The Proletariat’s Guide to the Music of David Sylvian

The sun shines high above / The sounds of laughter / The birds swoop down upon / The crosses of old grey churches / We say that we’re in love / While secretly wishing for rain / Sipping Coke and playing games / September’s here again / September’s here again

David Sylvian’s catalog has always been shrouded by a generous amounts of mystery and complexity. After all, the man approaches music as a serious matter and, in turn, that effort should be approached in a manner suitable to the process of creation. In other words, there’s a lot happening in the darker corridors of his songs. And a full appreciation of the music requires a certain amount of understanding and effort. Sylvian’s music is intentionally subversive; his instincts often questioning the very form and structure of composition; a radical intention that has been the common-thread throughout his many songs, albums and collaborations. Always resisting any outside commercial temptation that would compromise his artistic vision for marketplace acceptance. On the contrary, David Sylvian expects more from himself than commercial success. And he is asking us, the listener, to give him the space needed for the music to grow and prosper. For Sylvian, his art is a reflection of the deepest and most complicated nature of his own consciousness. And any less of an effort would not be honest or true to the music he wants to shared with the world.

David Sylvian first came onto the public’s radar in 1978 as the vocalist for the (then) glam-rock band, Japan from South London; David Sylvian (vocal); Steve Jansen (drums), Mick Karn (bass),Richard Barbieri (keyboards) and Rob Dean (guitar). Their first album, Adolescent Sex is a good (but not great) mixture of the member’s favorite music of the day; Roxy Music, T. Rex and David Bowie. In other words, Glam Rock with touches of the punk/new wave astatic that was raging across the London underground in the late seventies. Fortunately for us, the group wasn’t content to mimic the commercial success contemporaries. And the band experimenting and developed their sound with each subsequent release; moving from glam to synth-pop to electronic post-punk with each new album. Arriving at a sound on their final album that was clearly and uniquely their own. (Let’s just say, for better or worse, there would be no Girls On Film without Japan).

By 1981 Japan’s music and style had started a firestorm. The band well on their way to becoming the most important pop-group in Europe. And probably the most important pop-group in the world. Only the Yellow Magic Orchestra could rival Japan in terms of innovative influence. The artistry and style on the band’s final two records, Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980) and Tin Drum (1981) set a new standard for what a commercially successful band could achieve in terms of sound and fashion; influencing everyone from Depeche Mode to Duran Duran to Lady GaGa. And with their final release, Japan had outgrown the limitations of pop and rock music; weaving dance-music electronics sound and experimental innovations within the context of a western pop/rock band. So what did the band do in response to their unpresident sucess? They did what every self-respecting band should do; Japan decided to leave the audience wanting more. Disbanding the band Bre to pursue solo projects just as their commercial star was peaking across the globe. For his part, David Sylvian took nearly two years to produce his first solo album, Brillant Trees in 1984. (Choosing to complete a side project with YMO member, Ryuichi Sakamoto before beginning work on his own solo album. A pattern of rejecting commercial concerns that would be seen again and again). Nevertheless, Brilliant Trees was an important artistic and commercial success upon it’s release. The album signaling the beginning of a career that would consistently challenge conventional thinking.

Sylvain has continued to pushed the boundaries of music making; using his esoteric musical palette to fuel his artistic vision(s); mixing his unique brand of pop-music with a need to explore the farthest outposts of experimental and avant-garde sounds. Centering the core of his musical output around the electronic / ambient / tribalist sounds that are well outside the mainstream. Eventually, the singer striping away even these traditions from his songs; striving towards a more minimalist / free improvisation approach to the music. The Proletariat’s Guide to David Sylvian is our not-so-humble recommendations to navigate the many releases and collaborations. A few helpful hints for those willing to venturing into this thoughtful but difficult discography. Be prepared for a journey through a rich catolog of music that will prove highly rewarding to the listener who takes the time to understand treasures you will find. Enjoy.

