On Warp Records’ 20th birthday, the renowned electronic label threw a lavish celebration involving a series of live performances and a massive, limited-edition box set of rarities, favorites, remixes and stunning artwork. For the UK-based imprint’s 21st birthday, it got Brian Eno. The pairing is one so well-matched, it leaves one to wonder why it took so long for the legendary electronic pioneer to align himself with the label whose very roots in ambient and IDM launched it into the highly regarded institution it is today. That said, Eno’s work of the past decade or so has been mostly collaborative, his solo releases being somewhat thin in comparison to his production for the likes of Coldplay and U2, in addition to his excellent album with David Byrne, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.
When Warp announced their partnership with Eno, however, it signaled something bigger and more exciting, as if the sonic wizard were implicitly announcing a return to the mesmerizing ambient sounds with which he magically closed out the 1970s. On Small Craft On a Milk Sea, that’s essentially true. Having embraced techno in the early 90s before subsequently edging toward new age earlier this decade, Eno sounds warmer, bigger, and more inspired than he has in quite some time. Though it may seem like a contradiction in terms, Small Craft is the most exciting ambient release from Eno in decades.
Recorded and written in part with collaborator Leo Abrahams while touring with David Byrne, Small Craft largely comprises rejected material written for the film “The Lovely Bones.” Removed of context, however, Small Craft is simply a work of instrumental majesty. A dark and suspenseful string of recordings, the album has a sinister kind of energy running throughout, reminiscent of Aphex Twin’s “ambient” material. And it’s hard not to hear a song like the galloping “Flint March” or the static ridden “Horse” without drawing a connection to a dark, cinematic mystery. Yet on their own, the compositions are stunning and dense, pulsing with sputtering beats and strange, distorted textures.
Small Craft on a Milk Sea offers some extremely stark contrasts in terms of Eno’s composition style. First track “Emerald and Lime” is a bright and gorgeous track built on airy piano and a general sense of ease and serenity. Yet down the line, Eno offers “2 Forms of Anger,” recalling Trent Reznor’s instrumentals, with scratches of guitar and dark industrial tones. Meanwhile, “Bone Jump” features jazzy-yet-carnivalesque organs climbing atop a steady, downtempo beat. And on “Calcium Needles,” Eno constructs a glacial, cavernous composition built on bell chimes and space, transporting the listener to a beautiful and ominous planet of ice.
The rare kind of ambient album that contains quite a few moments of immediate momentum, Small Craft On a Milk Sea finds Brian Eno revisiting some familiar approaches while still revealing a playful, exploratory spirit. The brief nature of many of the tracks here leaves them digestible on a smaller scale, but as a whole, the album takes the listener on an intriguing and breathtaking journey. Eno is the kind of artist who is always evolving, progressing and pushing himself forward, and on moments such as these, it’s a special treat to be invited along as a passenger.
Brian Eno – Ambient 4: On Land
Emeralds – Does It Look Like I’m Here?
Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.