Music: Ambient pioneer, renaissance man - Brian Eno
Published 24/04/2016 | 02:30
Is there another figure as significant in contemporary music who has a CV as utterly eccentric as Brian Eno? Here is a man who is rightly regarded as an electronica visionary and a record producer who has added a touch of cool to some of the world's biggest rock bands, but who also doesn't say no when the likes of Jason Donovan comes calling. Yes, that Jason Donovan.
He may have left giant footprints on contemporary music, but Eno has had his fair share of WTF? moments, not least in 2008 when he co-wrote and produced a track for the Aussie soap actor-turned-pop star's comeback album Let It Be Me. To add insult to the injury of Eno's greatest admirers, Donovan promptly left the song off the album, saying its mood didn't fit the other material. It was subsequently released as a bonus track.
Donovan, it turned out, was a neighbour of Eno's, and the musician/producer/writer was happy to help out when called upon. In some ways, it's this willingness to try anything - to work with anybody - which makes the man born Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno so intriguing.
He has been busy with collaborative albums of late, the most recent being a pair of hit-or-miss albums with Karl Hyde of Underworld two years ago. But now, for the first time in five years, the former Roxy Music member has released a solo album, and it's a triumph. The sweeping 21-minute title track is on brian-eno.net for your aural pleasure right now.
The Ship is inspired by the most famous vessel of them all, the Titanic, and can be filed alongside that other essential ambient album about the doomed liner, Gavin Bryars' The Sinking of the Titanic. That 1975 work - a landmark in British experimental music - was released on Eno's own Obscure Records.
The Ship, featuring two lengthy tracks, fuses Eno's wonderfully atmospheric and haunting electronic instrumentals with his own vocals, something of a rarity of late. It wasn't always that way. Early, post-Roxy albums like Here Come the Warm Jets and his 1975 masterwork, Another Green World, featured his singing. Yet, his voice has never sounded as disembodied or eerie as it does on the title track, or as profound and moving as you'll hear on 'Fickle Sun', when he sings of "the boys [soldiers] falling down/turning to ashes every one".
The story of the Titanic and the war-torn turmoil the globe was thrown into just two years later, have long captivated Eno. "One of the starting points," he writes on his website, "was my fascination with the First World War, that extraordinary transcultural madness that arose out of a clash of hubris between empires. It followed immediately after the sinking of the Titanic, which to me is its analogue.
The Titanic was the Unsinkable Ship, the apex of human technical power, set to be Man's greatest triumph over nature."
It's not, of course, the first time that Eno has delivered great music when exploring the concept of man trying to best nature. My favourite of all his albums is 1983's Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, a work he made, in conjunction with Daniel Lanois, for an ambitious feature length documentary on US space exploration of the 1960s and 70s. Directed by Al Reinhart, it was finally released as For All Mankind in 1989.
The completed film is stunningly beautiful and Eno's haunting music really enhances the celestial imagery, but the album works perfectly in its own right. Its centrepiece is the marvellously evocative and oddly life-affirming 'An Ending (Ascent)', which, if push came to shove, might just be the most gorgeous ambient track ever released. Even its seemingly ubiquitous use - from TV commercials to Top Gear and to the London Olympics' opening ceremony - hasn't dampened its remarkable, and rare, beauty.
Apollo was delivered in all its ethereal glory at Dublin's National Concert Hall in 2010 by the UK minimalist ensemble, Icebreaker, with a little help from pedal steel guitarist, BJ Cole. Al Reinhart's film played on a big screen in the auditorium and I can't have been the only one with goosebumps.
It's hard to keep up with the number of solo and collaborative albums Eno has released in the past 40-odd years, but the duo he made with David Byrne - 1980's forward-looking, sample-heavy My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and 2008's electro-gospel Everything that Happens Will Happen Today - are essential listens.
Eno first collaborated with Byrne in 1977, when he produced the second Talking Heads album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, and he would stay in the producer's chair for three more albums. Few musicians have been as dedicated to the art of producing other people's music as much as Eno and his role in David Bowie's thrilling Berlin period was well documented at the time of the latter's death in January.
His contribution to U2's music has been profound and it's intriguing to imagine how the band's sound might have evolved had their original choice of producer for The Unforgettable Fire, German Conny Plank, not declined Bono's overtures with an immortal "I cannot work with that singer." But Eno could, as he could with Chris Martin, Dido and Jason Donovan.
Last year, when speaking at the Hay Festival Kells, he gave an insight into his restless productivity. "My process is to work constantly, work a lot and work when I don't feel inspired. Inspiration only comes when it finds you working. You have to be in shape for when the moment is right. I record everything I do - even rough mixes - and I like to put these recordings on in random shuffle when I'm doing the washing-up or cleaning or vacuuming in the studio to see what stands out."
The Ship is released by Warp Records on Friday