David Sylvian Manafon

[Samadhi Sound; 2009]

Styles: folk, post-rock, free-jazz, minimalism
Others: Japan, AMM, Tiny Vipers

The ability for the members of a band to parlay its success into artistically relevant solo careers is not a foregone conclusion. Often, artists will either hew too closely to the sound that made them popular, or they'll indulgently play the dilettante in whatever genre happens to grab their fancy at the moment. Credit is due, then, to David Sylvian for refusing to spend the past three decades resting on Tin Drum's laurels. Like 2003's Blemish, Manafon eschews traditional pop conventions and prominently features Sylvian crooning over a minimalist instrumental accompaniment. This time around, however, Sylvian is accompanied by 60s free jazz pioneers and members of AMM. They've replaced the heavy synth wash of Blemish with some sporadic acoustic guitar pickings, wailing brass, and random bursts of twittering feedback or static. The chief element of nearly every song is a stillness approaching silence, with only Sylvian's voice hinting at anything resembling a melody.

It's a sonically ambitious undertaking — and miles beyond what many of his peers in the late-70s post-punk scene are currently doing — but ultimately, the album gets lost in its own conceit. Manafon starts out promisingly; “Small Metal Gods,” easily the most musical entry on this disc, is the only song in which the backing musicians sync up with Sylvian's smooth, detached tenor. But the relative warmth of this track soon gives way to the quietly ominous “The Rabbit Skinner,” where Sylvian's vocals are at their most naked and vulnerable, haunted by Marcio Mattos's warbling cello and Evan Parker's moaning saxophone. Still, nothing really feels like it's happened yet. These sparse, atmospheric pieces come across like lengthy prologues setting the stage for a great release or catharsis. It's track three where my appreciation for Manafon dropped off precipitously because it was at precisely this point where I realized that the first two tracks were not merely “creating an atmosphere” — that this was, in fact, what the entire album was going to sound like. It was with mounting horror and despair that I realized I had to slog through seven more tracks (many of which run from five to 10 minutes in length) of the same dry crooning and the same sporadic, arrhythmic accompaniment.

While I appreciate the degree to which Sylvian and the AMM Musicians are unraveling the popular song and pushing at the boundaries of music, this appreciation does nothing to enhance my enjoyment of this record. Perhaps the biggest problem is that, for as opaque as these compositions are, I'm not really sure that Sylvian and co. are actually doing anything that ground-breaking. Nick Cave's “A Box for Black Paul” and Lift to Experience's “Down Came the Angels” both accomplish similar effects, but both Nick Cave and Josh Pearson are content to do in one song what Sylvian apparently needs to drag out for an entire album. The result is a record that blows right past 'challenging' and into 'trying' territory. Even Sylvian's painstakingly crafted surrealist narratives wind up getting lost simply because I could not muster the mental energy to focus on any song for its entirety.

If the purpose of avant-garde music is to challenge my mental framework for what qualifies as a song, and to push me to the limits of my enjoyment, then Manafon has succeeded in a way that bands like Ruins, Yellow Swans, and MoHa! could not. Yet I don't feel that I've gained anything from having my limits so violently transgressed. While no one could accuse Sylvian of playing it safe, the exercises that make up Manafon are neither experimental nor aesthetically pleasing enough for me to recommend this album.

1. Small Metal Gods
2. The Rabbit Skinner
3. Random Acts of Senseless Violence
4. The Greatest Living Englishman
5. 125 Spheres
6. Snow White in Appalachia
7. Emily Dickinson
8. The Department of Dead Letters
9. Manafon

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