Monday, October 05, 2009

David Sylvian - Manafon

Not far into the second half of Christian Fennesz's 2004 full length solo release Venice, there's a song called "Transit" that might be the only truly startling moment on an album that sounds much like an artist playing to his strengths without bothering with too many surprises. The track is like any of the other works that make Venice into a sonically engaging yet unassumingly cohesive listening experience (not a bad thing), further displaying Fennesz's skill for combining the lovely with the soul draining via his trademark combination of electronics and processed guitar.

But there's one aspect of "Transit" that goes out of its way to be more memorable than whatever the fuck "The Point of It All," "City of Light," and "Circassian" may or may not have going for them: David Sylvian contributes a guest vocal performance. He has a pleasant enough voice, a sort of dystopian croon that is weathered and classy enough to fit the ultra-serious "modern-day ambient electroacoustic composer" vibe of Venice. There's some enjoyable multi-tracking here and there. The melody is about as interesting as one being shaped around a 1-2 chord drone piece can be... the lyrics, same. Something about asking you to follow him as he says goodbye to Europe. Sounds like he needed some lyrics and wrote them and sang them and that's just how things were gonna be. And why not, really. Good for him.

Do Sylvian's vocal contributions fit? One could say that they're simply too inoffensive not to. Which brings us to a more important question: Couldn't we have just done without these largely useless vocals that feel so arbitrarily tacked on and unnecessary? Why not sit Sylvian down in front of a laptop and have him spew forth some faux poetic bullshit via some spontaneous "too free and stream-of-consciousness to ever become interesting at all" melodies that are so disjointed you can barely even call the damn things "melodies" over Christian Fennesz's entire recorded output?

As evidenced by the few pieces of David Sylvian's post-Japan career that I've managed to come in contact with, he seems to have built up an identity as some kind of avant-garde hanger-on, forcing his boring as all fuck vocal stylings over perfectly decent slices of modern composition and improvisation that would be even more listenable were they to remain untouched. He did it on "Transit," he did it on Ryuichi Sakamoto's "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence," he probably does it all over the contributions of Derek Bailey and Christian Fennesz found on Blemish, and oh, boy, does he just go all out on Manafon, an album that you will probably see in the Wire's top 10 of 2009 and that happens to not be good at all.

Here's the premise: gather together a who's who of heavy-hitters from the history of electroacoustic improvisation, throw Evan Parker in there because he's a good dude who "gets it," record everybody fucking around, overdub some shitty on-the-spot and out-the-ass "improvised" vocal line because it's truer to the nature of the music that way, and hey, who's gonna be naive enough to try and create anything resembling a song out of this plinkety plonkety racket, anyway?

Big surprise that the result ends up being one gigantic snooze. Don't blame the musicians, though, who all tend to be fine when in other contexts and even turn out some choice moments throughout Manafon. No, the blame belongs squarely on Sylvian for thinking this was ever an idea worth pursuing. For constantly being the central focus of these improvisations, Sylvian's vocal talents appear to be more limited than a danged woodblock. The monotonous drone of a voice that he picks as his primary "instrument" for this potential super session is simply dull, dull, dull. There are vocalists in existence who are able to create forward thinking experimental music that straddles the lines between modern composition, avant-garde jazz, and assorted pop elements. However, Sylvian's voice is not ripe enough with the kind of heartbreaking depth that might have allowed Robert Wyatt, Mark Hollis, or Scott Walker to affectively carry this "material" (which would have been done so mainly by not bothering with it in the first place), and if he's capable of the kind of tonal/emotional range that Carla Bozulich and Nick Cave seem to have in spades, he doesn't even attempt to show it here. As a matter of fact, that voice manages to damage any positive view one could have of the potentially enjoyable instrumental performances, emphasizing all that is joyless and unrewardingly patience testing about EAI. This is made all the more tragic by the knowledge that over half a decade ago two of the performers here, Keith Rowe and John Tilbury, recorded the two hour long Duos For Doris, a mammoth work of devastating emotional resonance inspired by the death of Tilbury's mother, an album that was about three times as long as Manafon with roughly a seventh of the musicians yet somehow resulted in an album about ten times as powerful.

If I can't have the dry humor of Kevin Drumm to act as an anchor for my enjoyment of noise, there needs to be something there to latch onto. Something other than boring David Sylvian boringly shitting out pretentious babble that's just fucking boring, which like that Magic I.D. album last year is the kind of wholly empty bottom of the barrel chin stroking crap that only the most joyless IHMers and Erstwhile Records devotees imaginable could possibly see any value in.

Rating: Awful, awful shit.

Download Link: Vampire Weekend - "Horchata"

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