“Would you like to review the new Eno Hyde album?”
As questions go, that’s not a bad one. Not bad at all. In fact, it’s up there alongside such posers as: “Would you like to score the goal that wins Newcastle United a trophy?” or: “Would you like to spend the evening with Emma Watson and a tub of Greek yoghurt?” Damn right I want to review the new Eno Hyde album. Who wouldn’t? Entitled ‘Someday World’, this LP is a collaboration between opulent ambient producer Brian Eno and Karl Hyde from Underworld (hence the name: Eno Hyde). On the 5th of May, it will be released in the UK on the esteemed Warp Records, home not only to Eno’s previous two solo albums but also to the wonderful Boards of Canada: probably (with the possible exception of Aphex Twin) the only musicians that have come close to Eno’s soft brilliance in the last two decades. If you’ve never heard ‘Music for Airports’, then I strongly recommend you buy a copy. Or, if you’re feeling particularly angry at George Osborne’s austerity measures, the full thing is available on YouTube too. It is quite simply the best ambient piece ever made, from someone who is quite simply the best ambient producer to ever walk this planet.
Hyde, on the other hand, is most famous for providing the vocals to ‘Born Slippy’, the stomping techno/trance track that is regularly hailed as one of the finest dance tunes of its era. But if you think that’s all he’s ever done…oh dear. Alongside Rick Smith, Hyde formed what was to eventually become Underworld sometime in 1980, and since then have released some 8 studio albums and countless other singles and remixes. 2013 marked Hyde’s first ever solo album, the enjoyable ‘Edgeland’, which, on the deluxe version, featured a mix of ‘Slummin’ It for the Weekend’ by Eno.
They must have hit it off nicely, and we can assume that the dawn of ‘Someday World’ occurred around the same time as the twilight of ‘Edgeland’. There had been whispers about the existence of this album since Christmas, but it was only recently that it was confirmed. The reaction to this announcement was jubilant anarchy. Desks were overturned with apoplectic excitement and chairs were thrown through windows with uncontrollable joy. And with good reason. Two of the greatest pioneers in the history of electronic music. Working together. On one LP. Aside from the original 9 tracks that I have been allowed a glimpse of, there will also be a 2xCD deluxe version with four bonus tracks on. The anticipation thermometer is thus quite rightfully through the roof.
Consequently, you may understand why, when offered the opportunity to review ‘Someday World’, I simultaneously pissed myself with excitment and bit my Editor’s hand off. This is why I now have ruined jeans, and also why my Editor now has a ruined hand. But you may also understand the despair and sorrow that I am now facing. The distress I am feeling. I feel like it’s important to apologise deeply for this, for I was expecting to love this album, and I also don’t like the idea of criticising two of the greatest musicians of the past half century. But honest I must be. I don’t like this album. Not one bit. Let me try to explain.
First off, I’m not going to insult anyone by parroting the obvious line of argument: that this album doesn’t work because it is a clash of styles; or in other words because the individual tastes of Eno and Hyde do not work together as one. Not only would this be lazy reviewing, but it would also be quite simply untrue. Musically – in terms of the standard of production – this is close to faultless. In fact, it’s absolutely breath-taking at times. I love the soaring trumpets on ‘Satellites’ and I love love love how ‘When I Built This World’ sounds like it could be the soundtrack to the old Sega game Streets of Rage. I love the mellow, soft feel to ‘Witness’ and I love the tap-dancing piano, the shuffling drums, and especially that beautifully mournful synth on ‘Strip It Down’. The second half of ‘Mother of a Dog’, from about three minutes in onwards, is one of the most stunning arrangements I’ve ever heard. You think the track has ended, but then (presumably) Eno takes over, almost reducing you to tears with this twinkling, sparkling growth of oscillating ambience. The individual components across this whole album fit together like a plate of Michelin-starred food, like a mammoth musical jigsaw. I’m told that the LP features a whole hoard of guest musicians, and hats should be tipped to all of them. It is a pleasure to listen to.
Or, at least, it would be. But it’s actually not. The thing that ruins this album for me is the vocals. Now, I know this may seem banal and slightly odd, but it’s true. Take ‘A Man Wakes Up’, for example. The intro is ominous, taunting, and groovy. I found myself expectant of what was to come. Hoping for an explosion of instruments. But what I got instead is a slightly droning, flat vocal. And instead of reacting with joy, or nodding my head, my only reaction is bafflement. These vocals might be ok on something like Underworlds recent tune ‘Scribble’, for example, but they’re not here. There’s no other way of saying it: the vocals clash atrociously with the overall soundscape. And this happens across the whole album. ‘Who Rings The Bell’ suffers the most – it’s probably my favourite track instrumental wise – but I found myself trying to block out the vocal to listen to that echoing female lament in the background. I started wishing I was a human EQ, so I could stop the vocals reaching my eardrums and listen only to the stunning sounds behind it. To resurrect the questionable allegory used above, I found the vocals on ‘Who Rings The Bell’ akin to sloshing Sarson’s vinegar all over a plate of Michelin-starred food. Perplexing, overpowering, and ultimately disastrous.
Admittedly, it’s worse on some songs than others. ‘Mother of a Dog’ actually turns into a quite pleasant Roxy Music-esque number. But, if I’m honest, this is the only song to which the vocals add anything at all. And it speaks volumes that, as I’ve said, my favourite part of ‘Mother of a Dog’ is actually the outro: the part where the vocals disappear. And on others like ‘Daddy’s Car’, they are bordering on cringeworthy. “Faster than your daddy’s car”? Seriously? “Who barks like a dog?” Come onnnnnn, you can do better than that. These words have meaning to the artists, you might reply, but meaning is an interpretation, an effect, which is why some of us will attach different meanings to what is in reality the same object. To a large extent, the vocals across this album are at best misguided, and at worst meaningless.
None of this is to say that the vocals are, on their own, bad. They’re not. They just do not complement the music behind them. It’s almost as if Eno and Hyde have tried to drag this LP from electronica into – I don’t know – something shoegaze-y? And – even though I know this won’t be true – it’s almost like they’ve made the album, then said to each other “Should we throw some random vocals over the top of it? Yeah? Why not, let’s do it”. Of course, this is completely subjective. Perhaps I’m clinging too obsessively to Eno’s older work, and I admittedly have a bias towards what you might call ‘pure’ electronica rather than vocal led tracks. But none of this erases the feeling of pure disappointment I felt after listening to this LP a few times. It’s like when you come home drunk when you’re 15 years old, and your parents aren’t angry, or mad, but just disappointed in you. That’s infinitely worse.
And it’s such a shame, because if there was, say, an ‘instrumental’ version of ‘Someday World’, I would absolutely adore it. I would have it on loop constantly. I would play it through my speakers to my entire street and watch them marvel at the intricacy and splendour of it. As it is, however, this is a slab of beautiful, awe-inspiring music that is ultimately ruined by one minute yet devastating detail. In many ways, it’s a bit like scoring the goal that wins Newcastle United a trophy only to find the linesman has his flag up for offside. A bit like turning up to Emma Watson’s house with a tub of Greek yoghurt only to discover that she’s lactose intolerant. So close to perfection…yet…so far away.
Reviewer: Matthew Scott