Art rock, by its very name, implies a certain level of pretention not common to other subgenres and categorical demarcations. Bubblegum pop, acid house, chillwave, folktronica, you name it – none of these styles have that uncanny ability to evoke highfaluting snobbery like those tagged with the “art” prefix. Brian Eno – famed songwriter, producer, electronic innovator, and musical demigod – might have become part of our collective consciousness through his pioneering ambient compositions back in the 1970’s, but the man’s backstory with Roxy Music and partnerships with the likes of David Bowie and Robert Fripp over the years also mean that there’s almost always a foray into more esoteric fare on the horizon.
Following the alternately mollifying and terrifying soundscapes of last year’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea, Eno indulges his recurring jones for experimentalism with Drums Between the Bells, a collabo with British poet Rick Holland that pairs gently textured atmospheres with erudite if not abstruse fragments of spoken word prose. If you assimilated Eno’s 1983 Apollo soundtrack with Stephen Hawking’s writing, the resulting union might bear some semblance to Drums Between the Bells – a sleek assemblage of vocoder-friendly vocals and synthesized instrumentation that eschews any organic warmth for qualities more mechanized and celestial.
Offered in multiple formats (vinyl, mp3, compact disc) as most artists are wont to do these days, the 12” pressing of Drums Between the Bells also includes a limited number of codes to download the album sans vocals – an enticing endowment that probably should’ve been served as the main course instead of the nightcap. Anyone who knows their U2 from their MGMT is well aware of Eno’s tenured legacy as a aural juggernaut, someone who is likely to go down in the books not as a glam rock expatriate but as a defining figure in sonic sculpture. Indeed, this latest release exhibits a bountiful amount of Eno’s studio prowess and sensitivity to disparate musical timbres, but his decision to pair such meticulously rendered compositions with Holland’s surrealist wordplay doesn’t work as well on record as it does on paper.
In all truthfulness, the problem here probably has less to do with the source than it does the delivery. A reading of Holland’s “Breath of Crows” yields an affecting series of images: “Wonder in this / the sounds of holy night abound / kestrel calls and bells / drink the air / and the race for meaning quells / let it in / let it in or the calls with sound like hollow tin.” Eno’s interpretation setting of the poem – the album’s 6-minute-plus closer – instead tends toward the morose, with Eno himself crooning the words eerily over a series of chimes and drones; if Broadway were to take pop culture’s current obsession with vampires and flesh a musical out of it, this track could be one of the show’s main draws.
A number of vocalists contribute to the affair, many of them exhibiting thick British accents and speaking with a stop/start cadence that belies the music’s fluid qualities. Opening track “Bless This Space” begins with reverb-treated synths and an ostinato bass line, eventually coalescing with Eno’s irregular baritone (“Bless / this / space / in sound / and / rhyme / as we / suspect it”) and a virtuosic guitar freakout. Lead single “Glitch” plays like Zero 7 got together with Blue Man Group, an increasingly fast-paced amalgam of searing keyboard tones, skittering percussion, and Grazyna Gorowek’s android vocals. “The Real” is as close as Eno gets to recalling his 1978 ambient masterpiece, Music for Airports, taking nearly 7 minutes to spin out hypnotic ripples of keyboard and piano harmonies while Elisha Mudley dulcetly intones, “The flourish / seeing the real in things / really seeing the real / describing the exact actuality of what you see / or what it is you seem to see.” It’s one of the rare instances on this record where Eno’s treatment of Holland’s words feels absolutely essential instead of unnecessarily forced.
The only vocal-less track that made the final cut is the cumbersomely titled “As If Your Eyes Were Partly Closed as If You Honed the Swirl Within Them and Offered Me…the World,” a 90-second segue which feels like a breath of fresh air freed from the weight of human monologue. Despite their generally awkward presence and clunky application, not all of the other tunes with spoken bits are ineffectual. “Sounds Alien” rides a fantastic late-night-in-the-city groove and pairs it with the sort of industrial guitars KMFDM were known for in the 80’s and 90’s, replete with unsuspecting jazz rock horns and austere female vocals courtesy of Aylie Cooke. “Fierce Aisles of Light” finds our poet finally stepping up to the mic (“It’s a train again / this forever / last night”) to lead one of Bells’ most agitated cuts, in which the sputtering whir of machinery and street noise hint at a cacophonic outburst that never actually arrives.
Other tracks never completely gel; “Dreambirds” suffuses Holland’s ornithological preoccupations with doleful piano arpeggios, twittering electronics and Caroline Wildi’s deliberate inflection, while “Pour It Out” sees a transcendent pattern of guitar chords spoiled by Laura Spagnuolo’s choppy reading of molecule and hemoglobin-referencing poetry.
At this juncture in his prolific career, Brian Eno’s ubiquitous influence and sizeable contributions to modern music will not be marred by one mediocre release; it probably goes without saying that the man at the vanguard of the avant-garde has had more than a couple haphazard exploits in his lifetime. Drums Between the Bells is by no means an embarrassment, but don’t look for it to be lumped into the upper echelon of Eno’s output either, where triumphs like Discreet Music or Another Green World reside.