There’s no possible way you can go wrong with these voluminous reissues of some of Brian Eno's best work.
The Shutov Assembly has long been my favorite Brian Eno album. It’s hard to convey the elusive charm of this release, whose tentative opening notes build into a crescendo of mesmerizing electronic ambience: delicately mysterious tones drift in unison with faint, distant birdsong conjuring visions of distant landscapes. Waves and wind merge with pure crystalline notes; somewhere beneath it all darker, threatening tones rumble and rise. It’s the discovery of a distant new world; or the vision of one ancient and lost. A gorgeous album, but one that’s been devilishly hard to obtain in North America. Eno fans (and the electronic ambient community more generally) can finally delight in the upcoming re-release not only of this underrated 1992 album, but of a generous swath of other re-releases, coupled with rare, hard-to-find and previously unreleased Eno material.
It’s part of an ongoing series of re-issues by All Saints Records. On 1 December, it was Eno’s turn, as All Saints re-released four of his albums jam-packed with extras. The pioneering musician got his first break as a member of Roxy Music, but has forged a far more notable solo career working with the likes of Robert Fripp, Talking Heads, David Bowie, and many others. As a result, he has no shortage of albums to choose from, but the four slated for re-release are particularly outstanding selections.
There’s a lot to look forward to here, and not just The Shutov Assembly. Shutov, incidentally, is the name of a Russian artist (Sergei Shutov) who was friends with Eno. It was in response to a gift from Shutov (who liked to paint to Eno’s music, but had trouble obtaining good music in Soviet Russia) that Eno put together and dedicated for him a collection of previously unreleased tracks. The esoteric 9-letter titles each reflect the particular installations Eno drew them from. "Ikebukuro" (a district of Tokyo), for instance, stems from his Tokyo installation in 1989; Triennale was a festival in Italy where Eno performed in 1985. All the tracks were recorded between 1985 and 1990.
Together, the album presents a pinnacle of electronic ambient recording. Effusive keyboards evoke sweeping vistas that dissolve into eerie, minimalist gongs and dark ambience. It’s a recording in which to lose yourself: equally powerful as a meditation piece, or as calming background influence.
“Mood music for science geeks” is how Entertainment Weekly described Nerve Net when it was first released in 1992. They weren’t too impressed, and graded it a C-. The description is apt, but it deserves a far higher grade. It’s upbeat, leaning at times more toward a jazzy-rock than The Shutov Assembly yet still retaining strong elements of darker, moodier ambience. Eno described parts of Nerve Net as “a new kind of dissonant dance music”, but stated in a 1990 interview with Michael Engelbrecht that some of it (for instance the track Juju Space Jazz) was inspired by and expressed a similar sort of feeling to The Shutov Assembly: The Shutov Assembly reflected “the out-of-town version of it, the outside-the-city-limits version of danger” while the other conveyed the “in-the-city-kind of feeling, but also not sweet and not reassuring”. The denser, more synthetic and more danceable Nerve Net – with its more easily discernible beats, sporadic guitar twangs, occasional minimalist vocals and piano-driven swings to spacy jazz – indeed carries a certain urban ambient vibe. The Shutov Assembly, with its darker, more ethereal tones -- gongs and sweeping orchestrals yet with a tribal vibe reminiscent of Lustmord at points –- evokes more of a mystical landscape feel. In a 1998 interview with Mojo magazine, Eno even said that he envisioned The Shutov Assembly tracks as “proposals for orchestral pieces”. The Netherlands Metropole Orchestra took him up on the challenge at a 1999 festival, performing them live and on Dutch radio.
Neroli (Thinking Music Part IV) was – chronologically – the successor to these two albums. Originally released in 1993 and designed as a single hour-long piece, it’s extremely soothing, minimalist mood music. Pitchfork’s Chris Ott described the musical theory behind it in his review of the album’s 2004 re-release: “The hidden side of Neroli appeals to a select class of music theory buffs, fascinated by the flattened second and seventh of this Phrygian modal, and an insistent hang on the scale's fifth.” On a more material level, the resulting mood album with its calming influences has received widespread adoption in maternity wards.
The final re-release in this batch is The Drop. Its deep bass ambient soundscapes pair well with The Shutov Assembly: the 18-minute piano flight "Iced Earth", with faint, smothered tribal percussion and enveloping cricket and bird calls, is the literal icing on the cake in this collection. This too is an underrated album, particularly with the bonus tracks included in the reissues (more on that below). The 18-minute bonus version of "Targa" sounds like the Brian Eno – Coil collaboration that never happened.
All in all, the four albums fit together well (despite the initially discordant down-to-earth jangle of Nerve Net), forming an undulating, ambient soundscape of dark drone, urban fuzz, and moody experimental tribalism that best unfolds by moonlight.
But the re-release will appeal even to the fan who has all these albums, for in addition to the originals there’s almost as much in the way of extras bundled into the set. Neroli comes with an additional, previously unreleased hour-long ambient drone piece, "New Space Music", recorded in 1992. The two flow into each other almost seamlessly. Nerve Net is accompanied by My Squelchy Life, an infamous unreleased album that was released to reviewers in 1991 but withdrawn by Eno immediately before public release. Bootlegs of the album exist, and various tracks appeared in significantly altered and reworked form on later releases, but the broader public can finally enjoy the entirety of this lost album as a companion piece that continues in the more rock-oriented vein of some of Nerve Net’s material. The Drop includes nine bonus tracks “previously only available as limited edition of 1,000 sold at an exhibition of Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings at La Floret in Japan in 2006. The Shutov Assembly, finally, features seven additional and previously unreleased tracks dating from the same period. Altogether, these reissues form over seven hours of prime Eno ambient soundscapes. There’s no possible way you can go wrong with this.