Singer David Sylvian has had such an unpredictable and diverse recording career that it is interesting to see what will come next. Over the years he has covered a lot of ground, from pop music to gentle, ambient soundscapes, prog rock and fiery, avant-garde experimentation. So it should come as no surprise that his eclectic muse has led him to a new sonic neighborhood with Manafon.
This recording is what we have come to expect from Sylvian: creative splashes of sounds and unique stylings, where various patterns emerge, dissolve, fade and reappear, where the unexpected is always the norm. It is a rough terrain with burbling low frequencies, sometimes unidentifiable and haunting noises, and a sense of unease. It lurches from savage discordance to near silence. But the music is mostly in the background serving as a platform and even more as a challenge for Sylvian to stretch beyond previously settled patterns. His quiet, warm vocals add melodic subtlety and providing depth and drama without adding distraction.
Manafon is a sister album to Blemish (Samadhi Sound, 2003), Sylvian's previous excursion into improvised music where he teamed up with guitaristDerek Bailey and pushed himself in another creative direction and plateau (a record also shadowed by a divorce and long term relationship break-up). On that record he used the immediacy of writing words over music improvised during a short time, both acts happening simultaneously. For this record he took the same approach as on Blemish but also gathered an impressive cast of various free-improv musicians. The musicians' unique music excursions can easily be compared to musical approximations of abstract art where each composition unfolds unpredictably. Their interactions add plenty of emotional depth.
Manafon is a strange record where every detail, each fragment, each sensation within, is compelling. It leaves senses bristling with the shock of the new. As a record it sounds more like a theatre play rather than a musical piece with gaps in dynamics taking on the air of a dramatic pause. Sylvian's beautiful baritone floats around, at times seemingly diving deep. It sure invites loads of thinking and volumes of analysis. The title comes from the name of a village in Wales, a place where poet R.S. Thomas lived and worked and where he wrote his first three volumes of poetry.
Manafon is not an easy record to listen to and many will be severely disappointed. It is not as accessible as many of his other records nor is it easy to warm up to, which means that many may dismiss it upon a single listen or two, never giving it the time it demands in order to be felt, not to mention understood. To get to that point, a lot of patience and spinning would be necessary. Sylvian inspires, scares, confuses, provokes, stirs up the senses and that's what true artists do. It seems that only those listeners that are dedicated to the artist will probably be patient enough to stay and decode it. This record is not an easy ride but a totally worthwhile one.
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