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Monday, 10 January 2011

Review: Brian Eno & David Byrne - My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (Released 1981 on EG Records)

                           First put online on the Head Heritage website in 2004

Brian Eno and David Byrne: Guitars, Basses, Synthesizers, Tapes, Drums, Percussion and Found Objects.
Assistant Musicians: John Cooksey, Chris Frantz, Dennis Keeley, Mingo Lewis, Prairie Prince, Jose Rossy, Steve Scales, David Van Tieghem, Buster 'Cherry' Jones, Bill Laswell, Tim Wright.

Recorded between July 1979 and October 1980. Production: Eno / Byrne.

There were many people who were using what would later be termed 'samples' and well before the time this album was made, the term then was just referred to as "Tapes".
A special mention should go to Silver Apples on tracks such as 'Program' from their 1968 album, which incorporated the use of radio into their sound etc.

As the 1970s ushered in the 1980s, Holger Czuckay's brilliant "Movies" album was up and running (not to mention his previous 'Canaxis' album from 10 years earlier), the 'post-punk' scene had all manner of boffins, seasoned as well as newcomers, who would be bent over their tape-splicing blocks, not to mention the genius of Peter Christopherson who had built a rack of car-stereo cassette machines which were hot wired to a keyboard device, enabling him to operate his own crude but capable 'sampler' to add to Throbbing Gristle's sonic arsenal.

Taking the album title from from a book by nigerian author Amos Tutuola, it was the pure skill and sheen of Eno and Byrne, the session players AND the patience (!) of the many engineers involved, that made this great collection of recordings point to a new way of working in the studio and to anticipate the need for digital sampling hardware.

Aided by some crack-shot Percussionists, this is a tour-de-force of Byrne's interest in rhythms and Eno's studio wizzardry, plus their own cross-pollinated interests with middle-eastern and african musics and the possibilities with 'live in the studio' playing and found/location recordings.

Eno had already worked with Byrne in producing three albums by Talking Heads. You can see a pointer to the rhythmic outlook on 'Bush Of Ghosts' in the last Heads album he worked on- 'Remain In Light', although things probably started to germinate with the 'Fear of Music' album opener- "I Zimbra".
The way they merge the found recordings with the studio playing is fantastic and you would swear some of the vocals (the tracks which contain 'actual singing' that is), were recorded live in the studio as the production is super crisp.

Side One:
"America Is Waiting"- uses a recording of an 'undignified radio host' which pops up from time to time amongst the basses of Laswell and Wright and the jerking percussion of Van Tieghem, who, together with Laswell, played a large part in the arrangement of this quirky opening track.
Byrne's familiar sounding 'scratching' rhythm guitar scrapes along while melodic keyboards and background synths come in for the occasional hum, while sparse key notes root it to a more human feel. The pairings of conventional melody, multi-rhythms, unusual sounds and cinematic wash, lay the foundations for what the album will be built upon.

"Mea Culpa"-
"...I made a mistake...I made a mistake..." panics an unknown member of the public on a new york radio phone-in show, as a pulsing keyboard with Dennis Keeley beating a bodhran to bits, building up a tense scene in the process, as ambient synths try to lend a bit of calm. It must have been a real thrill to see all these people working on this material, although you won't see any footage or mention of this stuff in the recent 'Classic Albums' UK TV series.

"Regiment"- features the marvellous vocals of one Dunya Yusin, a lebanese mountain singer, although the actual vocal is lifted from an album- 'The Human Voice in the World of Islam'.
Talking Head Chris Frantz provides brilliant rock-solid drums to carry along the ethereal vocal which gives way to Eno providing kif-soaked synth, while good ol' Buster Cherry provides some punctuated bass.
A slower paced track, but one which you can't fail to be seduced by and long-time Eno associate- Bob Fripp- had a hand with the arrangement,
could he have influenced the 'frippish' sounding legato synths tones ?

"Help Me Somebody"-
Percussionist Steve Scales emerges out of the sound of some crows, setting the rhythm with congas which really get you jigged-up, then as the track gains pace, a tape of the Reverend Paul Morton is spun in, which is quite alarming as he's...shall we say, touched by the lord: "...aaaaaahhhh I-I-I knows it !..." while the guitars are straight out of King Sunny Ade.

