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The Guide to Getting Into Brian Eno, the Playful Genius

From ambient soundtracks to alien planets to mega-hits fit for supermarkets to, uh, working with Coldplay, the legendary English producer has done it all. Here's where to start.

by Dan Gentile
01 November 2018, 12:01am

Despite a Discogs page as a long as a phone book and a career that dates back to when people actually used those, Brian Eno has always coyly avoided the title of “musician.” As explained to Lester Bangs in a 1979 interview, the non-musician label was in opposition to the “tacit belief that virtuosity was the sine qua non of music and there was no other way of approaching it.”

Throughout his career he’s favored blunt creativity and unconventional processes over technical skill, both in music released under his own name and as a producer. It’s led to a body of work that sounds impressionistic, pieces that emphasize journeys rather than destinations. From ambient soundscapes to arena rock anthems, there’s always a playfulness to the production. Using the studio as an instrument has encouraged reckless arrangements, sonic left turns, and futuristic compositional systems. Yet that unconventional approach has resulted in mega hits that you might hear played in the grocery store. Plus, soundtracks for alien planets.

46 years since he began his career as Roxy Music’s resident synth weirdo, we have him to thank for coining the term ambient music with the 1978 release of Music For Airports. He's also responsible, in part, for Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, introducing David Byrne to Afrobeat, four 70s rock LPs that sound like they were recorded yesterday, DEVO, U2’s studio experimentation, the Windows 95 theme, and regrettably, Coldplay.

In the past decade alone he’s released collaborative albums with Byrne, Underworld’s Karl Hyde, and poet Rick Holland. Singles with Nicolas Jaar and Kevin Shields. A breathtaking Lou Reed cover on an otherwise ambient concept album about a ship. An infinitely looping computer-generated composition. And that’s not to mention his installation work, paintings, interactive phone apps, and a reissue of Oblique Strategies, a deck of 155 cards bearing creative maxims that deserves a permanent place on everyone’s desk (my current card: “Is it finished?”).

Given his huge and wide-ranging output, getting into Eno can be a daunting task. Even for completists, it’s easy to pull up his Spotify page and find a handful of albums you didn’t know existed (has anyone ever actually listened to 1997’s The Drop?). I’m sure there’s a few fan faves that I’ve forgotten (shoutout to Public Image Ltd’s Jah Wobble on the tense ‘95 collab Spinner), but were I to mention them all this piece would be longer than an uncut version of Reflection—which, as I intimated above, is essentially infinite.

Thankfully there’s an Eno for every occasion. His ‘70s rock is excellent music for loud car stereos, but has moments emotional enough to soundtrack a quiet bedroom sob session. The ambient music, much of which is seeing a 40(ish)-year anniversary reissue in November, can transport you to other worlds or simply be the audible equivalent of incense. The production work, well, you’ve probably already heard the Talking Heads. Contemporary Eno’s a comforting example of graceful aging and the multimedia works are the conceptual cherries on top.

So hit play on the Spotify playlists below to begin the journey into your future obsession with Brian Eno.

So you want to get into: 70s Rock Eno?

Brian Eno began his career in music as a long-haired synth weirdo with glam rock pioneers Roxy Music. Getting into them is its own journey and Noisey writer Jill Krajewski put it best when she wrote that “Bryan Ferry is style, Brian Eno is substance.” The tape hiss and chemtrails of piano on “Ladytron,” the synths tumbling down the stairs in the breaks on “Virginia Plain,” and detuned everything on “For Your Pleasure” all bear Eno’s signature.

Shortly after leaving the group in 1973 he released Here Comes The Warm Jets. If you like guitars, this will be your favorite Brian Eno record, largely thanks to the work of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, a frequent Eno collaborator (No Pussyfooting plus three other LPs). Each song holds on for dear life to that guitar, which sometimes sounds like insects (“Baby’s On Fire”) and other times like cocky Television riffs (“Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch”). It’s sloppy in the best way.

If you like words, this might also be your favorite. Eno downplays his lyrics by citing a process of singing gibberish syllables and replacing them with similar sounding words. “It works from sounds to words and from words to meaning... quite the other way around from the way people normally think lyrics are written,” Eno remarked on a 1980 interview on Berkeley’s KPFA-FM.

