by Alex Waygood
For a man who has a lot to say, Brian Eno doesn’t always say that much. High Life, his 2014 collaborative album with Karl Hyde, is relatively verbose; Eno is nowadays best known for his pioneering albums of ambient music, beginning in the 1970s. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find any of the lyrics to High Life online.
Perhaps the lyrics don’t really matter that much. Eno’s distinctive singing style is vitally important to the album’s aesthetic, almost completely without vibrato, creating a drone-like quality. The singer becomes merely another instrument among many; the sustained melodic lines and mumbled articulation seamlessly blend Eno’s voice into the texture.
The influence of Eno’s experience in ambient music is evident throughout. None of the ‘songs’ utilise structures that can be likened to those of a standard pop song, instead using additive processes that create a static temporal state. ‘Return’ may employ full sentences in the lyrics, but harmonically the song simply oscillates between two chords as the texture continually thickens over a period of nine minutes. ‘Time to Waste It’ is simply built on a one-bar groove, and the lyrics are entirely meaningless (as far as I can tell) – a collage of phrases thrown together by intuition. The method is a speciality of Eno’s.
Yet it would be wrong to say that Eno were at the centre of High Life. ‘Cells and Bells’, the perfect closer, is serene enough to have easily come from an Eno solo album and, despite their incessant pulses, neither ‘Return’ nor ‘Lilac’ is exactly a dance track. But High Life as a whole is far more varied – ‘Time to Waste It’, with its heavily processed Soul samples, feels like a ‘70s groove that’s been cut into tiny pieces and reassembled by a 21st-century robot with no clue what to do. ‘DBF’, meanwhile, is furiously aggressive: a frenetic instrumental track that melds West African influences with 21st-Century electronic music. (The album’s name is almost certainly derived from ‘Highlife’, the name given to a genre of jazz-inflected West African pop music that emerged in the 20th Century.) Karl Hyde’s guitar signature guitar technique is the glue holding the album together, providing a driving rhythmic force and blending the texture throughout.
The standout track of the album is ‘Lilac’. The texture begins simply – just Karl Hyde’s guitar and electronic percussion – but grows; the soup thickens with each iteration as new lines are added to the mix. Especially noticeable are Eno’s vocal harmonies, which are slowly layered onto the track as it progresses. Absent over the central instrumental section (beginning at 4:35), their return at 8:50 feels colossal: a sea of Brian Enos bearing down upon you.
‘Lilac’ is mostly supported by an oscillation of G major and D major chords. The effect is to lull the listener into expecting nothing more, creating an extraordinary lift in mood when a stray C major chord is struck – the simple made radical. Nine and a half minutes are carried by only two lines of text, an aphorism blissfully repeated over and over ad infinitum. ‘The door between us is lilac. Made of something like light. But not.’