The career and persona of Brian Eno has always been a bit of a puzzle for me. I’ve heard the stories and I’ve experienced the work; I understand how much of his influence has come through on an innumerable amount of genres and styles. But to look back on his journey all at once — the phases he’s gone through, the odd roster of collaborators he’s had, the infamous Oblique Strategies — is a dizzying exercise to say the least. I suppose it’s to his credit, though, since his output seems to speak for itself most of the time, especially when it comes to his work as a consultant for other artists. Where would David Bowie’s “Berlin trilogy” be without him? And what of the Worldbeat panic attack that is the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music?
I have to admit that Before and After Science is the only full Eno album I actually own, and though I have listened to plenty of other solo works by him, it’s mostly an indirect knowledge I have of the man. After doing some research, though, I’ve come to realize that this album is something of a transitional piece, which always makes for interesting results for someone like Eno who was destined for greatness, even in his career’s latter days.
Eno first rose to prominence as the flamboyantly dressed keyboardist for Roxy Music, a band whose penchant for glam style is well-documented, and his roots are shown in the moody cover photo above, which is something you might expect more from a Bowie album. It’s important to see, though, that he ditches the green mascara and feather boa, instead relying on light and photo treatment for drama. In that way, the cover signals Eno’s shift from the frenetic energy of his earlier work to his dabbling in textural ambient music.
The album opens with the funky bassline of “No One Receiving”, which doesn’t sound out of place in Eno’s pre-1977 oeuvre. Like his earlier works, there a lot going on in the background, with synth lines, bass wobbles and various squawks and clicks dotting the track. This particular song is much less schizophrenic than something that might come off 1974’s Here Come the Warm Jets, however — every sound, however quirky, seems to have its place in the composition. The focus on this track is still on Eno himself, as if he is harnessing the energy of the instruments for support. (Perhaps hinting at his future philosophy of using the studio as an instrument itself.)
“Julie With …”, located on the vastly different Side B of the album, is one of the stronger ambient tracks on Before and After Science, if only because of its combination of lilting soundscapes with a vocal hook in the chorus (unlike “Through Hollow Lands”, which is closer to pure ambient, and “By This River”, which is just a quieter song than the rest.) The shift in energy between this and the earlier tracks on the album is stark and unforgiving, despite their commonalities. On this track, it feels as if all the sounds that were previously resigned to the background are being called forward to attention.
I guess it’s not in my power to make this call, but I feel as if Before and After Science could be the key to understanding Brian Eno’s work. It’s got just enough energy mixed in with ambience to at least begin to understand his line of thought over the years, and good textural work naturally has a picture to paint.
Artist: Brian Eno
Album: Before and After Science
Tracklist & Review (Allmusic)