Nerve JULY 4, 2011 - by Alex Heigl


A new album from the great innovator reveals his influence on MGMT, Arcade Fire, and more.

Brian Eno's latest album, Drums Between The Bells, came out yesterday. Eno's long been one of those "power behind the throne" guys - while he's not nearly as much of a household name as most of his collaborators, he's had an immeasurable influence on the landscape of modern music as we know it. In honour of the man, the myth, the legend, we propose to, uh, measure that influence.

1. Ambient soundscapes: Eno famously developed his conception of ambient music while recuperating from a car accident. Stuck in his hospital bed, he couldn't adjust the volume of some music a friend had brought him. After struggling for a while to hear it, he realised it was better to just let it meld with all the other sounds in the room. (He may also have been on a shit-ton of morphine.)

Regardless, the result was a groundbreaking series of experimental albums, the most famous of which is Ambient 1: Music For Airports. For some, this album is one step removed from Enya. But it's made a huge mark on modern bands, from the Mars Volta (whose sophomore album, Frances The Mute, featured long stretches of ambient sounds including, memorably, several minutes of coqui frogs chirping) to acts like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sigur Ros, who've made a career out of combining soothing, almost narcoleptic swaths of sounds with pummelling grandiosity.

2. Flamboyant theatricality: Brian Eno's work with Roxy Music was as flamboyant and theatrical as glam rock ever got, and certain modern acts have taken Eno's "glam-elf on coke" look and run rampant with it. In particular, Of Montreal, have become famous for insanely over-the-top live shows, with attendant ambiguous sexuality; Kevin Barnes, Of Montreal's lead vocalist, has assimilated Eno's look and amped it up. Slave Translator, from Of Montreal's Thecontrollersphere, is a skittery, danceable burst of neuroses that owes quite a bit to Eno's China My China from Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). But if you need visual proof of Barnes's debt to Eno, Eno was doing the freaky, "what the hell is that?" look long before it was cool.

3. Songs as collages: Eno's relationship with David Byrne has been long and fruitful, but their collaboration was never quite as funky as on Talking Heads' landmark album Remain In Light. Eno recorded the band's extensive jamming as a series of loops and samples, then sequenced and layered them to create a thick, glitchy-yet-groovy brew of danceable neurosis. Recorded in 1980 when sampling technology was still in its infancy, the album proves that, behind the boards, Eno rocks like a fey, English RZA.

Modern bands like The Rapture have the benefit of thirty years of technological advances on their side, and tracks like Whoo! Alright Yeah... Uh Huh are directly descended from Remain In Light: listen to The Great Curve and then Whoo, and see if you can count the, ahem, "references." (Whoo is from a Rapture album called Pieces Of People We Love, probably a wink to the obvious Eno influence.)

4. Guitar + echo + swirl = awesome: Eno's work on David Bowie's "Berlin trilogy" (Low, "Heroes", and Lodger) shows the innovation Eno could bring out of the by-then-formulaic drums-bass-guitar lineup. Take, for example, his work on "Heroes", one of Bowie's definitive songs. The swirling, unearthly, guitar sounds were created by Robert Fripp (an invaluable Eno collaborator), whose squeals of feedback were manipulated by Eno in real time. That, coupled with the rest of the track's bone-dry production (including a barely audible kick drum), created a sound that a massive swath of bands have laboured to replicate ever since. Notable among these is Arcade Fire, whose stirring, anthemic track Wake Up is cut from the same cloth as "Heroes", with its chugging guitar underpinning ethereal wailing sounds and vocal histrionics.

5. A methodical, intellectual approach to creativity: In the '70s, Eno created a set of cards called Oblique Strategies, designed to provoke creative experimentation and break writer's block. These have ended up being about as influential as anything he's done behind the mixing board. The cards featured bits of yogic instructions like "Go outside. Shut the door," "Try faking it," "Ask your body," and (most famously), "Honour thy error as a hidden intention." It's hard to pin down the exact moments where Oblique Strategies affected Eno's work, but the song St. Elmo's Fire was released the same year as the cards; it certainly sounds "oblique," although that might just be because Fripp's guitar work welded my synapses together while Eno crooned about August moons.

In any case, the cards are now so famous that they've been translated into an app, allowing hordes of smartphone-wielding youngsters access to the same creative pathways as Eno. At least one band has directly acknowledged their usefulness - MGMT's last album, Congratulations, includes a track that's actually titled Brian Eno. MGMT thanks Eno for "the wisdom of oblique strategems" that encouraged them to "ditch the chori and flip the verses," and notes that "we're always one step behind him - he's Brian Eno." You guys, and the rest of us.