Roger Eno and Harold Budd are two of the most interesting composers of the ambient scene. After a long silence (perhaps a technique borrowed from one of their soundscapes), they've just re-emerged with new recordings.
Harold Budd & Roger Eno: Moods For a Day
It's been five years since Harold Budd put out a solo album, but he's been busy collaborating with the likes of Andy Partridge from XTC and composer Hector Zazou. His latest solo work, Luxa (Gyroscope), harks back to his earlier, often ghostly electronic music -- the engrossing Lovely Thunder (1986), or The White Arcades (1988, both on Brian Eno's Opal label) -- as well as his keyboard collaborations with Brian Eno, Ambient 2: Plateaux of Mirror (1980) and The Pearl (1984, both on EG). Brian's brother Roger, who has often worked in the shadow of his brother, has now released Swimming (Gyroscope), a mix of ambient synthesizer and traditional folk musics.
Although Budd has often been proclaimed a minimalist, his compositions have always played with that notion, setting up repetitive patterns and then surreptitiously breaking them. Many of the composer's electronic and electro-acoustic works use a base of two-to-three notes or chord patterns that bounce back and forth while another theme plays out within or around them, ambient tones hovering beneath.
On Luxa, the cyclical "Chet" floats along, with intermittent chimes and a punctuating bass tone recurring at different intervals, keeping the piece fresh and engaging. The engrossing "Mandan" features eerie electronic tones, odd shaker sounds, and two themes that both alternate and overlap. The mysterious, dreamy "Agnes Martin" swims more ethereal waters -- simple, melodic passages haunting a dense keyboard fog.
Budd's piano compositions are more open and tend to use unexpected chord shifts or subtle dissonances that give them both playful and cryptic qualities. They are also more free-flowing, as on the upbeat, jazz-inflected opening cut, "Niki D." Having continually redefined and refined his music over two decades, Budd has mastered the art of using space and silence for dramatic effect. His tone poems have a romantic, visionary quality.
Roger Eno hails from just as eclectic a background. He originally started as a more ambient composer, on Apollo (EG, 1983, collaborating with Brian and Daniel Lanois), and on his first solo album, Voices (Opal/EG, 1985), which showcased dreamy, Satie-influenced pianoscapes. Eno later became involved with former Dream Academy vocalist Kate St. John, and they formed the quirky pop ensemble Chennel Light Vessel with Bill Nelson and Laraaji.
Swimming offers a more traditional slant, featuring folk songs of pastoral grace. Eno's soothing vocals and delicate acoustic guitar work still recall the tranquil atmospheres of his early material. You can hear it in the instrumental "In Water," in which fragile acoustic and electric guitar mingle amid a gentle, light keyboard cascade, and in the title track, with its gentle, melancholic piano melody slightly intruded upon by an oddly placed harmonica. Eno offers other instrumentation, such as Japanese koto, as well as lush multi-tracked a cappella vocal tunes like "Amukidi" and "Hewendaway."
You could call Swimming ambient folk, with its wisps of synthesizers often drifting in the background. There are points where the energy level could be a little higher, and the upbeat folk instrumental "The Paddington Frisk" -- inspired, oddly enough, by old English hanging tunes -- adds that element even though it is a bit out of place. This is not a perfect album, but once you warm up to it, Eno's latest is mood music for a cloudy day.
-- Bryan Reesman