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Brian Eno - Lux

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Artist: Brian Eno

Album: Lux

Label: Warp

Review date: Nov. 12, 2012

It’s the eternal pooh-pooh. Someone in popular music lays the groundwork for an entire genre, or even invents it altogether, and pretty soon said artist gets decried for not being as innovative as first assumed, or it’s claimed that his or her triumph has long since been shown up by future artists as a mere illusion of greatness and forward-thinking. As such, modern music listeners seem perpetually determined to find the singer-songwriter better than Dylan, the band that out-Beatles the Beatles, or the act that actually invented punk a good decade or so before The Sex Pistols and The Ramones bashed out their first chord. It’s an understandable impulse, occasionally with a certain merit, but ultimately disingenuous — and Brian Eno seems to end up on the end of these critiques more than most. So, let it be said, Ambient 1: Music for Airports is a classic. A masterpiece that may not have literally invented the ambient genre (Tangerine Dream or Popol Vuh, Eno himself with Discreet Music could really stake that claim), but one that sure as hell defined it beyond all others, and continues to do so to this day.

Of course, by creating such a definitive genre statement, Eno built a rod for his own back, meaning every other foray on his part into ambient music automatically gets referred back to Music for Airports, positively or, more often, negatively. Ambient is such a static genre that once you’ve hit a pinnacle, it becomes nigh-on impossible to ever go further. Some artists are content to just reinvent the wheel, but you get the sense that Eno is not one of them. Every new ambient release on his part feels like a challenge set down to himself, and there’s always frustration that he can’t shake that Airport-sized monkey off his back. Lux can be seen well and truly within this paradigm: it may be typically tranquil music, but it don’t half feel like a struggle’s going on.

Of course, these comparisons are unfair — always have been — and Lux is a far less conceptual (in the Flynt-ian sense) and much more elaborate album than Music for Airports, or indeed any of the ambient series, with the silky piano notes, polite synth lines and floating strings assembled in a composerly manner, as opposed to looped. The strings and piano, which have particular resonance in Eno’s oeuvre, harking back to Discreet Music and therefore a compositional tradition that takes in Pachelbel, Satie and Pärt. Divided into four tracks, Lux might as well be viewed as a single composition, one that evolves at a subdued pace, with various elements repeating or dissolving under Eno’s tranquil guidance. Horns and chimes emerge from this quiet nebula with almost deferential hesitation, and subtle tension is introduced as Eno layers the synths, only to evaporate under the gentle caresses of that omnipresent, lilting piano. At times, it conjures Fennesz or John Foxx’s A Secret Life, which hints at a sort of benevolent classical futurism. Music for lonely cities at night.

Lux‘s defining point, though, is not the inevitable comparisons to Eno’s earlier work, or that of his latter-day disciples. It’s the context: The album evolved out of a gallery work, and it’s hard not to feel that something is missing from the vista he conjures up, something the listener can’t experience. Equally, it comes on the back of his much-publicized sound apps, where iPhone users can create their own mini Music For Airports with a touch of a finger. It may be untrue, but there are times when parts of Lux feel like they could have been recorded with his new one, Scape. Maybe it was.

Lux is immersive, intriguing, delicate and evasive, like many an ambient record. And, inescapably, it doesn’t resonate as much as Eno’s groundbreaking works in the genre. But because it’s Eno, and he does this so well, it almost feels wrong to use his past to yawn at his present. But I expect many will.

By Joseph Burnett

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Drums Between the Bells

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