Essential albums: Brian Eno

The English synthesist who first coined the term "ambient" is widely revered as one of the most innovative and influential recording artists in contemporary music. Brian Eno's hand has touched many genres: rock, techno, electropop, world music and, of course, ambient.

Brian Eno

country of origin:

Ambient, art rock, minimalism, experimental

decades active:
70's - 10's

essential ambient releases:

  • No Pussyfooting [with Fripp] (1973, Editions EG)
  • Another Green World (1975, Editions EG)
  • Discreet Music (1975, Editions EG)
  • Evening Star [with Fripp] (1975, Editions EG)
  • Music For Films (1978, Editions EG)
  • Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978, Editions EG)
  • Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror [with Harold Budd] (1980, Editions EG)
  • Possible Musics [with Jon Hassell] (1980, Editions EG)
  • Ambient 4: On Land (1982, Editions EG)
  • Apollo (1983, Editions EG)
  • The Pearl [with Harold Budd] (1984, Editions EG)
  • Music For Films III [with others] (1988, Opal)
  • The Shutov Assembly (1992, Opal)
  • Boxed I: Instrumental (1993, Virgin)
  • The Equatorial Stars [with Fripp] (2004, Opal)

Reviewed by Mike G

Brian Eno is the English synthesist who first coined the term "ambient" and is widely revered as one of the most innovative and influential recording artists in contemporary music. His hand has touched many genres: rock, techno, electropop, world music and, of course, ambient.

Yet while he's been part of some of popular music's biggest commercial and artistic success - leaving his indelible sonic stamp as the producer of U2, Talking Heads and David Bowie - his name is hardly a household word. Perhaps that's because Eno's roots lie partly in the 20th century avant-garde or "fine art music" as he calls it. Unlike so many composers in both popular and classical genres, Eno has always valued timbre and texture over the formalities of notes and chords, though not at the expense of accessibility. Broadcaster John Schaefer wrote in his book New Sounds: "Eno uses the recording studio as if it were a giant instrument…recording, treating and manipulating sounds through technology is the basis of his art". Those techniques are applied with equal tenacity on both his pop and ambient records, but it's his ambient music that concerns us most here.

Art rock and process music

After leaving art/glam rock outfit Roxy Music in the early 70's Eno recorded a series of quirky pop and art rock solo albums, of which the superb Another Green World (1975) is the most obvious pointer to his ambient works. It's a wonderful record in its own right: a seamless collection of instrumentals and abstract songs fashioned with off-beat electronic tones, innovative percussion loops and often deceptively simple melodies. A couple of beatless instrumental tracks “Becalmed” and “Spirits Drifting” show the best characteristics of his ambient albums: textured, slowly unfolding pieces with a certain edge that has always prevented his music from sinking into a sickly new age quagmire.

Although from a rock background, Eno's ambient music bears almost no resemblance to popular song forms. Much more influential have been the ideas of avant-garde minimalist composers such as Steve Reich. Eno’s earliest ambient records, for example, are experiments in “process music” recorded with guitarist Robert Fripp. No Pussyfooting (1973) and Evening Star (1975) - as well as Eno's solo album Discreet Music (1975) - develop an idea first coined by Reich in the 1960’s: a tape-loop/feedback system which in itself becomes as important a performer as the musicians. The two albums with Fripp progressively build up shimmering, spiraling, slowly decaying layers of sound and, although an acquired taste, can induce an extraordinary trance-like experience. The minimalist ethic of developing a piece through simple repetition is clearly at play here; these albums all cast their spell through drones and slowly unfolding melodic cycles that echo the work of La Monte Young, another minimalist composer whom Eno has long admired.

The ambient milestones

On the cover notes to his 1978 milestone Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978) Eno describes ambience as “an atmosphere, a tint...designed to induce calm and space to think”. He also points to its non-intrusive qualities in declaring that “it must be ignorable as it is interesting”, or in other words, be able to be used for background or foreground listening depending on the listeners needs.

Crucial to Eno’s concept of ambience – indeed crucial to any ambient music conceived around this passive/active model - is his conviction that such music can be produced without compromise. Thus, it remains distinguished from both the muzak heard in shopping malls and the torrents of relaxation and new age drivel that his music has unwittingly inspired. Eno believes that ambient music can relax without boring the listener into rest. Its intrinsic values remain.

