When David Sylvian makes a solo album, he really throws everything into it. It's been six years since the former Japan frontman released his masterful Blemish LP, and Manafon is its much anticipated follow-up. As with Scott Walker's latter-day work, Sylvian's music is far-removed from the chart-dwelling hits of his youth, instead taking on a ruthlessly cerebral and experimental agenda; alongside Walker, recent years have seen Sylvian as one of the very few artists who could be said to have challenged what it means to write and produce a song.
Assisting him to this end is a roster of great improvisatory talents, supplying Manafon with a beautifully rendered, supremely detailed backdrop of timbres, textures and vibrations. Guitarists have been of particular importance to David Sylvian albums over the past ten years or so; Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell were among the key musicians contributing to 1999's Dead Bees On A Cake, and for Blemish Sylvian struck up highly fruitful collaborations with Christian Fennesz and - perhaps most significantly - the late Derek Bailey. The latter's striking improvisational style seems to have impacted greatly on Sylvian's approach to songsmithery, and traces of the jazz veteran's spidering, chitinous playing are detectable in the dissonant twangs of Tetuzi Akiyama and Otomo Yoshihide. Fennesz returns for Manafon, bringing his Polwechsel associates Burkhard Stangl and Werner Dafeldecker with him, while additionally, prepared guitar experimenter Keith Rowe appears, ranking alongside those other elder statesmen of British improvised music, John Tilbury and Evan Parker.
This distinguished ensemble weave magic under Sylvian's supervision, fabricating the finest and most ornate of sonic environments for the band leader's rich, stately croak. Indeed, Sylvian's vocal inevitably takes the central role, offering a melodic route through an album of ostensible disorder, reaching its finest hour during Manafon's centrepiece: 'The Greatest Living Englishman'. Here the singer is joined by discordant string quartet recordings - scratched and warped on Yoshihide's turntable, while the most carefully poised of guitar and piano performances match-up against the imperious subtlety of Toshimaru Nakamura's no-input mixing board static and Sachiko M's intricate formation of cobweb-like sine waves.
It's amazing that all these infinitesimal articulations are heard so clearly, but this is a recording on which all the minutiae resound with great lucidity, and truly, the more listens you give Manafon, the more it reveals its complexity and brilliance. This is far from an easy or instant record, and most likely it'll take a couple of play-throughs to get anywhere with its daringly unascertainable idiom, but once engaged, you might not hear a more enriching body of work all year.
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