The cover art to Flesh And Machine the new album by gifted musician, renowned producer and ambient pioneer Daniel Lanois contains a curious image: a baby with cybernetic antennae. The child represents Lanois himself. He explains: "The cover shows a boy who is looking for something that's never been heard before. He's my little seeker, he represents the bit of me that's always in the laboratory experimenting, looking for new sounds and sensations."
But the image is apt in another way. Flesh And Machine, his third album for ANTI, represents nothing short of a total artistic rebirth. Lanois has been involved in playing, recording and producing music for four decades now. In that time he helped push the ambient genre forward into celestial new territory as Brian Eno's foremost protégé; he has recorded landmark albums for U2 and Peter Gabriel and has helped to revitalize the sonic dimensions of Bob Dylan and Neil Young. But this marks the first time he has truly deployed every sonic weapon in his arsenal and attempted to break virgin ground in support of his own music.
Lanois has a refreshingly optimistic attitude toward his craft and the creative potential it still holds: "I'm always heading for the future and I'm always hoping I'm going to find the next dimension of sound. It's my job to raise the spirit of sound. I've been able to do it a number of times in the past on other people's records. Well, it's still my job today to raise that spirit of sound and I'd like to think that I've done it on this record."
Flesh And Machine was initially conceived as an ambient album, and tracks such as 'Forest City' take the classic Brian Eno albums that he worked on ("Ambient 4: On Land" (1982) and "Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks"(1983) as a wonderful bedrock to stand on to see the sonic future. His guitar is processed to the point where it is no longer possible to tell what the source instrument is. The album bristles with new ideas. The softly spoken Canadian spent countless hours processing an array of source sounds steel and electric guitars, piano and human voice to create the sound palette that is Flesh And Machine.
Talking about the track 'Sioux Lookout' he says: "It is meant to be a native chant or a cry for all living things. I wanted to mix the sound of humans with the sound of animals. But they're not animal sounds really I've created all of these sounds myself but that's kind of my aim, you can't actually tell where these sounds came from. I got to this place of mysterious sounds and invented a new sonic language."
He continues: "The track 'Two Bushas' is very symphonic and it almost sounds like someone is conducting it but the tones and textures can't be pinpointed. You wouldn't say, 'Oh, yeah, that's a flute and that's a cello.' The result is a symphonic one and it appeals to that part of us that responds to orchestral music but with sounds we're not used to hearing. On a good day, if I'm feeling bigheaded, I like to think that I'm taking symphonics to the future."
One of the many standout tracks on the record is called simply 'The End' and is supposed to represent "a final protest song, the closing of a chapter or the burning down of an edifice and the rising of a phoenix. It's hellfire, avalanche, collapse and tsunami: The End essentially!" He continues: "If you're expecting nothing but ambient music you'll be surprised... 'The End' is not meant to be peaceful and textural by any means. I think it has a lot of rebellion in it. I'm on guitar and Brian Blade is on drums and then everything else is processing. Brian and I have played together for a long time. Years ago I was taking a walk in New Orleans with Iggy Pop and we heard this amazing drumming coming out of this cafe. So we went inside and there he was... young Brian Blade ripping it up on the drums. And I've been working with him ever since; he's one of the greatest human beings I know."
The stunning polyphony and cascades of ultrapointilistic sound on this track all come from two humble sources: guitar and drums which are then sampled, sliver by tiny sliver, processed and placed carefully back into the track. All of these countless samples, no matter how radically they are changed, have to be placed back into their surroundings in a harmonically correct manner, so his process is not only highly technical but compositionally very astute as well. His method is so dazzling in places that sometimes sounds as if Burial, Amon Tobin, Prefuse 73 or Four Tet were producing a modern fusion LP. However, these effects were achieved by a personal evolution which was perhaps in some ways parallel but far, far removed as Lanois is blissfully unaware of who any of these producers are...
He playfully doffs his cap to both his mentor Brian Eno and the intensely productive period they worked together in the 1980s on the track 'My First Love'. Keeneared listeners might recognize the beautiful celestial tone on the track: "I used the same Suzuki Omnichord on 'My First Love' as we used on 'Deep Blue Day' the track from "Apollo..."which was used in "Trainspotting" during the infamous toilet bowl scene..." Talking about what he learned from Eno he says: "Above any particular technique, I learned to be devoted to a direction. And I made a pact to myself after working with him that I would never do anything musically that I didn't want to do again which was a real turning point for me."
This spirit of artistic restlessness is something that he still feels fully today, some thirty years later. He has already prepared songs from Flesh And Machine to be performed live by a trio including himself, where both the playing of instruments and the sampling, dubbing and processing will happen in real time on stage: Our crescendos and our risings very much belong to the night, never to be played the same way again."
Daniel Lanois is still raising that spirit of music and still opening up doors to the unknown.
John Doran, London, August 2014