How Eno Altered Reality On Before And After Science

The album that bridged Art Rock and New Wave turns 45

Brian Eno’s Before And After Science on cassette (Image: Discogs)

Nobody was prepared for the arrival of Before and After Science, but it’s hard to imagine a world without it.

Brian Eno’s previous output offered nary a hint of what his December ‘77 release would entail. After jumping ship from Roxy Music, he turned out a brace of brilliantly offbeat 1974 art-rock solo records, courting the cohort for whom even the era’s Roxy/Bowie glam game wasn’t quite outré enough. 

Then he left rock behind for the next few years, hobnobbing with Robert Fripp and the guys from Cluster/Harmonia, using synths, loops, string ensembles, and whatever else was at hand to conjure up various shades of ambient sound on albums like Another Green World, Evening Star, Discreet Music, and Cluster & Eno. While he was in Berlin with the aforementioned krautrock heroes Eno even laid some of that synthesizer mojo on a couple of Bowie’s most innovative albums ever, Low and Heroes. 

So, the Eno who had become avant rock’s favorite upstart had seemingly been supplanted by the mellow, moody synth swami. But there was something else going on that was impossible to ignore, especially for a forward-looking U.K. artist like Eno. Namely, the new wave revolution. 

While Eno might have been enamored of the first blasts of British punk, the new wavers who took it to the next level clearly made more of an impact on him. Before 1977 was out, the artier end of that spectrum were already making themselves heard: Ultravox, Talking Heads, Television (with whom Eno had done an abortive ‘74 demo session), Wire—they were all forging new paths where musical innovation and forward momentum moved in lockstep.

With Before and After Science, Eno not only got out a few steps ahead of that crowd, he helped define what the entire British pop world would be doing in the following decade. Crucially, he also showed the simpatico between the most open-minded musicians of the prog/art-rock scene and those embodying the Next Big Thing. 

Eno was just about to begin an earth-rumbling run as Talking Heads’ producer, but it wasn’t any of the period’s new wave wonders who helped him realize his latest vision. It was members of Can, Fairport Convention, Genesis, Henry Cow, Roxy Music, King Crimson, Cluster, and Hawkwind, to name but a few.

Brian Eno Before And After Science, Island Records 1977

From the album’s first moments, it’s obvious there’s something very different going on, something that even the first fleet of new wave releases couldn’t have quite prepared anybody for. With Phil Collins on drums, Brand X’s Percy Jones on fretless bass, and Hawkwind’s Paul Rudolph on fretted bass, the rhythm section on opening cut “No One Receiving” serves up a skittering, syncopated sort of sci-fi funk groove. With Eno’s multi-tracked, almost disembodied-sounding vocals airing refrains of “metal days” and “metal ways,” the futuristic dance track lays down a template for the sounds that would shape European pop a couple of years later via the likes of Japan, John Foxx, and Duran Duran when New Romantics ruled the realm. 

“Kurt’s Rejoinder,” an homage to the late avant-garde poet/artist Kurt Schwitters that includes samples of him reading his poem “Ursonate” is funky and slippery enough to soundtrack a dance competition at an eel convention. And who the hell was using samples in any context in 1977, much less atop dance rhythms? It would be a good while before the likes of Art of Noise or Big Audio Dynamite got around to such shenanigans. 

The exotic-sounding instrumental “Energy Fools the Magician” stirs the sort of waters people like Jon Hassell or Mick Karn would be wading in when they began filling their own albums with electro-acoustic ethno-abstractions. The ambient jazz excursions ECM Records was keying in on at the time are a touchstone too.

After all these stylishly subtle knocks at the door announcing the future of music, Eno abandons all reserve and simply batters the door to the ground on “King’s Lead Hat.” The title is an anagram for Talking Heads, whom he admired but had not yet worked with. But in terms of future-forward approach, it’s leagues beyond anything the Heads had yet accomplished. It combines the headlong rush of punk with the heady swirl of Eno-fied art rock in a way that even the most cerebral new wavers hadn’t yet managed. Add the absurdist slant of its cut-and-paste lyrical approach and you’ve got dada futurism that rocks the roof off the joint.

Before and After Science is split between the fire and frenzy of its first half and the gentle flow of its second. Never one to cater to expectations, even from one album side to the next, Eno filled the album’s keyboard-based back half with limpid instrumentals and hushed balladry, including the achingly poignant “By This River,” written with his Berlin buddies Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius, both from Cluster/Harmonia.

Further proof of Eno’s refusal to repeat himself: after shaking things up with Science, it would be decades before he released another album of conventional vocal-oriented songs. In the years between, there were plenty of albums heavily informed by Before and After Science, but none that stole its thunder.

 

 

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