Tuesday, October 23, 2007

David Sylvian: Musical Revolutionary

Criminally under-recognised and perpetually confined to the outer limits of the business, the enigmatic, reclusive David Sylvian could well be one of the most eccentric art-rock proponents that are still active today. Once the slightly fey frontman for new-wave revolutionaries Japan, he quickly ditched the makeup kit (and arch pretentiousness) once he embarked on his highly eclectic and revolutionary solo career in the mid-1980s.

Since then, Sylvian has continued on his own idiosyncratic path, crafting elegant and cultivated, yet complex and esoteric songs that represent the best of leftfield pop, all stamped with his distinct and unique brand of melancholy, poetic urbanity.

But, as the case is with all great things, Sylvian's solo repertoire has been virtually ignored by the mainstream charts and popular radio, leaving him to be a bit of a cult figure. Which is quite a shame actually, since his catalogue possibly represents one of the most inventive and intriguing in late 20th-century and early 21st-century pop music:

A post-bop-informed work that also takes in appropriate amounts of found-sound ambience, avant-garde minimalism and blue-eyed soul. The opening "Pulling Punches" is a smart update of Japan's art-funk aesthetics, the CMI-sampler ballad "Nostalgia" is a surprisingly pastoral-natured tune, while the languid "The Ink in the Well" features some fine double-bass work and understated jazz guitar. Meanwhile, the title track is an extended, theatrical piece that practically defines the phrase "Fourth World Music".

More cinematic and organic in nature than its predecessor, much of the magic of "Gone to Earth" is due to the sheer mastery and craftsmanship of King Crimson mastermind Robert Fripp, whose textural Frippertronics brings a hitherto absent sense of drama and tension to Sylvian's artistic palette. The cyclical "Taking the Veil" is a breathtaking study in classic art-rock guitar tonalities, the spooky title track is a tribute of sorts to "Red"-era King Crimson, while the truly magnificent "Wave" is an intense musical experience marked by an arena-sized snare drumbeat, freeform synth textures, a keening flugelhorn solo, and Fripp’s peerless Frippertronics.

A more restrained affair in stark comparison with "Gone to Earth", "Secrets of the Beehive" is arguably the most rounded and realised effort in Sylian's repertoire, simultaneously tasteful and heartfelt. The magic ingredient that elevates "Secrets of the Beehive" to the stature of magnum opus is the elegant, graceful string arrangements, expertly scored by rock Renaissance Man Ryuichi Sakamoto. A nebular, mysterious musical world is evoked through atmospheric pieces like the abbreviated piano ballad "September", the unsettling found-sound sonic melange "Maria", the ominous, nocturnal "The Devil's Own" and the neo-flamenco showcase "When Poets Dreamed of Angels". However, the most accomplished numbers here are the quietly optimistic chamber-pop composition "Orpheus" and the stately ethnic-fusion symphony "Let the Happiness In". Still, room could have been made for the truly commanding, melodramatic tone poem "Ride", an outtake that was thankfully resurrected for the 2000 career retrospective "Everything and Nothing".

Billed as a team-up between Sylvian and Fripp, "The First Day" is a wondrous, dynamic progressive-rock showcase. Almost the entire range of Fripp's amazing guitar phrasings are explored here, while Sylvian lays down some of his most confident vocals on tracks like the rugged, avant-rockish "Jean the Birdman", the aggressive, contrapuntal "Brightness Falls" and the spacey, twelve-minute interstellar journey "20th Century Dreaming".

Sylvian's longest and most eclectic album to date constitutes the culmination of his artistry, bringing together the disparate elements of his previous works and fleshing out the essential nuances. Standouts include the blissful soft rock-inflected "Wanderlust" (complete with "52nd Street"-era Billy Joel electric-piano chords), the ornate, Bryan Ferry lounge-lizard mannerisms of "I Surrender", the masterful, raga-influenced "Godman", and the edgy, nervy modern-day blues lament "Midnight Sun" (thoughtfully embellished by a sample of an ancient John Lee Hooker guitar riff).

BLEMISH (2003)
A real shocker upon its release, the stark, fractured "Blemish" is a direct response to the then-recent dissolution of Sylvian's marriage. Several tracks here do veer between cathartic self-analysis and pure art-wankery, but there are highlights like the detailed fourteen-minute title track, a soundscape filled with eerie electronic echoes, ambient washes and Sylvian's coldly indifferent lower-register tenor; the atonal, Steve Reich-informed drones of "The Only Daughter"; and the dissonant "A Fire in the Forest", a montage of unsettling glitch-electronic effects.

Thankfully, a fuller-bodied effort that stands in obvious contrast to "Blemish", this masterful endeavour is a welcome return to the illustrative sonic majesty of "Gone to Earth" and "Secrets of the Beehive". "Snow Borne Sorrow" is almost an encyclopaedic inquiry into the very things that made Sylvian such an intriguing musical personalty: "Wonderful World" brings back the double-bass atmospherics of the mid-1980s to anchor a lush, theatrical, waltzy piece filled with all manner of tasty instrumental ingredients; the rockier "Darkest Birds" disitls and updates the musical essence of the Sylvian-Fripp collaborations of the early 1990s; and the gentle, melancholic "Atom and Cell" is a archetypal piano ballad that could be an outtake from the "Secrets of the Beehive" days.

Also, check out this useful home-made montage that tracks Sylvian's remarkable artistic evolution, from the thrashy post-punk days of embryonic Japan, to the smooth, tasteful Bryan Ferry-informed aesthetics of latter-day Japan, and on to the adventurous art-rock sensibilities of the solo stage.


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