Brian Eno's Before and After Science turns 35
Brian Eno's 1977 album Before and After Science marks the end of an era. In the four years before it came out, starting in January of 1974, Eno released no fewer than three solo pop albums, and this, his fourth, was to be his last for almost thirty years. By the time he returned to song-oriented vocal pop under his own name -- with 2005's Another Day on Earth -- Eno had enjoyed several discrete careers' worth of success as the inventor of ambient music, as one of rock's most sought-after and celebrated producers, and, in perhaps his most well-known work, as the creator of the iconic Microsoft start-up sound that originated with Windows 95.
At the time of its UK release -- the actual day of its release seems to have been lost to time, with "December 1977" being as specific as any official source really gets -- Before and After Science was well-regarded critically and widely considered a solid follow-up to Another Green World. In the interim between those two albums, Eno was busy laying the groundwork for his future endeavor: recording and releasing Discreet Music, now widely considered his first album of ambient music; delving into production for the first time; and working on a number of collaborations, including Low and Heroes, his first two albums with David Bowie, both of which also came out in 1977.
It's worth noting that Before and After Science, like all of Eno's "solo" albums, features a fair bit of collaboration. An all-star panel of guests and collaborators appear on the album, including drumming from Phil Collins and Can's Jaki Liebezeit; guitar work from Phil Manzanera, Robert Fripp and Fred Frith; and piano and composition assistance on one track by the German experimental group Cluster. Other less well-known guests also appear, including members of Hawkwind, Free and Fairport Convention. Despite the broad spectrum of guests, Before and After Science remains a thoroughly Eno affair throughout: You'd be hard-pressed to pick out more than subtle hints of any signature but his anywhere on the album.
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As many as 120 tracks, according to some sources, were recorded in a two-year period to produce the ten songs of Before and After Science. That number is not hard to believe, considering how much ground the collection covers. The opening track, "No One Receiving" is a twisted, abstract take on slow-burning funk, with tricky, interlocking drums and bass, a repetitive guitar figure and a distant, cool vocal cooing that, "Nobody receives us when we're alone in the blue future / No one receiving the radio's splintered waves / in these metal days...in these metal ways." The very next track, "Backwater," is a jaunty, almost silly song powered by a driving beat from Liebezeit and surging brass and synths. Its whimsically bizarre lyrics could be about a doomed river expedition, an ayahuasca trip or nothing at all.
Side one continues its journey through abstraction and odd angles of funk with "Kurt's Rejoinder," which upgrades the album's energy to a near-manic level. Its lyrics defy any rational attempt to extract "meaning" in the traditional sense. The album follows that up with the eerie instrumental "Energy Fools the Magician," which injects the weird rhythmic vibe of the album's opening tracks into a contemplative instrumental that would otherwise have sounded right at home on Another Green World.
That brief respite segues into the record's most intense, and arguably best, track. The title of that track, "King's Lead Hat," is an anagram for Talking Heads, and it offers a pretty good sneak preview of the work that Eno would produce with the band in the months to follow. A dense, energetic tune that dances on the edge of chaos without ever quite slipping over the line, "King's Lead Hat" serves simultaneously as a mash note to a band he was infatuated with, a job application for his impending producer role and a hell of a fine art-pop song in its own right.
The album takes a sharp turn on its second side, trading in the manic highs and oblique funk of its opening suite for a languorous and gentle set of tunes that suggest the mood of Eno's ambient work as interpreted through the filter of his earlier pop sensibilities. The side's opening salvo, "Here He Comes," is an almost shockingly accessible, if not terribly conventional, slice of folky pop with a galloping beat and a subdued interplay of guitar and synth. It flows nicely into "Julie With," a song whose opening minute and a half suggest nothing so much as a sonic sunrise as it builds up, gradually evolving into a pensive, hypnotic hymn possibly about a ship lost at sea.
The album's final three tracks progress much the same way, offering pleasant and peaceful songs tinged by a seeming sadness. The album culminates in the almost eerie "Spider and I," a careful construction of interlocking synthesizer lines and Eno's typically cool, almost distant vocals. Its twilight mood and restrained majesty serve as an effective capstone to not just the album, but the entire pop phase of Eno's solo career.
Before and After Science, for such a critically lauded album, is surprisingly obscure. To some degree, that's understandable, considering it spawned no hit singles and gets exactly zero classic rock radio airplay, but it's a shame. It's an impressive document of a restlessly creative mind synthesizing the sounds of the day with his own muse to create something unique in the pop idiom before moving on to stranger pastures. It's frequently cited as the least impressive of Eno's four pop albums, but that's obfuscation by faint damnation.
All of those albums are absolutely essential collections, and if this is the least impressive, it's still a vital, visionary album that proffers a vision of pop's future that never quite came true but still resonates today.
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