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David Sylvian – Manafon


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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”.

~ Paul Baran

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18 comments for “David Sylvian – Manafon

  1. I’ll assume that the double t in Ottomo is just an enthusiastic slip, but I can’t see the Beckett connection, Paul.
    I’ve already expressed my reservations about this over on a thread at IHM, and won’t add to them until I’ve heard the album in its entirety. Which means when I have enough pocket money to buy it. Next month, perhaps. Suffice it to say though that, on the strength of the one song I streamed from his site, I agree with Ian Penman’s Wire review (and you won’t find a bigger Sylvian fan than IP, I suspect).
    What’s with the Harry Potter vol 7 forest doe cover btw?

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  2. What was Penman hoping for, Sylvian impersonating Phil Minton?

    Listening to the CD right now, it sounds like an interesting album on a first attempt – and I think five will not be enough to really get into it. I’d say that it’s an evolution of Blemish with more instrumental colours as opposed to Derek Bailey’s lone guitar.

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  3. There are at least two outstanding tracks on Manafon, my favourite is “Emily Dickinson”.

    Evan Parker and John Tilbury sound fabulous throughout.

    I read Ian Penman’s review again and found it extremely superficial, which doesn’t surprise me at all.

    Dan: “…when I have enough pocket money to buy it…”

    You should quit eating two pizzas instead of one every time, Chief (hehe)

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  4. I wonder how many readers got that reference :)

    Posted by Dan Warburton | October 1, 2009, 11:07 am
  5. You like pizza?

    My thoughts on Manafon

    and the Otomo typo is corrected.

    Posted by RPinnell | October 1, 2009, 11:12 am
  6. and very good thoughts too!
    (ps, yes I like pizza, Lubomyr)

    Posted by Dan Warburton | October 1, 2009, 11:46 am
  7. Ha, oh yes. Actually most CDs cost about the same as one pizza round here, unless you are a glutton for extra toppings. Manafon however, is a different story ;)

    Posted by RPinnell | October 1, 2009, 11:57 am
  8. It’s not that David Sylvian fell in love with avantgarde all of a sudden. Already in the 80s he released two albums with Can’s Holger Czukay, and surrounding himself with on-the-edge musicians is a habit he’s always had.

    Richard’s review is very balanced, and although I don’t agree with some of the things he wrote it’s an interesting, thought-provoking read. Yet there are subtleties in Manafon which, I think, come out little by little. I’m willing to believe that all the involved musicians are happy with the result, additional money and “fame” or not. And I absolutely don’t agree about the fact that Sylvian’s vocal timbre sounds like 20 years ago. A distinct sense of aging is well perceptible if one listens carefully, and it’s beautiful to hear.

    Definitely Derek Bailey didn’t get more famous after Blemish, but I’m sure that many Sylvian fans – probably of the Ian Penman derivation, though I understand he likes that record – left him after hearing it.

    Lastly, I gave up to about 240 pizzas to secure my wonderfully lavish, finely perfumed limited edition. Smelling it right now. Aaaahhhh! And what a wonderful documentary…

    Too bad that these days people are wasting their time watching movies and reading Harry Potter instead of editing :):):):)

    Posted by Massimo Ricci | October 1, 2009, 1:57 pm
  9. Indeed. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it..

    Posted by Dan Warburton | October 1, 2009, 11:38 pm
  10. ..and that’s your second sideswipe at IHM in this thread, Max. When I asked you to post the Lubomyr Melnyk letter there you scoffed and said something like “I wouldn’t be seen dead posting there” but it seems you – and how many others? – are happy to lurk there after all.

    Posted by Dan Warburton | October 1, 2009, 11:41 pm
  11. Chief – dead wrong. It was just one of our customary exchange of niceties between me and you, exclusively; I was referring to your passion for Harry Potter and the editing of PT, I swear that I didn’t think about IHM for a moment.

    I shouldn’t need to repeat – because I already made it very clear right there – that my opinion of IHM and, in general, new music forums is not exceedingly high. That said, I do regularly check IHM, don’t just “lurk” at it, only because at least twice, when my name appeared there, someone took the occasion to say something unpleasant. I keep an eye around most everywhere, though, when music is concerned. Hell, I’m a Guitar Player subscriber, too!

    I would have preferred to keep this confidential, but right after my last comments in the famous “Critics” thread at IHM I found myself unable to access, and I had to register ex-novo (indeed successfully). If that was a coincidence, it is a particularly interesting one and, in that case, I apologize in advance to IHM’s administrators for having had bad thoughts.

    That’s why I have always asked you (uselessly…) to refrain from quoting me or Touching Extremes in there. I always try and maintain a measure of respect for everybody, and as you and other people know I much prefer emailing a direct broadside rather than cockfighting in an arena, with supporters howling.

    Posted by Massimo Ricci | October 2, 2009, 4:17 am
  12. And, after this case is hopefully closed once and for all, let’s not lose our focus on the main issue here: Manafon is an excellent album and Paul’s review is probably the one that’s closer to my opinion, especially in regard to what he wrote in the final paragraph.

    Posted by Massimo Ricci | October 2, 2009, 5:05 am
  13. Back on thread then! I look forward to getting a copy soon – only problem being that some joker has been defrauding my credit card and going on a shopping spree across the Atlantic (!) so I’m cardless for a week or so! (That’s why I’m in a bad mood, grrr)

    Posted by Dan Warburton | October 2, 2009, 5:36 am
  14. the IHM account “Massimo Ricci” created on May22 of 2008 is and has always been active and unadulterated.

    so yeah, i’m pretty insulted.

    i don’t disagree with this review or the responses to it, though, so this is all the comment i have to make.


    Posted by mudd | October 2, 2009, 11:15 am
  15. No personal offense intended, in fact I had apologized in advance in view of a possible technical failure at that time. Fact is, mere days after the thread in question I could not log in, and I tried at least five times in different days before registering again (under the “Ricci” moniker).

    Let me stress that, hadn’t yours truly been mentioned in IHM for derisive purposes, I would have never joined it, which I only did to respond to a hysteric person spitting venom about my work.

    And that’s all she wrote. I’ll never, ever return on this argument publicly, whatever anyone else may want to add. But – as always – I’ll be more than happy to respond to a personal email if necessary.

    Posted by Massimo Ricci | October 2, 2009, 1:13 pm
  16. My error: I actually joined IHM to give news about Roland Kayn in a thread dedicated to him. “Critics” and that Grisha guy came later.

    Even in that thread there was an unwarranted “sideswipe” to my articles about Kayn.

    The End (this time for real)

    Posted by Massimo Ricci | October 2, 2009, 1:32 pm
  17. I’m taking bets on whether this will end up as The Wire’s Rekkid of the Year..

    Posted by Dan Warburton | October 16, 2009, 10:19 am
  18. Hasn’t Burial released records this year? :)

    Posted by Massimo Ricci | October 16, 2009, 1:53 pm

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