10) Nine Horses / Snow Borne Sorrow / 2005: Nine Horse is one of Sylvian‘s collaborative efforts that often gets overlooked. Featuring Sylvian with fellow Japan member Steve Jansen (Sylvian‘s brother) and German electronic music producer Burnt Friedman. The album also features important contributions from the Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen, Swedish vocalist Stina Nordenstam and Sylvian‘s old friend and collaborator Ryuichi Sakamoto. Collectively the musicans have develop a series of dense sonic-landscapes from which Sylvian uses to project his vocal. The result is a stunning but difficult listen. But don’t let that scare you off. As a whole, Snow Borne Sorrow is an amazingly textural event that uses trip-hop beats to warm the overall sound. Pulling the listener into these thick, ghostly storytelling environments. Some will struggle with the dedication to a sober tone. But that should come as no suprise; that stoic atmosphere has always been an important aspect of Sylvian‘s palette. This album also functions as an interesting companion to the singer’s later-day masterpiece Blemish. Both albums being created during the same time frame. Don’t miss this one.

9) Everything And Nothing / 2000: Everything and Nothing is more than a great compilation of songs taken from throughout Sylvian‘s long career.   The tracks are presented uniquely; often using remixes/edits that add a new favor to the music without destroying the original intention of the song.  These alternative ideas move the original music in unexpected directions. Uniquely curated by Sylvian, Everything and Nothing never feels like a retrospective collection from different sources; it feels like a completed work. With David’s rich voice pulling the songs together; as if Sylvian is giving us a private tour of his music and art.  Showing us all the aspects of his career in a casual but intriguing game of show-and-tell. Taking the listener through his song ideas that we may have overlooked. A perfect starting point! (Camphor (2002) is another compilation released as a companion to Everything and Nothing that focuses on Sylvian‘s worthwhile instrumental work).

8) Sylvian & Fripp / Damage: Live / 1994: A live recording by David Sylvian and Robert Fripp from the Road to Graceland tour in 1993.  This is the rare live album that actually outshines the full studio collaboration, The First Day (1993). Damage is full of hidden treasures; the songs Damage and The First Day were only released on this album. And both are excellent. Each performance is largely improvised. The musicians walking on stage together with very few set ideas. And it’s Sylvian’s ability to communicate and project himself unto the audience that provides the personality and warmth of the performance. The same is true of the usually stoic (but brilliant) Robert Fripp. His sometimes academic playing is loose and spirited. Showing an aggressive fire and playfulness missing from The First Day album. On stage, the two musicans find a balance between the complexity of the music and the glowing personality of a performance that is rich with detail and intimacy.

7) Rain Tree Crow / Self-Titled / 1990: After 10 years apart the member’s of Japan decide to give it another try.  Primary songwriters David Sylvian and Mick Karn joining together with Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri to reform the orginal four-piece band. Only they decide not to call the project a “reunion” of Japan. And Rain Tree Crow almost picks up were the band left off with Tin Drum in 1982. Almost. Rain Tree Crow could never be the band the audience wanted; ten years had passed and the musicans were no longer those fresh faced boys. The music reflects this maturity; the songs growing from deep, mellow soundscapes. And the music has the feel of a collaboration of equals. A heartfelt reunion of musicans and friends; as it should be.

6) Sleepwalker / David Sylvian / 2010: Sleepwalker is a compilations of stray tracks from various side-projects and one-offs that could almost function as an alternative restospective for the later half of David Sylvian‘s catolog. In recent years, Sylvian’s music has moved further and further away from the hard-form of compostition that defines most western music. The process has been an intentional reduction in the form of the songs. Let us be clear; this is an intentional pursuit of a minimalism or reductionalism that hasn’t always been embraced by Sylvian‘s audience. Nevertheless, David Sylvian seeks to challenge his audience to grow their perception and expectations of his music. By selecting individual tracks from throughout his period, Sleepwalker gives us an interesting look at the overlooked corners of a very interesting career. And there are many highlights; the effort made by Japan’s Steve Jansen and Flanger‘s Burnt Friedmanon on the The Day the Earth Stole Heaven should not be over looked. Instrumentially, the song’s simple, tunefullness will suprise anyone expecting an emotionally cold atmosphere. Of course, the lyric tells another story. And the album is full of these unique collaborations; Ryuichi Sakamoto, classical composer Dai Fujikura, electronic musican Fennesz, Nine Horses, Steve Jansen and Arve Henriksen. It’s a fasinating look at some of the more avant-garde tracks in Sylvian‘s catalog. Recently reissued on vinyl and CD.

