A Beginner’s Guide to Brian Eno’s ambient albums

Treble staff

Brian Eno’s body of work is like a solar system. Each of his “rock” albums is like a planet. One is the glam planet, one is the more whimsical art-pop planet. One is literally Another Green World. But surrounding those self-contained pieces is a vast and open landscape of distant light, nebulae, comets, ice clusters and black holes. It’s even more massive than the orbital spheres inside of it, and it’s continuously expanding. This is the realm of Brian Eno’s ambient music.

Summarizing the career of someone like Brian Eno, a self-described “non musician,” isn’t easy without oversimplifying, and even careful consideration of everything he’s done runs the risk of overlooking one of the more nuanced aspect of his musical directions. In fact, he even reduced his own work to a fairly glib summary a couple years ago. “I often think I’ve only ever had two ideas, and I keep finding new approaches to them,” he told Pitchfork in 2017. “And each time I do, I think, Wow, this is really new! But it actually isn’t. It’s the same idea from a different angle.” Those two things? Pop records and ambient records, naturally, though in the case of the former, it’s not just his own albums but those with his production or collaboration work, including releases by David Bowie, Talking Heads, U2, Devo and many others. In the case of the latter, however, it’s the area in which he’s dedicated most of his time and effort, and Eno once again found a pithy one-liner to define this atmospheric, primarily electronic style of music: It must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

It’s easy, then, to categorize Eno’s ambient material as all being part of the same approach or sound. That’s true, particularly in the sense that the elements are frequently the same—the absence of rhythm, the use of asymmetrical overlapping elements in the compositions—but the end result is frequently quite different. The open space of Music for Airports is not the same as the dark expanse of Apollo, and the endless combinations of Reflection is not the same as the guitar-enriched drones of (No Pussyfooting).

Because of the strange, anxious nature of the present moment—one defined by a public health crisis and the economic fallout in its wake—you’re probably hearing a lot about ambient music right now. In fact, the New York Times recently made a playlist of his selected ambient works. This is a slightly different take—a first-timer’s roadmap to getting into Eno’s vast and overwhelming series of ambient records. It’s music that’s soothing, therapeutic, but far more intricate and compelling than any surface evaluation might have you believe. In a sense, it gives back whatever you put into it, though it doesn’t require intense investment. So maybe Eno was right after all. On his 72nd birthday, we give you a starter’s kit to the music of Brian Eno—five essentials, next steps and advanced listening.

And it might be obvious, but we’ll just make this clear right away: Please listen to Another Green World before these albums if you haven’t.


beginner's guide Brian Eno ambient Music for AirportsAmbient 1: Music for Airports

(1978; Polydor)

It’s not the first ambient album Brian Eno ever recorded, but it’s the first to be literally called as such. Part of a series of four albums, one credited to Laraaji, that Eno conceived as being interconnected parts, almost like individual studies, Music for Airports is as much sound installation as a piece of musical performance. In fact, Eno conceived of the album as being looped inside of actual airport terminals. Its inspiration, or lack thereof, came from the Köln Airport, which Eno had flown in and out of numerous times throughout the ’70s. He didn’t care for its atmosphere, and as a response he came up with something soothing to counteract the tension and anxiety of international travel. In fact, it actually became an installation at LaGuardia Airport in New York, and has been performed by chamber ensembles in airports (including San Diego’s Lindbergh Field), though the music doesn’t need to be heard in that specific environment to be appreciated or enjoyed. It’s incredibly soothing and serene music, each track composed of tape loops of varying lengths, which create individual repetitions, but no one track ever entirely repeats itself—for instance the melody of the choral voices and the piano never quite align in the same way again. Later on in his career, he’d program his “generative music” in order to create the same effect without requiring actual tape to do so. I’d be lying if I said that fascination in the techniques used in creating the music wasn’t part of the appeal, but that too is unnecessary to achieve the desired effect of Music for Airports. It’s intended to put the listener at ease, and that’s exactly what it does.

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beginner's guide Brian Eno ambient ApolloApollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks

(1983; Editions EG)

The feeling of Apollo is galaxies apart from that of Music for Airports. That album was intended to provide a soothing atmosphere for travelers. This one is intended to evoke the feeling of being in outer space, which admittedly is the kind of thing that’s prone to producing anxiety—no oxygen, thousands of miles from terra firma, and that’s before we even entertain the idea of hostile life forms (note: the Alien movies are not documentaries). That doesn’t mean that Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks doesn’t have soothing qualities; it very much does, particularly on the wondrous compositions “An Ending (Ascent)” and “Deep Blue Day,” which capture the sheer awe of floating thousands of miles above the earth. Ironically, those two tracks were used in two highly tense films later on: 28 Days Later and Trainspotting, respectively. Much of Apollo leans toward darker ambient territory, however, evoking the sheer, intimidating vastness of space. The album was recorded by Eno, his brother Roger and pedal steel player Daniel Lanois to soundtrack a non-narrative documentary of the Apollo moon missions, titled For All Mankind, and their combined efforts come together to form something melodic and stunning yet altogether sinister on tracks such as “Under Stars” and “Under Stars II.” Remarkably, the inclusion of Lanois’ guitar playing at times makes the album seem like ambient Americana, as on “Silver Morning,” echoing the sense of pride and majesty of the pioneering exploration that inspired the album. But by and large this is a form of ambient that carries a greater air of mystery, daring to drift into the unknown while retaining a sense of unspoiled beauty.

