Finally, Warp Records and Brian Eno come together. These two names hold equal footing in the pantheon of electronic music, Eno having charted the way and the Warp Records roster picking up on his cues to continually push the genre forward in the past two decades. Crucially, neither Eno nor the folks at Warp ever seem comfortable merely repeating patterns of success. Eno’s music ranges from avant-garde pop to the surreally ambient (and he coined the term, let’s not forget), while Warp’s recent releases include works from math rock revivalists Battles and chamber pop heroes Grizzly Bear. Both Eno and his new home label find their creative fuel in constant expansion and restless experimentation.
The first fruits of this new artistic relationship, Small Craft on a Milk Sea, finds Eno exploring all facets of his previous instrumental work, while maintaining the sense of forward-thinking freshness that has rightfully given him a reputation as one of the most influential and consistent musicians of the last half century. “Emerald and Lime” opens the record with tones and atmospherics that wouldn’t sound out of place on his landmark Ambient series. Gentle keyboards soothe with an ethereal melody, the higher notes of a melodica providing welcome harmonies. It’s a beautiful composition—and also something of a feint, or at least a slight misdirection. Much of the music to follow on Small Craft will be similarly spare, but the central songs here seem possessed of an intention not to relax but to provoke and unsettle.
“Complex Heaven”, the next track, signals the change in mood. Eno bases it, too, around slowly repeating chord progressions, though this time on a reverb-laden clean electric guitar. Synth drones and dissonant blips swirl above and below the central instrumentation, and it all sounds vaguely ominous, a threat of a threat. The album’s title track focuses the sinister energy even further, with its tensely coiled palm mutes and mournful melody, until “Flint March” lets the foreboding explode into pounding tribal rhythms and air raid synths. Eno waits until now to bring percussion into the mix, and it’s a brilliantly executed move, startling and brutal in its violent revelation.
Now that he’s shown his hand, Eno doesn’t back away from the darkness he’s established. “Horse” keeps the programmed drums front and center, augmenting the thrust of their aggression with buzzsaw synthesizers and what sounds like someone shredding the strings of a cello with a razor-sharp bow. “2 Forms of Anger” slows the tempo at first, before building to an honest-to-God guitar freakout, Eno hammering away like the punks whose tastes he helped to so powerfully change and force forward. This minute of shameless rocking proves thrilling and perfectly placed in both its juxtaposition to the earlier and quieter moments of the album and in its climactic actualization of the anger that’s been building in the music up to this point.
Indeed, Small Craft takes on a different arc on its second side, now that Eno has exorcised his demons somewhat. “Bone Jump” is the album’s only real misstep, its Nintendo keyboards too brash and cartoonish for such a master of tone. “Dust Shuffle” brings us back into the fold, its clattering percussion providing the most danceable moment on the record. “Paleosonic” shows more evidence of Eno’s rediscovered love for the guitar, and many listeners accustomed to Eno-as-Electronica may be surprised at how nimbly his fingers move on the neck when he wants to lace the song with atmospheric soloing. “Slow Ice, Old Moon” is Music for Airports for the post-9/11 police state, while “Lesser Heaven”, “Emerald and Stone”, and “Written, Forgotten” begin the cooling down process. Here, Eno brings return to softer sounds and gentler musicianship, somewhat scaling back the walls of the claustrophobic space he’s created. “Late Antropocene”, the longest track by far at eight minutes, uses its extended running time as an ambient palate cleanser, reflective of Eno’s past work in helping listeners feel as if they were exploring the moon. “Invisible” finishes the job, its instrumentation almost buried under a low moan, but in a comforting way, as if we were listening to the song underneath three or four warm blankets. Eventually, what resembles birds chirping signals the end of the album and our return to Earth.
Small Craft on a Milk Sea gives us the classically transportive experience that Brian Eno excels in creating. It begs to be listened to as a whole, so that one can track the emotional trajectory of the album, moving with Eno from mildly stoned contentment to burgeoning paranoia, to explosive frustration and back again. Even a label as enviable as Warp should count itself lucky to have him, as should we.