Few musicians have embraced and galvanized the potential of the modern production studio to as much acclaim as Brian Eno has. However under the radar his name may fly for many listeners, the pervasiveness of his influence is difficult to understate: The man more or less coined and created ambient music (or “sonic landscapes,” as he once called it) as a recognizable genre and did much to popularize sampling with Talking Heads’ David Byrne on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Of late, Eno has turned to the rich no-man’s-land between different media by experimenting with generative music, songs created by programmed software, which he made mainstream with iPhone apps like Bloom and Trope.
In 2011, Eno has turned to the interaction between the human voice and its musical context by appropriating the words of British poet Rick Holland to create a kind of spoken word/instrumentation collage. The centerpiece of the collaboration, Drums Between the Bells, took the best of Eno’s signature moodiness and careful aural craftsmanship and sculpted it around Holland’s lyrical, impressionistic phrasings. Panic of Looking is an epilogue to that earlier effort: far shorter, but just as measured, which tests the boundaries separating the vacuum of open space and the fullness of a specific place.
In each song, a disembodied voice speaks Holland’s lyrics with varying degrees of apathy or, in the case of the title track “panic of looking,” seething, barely-in-check emotion. The song is introduced by a quiet, visceral drumbeat, which gives way to a series of cascading, sharp-edged synth tones. You get the sense that something is falling and breaking—a pane of glass or ice shattered in slow motion. The first voice, male, speaks the three beats of each line with full stops, as if through clenched teeth. Then a woman’s voice, more ethereal, speaks over only the beat, evoking weightlessness instead of vertigo; for her, nothing collapses. It’s a tension that works at large over the six-song album, split down the middle with “panic of looking” at the crux: The first three songs are decidedly sci-fi, almost dystopian in their bleakness, whereas the second three bask in warmth.
The record’s opener, “In the Future,” gets that creepy vibe off to a strong start. The metrical consistency of Holland’s words makes for a chant-like rhythm, making the song into an unsettling futuristic hymn. It isn’t difficult to imagine a slideshow of the stars—or more likely, that eerie emptiness between them—gliding around in the song. “Not a Story” follows through but is far more minimalistic, preferring distant pings and fuzzy white noise to synth-organs.
“If These Footsteps” brings us back to the present in a rush of industrial sounds, muted conversations and an underlying static pulse. The album’s mood shifts from the oracular to the sensory, from displacement and directionless expansion to a decisive statement of here and now. But even that grounding is faulty: closing songs “Watch a Single Swallow in a Thermal Sky, and Try to Fit its Motion, or Figure Why it Flies” and “West Bay” are drafty piano compositions; the former bereft of any lyrics at all save its title. But there’s something comforting about the introduction of the relatively unaffected piano notes; they reverberate against the rests and generate a kind of emptiness, evoking the interstellar travel of the earlier songs, but the sound of physical strings being struck grounds us in a way synthesizers never will.
Brian Eno is concerned not with making songs, but with making moods and visions, to make our eyes see what our ears hear. He stretches what we call music to include spoken words and lets the compositions seep into the rhythms of everyday speech. In the liner notes of Drums Between the Bells, he writes "We are right at the beginning of a digital revolution in what can be done with recorded voices....Speech has become a fully-fledged musical material at last." In Panic of Looking, he keeps speech in the realm of analog, not digital, and still makes it into music.