Brian Eno – His First Four Albums Are Best on Import, Right? – Well, Almost…

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[This commentary is quite old. You should take it with a grain of salt.]

The domestic pressings of Before And After Science are typically grainy and hard sounding — hardly competitive with the smoother British Polydors. But our best Hot Stamper pressing isn’t an import; it was made right here in the good old U. S. of A.

Say what? Yes, it’s true. We were SHOCKED to find such hot stamper sound lurking in the grooves of a domestic Eno LP. It’s the One and Only. In thirty plus years of record playing I can’t think of any domestic Eno LP that ever sounded this good.

Now hold on just a minute. The British pressings of Eno’s albums are always the best, aren’t they?

For the first three albums, absolutely. But rules were made to be broken. This pressing has the knockout sound we associate with the best British originals of Eno’s albums, not the flat, cardboardy qualities of the typical domestic reissue.

Kinda Blind Testing

Since the person listening and making notes during the shootouts has no idea what the label or the pressing of the record is that he is evaluating — this is after all a quasi-scientific enterprise, with blind testing being the order of the day — when that domestic later label showed up at the top of the heap, our jaws hit the floor.

Both sides have that rare combination of silky highs and deep low end that make any record magical. Side one, the rock side, strongly relies on its deep punchy bass to make its material come to life and rock (or should we say art rock?). Eno’s vocals are clear and present with virtually no strain. Phil Collins’ drumming (how did these guys get together? We forget that Collins was in the proggy Brand X) is energetic and transparent and perfectly complemented by Percy Jones’ simultaneously acrobatic and hard-driving bass work.

Common Problems

This album typically suffers from a severe case of rolled-off highs, compounding the problems in the midrange: veiled and smeary vocals. The average copy is thick, muddy and congested, lacking the kind of transparency and clarity that makes it possible for the listener to hear into Eno’s dense mixes and make musical sense of them.

Partly this is Eno’s fault. He overloads his recordings. Played The Joshua Tree lately? It has some of the same sonic shortcomings, (exacerbated by Direct Metal Mastering).

Critical Listening Exercise

The test for how good this record can sound when it’s not too dense is the song Energy Fools the Magician. It’s clear and open the way nothing else on side one is. It almost sounds as if there is a room full of musicians (magicians?) playing live.

Take special note of the bell in the left channel; it’s key to the sound of the whole side. If you have a few copies, listen to the bell on each of them (after a good cleaning of course). The presence and harmonics of that bell will never be exactly the same on any two copies. We played many more than that and every time the sound of the bell was clearly different.

A Real Desert Island Disc

This is one of my all time favorite records — a real Desert Island disc. Before and After Science and Taking Tiger Mountain are Must Own albums for those of us who grew up on and still appreciate the better Art Rock of the ’70s (Roxy Music, 10cc, Talking Heads, etc.).

Side One has the more uptempo tunes that really rock, while Side Two is very ethereal. “Julie With…” is one of my all-time favorite Eno tracks. It’s one of the most sublimely hypnotic songs I have ever heard in my thirty-plus years of serious record listening. It alone is worth the price of the album. If you like this album, be sure to check out the early Roxy Music pressings and 801 Live, which are also masterpieces.

Five Stars

AMG gives this album Five Stars and I couldn’t agree more. If you’re a fan of Art Rock or Prog Rock or just like something a little different, this is an album that belongs in your collection.

And with Hot Stamper sound like this you can actually hear it right, something you can be sure the reviewer for AMG listening to the CD (or worse!) can’t begin to claim.


Further Reading

We have a number of entries in our new Import Versus Domestic series, in which we debunk the conventional wisdom as to which countries’ records are the best sounding for specific artists and titles.

Here are some commentaries on a subject near and dear to all of us, namely Record Collecting.

The entries linked here may help you gain a better understanding of the issues surrounding Hot Stampers.

And finally we’ll throw in this old warhorse discussing How to Become an Expert Listener, subtitled Hard Work and Challenges Can Really Pay Off.

Because in audio, much like the rest of life, hard work and challenges really do pay off.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

No One Receiving
Backwater
Kurt’s Rejoinder 
Energy Fools the Magician
King’s Lead Hat

Side Two

Here He Comes 
Julie With… 
By This River 
Through Hollow Lands 
Spider and I

AMG Review

Before and After Science is really a study of “studio composition” whereby recordings are created by deconstruction and elimination: tracks are recorded and assembled in layers, then selectively subtracted one after another, resulting in a composition and sound quite unlike that at the beginning of the process.

Despite the album’s pop format, the sound is unique and strays far from the mainstream. Eno also experiments with his lyrics, choosing a sound-over-sense approach. Before and After Science opens with two bouncy, upbeat cuts: “No One Receiving,” featuring the offbeat rhythm machine of Percy Jones and Phil Collins (Eno regulars during this period), and “Backwater.” The last five tracks (the entire second side of the album format) display a serenity unlike anything in the pop music field. These compositions take on an occasional pastoral quality, pensive and atmospheric.

The music on Before and After Science at times resembles Another Green World (“No One Receiving”) and Here Come the Warm Jets (“King’s Lead Hat”) and ranks alongside both as the most essential Eno material.