Monday, September 2, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #239 - Brian Eno - Before And After Science (1977)

An argument could be made - and I’ve made it - that Brian Eno is the most pivotal artist of the rock era. If one lays his output on a graph with music history it seems like he has been constantly either breaking up the past or predicting the future. His work with Roxy Music took a hatchet to rock and prog convention, making concept over technique a willful and meaningful choice. His first four solo albums played with the idea that pop music could be more challenging than we had been led to believe. Combining a love for rhythm, heavy beats, and prog instrumentation with avant production he created a body of work that stands up well next to Bowie and Can as the tip of the spear of what might have been called cutting edge in the mid-1970’s. With Before And After Science he reached a new level of tea leaf reading. Released in 1977, this album is split into two parts: side A is angular, joyous proto-New Wave, and side B is a gentle and beautiful preamble to his ambient period which would preoccupy the next decade or so of his solo releases. This album took Eno two years to complete, and the ten songs included were whittled down from one hundred he wrote during this period. Each one of the chosen songs feels momentous and integral to the whole.
Also relevant to Before And After Science is the fact that it was the first album in which Eno employed his recently invented Oblique Strategies cards. These production tools were a series of “oracle cards” which when drawn from a deck at random would make suggestions like “Go slowly all the way round the outside.” Eno and his fellow musicians would attempt to act on these instructions without question. This method of creation shares DNA with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s Cut Up method of writing. There was intentional art, and there was entrusting the process to the whim of the universe, and each of these ideas was given equal merit. The result was magnificent as nothing on Before And After Science is predictable and everything sounds new and unexpected.
Opening with the chaotic rhythms and phased vocals of "No One Receiving" we are immediately thrown into a woozy world of off-kilter cadences that seem to come out of the mix like lead instruments instead of their usual background position. With accompaniment by members of Cluster, Brand X, King Crimson, Can and Roxy Music among others, Eno finds the perfect musicians for his vision. With minimal instrumentation he creates a symphonic version of rock music. Infallible melodies are coaxed out of the barest use of drums, bass and synths. No matter how carefully one examines the songs and their instrumentation there remains a certain magical Eno-ness to each number that gives it immediate and permanent mnemonic properties. You can’t exactly tell why, but they live in your head forever. "Kurt’s Rejoinder" will make you feel like you are in a pop music house of mirrors as synths soar above crazy time signatures with unforgettable Lewis Carroll-like lyrics. Track four, "Energy Fools The Magician," is the first hint of the ambience to come - a slinky instrumental led by Percy Jones’ slippery bassline and Fred Frith’s spooky guitar. Side One comes to a close with what I have always considered one of the first punk songs. "King’s Lead Hat" (an anagram for Talking Heads, whom he had just seen for the first time and would go on to produce) storms out of the gates with Andy Fraser’s crashing drums, marching handclaps, and clanging metal, and is punctuated by a deranged Fripp guitar solo. It bristles with spiky energy that would have fit in on a Magazine or Buzzcocks album.
If side A is a sonic report on rock’s contemporaneous state, side two is a never ending dream balm. Faultlessly melodic, "Here He Comes" is a beautiful and simple song with Phil Manzanera’s guitar and Paul Rudolph’s fretless bass solo playing off each other ecstatically. As side B progresses, we can hear Eno working his way toward ambiance. "Julie With" is a whisper of a song whose lyrics evoke beauty, eroticism and dread equally. Nothing but sparse keyboards, droning guitar and bass provide the gentle background. Eno intones "I am on an open sea, just drifting as the hours go slowly by/ Julie with her open blouse is gazing up into the empty sky." It is the audio equivalent of a Renoir painting - hazy, dreamlike, lovely. The album closes with the sublime "Spider And I" which finds Eno alone with synth waves, moody bass and the lines "We sleep in the morning, we dream of a ship that sails away…a thousand miles away." Eno’s muse was about to set sail. When Eno followed this album with more than half a dozen contemplative instrumental albums which plumbed the quiet recesses of modern art, it should have surprised no one at all. Side two of Before And After Science sounds like a man quietly slipping under the inky surface of his own artistic impulses with no intention of breaking the surface anytime soon. It is a sublimely quiet and singular listening experience. My highest endorsement is that for years I would go to sleep to side two of Before And After Science, and I never had any nightmares.
- Paul Epstein

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