Tag Archives: David Sylvian

In memory of Vaughan Simons, 1971-2018

5 Dec

Vaughan Simons...

Vaughan Simons…

Sometime around the end of October, Vaughan Simons died.

I didn’t see it coming. As for Vaughan, he said that he didn’t want memorials, wakes or get-togethers. I’m finding it impossible to comply with all of that. For all of the self-erasing bluster we sometimes put out in our darkest moments, few of us can simply dissolve into the murk of other people’s forgetfulness after we die. Vaughan certainly won’t.

Probably many of you reading this won’t have heard of Vaughan. He won’t be on any of the end-of-year obituary lists of the great and good, or of the famous. If you have heard of him, most likely you’ll be one of the friends I’ve directed here… or you may, long ago in the mists of the late 1990s, have read one of his reviews in ‘Misfit City’. If so, you’ll been have scrolling through reams of clumsy HTML in order to alight upon one of his confections of barbed sugar, bile and forward-looking conviction.

If Vaughan were still here, he’d downplay any credit, but he was very much the ‘Misfit City’ co-founder. In the early days, while it was me who was driving the project, writing most of the material and doing much of the legwork, it was Vaughan who was ensuring that I was less lonely while doing so. Vaughan also played a big part in shaping the incipient webzine’s tastes, and its spirit of enquiry. He lifted some of my obsessive blinkers, gently challenged some of my own unacknowledged conservatism, opened a window or three. If you’re a regular reader, or you’re becoming one, much of what you probably like about ‘Misfit City’ is built on Vaughan’s efforts and encouragement.

I first met Vaughan in 1990, when both of us were new arrivals at the University of Hull. I was a Londoner, he was a West Country boy. Both of us were a little ill at ease in this battered city resting where east England shades into north England: out on its stalk of railway line, miles from anywhere much; a place where Northerners and Midlanders seemed so much more at ease, with their accents and outlooks settling better into the Humberside atmosphere. Vaughan and I had both shown up there looking for some kind of redemption or vindication: initially on the Drama course we both attended. Both of us being serious, thin-skinned people with a tendency to cover our fear with sardonic wit, we never quite figured out the rhythms and cues of a Hull social life.

This was one of the things that bound us. Another, in a jumpy and uneasy way, was music.

Again, we weren’t coming from the same place. I was formed from a background of musical theatre, classical, the pop I’d absorbed from years of independent library raids, and the extended palette of jazz and prog rock. Vaughan was more of a staunch indie-rock man. This was partially due to an affinity with that Lou Reed aesthetic, and partly due to close exposure to (and shoulder-rubbing with) arty indie strivers from his Yeovil hometown: The Becketts, The Chesterfields and Automatic Dlamini, the latter featuring future art-rock mainstay John Parish and a fledgling Polly Harvey. By the time I got into higher education, few people seemed to care all that much about music as something to listen to, something to think about. Vaughan was an exception.


 
The opportunities for clash and camaraderie were there from the start. During our first year, Vaughan and I would occasionally huddle opposite each other in our respective rooms, grumpily playing each other cassettes. Our sessions were sometimes aggressive, often temperamental: two lonely would-be tastemakers falling over each other’s feet, finding each other’s taste inexplicable. Notably, I tried to get him into Yes – the attempt was one of several five-second failures which I’ll not bother to list. But Vaughan, in turn, exposed me to Pixies, the nagging ennui of Bleach, the disillusioned angst of Furniture, bits of The Fall; my first dose of My Bloody Valentine’s holocaust guitar; the first fumblings into the Velvets and Lou Reed records I’d somehow missed as a teenager.

For what it’s worth, when we did reach a consensus it wasn’t entirely a matter of me being schooled. For instance, we reached a point of agreement over mid-’70s King Crimson (whose barrage of rattling noise, violin drone and gnarly guitar got through Vaughan’s resistance) and when I countered MBV’s microtonal pitch-bending hallucino-pop with the tonal guitar swerves of David Torn. As for me, I gradually absorbed what Vaughan was bringing to the table, and as I held onto my roots but expanded my tastes indiewards (into the likes of The House of Love, the rare-bird shimmer of Cocteau Twins and the classical-industrial sampler bombast of The Young Gods), we came more into line.





