The Guardian MAY 5, 2023 - by Ben Beaumont-Thomas


While their signature sonic flotsam and spartan melodies are present, Eno's contributions prove witlessly unimaginative while his mentee's are trite

After recently closing out Coachella with UK bass rollers, heady trance and comedy dubstep in his trio with Skrillex and Four Tet, Fred again..'s next move is a quite colossal dynamic shift: releasing an album of ambient songs made with Brian Eno. The pair go way back, to 2010 and Fred again..'s mid-teens, when a mutual friend invited the boy who was then just Fred Gibson to join a singing group of Eno's. Eno is not his godfather, as has been widely rumoured, but he quickly became a mentor, bringing him on to co-production projects. Gibson also went to a very posh boarding school and descends from an aristocratic family line: making an album with an axis of his already considerable privilege has already riled many in the dance underground.

'Twas ever thus in a scene that is, sometimes for worse but mostly for better, always patrolling the nebulous boundaries of the genre's mainstream and suspicious of interlopers, particularly monied ones. But there's a much larger audience on the other side of that wall: Gibson's fanbase of young ravers who adore his garage-adjacent tracks and dextrous live drum programming, his most successful solo phase after years of also-very-successful pop and rap production for others including Ed Sheeran. With intensity and density maxed out, his work can be brilliant, as on tracks such as Delilah, Jungle and Baxter, which seem to fishtail through their respective raves. And even if his guest vocalists can let him down - such as the colossally annoying Blessed Madonna speeches on his big Covid hit Marea (We've Lost Dancing) - he often writes bright, insidious melodies.

With Eno, that intensity dial is turned all the way down, and with it, the heat and entropy that makes his work hum. It's horribly revealing of both men's weaknesses. Eno's contributions are witlessly unimaginative, as if prompted by an edition of his famous Oblique Strategies commands to artists remade for the under-fives: perhaps "play the piano with one finger" or "make a noise like the wind" or "think of a time you were sad". Much of the sound bed has the water-damaged, elegiac melancholia of the Caretaker or the late Philip Jeck, but with none of their splintered grain, sense of history or taste for blood. It briefly works on the best track, the ninety-nine-second Follow, where very distant sampled chatter evokes friends across a wide river - or a fading memory of them.

That use of sampled chatter and other sonic flotsam has become Gibson's chief authorial flourish, evoking the communality of a club right down to its smoking area and taxi queues. He uses this detritus here in a different context, sometimes to decent effect. Secret has a twanged guitar in the corner of the mix, along with papery rustling: although the debt to Burial is embarrassingly costly (as it is throughout this album) and the vocal melody would never stand up in a more spartan arrangement, it's an atmospheric take on the blues. It's not clear who is singing, as various bits of vocal processing have been applied, but had Ed Sheeran lost his copyright case you rather imagine James Blake might have been moved to file a lawsuit against Enough, which shamelessly imitates Blake's extemporised snatches of folksong. Better that, though, than the simpering monotone on opener I Saw You, an evocation of a panic attack that does nothing to convey the bodysnatching terror of the experience.

There are some plainly lovely moments. Chest has a melody redolent of the chord sequence beneath an '80s power ballad; Cmon moves with the loveliness of a murmuration, cut up gently - and very Fred again..-ishly - into a club-worthy rhythm. But the rest of the melodies are aimless, and it's a cop-out to argue that it doesn't matter because it's an ambient album - think of something like Eno's 1983 piece Always Returning, made so luminous by its perfect five-note sequence. And that aforementioned loveliness, which works in the poppy Cmon, isn't enough in ambient music, which at its best (like Huerco S or Tim Hecker in recent years) is stirring rather than pretty, maintaining your focus for something truly mindful. Here, you end up feeling manipulated and, worse still, bored. While on a second-to-second basis there are some imaginative arrangements, these songs plod a narrow emotional furrow.

In Fred again..'s world, you're always sure of what you're being told to feel - that's less of a problem when you're feeling high on life in the crowd at Coachella, but here he's conservative and patronising. It's the same for Eno, whose music increasingly has the commodified feel of the Windows 95 startup music he once composed: an aural app, pill or coin. Music can be as rich and contradictory as we are, but albums like this - so common in the British electronic fraternity alongside Bonobo, Floating Points and many others - seem to have a dim view of these capabilities.