A blast of frantic noise, “The End” is not the closer but the second song on Daniel Lanois’ new album, Flesh & Machine. Scribbles of distressed electric guitar and waves of distortion grate against scratchily arrhythmic drums, creating a sustained explosion of sound uninterrupted by lyrics or melody. It’s all static and tension, with no release until it fades into the more percussive “Sioux Lookout”. Listening to “The End”, it’s almost impossible not to be reminded of Lanois’ motorcycle crash four years ago, when he lost control of his bike in Los Angeles and ended up in the hospital with multiple broken bones. The song conveys the same sense of slowed time that most of us experience during an accident, a hyperawareness that allows you to take in every small detail. Such associations emphasize the song’s queasy friction: guitar strings against drum heads, bone against asphalt, flesh against machine.
A deft guitarist who gravitates toward the liquid sound of the pedal steel, Lanois plays the studio like it’s just one more instrument, which would be a cliché if he didn’t take the studio on the road with him and produce each show like it’s a new record. More than 30 years after getting his first credits—one of which was a Raffi album, no less—he has become one of the most recognizable names in the control room, collaborating closely with Brian Eno and twiddling knobs for Neil Young’s Le Noise, Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball, Willie Nelson’s Teatro, and almost all of U2’s catalog (although not their most recent catastrophe). But Lanois is less well known as a solo artist, partly because one album per decade isn’t exactly prolific and partly because he has never settled on one particular sound or approach. Instead, he toggles between singer-songwriter fare (like 2003’s Shine) and blurry, concept-driven soundscapes (2005’s Belladonna).
Fortunately, Flesh & Machine is purely instrumental, with no lyrics to structure it too rigidly and no concept to hem Lanois. There’s an intriguing sense of entropy to these songs; rather than pristine, everything sounds weathered and worn. Like a robot detaching its limbs, “Tamboura Jah” actively disassembles itself as you listen, cut-and-pasting its constituent parts into new patterns. The mere act of holding together, though, gives the song its self-propulsion, as the cymbals and guitars reverberate against each other in unexpected ways. Of course Flesh & Machine is going to sound great, with each instrument calibrated either to pull you into Lanois’ sonic world or to shake you up once you get there.
Lanois creates some lovely sounds and moods on Flesh & Machine, but what really sets it apart from his other work is how he sets them against each other. The disembodied vocals on opener “Rocco” are pitched high to sound inhuman, lulling you a bit before the jarring conflagration of “The End”. The album starts strong but picks up considerably on the second side, pitting the ethereal piano of “Iceland” with the raking-light nostalgia of “My First Love”, which sounds like it’s stuck halfway between an old Floyd Cramer instrumental and the new Twin Peaks reboot. With its descending piano theme and bossa nova underpinning, it’s exactly the kind of song that would be on the jukebox at the Double R.
Flesh & Machine reaches its climax on “Aquatic”, with its lurid pedal steel gliding like a shark around a reef. Lanois amplifies and exaggerates that lead instrument, not only lending it a supreme fluidity but also distorting its tone, like a microphone held too close to the mouth or an eye pressed right up to the TV screen. Yet, the effect is somehow delicate rather than noisy. It might seem like faint praise to call Flesh & Machine Lanois’ best and most realized solo album, but it’s also one of the best ambient records of 2014—an endlessly inventive collection of songs built on odd, often lurid sounds and textures, somehow rough and gentle at the same time.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1uIs7nA