As winter ghosts gather and Halloween approaches, Plight & Premonition makes for a great seasonal soundtrack.
David Sylvian reportedly hated the term ‘new age’ and wasn’t even that fond of ‘ambient’, preferring the phrase ‘environmental’ to describe his instrumental work of the ‘80s (he lived in South Kensington, a busy part of West London, and occasionally spoke of making music that would remind him of being in nature).
And what a body of work it is. Plight & Premonition is a great conjuring trick – it’s almost impossible to work out how it was done. Sylvian and Czukay concoct an intoxicating blend of tape loops, Dictaphone, acoustic piano, radio recordings, treated guitar and analogue synths which doesn’t sound remotely like anyone else’s ‘ambient’ music.
Sylvian arrived at Czukay’s massive studio near Cologne – an abandoned cinema – in autumn 1986 to work on the latter’s Rome Remains Rome album. But that work never materialised. Instead, after a dinner out, they returned to the studio and started messing about on Czukay’s many instruments.
Sylvian told writer Richard Cook more about the album’s genesis in ‘The Wire’ magazine:
I dislike studios immensely, but I like Holger’s studio because it’s all one room and it’s geared towards the musician. You never really know when you’re being recorded. There was three nights’ worth of improvising. ‘Plight’ was originally just a ten-minute piece of music which Holger worked on for six months afterwards, adding signals from short-wave radio and stuff, and finally turning it into the piece it is now. ‘Premonition’ is a piece we did at the end of the three days and it’s just as it stood.
The only thing we can be sure of is that ‘Plight’ is – tangentially – in E minor, whereas ‘Premonition’ is in E major. The former is disturbing, the latter uplifting. Apart from that it’s best just to let it wash over you.
The album emerged on Virgin’s burgeoning instrumental imprint Venture Records on 21 March 1988. Superbly, it made an appearance in the UK album chart at #71 and sold well. Sylvian was still quite a draw at the time in the slipstream of Secrets Of The Beehive.
However the current streaming/CD version of Plight & Premonition is an awful remix carried out by Sylvian in 2002 during his Everything And Nothing greatest hits period, when he was reassessing everything he’d done for Virgin (and not liking a lot of what he heard).
He inexplicably removed all reverb (both real – via the studio echo chamber – and digital), leading to a fidgety, unpleasantly dry mix with very little depth or substance. Best to find the original 1988 release if you can, and you’ll also get Yuka Fujii’s delicious cover photo too…
Sylvian’s modus operandi for the studio sessions that made up his classic 1984 debut album perfectly reflected its ‘anti-rock’ stance.
Steve Jansen’s drums and/or percussion were generally recorded first, usually followed by David’s rough keyboards/guitars and a guide vocal. After that he worked closely with guest musicians on a one-to-one basis.
And the latter aspect is the main focus of some fascinating, newly-released footage of the Hansa Studio sessions in Berlin, documented by Sylvian’s then-partner Yuka Fujii.
It’s an absolute treat for Brilliant Trees fans and a great chance to see what actually happened in most recording studios during the 1980s. In common with making movies, there’s a lot of waiting around, a fair bit of chewing the fat and then some pretty intense bursts of performance/concentration.
It’s fascinating watching Sylvian collaborating with his good friends Ryuichi Sakamoto and Holger Czukay. Sakamoto is a model of quiet concentration, quickly learning the chords to album outtake ‘Blue Of Noon’. Czukay is full of smiles and fun while tinkering with his Dictaphone and laying down a guitar solo on ‘Red Guitar’ which didn’t make the cut.
Elsewhere we finally get to hear what ball-of-energy guitarist Ronny Drayton actually plays on ‘Pulling Punches’, and Jon Hassell is every inch the NYC avant-garde auteur (in his excellent book ‘Cries And Whispers’, Anthony Reynolds reports that he did just one five-hour session for Brilliant Trees, asking for and getting $5,000 upfront plus co-writing credits for the two tracks he played on).
But who knew he recorded his solos sitting on the floor in the corner of a tiny studio, Sylvian at his elbow? For his part, Sylvo is generally smiley, quiet, engaged, charming, extremely professional and seems to have a good rapport with co-producer Steve Nye.
Sadly the short bit of footage that emerged recently (then rapidly disappeared) of bassist Wayne Braithwaite recording ‘Red Guitar’ is not reinstated here.
The clip is a vital addition to one’s enjoyment of Brilliant Trees – check it out (and I’ve included Sylvian’s own notes on the footage below) before it gets taken down.
