U2 and Coldplay albums notwithstanding, you got to hand it to Brian Eno for being the OG oddball. The man’s been releasing albums nonstop for the past forty years, and has always maintained an air of strangeness to his tunes that would betray all of the mass acclaim he has received (the best track off MGMT’s newest album name checks him, so at least you know he’s good with the kids). He has often been labeled as the originator of ambient music, one the most confounding musical genres I have ever heard. And, for what its worth, from 1974’s Here Come the Warm Jets to this year’s Drums Between the Bells, you’d think nothing had changed.
Drums Between the Bells bristles with warped bass and mechanical noises, presenting a dystopian soundscape on which various vocalists can recite the poetry of Rick Holland. “Multimedia” undulates with wonky bass, “Cloud” features some spectral keyboards and “The Airman” is off-putting with its heavily reverbed bass drum. Eno makes these arrangements slightly off-kilter in order to keep the listener hinged on the range of topics Holland covers. When the vocalist on "Fierce Aisles of Light” passively mentions, “It’s a train again,” Eno accompanies it with the phased sounds of a moving train, adding literal drama to the otherwise spacious track.
The vocalists on Drums Between the Bells are all virtual unknowns. They range from people who work at the laundromat Eno goes to to his doorman, and the “recognizable” names will only be relevant to those already inclined to this genre of music. Nevertheless, all the performances on the album are well placed despite seemingly being plucked from anonymity. Male and female vocals share equal space and only a few times do they combine. Each seems to own the terrain Eno draws out for them, and they successfully add zest to Holland’s verses. A young, soft British female voice grounds Eno’s bouncy electronics on “Seedpods”. The male monotone on “Breath of Crows” envelops its ambience to create a dramatic if not show stopping album closer and the croak of the old British woman who graces many of the album’s tracks always gives a bookish nod and wink to the high-minded proceedings.
The voices of Drums Between the Bells seem recur in equal measure, so it often feels episodic. Eno spaces out his arrangements well so that when, for example, the old British woman comes back into the mix, she is welcomed by the listener’s familiarity. This is observed best on “A Title”, in which feral electronics swoop around the listener and that woman comes back in to regulate on the arrangement. As a side note, that old lady is a BAMF. She has a regal tone that sounds authoritative on the more ambient tracks and hilariously ironic on the more aggressive ones. Despite Eno being the main draw to Drums, it is clear that she emerges as the MVP, taking control on every track she appears.
The only deterrent from Drums Between the Bells is that it is, in essence, a spoken word album. There have been some great spoken word releases this decade, the late Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here and Laurie Anderson’s Homeland to name a few, but there is something about speaking over music that will always give people the feeling that they are literally being talked down to. If that kind of stuff skives you out, then Drums Between the Bells will not be much help. Holland’s verses are standard poetic rumination. “The Real” talks about the perception of what is real (yep, that kind of poem) and “Glitch” and “A Title” explore the nuance of diction in a few minutes of sweeping generalizations. The minute of silence (entitled “Silence”) that comes at the end of the album would seem to confirm this high-minded disposition, but I would disagree. After all those delicious swarms of electronics and vocals have bombarded the listener for more than an hour, it feels like an appropriate respite. You could even say Eno’s earned it.