(Image from rateyourmusic.com)
This album has been on the periphery of my mind for quite awhile. Brian Eno I’ve listened to a couple of albums by, but know him chiefly from his role as a producer – with Talking Heads and notably David Bowie (the ambient compositions on Side 2 of both Low and “Heroes” I pretty much attributed directly to him). Robert Fripp I’m familiar with as the demanding commander-in-chief and guitar virtuoso of King Crimson. As such, I’ve been aware of this album for a very, very long time. The thing that kept me away was that I wasn’t sure that an ambient album would be able to hold my attention (Eno has a multitude of ambient albums, but I always stuck to the “rock” ones).
I have to say, I did not find too many surprises here. I didn’t even find a particular amount of hype surrounding this album, but it is seemed to be generally well-liked and by two musicians with a very good pedigree – maybe even because of that mere fact, I had created a myth about it in its own mind. I thought perhaps it was sort of a genre-buster that transcended just ambient music and pulled people to it from outside, based on the musicians alone. I was wrong. It was very much as advertised. Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy what I found.
There are two tracks here, each comprising a side apiece, and recorded about a year apart. “The Heavenly Music Corporation” begins the proceedings, as Fripp guitar (the only instrument to be heard for the entire twenty minutes of the song) creeps in, slowly and smoothly, cascading on top of itself over and over again, harmonizing quite nicely on its journey. For Fripp being the one playing, its surprising that there’s no abrasive passage to be heard here, but the aim is clearly a different one from that of King Crimson. There is a drone-like quality in certain sections, though they come in pulses rather than a steady thrum, which gives the impression of the music breathing or being roused to life – a slow meditation between Fripp’s more active solos that appear sporadically throughout the track. The ubiquity of Fripp’s guitar here actually adds to the contemplation and peacefulness to be found here – everything is more or less of a tone, so it groups together much better, as the presentation of a single voice, focused. On the shorter passages, you can hear the phrases linger for a moment before disappearing, rather than the extended notes bleeding over into themselves once again, so each contains a resonance in and of itself on the broader canvas of the streaming, continuous low-end, and begin to pile up as they come faster and faster. The focus moves slowly, as there is only one thing to concentrate on at a time – no extra tricks or bells and whistles. I would not be surprised to discover Pink Floyd had been listening to this album, as there are definitely flavours here which can be tasted in the instrumental sections of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”.
“Swastika Girls”, while using the same structure, is quite a different beast. Where “The Heavenly Music Corporation” was smooth, “Swastika Girls” is prickly, and makes use of Eno’s synthesizers as well as Fripp’s guitar. As opposed to a drone as in the first track, a short, crackly synth phrase begins this track, with Fripp sprightly plucking away. The effect is very similar however, and everything begins to meld together as the track progresses, this time calling to mind the serene but affecting introduction to King Crimson’s own “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (Part 1)”, which had only come out earlier in the same year. This track feels much less ambient than the first, and seems to be more of a latchwork of low-key moments repeated over and over on synthesizer, piano and guitar, which makes the moments that Fripp takes off on his flights of fancy seem that more interesting, as he launches off an angular platform rather than a smooth one.
This, all in all, was a pretty good album. Ambient is not one of my favourite genres, as I usually like a little more going on to grab my attention (the album, being as it is, lacks any beat). But there is clearly thought, effort and feeling put to work in these two tracks, and it will carry off with your mind if you let it.