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‘Before And After Science’: Brian Eno’s Dimension-Straddling Classic

Prefacing the ambient music which Brian Eno would pursue later on, ‘Before And After Science’ pulled off the feat of uniting “pro” and “anti” punks in 1977.

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For record buyers, 1977 felt long and momentous. If you were on the “pro” side of the punk debate, the initial euphoria had been somewhat tempered by tabloid and/or physical abuse, and mixed feelings over Sex Pistols’ crossing into the mainstream with a performance on Top Of The Pops. Meanwhile, those on the “anti” side of the fence were bemused and outraged to find their favourite well-established artists dismissed as irrelevant dinosaurs – often, surprisingly, with little significant impact upon their long-term popularity. Either way, a palpable exhaustion had set in by the year’s end, which is where Brian Eno’s Before And After Science came in.

Whether they acknowledged it or not, punks and reactionaries alike needed a respite from the tumult. Brian Eno’s fourth solo album, originally released on the Polydor imprint in December 1977, surreptitiously pulled off the not-inconsiderable feat of uniting both factions as an almost incidental by-product of its casual otherness.

For punks, Eno carried a certain cachet as the outrageous rebel who generated blizzards of pointy noise with the early Roxy Music, while the top-tier musicianship of album guests the likes of Phil Collins and Percy Jones (at that point the seamless rhythm section of jazz-rockers Brand X) ensured that Before And After Science boasted a proficiency attractive to those who still sent in their nominations for the “best instrumentalist” polls in Melody Maker.

Brian Eno Backwater Single Label

‘Backwater’ received a belated single released in 1986

Side One of the original vinyl release – subtitled Fourteen Pictures, with reference to the album’s 10 songs, plus the four subtle prints by artist Peter Schmidt which came with initial pressings – features a clutch of enigmatic but generally uptempo compositions. ‘No One Receiving’ draws upon the numbed, swaying and disconnected avant-funk (“Nobody sees us alone out here among the stars”) that characterised side one of David Bowie’s Low, which had been released in January 1977, with Eno as one of Bowie’s key collaborators. ‘Backwater’, amiable and remorselessly catchy, boasts a scuttling drum pattern by Jaki Liebezeit of Can, and could so easily have been a hit single had anyone thought to release it as such. (Oddly, it eventually surfaced on 45 in 1986, nine years later.)

‘Kurt’s Rejoinder’ features a sample of avant-garde artist/poet Kurt Schwitters reciting his surrealist tract ‘Ursonate’, and finds Eno offhandedly assuming the role of dance caller: “Do the do-si-do, do the mirror man, do the Boston crab, and the allemande.” ‘Energy Fools The Magician’, a spacious instrumental in tense suspension, is underscored by Percy Jones’ flurry of pinging bass harmonics, while ‘King’s Lead Hat’ – an anagram of Talking Heads, with whom Eno was in thrall at the time – is a pleasingly raucous word salad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on his 1974 debut album, Here Come The Warm Jets (“The killer cycles, the killer hertz, the passage of my life is measured out in shirts”).

As for the subdued, meditative fare on Side Two, there could be no finer preface to the ambient experiments which Eno would pursue in succeeding years. Taken together, the five tracks constitute a consoling, weightless, “ocean music” suite (to paraphrase Eno himself). “The radio is silent; so are we,” Eno observes on the gorgeous reverie ‘Julie With…’, while Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Cluster add the gentlest gravitas to ‘By This River’ (“You talk to me as if from a distance”).

Topped and tailed by ‘Here He Comes’ and ‘Spider And I’, Side Two of Before And After Science utilises what, for Eno, are quite conventional, linear melodies. But in their understatement, a wellspring of implied emotion broils beneath the still surface.

Four of Brian Enos landmark ambient albums, Discreet Music, Music For Films, Music For Airports and On Land, are being reissued on heavyweight half-speed mastered vinyl on on 16 November. Order the reissues here.

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