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Small Craft On A Milk Sea

When I heard that Brian Eno was preparing a release for Warp I frothed at the mouth like a rabid dog. Eno is the godfather of modern ambient music. He invented the term and defined the genre with a set of groundbreaking releases in the latter part of the Seventies. A union with Warp, stalwarts of everything electronic and brainy over the past 20 years, promised an opportunity for Eno to do exactly what he wanted, perhaps marking a return to the form of those heady years past. Unfortunately the album failed to live up to my hype, but it is nonetheless full of interest and well worth a listen.

Opener 'Emerald and Lime' sets things off softly, with arpeggios on a piano falling over one another in strange chord progressions, before an eerie harmonica line enters, drenched in the subtly affected post production Eno thrives on. It feels like gently discovering a new aspect of a familiar place, washing various musical colours together like a painting. This continues into the next track, 'Complex Heaven', another moody ambient piece. Here slowly swelling drones and atonal noises are punctuated with minimal guitar and piano melodies, again creating the sense of a musical painting, rather than a linear story. This is one of the strongest features in Eno's early ambient work and what initially set him apart as a unique producer. It is a shame, then, that it is a quality lacking from a significant number of the other tracks on the album.

As of the fifth track, the sounds of collaborators John Hopkins and Leo Abrahams become more obvious and this is to the record's detriment, if only for the amount of space they occupy within the music. That timeless, non-linear quality I mentioned in the first tracks makes way for manic guitar and drum clattering which sound like a mixture between Eno's early collaborations with Robert Fripp and David Bowie's early Nineties experimentation. It is not without merit but fails to come up to the bar Eno has set with previous work. This is soundtrack music, rather than ambient - unsurprising when you consider that some of these are rejects from work Eno did for Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones. The issue is that Eno as an arranger has to take a back seat to virtuoso musicianship from his collaborators, and though all the tracks are saturated with his unmistakeable studio signature, the music itself, though substantial, lacks substance.

In the latter half of the record, the music returns at points to the ambient eeriness that Eno specialises in. 'Slow Ice, Old Moon' is a chilling track of heaving textures. You can almost hear the creaking of a glacier amongst its affected pad sounds and strange harmonies. 'Lesser Heaven' is the counterpart to the earlier complex one, with softly singing electric bells stumbling together to form lush chords. 'Calcium Needles' perfectly encapsulates the haunting environs of an underground chamber of stalactites, with dripping synths over a background of low bass and humanoid winds. In these moments the record manages to at least match the subtle brilliance of Eno's previous ambient works. It is just a shame that his first Warp release is a disjointed record, one with two very different faces that don't look good alongside one another.