By Alexander Szeptycki
Ironically, Mixing Colours is best experienced by taking in its video presentations.
Attach Brian Eno’s name to a project and it instantly accrues a certain mystique. After all, the veteran musician has broken innovative ground across a variety of genres, both as a producer and as a leading act. He’s backed up Roxy Music, David Bowie, and Talking Heads while continuing to build his own solo career on electronic and instrumental experimentation. This new project is the result of a 15-year collaboration with his brother, Roger, who would send Brian piano MIDI files, which Brian would then manipulate and stretch out to create ambient, abstract pieces, loosely based around colors. Mixing Colours is the result of an exchange of fraternal hearts and minds.
It also, unfortunately, bears the marks of being a side project for the brothers. And, for the most part, this isn’t a good thing. That’s not to say the recording hasn’t its faint merits; its ethereal sounds and ambient drones are nothing if not tranquil, to the point of being utterly relaxing. But that is where things start and stop: the disc never strays from a core sedateness. It revolves and revolves around a beautiful but dramatically inert foundation. This, coupled with a playing time of an hour and 15 minutes, makes for a bland listening experience.
Each of the 18 tracks on Mixing Colours consists of a nebulous piano passage that progresses, slowly, over the course of three to four minutes. Occasionally, the ambience will swell (relatively) with the addition of faint drones. Individual tracks serve up moments of subtle elegance that attain a meditative ease. But the stubborn continuity of Eno’s aesthetic becomes tiring. In fact, because of the uniformity, it’s hard to pick out album highlights and lowlights.
Let’s talk about what’s of value. The best tracks, perhaps unsurprisingly, come when Brian Eno stretches the piano MIDIs farthest from their original form. On “Burnt Umber,” Brian Eno adds a percussive element to a plodding piano riff, varying the effect through a nimble manipulation of pitch. The result is a fascinating fusion: a mash-up somewhere in between a marimba, a wind chime, and a prayer bell. Here Eno showcases how his mastery of the studio can cast a transformative spell.
Elsewhere, Roger Eno’s piano work shines when he breaks up the tranquil regularity of his performances. These nuances are small, but they make an enormous difference. An unusually high note, or a slightly dissonant chord, pushes some of these tracks onward by warding off stasis. “Rose Quartz,” for example, ends up inspiring a number of percussive elements from Brian Eno. Here, Roger sets the stage by playing a few syncopated low-pitched chords; they are punctuated by occasional high notes. The contrast creates a striking dissonance that drives the song forward.
The most powerful aspect of Mixing Colours may be its accompanying video presentations. The Eno brothers have set a number of tracks to visuals that are as slow-paced and ambient as the songs themselves. The videos are made up of long, single shots of the natural environment: the camera slowly moves across a static scene. In the video for “Blonde,” the viewer looks out over a wheat field, reveling in a bright blue sky peppered with clouds. It is a sublime picture, and the delicate ambience of the Eno brothers’ sound compliments it perfectly, deepening our experience. The power of the visuals brings out the music’s moments of nuanced artistry.
The videos emphasize the flaw of Living Colours as an album. Its concept — brotherly creation — is compelling, as is its lovely sonic ambience. But its dedication to a gaseous minimalism eventually becomes self-defeating. The Eno brothers are too talented to put out a bad album, but this one disappoints because the pair are determined see merit in monotony.
Alex Szeptycki is a student from Charlottesville, Virginia, currently studying at Stanford University. He is majoring in American Studies, with a focus in Contemporary Art and Media. He is currently finishing up his senior year, before looking to pursue a career in writing or the arts.