Brian Eno, I no longer fear thee. As I stare at your picture on the cover of Before and after Science, I understand now that you are a man who makes songs. Some of which are upbeat rock numbers. Some are moody and achingly beautiful. Others are obtuse. I know all of this. The austere shadow in your sunken cheeks no longer causes me grave trepidation. I’m sure you are relieved.
In fact, the folks at Virgin Music/Astralwerks are probably far more relieved than Eno himself. The recently re-mastered re-issues of his classic albums from the 1970’s undoubtedly aim to buddy Eno up with a new generation of fans. I’m sure they envision dorm room and water cooler conversations that go something like: “Did you know that in 1977 Eno assembled a cast of soon to be legendary musicians from the soon to be legendary avant garde in studios in London and Cologne in order to cut what would become Before and after Science?” “You didn’t???” “Well, among the notables were Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music), Robert Fripp (King Crimson), Achim Roedelius and Mobi Moebius (Cluster), and, of course, Phil Collins. Can you believe it?” “The results were and are a fascinating example of studio music. Music that is hand-crafted layer by layer in hopes of achieving something both hyper-relevant and entirely new!” At that point your co-worker will spend the rest of his or her afternoon researching Eno on the Internet and maybe purchasing some transatlantic airline tickets for good measure. We are defenseless. But, it’s worth it.
“No one receiving” opens Before and after Science with a belt of starched funk. Beneath the rumble of Percy Jones’s bass, Eno stacks track after track of both real and synthesized percussion, creating a tribal swell that directly informs of us of his future endeavors on, most notably, the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music. The album continues with Eno singing over a piano and hand claps on “Backwater”. The song has an almost provincial quality that recalls Ray Davies while at the same time foreshadowing several years of new wave sing-a-longs. In fact, the album’s first half locks you in to a world of high-brow fun. “King’s Lead Hat” is a rousing rock track with a three guitar-powered chorus that propels you far into the dizzying heights before leaving you perched and waiting for “Here He Comes”. Here Eno allows you to catch your breath by weaving one of his most impossibly beautiful melodies over lilting guitars and keys. By the end you become just another one of his layers. The tracks are not just simply on your left and right. They are in front of and behind you, my friend. They are above and below you. You can’t get out. You’ll rupture the delicate balance.
At this point a casual listener might start to become a bit anxious. The compositions are becoming aural landscapes. They are skillfully executed, but have shed the immediacy of the album’s previous tracks. “By the River” is by far the most elegant of these landscapes. The gents from Cluster hold a net of grand, electric, and bass piano which ensures a gentle fall for Eno’s voice, which dives from the roof with both dignity and grace. “Julie With ” is given a much more spacious instrumentation. But once again, Eno’s voice arrives to fill the vacuum and usher in a swell of phosphorescent sound. “Spider and I” ends the journey with an atmospheric web of synthesizers. For a several moments he places himself in the center of the mass in order to say his goodbyes and release you back into your world. There is absolutely nothing to fear.