Five Things Your Favorite Indie Band Owes To Brian Eno

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

By Alex Heigl

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 honor 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 realized 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 pummeling grandiosity.

Listen: Brian Eno, "1/1" (from Music for Airports

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Listen: Sigur Ros, "Sigur Ros 3" (from Sigur Ros)

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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, just take a look at the above picture — Eno was doing the freaky, "what the hell is that?" look long before it was cool.

Listen: Brian Eno, "China My China" (from Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)

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Listen: of Montreal, "Slave Translator" (from thecontrollersphere

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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.)

Listen: Talking Heads, "The Great Curve" (from Remain in Light

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Listen: The Rapture, "Whoo! Alright Yeah... Uh Huh" (from Pieces of People We Love

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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 labored 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.

Listen: David Bowie, "Heroes" (from Heroes)

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Listen: Arcade Fire, "Wake Up" (from Funeral)

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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.

Listen: Brian Eno, "St. Elmo's Fire" (from Another Green World

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Listen: MGMT, "Brian Eno" (from Congratulations)  

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Commentarium (41 Comments)

Jul 05 11 - 12:55am
James

A couple of my favorite Eno moments:
1.) That mysterious scene from "Trainspotting" in the toilet.
2.) "Drawn From Life"--a collaboration with J. Peter Schwalm that meshes live instrumentation with tense ambience and skittery percussion.
3.) Hearing "Fear Of Music" and "Low" for the first times, and being stunned by the creativity and jam-band sentimentalities.

Jul 05 11 - 6:23am
PixieStick

I'll be honest with you, as a producer Eno is brilliant, but as a solo artist I never understood the appeal. His instrumentals especially make me want to slit my wrists.

Jul 05 11 - 11:59pm
Blank Frank

> but as a solo artist I never understood the appeal.

Really? Have you listened to the first four vocal albums he made (before he went ambient)? Catchy, quirky, way-ahead-of-its-time pop goodness.

Jul 09 11 - 9:32pm
julian.

maybe just not his thang

Jul 05 11 - 1:12pm
Oblique Strategy:

Do nothing for as long as possible

Jul 05 11 - 6:01pm
Robot

If it weren't for Kraftwerk, Eno would be nothing.

Jul 05 11 - 7:06pm
faulknersaysrelax

That's an interesting theory: are you talking about his production or solo work? Because I have to agree with PixieStick--a lot of his solo work is really lacking.

Jul 05 11 - 11:19pm
Ambrosio

No mention of U2's Joshua Tree!?!? Achtung Baby!?

Jul 06 11 - 12:12am
James

How did "Joshua Tree" slip away from my memory!? Criminy.

Jul 11 11 - 10:27pm
Publius

Golly, I'll never be able to forgive myself. Oh well. Back to wanking!

Jul 06 11 - 5:49am
Ian Shepherd

Eno & Byrne's greatest moment is/was "My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts" - also VERY funky

Jul 06 11 - 10:38am
Eno fan

I could neither agree more nor agree more violently :) If you haven't put ears to My Life int he Bush of Ghosts, do so immediately.

Jul 08 11 - 6:24pm
kimkayt

"My Life..." is quirky, dreamy, and makes you wonder why? But once you hear it, you'll never think the same about a preacher or a radio talk show host again... I expect those funky beats to start up every time I see one on tv or hear one on the radio, his work is that permanent...

Jul 06 11 - 1:48pm
Kel

Disagree on the vocal albums. "Another Green World" is a special favorite of mine.

Jul 11 11 - 10:28pm
Alan Coffee

I disagree with your disagreement. Wholeheartedly.

Jul 11 11 - 10:28pm
Boson Higgs

Oh man I love "Green World". Gorillaz, right?

Jul 06 11 - 2:23pm
Kel

Also, there's no Oblique Strategies app for the iPhone, but there are a couple of very pale imitations that mention Eno but have sappy phrases instead of the provocative thought-starters OS is famous for. There were three editions of the original cards, more info at http://www.rtqe.net/ObliqueStrategies/

Jul 07 11 - 3:29pm
Ranjuro

There was, in fact, an Oblique Strategies app for iPhone. I have it installed. I don't know why it is no longer available, but it's no listed on the App Store anymore. Too bad.

Jul 17 11 - 11:11am
John Emr

Perhaps because it was free?

Jul 06 11 - 2:56pm
DB

The "Berlin Trilogy" is made up of Low, Heroes and Lodger. Bowie doesn't even have an album called "Berlin".

Jul 06 11 - 3:37pm
PeterSmith

Fixed that--thanks for the catch.

Jul 06 11 - 6:08pm
lukas

you should have compared heroes to all i want by lcd soundsystem. they sound too alike

Jul 06 11 - 7:07pm
startmakingsense

"St. Elmo's Fire" has such a bitchin' Fripp solo. He makes Alex Lifeson look like a putz.

Jul 06 11 - 10:11pm
Contrary Theory

Roxy Music got much better after Eno left. He was no Eddie Jobson. Even Eno himself admits "Stranded" was a great album.

Jul 07 11 - 10:34pm
GeeBee

My favorite Roxy Music album is "For Your Pleasure".
I have an album on vinyl called "(No Pussyfooting)" -yes the parentheses are in the title- which got me through some dark days and nights in the 70s by simply filling my head to push out the crap that was stuck in there.
The third sentence of item 2 has an extraneous comma that confuses. The first part of it would have one believe there's a band called "In particular", from (of) Montreal).

Jul 08 11 - 3:55am
GeeBee

Yes, I know; my last sentence has an extraneous parenthesis.

Jul 12 11 - 8:30pm
GeeBee

Yes, I know; my left pocket has an extraneous bulge.

Jul 09 11 - 11:44am
Ello

Brian Eno is a household name... in crossword puzzle circles.

Jul 11 11 - 10:29pm
Boson Higgs

...and at the blue hair wig factory.

Jul 09 11 - 11:45am
Ello

Also, find some nature, smoke a lil' ganj and listen to Music For Airports on really good headphones. Contemplation of the universe will be inevitable.

Jul 09 11 - 1:56pm
Melissa

So much truth to this. What an absolutely brilliant man...
I think there is an Eno album for everyone. There is so much variety in his work.

Jul 09 11 - 2:36pm
brent

'been there done that' is one of my favorites

Jul 11 11 - 11:26am
John Emr

It would be interesting to note that the Oblique Strategies were co authored by the late Peter Schmidt, www.PeterSchmidtWeb.com

Jul 11 11 - 7:12pm
Mirena

The album before this new one... Craft on a Milk sea? Something.. That's a very cool weird album. All hail Eno.

Jul 15 11 - 12:07pm
beano

baby's on fire. that is all

Jul 18 11 - 2:28pm
rat

listening to these samples, I am not at all confident that my favorite indie bands have even come close. discouragingly derivative they seem to me

Jul 22 11 - 12:16am
Demarlo

Dag nabbit good stuff you whippenrspapers!

Jul 23 11 - 12:52pm
Gloriana

I suppsoe that sounds and smells just about right.

Dec 13 11 - 11:09pm
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