ALBUM REVIEW: Brian Eno “Reflection”

Eno is a name long associated with experimentation, versatility, and subversiveness (and great production, of course). In the wake of recent musical and political events – the deaths of many progressive and influential musicians, including frequent collaborator David Bowie, and the rise of conservatism in the UK – a new Brian Eno piece feels especially poignant and significant. Reflection follows the same rules and systems of most of Eno’s ambient productions, or generative music as he calls it. The term “generative”, coined by Eno in the 90s, refers to music that is ever-changing and generated by a system, like a computer. This technological aspect of Reflection inspired an app that can be downloaded in place of buying the album. The app has an audio visualizer that changes as the music slowly shifts tones based on the time of day.

After I stumbled across this bizarre, intriguing interview, I felt I had to meditate on the ambiguous, yet apparently political nature of this album and the manner in which seemingly inoffensive music can be political.

I think it’s important to note the indefinable quality of albums like this. Fundamentally, can we call it an album? Holding true to its title, Reflection harks back to Eno’s 1985 Thursday Afternoon in its design. It’s one continual piece of music that moves through nearly an hour of time. Is it one song? One track? That language doesn’t really fit this music and to think of Reflection the way we might a regular album doesn’t work. Expectantly, Brian Eno is trying to push beyond the limitations of a “record”. Generative music, by Eno’s own definition, is primarily structural and mechanical, and part of its inspiration comes from linguistic theory, So, like linguistics, structural, generative work is also surprisingly progressive, full of movement, and difficult to pin down. But the important question: does this kind of music work? Does it break restrictions in a way that is memorable and meaningful?

Here I have to admit a strong affection for Brian Eno’s music, past and present. Here Come the Warm Jets will always be mind-blowing and original with its juxtaposition of melody and dissonance, order and nonsensical chaos. More relevantly, his work on David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy included some fantastic, atmospheric ambient tracks like “Warszawa” (from Low) and “Neukölln” (from Heroes). These songs have an ability to instill an intense and almost visual mood. They’re cathartic and emotive but with no clear meaning or trajectory. This flexibility can actually make the tracks more touching, personal, and imaginative.

I think of Eno’s newer, generative music like an isolation tank: there’s a kind of forced reflection. Like Fripp & Eno, it’s the sort of music you can lie on the floor next to a friend, close your eyes, and listen to – a disparate, yet shared experience. There’s definitely a comforting aspect to the slow, steady design and, particularly, the lower, darker notes in Reflection. But there’s also something that nears over-stimulation – and discomfort – in a deep listen. Its simplicity, its malleability somehow becomes forceful.

In that interview I mentioned, Eno spoke passionately about Brexit and Donald Trump and, thereby, the ways in which his music is political. What he said could strike as absurd or profound:

“I’m interested in the idea of generative music as a sort of model for how society or politics could work. I’m working out the ideas I’m interested in, about how you make a working society rather than a dysfunctional one like the one we live in at the moment – by trying to make music in a new way. I’m trying to see what kinds of models and and structures make the music I want to hear, and then I’m finding it’s not a bad idea to try to think about making societies in that way.”

The article goes on to explain what he means. As opposed to a classical orchestra, society should be built on the more egalitarian model of a folk or rock band, who just get together and do their thing.

These are some provocative words. It’s difficult to think of Reflection, an album with no words and no prescriptiveness, as political. But re-listening, with these words in mind, makes the structural elements of the album more noticeable and thereby, more suggestive and, as I said before, forceful.

Simple as a piece of music, Reflection is perfect for thinkers and daydreamers. Personally, I love this sound. It’s slow and steady, but adaptable and never droning. The subtle, changing melodies on this record are delightfully easy to digest. Like the title of another Eno album (or two) Music For Airplanes, this record is great to listen to in the car or train as you look out the window. The deeper notes that wiggle in throughout are crisp and inspiring. However, I wouldn’t call this easy listening. It takes a certain amount of focus, or prior knowledge of the genre, to give it a good listen.

