David Sylvian

Picture of David Sylvian

Brilliant Trees

David Sylvian - Brilliant Trees ©1984 Virgin
1. Pulling Punches
2. The Ink In The Well
3. Nostalgia
4. Red Guitar
5. Weathered Wall
6. Backwaters
7. Brilliant Trees
8. Words With The Shaman

After the breakup of pseudo-glam-rockers-turned-synth-pop-maestros Japan, frontman David Sylvian showed a growing interest in the open, warm stylings of jazz and ambient/new age music on his subsequent solo albums. Enlisting the help of some of his fellow Japan members (including his brother, drummer Steve Jansen, and keyboardest Richard Barbieri, who would later go on to join Porcupine Tree) as well as such luminaries as Holger Czukay (Can), trumpeter Mark Isham, and the uber-prolific, Oscar-winning composer/occasional actor Ryuichi Sakamoto (among many others), he set out to create his debut solo album.

Throughout the album’s seven tracks, it is all the more apparent that while his songwriting wasn’t as good as it could have been given the caliber of musicians contributing to it, Sylvian’s artistic vision was indeed ambitious and this album contains a handful of great songs. "The Ink in the Well", with its swinging rhythm and acoustic guitar, and the atmospheric "Nostalgia", are both fantastic songs. The indubitably cheesy "Red Guitar" has too much of a late night cinemax soft-core porn feel to it to be worth my while. Yes, through all the ambitious and highfalutin concepts, there is a noticeable 80s AM radio soft-rock feel to the songs, which can be irksome when one is in the wrong state of mind. Sylvian’s smooth crooning, however, is uniformally excellent.

"Words With the Shaman", an EP released on the CD version of Brilliant Trees, in all its meditative new-age cheesiness, is an interesting excursion into atmospheric synth-driven instrumental music, but only in a cursory sense, as it often serves as a good cure for insomnia.

David Sylvian would only get better in time. His ambitions have led to some dubious musical ventures, but if you’re willing to wade through a lengthy discography to find the gems (of which there are but a few), it is a worthy experience. Start with this one and work your way to his masterpiece, Secrets of the Beehive.

Review by Alec A. Head

Review date: 12/2004

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Gone To Earth

David Sylvian - Gone To Earth ©1986 Virgin
1. Taking The Veil
2. Laughter & Forgetting
3. Before The Bullfight
4. Gone To Earth
5. Wave
6. River Man
7. Silver Moon
8. The Healing Place
9. The Answered Prayers
10. Where The Railroad Meets The Sea
11. The Wooden Cross
12. Home
13. Upon This Earth

Bolstered by such rock luminaries as Robert Fripp and Bill Nelson, not to mention Sylvian-semi-regulars Steve Jansen and Kenny Wheeler, David Sylvian’s second solo album is an inconsistent compendium of excellent atmospheric pop songs and rather overdrawn and meandering instrumental passages that rely far too heavily on the dreaded new age tag. The album is sequenced in such a way that all of the vocal tracks are used for the first seven songs, so by the time the excellent "Silver Moon" is finished, the album is essentially over for me. The remaining five tracks are the instrumental numbers, and unless you feel that Will Ackerman is the greatest musician on the planet (and if you do, shame on you), you will most likely be bored to a stupor by them. Still, like his debut, a late-night AOR cinemax softcore porn feel pervades the entire album. Regardless, "Silver Moon" is a gorgeous tune that features an excellent contribution from Robert Fripp on both guitar and "Frippertronics" (let’s not shit ourselves; "Frippertronics" is nothing more than pretentious-ass term for "guitar effects". To say someone like Fripp is the first guitarist to ever employ guitar effects is like saying D.W. Griffith is the first person to ever film stuff with a camera). Fripp is also in fine form on opener "Taking the Veil". and Kenny Wheeler’s flugelhorn works wonders on the epic "Before the Bullfight". "Wave" is probably the highlight of the album, which its jazzy but slow pace, evocative guitar atmospherics, and an assured performance from Sylvian. Unsurprisingly, Sylvian’s singing is excellent throughout.

All in all, Gone to Earth is a bit darker than its predecessor but, like Brilliant Trees, it is uneven overall and can only be given a good recommendation on the basis of it being a good jumping point to see where Sylvian would head on subsequent solo and collaborative releases.

Review by Alec A. Head

Review date: 08/2006

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Secrets Of The Beehive

David Sylvian - Secrets Of The Beehive ©1987 EMI / Virgin
1. September
2. The Boy With The Gun
3. Maria
4. Orpheus
5. The Devil’s Own
6. When Poets Dreamed Of Angels
7. Mother And Child
8. Let The Happiness In
9. Waterfront
10. Forbidden Colours

By far his most accomplished solo effort and a masterpiece in its own right, Secrets of the Beehive saw David Sylvian eschew completely the new age/AM radio sensibilities of his two previous solo releases in favor of a dynamic, stripped-down, and organic sound. Ryuichi Sakamoto had become, by this time, a full-fledged collaborator, contributing absolutely gorgeous string, piano, and synth arrangements to Sylvian’s own jazz-laden bedrock of tape loops, acoustic guitars, piano, and synth. Above all, it is Sylvian’s evocative and soothing vocal performance that stands out, delivering his dark and personal lyrics with stark honesty and smooth control. Each of the ten songs are stylistically diverse, whether it be the gently swaying "Orpheus" and "The Boy with the Gun" or the ominous but uplifting "Let the Happiness In".

Perfect for both an attentive listening experience and sitting back with a glass of merlot by the fire, Secrets of the Beehive is the easiest of David Sylvian’s albums to recommend and would be a welcome addition to any music library.

Additional note: Uber kvlt listeners might remember Sakamoto’s "Forbidden Colours" from his score to Nagisa Oshima’s film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, in which Sakamoto also co-starred (quite dreadfully, I might add).

Review by Alec A. Head

Review date: 06/2007

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Blemish

David Sylvian - Blemish ©2003 Samadhi Sound
1. Blemish
2. The Good Son
3. The Only Daughter
4. The Heart Knows Better
5. She is Not
6. Late Night Shopping
7. How Little We Need To Be Happy
8. Fire in the Forest

While on break from writing and recording his Nine Horses project with Steve Jansen and Burnt Friedman, David Sylvian took the time to quickly release a solo album based on nothing more than improvised guitar treatments (courtesy of the late Derek Bailey) ambient textures (courtesy of himself and Christian Fennesz), and that wonderful voice of his. Considering Sylvian's spotty record in terms of his more avante-garde material, one would think that this would result in another high-falutin' artistic failure, but in actuality, Blemish is one of the most immediate, unsettling, disillusioned, and surprisingly powerful albums in his ouevre. The thing that sticks out most about Blemish is how anguished and spare it sounds. The title track alone is fourteen minutes of heavily treated, stuttering guitar that slowly morphs in and out of melody while occasional electronic flourishes pop up alongside it, with Sylvian's vocals sounding absolutely fraught. Derek Bailey's contributions are more in line with his own atonal improvisations than Fennesz's more dreamy approach, and they give a rickety, fragile quality to the three songs he is featured on. "Late Night Shopping" plays a bit like an insomniac's waking nightmare, and is the closest any of these tracks come to being an actual "song". "A Fire in The Forest" is the album's best track, and it ends the album on a starkly confessional note that isn't without a degree of hope for the future, sad as it is. Simultaneously calming and uncomfortable, Blemish is an altogether honest and impressive personal statement from Mr. Sylvian.

Review by Alec A. Head

Review date: 02/2011

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