Saturday, November 13, 2010

Eno's Small Craft on a Milk Sea vs. Gunn's Modulator

Small Craft on a Milk Sea is the latest album from Brian Eno.  Together with Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams, the 15 tracks on Small Craft are the latest sonic landscapes from the man who virtually created the ambient genre.

It's tempting to try to call this work an evolution but that would imply some sort of predictable maturation of Eno's music and that's not the case here.  Small Craft doesn't sound like an extension of what came before.  It's edgier, a little darker, and more rhythmic than its ambient predecessors.   Just take the album's cover and title as an example.  The "milk sea" provokes an aura of serenity and smoothness but simultaneously the "small craft" imposes sensations of isolation and foreboding portent.  That's reflected in the music - beautiful keyboard work contrasted with wiry guitars.  Emerald and Stone, cited by some reviewers as being inferior to all the other tracks, is one of my favorites.  It's a brief airy piano piece with a simple melody that contrasts nicely with Flint March, a percussive up-tempo track with an African feel.

Another trap of Eno's work is to somehow explain it through some psuedo-intellectual and overly serious bullshit.  So let's cut to the chase.  What Eno, Hopkins, and Abrahams have created here are some wonderfully lush and intricately detailed pieces of music that are great fun to listen to and mentally explore.  If you have the time, I highly recommend the hilarious mock interview with Eno about Small Craft.  Although it's done with quite a bit a humor, Eno does get his points across and the ideas he expressed did influence my approach to the album.

Trey Gunn's Modulator, on the other hand, is a completely different piece of work.  Whereas Eno's Small Craft is the result of collaboration and improvisation, Gunn's work results from the juxtaposition of two distinct performances widely separated in time and space.

In 2006, drummer Marco Minnemann recorded an hour-long drum solo.  Then from 2008 to 2010 Gunn recorded guitar tracks over Minnemann's solo.  The result is something that requires active listening, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.  While you drift musically over Eno's Milk Sea, Gunn's guitar, bass, and other performances are like a game of musical Tetris you play to discover how the two tracks fit together.

Flood is a track where Gunn's excellent guitar melodies dominate a rather conventional beat played out by Minnemann.  When Minnemann goes off the beaten path as on Switch, it's Gunn whose playing becomes almost rhythmic in an attempt to keep pace.  Modulator is a tempest interplay of rhythm and time signatures.  On his blog at, Gunn writes "with great restrictions come great creative leaps."

What's interesting about these two works is how they both build off of the loss of control as a means of engaging the listener.  Eno's musical oeuvre repeatedly delves into painting (77 Million Paintings) and movies (Music for Films).  These works force the user to be an active participant through the omission of the essential tangible elements (the canvas, the film), allowing the listener to fill in the blanks.  Sound has been liberated from structure.  Look again at Small Craft's cover.  The milk sea, the sonic landscape, is there.  The small craft is not - that vessel is what we listeners bring to the work.  Gunn gave up control at the onset when he as artist framed his playing within Minneman's drum work.  Gunn leaves it to us to rediscover the structure that Eno surrendered.

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