The Beatles were the first to suggest that rock might be something more than an expression of adolescent angst and libido. Songs such as "I Am the Walrus" and "A Day in the Life" combined complex musical constructions with sophisticated lyrics that painted provocative pictures of modern life.
Since then, art rock, as a distinct musical style, has flourished. Groups like Soft Machine, Genesis and King Crimson have featured jazz and classical devices in their music, creating an intellectual bite to the bark of rock 'n' roll.
But because of its dual nature, art rock has been attacked from both sides. Rock 'n' roll purists claim the music isn't rock at all, but a pretentious exercise in pomposity. Many "serious" artists dismiss it as merely another product of popular culture that has no place in the sphere of the arts.
This dilemma is brought into focus on "Music For Films" (Antilles AN-7070) by English composer, producer and rock entreprencur Brian Eno, a leading exponent of art rock. He has compiled 18 musical "fragments" from his recent work, some of which were used in films, some previously unissued, all defying a strict musical and artistic categorization.
His work has alternated between the inspired innocuousness of rock songs of the group Roxy Music, of which he is a founding member, and dense electronic montages of sound that bear little resemblance to traditional rock 'n' roll.
While Eno's earlier records have featured a combination of these approaches, "Films" is an uncompromising foray into his electronic world. Many of the cuts, such as "Aragon," "Quartz" and "Inland Sea," are sparse and droning musical images that have only the vaguest movement and direction. Like frost on a window pane, their sound seems frozen in midair, changing subtly as it dissolves into nothingness. Thick layers of synthesized sound are accented by pointillistic electronic noises and percussion that create an introspective mood.
"M386," "There Is Nobody" and "Patrolling Wire Borders" have primitive rhythms and groaning synthesizers that plod along like a horde of tank-like insects, with steely gultars and scratchy basses producing a sound that is primal, yet mechanistic, "Task Force" is propelled by a swishing, rhythm machine whose beat sounds like a robotic version of "The Twist."
Whether "frozen" or rhythmic, all of the pieces have a static quality that is evocative, yet slightly irritating. They are extremely brief and, after a while, blend together like a lush, melodic glue. The effect is not unlike that of a cerebral sort of Muzak conducive to reading or quiet conversation.What is missing, however, is a musical experience, a sense that the composer has anything to express beyond the prettiness of the harmonies or the clash of the esoteric noises.
Eno's current emphasis on electronic manipulation has several virtues (new tonal coiors, sounds and compositional techniques which add to rock's creative potential) and some glaring drawbacks. Like many avantgarde composers, he occasionally fails to recognize the distinction between experimenting and creating a work of art based on the results of that experimentation. "Music For Films" is more like a series of outtakes than complete films.
Perhaps this record illustrates future projects for Eno or even the various possibilities of his present format. Whatever, "Music For Films" is a selfindulgent product, adrift in a sea of pretension, that serves neither art nor rock.