 
By then, of course, we’d become mutually accepting, mutually supportive friends, doing what we could to back each other up. Beyond the cassette sessions, there wasn’t much more music during this part of the tale. The story of our theatre work is probably best told some other time. We did once pitch in together for a cabaret cover version of Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus (Vaughan as a bulky balaclava’d terrorist on piano, me as a leathered-up comedy rock-god on bass with balled-up sports socks shoved down my trousers). There was also a brief period working on a body-politics University revue, with future Suede member Neil Codling (a rapid, matter-of-fact composer and multi-instrumental jack-of-all-trades, who took one of my lyrics about fashion and tailoring and spun it to a jaunty tune that’s yet to appear as a Suede B-side).

Vaughan probably had fonder memories of his staging of Jim Cartwright’s dream play ‘Bed’, which we took to the Edinburgh fringe in 1993. I worked closely with him on that one: acting under his direction, serving as his auxiliary brain while we combed through the script’s allusive dream-logic, and tracking down Jean Michel Jarre’s ghostly, uncharacteristic ‘En Attendant Cousteau’ as intro music. (It was one of the few times when I got the Euro-prog side of my musical tastes past Vaughan’s implacable guard. I didn’t tell him who’d created it until he’d chosen it…)


 
Post-Hull, Vaughan and I regrouped in London during 1994. While bumbling along wondering whether life was ever going to start, we kept each other stimulated by swapping homemade music comps via cassettes through the post. Quicker off the mark with job-hunting than I was, Vaughan had more ready cash than I did. He spent a fair chunk of it on hunting down left-field tunes and textures. An early adopter of communication technology, he appreciated my geeky fascination with recording details. He’d picked up a little tiny printer, and would always indulge me by sending his cassettes with little typed-out slips filling me in on who played what. These always came with irreverent miniature essays, which I appreciated even more. Even after I’d bought the original CDs myself, I’d keep Vaughan’s essays and slip them into the booklets.

Nearly twenty-five years later, I’ve still got them all. I loved Vaughan’s delighted enthusiasms, which overturned his guarded cynicism and dispelled his intermittent grumpiness. He’d wax lyrical on the phoenix-like, post-folk return to action of Eyeless in Gaza. He’d provide me with perky little ruminations on dubtronicists Seefeel; on murmuring post-Pale Saints duo Spoonfed Hybrid; on indie-folk songstress Heidi Berry, her albums festooned with various former members of Cardiacs (another of Vaughan’s favourite bands, and one which would reduce him to a guileless smirking mess of joy).

Vaughan introduced me to what we’d both come to see as a “holy British quadrinity” of post-rock – Moonshake, Laika, AR Kane and Disco Inferno (who collectively, while less prominent than the Mogwai/Explosions In The Sky consensus we’re stuck with today, achieved and meant so much more). He once bought me a copy of White Town’s ‘Your Woman’ and sent it along by post – just as the song hit number one – with a handwritten letter raving unguardedly about its homemade aesthetic, pluck and left-wing in-jokes.


 
When I decided – circa 1996 – to set up ‘Misfit City’, one of the first things I thought of were Vaughan’s miniature essays. It was natural to invite Vaughan onboard, and to encourage him to expand his original off-the-cuff enthusings into longer reviews. Also, since I’d been spending the last few years on a prog rock zine (trying, with mixed success, to get classic/neo-prog fans to expand their outlook into a broader concept of “progressive”) I thought he’d expand my own scope.

Consequently, during the first three years of the original crude-format ‘Misfit City’ webzine you’d have been able to find assorted Vaughan’s-eye views dotted through the pages. His enthusiasm for Eyeless in Gaza, Disco Inferno and Bark Psychosis made it into the early postings, and he was soon bringing in more. He covered Cranes (growling at them for slumping into college rock), one-off trip-hoppers Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra, and avant-pop trio R.O.C. (another new favourite).

