Two old geezers make a go at it in 2010. Two old geezers whose music of yore I am, and forever shall be, a huge fan of. One sinks and one swims.
First on the chopping block is a man by the name of BRIAN ENO. His voluminous output from the years 1971 - 1984 is beyond reproach. There's a good dozen-plus LPs I'll throw at you right now which you need sittin' pretty somewhere within your immediate vicinity: Roxy Music's first two albums, Here Come The Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World, Discreet Music, Before And After Science, Music For Films, Music For Airports, On Land, Apollo, both LPs w/ Robert Fripp & both LPs w/ Harold Budd... Wait I sec, have I said this before? Am I boring you? That's 15 albums you need. You got 'em yet? Post-'84, I've paid little attention to his music. He hasn't actually released a great deal of it, and I do recall enjoying a collaborative disc he did w/ John Cale eons ago when I heard it, but from the mid '80s on, other than his famous production work w/ schlebs like U2, I won't claim to know a hell of a lot about his period of his music. Judging by his latest album, I haven't been missing out on much.
There was a whole lot of hoopla made earlier in the year when it was announced that Eno had inked a deal w/ famed UK electronic label, Warp. There's a few discs by Autechre, Broadcast and Aphex Twin which I think are pretty OK, for what they are, but otherwise this record contract means zip to me. However, I'm not oblivious to the implications: one of the founding fathers of electronic music as we know it today signs to one of his country's pre-eminent contemporary electronic labels. Hopes were high. Hell, my hopes were high. And here it is: Small Craft On A Milk Sea, credited to Eno and his collaborators, Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams.
There's a few problems I have w/ it. For one, the songs are too short. There's 15 tracks, and they're squeezed into a 45-minute time frame. None of them are really given room to develop. Apollo, too, from 1983, had relatively short songs, though the craft of each individual track most definitely made up for their relative breadth (it is, in fact, my favourite Eno disc of them all). Not only that, but the Eno of yore had a real sense of compositional warmth and texture. Albums like Music For Airports and Apollo may sound deceptively simple and minimalist in retrospect, but there's a lot going on underneath the surface. The enveloping layers of sound of Apollo, or the muzak take on Morton Feldman of Music For Airports are nowhere present here. Nor is the glam-punk of Here Come The Warm Jets or the pop-art electronics of Another Green World. But that's OK, because Eno shouldn't be simply revisiting old sounds. Unfortunately, most of Small Craft... sounds no different to any other generic "contemporary electronica" album you might find on Warp on a bad day (I'm assuming they release great contemporary electronica albums too, but like I said: you're asking the wrong guy if you want confirmation of that). It possesses an awful digital quality which has me thinking much of it would make better soundtrack pieces to a contemporary Gen-Y BBC drama series. Not my idea of a good time.
There's one glimmer of hope, but it's short-lived. Track 6, "2 Forms Of Anger" takes a couple of minutes to get started, slowly developing like an industrial-damaged Coil track, and then in the last minute (and there's only three of them) grinds into a gen-u-ine rock & roll track which could've been lifted from Here Come The Warm Jets or Taking Tiger Mountain. The scratchy guitars drive it along and it feels like it's going to break out into something really good. And then it stops. Some of Small Craft... could pass for a series of half-decent Autechre offcuts, but the bulk of it doesn't sound like an album which took a craftsman like Eno 5 years to make. More like something he wrote during his lunch break.
On the other hand, there's Michael Gira and SWANS. They hadn't released an album since Soundtracks For The Blind in 1996, at which point Gira disbanded the group and started various solo projects, as well as The Angels Of Light (AOL). I have a couple of AOL's CDs and they've never budged me an inch. And Swans usually budge me a mile. Records such as Cop, Children Of God and White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity are huge enough to move mountains. When I speak of what I consider to be truly great American bands of the last 30 years, bands such as Black Flag, Minutemen and the Meat Puppets - bands who forged all-new hybrids of sound and created musical legacies of their own - I'll always throw Swans in there, too. Their best albums - and there are a few other excellent albums not yet mentioned - have moved my mind and loins for 20 years now, and thus, slobbering fan-boy drooling aside, you can tick the box which counts me as an admirer of Gira's work.
Angels Of Light were a slightly different proposition. From what I've heard, the grand drama is forsaken in favour of a more folky feel, and whilst I love Fairport Convention and Pentangle as much as the next guy, Gira's appropriation of that sound for me just didn't work. A few nice tunes, but ultimately there was something amiss, and I never found Gira's voice suitable to the material. So, it's 2010, Michael Gira is now in his mid 50s, and he's reconvened the band, Blues Brothers-style, and roped in a few old heads from the past, most notably Norman Westberg and Christoph Hahn - and not Jarboe - for My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky (catchy, huh?) on his own Young God label. My expectations were tepid, possibly gearing for The Big Disappointment, but I have been richly rewarded.
I've owned My Father... (not writing that again) for only a week, played it possibly 15 times, and yet I'm convinced I probably won't hear a better contemporary "rock" album than this in 2010. The opening track, the near-10-minute "No Words/No Thoughts", booms in with whalloping drums and a Branca-style guitar army before Gira begins to bellow his words halfway through. It sounds like the last 20 years of music never happened, and it sounds good. Track two, "Reeling The Liars In", reminds me of some of Gira's best non-Swans work dealing in a quieter vein, such as those World Of Skin LPs he did in the '80s, or the Gira/Jarboe 3-LP set, Drainland, they recorded and released in the mid '90s (seemingly mostly forgotten now, but they're definitely worth a shot), dirgey ballads pulled off w/ aplomb only by men of years such as Gira. Tracks 3 and 4 are the standouts: "Jim" is a slightly less violent take on the pummel of the opener, whilst "My Birth" is 4 minutes of thunder which combines the heaviness of Cop and the more grandiose cheese of White Light... : a perfect sonic meeting of my two very favourite aspects of Swans' ouvre. Better yet, none of this just sounds like a rehash, or that Gira and the band have deliberately gone out of their way to "give the fans what they want". Swans aren't that sort of band.
For my two cents, they have given the fans what they want: as strong an album as you could expect for a band comprising of various folks in their 40s and 50s, some of whom have been doing this for 30 years, to make right now. Gira's lyrical charms are still present throughout (and I've never considered Swans to be a nihilistic band a la Whitehouse, for they're far more interesting and complex than that), and he's singing like he still means it. My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky sounds fresh, forceful but never forced, and inspired. Everything Eno's album isn't. Like Eno's disc, it's also 45 minutes long, but it left me wanting more. Eno's didn't leave me wanting anything, except to maybe put a different album on. Gira still has a few tricks up his sleeve, and I sense there's more treats on the way in the future. I hope Eno wakes up from his slumber and does the same.