Album Reviews: Brian Eno - Ambient 1, 2, 4

In the pantheon of rock icons, there remains no one as singular or influential as Brian Eno. His career is one that would have been chronicled on terracotta pots a couple of centuries ago. It serves my purpose just to mention a couple of the artists he’s improved due to either his presence or production: Roxy Music, David Bowie, Talking Heads, David Byrne, Nico, U2, Laurie Anderson, Genesis, Paul Simon and many more. His run of four rock albums from 1974-77, is an unrivalled one in regards to innovation. But after this run came his greatest left-turn yet: Ambient.

The story is oft-recited. Recovering from a car accident in 1975, Eno lay in a hospital bed unable to move. Music played in the background, too quiet for him to properly hear but loud enough to know it was playing. In this moment, Eno realised that music didn’t have to be an active listening experience- it could merely be used for time with one’s self, a time of reflection and the creating of an environment that best suited you. Ambient, as we know it today, was born. It’s an extremely romanticised view of creation. An all-too precious story that raises more eyebrows than it ought to. No, Brian Eno did not invent Ambient, but he was never the less the man who popularised it.

This romanticism is apt however. Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror and Ambient 4: On Land. Each evoke a different mood and setting which no doubt differs for each listener. Yes, an Airport is an ideal setting for Ambient 1, but so is anywhere where one can contrast serenity with cacophony. The listener is hermetically sealed from what’s around them when listening to these albums, which only makes juxtaposing the busyness of everyday life with the calm in your ears even more enjoyable. With Ambient 1, listening becomes less about the actual instrumentation and more about the space that’s left between. It’s by no means negative.

In 1/1, the quintessential ambient track if there was one, lays thick reverb on every cascading piano note that stretches and fills the gaps between the next. A chain of warm hums buoy the track and drench it in beauty. The piano itself is gorgeous, each time the melody seems to evaporate or trail off, it circles back to its original motif. The effect is gorgeous; the repetition mesmerising. The album continues in this vein- 2/1sets warped and delayed harmonies to nothing else. They overlap and gush into your senses. The whole album is heavenly but this takes it to an extreme. Transcendent is probably the one all-encompassing adjective to describe Music for Airports- it takes you beyond the scene in front of you, you transcend it and become lost within its world of swirling harmonies and luxuriant melodic lines. It takes you away from the hectic life it suspects you have, much like a plane leaving.

If you’re looking for an access point into Ambient, Eno’s original trilogy stands as the best example. Ambient gives back as much as you give to it. It rewards those who return to it again and again.
– Kieran Baddeley

Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror, Eno’s collaboration with pianist, Harold Budd, rewards more active listening. The core elements of Ambient 1 remain but there is something more melancholic about Ambient 2. Budd’s piano lines are much more arching, the melodies more complicated and free-form, especially on the first two tracks. Eno breaks this up on the title track, manipulating Budd’s keys to sound almost alien. After two such perfect and pristine tracks, it’s almost jarring to hear something that sounds even vaguely inclement. The highlight however, is Failing Light. It’s the most melodic piece on the album and is so lush that one almost forgets about the sparsity of the previous tracks. What it does do extremely well, is foreshadow the work Budd would do with the Cocteau Twins on 1986’s The Moon and the Melodies and that is to its credit.

Eno gave Laraaji Ambient 3 and settled on production credits alone and while Day of Radiance is an interesting listen, it does not reach the peak of Eno’s next release, Ambient 4.

Ambient 4: On Land is unlike anything in music and unlike any of Eno’s previous ambient albums or future albums. On Land is perhaps the most crushing album to be produced. It’s so dense that light bends around it and leaves in its wake a condensation of darkness. The album is an extremely uncomfortable listen and rewards neither passivity or activity. It’s a monolithic album that takes multiple listens to understand. Some people never will. The mood its evokes is one of ruin. The decaying remains of Eno’s Previous albums lay within On Land’s vestiges. Tal Cot acts as an archaeological dig of Music for Airports. Beneath the sludge of electronics and sinister strings lies the blueprint for many of the tracks on Ambient 1. Piano Notes crop up occasionally, lighting the darkness and a low hum, similar to that of 2/1, prevails throughout. There’s no denying though, that On Land has consumed the previous releases and corroded them. In fact, it’s such a singular album that it belongs in the same caverns of darkness as Scott Walker’s Tilt. That is to say that, if you’re in the mood to listen to it, nothing else will suffice. It’s beautiful in its own twisted way.

Ambient music isn’t for everyone. To some, it’s meaningless and boring- pretentious, for want of a better word. That’s understandable, it can often be all of those things. But if you’re looking for an access point into Ambient, Eno’s original trilogy stands as the best example. Ambient gives back as much as you give to it. It rewards those who return to it again and again. Granted, On Land does possess one of the most detracting musical veneers of any album but stick with it. There’s a time and a place for each one of these albums and where and when is up to you. Ambient music is an extremely private endeavour in that, if you succumb to it, you’ll want to be alone with it.