Only a couple of years out of the closet himself, he explored Patrick Fitzgerald’s flagrantly gay post-Kitchens of Distinction romp, Fruit. He let his romantic side and his cynical side tussle it out over The Bathers. At a time when half of the arty writers in town were fawning over Spiritualized, he delivered a measured dissection of ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’ (and although I’m not one for outright critical bitchery, I think I’ll always treasure his brutally blunt putdown of their parent band, Spacemen 3, in the opening paragraph).

I’d also occasionally feed Vaughan things from outside his immediate knowledge base and comfort zone, and wait for a response: whether it was positive (Jocelyn Pook, John Greaves & David Cunningham) or scathing (State Of Grace). Vaughan and I would also collaborate, via various methods, as “Col Ainsley”, combining our insights, our perspectives and our occasional cheap shots. Mostly, this involved me adding odd gracings to Vaughan’s stern dressing-down of James’ ‘Whiplash’, his intrigued exploration of ‘Wappinschaw’ (by transfigured noiseniks Cindytalk), and his surprisingly warm response to The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’. It also led to reviews of erratically ambitious skunk-rockers Lo Fidelity Allstars, of enigmatic early post-rockers Labradford and emergent art-tronica force Darkroom, and of Bill Nelson during his surprisingly successful drum-and-bass/Beat-poet period.

The Ainsley method generally involved Vaughan starting a review and me finishing it, chucking in an image or association which I thought was in keeping with his perspective. He always congratulated me when he thought I’d nailed it. When I didn’t, he kept a generous diplomatic silence. If he ever found me pushy or domineering, he didn’t say so.

Don’t expect any stories of wild times in grubby shared flats; or tales of baiting or celebrating indie-hopefuls to their faces. There are none. Likewise, there were no precarious nights out on coke, E or speed; and there were none of the I-Ching pranks, the gleeful bitching clubs or the twenty-four hour fire-station atmospheres which always seem to bubble up in the memoirs of the journalists who cut their writing teeth while working on the music weeklies. Vaughan and I were more sober, more obscure characters – mostly out of the music biz loop and generally half a city away from each other, with much of our contact by phone or email. While I spent several years in shared accommodation in Stoke Newington (turning my room and my shrinking amount of shared space into a man-cave), Vaughan was working his way up through one-bedroomers in Acton and, later, Clapham.


 
Occasionally I’d inveigle him out for gigs. I suspect that getting him over to Shepherds Bush to see Barenaked Ladies was an elaborate tease, but that seeing Sylvian & Fripp (and, later, a MIDI-ed-to-the-gills six-piece King Crimson) was more of a celebration of friendship. The camaraderie remained. We were a pair of lonely, earnest, sidelined brains; writing as and when we could; bobbing on the millions-strong sea of self-obsessed insomniac lights that made up London.

By 1999, however, things were changing. I was sulking in low-status clerical work by day and obsessively, stubbornly hammering out ‘Misfit City’ reviews by night. Vaughan, meanwhile, was shifting focus. He’d always been meticulous, but now he was going professional and doing it well, working for the BBC on then-nascent internet projects of the kind we take for granted now. He found the idea of “WAP phones” particularly hilarious, mostly because the name suggested Wile E. Coyote and slapstick. The irony is that you’re probably reading ‘Misfit City’ on one now; and Vaughan’s last-ever advice to me was on how I might tailor the blog to fit better into the world of phone-browsing.

At the same time, Vaughan’s musical stance was relaxing, and my former champion of esoteric left-field indie was guilelessly singing the praises of the early Coldplay singles. I wasn’t judgemental or stupid enough to feel that he was selling out, but I could recognise that he was unbending a little. He didn’t reject ‘Misfit City’ as such, but he no longer had the time to concentrate on it. We gradually, blamelessly drifted in our different directions, birthday meetings eventually yielding to radio silence.