This raw footage, shot on what’s now seen as a primitive camera but which was a top of the line consumer product at the time, a massive, unwieldy object, was documented by Yuka Fujii. I’ve put the material together in the order it was recorded to give a very general idea of the process of development. It’s been my practice to work closely with each individual musician since my earliest days with the band in an attempt to get the best results. I’ve always maintained the band prepared me for working with others, gave me the confidence to work with my peers, the ‘newcomers’ in the room all being older than myself (25). At this point in time Ryuichi’s English was very rudimentary (this was to change radically within the next ten years or so) so we had to communicate as economically as possible, or rather, 95% of the exchange was purely musical. Yuka and Peter Barakan would step in when greater explication was needed. Holger’s English remained consistent throughout the years i knew him. Again, subtleties could be lost so the dialogue was relatively basic. These sessions in Berlin were my first step in creating what would become ‘Brilliant Trees’ and my initial move away from the structure of the band. It was one of the happiest recording experiences I can recall while signed with a major label. Because of the success of having everyone meet in Berlin, a city native to no one involved, it felt like an adventure. People arrived with a spirit of openness and receptivity. I went on to repeat this process with albums such as ‘Secrets of the Beehive’, ‘Rain Tree Crow’, and ‘The First Day’ among others.
I’ve left a lot of Jon’s conversation in as it’s of interest. In one section he’s explaining the nature of raga and how he came to it by working with renowned Indian singer/teacher Pandit Pran Nath. He was also intimating that, as ‘Brilliant Trees’ asked that he play in the western tradition, ‘steps’ as he describers it, he didn’t see how his performance could be incorporated into the title track. I persevered. He returned to his hotel room that evening to work on it and, overnight, came up with something so beautiful and complimentary to the piece, that moved away from raga (outside of the coda), and gave us one of the rare, if not unique recordings, of Jon playing in the western tradition.
Besides the limited nature of my vocabulary, the paired down nature of our exchanges for the reasons given above, my only regret is that I didn’t use Holger’s guitar solo on ‘Red Guitar’. At the time I felt it a little lightweight compared to the mix Steve Nye was prepping. I would now mix it quite differently pushing the drums way back (from the mid 70s through the 80s, drums were often foregrounded, a trend I wasn’t fond of. I fought for a change of approach on ‘Beehive’ and that’s about the time when things began to resemble how I’d initially imagined the material. There are always exceptions of course, ‘Weathered Wall’, ‘Before the Bullfight’ are just two examples). I loved Holger dearly and wish I’d imortalised his solo in some capacity. If it still exists on multitrack, all is not lost.
I came away from Berlin with an incomplete album and preceded to write a few remaining pieces to complement the best of what I had. “The Ink in the Well’, ‘Nostalgia’ and ‘Backwaters’ were added, ‘Blue of Noon’, an alternate version of ‘Forbidden Colours’, and a new track composed with Ryuichi were, with the exception of the latter, to find a home elsewhere. ‘Blue of Noon’ was originally a vocal piece but I felt this version didn’t hold together and, in any case, was out of place in the context of the album. Virgin released a working rough mix of the track as the B-side of a single.
I hope the mutual respect and good humour of everyone involved comes across along with their seriousness and committed nature to the material. Rarely has this proved otherwise for me. In this respect I feel very fortunate. From this session I made lifelong friends, a trend that was to continue for many years to come.
Sylvo is not particularly known for his sense of humour, but there was surely an element of black comedy about the release of the ‘Pop Song’ 12-inch single.
It’s hard to read it as anything other than his ironic response to being asked by Virgin Records to come up with something a little more ‘commercial’ to promote the Weatherbox limited-edition box set (a collection that, in the event, didn’t even contain ‘Pop Song’!).
Imagine the ashen faces of the management at Virgin HQ when the needle hit the vinyl. ‘OK, there’ssome kind of groove, but hang on – the synth bass is out of tune, the drums sound like Tupperware boxes and the piano has been flown in from a different song altogether…’
Yes, this was David’s ‘Jugband Blues’. And it was brilliant (the B-sides are well worth tracking down too). Cooked up alongside regular co-producer Steve Nye at Marcus Studios, Fulham, West London, during late summer 1989, ‘Pop Song’ was Sylvian’s bitter farewell to the decade, a vision of late-’80s Britain as a nation of clock-watching factory workers numbed by banal pop music and Sunday supplements. It’s fair to say that it wasn’t your typical feelgood summer single…
Musically, it was Sylvian’s version of ‘pop’ and pretty amusing at that, with some gorgeous ‘found sounds’, deliciously tangential piano work from ECM regular John Taylor and underwater drums/queasy synth bass courtesy of Steve Jansen. Sylvian delivers a great vocal too, full of cool, jazzy phrasing (check out the ‘But the money goes/And the time goes too’ line).
I bought ‘Pop Song’ on the day it came out (30th October 1989), and my memory is that it created quite a stir amongst Sylvian fans. It registered briefly at #83 in the UK singles chart and then promptly disappeared. Was it ever actually played on the radio? One doubts it.
