Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Brian Eno 9: The Plateaux Of Mirror

After creating the Ambient brand, Brian Eno spent the next few years collaborating closely with Talking Heads, being credited as producing their albums as well as performing and composing as fifth member. So when his next solo album arrived, it was perhaps not such a shock that it too was a collaboration of sorts.

The Plateaux Of Mirror is largely the work of so-called minimalist composer Harold Budd, who plays simple, pretty melodies on the piano while Eno “treats” the performances. There really isn’t much more to this album than that; Harold plays, Eno mixes. But part of Eno’s genius is his ability to both capture a moment on tape, and then create an entire atmosphere around it. That’s just what he does here. In a perfect illustration of such an indescribable album title, these ten tracks place the listener on another planet, in a desert, someplace indisputably solitary. This is music designed for independent ingestion; otherwise it would simply fade into the background, which it does quite well.

While there’s nothing in the title, nor even the typically topographic artwork, to suggest it, the overwhelming mood here is that of a dark, post-dusk landscape covered in snow, with no artificial light except whatever is already in the sky. Perhaps it’s cloudy; it’s certainly cold. Throughout, Harold Budd picks his way through the keys of his piano while Eno channels the output through his mixing board. Each track is distinct yet similar, with one notable exception.

The anomaly here, as well in their work together, is the piece that opens the second half of the album. “Not Yet Remembered” is built around block piano fifths, mixed more cleanly than on the rest of the album. The “verses” are played through twice, and then in the middle section, those trademark wordless Eno vocals are mixed in to provide a sad melodic counterpoint to the chords. Once this height is reached, the verse returns, as the vocals step back to prop up the chords rather than ride them. It’s a moment that stands tall on the album, following and preceding those other snowy pieces, and stands equally tall in Eno’s catalog.

While many would have wished he’d go back to rocking, The Plateaux Of Mirror is an illuminating detour for a man whose musical instrument is the recording studio. It doesn’t garner everyday listening, nor does it do the trick every time, but it is pretty special.

Budd and Eno would attempt to repeat the recipe four years later with The Pearl—outside of the Ambient trademark, but still in the same mold. With a slightly less hissy sound, possibly due to the production credit of one Daniel Lanois, the album follows much of the same pattern as its predecessor, except that it’s less icy, not as distinct, and doesn’t have anything as profound as “Not Yet Remembered”. And we would have been surprised if it did. If anything, it almost sounds “spacey”, for lack of a better word. There was probably a reason for that.

Harold Budd/Brian Eno Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror (1980)—
Harold Budd/Brian Eno
The Pearl (1984)—2

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