For their second collaboration of 2014, these two artists remain frustratingly close to making the great album this one hints they're capable of.
The second album that Brian Eno and Karl Hyde have made together in 2014 is probably the better of the two, but it's also the more frustrating one. Unlike May's Someday World, High Life has a consistent level of quality. But also unlike that record, this one mostly doesn't hit the heights that Hyde and Eno managed to for about half the album. High Life is the inverse of Someday World in other ways too. While that album felt tightly composed and relatively conventionally constructed, this one was devised and played live over the course of five days, and embraces what Eno calls the "Reickuti" sound, an attempted melange of Steve Reich and Fela Kuti (both influences somewhere in Somewhere World's DNA, but much more apparent here). Befitting both influences and creation, this winds up being Eno and Hyde's "jam album," but it mostly avoids the aimlessness that term can suggest.
The longest tracks here are the best. "Return" and "Lilac" are the two times when Hyde's guitar overdrive stretches closest to transcendence. On "Lilac" both men invest what could be a nonsense lyric with enough meaning that the final rendition, coming after the dense, instrumental middle of the song, becomes something moving. One thing that makes High Life a more frustrating listen is that it's generally harder to hear Hyde, with Eno, a capable enough singer but not nearly as compelling, taking lead on most of these songs, but his murmurs on "Return" mark the one time that Eno taking center stage is a strong choice. The instrumental tracks here generally work as well, although the fact that "Moulded Life" sounds strongly like the music for a factory level in a SNES game is likely to be divisive.
At the same time, aside from "Return" and "Lilac," most of the material on "High Life" is pleasant rather than essential. A track like "DBF," composed mostly of processed beats and febrile, scratchy guitar, seems a bit more at times like a proof of concept than an actual song, and a few times the record drifts towards aural wallpaper -- and not in the purposive sense of the term when Eno uses it in his ambient work, either. It's possible, too, that Eno and Hyde's seeming focus on process this time and more conventional songwriting last time is what has so far been keeping their work together from really achieving its potential. The most effective songs here and on Someday World aren't all designed or written in the same fashion, they're the tracks where Eno and Hyde's hearts seem to be as engaged as their minds (somewhat surprising from the often detached Eno, less so from Hyde).
What ultimately makes High Life, Someday World, and the Eno/Hyde collaboration to date slightly disappointing is that it's not at all just a damp squib. Both men have done fine work on their own in recent years, over multiple projects, and the best of their work together could easily make up one of the best albums of 2014. While it's nice that we have significantly more material from the duo than just that album, it's a little aggravating that we have it in the form we have (and that such an album will ultimately need to be constructed by listeners). Of the two records, High Life doesn't suffer from any real clunkers and is more consistently sonically rewarding, so that makes it the 'better' album. And that's what ultimately makes it the more frustrating of the two; even the more successful collection put together by Eno and Hyde is mostly just further proof that they haven't yet made the album together that they're clearly capable of.