While this does result in some refrigerator magnet poetry, his knack for embodying strange characters makes him an incredibly potent lyricist. “Baby’s On Fire” talks about, well, throwing a baby that’s on fire into a bathtub, and it gets even weirder from there. “Blank Frank” describes “the messenger of your doom and your destruction,” which doesn’t sound blank at all! As a vulnerable contrast, “On Some Faraway Beach” could play during the credits of a Wes Anderson film. After three minutes of piano balladry and guitar distortion it becomes a love letter to running away from it all with only your memories.

Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) from 1974 is a loose concept album about a motley crew of spies and China (maybe). If you’re into unconventional songwriting, this is your jam. It’s like listening to a drunk sing a story over a roulette wheel of genres. Visceral proto-punk guitarwork (“Third Uncle”), scary lullabies (“Put a Straw Under Baby”), and another epic emotional piano tune (“Taking Tiger Mountain”) are some highlights.

The following year he released Another Green World, which leans most heavily on synthesizers. “The Big Ship” is the banger, a grandiose instrumental dirge that’s hopeless, hopeful, happy, sad, and somehow always seems to get a speck of dust into both of my eyes. “Little Fishes” is an undersea playscape and the haunting “In Dark Trees” features one of the best uses of wood block in musical history. Both foreshadow the forthcoming decades of loosely conceptual ambient tunes, but there’s still plenty of lyrics on this one, which are vanilla compared to his past work (no burning babies), but more mature and wistful, as if he just fell in (“I’ll Come Running”) and out (“Golden Hours”) of love.

The last of his quartet of ‘70s rock albums is Before And After Science (1977). If the others were too sloppy for you and “The Big Ship” doesn’t make you cry, then you’ll like this one best. It’s the most polished, but also more groove-based, bringing to mind his future work with Talking Heads (“King’s Lead Hat” is an anagram for that bands name). Between the grooves, there’s also a few of his very most beautifully direct pop songs. “Julie With...,” “By This River,” and “Spider And I” show the peak of his lyrical maturity and are each tear jerkers in their own respect.

Playlist: Roxy Music, “Virginia Plain” / Roxy Music, “Ladytron” / “Baby’s on Fire” / “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch” / “Here Come the Warm Jets” / “Third Uncle” / Burning Airlines Give You So Much More” / "Taking Tiger Mountain” / “The Big Ship” / “In Dark Trees” / “St. Elmo’s Fire” / “Golden Hours” / “King’s Lead Hat” / “Spider and I” / “No One Receiving” / “By This River” / “Been There Done That”

So you want to get into: Ambient Eno?

This is the Eno that most people know and love. His ambient work generally falls into into two categories, albums that soundtrack specific environments (real or imaginary) or pieces composed from generative systems with minimal intervention from musicians. His first two ambient albums follow these frameworks.

Although he’s often considered the godfather of ambient music (he’ll make you a very quiet record you can’t refuse!), Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978) wasn’t the first ambient album. It wasn’t even Eno’s first (Discreet Music, 1975), but it was the first time anyone coined the term.

“Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting,” he wrote in the liner notes of Music for Airports. He contrasts this against the trend of Muzak, stating that the intention isn’t to regularize environments or add stimulus, but to enhance them while inducing calm.

Discreet Music built on Erik Satie’s concept of “furniture music,” sound that sits in the background just creating... ambiance. Inspiration struck when Eno was hospitalized and couldn’t reach the volume dial of his record player. The music was too low and blended in with the environment. The liner notes revealed a philosophy that would guide much of his career.

“Since I have always preferred making plans to executing them, I have gravitated towards situations and systems that once set into operation, could create music with little or no intervention on my part,” he wrote.

Music for Airports is more distinctly environmental, creating a soundscape to defuse the tensions of air travel. The relaxing piano melodies and hushed synth pads combine with an angelic chorus to create a sense of contemplative calm. It turns people watching from an excruciating act to an exercise in empathy. Cold architecture and overpriced toiletries are forgiven, like they’re being bathed in an understanding light. I highly suggest trying it during your next layover, it’s more comforting than a $30 neck pillow.

Throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s he also released a series of collaborative albums that bridged the gap between his rock and ambient work. This includes the sprawling long-form guitar compositions with Robert Fripp, moody atmospheric collaborations with German experimentalists Cluster, and the long lost tapes of the Neu!/Cluster supergroup called Harmonia & Eno ‘76, whose masterful output recorded over an 11 day retreat was considered lost until the 1997 release of Tracks and Traces. These albums include some of Eno’s most beautiful, and in contradiction of his “non-musician” philosophy (Oblique Strategy: “discard an axiom”), most musically virtuosic moments.

