David Sylvian: The Guide to… Volume 1

Published: October 08, 2017

In acknowledging I’m most likely the website’s local stan for this guy, and the point that I’m writing such an article solely due to the fact I seriously can’t stop listening to his rather plentiful back catalogue, I’ve come to have certainty in the idea that David Sylvian is quite possibly one of the greatest and most ambitious artists to come from his respective generation. There’s so much I could (and will) say, but considering the scope that his works have offered listeners for the last forty-plus years along with the various artistic overhauls that have accompanied Sylvian’s output — both solo and with others in the band format — it seems quite necessary that I provide somewhat of a guide to the works of someone I hold in high esteem. For the sake of not rambling on longer than I really need to, we shall begin with a quick glimpse of where Sylvian began: in the art rock group Japan. Formed in 1974, Japan had their roots in the glam rock scene and took to their influences quite clearly with their initial outfitting, which would come back to embarrass the group upon their identity shift to new wave/synthpop auteurs that often rejected the New Romantic culture and the following that came with it:

Following two albums’ worth of middling glam worship blended in with some worthwhile tunes, Japan had finally found their sound with their third album, 1979’s Quiet Life; along with this futuristic sound, Sylvian had eschewed the slurred vocal tics in favor of a croon that would be easily mistaken for Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music (one of Japan’s influences). For a lack of a better term, David Sylvian had found his voice at last:

At quite the steady rate, Japan’s popularity increased album-by-album, with 1980’s Gentlemen Take Polaroids and the following year’s Tin Drum each portraying a band not only constantly experimenting with their sound, but at the same time growing more distant from each other. At odds with the creatively-stifling potential of fame and Sylvian’s progression to more self-reflective and moody lyrical works, Japan broke up in 1982 – just as the band was set to conquer the States. Clearly, and for the best, it was not meant to be:

In the meanwhile, Sylvian collaborated with Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Ryuichi Sakamoto on Sakamoto’s soundtrack for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, which culminated in one of the duo’s greatest triumphs. Although they had worked together before on the Bamboo Houses/Bamboo Music single the prior year and with Japan on the Gentlemen cut “Taking Islands in Africa”, it was the vocal version to the titular theme that pushed Sylvian to greater heights as a songwriter with its exploration of homosexual themes and forbidden love, as from the viewpoint of Sakamoto’s role in the film as the emotionally conflicted Capt. Yonoi:

The following year, Sylvian had finally made his solo debut with Brilliant Trees, an album that is partly a transitional work and also a clear point of where he’d progress throughout the rest of decade:

Almost immediately, Sylvian had expanded upon the tribal elements of the second half of Brilliant Trees and turned up with the cassette-only Alchemy – An Index of Possibilities, a total curveball from anything he had done up to this point. Consisting of three ambient instrumentals, Sylvian only gave his audience an idea of what he had up his sleeve next:

And what do you know, by September 1986, Gone to Earth was now out and about. A sprawling double album, it was split into two very distinct halves: one song-oriented, the other strictly lush instrumental ambiance more in the vein of Alchemy, now with guitarists Robert Fripp (King Crimson) and Bill Nelson (Be-Bop Deluxe) at the helm:

Like clockwork, by November 1987, Secrets of the Beehive was released, and with it, a total revamp in Sylvian’s repertoire; in just thirty-four minutes’ time, Sylvian’s latest work had culminated the progression found in prior albums into a refined and subdued masterwork. Nothing short of sophisticated ambient pop laced with latent melancholy and ever brief lapses of catharsis, Secrets of the Beehive was perhaps his best received work critically, but commercially, it made little to no impact outside the cult following he had amassed:

Now, we reach a point where things get awful cluttered with David: he began to collaborate with everyone under the sun it seems. You have The First Day with Robert Fripp, which resulted from Fripp’s failed attempt to recruit Sylvian into a newly-revived King Crimson in 1991; Plight & Premonition and Flux + Mutability with former Can bassist Holger Czukay in 1988/89, and 1991’s Ember Glance: The Permanence of Memory with Russell Mills. And that’s just the start of it, if the duet (“Some Small Hope”) found on Virginia Astley’s Hope in a Darkened World is of any indication of just how much Sylvian did while not focusing on his own material. In the long run, the wealth of recordings Sylvian left in his wake prior and following Secrets of the Beehive is like a mere blip on the radar in comparison to what was to come next: something that would become the preview of where Sylvian was headed. And it was not pretty:

