In his latest album, Small Craft on a Milk Sea, famed producer and ambient-music pioneer Brian Eno doesn’t necessarily knock one out of the park with waves of pure innovation, to horribly mix metaphors, but he crafts an intriguing and listenable soundscape that is inclined toward drifting sound but includes a couple more active songs.
Eno was inspired, apparently, by “soundtrack music” as a genre, and while listening to Small Craft I found myself attempting to create structure behind the music’s esoteric shape by imagining the visuals that might accompany it onscreen. The album vacillates—often every two or three tracks—between ethereal, haunting aimlessness and driving, rattling beats that often veer toward the scary side, effectively creating, in tracks like “Flint March”, the sort of tense atmosphere you might imagine in a political thriller’s chase scene. “Horse”, immediately following “Flint March”, hums along in a busy, hyperactive swirl, rattling, edgy and anxious. Swirling standout “2 Forms of Anger” purrs like a vengeful, insectlike robot, clicking and buzzing, before splintering into a whirl of guitar in the final minute. “Bone Jump” is a rather startling mid-album stranger, with a kind of creepy ‘80s B-movie horror vibe that spills from eerie to humorous with its antiquated synths. Its vaguely taunting melody reminded me, actually, of my old computer game version of “I Spy: Spooky Night”. Meanwhile, I found tracks like “Dust Shuffle” and “Paleosonic” rather invigorating, if forgettable and mostly lost in a haze of machinery-like bumping and clattering.
The beautifully named “Slow Ice, Cold Moon” guides the latter half of the album into a haunting ambient territory, opening with a chill succession of notes like ice floes sliding under an eclipse. “Lesser Heaven” and “Calcium Needles” continue the album’s shift into cool, still spookiness, often seeming to barely move and evoking Arctic landscapes. “Emerald and Stone”, after “Calcium Needles”, brings a welcome hint of warmth and melody, paralleling dreamy album opener “Emerald and Lime” (this is just one of Eno’s sets of song-title siblings; another clear one is “Lesser Heaven” and “Complex Heaven”). Finally, the album fades out on the eight-minute “Late Anthropocene” and five-minute “Invisible”, each long track becoming increasingly softer, grimmer, and more gravelly.
I enjoyed Eno’s not-exactly-accessible style more than I expected to (I read a description of him once that called his style “adult electronica”—not far from the truth, when one considers the more upbeat, energetic, and vitalizing bent of most of the electronica offerings out there for hard-partying youth). Whether still and chilly or dark and driving, Eno’s latest is definitely worth a listen. Its 16 tracks are over before you know it but linger like a vivid dream—or the kind of particularly great soundtrack that manages to overpower the movie it accompanies.
Small Craft on a Milk Sea was released by Warp on November 2, 2010.
Review by Julia Ringo