Vaughan out and about...

Vaughan out and about…

The best part of a decade later, I reconnected with Vaughan via Facebook – not because I was looking for a writer, but because I missed my friend and because technology was now enticing old buddies back together again. By then, Vaughan had gained plenty more experience as a writer and solo blogger; as a sardonic forum star; as a man who knew how to put things together and lead teams. Musically, his fleeting enthusiasm for Coldplay and their ilk was long gone. During the last decade of his life he was sunk deeply and appreciatively in the world of Manchester indie-folk: Louis Barrabas, Ríoghnach Connolly’s ongoing adventures in Honeyfeet and The Breath. From what I can gather, it seemed to be one of the few things which dragged him out of his flat and out of London.

Vaughan was glad to hear from me, and we were talking on and off up until the month that he died; but we never met face-to-face again. There were various reasons for this. Throughout the whole time I’d known him, it had been obvious that Vaughan suffered from assorted illnesses and troubles which affected his self-image and how certain people were likely to view him (and even, sometimes, what he was allowed to do). Later on, these roadblocks even come to affect what he was capable of doing. On top of that, there were hauntings: tormenting bits of his past that circled like ghostly sharks and regularly savaged him. Often he preferred to be alone, ensconsced at home, safely insulated behind phones and wires – even while friendships remained central to his existence.

Despite his troubles, Vaughan soldiered on and, in many respects, achieved more than many of the unencumbered. This past month, I’ve been hearing from many people (most of them strangers) about how inspirational he was as a boss at the BBC internet coalface; or as someone to virtually cross swords/slap palms with on some forum or other; as a poster of vinegar-wry wit, or as an encourager of other people’s blossoming via their own blogs. In his last years, Vaughan single-handed ran the Pixel+Pilcrow web design company from his flat, assiduously providing excellent, state-of-the-art modular homepages for customers and friends (most of whom eventually overlapped, one way or the other).

Yet, metaphorically and literally, his illnesses and challenges were taking pieces out of him and eroding his life. As I saw these things happening (generally behind the fierce shield of Vaughan’s stubborn dignity, and often only perceptible via dropped hints) I came to regret my reticence. I wish that I’d had the brass neck to intervene sometimes, and maybe risk hurting his feelings, but perhaps providing the chance to help him to make things better.

And then, one morning, he was gone forever.

* * * * * * * *

When I relaunched ‘Misfit City’ in blog format about eight years ago, I’d decided to make it much more my own thing. By mutual consent, I didn’t re-mount Vaughan’s contributions. At that point, he considered them juvenilia and curios in a writing career which spanned original blogwork, technical writing and sardonic children’s stories.

Since his death, I’ve reconsidered my position, and those reviews are now all back up in ‘Misfit City’ as part of an ongoing reworking of the blog. You can read them via the links above; or, if you want to coast through them all, you can get them in a sorted sequence (with this memorial at the top) by following the tags for Vaughan’s name or for Col Ainsley.

Re-reading them now, two things occur to me: Vaughan was right about them being juvenilia, but it also doesn’t matter. Like many of my own writing at the time, these reviews betray many of the flaws, pretensions, awkwardnesses and quick judgements of writing by people not yet out of their twenties, yet also not quite on the ball as regards youth cool (whether spontaneous or studied), nor knowing which instinctive steps to take in order to pass themselves off as tastemakers.

Yet the man’s voice, and mind, razzes through regardless. Tart, salty, Anglo-Germanic; sometimes surprisingly coy or camp; clearly in love with his subject, and only partially covering up his enthusiasm with that deflecting humour and that peanut-gallery sarcasm. It was right for the zine. At the start, ‘Misfit City’ was unashamedly awkward, hopeful, geeky and anxious. It keeps those characteristics now; and Vaughan was, in those early years, an integral part of that spirit.

* * * * * * * *

Goodbye, Vaughanie. You never knew how much people were going to miss you. I know you hated phoney sentiment and how annoyed you got at people’s tendency to blather along with their half-arsed well-meaningness (when they should have been getting up and doing something solid to help), but I do what I can to commemorate you.

