The ambient wizard returns with a singularly ambitious project: an album designed to tailor itself in perpetuity to the listener's mood.
Even after 40 years of making music, Brian Eno hasn’t lost his ambitious streak. After a string of fairly brilliant-yet-conventional (by his standards) albums with collaborator Karl Hyde from Underworld, it seemed like only a matter of time before Eno provided his audience with something conceptually strange and unique. And indeed, right as the new year started, we were graced with Reflection, perhaps the only album available as both a vinyl LP and a downloadable app. Like most things he does, Eno envisioned something quietly grand with Reflection, presenting the iOS version of the album as a continuously generating piece of music, one that would slightly change depending on the conditions of the listener. Of course, this is the sort of thing that detractors would dismiss as smoke-and-mirrors salesmanship, and it truthfully matters little to what Eno has accomplished here. Instead, more attention should be paid to the seamless, dreamy ambient soundscape Eno crafts on Reflection in any of its forms.
For those of us without iPhones or $40 to spend on an app, Reflection is presented as one continuous track. That isn’t new for Eno; 1985’s Thursday Afternoon did something very similar in creating an hour-long ambient piece. However, Afternoon also relied on the presence of acoustic instruments as a way of grounding the listener. In contrast, Reflection sounds wholly alien, the product of another time. As one long ambient piece, it’s meditative, consuming in a way that doesn’t cause madness. Aside from brief spurts of dissonance, Reflection is a near-ceaseless stretch of calmness. As such, the experience of listening to Reflection is as Zen as any of Eno’s best ambient works.
Having said that, it should be noted that Eno never pitched Reflection as just another ambient album; this was supposed to be an experience, something unlike anything experienced in music before. Instead, what we’ve got here is another Zaireeka or Biophilia, an interesting curio that promises the world and falls agonizingly short of the expectations it sets for itself. It’s hardly groundbreaking in the way that Eno often was, and though it is pleasant, Reflection even falls short of the blissful ebullience present in the Eno + Hyde albums. Granted, that comparison may seem unfair given that Reflection is a very different record than High Life or Someday World, but since the album falls short on innovation, one can only then look at whether the experience is an enjoyable one overall. With Reflection, the best answer once can come up with is “yes.... kind of.”
Perhaps this underwhelming feeling dissipates with the iOS version of Reflection, but the fact remains that the number of people who will hear this record in the way that its creator intended it to be heard is a small number at best. For the rest of us, this is essentially just another ambient Eno record, one that plays on a lot of the same tricks and techniques for which the man is highly regarded for. It’s always a delight to hear a master ply his trade with such deftness as Eno does here, and that skill is what Reflection should be remembered for, rather than the clumsy execution of its creator’s grandiose concept.
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