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Brian Eno delivers compelling, fresh music in latest album, ‘Lux’

Minimalist ‘Lux’ masterfully utilizes nuanced timbre, pitch

Published: Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 08:11

If you are only going to play one chord for 20 minutes, you should probably choose wisely. This has always been one of the toughest aspects of ambient music: it demands a kind of resiliency in the ideas it tries to portray. Nothing can be more boring than a bad ambient song, or more hypnotic and immersive than a good one. It can often take a few listens just to decide just which a particular track is, but that opinion often feels set in stone after it’s made. Thankfully, Brian Eno’s latest album, “Lux,” is great and deserving of similar praise to his most−lauded albums from the ’70s and ’80s.

In a polite and beautiful hour and fifteen minutes, “Lux” takes the listener through four tautly constructed soundscapes, each one with its own subtle shifts and mood changes. If you don’t come expecting riffs, melodies or any real conventional song structure, and you may be surprised by how musical a handful of bowed strings, a reverberant and hesitantly played piano and some tasteful synthesizer tones can be.

“Lux” was made to accompany various pieces of art at an exhibit in Turin, Italy, and the album takes a very subtle and unobtrusive approach as a result. Unlike much ambient music, the album stands up to both pointed scrutiny and casual listening as “mood music.” And, unlike with previous Eno efforts, the elements of “Lux” are always shifting: the dissonant string plucks that never come quite when expected, the timid string swells that change notes with little warning after minutes of droning, a lightly struck piano note that seems to hang in the air for minutes.

All of these components shift and complement each other and rarely step on each other’s toes. It’s hard to describe why everything coheres so elegantly on “Lux” when other Eno efforts in the past few years have been less impressive, but a large part of that may be the relative paucity of the sounds Eno works with.

Rather than churning out a spectrum of sounds from his immense studio, Eno picks a dozen or so instruments and sounds and cycles through them slowly and deliberately, juxtaposing them artfully.

“LUX 1” opens the album with stratospheric strings laid over a droning synthesizer. The two musical components wax and wane, gradually shifting around one another so changes are hard to pinpoint. Eno has a keen ear for dynamics and creating movement out of very little. Rather than change chords or even notes within his arrangements, Eno alters slight timbre qualities and volume levels, producing slight fluctuations instead of dramatic shifts.

“LUX 2” is tenser and actually a bit dissonant, especially compared to its predecessor. Sustained guitar notes play a brittle harmony as Eno pipes in more of the sounds from the preceding track, only to gradually wash out the track with minimalist synth work and periodic bell chimes.

The album’s second half expands and darkens the sounds of the preceding two songs, giving them more depth and mystery than they had initially. If this review’s constant references to sparse piano notes and atmospheric string arrangements make the album seem monotonous, they should. The album isn’t striving for anything beyond a particular mood and the sounds one can use to make it. Yes, there are variations to the feeling, but it rarely strays from its comfort zone.

For all the modesty of its production, “Lux” accomplishes something quite rare in the field of ambient music: it’s truly compelling.

For anyone with the time and patience to make their way through all of “Lux,” they’ll be rewarded by a soft−spoken but nonetheless affecting album that can stick in your head for quite a while.

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