David Sylvian’s musical retreat into the forest is one of the most fascinating career paths. Like Scott Walker or Mark Hollis before, he has seemingly near-vanished from public view, producing works increasingly at odds with those from his past life as pop icon. These later releases are monumental slabs of one man’s artistic vision, wholly unaffected by such vulgar notions as the need to actually sell some bloody records.
The lush green artwork by Ruud Van Empel draws you into the foliage: Manafon is a continuation much further down the fork joined at Blemish. Sylvian’s lyrics, set with disarming clarity and confidence high up in the mix, make it clear just how far he has travelled – identifying with the reclusive, austere Welsh poet RS Thomas, locking his icons “in a zip-loc bag”, another recurring lyric dismissing his childish fripperies. The album’s musical floor initially appears sparser than Blemish, the combined weight of the credited contributors (including Christian Fennesz, Polwechsel, John Tilbury and Evan Parker) at times barely making a dent. Closer examination via headphones shows it to be teeming with life, from the seemingly incidental sounds (muffled voices, creaking and rumbling) which litter this clearing, crackle and glitch mulch at feet. The music’s relationship to the vocals is more oblique than in Blemish, Sylvian’s croon suspended upon restrained arrangements which have to find ways to weave through the gaps into sunlight- the violent burst of electric guitar in “125 Spheres”, the tendrils of strings in “The Greatest Living Englishman”, the snake of soprano saxophone in “Emily Dickinson”. Such is the level of detail that even the silences in “Random Acts of Senseless Violence” seem to howl. I’m so enjoying scouring this undergrowth that I don’t think I could find my way out, even if I wanted to.
Manafon transcends all trend, ranking somewhere in the spectrum between Hollis’s spare, wracked solo LP and Walker’s latter day art. I don’t mention many records in the same sentence as those, but Manafon is truly one of the finest records of this – or any – year. It even merits its own website – listen to samples there, and buy some bloody records from Samadhisound.
(Anyone – like me – fascinated by the musical language on Manafon is also strongly advised to pick up a copy of the new Polwechsel and John Tilbury album Field on Hat Hut, which is very fine indeed. Freed from the constraints imposed on Sylvian’s release, Polwechsel and Tilbury are able here to stretch out to make two long, patiently unfolding and impressively textured pieces of improvisation. Tilbury’s piano rings out into huge open spaces, where it is gradually encircled by strangely-treated percussion, John Butcher’s saxophone and a host of unrecognisable sounds in an ever-engrossing journey, rising to a furious insectoid buzz and rattle by the end. Frankly, it deserves a lot better than to be hidden away at the end of a review of another album, within vaguely-embarrassed parentheses)
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