5) Japan / Exorcising Ghosts / 1984: In 1979 Japan collaborated with producer Giorgio Moroder for a stand alone single, Life in Tokyo. The track showcased a major shift aways from the glam-pop found on the first two Japan albums. Moving the band’s sound toward the more electronic and experimental dance style. And it’s that new style that is (beautifully) reflected on this brilliant compilation. Rather than giving a complete overview of Japan, EG focuses on material from the last tewo albums; Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980) and Tin Drum (1981). While cherry-picking a few worthwhile songs from the rest of the catolog.

4) David Sylvian / Brilliant Trees / 1984: After leaving Japan in 1982, Sylvian released a solo collaborative effort with Ryuichi Sakamoto called Bamboo House/Bamboo. It would take another 2 years for Sylvian to get busy and release his first full-length album, Brilliant Trees. And in many ways the record is exactly what we needed from the vocalist of Japan; a record full of brilliant, moody ambient tracks that pull (stylisticly) from pop, rock, jazz and funk. Staying true to form, Sylvian uses many of the musicans that he most admired on the record; the opiod-ambience of Brian Eno; the punchy world-music of Jon Hassell; and the funky free-style of Can’s Holger Czukay. Look for the CD version with the (extremely) worthwhile, Words With the Shaman, added as a bonus.

3) David Sylvian / Secrets of the Beehive / 1987: Recorded directly after the propmo tour for Gone to Earth, Beehive came about much quicker then most of Sylvian’s albums. Musically the sound moves away from the more electronic side. Focusing the music on the folkier, jazzier end of the spectrum. With elegant string arrangements provide by Ryuichi Sakamoto. In many ways, this album is Sylvian‘s most commercial and straightforward record. The sound places Sylvian‘s vocal performance upfront and center stage.These (relatively) simple songs dealing with the more personal concerns of every day life. In 2003, a remastered CD version of Beehive was released with the bonus track, Promise (The Cult of Eurydice) replacing the original CD bonus track Forbidden Colours; a Sakamoto/Sylvian collaboration. Keep an eye out for the original CD. Forbibben Colors is excellent.

2) David Sylvian / Blemish / 2003: Both lyrically and musically Blemish stands out as an amazing accomplishment in Sylvian‘s eclectic catolog. The music mostly inspired by the break-up of Sylvian’s marriage to Ingrid Chavez. And it’s the loneliness and heartache of this disintegrating relationship that can be heard throughout this unique album. The raw visceral anguish convade shows the singer struggling to cope with the loss of value and love; How little we need to be really happy / They removed his voice / And the silence overwhelmed him / How little it takes. The words and sound of Sylvian’s voice dominating the audio presentation. In contrast, the background music is pulled back to a near silent hum; the arrangements are not just sparse.They are almost nonexistent. The non-linear sonic background only occasionally touch the ear with a noise that is surreal and unsettling; echoing the feeling of alienation found within the story-telling vocal style. This moving sound-spectrum of non-musical noise moves from a textured, glitchy rhythm to noisy clusters of sonic debris. It is difficult to call these structureless, earthy enviroments “songs” in any traditional sense. Sylvian has completely abandoned that form communicating. Blemish is David Sylvian at his most radical and most vulnerable. Creating an album full of difficult and important music. Don’t miss this album; a must hear if you are reading this.

1) David Sylvian / Gone to Earth / 1986: In every way, Gone to Earth is the follow-up effort to Sylvian‘s debut record, Brilliant Trees. The album gathering together all the finest points of Sylvian‘s career thus far; there is a lush, ambient experimentialism that permeates the entire recording. The record is presented in two distinctive halves; the first is filled with the singer’s amazingly communicative vocal and brilliant compositions skills. While the second disc introduces long ambient instrumental soundscapes of repetitive noise that extend the overall emotional impact of the vocal half of the record. The music ranging from the gothic ballardry of Silver Moon to the more pop orientation of Taking the Veil. Although, “pop music” may be overstating the case. Veil is a gorgeous, electronic / piano driven track that sounds like everything dream-pop thought possible. Gone To Earth is the defining moment in David Sylvian long career. (CD version includes more of the original instrumental track. A must).