Right now, I’m tempted to pick up something I know you couldn’t get along with – one of the most balloon-headed Yes albums, say, or the Lloyd Webber ‘Requiem’ – just so that I can imagine telling you about it down the phone. Just so that I can invite you to write something about it. So I could hear the whistle of you sucking your cheeks in and squirming; and finally, hear that carefully polite, firm, impeccably-enunciated “er… No,” emerge from your mouth. As if you’d spent the intervening three seconds mouthing a sugar cube into a tiny statuette of a unicorn, and had just delicately spat it out, completed with its own little sculpted, candied glare.

You were always a sweetheart, in sarcastic-git’s clothing. Sleep well, you lovely fraud; you wise, spiky friend.
 

March 1996 – album reviews – Nicola Alesini & Pier Luigi Andreoni’s ‘Marco Polo’ (“like diving into a tapestry”)

24 Mar

Nicola Alesini & Pier Paulo Andreoni: 'Marco Polo'

Nicola Alesini & Pier Paulo Andreoni: ‘Marco Polo’

Listening to this album is like diving into a tapestry. Well, I guess a lot of prog and ambient-related music is, given its emphasis on the visual qualities of music and the proggy tendency (in particular) to fixate on the past; and that counts for even more at the crossover point. Nicola Alesini and Pier Luigi Andreoni, though, do it that much better. ‘Marco Polo’ – based loosely on the adventures of said merchant, explorer and diplomatic in the mediaeval Cathay of Kublai Khan – is a journey on the silkiest of roads, one on which you could really lose yourself in the billowing, drifting shapes which reality assumes.


 
Even while rising in the world of Italian jazz, saxophonist Alesini has also frequently been drawn into the world of art rock, kosmische music and ambient electronica. Andreoni’s already had a two-decade history as a multi-instrumentalist – starting out with Piacenzan comedy rockers La Pattona in the mid-’70s and passing through New Wave, experimental folk and minimalist synthing via The Doubling Riders and A.T.R.O.X. during the ’80s. Most recently, he’s been making a showing in the experimental ambient Andreolina duo during the ’90s. Much of the latter (with the exception of the comedy) leaves its mark on ‘Marco Polo’, although arguably the defining musical voice is Alesini’s upfront, intimate soprano sax – breathy, sweet and fragile, yet possessing a white-flame passion.


 
Andreoni, meanwhile, reveals himself to be a master of ambient keyboarding following the Brian Eno and Richard Barbieri path, using his instruments as subtle invisible chisels for sculpting electrons and the air into a colossal romantic spectrum of sound. Between the two of them they craft a set of compositions that phase slowly across the face of the world, colouring their own instrumental textures with the careful deployment of harmoniums and bouzoukis, cello and atmosphere guitar. This is an album of travelling, of seeing heartstopping landscapes for the first time, of releasing those feelings that the wanderer knows, of attempting to paint all of this in music.


 
This they do in glowing detail; the snake-charmer sax of Sumatra, the warped radio-chat and disassociated sway of Buchara, the metallophone Chinese chiming and fluting reeds of Quinsai, La Citta’del Cielo. With this type of thought being brought to bear on it, ‘Marco Polo’ is very much a deep-shaded ambient dreamscape album of the David Sylvian school, filled with sweeps of electronic space and shade, and immeasurably elevated when other musicians drift into the mix to stir up Alesini and Andreoni’s immaculate studies. David Torn‘s contribution of guitars, for instance, which bellow like yaks or hover like the promise of avalanches in Yangchow or M. Polo; or when Harold Budd places his sparse Himalayan points of piano into Samarca or The Valley of Pamir.