David Sylvian had become unnerved with the pop song as a format, and when beckoned by Virgin to create something more accessible for a single, Sylvian delivered perhaps his most experimental work yet. Fast-forward ten years into the future to 1999 and several collaborations (and a catastrophic Japan reunion under the name Rain Tree Crow) later, Sylvian brought forth the downtempo jazz favorite Dead Bees on a Cake. Admittedly, this is perhaps my least favorite of Sylvian’s works due to just how bloated it is at seventy minutes flat, along with an overwhelming sense that Sylvian’s confidence in the chill jazz/pop experimentation wasn’t enough to carry Dead Bees on a Cake for over an hour. With the contract with Virgin now behind him, Sylvian was now free to pursue a more fulfilling direction that was found in a moment of crisis:

Blemish, upon its release in May 2003, was perhaps the most polarizing work Sylvian had unveiled. Birthed in the disintegration of his marriage to Ingrid Chavez, a former protégé of Prince (yes, that one), Blemish found Sylvian cooped up in the studio along with Christian Fennesz and legendary free improv guitarist Derek Bailey, with both guitarists’ participation split up between hazy, distorted slow burners that find Sylvian struggling and/or realizing what went wrong (Fennesz) and vaguely aggressive, embittered songs of pure frustration that portray Sylvian attempting to come to terms with the failure of his marriage (Bailey). Whereas Dead Bees on a Cake failed, Blemish ultimately succeeded in not only creating a truly experimental masterpiece, but abandoning the pop format in process for a more avant-garde realm. In the span of thirty years, David Sylvian gradually transformed from a glam rocker-turned pop auteur to perhaps one of the most innovative artists of his time:

In the interim between Blemish and its successor-to be, Sylvian yet again went into a period where he tended to collaborate with several artists, such as Fennesz, Ryuichi Sakamoto (for what seems like the thousandth time), Blonde Redhead, and Tweaker to name a few upon the top of my head. Honestly, for how many collaborative efforts Sylvian has involved himself in over the years, you’d think he’d have more of a following, but that’s not the case here. In the midst of all of this, Sylvian formed the Nine Horses project with collaborator Burnt Friedman and brother/former Japan bandmate Steve Jansen to create what is the closest Sylvian ever got to putting out anything remotely “commercial” in the 21st century with the ambient pop (there’s that term again) Snow Borne Sorrow. Unlike Dead Bees on a Cake before, Snow Borne Sorrow comes a bit closer to realizing some aspects of the chill jazz sound that Sylvian once toyed with, although this time around, Nine Horses sought to focus more on electronics and atmospherics, resulting in something that is more concise but is perhaps a step backwards creatively in the wake of Blemish:

Yet by September 2009, Sylvian had ultimately progressed even further with the incredibly divisive Manafon – an album that came together over a three year period between recording locations in Vienna, Tokyo, and London; a work that heavily implemented elements of electroacoustic improvisation that often serves as a major test of patience to those unfamiliar with style. Sometimes bereft of warmth and other times full of abstract bliss, Manafon features perhaps some of the leading figures of the avant-garde around the world, such as multi-instrumentalist Otomo Yoshihide, pianist John Tilbury, guitarist Keith Rowe, Onkyo artist Sachiko M, as well as Christian Fennesz once more. As with Blemish, a great deal of the material present of the album was fully improvised and written in the studio as the session progressed, resulting in an album that leaves many cold but is honestly ahead of its time:

Since then, Sylvian’s activity has become rather sporadic, and from the looks of it, it appears he’s in another collaborative phase, although he’s made several demo recordings from as recent as 2012 known to his fanbase. While another album seems far off, Sylvian has kept himself busy with works like Playing the Schoolhouse, an improvisation performed using solely found objects; the 10″ single Do You Know Me Now?/Where’s Your Gravity?, recorded for an art installation led by visual artist Phil Collins entitled My heart’s in my hand, and my hand is pierced, and my hand’s in the bag, and the bag is shut, and my heart is caught; and most recently, Sylvian has collaborated with Rhodri Davies and Mark Wastell for the spoken word piece There Is No Love, which follows an excerpt from the 1985 play In the Solitude of Cotton Fields and the transaction between two characters known as “the dealer” and “the client”. All three projects mentioned will do little to sway those who find Sylvian’s excursions into the avant-garde as pretentious, but for those who find enjoyment in his relentless need to experiment, these recordings only serve to prove David Sylvian is more than ambitious — he’s an innovator whose creativity cannot be silenced:


Here’s a playlist that includes all the videos shown here and other essentials for those who don’t know where to start with David Sylvian:

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