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The Essential… David Sylvian

By , Feb 8 2012
Page 1 of 11

This month sees the release of A Victim Of Stars, 1981-2011, a new compilation charting thirty years of solo work by David Sylvian.

The erstwhile Japan frontman is that rare beast: an artist whose solo catalogue exceeds, in quantity and quality, that of the band which made him famous. One of the reasons that Sylvian has produced such a formidable body of work on his own is because, well, he’s never really operated “on his own” – preferring instead to call upon an impressive array of collaborators and sidemen, and, crucially, knowing how to get the best out of each of them. Ryuichi Sakamoto, Christian Fennesz, Derek Bailey, Jon Hassell, Holger Czukay, Robert Fripp: these are but a smattering of the artists, each justly celebrated in their own right, who have helped flesh out Sylvian’s ever-searching, ever-evolving creative vision.

Over the following pages we pick 10 releases from Sylvian’s post-Japan career that demand to be heard, from the angular art-pop of ‘Bamboo Houses’ through to the gothic ambience of Plight & Premonition, and beyond.

SYLVIAN – SAKAMOTO
‘BAMBOO HOUSES’ / BAMBOO MUSIC’
(VIRGIN 12”, 1982)


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‘Bamboo Houses’


Sylvian’s first post-Japan solo outing was a collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose wife Akiko Yano had previously helped out on Japan’s Tin Drum; it marked the beginning of an association that would yield considerable rewards, creative and commercial, for both musicians. For these two variations on one jerkily funky, emotionally ambiguous theme, Sakomoto gives a complex, Oriental edge to his Mc4 synthesizer and marimba parts, providing a dynamic, shape-shifting counterpart to Sylvian’s caramel-thick croon. Japan’s Steve Jansen (Sylvian’s brother) supplies taut, stacatto syn-drum patterns, doing his best to corral Sylvian and Sakamoto’s glorious excess of ideas.

DAVID SYLVIAN & RYUICHI SAKAMOTO
‘FORBIDDEN COLOURS’
(from MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR LAWRENCE, VIRGIN LP, 1983)


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‘Forbidden Colours’


Ryuichi Sakamoto starred in Nagisa Oshima’s 1983 film, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence – based on Laurens van der Post’s experiences as a P.O.W. in Japan during World War II – and also composed its BAFTA-winning score. For the unforgettable theme song, he called upon the vocal talents of Sylvian. ‘Forbidden Colours’ takes its name and lyrical drift from the English translation of Kinjiki, Yukio Mishima’s 1953 novel about suppressed homosexuality (a central theme in Oshima’s movie too). The romantic sweep of the song is astounding: Sylvian delivers one of his most rueful, imploring vocal performances, soaring high above Sakamoto’s dainty keyboard motifs and beautifully controlled orchestration. It first appeared on the original soundtrack album for Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, and was subsequently released a single.

DAVID SYLVIAN
BRILLIANT TREES
(VIRGIN LP, 1984)


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‘Brilliant Trees’


Sylvian’s close observation of Sakamoto at work in his Tokyo studio during the recording of the Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence score left a huge impression on the English singer. Inspired also by Eno’s solo work, Sylvian was keen to conjure what he described as “a sense of place, a landscape in the mind of the listener”. Working with producer Steve Nye (who would go on to helm most of Sylvian’s important solo output), and a core team of trustworthy supporting musicians – Sakamoto, Steve Jansen and another former Japan member, Richard Barbieri – Sylvian set to work on his debut solo album proper, Brilliant Trees. To grasp his ambition for this project, you need only look at the additional guests he roped in: namely ECM jazzer Ken Wheeler, Jon Hassell (whose humid “fourth world” sound, explored on albums like Earthquake Island and the Eno-produced Possible Musics is an obvious influence on solo Sylvian), Pentangle’s Danny Thompson and Can’s Holger Czukay. In its union of emotionally grandstanding songcraft and precious ambience, Brilliant Trees has no equal within Sylvian’s back catalogue, and very few outside of it.

DAVID SYLVIAN
ALCHEMY – AN INDEX OF POSSIBILITIES
(VIRGIN CS, 1985)


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‘Words With The Shaman Pt.1 – Ancient Evening’


Sylvian’s mounting preoccupation with exotic musical textures led him to create  a whole album of ethno-futurist, ambient instrumentals, recorded in Tokyo and London and first issued on numbered cassette in 1985. Sakamoto, Jansen, Wheeler, Hassell and Czukay lend their services once again, the latter’s tape-loop manipulations more central here, and Robert Fripp and Masami Tsuchiya also make valuable contributions. The gaseous atmospheres of Alchemy – An Index Of Possibilities (a more self-consciously Eno/Hassell-ish title you could not hope to find) are supremely intoxicating and enveloping, but it’s the bold, African percussion and proto-techno pulse-rhythms that sound particularly ahead of their time.

DAVID SYLVIAN
GONE TO EARTH
(VIRGIN 2xLP, 1986)


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‘Silver Moon’


By the mid-80s, Sylvian had begun to immerse himself in the teachings of Buddhism, Christianity, Kabbalah and Rosicrucianism; in his magisterial study of Britain’s “visionary” music, Electric Eden, Rob Young suggests that both Brilliant Trees and its follow-up, Gone To Earth, are the sound of an artist dramatizing his “desire to move from faithless wilderness to spiritual homecoming.” Recorded in Oxfordshire and London, Gone To Earth is Sylvian’s most dense solo statement, a doorstop double-album comprising one LP of relatively orthodox rock songs, and a second that continues his exploration of rarefied instrumental ambiences. His main collaborators on this two-pronged set are both guitarists, albeit of the most unconventional kind: Bill Nelson and Robert Fripp. Fripp’s ragged steel guitar lends a violent edge to the title track, and the King Crimson leader also encouraged Sylvian to use spoken samples of German artist Joseph Beuys and English “spiritual teacher” J.G. Bennett, the latter’s words in particular adding to the album’s general vibe of Arcadian mysticism. While Gone To Earth doesn’t have quite the same focussed intensity as Brilliant Trees, it’s still amply engrossing, and its title – with its suggestion of the world made otherworldly, of departure as arrival – couldn’t be more appropriate or evocative.

