Choice Reissues of 2012  9

David Sylvian ‘A Victim Of Stars: 1982 – 2012’ (Virgin/EMI)




Like the younger sibling to his distinguished artistic brothers, David Sylvian donned the hand-me-down vestures passed down to him from the creative triumvirate of David Bowie, Scott Walker and Bryan Ferry.  A voice trembling with the imbued influence of this reverent trio, Sylvain’s own distinctive plaintive pleas sailed between those pioneering crooners blueprint tones, before relaxing into its own emotively slick dilatoriness style. Over the last thirty years these vocals have fluctuated and pliably bent to fit various musical verandas, and experimental excursions; with varying degrees of success, both critically and, occasionally, commercially – though never at the expense of innovation.

Still, perhaps, better known for his days at the helm of orient sthenic Japan, his own endeavours surreptitiously blended into the general morbid, and heroically, melancholic background. Prolonged, indolent, and highly visceral, his solo work ventured beyond the confines of Japan’s awkward angular romanticism and broody synth-noir, to tap into high-class jazz, esoteric orchestral expressionism, and funk.

Just like Bowie, Sylvian’s music was always enhanced by the class of collaborator he attracted: luminaries of the avant-garde, Robert Fripp and Holger Czukay, alongside the noted Yellow Magic Orchestra, and, film composer, Ryuichi Sakamoto, all lent considerable weight in one way or another.

Lavished with a 2-disc appraisal, Sylvian’s introspective, soliloquy woes are collated together in a, selective, chronological order; stretching back to 1982 with the ethereal interregnum ‘Ghosts’ – originally taken from Japan’s 1981 LP, Tin Drum; remixed and chosen as a shoehorn into his solo odyssey. In purposeful sets, this compilation travails through the lions-share of his back catalogue; grouping together album-tracks and singles in digestible segments. Beginning with the rich filmic partnership of songs, composed with Sakamoto; we’re presented with Sylvian’s most influential series of escapist traversing hymns to the land of ‘Bamboo Houses’, and, ‘Bamboo Music’: Japan. The Bowie links continue with the elegantly sweeping fraught paean, ‘Forbidden Colours’; the theme tune to the thin-white-duke starring WWII prisoner-of-war movie, Merry Christmas Mr.Lawrence – Sakamoto and Sylvian at the height of their emotive powers.

Moving on, a trio of equally moving laments represents the eponymous 1984 solo LP, Brilliant Trees. ‘Red Guitar’ – probably amongst my favourites – uses a similar sound palette to Bowie’s own far-east inspired romantic flirtations, and sounds like a far deeper and meaningful moody piece of pop-funk then the usual stock of 80s schlock.  With Can’s enigmatic genius Holger Czukay, Sakamoto (his most durable partnership) and trumpeter Jon Hassell on hand to perform various sublime backing duties, Brilliant Trees absorbed the 80s heralding brass stabs sound with a evocative free-roaming smoking-lounge jazz.

His third solo effort, Gone To Earth (1986), moved towards a more sophisticated synthesis of Leonard Cohen and Walker mid-life bluesy jazz: ‘Taking The Veil‘ smoulders with pinning Walker-esque aloofness, whereas Silver Moon re-works Fantastic Voyage as a real smooth tearjerker for dreamers.

From the picturesque sullen seascapes and oceanic themed LP, Secrets Of The Beehive (1987), we find Sylvian poetically looking out to sea with the beautifully pitched and low-brass “sulking-on-the-dock-of-the-bay” Let The Happiness In; and, literally, borrowing Walker as a vessel for the brooding poignant weeping piano-led, Waterfront.

Part one of this magnum opus collection finishes with songs plucked from the reformed Japan – in everything but actual name – project, Rain Tree Crow. As the 90s sunk-in, Sylvian was drawn back to his roots; working with his comrades for an updated punt at their signature coddling synth maladies. Taken from that 1991 album, are the classy, early adopted, trip-hop and Cocteau Twins enhanced, Backwater, and twanged mystical-country drifting ode, Every Colour You Are.


Disc two carries on the good work starting with the 1993 Robert Fripp album-project, The First Day. The pleasantly strummed indolent tango ‘Jean The Birdman‘ is the sole representative highlight, yet breaks-up the languorous momentum with its warm sparkly tones, and jerky progressive rhythms.

Leaping forward to the opposite end of the decade, Sylvian’s Dead Bees On A Cake album supplies the next few tracks. Absorbing the semi-industrial soundscapes and sadness of post-OK Computer Radiohead with some sighing break beat soul, and dose of Massive Attack, the songs Alphabet Angel, I Surrender and Darkest Dreaming sound resigned; caught in a cycle of observational indictments, saved by the metaphysical grace of love.


In 2003 Sylvian brought out the heavily abstract, and stripped back Blemish; which included the haunting and disturbing undertone themed The Only Daughter, and warping electronica hypnotic, slow-march, Late Night Shopping. He also began working with his brother Steve Jansen and electronic artist Burnt Friedman on the Nine Horses collaboration. Producing, so far, two LPs under the moniker, it’s the initial Snow Borne Sorrow that bares the fruit, endorsed with the swooning kettle drum swing of Wonderful World – a Bonobo world-jazz fusion duet with the coquettish Stina Nordenstam (one of many guests appearances) that returns Sylvian to the Cohen/Walker template.

As the second disc counts-down to its logical conclusion, we reach Sylvian’s last solo effort, Manofan. Drawing together an ensemble of leading improvisers (Evan Parker, Keith Rowe, Fennesz, Sachiko M, Otomo Yoshihide and John Tilbury) he once again embarks on a terse ambient exiguous pathway; using a minimalist backing of The Drift redolent sobering sound effects, vapours and random piano probes. With the diegesis, aleatory beauty of Snow White In Appalachia, and the harrowing stringed earthy Small Metal Gods, Sylvian is at his most dejected; observing the emptiness and negative effects of the digital revolution – a period which has yet to fully develop, but is causing a similar aftershock to that of the industrial revolution.

One of the main problems with Sylvian is that his various liaisons and adoptions of current technology, at any given time in his career, have dated certain songs. However, the more recent material shies away from this reliance; instead returning to a soundtrack of percussion, strings and man-made textured vistas.



Of course, this compilation isn’t just an overview tributary, or cash-cow exercise for the label. No, Sylvian’s upcoming return to the recorded musical landscape – after a 3-year hiatus – is trumpeted with the last number, ‘Where’s Your Gravity?’ A vocally swooned cross between K D Lang, Rufus Wainwright and a disturbed Neil Diamond, this brand new single is a poignant, drugged-waltz through the wretched life of some unfortunate used-up waif – morbidly engaging enough to show promise. Unfortunately for Sylvian, the tied-in retrospective tour seems to have stalled, as the crooner is suffering from an unspecified back complaint – I share your pain; laid-up myself for the last two-weeks with a slipped back pain, sent from the very burning coals of hell itself. For now all dates, as far as I’m aware (check the website) are on hold.

Though the thought of spending 3 hours with David Sylvian sounds like a challenge – it’s most definitely not – the shear scale and scope of his material varies enough to pull you in for the long haul; quenching the senses.

A Victim Of Stars showcases one of the UK’s most under-rated, yet innovative, talents; a voice that is very much needed in the present climate. Here’s to forty years of re-invention.


Due Out: 27/02/2012


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