By Stephen Hiscock
Seven short years on from Transparencies comes this second collaboration between the East Anglian musical polymath Roger Eno and the US based electronic artist Plumbline (aka Will Thomas). The two artists never met whilst composing – preferring email and file sharing to exchange ideas. This cooler, more detached way of working (as opposed to studio bust-ups and flounce-offs) lends a strange semi-glacial thread of beauty that runs through the entire work. The album is simultaneously disconnected and embracing, undemonstrative and quietly deep – the kind of music that needs to be coaxed but, in the end, rewards you handsomely.
The stand out track (‘Beaute de Passage’) which finishes the set, sums up many of the ambivalent themes of the album. Eve Couturier mournfully recites the final poem of Arlette Feindre – a French poet who died, aged 31, at the hands of her lover. Her father had been gassed in the First World War and her mother been made ‘mad with grief.’ Feindre’s adult life and work were consequently dominated by emotional disassociation, distance and coldness – yet she was still quoted as having said “I have a new lover every week of every year.” She was ambivalent about the need for emotion and tenderness. She needed and yet hated ‘love.’ That same ambivalence is reflected in the very title of this album.
Many of the tracks on this album are full of contrasts between the rich sonorities of Eno’s acoustic instruments and the modernistic skittering of Plumbline’s sounds. Combined, they add up to a beautiful whole. Indeed the entire album is best listened to as a whole as it becomes a dialogue or a set of coherent possibilities. Listening to just a couple of tracks at a time is like overhearing snippets of a fascinating conversation but not understanding the whole.
The sound of the piano is gorgeous throughout. ‘Taking Steps,’ the opener, starts with a simple melodic line (like a bass riff) which layers and layers whilst electronic fingers intertwine, scratch and caress. ‘Geometry’ is a tip-toeing Satie-esque piano melody with a mumbling rhythm accompaniment. The sound world changes considerably halfway through the album with ‘Ulterior Motives.’ The chords become darker and more akin to a Hitchcock film whilst a disinterested, threatening drum beat and a sinister whistling sound coil round in circles. It dissolves into a dead end of dissonance.
The sequencing of the child-like piano of ‘Back to the Beginning’ followed by ‘The Artificial Cat’ is another affecting juxtaposition – from an old music box with a dancing princess to a slow stalk of alienation, devoid of melody. The latter is my favourite track on the album. ‘Pulling Strings’ has big, fat, rich electric piano sounds and a passing chord which never quite passes. These are surrounded by electronic crickets which gradually overwhelm the whole track. Then, finally, the shock of a human voice in ‘Beaut de Passage.’ The voice is disembodied, both in sound and sentiment, whilst the strings are rich, warm and tremulous – the meeting of apparent warmth and apparent cold is an effective summation of the entire album.
Endless City / Concrete Garden is released by Hydrogen Dukebox