Brian Eno waxes poetic (CD Review)

Brian Eno
Drums between the Bells
Warp CD

For his second CD on the Warp imprint, Drums between the Bells, Brian Eno collaborates with poet Rick Holland on compositions that combine spoken word with alt-electronica.

Spoken dialogue atop music constantly bombards us on TV and in the movies, but the music is backgrounded and the dialogue is unmetered. The Eno/Holland collaboration puts poetry and music on relatively equal footing. And while the constituent elements may be 21st century experimental electronica and post-modern language, the material actually hearkens back to an older artform, the 18th and 19th century genre of melodrama.

Melodrama has gotten a bad rap in recent years. today, we often use the term melodramatic to describe something that’s overwrought. Even though composers as prominent as Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven composed them, for the most part, musical melodramas haven’t remained in the repertory. That said, one of our most prominent contemporary musical genres, hip hop, certainly is a marriage of spoken word with music on relatively egalitarian footing. But then, the MC is, in a sense, a musical soloist as well as an orator; his or her voice acts in a punctuating and percussive manner that is a bit more overtly metricized than Mozart’s melodrama, or than the collaboration between Eno and Holland.

That said, the balance and pacing of music and spoken word on Drums between the Bells works well. And the recording exhibits a wide range of demeanors both in terms of narration and musical approach. It certainly helps that a number of voices are heard throughout the album, including Holland, Eno, classical vocalist/visual artist Nick Robertson, Anastasi Afonina, and Elisha Mudley, providing a great deal of inflective variety. Eno takes care of most of the instrumental duties himself, with strings and guitars added by guest collaborators.

The album opener sets an uncompromising tone. “Bless this Space” pits a gravelly and booming bass vocal against Leo Abrahams’ edgily distorted and angularly deployed electric guitar playing. On the cut “Fierce Aisles of Light,” the music veers towards trip-house with rap riding buoyantly atop the beats. It’s not surprising that the cut “Glitch” explores the experimental electronica from which it takes its title, with the poetry emitted in robotic stabs. “Seedpods” pits electrofusion riffs and string synth chordal pads against each other and a more theatrical oration. Elsewhere, as on “Dreambirds,” Eno references his justifiably famous ambient soundscaping, creating lush tapestries which beautifully support Holland’s more reflective poems.

Even if the notion of spoken word takes you back to awkward memories of children’s theater, or lame college open-mike nights masquerading as wannabe poetry slams, you needn’t give up on melodrama entirely. Give this Eno/Holland 2011 reboot of the genre a try. Drums between the Bells is well worth questioning your listening biases.


Brian Eno – glitch (taken from Drums Between The Bells) by Warp Records

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