Despite its quiet release, Small Craft on a Milk Sea comes loaded with all kinds of external baggage: A collaboration between Brian Eno, Jon Hopkins, and Leo Abrahams, Eno’s debut for Warp Records is culled partially from earlier recording sessions, including tracks rejected for Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones. It has all the makings of a mess, and in some ways it is, though Eno’s constant gamesmanship manages to keep things interesting and tie many of these disparate threads together.
A dominant musical personality who’s well versed in both collaboration and variety, Eno manages to make a kernel of himself clearly audible throughout the album, even with all the different directions in which he’s pulled. The resulting atmosphere is therefore strange but never totally alien, from the aggressive, hard-edged tracks that disrupt brief idylls of sleepy ambience, to the glitch effects and whorls of dissonant guitar on tracks like “Paleosonic.”
It’s a strange fit for Eno, whose albums generally establish a tone and stick to it, even when working with dissimilar collaborators. Yet the neatly dreamy piano crawl of opener “Emerald and Lime” seems miles away from the foaming roar of “Two Forms of Anger,” where the primitive stampede of tribal drums duels with a traditional rock drumbeat overlaid with electronic effects.
The unusual final recording process, where some songs were created via randomly selected chords played at arbitrary intervals, then layered with improvised electronics, edited together and sequenced as a whole, seems like an attempt to enhance the chaos that was bound to result. It’s natural to try and parse where each of these tracks first originated, whether influenced by Hopkins’s dance background, an attempt to match the opaque complexity of Warp’s established style, or the more straightforward approach of scoring a film. Yet in the end, despite the jarringly diverse nature of the sounds and moods on Small Craft on a Milk Sea, it’s impossible to locate the source of any single strand. The album may lack consistency, but it isn’t short on order, each track bearing some indelible marker of Eno’s touch.