British singer/songwriter David Sylvian isn’t a jazzer by any stretch of the imagination, but from the earliest days of his post-Japan solo career he’s enlisted a variety of jazz players—from trumpeters Kenny Wheeler and Mark Isham to pianist John Taylor, bassist Chris Minh Doky, and guitarists Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, David Torn, and Derek Bailey. He’s also worked extensively with Neo Geo forefather/keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto, as well as avant/progressive artists like Can’s Holger Czukay, King Crimson co-founder/guitarist Robert Fripp, and more recent Crimson members Trey Gunn and Pat Mastelotto. His albums have ranged from the aggressive stance of The First Day (Virgin, 1993) to the ambience of Plight and Premonition (Venture, 1989) and the stark beauty of Blemish (Samadhisound, 2003).
And yet, despite his seemingly infinite interest in all things musical, his body of work shows surprising consistency and cohesion when taken as a whole. Nine Horses: Snow Borne Sorrow is a return to the pop territory of Dead Bees on a Cake (Virgin, 1999) and reunites him with drummer, brother, and Japan alumnus Steve Jansen. But even Sylvian at his most accessible is filled with sonic and structural surprises that make for listening that steadfastly avoids the predictable.
Like Dead Bees, the writing on Nine Horses leans towards softer cushions of sound, despite Sylvian’s sometimes paradoxically bleak lyrics. Organic and processed sounds are blended with live playing and sampled programs to create rich orchestral textures that vary from track to track. “Wonderful World” revolves around Keith Lowe’s robust double-bass playing and Jansen’s lightly swinging 9/8 rhythm, but it broadens the textural landscape with assorted string and keyboard samples, while Swedish singer Stina Nordensam’s almost child-like tone contrasts with Sylvian’s warmer tone.
Nordensam is, in fact, only one of a number of Scandinavian artists whom Sylvian enlists for Nine Horses. The best known is Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen, whose shakuhachi-like tone is used to great effect on “Darkest Birds,” which alternates between softer verses and an edgier chorus driven by heavily-distorted guitars. He’s also featured on “Snow Borne Sorrow,” which fluctuates between verses couched in strange electronic squawks and burbles and more organic choruses based around acoustic guitar, trumpet, and bass.
It’s Sylvian’s attention to the minutest detail, and his ability to bring together textures that—on paper, at least—would seem to have nothing in common that make his songs so consistently interesting. Even when he resorts to relative conventional changes, as he does on the I-IV pattern of “The Day the Earth Stole Heaven,” his arrangements are so imaginative—and his rhythmic displacements so intriguing—that they never sound commonplace.
With all the studio wizardry involved it’s unlikely that much of Nine Horses could be performed live. Still, at the core of Sylvian’s orchestral vision are songs strong enough to stand on their own in pared-down versions. And that’s what ultimately makes Nine Horses such a compelling record—intriguing textures and sonic combinations aside, it’s as good a collection of songs as Sylvian has written to date.
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