My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981): Reissue, 2006
Brian Eno and David Byrne
Although many reissues tend to feel like money-grab operations put out by major labels without sincerity or significant reworking, the recent rerelease of this collaborative duo’s cult-famous 1981 album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is welcomed with open arms. Eno, well known as a pioneer of ambient music, and Byrne, famous for his American new-wave band Talking Heads, created a rather landmark piece of experimental electronic music together in 1981. Combining African rhythmic influence with unique percussive instrumentation and one of the first successful uses of sampling in popular music, the two found a successful balance between pop and the avant-garde. The new release compiled 7 unused B-sides and re-mastered some of the original tracks, providing a refreshing experience both for the seasoned Ghosts listener and newcomers to the duo’s work.
Eno and Byrne create sonic landscapes throughout this album with slow-building grooves that increase in intensity and complexity, but stay true to one general musical idea presented at the forefront. Concise funk/ disco bass lines like the head-nodder in “Regiment” are punctuated by layered, Afro-beat percussion styles, which frequently involve polyrhythmic structures. What’s most refreshing about these beats is that Eno and Byrne toy with instrumentation drawn from world music, as well as found objects that they recorded in the studio, such as a frying pan replacing a snare in the drum kit. Byrne doesn’t hesitate to throw some post-punk guitar riffs over the grooves either, like his staccato crunches in “America Is Waiting.” The two also delicately place the occasional synth lead lines and general ambient effects like heavy echo and reverb over the tracks, what Eno refers to as a “psychedelic wash.” The result is an eerie, yet danceable and self-propelling music that feels something like Thievery Corporation to the modern ear.
Perhaps what’s more unique and ultimately more compelling about this album is its groundbreaking use of vocal sampling throughout. Vocals from Arabic prayer singers, radio disc jockeys, and an exorcist in “The Jezebel Spirit” are sampled and used as lead vocals in the album, as a motif of religious-tinged samples slowly develops. Overall, the duo stick to their guns with the theme of world music, with most of the vocalists sounding like they’re from another place and time. Though Eno claims that Holger Czukay used sampling first with IBM Dictaphones, it’s hard to argue that this album wasn’t the first time pop music experienced sampling to this extent and precision. Made before the time of digital sequencing or MIDI, Eno and Byrne had to use an analog system, which involves the intricate, backbreaking task of lining up taped recordings by trial and error. This experimentation is what provides part of the beauty of the work though, being a bit more “off” than the modern technology would allow provides for some gorgeous mistakes.
Though the reissue does add 7 new tracks, they don’t really change the character of the album as much as strength what was already there. Though the duo were encouraged by Muslim rights groups to remove the evidently blasphemous “Qu’ran” from the 2006 line-up, the Arab vibe to the record is certainly maintained. The most interesting aspect of the rerelease might actually be how they did it, not what they did. A remix website was released with the album (www.bush_of_ghosts.com), on which the Creative Commons license allowed (and still does) anyone to download and remix Ghosts songs. This seems to suggest that Eno and Byrne took the idea of sampling a step further to make a general comment on the culture of remixing, music borrowing, and collaboration. Taken on a more global level, this album represents the appropriation of third world culture by the West and its internet-available re-release represents the music of these two men being appropriated by their own culture of remixing. Though this album did not, contrary to common misconception, lay the foundation for music-mashing artists such as Girl Talk, it did make significant breakthroughs for the culture of sampling and music sharing that we now live in and anticipated the globalization that our world continues to feel with its smart use of music from other cultures.
-- Ben Wilkes