News of David Sylvian’s long-awaited new album revealed that he’d be collaborating not only with previous partner Fennesz, but with a bevy of top drawer improvisers from Vienna, London and Tokyo. Since 1984’s Brilliant Trees, Sylvian has sought out distinctive sounds and improvisers to realize his narcotic dreams, his melancholy, and his occasionally bleak, occasionally sentimental visions. In particular, his early collaborations with Can’s Holger Czukay and King Crimson’s Robert Fripp yielded an early fascination with psychedelic textures (even as he would use these to frame, say, a Kenny Wheeler solo). At times, the experimentalism that emerged from these early preoccupations is as prominent as songcraft in Sylvian’s world. His own smoky voice has remained the constant. Whether he’s flirted with love songs, with Carnatic music, or with “downtown” improvisations, that voice – somewhat stately in its articulation and disposition, but also weathered and a bit beaten – always shapes the music.
Manafon seems focused – both thematically and in terms of its effect – on detachment. You might say that this is due in part to the presence of his collaborators, and it’s true that the Tokyo musicians (sine wave specialist Sachiko M, turntablist/guitarist Otomo Yoshihide, guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama, and Toshimaru Nakamura on no-input mixing board) are often associated with such impressions. But while this cast of heavies is quite able to coax the various shades of grey from Sylvian’s increasingly spare songs, it’s Sylvian’s own vision that creates the detachment.
On several tracks, including “The Greatest Living Englishman” and the title tune, Sylvian refers distantly to a lone figure, who may or may not be Sylvian as he imagines himself, denounces himself, presents himself to the world. Elsewhere, he somewhat diffidently reels off multiple images or impressions of abjection, failure, indifference or loss. On “Manafon,” the line “And his wife she was a painter, but now she stains the altar black” suggest tragedies past. On the opening “Small Metal Gods” (with comparatively sumptuous contributions from Vienna’s Polwechsel), there’s a hint of menace when Sylvian sings “They’ve refused my prayers for the umpteenth time, so I’m evening up the score”. And on “The Rabbit Skinner” (where Fennesz and live signal processor Joel Ryan pair marvelously with saxophonist Evan Parker and cellist Marcio Mattos), Sylvian describes a setting where there is“Only lichen on beaches . . . [only] oil on gun-barrel and the hard taste of pennies.” His delivery is steadfastly melodic, often paired with a ripe sense of harmony and absolutely no pressure to respond mimetically to the sounds around him.
And these other contributions are perfectly calibrated for maximum effect. Many tracks place acoustic instruments in the foreground, with shifting backgrounds from electro-acoustic players. “Random Acts of Senseless Violence” features melancholy lyricism from John Tilbury’s piano, Keith Rowe’s prepared guitar wizardry, and the occasional slurp from Franz Hautzinger’s quartertone trumpet. Elsewhere, Otomo dials up some lovely slices of echo-drenched, crackle-enshrouded chamber music, only to have it sliced up by Tetuzi Akiyama’s slashing acoustic guitar. Sachiko M’s sine wave contributions could be a little more foregrounded (along with Nakamura’s), since they seem central to the tension, but they’re effective nonetheless. After a brief barrage of noise (“125 Spheres”), Polwechsel and Tilbury play gorgeously on “Snow White in Appalachia.”
There’s considerable emotion amid these improvisations. Parker plays some impassioned soprano at the end of “Emily Dickinson” (with lots of signal processing from Ryan and Sylvian). And it’s fascinating how some of the Tilbury’s piano harmonies (on “Emily Dickinson” and “The Department of Dead Letters”) bring to mind those from the intro to Sylvian’s “Forbidden Colours” and other early pieces. Maybe this is coincidence, or maybe Sylvian actually laid down specific harmonic parameters. But it’s quite something to note how consistent his musical preoccupations have been, even as he’s constantly transformed himself (or, perhaps, pared himself down).
In a mere 40-odd minutes, Manafon delivers a truly powerful vision. However central Sylvian’s bleak commentary, the weight and suggestiveness of this record gives it a sense of unpredictability, possibility, almost an openness beyond itself. It’s absolutely superb.
By JASON BIVINS
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