‘Wrong Way Up’
In an expression of purest irony, the collaborative efforts of two of the most experimental musicians of the 20th century has led to some of the most accessible & radio friendly music of either artist’s career. Personally, I was expecting something along the lines of droning noise music of ‘The Weight Of History/Only Once Away My Son’, Eno’s recent collaboration with My Bloody Valentine mastermind Kevin Shields. All ambient soundscapes and abrasive, distorted violas. Instead, ‘Wrong Way Up’ is a collection of upbeat, optimistically melodic Synth Pop music.
Eno and Cale had collaborated previously (Eno had produced Cale’s 1974 album ‘Fear’ and Cale played Viola on a couple of tunes on Eno’s 1975 album ‘Another Green World’) but ‘Wrong Way Up’ was the first album they recorded as a collaboration. Recorded in the dying days of the Soviet Union, the dawning of what Francis Fukuyama called ‘the end of history,’ there are certainly elements of nostalgia and retrophilia in the futuristic sonic landscapes. “I scramble in the dust of a failing nation,” Eno sings on opening track “Lay My Love”. Eno said they expected the album to turn out “quite stark and sort of, industrial.” In light of the upbeat, almost optimistic nature of this album, this contributes to the sense of irony I mention above.
In the most part, the songs are built around looping synthesised chord sequences and arpeggios, but there’s something organic and jam-like about many of the compositions. This is likely due to the array of interesting instruments used (Shinto Bell, Little Nigerian Organ) and an impressive array of guest musicians involved. Are there ghostly slivers of Eastern European folk melody embedded in the lush soundscapes of arpeggiated synths and drum machine loops? The ensemble of “non-standard” (for Rock and Pop music) percussion instruments like dumbeks, tablas and Indian Drums probably contributes to this atmosphere. These heavily processed acoustic instruments mix with the looped soundscapes and drum machine loops fantastically.
The bonus tracks added to the new rerelease, “Grandfather’s House” and “Palanquin”, are much more organic and traditional sounding than the parent album. “Grandfather’s House” is a mournful ballad sung over a folkish drone. Bursts of noisy viola, warm synth pads and reverb soaked piano notes create a cinematic soundscape for John Cale’s solemn, hymn like vocal. “Palanquin” is similarly downbeat but way more minimal. A simple Piano composition, instrumental, played with a huge amount of reverb, creating ghostly swirls of warm, immersive sound.
Like ‘Wrong Way Up’, ‘Spinner’ was a collaboration with a key member of a pioneering and genre-defining band. Jah Wobble famously the original bass player in John Lydon’s post-Pistols, Post Punk group Public Image Ltd. However, this is probably not a useful starting point when approaching ‘Spinner’. Originally conceived as the soundtrack to Derek Jarman’s film ‘Glitterbug’. As such, ‘Spinner’ is a much more experimental and instrumental album than ‘Wrong Way Up’, consisting of immersive dronescapes, hypnotic rhythms and discrete background noise.
Another major way in which ‘Spinner’ differs from ‘Wrong Way Up’ is in its production methods. Whereas the former album was a controlled, in-studio endeavour with both John Cale and Brian Eno working together to write and record everything, the latter was produced as a result of Eno passing partial tracks to Jah Wobble and allowing him to embellish upon them as he saw fit. This would have been quite unusual in the mid-‘90’s but is fairly commonplace today. The democratisation of music production, the ease of digital communication and the standardisation of digital audio file formats allow this kind of “file swapping” collaboration to prosper. This is just another way in which Brian Eno set the templates for the way the music industry works today.
Much of ‘Spinner’ is built around the kinds of Ambient minimalism we’ve come to expect from Eno over the years, the twinkling arpeggiation and glitched out machine noises of “Space Diary 1” or the droning synths of “Where We Lived” are one side of this unique album, but not the whole picture. The expressive bass playing in tracks like “Like Organza” lift the soundscaping up into a completely different place and, when coupled with the excellent drumming of Jaki Liebezeit (of Krautrock pioneers Can) we get to hear some of the most immersive and hypnotic music on the album. “Steam” is all sampled strings, swirling synths, dub-influenced bass riffs and the kind of motorik drums that define Krautrock. There’s a sense of building atmosphere which is truly engaging. “Marine Radio” is the place where Post-Punk and Dub collide, creating a kind of maritime Trip Hop sound. The menacing syncopation and digital vibrations of the title track create a sinister, action-packed centrepiece of the album, preparing us for the 8-minute epic, “Transmitter And Trumpet”. Marimbas and excellent drumming form a backdrop to some of the most Dub-like bass lines on the album, submerged in the Eno Wall of Sound. The effect is trancelike, hypnotic in the extreme and later on it descends into swirling swathes of noise, swooping around the stereo-field like a dive bomber.
Of the two bonus tracks added to the release, one is an original Brian Eno piece (from the ‘Glitterbug’ soundtrack) while the other is an original Jah Wobble piece. Eno’s “Stravinsky” is a classical inspired exercise in looping, improvisational orchestral sounds. High register violins duelling over lower tones reminiscent of oboes and cellos. Knowing Eno, they could be either live recorded and heavily processed or synthesised/sampled. They’d sound equally as good, either way. Wobble’s “Lockdown” is a semi-funky bass workout over sampled brass and motorik drum machine rhythms. It’s moody and atmospheric like the best material on ‘Spinner’. Pitchshifted vocals echo spectrally around the soundscape.
‘Wrong Way Up’ and ‘Spinner’ are released on 21st August on All Saints Records. It will be the first time physical media of the two albums have been available in fifteen years.
Written by Tom Ray.
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