Review Summary: Britain’s great cultural chameleon, back to duel himself once more.
In Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains”, a short story which details the daily tasks of an automated house after its inhabitants have recently died in a nuclear war, there is a scene in which the house’s administrative computer asks (the now-deceased) Mrs. McClellan: “Which poem would you like this evening"”. After it gets no response, the machine then opts to select a poem at random from its database and begins to read it aloud, as “quiet music rose to back the voice”. The disturbingly single-minded nature of the whole affair, coupled with a dreary imagining of one of mankind’s bleakest possible futures, is – to me at least – a bit like venturing into the digitized realms of Brian Eno’s latest release, Drums Between The Bells
I say this because herein, most of the cuts are mainly of Eno attempting to feed some form of rhythm and cadence into the cogs of Rick Holland’s poetry, which is then read out aloud by a motley band of mechanical-sounding contributing vocalists. Now, although far be it from me to suggest that Britain’s great cultural chameleon’s latest studio effort feels post-apocalyptic or even manipulative of the layman, the overall experience of Drums Between The Bells
can still be described as being sobering and ultimately accessible. Never has wallpaper music been so unobtrusively engaging - and cheap, to boot.
The relatively unknown Rick Holland, the freshest entry on the ever-expanding list of known Brian Eno co-conspirators, brings to the table a compelling slurry of semi-conscious, sinewy words which slot neatly into the vocal compartments of the latest additions to Eno's extensive oeuvre. The best part of it is that Holland’s sometimes-delusionary ramblings work extremely well alongside Eno's atmospheric moods and skittery beats: chief among the album’s many successes is the spacey spread of “Dow” (“Ballistic timps and driving lights/Signaling diodes and natural light/Tokyo by day, stock exchange by night”) and the news anchor-like ramblings on “Airman” (“I will see what the airman saw/And hire the view of the astronaut/And hire the tick of the satellite/And higher, where height morphs to night”).
Like many of Eno’s previous works, the accompanying music is shimmering yet tense, and features a considerable amount of twiddling of electronic knobs in the background. But the real beauty in the entire affair lies in the pieces’ openness to interpretation. Each number is equally capable of being personally moulded by the listener to fit his or her personal sonic daydreams. Most importantly, Eno’s latest work contains none of the forced histrionics that so easily shot Small Craft on a Milk Sea
to pieces and rendered Another Day on Earth
to a compendium of useless psychobabble. Gone is the sense of a man whose best days are behind him. In its place instead we find a solid pairing of two very unique artists who are completely at ease with each other and more than willing to take turns at the helm. This, Eno himself would suggest, is the ability to surrender – the capacity to slow down, relax, and be swept away by art.
"Control and surrender have to be kept in balance," explains the artist himself during an interview for the 2011 Brighton Festival. "That's what surfers do – take control of the situation, then be carried, then take control. In the last few thousand years, we've become incredibly adept technically. We've treasured the controlling part of ourselves and neglected the surrendering part. I want to rethink surrender as an active verb." The act of surrender certainly pervades throughout much of the album – during opener “Bless This Space”, for instance, Eno settles into a trippy soundboard groove that handily bubbles along and casually pops the entire record into gear. In the background, Holland’s carefully-intoned poetry coaxes the listener into three and a half minutes of blissful submission. Elsewhere, Caroline Wildi’s near-callous delivery of her lines on “Dreambirds” amidst a spacey, seemingly-aimless piano tinkle suggests that the album is already well within cruise control mode, while the slow and contemplative abrasiveness of the krautrock-influenced “A Title” finds itself in the rather un-Eno-like position of being driven along mostly by the spoken word. Yet, the sudden explosion of digital momentum on “Glitch” is perhaps the best moment on the album. Herein, Eno loses himself completely in the hubris of wanting to emulate a malfunctioning artificial intelligence, and the results are amazing to behold.
However, beyond being unequivocally consistent and easily accessible, the staying power of Drums Between The Bells
runs thin. There is no commanding presence to the whole affair, and, although instantly lovable, the pairing of Holland and Eno is simply too trippy to survive this. The first vestiges of doubt with regards to the quality of the Drums Between The Bells
then appear, and having to settle for a simple yet solid collection of good experimental music just won't be good enough. It wouldn’t surprise me entirely if this became the ultimate fate of Drums Between The Bells
, but I do hope against hope that perhaps time will be a little more kind to it.