"The Jezebel Spirit"-
Featuring a controversial (at the time) recording of an 'unidentified' exorcist caught in full-flow in New York 1980, this track used to spook a lot of people out.
Sinister Funk anyone ? is evil sounding, especially when he hollers-"Jezebel!...Spirit of Grief!....Spirit of Destruction!...I bound you with Chains of Irons!...." - while the poor possessed can be heard panting with exhaustion.
Mingo Lewis and Prairie Prince (just love those monikers) join Byrne and Eno in the percussive stakes to provide a relentless workout with
spiralling synth-owls that are observing the exorcism below.
There is a great end sequence to the track where a cluster of morse-code keyboard sounds let us know that maybe the evil is to be banished, but it fades out!
There is in circulation, a collection of out-takes and non-runners from these sessions under the title -"Ghosts"- which include a version of 'Jezebel' with the 'uncleared samples' of healer Katherine Kuhlman...should you want to delve further into the dark.

Side Two:
Keeping up with the controversy, the original pressing of this album, has the second side opening with "Qu'ran", which included in it's dream like music, a recording of some algerian muslims chanting verses from their holy book.
A complaint was received (I forget the actual details of events) and the track was replaced by "Very Very Hungry", a track which, together with 'Regiment' and 'Jezebel' were put out on a 12" single which did very well in certain clubs. It sounds great cranked up a notch, as does the whole album.
'Hungry' contains vocal sounds, but cleverly manipulated via delay units, similar to that great bit in the T.Head's track- "Drugs" from 'Fear of Music', only a twitch on the dial here, gives the raw material a faster and more frenzied feel.

"Moonlight In Glory"- features great playing from Jose Rossy (congas, agong-gong), whilst all the other instrumentation is handled by Eno and Byrne. Considering Eno has always claimed he is a 'non-musician', he must have collated a few tips over the years, as the bass guitar sound on this track sounds similar to the elastic-bass treats that Percy Jones would lay down on some of Eno's previous 'solo' albums, still, it could be Byrne sliding in there. The Moving Star Hall Singers provide the shivering vocals and together with the mysterious cut-up speech and strange dialogue, makes the track warm but eerie at the same time.

"The Carrier"-
Aaahh - the jewel in the crown for me....and at a running time of 3.34, it shows the craftsmanship that is on display to great effect.
If there is one single track out of everything I've ever heard (yeah...everything!), one that can soothe me to perfection, it's this one.
A bass prod starts, then keyboards slowly creep in, then Lewis and Prince, lightly but firmly stroke up a tempered beat to distant guitar flocks and subtle automaton bell sounds (which I think is processed guitar harmonics), then.....Dunya Yusin sings.....and your soul just melts.

Here I go again...the track is TOO SHORT! What happened here ? It's not as if they couldn't afford the studio time is it ?!

Egyptian singer Samira Tawfik contributes the fading in and out (treated) vocal on "A Secret Life", which is a very dreamy and drifting sound which sets the clock for the end of the session.
"Come With Us"- features another radio evangelist, but this time it's a very hushed and quieter affair than the manic rantings from side one. Wispy trails of synth and sparse percussion mingle to the night air.

"Mountain Of Needles" is the end of this journey, sounding very oriental with a sort of slowed-way-down gamelan providing strange globules of sound, like as if you are a tiny insect on a leaf with huge slow-motion raindrops falling around you. Brief but nice.

People who are familiar with this album will agree that it's still got that power to make your head spin, it really is irresistable stuff and totally intoxicating, even now.

Anorak Alert:
Fast Forward to the 1990s.....The last track was sampled by Goldie for the opening of 'Sea of Tears' on the 'Timeless' album.
The voice at the beginning of 'Mea Culpa' was used on the track 'Leo Leo' by 808 State, also the congas which open up 'Help Me Somebody' were used on another of their finely crafted tracks.

Written by Tim Jones september 2004

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