The rest of the numbered ambient series includes collaborations with pianist Harold Budd (Ambient 2: Plateaux of Mirror) and zither guru Laraaji (Ambient 3: Day of Radiance), both released in 1980. Ambient 4: On Land (1982) could be outtakes from Another Green World and marked his first work with multi-instrumentalist and producer Daniel Lanois, who’d also co-produce U2 and join him on Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983). Developed for the NASA documentary For All Mankind, Apollo could easily be an alternative soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey. This cinematic sentiment is obviously something that’s been on his mind for much of his career: he’s also released records that are straight-up called Music For Films (1978) and More Music For Films (1983).

Playlist: “Discreet Music” / “1/1” / Harold Budd and Brian Eno, “The Pearl” / “Shadow” / “An Ending (Ascent)” / “Events in Dense Fog” / “Lanzarote” / Harmonia and Eno, “Almost” / Cluster and Eno, “One” / Laraaji, “Meditation No. 1” / “Thursday Afternoon”

So you want to get into: Producer Eno?

Some of Brian Eno’s largest contributions to music history haven’t been under his own name. As a producer he’s worked on enough Important Records to deserve his own version of LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge.”

There’s David Bowie, U2, DEVO, Talking Heads, Coldplay, John Cale, Ultravox, James, Cluster, Laurie Anderson, Paul Simon, and Toto (on the Dune soundtrack). His list of collaborators is a dream team that includes Daniel Lanois, Moebius, Roedelius, King Crimson, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Willie Nelson, Pavarotti, Harold Budd, Laraaji, Jon Hassell, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Robert Wyatt, Sinéad O'Connor, and Elvis Costello. He also compiled the seminal 1978 no wave compilation No New York and worked quietly with stars ranging from Grace Jones to Seun Kuti. He even received an ambiguous credit on Frank Ocean’s Blonde (you can hear Warm Jet guitars all over “Nights” and “Pretty Sweet”).

So what makes him the Quincy Jones of Commercial Rock Music With Artistic Intentions? Somehow he seems to have the ability to make people more themselves, then plays their intentions back to them in reverse with a wall of reverb. His process seems to be one part studio wizardry, one part zen creative exercises, and one part happy accidents.

The biography Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound (1989) touches on some career highlights. Part of his approach, which now seems obvious, is using the studio as a compositional tool. With the Talking Heads, he’d take their multi-track recordings and layer on his own textures like the musical equivalent of condiments, or just stick the whole sessions in a blender of delay. That concept reached its peak in My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, an experimental sample-based collaboration between Eno and Byrne that sounds as bizarre today as it did in 1981.

His creative exercises are best exemplified by the deck of Oblique Strategies cards. During the overdubs of “Sense of Doubt” on David Bowie’s Heroes, they each pulled a card and following it literally. Coincidentally Eno drew “Try to make everything as similar as possible” and Bowie pulled “Emphasize differences.”

Eno was originally hesitant to step into alt-rock territory with U2, telling Pitchfork that he was worried he might change U2’s sound “rather unrecognizably,” but Bono reassured him that the band wanted to move to more cutting edge territory. Soon they’d in become the biggest band in the world.

Then there’s Coldplay. In 2011, Chris Martin said Eno was more of a band member than a producer and that the band does anything Eno says, including singing gospel acapellas every morning. Bassist Guy Berryman claimed that Eno literally had them hypnotized with no noticeable results, which seems like a real missed opportunity.

Playlist: David Bowie, “Sound and Vision” / David Bowie, “Fantastic Voyage” / David Bowie, “Heroes” / Talking Heads, “The Big Country” / Talking Heads, “I Zimbra” / Talking Heads, “Crosseyed and Painless” / DEVO, “[I Can’t Get No] Satisfaction” / David Byrne and Brian Eno, “America Is Waiting” / David Byrne and Brian Eno, “The Jezebel Spirit” / U2, “Pride in the Name of Love” / U2, “Where the Streets Have No Name” / U2, “So Cruel” / Coldplay, “X & Y” / Coldplay, “Viva La Vida” / Ultravox, “Slip Away” / James, “Laid"

So you want to get into: Multimedia Eno?

