Daniel Lanois

Flesh and Machine

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Flesh & Machine is Daniel Lanois' seventh or eighth album depending on how one counts them. It contains no "songs," but rather 11 sonic compositions that have been painstakingly structured from sketch instrumentation (guitars, pedal steel, drums, basses, organs, pianos, an omnichord) and voices (human and otherwise), put through intricate webs of digital processing, editing, and sampling. What started as an ambient album -- the tracks "Space Love" and closer "Forest City" are testaments to that -- spiraled into something else, a record where the recording studio becomes the instrument of choice. There are precedents in his earlier catalog for almost everything here: the aforementioned cuts recall work he did with Brian Eno on 1982's Ambient 4: On Land and 1983's Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks), yet the end result is more scattershot and fragmented. Opener "Rocco" features harmonically layered falsetto voices accompanied by a piano. It's lovely and lilting but all too brief. "Aquatic" commences as an ambient piece, but its fuzzy pedal steel and wordless vocals drift languidly to explore various tones and harmonics. Though it possesses no real center, it does extend ideas Lanois showcased on Steel, the first album in his Omni Series box. The frenetic "Opera" showcases live drums accompanying a sped-up, distorted, junglist loop (itself created from live drums) stacked alto voices, a whompy Jim Wilson bassline, and what sounds like variously stretched, striated organ chords. The drumming on "Sioux Lookout" is in the punchy New Orleans funk style with massive tom-tom and snare breaks -- one can hear its origins in various songs on For the Beauty of Wynona -- while the guitars are silvery and dreamy. "The End" is a tense, squalling, electric guitar and drum jam with Brian Blade playing without restraint. Lanois employs staggering tsunamis of distortion and feedback in his soloing. The romantic waltz "My First Love" uses the same omnichord synth Lanois employed on Apollo. It's tender and perverse with a deliberate application of schmaltz; it would not be out of place in a David Lynch film. "Two Bushas," while pretty in its shimmering way, sounds more like an afterthought than an actual idea. And that's the problem with Flesh & Machine. This rainbow of sonic treatments sound great in a pair of headphones but, though most of the individual pieces are interesting, they fail to gel as an album. Over most of the 2000s, Lanois has proven he's more interested in experimenting in his laboratory than in songwriting. That's fine as far as it goes but it doesn't make for an album which one is inclined to return to repeatedly.

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