Rating:The story behind Eno and Hyde’s first collaboration, Someday World, was that Brian Eno had been working on a project combining Steve Reich minimalism with Fela Kuti polyrhythms. Eno and collaborator Karl Hyde of Underworld took those work tapes to make Someday World’s inconsistent electronic pop mix. The Reich-Fela intersection was an intriguing premise not entirely borne out by that album’s execution. This second time around, they get it right.
Fela was one of the most well-known practitioners of highlife, the funky Ghanaian musical genre that inspires the album’s title, which he later incorporated into Afrobeat. Although, Eno and Hyde work on their genre-crossing concept in earnest, the result is not exactly minimalist funk. High Life begins with “Return,” which marks a collaborative return for the duo and a musical return, a hypnotic pulse that does as advertised, mixing the essences of avant-garde minimalism with something that approaches funk. Unlike most of the album, it’s overproduced, its slight tension broken by Hyde’s smooth vocals. The duo really brings on the funk with “DBF.” This track makes it easy to hear how Fela was a major influence on the Eno-produced Talking Heads’ classic, Remain in Light. The track’s first few minutes are straight African funk, but an electronic pulse comes in, like a stuck CD. It’s a spot-on Fela impersonation, if not as soulful as the original.
Warp records had encouraged the duo to promote Someday World, but the collaborators were reluctant to play the promotional game, preferring to keep working together on new music. Instead of puffing up what they had just made, they invited journalists in on the process of their next collaboration. But High Life isn’t just an electronic dog and pony show. It’s a more relaxed, improvisational album than its predecessor. Eno and Hyde collaborate more like jazz musicians and Eno uses some of the live guitar processing techniques he developed 40 years ago on the early Roxy Music albums on Hyde’s guitar.
The nine and a half minute “Lilac” builds to a synthesis of influences; the minimal funk takes on melodies among the polyrhythms, a catchy texture added to the Reich-Fela stew. “Moulded Life” revisits Remain in Light funk with the added dissonance of a heavily processed guitar to break up the pulse, as if No Wave attacked the disco. “Cells & Bells” closes the album on a relatively meditative note that’s no match for Eno’s best ambient work.
I don’t care for the thin sound of either of the Eno-Hyde albums – oh, for the rich, full production values of Eno’s solo albums from the ‘70s. On first listen, I thought High Life was merely okay and that a solid single album could have been culled from Eno and Hyde’s recent collaborations. But now I think High Life stands well enough on its own. The songwriting here doesn’t peak, like on the previous album’s “Daddy’s Car,” but this is more a groove album, and its music is more consistently listenable.