Krautrock via the Sorbonne: Richard Pinhas & the French Électronique Guerillas of HELDON

The alternative-history novel “The Iron Dream” was written in 1972 by American author Norman Spinrad. The book written in a complex “novel-within-a-narative” style that frames another science-fiction story, Lord of the Swastika, with Spinard’s critical analysis. With Lord of the Swastike purporting to be written by an “alternative-history” Adolf Hitler. This “Hitler” leaving Germany after World War One to find fame and fortune writing science fiction in the United States. Of course, Lord of the Swastika is populated with the would-be fascist’s toxic world-view. For example, the story contains a description of the Republic of Heldon; a nation-state founded to keeping humanity “pure” of the mutant hordes that roaming the country-side. It’s a fascinating, strange and complicated idea for a novel; oddly, it’s also the source of the “Heldon” band name.

After graduating from the Paris Sorbonne University in 1974 (and presumably reading The Iron Dream), Philosophy PhD Richard Pinhas made a decision that his band “Schizo” should become his full-time concern under a new name; thus “Heldon” was born. The music mostly inspired by King Crimson and the electronic-experimental music pouring our of Berlin in the early 70s; Heldon developing a uniquely innovative sound of it’s own; molding the looping guitar gymnastics of Robert Fripp with a pulsating, electronic Motorik. In other words, Heldon’s music is based firmly in electronic music but without loosing the rich, organic feel of real musicians. The group playing free-lance, structure-less improvisation with driving purpose and forward movement.  The conflicting styles mixing and, often, clashing to create bold explorations that defy standard definitions (or constraints). And if you listen close, you’ll hear the uncredited influence of Heldon everywhere in contemporary music; Spaceman 3, (late-period) Wire, Primal Scream and Mogwai all developing their music around a philosophy that Suicide’s Alan Vega called “minimal is maximal”; sound that feels fully maximal, although it is often a swirl of minimal forces. 

The most difficult issue with the Schizo / Heldon / Pinhas discography is how to get started; Pinhas eventually using the three monikers interchangably over the course of dozens of releases since 1972. Fortunately, the original six records offer a perfect overview of the groups amazing depth. Moving between the aggressive, molten-heat of ALLEZ TEIA (1975) to the more melodic space-adventures of AGNETA NILSSON (1976). Each record offers the listener a new surprise. The albums veering into the avant-garde outerlimits as Pinhas pushed his music further from the mainstream. Each record will earn a special place for those already intoxicated by the endless innovations of German experimental music. Heldon openning a new French – German corridor to the Krautrock genre. For many, their album, The STAND-BY (1979) should provide the required template for Heldon; with actual song-structures and a limited amounts of “disregard” for the orthodoxy of western music. But orthodox is not the place to begin with this group. And “Accessible” Heldon is not the same as prime-era Heldon.

Conceptually, the first album with the Heldon name, ÉLECTRONIQUE GUÉRILLA (1974) begins with three essential ingredients; the electronic minimalism of Brian Eno & Robert Fripp, the forward direction of Harmonia and the schizophrenic punch of Kluster. That sound puncuated with aggressive rhythms and texture that would become more fully realized with the fetishized noise of Suicide. On Elecrtonic Guerilla, Heldon moves between a mainstream, synth-pop sound to music with an entirely darker purpose. And it’s this exploration of extremes that make Heldon such a sinister delight in all it’s forms. 

It’s tempting to refer to Heldon’a music as “space rock” or god help me, “progressive”. Thankfully, the group has little or nothing to do with those misguilded monikers. As if to reenforce the point, we get yhe whispered narration of Friedrich NIetzche’s “The Voyager and His Shadow” by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze on Guerilla’s “Ouais Marchais mieux qu’en 68″. The track showing that Heldon can challenge us on the deepest and most ceribral levels.The album alternating between Pinhas’ avant-garde, Friptonic-guitars, ambient synthesizers and the multi-layered loops that pulsate with the heartbeat of the music. The sound revealing a deep connection between the Fripp & Eno music of the 70s and Heldon’s musical development. ÉLECTRONIQUE GUÉRILLA is the album were those details pull together; exploding with color, tone and timbre. Minimal is maximal.

Heldon’s music plays a unique role in the Kosmische Musik universe; electronic music with a natural feel and complexity of sound. The music inscribed with a distinctly French emotional state – cultured, ornate and melodic soundscapes that call the listener to the dark and dangerous territory of Heldon.