifying structure as a whole. Surprisingly however, this works, the episodic nature, particularly if you happen to be listening to it on vinyl. Having to characterise it, however, would probably have you tossing around words like looming, ominous, detached, rather than ethereal or wistful ~ it is certainly not Eno’s lightest work. By contrast, however, the works are all quite short (certainly much more so than any of his other ambient collections) and as a result it's one of my favourite in the genre. Generally speaking, most purist ambient artists tend to lean towards the indulgent when it comes to track-length (I think most of us intuitively recognize this, having all been subjected to the “Ambient/Experimental Track From Hell” which seemed to noodle on forever1). However, with the longest track on Music for Films clocking in at just over four minutes, the pieces never become repetitive or cloying (a important feat in the genre) - in fact they often seem to end too soon.
Say, for the sake of argument, I love the record? What else might I try?
Well, the real question should be what in particular caught your ear - the longer tracks or the short vignettes? Because Eno really did breed a horde of keyboard noodling imitators. Certainly if you like the extended fragments, Eno’s subsequent material will be good for you, particularly Ambient 4: On Land (seven minute pieces) or Music for Airports (eighteen minute pieces). There are also two sequels to Music for Films, if you like the brevity of some of the pieces, though they generally get mixed reviews. If you liked the guitar noodling, try Micheal Brook's "Live at the Aquarium" (which I think was just re-released) or even, the KLF's Chill Out which is really nothing but one big long road tripping guitar riff. As well, Klaus Shulze’s earlier albums (post-Irrlicht) are a must if you liked the now-vintage sound of the keyboards. Eno also recorded with krautrockers Cluster the following year (1977) & that record (“Cluster & Eno”) is also excellent. Finally, Brian Eno produced Harold Budd’s Pavilion of Dreams the year next (1978) - another landmark electronic ambient recording 2 - and at last partnered with him on Ambient #2 : Plateaux of Mirrors (1980) which is probably Budd’s best neo-classical work on record. 3 And as for more contemporary parallels I would implore you to check out Stars of the Lid (their double-cd "Tired Sounds" was easily the best ambient/drone stuff I came across last year, and "Music for Nitrous Oxide" is a staggering first record) or the later Windy & Carl stuff.
1. Aragon (Eno / Percy Jones / Phil Collins / Paul Rudolph) - 1:37 ~ Creeping mist in a blurred forest at dawn - this track opens with an echoing electronic pulse answered by a distant guitar strum ~
2. From the Same Hill - 2:59 ~ An early evening summer sky lying in the tall grass with slow drifting clouds - straight forward acoustic guitar plucked and strummed, underlaid by harmonized, resonant keyboards and a late breaking piano ~
3. Inland Sea - 1:24 ~ Paper cranes on a purple still lake surface after dusk - bubbling synthesisers with occasional rhythmic swirls ~
4. Two Rapid Formations (Eno / Bill MacCormack / Dave Mattacks) - 3:23 ~ Rainy afternoon with uneven drops against the warped window glass of an old house, windy gusts carrying away leaves in the breeze - glassy percussion over slow methodic bass guitar and warbling atmospheric keyboards ~
5. Slow Water (Eno / Robert Fripp) - 3:16 ~ Putting your ear to a conch shell, or watching planes land with your ears stuffed with cotton - ~
6. Sparrowfall - 1:10 ~Faint stars gradually appearing in the dark blue of twilight - tinkling minimalist keys over an echoing synth ~
7. Sparrowfall 2 - 1:43 ~Long threads of cloud creeping across a pale full moon on a warm, breezy night - melodramatic keyboards ~
8. Sparrowfall 3 - 1:23 ~etc. ~
9. Alternative 3 - 3:12 ~Watching the lights of a distant radio tower as sunset darkens into night - a single repeated key, like a beacon, over drone electronics and spectral keyboard notes ~
10. Quartz - 2:02 ~A full sky of stars far in the country away from the city, lying in the grass, lit up with fireflies - warbling synthesizer ~
11. Events in Dense Fog - 3:43 ~Some of the quietest moments on the album swirl about here and probably the best pure minimalist track - very much in the vein of material on the later Music for Airports and Apollo & The Pearl work with Lanois. ~
12. 'There Is Nobody' - 1:44 ~ A sand dune at the beach, broken up only with long, dry swaying grass - a bubbling keyboard progression over an almost Western-feel randomized rhythm track~
13. Patrolling Wire Borders (Eno / Paul Rudolph / Phil Collins / John Cale) - 1:43 ~ the edge of a forest in swirls of chilling fog - droning strings over a chattering electronics and ebbing waves of keyboard (if there is percussion here, I can’t hear it) ~
14. A Measured Room (Eno / Percy Jones) - 1:03 ~ Bass guitar with early Roland synthesiser ~
15. Task Force - 1:22 ~ Moths flying into a screen window - space-sounding looped percussive track ~
16. M386 (Eno / Percy Jones / Phil Collins / Paul Rudolph) - 2:50 ~Some sort of Leviathan moving through deep murky waters, only just barely pierced by a few muted rays of sunshine - filled with an irregular ticking beat under drawn-out off-key guitar slides and low-level sonic rumblings ~
17. Strange Light (Eno / Fred Frith / Rhett Davies) - 2:09 ~ A pure, peaceful lightening horizon over the peaks of distant, dark treetops after a long, loud night ~
18. Final Sunset - 4:10 ~ a repeating, tingling bell or triangle sits in the foreground while long-held ghostly electronic chords form the backbone of the closing track, until in the last minute both are replaced by slow, wandering piano keys, ringing out, tired and lost (the record, like most of Eno’s, begins and ends gloomily) ~
1 One usually encounters a rambling sonic horror of a 'song' under some sort of social etiquette or confinement where it is verboten or woefully impolitic for you to excuse yourself, i.e. your best friend worked on the accompanying film loops, or your father-in-law produced the bloody thing, etc. While frequently using the term 'ambient' to characterize the work, it is frequently the case the artist simply hasn't bothered to learn how to play the instrument in question.
2 Budd’s later work Lovely Thunder (1986) also bears mentioning if you like the really, really quiet material done by Eno ~ though Budd cuts a little too close to Vangelis in many parts on the album for me (unless you like that sort of thing, in which case it sounds like the Blade Runner soundtrack on morphine).
3 though just slightly flawed, in my opinion, for its overuse of horns, which Budd always seems to do, which he even dragged into his otherwise amazing collaboration with the Cocteau Twins, The Moon and The Melodies.
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