Even for superfans, Eno’s art career is hard to follow because the physical installations are temporary and geographically far-flung. Most of the pieces are have to do with generative programming (harking back to Discreet Music) and/or using light as a medium (he thinks about video “as a source of light, rather than a source of image”).

One of the most notable works is 77 Million Paintings (2006), a constantly evolving projection layering light paintings on top of one another in random order, such that every moment is unique. The score is available on a recently released 6-LP compilation Music for Installations, which he spoke about extensively at the British Library. You can buy the DVD of 77 Million Paintings for a hefty $75 which includes the software used in the creation, or, there’s this thing called Youtube.

Ever start-up a PC running Windows 95? Surprise! You were listening to Eno. He was commissioned to create “a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional… and it must be 3 ¼ seconds long.”

He’s also gone mobile with iPhone and iPad apps. Scape, Bloom, and Trope are all exercises in visual music making, using shapes, colors, and drawing in place of traditional composition (Oblique Strategy: “Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them”). Bloom has expanded into a touring augmented reality experience with AR goggles and a perimeter of projection screens. It premiered in Berlin and will tour Europe and America in 2019, so download that app and start practicing!

So you want to get into: Contemporary Eno?

What has Brian Eno done for you lately? At 70 years old, you might expect him to be slowing down, but retirement doesn’t seem to be in the cards (Oblique Strategy: “Change nothing and continue with immaculate consistency”). He revealed in an extensive interview that part of his process these days is building a massive iTunes playlist of song sketches and listening to them for inspiration. That might be the very definition of resting on one’s laurels, if he wasn’t still releasing albums at the pace of a Soundcloud rapper.

His most notable work of the aughts was another collab with David Byrne. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (2008) sounds eerily optimistic to 2018 ears, uplifting acoustic guitar and soaring melodies that are blissfully ignorant of today’s nightmare universe. After that came Small Craft On A Milk Sea (2010) with Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams, dark textural electronics that fit in the softer section of the Warp Records discography (with a few requisite IDM-y drum freakouts). Drums Between The Bells (2011) finds Eno creating aural backdrops for the poetry of Rick Holland, an ambitious experiment that suffers from heavy-handed imagery and awkward cadences (which is to say, spoken word poetry). Lux (2012), a glistening four-track album, began as an installation and was played in Tokyo’s Haneda Airport for four days, a nice callback to his first ambient works.

In 2014 Eno released two electronic rock albums with Underworld’s Karl Hyde, one which was a little over-produced (Someday World) and a second that was criminally overlooked and sounds like a contemporary extension of Talking Heads (High Life). Then The Ship (2016) continued his obsession with nautical imagery, and although not quite as “Big” as the Another Green World standout track, it’s serviceable zen-out material with a few aggressive moments and a poignant cover of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free.”

2017 saw the release of a pleasant contemporary classical album with pianist Tom Rogerson (Finding Shore) and Reflection, an album-length recording of his latest infinitely generative program, which is also available as a $31 app (an Eno addiction ain’t cheap). In some ways, these two albums build on the foundations of Music for Airports and Discreet Music, Finding Shore an exercise in textural backdrops for beautiful piano melodies and Reflection an extension of his earliest compositional experiments.The most recent songs (aside from Music For Installations) were two tracks with Kevin Shields that sound like long lost My Bloody Valentine tracks. Oh, there was also a new Coldplay single that’s not nearly as bad as you’d expect!

So clearly Mr. Eno doesn’t appear to be slowing down. If you watch one of the recent video interviews he appears to be in great health (knock on the wood block from “In Dark Trees”) and we’ll certainly be receiving more music and art soon. But even if he were to hang up his creative hat tomorrow, there’s a lifetime worth of never before heard generative music available in, of all places, the app store.

Playlist: David Byrne, “Strange Overtones” / Eno and Hyde, “DBF” / Grizzly Bear, “Sleeping Ute (Nicolas Jaar Remix)” / “Fickle Sun” / Brian Eno, Jon Hopkins, and Leo Abrahams, “Small Craft on a Milk Sea” / Brian Eno and Rick Holland, “breath of crows” / Tom Rogerson and Brian Eno, “Idea of Order at Kyson Point” / “LUX 1” / Hyde and Eno, “Cells & Bells” / “Reflection” / “77 Million Paintings

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.