In the press release for Daniel Lanois’ sixth and latest solo effort, Flesh and Machine, the heralded producer and ambient music virtuoso admits that he is unfamiliar with such esteemed current acts as Burial and Four Tet, artists who have flirted with the genre. Sometimes this specific lack of knowledge can breed fascinating results. In the case of futuristic music, an unawareness of what new sounds artists in ambient and neighboring genres are mining can put the unenlightened artist’s music at risk of becoming dated all too quickly. It’s fortunate we’re talking about someone as accomplished as Lanois in this case, who has upped the ante with Flesh and the Machine by pledging to search “for something that’s never been heard before”. Although Lanois doesn’t quite achieve this, he makes good on his vision in other ways.
Flesh and Machine is Lanois’ entry for “Headphone Album of the Year”. I think I’d give that title to Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead!, but Flesh and Machine remains a captivating release in its own right. This is ambient music with the capacity to excite, engage, and evoke. The first of these three E’s happens right out of the gate, with “The End”, the second track on the album. Although the cacophony it raises is similar to that riled up on Radiohead’s “The National Anthem”, its means of bringing it are quite different. The only instruments used on the song were guitar and drums, which Lanois sampled piece by piece, processed, then placed back into the track. “The End” has an air of anything but ambient, a sensation that re-occurs with “Opera”. After a minute passes on delicate pulses, the beat starts stuttering in a way that threatens to give the listener an anxiety attack. Thankfully, serenely sampled vocals cushion the drums enough to keep your heart from going into overdrive.
“Sioux Lookout” and “Space Love” rank as two of Flesh and Machine‘s most stimulating tracks, with the former using its voice samples to a particularly awe-inspiring effect. Lanois used these voices — which sometimes sound human, sometimes animal, all created by Lanois himself — in an effort to “create this contemporary native cry,” as he says. “Space Love” progresses in a way that’s almost striking in its subtlety, sounding at first like a lone cry into nowhere before coalescing into something more grounded, all the while maintaining its plaintiveness.
As for the evocative entries, “First Love”, with its dreamy, puppy love quality, leads the pack. Its incorporation of a Suzuki Omnichord recalls the work of Brian Eno, Lanois’ mentor. “Iceland” feels homey yet alien, while also smartly sidestepping the whimsy that the titular country sometimes suggests.
Flesh and the Machine carries with itself a film component. Lanois joined forces with the Modern School of Film’s Robert Milazzo to present videos for the album’s songs. The project casts its net over established filmmakers — such as The Sweet Hereafter director Atom Egoyan and American Psycho‘s Mary Harron — and unknowns, all working to give Lanois’ work distinct colors and shapes. Lanois, of course, has no trouble forging visuals through his music alone, but the project is a valiant effort in upholding the music video, something that has become obscured in the wake of MTV’s abandonment of the form and the commerciality and noisiness of big pop music videos.
The real Flesh and Machine visual component that sounds extraordinary will be Lanois’ live shows in support of the release. Each night, Lanois, along with bassist Jim Wilson and drummer Brian Blade, will sample, dub, and process in real time on stage each night, making for a singular performance on each date of the tour, never to be recreated. The plan sounds like an intriguing one, perhaps even more progressive than the processes employed throughout Flesh and Machine. In a way, this method speaks even more to the present day and beyond than anything on the album itself, with the fleeting ways of today’s pop culture landscape. Flesh and Machine‘s live performances may belong to the night, but the sensations stirred through listening to the album will linger for far longer.