DAVID SYLVIAN
SECRETS OF THE BEEHIVE
(VIRGIN, 1987)


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‘Mother And Child’


Taking cues from his beloved ECM, Sylvian sought a more acoustic, chamber-orchestrated sound for his third solo album – a luminous, jazz-inflected song cycle he called Secrets Of The Beehive. This record sees our man reunited with Ryuichi Sakamoto, who shows off his incredible, now Hollywood-honed skills as an arranger, coaxing minimalist elements into maximum effect. ‘Orpheus’ is one of the most accessible, uncomplicatedly pretty songs in the Sylvian canon, while ‘Let The Happiness In’ anticipates the pastoral gravitas Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden by a year, and ‘Mother And Child’ has its jazz cake and eats it, borne upwards by Danny Thompson’s oaky upright bass and Sakamoto’s  lyrical piano improvisations.

DAVID SYLVIAN + HOLGER CZUKAY
PLIGHT & PREMONITION
(VIRGIN LP, 1988)


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‘Plight (The Spiralling Of Winter Ghosts)’


David Sylvian’s greatest contribution to ambient music takes the form of two pieces co-conceived with Holger Czukay, ‘Plight (The Spiralling Of Winter Ghosts)’ and ‘Premonition (Giant Empty Iron Vessel)’ – released together as the Plight & Premonition LP. Czukay invited the ever-curious Sylvian to Can’s legendary Innerspace studio, a converted cinema theatre in Cologne, and showed him what could be done with “guitar loops, tape loops and pre-recorded radio signals.” A night of collaborative experimentation resulted in the 18-minute drone-poem ‘Plight’, which was subsequently edited into shape by peerless scalpel-wielder Czukay, and another day in the studio birthed ‘Premonition’. Both pieces are self-contained but complimentary sound-worlds, full of drama, detail and incident – a million miles from the lacklustre, onanistic “new age” direction that many lesser artists were intent on steering ambient music in at around the same time.

DAVID SYLVIAN – HOLGER CZUKAY
FLUX + MUTABILITY
(VENTURE LP, 1989)


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‘Flux (A Big, Bright Colourful World)’


In 1988 Czukay and Sylvian teamed up for another two-part ambient work, Flux + Mutability. Repairing once more to the Innerspace studio, the duo were this time joined by Can tub-thumper Jaki Liebezeit, whose repetitive trance drumming gives Sylvian and Czukay’s carefully wrought sound tapestries an extra hypnotic dimension. For ‘Flux (A Big, Bright, Colourful World)’, another Can member, Michael Karoli, contributed guitar, and Stockhausen’s son Markus played flugelhorn; ‘Mutability (‘A New Beginning In The Offing’) features cyclical African flute parts supplied by Liebezeit. While Plight & Premonition felt like a study in unease, wracked with paranoia, Flux + Mutability admits the possibility, if not any certainty, of earthly bliss (in both cases, the bracketed sub-titles are a dead giveaway).

RAIN TREE CROW
RAIN TREE CROW
(VIRGIN LP, 1991)


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‘Pocket Full Of Change’


A surprisingly fruitful reunion of Japan’s original four members: Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Mick Karn and Richard Barbieri. Despite pressure from the other four members and doubtless Virgin too, Sylvian insisted that the re-formed band, and its album, be called Rain Tree Crow – and he got his way. Indeed, Sylvian, having enjoyed full creative control in his solo career, clearly had no intention of dissolving himself into a democracy: Rain Tree Crow ended up being a glorified solo album, albeit one with an unmistakeable group energy. It was a tremendous pleasure to hear Sylvian’s vocal tones sparring with Mick Karn’s fretless bass licks once again, and a good balance was struck between painterly instrumentals and more strident, agitated art-rock songs.

DAVID SYLVIAN
BLEMISH
(SAMADHISOUND LP, 2003)


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‘The Heart Knows Better’


Sylvian’s career-long relationship with Virgin came to an end in 2003, prompting him to launch his own independent label, Samadhisound. Once again, Sylvian looked to collaborators to stir up his creative energies, in this case avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey, and Austrian guitar/electronics guru Christian Fennesz. “With Blemish I started each day in the studio with a very simple improvisation on guitar,” Sylvian said. “Once recorded, I’d listen back and use cues from the improv—the dynamic and so on—to dictate the structure of the piece. I’d write lyrics and melody on the spot, and would follow that up with the recording of the vocal itself.” The resulting music feels organic but unknowable; its hooks are elusive, its melodic themes are things to be glimpsed rather than grasped, like light reflecting off water. Blemish set the tone for Sylvian’s subsequent work: he’s continued to work with august improv musicians at the foundational stage of songwriting, and 2009’s Manafon features the well-honed talents of Eddie Prevost, John Tilbury, Keith Rowe and Evan Parker, among others.

Tim Purdom, Kiran Sande, Trilby Foxx

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