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).

Ryuichi Sakamoto / Neo Geo / 1987

Born in Tokyo in 1978, The Yellow Magic Orchestra was an electronic music collective that pioneered the use of programed drums, digital sampling and and sequencers. All the sounds that would soon dominate the post-punk and new wave music that was clawing it’s way out of the guitar dominated seventies. Along with Germany‘s KraftwerkYMOheavily influenced the early use of synthesizer’s as the primary instrument for an army of musican’s just stepping in the ring in 79/80; including Soft Cell, New Order and Depeche Mode. Even Detroit techno pioneers the Belleville Three (Derrik May, Kevin Sauderson and Juan Atkins) have sited YMO as a primary influence. Detroit’s techno/rock hybrid Cybotron (Richard 3070, Jon 5 and Juan Atkins)is perhaps the best example. The band’s funky Alley’s of Your Mind and Cosmic Cars echoing the hard cyberpunk / proto-techno feel of YMO’s classic track, Technopolis

More than a unique sound and style, YMO member’s Haruomi Hosono, Yukihiro Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto used their music as a deliberate statement / parody on western orientalism. Turning the band’s mix of disco, funk and traditional music into a social commentary of the western depiction and imitation of Japanese culture. With growing domestic and international record sales, YMO came to an interesting decisionin 1984, just as they were on the verge of international commercial success. The band collectively seeking a sankai or need to spread out into their own (musical) orbits. Each member taking the time they need to persue an active and rewarding career individually. 

Already a veteran of the music business before the Yellow Magic Orchestra, Ryuichi Sakamoto had been the primary songwriter for the band. His song Behind the Mask become an important hit for the band and it was later covered by both Michael Jackson and (the empty Armani suit) Eric Clapton. For Sakamoto songwriting had always been an important part of his development. Collecting sounds, samples, beats and rhythms from across every culture (and decade) and incorporating them into his ever changing music. Colloborating with a wide range of vocalists and performers; including David Bowie, Brian Wilson, David Sylvian and James Osterberg. 

Released in 1987, Neo Geo is the album that, once again, brought international success to Sakamoto. Featruing performances with Sly Dunbar, Bootsy Collins and Iggy PopNeo Geo blends the sounds and styles that reenforced that meaning of the album’s title; new world. There is a fresh funkiness that Sakamoto hasn’t provided since YMO. The one-two punch of tracks Before Long and Neo Geo get the party started right. This is the sound of electro art-funk. Sharp, thick bass that is ready for the dance floor. Although, it must be said, the hybrid of sounds does not serve every track well. And, at times, the album gets caught up in that mid to late 80s polish. Nevertheless, there are many real gems to be found here. Specificly, the lush croon that Iggy Pop uses on the track, “Risky“. This is the electronic backing that Mr. Osterberg should use more often. Sakamoto providing a simple yet dynamic soundscape for the intriguing lyric and brilliant performance. You haven’t heard it? What are you waiting for?!