 
Roger Eno is on board as well, his less polished keyboard approach adding a wonderfully naïve human touch to the lambent, warmly aloof perfection (in particular on the aquamarine piano study of Il Libro dell’Incessante Accordo con Il Cielo). The pale vulnerable tones of his voice carry reedily through the twinkling spectral travel-songs of M. Polo and Samarca. Arturo Stalteri (the New Age keyboardist who originally made his name in progressive Italian folk duo Pierrot Lunaire) adds harmonium to the former, buried deep in the mix somewhere. The best moments come, though, when David Sylvian himself is brought in to sing on three tracks; his luminous baritone wreathing through the misty dawn-music of Come Morning (Stalteri’s bouzouki adding a glimmering coda), fluttering above the vague rattling sketches of Maya, or brooding (over cello, sax and a rippling ghost of electronic percussion) on dreamy images of god-games on The Golden Way.



 
And yet, in spite of all of the talent squeezed onto the album, somehow ‘Marco Polo’ doesn’t completely satisfy. It’s a little too remote, too self-contained and preoccupied with its own panoramic reveries. Behind the rich melodies and atmospheres, there’s only the vaguest engagement with the historical Marco Polo and Cathay; there’s not quite enough substance behind the shimmering surface of the album’s undeniable loveliness. Maybe it’s best viewed from the other end of a room, from a distance where the threads in the tapestry blue together into a captivating portrait which defies laws of time and space, where it can give such a convincingly four-dimensional performance that its audience can forget its two-dimensional thinness. But if you can live with that, ‘Marco Polo’ makes a wonderful tapestry.


 
Nicola Alesini & Pier Luigi Andreoni: ‘Marco Polo’
Materiali Sonori, MASO CD 90069 (8012957006921)
CD-only album
Released:
22nd March 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Get CD from Materiali Sonori, or second-hand; stream from last.fm, Apple Music, Google Play or Spotify.
Nicola Alesini & Pier Luigi Andreoni online:
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Nicola Alesini online:
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Pier Luigi Andreoni online:
Homepage Facebook Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Spotify Amazon Music
 

November 1995 – live reviews – David Sylvian’s ‘Slow Fire – A Personal Retrospective’ @ Royal Festival Hall, Southbank, London, 4th November (“self-effacing chameleonics”)

6 Nov

David Sylvian: 'Slow Fire - A Personal Retrospective' 4th November 1995

David Sylvian: ‘Slow Fire – A Personal Retrospective’ 4th November 1995

With former Japan leader David Sylvian, a show or an album is rarely as simple as being just a show or an album. Since 1983 he’s swum in and out of focus on a collection of artistic cross-fertilisations (sombrely beautiful songs albums, collaborative ambient vaguenesses, art installations): a shadowed, near-invisible chameleon with an enigmatic past ranging from over-exposed greasepaint-and-trash glamour to composer-effacing sound-sculpture. Tonight’s show – given extra weight by its ponderous title of ‘Slow Fire’ – is billed as a solo retrospective plus work in progress. Given Sylvian’s occasional tendency to enmire himself in inconsequential sound-tapestries, this could be grim. But the reality of ‘Slow Fire’ is more straightforward. Since we last saw him, touring with Robert Fripp, David Sylvian (like so many progressive artists) has decided to re-examine himself, unplugged.

With any contemporary electric musician, this is a risk: for Sylvian, much more so. The man now best known, post-Japan, for wall-to-wall electronic shrouding spends most of tonight perched on a stool behind a classical guitar. It’s the old rebirth scenario: once a travelling encrypter of decadent European and subtle Oriental sensibilities, Sylvian’s currently settled down into domestic bliss in America with a new wife (Prince protégé Ingrid Chavez), a new accent (decidedly transatlantic) and – judging by the credits on the appallingly pretentious programme – a guru. This would explain the brilliant white kaftan (has Jon Anderson missed any clothes recently?) and the four-cornered bowing as he takes the stage.

Though he’s dropped a few clues about an acoustic direction on recent recordings (on the Sylvian/Fripp B-side Endgame, for example), accepting Sylvian as an acoustic musician is not so easy. That marvellous voice, deep and rich as fortified honey, is still there, but over the years he’s made so much mileage out of his electrophonic atmospheres that his actual songs have been able to camouflage any flaws within the soundcraft.