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beginner's guide Brian Eno ambient On LandAmbient 4: On Land

(1982; Editions EG)

It’s unusual to think of a Brian Eno album as sinister or menacing. By and large, that tends not to be one of his most consistent qualities—even his louder rock ‘n’ roll records carried more than their share of playfulness, and very little of his own output ever reached the unsettling levels of Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure (“In Every Dream Home a Heartache”? Yikes). But On Land carries a sense of danger that’s largely absent on other Eno ambient records, save for perhaps Apollo, and he’s acknowledged it as such: “On Land is quite a disturbed landscape: some of the undertones deliberately threaten the overtones, so you get the pastoral prettiness on top, but underneath there’s a dissonance that’s like an impending earthquake.” On Land is pieced together a bit differently than other records of the Ambient series, blending field recordings of the natural world with tapes of unused and sometimes unknown material into musical collage that required some degree of paring down and editing on Eno’s part. There are also a number of guest musicians, including Bill Laswell and John Hassell, whose contributions are sometimes more prominent, sometimes blending into the ominous mass, but the density and richness of the material is undeniable. Where “Lizard Point” oozes with a kind of swampy menace, “The Lost Day” is chilling and airy, like the wind before a coming storm. And closer “Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960” feels more melancholy than unsettling, with Michael Brook’s guitar adding an extra dose of emotion to an already stunning piece of music.

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Brian Eno ambient beginner's guide The PearlThe Pearl (with Harold Budd)

(1984; EG)

Brian Eno recorded two albums with American composer Harold Budd, which can be seen as companion pieces to one another, each recorded with Budd primarily performing acoustic piano pieces with treatments provided by Eno. Each is minimalist in its nature, each one serene and gorgeous. So there’s a certain “take your pick” quality to the two, but The Pearl is both a diverse and accessible set of pieces that makes it a prime candidate for someone’s first Eno deep dive. Each track is less than five minutes in length, standing in stark contrast to the side-long sets of Music for Airports, and moments such as “The Silver Ball” and “A Stream With Bright Fish” are meditative and restorative in nature. While the “ignorable” half of Eno’s edict is arguably present in all his ambient recordings, closer listening reveals nothing of the sort. These are in fact quite emotional pieces, captivating and deeply moving. “Against the Sky” is stark and gorgeous, the kind of piece made for moments of cinematic beauty. “Dark Eyed Sister” is unusually ominous and melancholy, sharing more in common with Budd’s apocalyptic drone record Abandoned Cities, while there’s a spectral eeriness to the title track and “Foreshadowed,” the latter heavy with delay effects, that seem to predict the kind of haunted neoclassical ambient that Tim Hecker would make his signature. What’s fascinating about The Pearl is that the music never becomes loud or intense, necessarily, but the sense of ease and calm slowly drifts away and leaves a kind of darker, psychedelic otherworldliness. It’s ambient music that contains surprises, which isn’t self-contradictory, no matter what the common belief might be.

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beginner's guide Brian Eno ambient Thursday afternoonThursday Afternoon

(1985; EG)

Brian Eno has made music for films—he even has an album literally called Music for Films—but that’s not how he made a name for himself, at least not in the same way an artist like Vangelis has, or even Tangerine Dream for that matter. But it’s still a part of his career, often more in terms of installation or visual art than proper feature films, however. Thursday Afternoon, for one, was originally created as an 80-minute video production featuring images treated with visual effects and synchronized to the audio soundtrack. It was created on a Thursday afternoon, which is naturally where the name came from. It was reworked for the album format, but it’s very specifically suited to be released on CD, as it’s a continuous hour-long piece of music, not broken up into separate tracks in the same way his previous recordings were. Yet it’s created in much the same way that the pieces on, say, Music for Airports were—different tracks of varying length are arranged in a manner so that the composition never repeats itself in quite the same way. You can listen to the whole thing in a sequence and it’s beautiful throughout, which can be a necessary salve in stressful times. But Eno’s quote about being “able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular” suggests that the length of the composition is arguably arbitrary. You can listen for the full hour, you can listen for several hours on repeat, or perhaps just a few minutes at the time. The experience is the same, the music isn’t, but regardless the feeling is spiritual and hypnotic.

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Also Recommended: After hearing the first and fourth of the Ambient series, the next logical step is to check out Ambient 2, Eno’s other collaboration with Harold Budd. On the note of collaborations, Eno’s two records with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, (No Pussyfooting) and Evening Star, are both wonderful, drone-based recordings that veer from more psychedelic excursions to peaceful sounds, sometimes on the same record. And a deep dive into Eno’s ambient recordings wouldn’t be complete without a spin of Discreet Music, which predates Music for Airports and features the stunning title track, one of his first genuine masterpieces of ambient music. It also features some variations on Pachelbel’s Canon in D made in collaboration with minimalist composer Gavin Bryars.


Advanced Listening: From there? Pretty much anywhere. But certainly make some time for Eno’s collaboration with ambient-jazz pioneer Jon Hassell, Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics. And Eno’s recent releases, The Ship and Reflection, each showcase how his longform ambient pieces sound simultaneously as ethereal and as boundless as anything he’s ever done. (And the latter was released as an app, which plays a continuous stream of music indefinitely.) The expanse of Eno’s cosmic realm continues stretching on.


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