Blemish must have marked a mini-seismic ‘event’ for David Sylvian when it was recorded over a six week hiatus, marking a departure from his normal precision in the studio. The songs were stark, aching confessionals that recalled the work of the late modernist Samuel Beckett in the honest nature of their ruminations on everything from family dissolution to the spiritually redeeming values of nature (“Fire in the Forest”). The signposts for a new agenda in songwriting on that record were already clear in the recruitment of the grand master of guitar improv, Derek Bailey, and laptop troublemaker Christian Fennesz. If a term called “art prospecting” could be invented, then the initial trickle of inspiration of Blemish would eventually turn into a gush of creativity for his new album, Manafon, which is bent on proving conclusively that former pop stars, with the right sincerity, can stretch out and experiment on the margins as well as anybody.
Perhaps paying lip service to improvised music’s internationalism by being recorded in London, Vienna, and Tokyo, Sylvian has broadened the panoramic reach that was initiated on Blemish, and recruited English electro-acoustic improvisers Evan Parker, AMM legends John Tilbury and Keith Rowe; bassist/cellist Marcio Mattos; as well as the Polwechsel unit of Burkhard Stangl, Werner Dafeldecker and Michael Moser, and Onkyo renegades Otomo Yoshihide and Sachiko M. Each song on Manafon stands as deconstructionist ruin. Sylvian’s vocal acts both as a portal to the percolating electro-acoustic broadsides, as well as a fibrous tether that prevents these ‘songs’ from chaotic collapse. It’s a clever idea and it just about works, especially when he latches on to a distorted, melodic line by Fennesz (“Snow White in Appalachia”) or the rippling of neon-lit sine ticks by Sachiko M (“The Greatest Living Englishman”).
On this occasion, the pieces could be seen as new Twenty-First Century song cycle, with third person narratives providing a series of meta-fictional balladic portraiture. His pseudo-identification with marginal and lonely cultural figures are given voice, all united by extreme conditions of isolation in remote nature. Emily Dickinson and RS Thomas represent this in a literary sense, while “Random Acts of Senseless Violence” reminds one that such isolation can even have physically violent consequences for society. Paul Auster’s “Unabomber” character, Ben Sachs from Leviathan (who is based on Ted Kaczynski), seems to inspire the line “someone’s back kitchen stacked like a factory with improvised devices”.
Yet recent commentators have been mistaken about this recording’s rationale: Manafon is not an all-out improvisational album. Rowe, Fennesz, Yoshihide and co., are there to function as harmonic colourists. Sylvian would be the first to admit he is not Christof Kurzmann, or extended vocal specialist Ute Wassermann; he’s too considered and poised for that, and he places to a high value on the meaning of words. Instead this is an improvisational sound design album (a la David Toop) that attempts to marry the intuition of the human voice with the extension of electro-acoustic sounds. In this he succeeds, seeking to broaden the parameters of reductionist improvisation alongside a coterie of instrumentalists. Still, one might wish that there was more extended improvisational playing, on evidence of the Orwellian “Department of Dead Letters.” Summoning up cold corridors and musty state archives of the disposed, John Tilbury’s mesmeric piano modernism is nicely aided and abetted by Mattos’ shrieking cello exhortations. From being booed at the Glasgow Apollo venue, via ECM to Erstwhile his journey continues to be a fascinating narrative “until the end of time”.
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