Sometimes a little distance is a good thing. An initial listen and serious attention paid to Drums Between the Bells, Brian Eno’s second release in less than a year, probably has enough elements to turn you off. Come back to it a little later, or give it room to breathe in the background, and it might just win you over.
The veteran producer and electronic musician delivers atmospheres that feel warmer, and beats that rock harder, than those on his 2010 effort Small Craft on a Milk Sea. That album was frustrating, with few rapturous moments of digitalism. Drums Between the Bells threatens to follow suit, but instead reveals its rewards slowly, surprisingly.
Electronic music regularly offers refuge to rambling that passes for poetry, and when masked by studio production that can give an improvisational feel even to a 4/4 stormer. What nearly sabotages this album is its central conceit: the poetry of Rick Holland, an Eno collaborator since the turn of the century. It rarely rises past rambling, coldly recited by our two principals as well as a strange procession of women from Eno’s life: receptionist, bookkeeper, random girl-on-the-street.
Acts like Underworld have been known to transform the voice into sound that snakes through techno like a saxophone. With few exceptions like the high-powered “Glitch” and the mesmerizing “The Real,” Holland’s words about lizards and hemoglobin are clearly enunciated, almost percussive—figurative drums between Eno’s “bells” of constructed sound—so as to be overwrought and unintentionally hilarious.
And yet the music also treads entertainingly close to bohemian-basement, finger-snappin’ jazz, and that’s a far more rewarding journey. The skronky live snippets in “Bless This Space,” the insistent tribal feel of “Dow,” the chiming “Seedpods”—Eno warps instruments into everything from chugging electro-pop to quiet tone poems. If you can hear above (and below) the chatter, Drums Between the Bells might suggest if not his greatest hits, at least his greatest sounds from 40 other studio albums.