On that count, Ambient 1: Music For Airports, Ambient 4: On Land (1982), Apollo (1983) and the small group jams of Music For Films (1978) succeed brilliantly. Although officially Eno solo albums, they bear significant contributions from collaborators including Robert Wyatt, Daniel Lanois and brother Roger Eno. All four albums are distinguished by a masterful use of studio processing with which he produces soothing, fascinating sounds and textures using synthesisers, piano, guitar, wordless vocals and occasional percussion. Eno's music has been accused on more than one occasion of being cool and remote, and in this regard On Land contains some of his most uncompromising work. You may find some of the ominous, atonal soundscapes here virtually impenetrable, though given time the album develops a remarkable and strange, spacious beauty. And it is undeniable that at times these albums do display a quality not previously associated with electronic music: emotion. Parts of Apollo in particular, a work inspired by the beauty and awesome mystery of space, are an exceptional listening experience. “Ascent”, with its looped, ghost-like vocal melody, is so angelic and sublime it could make you cry.

A number of Eno's official collaborations from this period are also masterful.

Possible Musics (1980) - the first and best of a two album series - contains some extraordinary mood pieces, coupling Eno’s textural wizardry with Jon Hassell’s totally unique trumpet sound. It’s ethnic elements are subtle but definite and it remains Eno's most exotic sounding ambient project. The albums Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror (1980) and The Pearl (1984) both find Eno's electronics proving a perfect foil for the drifting, Eric Satie-inspired musings of pianist Harold Budd. Eno adds subtle but effective electronic textures throughout and also arranges some gorgeous wordless vocals on the breathtaking “Not Yet Remembered”. The two Budd albums remain classics of the genre.

Among the remaining collaborations from this era, the colourful, wide-ranging impressionism of Music For Films III (1988) is also impressive, even if the album is more a various-artist project than a simple collaboration. It features Eno, Harold Budd, Michael Brook and others, both alone and in various combinations. Two albums from the late 70's with Roedelius and Moebius from German band Cluster are also superb (see Cluster).

Post-80's work

Since the late 1980's Eno's ambient output has slowed down, aside from his limited-release CD's commissioned by outside sources. His most notable music in the 90's and the new century has been his ongoing adventures in electronic avant-pop and art rock - as well as his production work for U2 - and these are albums that are best reviewed and dissected elsewhere.

Only a few of the instrumental ambient albums from recent decades are outstanding. The Shutov Assembly (1992) is about the only one of his art installation soundtracks that works entirely in its own terms as an album. Its ten shimmering tracks for electric piano, synthesisers and environmental effects hover brilliantly between tonality and dissonance, a bit like late-period Cluster without the rhythms. Also essential is the third Robert Fripp collaboration The Equatorial Stars (2004). On this spellbinding recording Fripp and Eno use the same tape loop and delay processes as on their previous albums together, conjuring luminous, floating cycles of notes, propelled just occasionally with a rhythmic pulse. Beatless tone poems like "Meissa" and "Lyra" recall the cosmic ambience of Apollo, very deep and very beautiful.

None of Eno's other latterday ambient albums match the standard of his best work and certainly none are of the same historical significance to the genre. Occasionally they have been quite woeful. Said Q Magazine of his album Neroli (1992): “Eno makes a muted synthesiser go bong for a couple of minutes short of an hour…which leaves you asking, is that the new Brian Eno album or is the fridge playing up again?” Most of his CD soundtracks for art installations suffer from the same limitations, a trend which started as far back as the pretty but numbingly static Thursday Afternoon (1985).

Of the available compilation albums, the Virgin 3-CD set Instrumental (1993)  is still by far the best overview of his ambient music available and includes some excellent rare and previously unreleased tracks.

Eno's legacy

Today there is a good deal of music tagged ambient that goes well beyond Eno's original conception of the word. His idea of simultaneous background/foreground music is actually quite narrow - "as ignorable as it is interesting" -  even though much of the music on the albums listed above rises above this limitation.

But the idea of modern music as subtle atmosphere, as chill-out, as impressionistic, as something that creates space for quiet reflection or relaxation: these are ideas he has brought from relative obscurity into the popular consciousness. And his recording techniques have helped change the way that modern musicians – particularly electronic musicians - view the studio. No longer is it just a passive medium through which they communicate their ideas but itself a new instrument with seemingly endless possibilities. The "studio" today is often a single desktop or laptop computer, its size and capability no doubt mind-boggling to those who where making electronic-based music in the 1970's.

In the face of his reputation as an all-round modern music guru, Eno himself is fairly modest. “It’s quite flattering to be framed as the seed from which all these things grew,” he told Vox Magazine in 1998. “I think I've imported a few quite simple ideas from fine art music into popular music and I think they’ve made a difference”.

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