So, to answer my question from earlier: absolutely yes, ambient music can be memorable and meaningful simply because of its experimental and progressive nature. Like poetry or theater, it may become easier and more rewarding to take in as it sheds the limitations of musical definition. However, it might take a certain frame of mind to reach those conclusions. That is to say, it’s not for everyone. The idea of music (and perhaps specifically ambient music) standing as blueprint for building a society may be seen as absurd by some, but at this point in time it’s an alternative that we might want to consider. Many of us have intense, inexplicable relationships with music that already help to shape our lives. We’re also exhausted by systems that have been put in place over years and years. Following the construction of more harmonious and well-balanced music collectives and systems might not be such a wild idea.

Reflection is available for you to listen to on the app or as a regular record.


ONLY NOISE: Music For Airports

music for airports

When Brian Eno first got the idea to make Ambient 1/Music For Airports, he was indeed within such a place: the Cologne Bonn Airport in Germany, to be exact. His goal was to make music to “accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular” according to the record’s liner notes. This music would be “as ignorable as it is interesting,” ultimately neutralizing the chaotic and tense microcosm that is an airline terminal, or as I like to call it, hell on earth.

The record itself is many things: soothing, transcendent, gorgeous, subtle…adjectives which today, almost 40 years after the release of Music For Airports, are light-years from capturing the foul, soul-sucking, hyper-capitalistic essence of even the “nicest” plane parking lots.

Eno, completely aware of the hectic, complex world of the airport, wanted to make music that addressed the specific needs of such a space, and he didn’t mince words when explaining those needs. In an interview from a few decades ago, he describes his inspiration in greater depth.

“It came from a specific experience. I was in a beautiful airport…Cologne Airport, which is a very beautiful building. Early one Sunday morning, the light was beautiful; everything was beautiful, except they were playing awful music. And I thought, ‘there’s something completely wrong that people don’t think about the music that goes into situations like this.’ You know, they spend hundreds of millions of pounds on the architecture, on everything, except the music. The music comes down to someone bringing in a tape of their favorite songs this week and sticking them in and the whole airport is filled with this sound. So, I thought it’d be interesting to actually start writing music for public spaces like that.”

While I personally feel that Eno achieved the perfect score to flight on Music For Airports, I can’t say that such an approach has been applied to actual airports. While we may no longer endure the cheesy corporate muzak or “elevator music” of the 80s and 90s (now reserved exclusively for healthcare company hold music), the sonic output of terminals remains troubling in a whole new way. Take for instance my experience at Chicago O’Hare International Airport a few weeks ago, whereupon sitting on the toilet in the Gate B bathroom I heard not Enya or Brian Eno, but “Stars of Track and Field” by Belle and Sebastian.

Come again?

This set off another memory. I was on a Delta flight to Brazil, and, being bored with the pre-takeoff formalities, decided to scroll through the in-flight music they offered. To my surprise, they not only had The Queen is Dead by The Smiths, but also Post Pop Depression, Iggy Pop’s latest record, as well as other albums by what marketing experts would deem “indies.”

Though I shouldn’t have been, I must admit I was surprised. Air travel is the last bastion (aside from perhaps hotel services and high-end dining) of the old-fashioned, uniformed business structure; the security, composure of the flight attendants, the caste system set in place by the boarding/seating matrix…the whole ambiance makes it a bit strange that they would supply passengers with Iggy Pop singing about Gardenia’s “hourglass ass.” Even though I found it both convenient and pleasurable that such tunes were available, I was also disturbed by it. Isn’t it slightly insulting to stick me in seat 23 B back by the shitter, make me pay for stale pretzels, and then pretend that you, Delta Airlines, knows about Iggy Pop?

But contrary to Eno’s airport in the ‘70s, it must be said that airlines today overthink about what is playing aboard. It isn’t breaking news that airports, which are basically glorified, overpriced shopping malls, picked up on the same marketing strategies that make us feel cool when we buy a certain brand of soap over another. The reason Delta Airlines has the new Iggy Pop record is the same reason American Airlines replaced schmaltzy muzak with “indie rock” to score-boarding and landing periods.

It’s the exact principle laid out in Commodify Your Dissent, a collection of essays from The Baffler addressing how the initial emblems of counterculture rebellion (i.e. rock music, leather jackets, tofu) have now become the tools of advertisers, CEOs, and the like. In a brilliant essay by Dave Mulcahey entitled “Leadership and You,” the author quotes Andrew Susman’s book Advertising Age:

“The inter-relationship of advertising and programming increase because customer tastes and preferences are known in advance. Programming and advertising become interchangeable, as consumers are living inside a perpetual marketing event.”