The often disappointing collaboration with Fripp laid bare the aridity that Sylvian songs can often shrink into – tonight, Jean the Birdman is tricky and interesting but (even with a ludicrous attempt at scat singing) ultimately uninvolving, and there’s nothing like an acoustic performance for exposing juicelessness. Unsurprisingly, material from Sylvian’s song-centric 1987 album ‘Secrets of the Beehive’ fare well (the lilting menace in the folk-premonitions of The Boy with the Gun, a magnificent Orpheus and a hushed Waterfront) as do the few treasured songs from the Rain Tree Crow project: a reverberant Every Colour You Are, and a version of Blackwater which releases the song’s submerged country elements.

There are even one or two surprises during the guitar set, such as a rich rendition of Before the Bullfight and the shocking reinvention of keystone Japan hit Ghosts. From the beatless, icy original, Sylvian turns it into a wry Latin pop-inflected shrug of acknowledged doubt, Gilberto Gil meets Scott Walker. Even more shockingly, it works. But material from the schizophrenic ‘Brilliant Trees’ era has a tougher time making the jump to simple gut strings. Twitchy artiness such as Red Guitar and a limp Pulling Punches stumble out as embarrassing feynesses. Weathered Wall becomes a dull drone when denied the support of Jon Hassell‘s vaporous trumpet. With his shamanic atmospheric arrangements missing, too much of Sylvian’s once-epochal material is revealed as mere spectral verbiage, irresistibly crooned but superficially moodist. “Words with the charlatan,” mutters someone next to me, sarcastically.

It’s when he’s at the keyboard, with renewed access to a broader range of textures, that Sylvian delivers real magic – the rueful piano balladry in September and Earthbound Starblind, or the swathes of synth around the frozen pain and stone tears of Damage. When he allows himself the luxury of backing tapes, the dream deepens. A medley of Maria and Rain Tree Crow sees him keening over a wafting mist of chilling ambience punctuated by a ghostly chuckle. The First Day (graced with a wisp of taped Fripp skysaw) is as lushly majestic as ever. The deep dark indigo melancholy of Let the Happiness In acquires a meditative drum loop along with the shadowy orchestras of synth: it becomes hymnal, filling the great yearning emptiness at its heart with a sense of renewal, of return and redemption. It’s at moments like these that faith returns, and we can remember the subtle yet profound impact that Sylvian’s music has made in the past.

The trouble is that that was the past; and that the present is looking decidedly lumpen. The keyboard is also where Sylvian unveils his new material. For work in progress, it seems suspiciously complete… and already possesses a distinct form. A piano version of Tim Hardin’s It’ll Never Happen Again is the touchstone, with the interminable Ingrid’s Wheels and the rambling I Do Nothing (the latter most notable for its repeated, listless “alleluia”s) sketching Sylvian’s way forwards. Dusky, Americanised ballads with a strong element of that empty piano-bar pomposity that’s invariably damned with the kiss-of-death tag “quality songwriting”. Superficial sheen generating superficial applause. It’s difficult to escape the thought that David Sylvian’s self-effacing chameleonics have finally led him into a trap, a territory where he can no longer find his own face, where he will blur into a line of indistinguishable piano-song hacks whose albums will receive polite plaudits and gather dust on the lower shelves, where the fire will slow to a flicker.

The old Japan acolytes queue up tonight to touch the hem of King David’s gown. He smiles and bows like a bashful messiah. I can appreciate his showman’s smoothness… but I’ve lost my faith. I have a horrible suspicion that despite the handful of wonderful moments held to the light this evening, the shaman has swapped his books and his wisdom for a Cadillac, and the tin drum which once sounded out a musical challenge has just stopped beating.

David Sylvian online:
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Additional notes: While there’s no footage available for the London ‘Slow Fire’ show, you can get an approximation of it from footage of the Bari show from the same tour, in Italy, which is compiled here.
 

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