Ambient purveyor Brian Eno and poet Rick Holland have had a quiet partnership going for over ten years now. It started with a chance encounter at the highly academic Map-Making Project and led to some recording sessions in 2003, where Eno and Holland would take a stab at sound collages that fused their fortes together. Time went on and the two men worked on these sound poems at a leisurely pace. It wasn’t until after Eno completed work on 2010’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea that he and Holland stepped up production on their joint project. Forsaking the material that was recorded during those first sessions, Drums Between the Bells is largely a spoken word album. Nine different voices read the texts using Eno’s signature spacey beds as a backdrop, if not competing for the center of attention. Musically, this isn’t a big departure from what Brian Eno has done before. He’ll attack you with industrial springs one moment and then lure you away on that fuzzy, familiar Eno cloud the next. As a poet, Holland deals with abstracts, impressionism, and some downright surrealist stuff. This should come together beautifully, shouldn’t it? Somehow, it does not.
One problem is that, unless you are a close friend or relative of Eno, Holland, or one of the seven other readers, Drums Between the Bells does not establish a deep connection with the listener. Where to place blame—music or poetry?—can shift from track to track. For instance, Eno’s monotone singing voice that strangely grabbed everyone’s attention back in the days of Another Green World feels directionless to the point of being insulting on “Breath of Crows”. Delivery also drags down a track like “Pour It Out”; while Eno builds the background with delicate arpeggios, Laura Spagnuolo reads every word as if it were the last one in a sentence. I. Think. You. Know. What. I’m. Talking. About.
At other times, you cannot fault the delivery, like when Elisha Mudly is mercilessly asked to read something as redundant and frustrating as “describing the exact actuality of what it is you see.” “Dow” superficially mentions Tokyo and the stock exchange and “Fierce Aisles of Light” make some vague nods to train stations in a tone of voice reminiscent of gloomy Swedish films. And “Sounds Alien” is able to get its point across if it’s meant to mish-mash your brain into believing that “life will not make sense” and then repeating the album’s title numerous times.
There is one keeper, and that is “The Airman”. This is once instance of music and poetry matching perfectly. Aylie Cooke’s gives a performance fit for space, just the place the text is reaching for while Eno stumbles upon a magical interval on his keyboard: “The higher we climb from our surface / The clearer we see where we are”. Her voice is held tightly by the reverb, and then released when Eno transposes the main figure.
Aside from that, Drums Between the Bells feels like one big obstacle of an album. Now matter how many times you cycle it through your music player, it will keep you at arm’s length. A complaint like that doesn’t always qualify as a complaint in some artistic circles. But if ethereal music and free form prose are going to be combined, a gut connection is needed. Brian Eno and Rick Holland somehow pass on this opportunity, making an album that sounds like fine furniture and décor with no house in which to put them.