Perhaps Mr. Eno could resurface to make us a new beautiful record entitled: Music For Living Inside A Perpetual Marketing Event. If he’s too busy, here are a couple suggestions. When you consider what might be appropriate music for airports or airplanes, you must consider a few factors.

  1. Flying sucks.

Traversing the cattle parade of the airport, from checking in, to schlepping through TSA, to finally sitting in your tiny, miserable seat: all of it is an absolute nightmare. No one has described this form of middle-class torture better than professional rant machine Henry Rollins. In “Airport Hell,” a cut off his 1998 “spoken word” record Think Tank, Rollins goes into gruesomely accurate detail about the avoidable blunders people make while traveling.

“I think it’s the mentality of lines,” barks Rollins. “Standing in lines, peoples’ IQs plummet…No one can figure out how to sit down in 13A. They walk in the aisle, they’re holding their little boarding stub like it’s delicate information and they look hopelessly lost. They look at it, and look up. Look at it, and look up.”

This is of the milder portions of the diatribe, but I’d say it’s worth the 15 minutes of listening to “Airport Hell” in full. While it may only infuriate you further, it will at least bolster your sense of humor and self-importance as you sprint through JFK with one shoe on and the other in your hand, dodging small children and tourists with their cargo ships of luggage on lopsided carts.

2. Increased fear of dying.

I have been flying since before I can remember, and from age 0 to 24, have had no such fear of it. I was so unafraid, that other passengers’ fear was comical to me. At 14 I was at peace with my own mortality and powerlessness. If the plane would tremble, I would liken it to a roller coaster. If it would drop slightly, I would rest assured that my death would matter not in the grand scheme of things, and even if it did, I still couldn’t stop it. Ahhh, the sweet smell of young, nihilistic liberation!

Enter my 25th year, during which I, through no rational explanation, cultivated an intense, out-of-the-blue, bowel-shuddering fear of flying. I know not its point of origin nor its psychological ramifications. I only know it exists. I know this by the sweat on my palms when the plane takes off, by my nervous glances when flight attendants start to hand out anything for free, especially booze. It is a condition I have tried to treat with music (and wine), though my approach has been flawed. I initially thought that dosing myself with “up” songs (and wine) would do the trick. My column from a couple of weeks ago, “Shiny Happy Pop Songs Holding Hands” was written at Chicago O’Hare as an attempt (along with wine) to battle my own aviophobia. It did not work. Perhaps the jubilant tone was my misstep. As I look back to the vintage interview with Eno, I absorb his unique angle on the mood of ideal airport music:

“I was thinking about flying at the time because I thought that everything that was connected with flying was kind of a lie. When you went into an airport or an airplane they always played this very happy music, which sort of is saying, ‘you’re not going to die! There’s not going to be an accident! Don’t worry!’ and I thought that was really the wrong way ‘round. I thought that it would be much better to have music that said, ‘well, if you die, it doesn’t really matter.’ So I wanted to create a different feeling, that you were sort of suspended in the universe and your life or death wasn’t so important.”

Losing Altitude: Songs to Die To. Considering we can’t have free booze or even decent food (let alone free decent food) perhaps the good people of these airlines would allow some sort of in-flight access to any and all of the music you damn pleased. In the case of a loss of cabin pressure: Nils Frahm. Unexpected rough air: Kate Bush. Bird-in-propeller: Richard Hell. At the very least, airports could give spinning Music For Airports a go, because I’d sure as shit rather face my imminent mortality to that than the goddamn Lumineers. After all, Brian Eno made it just for us.



NEWS ROUNDUP: FKA Twigs, Kim Gordon, & Brian Eno


  • FKA Twigs Performs On Jimmy Fallon

    Watch the relentlessly unique FKA Twigs give a stunning performance of her song “Good To Love” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

  • Stream M. Ward’s More Rain

    The singer/songwriter’s easy, smoke-filled voice has an undeniable charm. More Rain features guests such as Neko Case, k.d. Lang, and Peter Buck. You can stream the album on NPR ahead of its March 4 release date, and check out the video for “Confession” below:

  • Brian Eno Announces New Album

    “Humankind seems to teeter between hubris and paranoia: the hubris of our ever-growing power contrasts with the paranoia that we’re permanently and increasingly under threat… Somebody, something is going to take it all from us: that is the dread of the wealthy.” That’s a quote from Brian Eno explaining his upcoming album The Ship, which will be available via Warp on April 29. In the meantime, check out a song from his last release, Lux:

  • Kim Gordon Forms Glitterburst 

    The former Sonic Youth bassist has started a new project with Alex Knost, the guitarist from Tomorrows Tulips; it’s called Glitterburst, and their first album comes out on March 4. Check out their song “The Highline,” a spacey, droning track that morphs into the controlled chaos which is slightly reminiscent of Gordon’s former band.

  • Robert Pollard Shares “I Can Illustrate”

    This was a great week for new releases; among the artists sharing new music or announcing new albums is Robert Pollard, known for his solo work and his Guided By Voices project. “I Can Illustrate” is from his upcoming album Of Course You Are, and it’s an incredibly catchy track from the offbeat, prolific songwriter. The album will be available in full on March 4.

LIVE REVIEW: Yvette/Eaters @ Baby’s All Right

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Bob Jones and Jonathan Schenke of Eaters.
Bob Jones and Jonathan Schenke of Eaters

It takes a lot of nerve to wear your white hair long like that: straight, thin, and skimming the neck of your skinny white tie, worn over a tight black t-shirt, matchstick jeans, and elf-point boots. But how else would you dress for your 20th wedding anniversary? You have to applaud a middle-aged couple that celebrates such an occasion by going to an industrial noise gig in Brooklyn. And on a Thursday no less!

Headlining the evening’s two-band bill is Brooklyn duo Eaters, but if I’m being honest I really came to see Brooklyn duo Yvette. Yvette used to be made up of Noah Karos-Fein and Rick Daniel, who released their debut LP Process in October of 2013. The record is a carefully constructed post punk assault-yet it somehow retains a melodic sensibility along with its steel aggression. The record came at a time when cold and militant industrial music was a breath of fresh air amongst the slew of jangly local bands. Anger was back in. Finally.

Listening to Process is a damn fine experience, but it doesn’t really set you up for what Yvette brings to the stage. No longer the original line up, Yvette is still fronted by Karos-Fein on vocals, guitar, and effects, but Dale Elsinger now backs up Noah on the drums. I never saw Yvette while Rick Daniel was still a member, so I can’t speak for his abilities as a live performer. But what I can say is that Elsinger is a welcome replacement. Quite easily one of the most fascinating drummers I’ve seen live-and I don’t get too excited about drummers all that often-it’s almost impossible to look away while he’s playing.

Perhaps it’s merely the democratic stage set-up the band always employs (Noah at the center and Dale to his left) that creates the allure. Maybe if drummers weren’t always banished to the back of the stage we’d find them mesmerizing more often, but something tells me it’s more that just his coordinates that make Elsinger such an intriguing performer. He gives it his all. Watching him smash his kit is exhausting, so I can’t imagine how winded he must feel, but the fact that he’s dripping in sweat by minute two gives me a good idea. Elsinger’s parts are forceful but not fussy, and so directly to-the-point that I’m tempted to call him a purist. He does he always drum barefoot after all.

Yvette’s sets are never long, but always tidy and packed full of energy. There’s no banter, no fluff, just some very talented, straightforward musicians presenting their thesis and then leaving quietly – though what they play is the antithesis of polite and quiet. It’s loud and full of guts and grit.

Eaters is made up of multi-instrumentalist Bob Jones and recording engineer Jonathan Schenke. Their sound is rooted in the dark rubble of post punk debris, so they are a fitting band to share a bill with Yvette. Though while Yvette’s tracks stay consistently hostile, Eaters sometimes float to the softer side of the ‘80s, sounding more Brian Eno than Suicide.

There is certainly a fuller crowd for Eaters, and their presence is more elaborate; the lights turned down almost all the way to emphasize a sphere of light rotating on a hydraulic circular track. It’s a curious and useless prop, but is a fun badge of nerdiness nonetheless.

Eaters finished off sans encore, making way for the late show to follow at Baby’s. Listening to both Eaters and Yvette you’d suspect a late into the early morning set, but I was home and in bed by midnight, which is good, because some people had anniversaries to celebrate.