But if ‘Pop Song’ proved a strange detour for Sylvian, life was about to get even stranger – next stop was the Japan ‘reunion’ Rain Tree Crow, of which much more soon.
Did any music of lasting worth come out of the early ’80s ‘New Age’ boom?
Mark Isham’s brief but inspired Windham Hill catalogue still cuts the mustard.
The trumpeter/keyboardist/composer’s Vapor Drawings, released 35 years ago this weekend, was a remarkably assured, fully-formed debut album, recorded when he was part of Van Morrison’s band and also enjoying a varied session career.
I distinctly remember hearing a track from it in the mid-1980s on a short-lived ‘new age’ BBC radio show whose name escapes me. And weirdly, Isham mixed the album 100 yards from my childhood home during spring 1983 at John Kongos’s Tapestry Studios.
Synths are Vapor Drawings’ main ingredient but Isham uses them in subtly original ways, using sequencers to build Steve Reich-inspired ‘systems’ or – one of his trademarks – getting them to hang in the air like sky lanterns.
The music defies categorisation, mostly hovering in the hinterland between ambient, minimalism, electronica and jazz (he even throws in a quote from Sonny Rollins’ ‘Oleo’ on ‘Raffles In Rio’).
But there’s always the human element courtesy of his superb trumpet and piano playing. Erik Satie is also an apparent inspiration, and possibly what David Sylvian picked up on when he invited Isham into the studio to record Brilliant Trees later in 1983.
It’s no surprise Isham has become one of the most in-demand soundtrack composers of the last 30 years – ‘On The Threshold Of Liberty’ (named after a Magritte painting), ‘Men Before The Mirror’ and ‘Sympathy And Acknowledgement’ are epic and rousing.
’83 proved to be a bit of an annus mirabilis for Isham, hooking up with Sylvian and also working with Gil Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Vapor Drawings is the first and best of his solo albums.
September’s here again. The leaves brown, the nights draw in; thoughts and ears turn towards Sylvian’s music.
The exquisite Brilliant Trees, released in July 1984, is one of those collections that I must have owned on almost every format over the years, and probably bought a few times on each.
A period of extreme introspection and even depression descended upon Sylvian following the split of Japan in late 1982.
Although his relationship with Mick Karn’s ex Yuka Fujii (who took the photos in the stylish Brilliant Trees album package) was largely thought to be the main catalyst, it still represented for Sylvian a distressing rupture of childhood friendships.
He later claimed that he could barely stay awake during this period, so degraded were his immune system and emotional reserves.
Sylvian gathered co-producer Steve Nye and some of his favourite musicians at Berlin’s Hansa Studios and RAK in London. Influences came from ambient music, NYC avant-funk, John Martyn, Nick Drake and ECM jazz.
His friend/ frequent collaborator Ryuichi Sakamoto and brother Steve Jansen were the main musical cohorts, though ex-Japan keyboard texturalist Richard Barbieri also appeared to great effect.
Brilliant Trees is very much an album of two sides. The opener ‘Pulling Punches’ is a sweetener, an effective but unrepresentative slice of white funk featuring NYC sessioneers Wayne Braithwaite and Ronnie Drayton on bass and guitar. The nearest thing to the Tin Drum sound, there’s nothing remotely like it on the rest of the album.
What a treat to hear Kenny Wheeler and Mark Isham’s flugelhorn/trumpet breaks on the classic singles ‘Ink In The Well’ (UK #36) and ‘Red Guitar’ (UK #17). Side two is a different matter altogether – it’s dark, foreboding, autumnal.
Sylvian and Nye mostly eschew ‘conventional’ solos in favour of ‘found’ sounds courtesy of Holger Czukay’s Dictaphone (see below) or Jon Hassell’s extraordinary conch-like trumpet, both used to especially brilliant effect on ‘Wailing Wall’.
‘Backwater’ begins with a powerful build up of (sampled?) strings (and check out Jansen’s inspired groove, a queasy 6/4 over a very strange programmed shaker pattern), while the almost hymnal title track is beautifully performed by Sylvian and adorned with a gorgeous ethno-jam outro.
Listening 30 years on, what strikes one is the minimalist nature of the whole album. It has dated remarkably well. Many tracks are built around a cyclical Jansen groove, sparse bass, strong Sylvian melody and then tasteful, painterly touches from clean guitar, piano, Dictaphone or synth.
This stunning collection set in motion a superb four-album run of form for Sylvian. Brilliant Trees is an almost-perfect blend of songcraft and the avant-garde at a time when pop was drawing on jazz, ambient and world music to occasionally spectacular – and commercial – effect (the album reached #4 in the UK charts and sold over 100,000 copies). You might say things were never quite the same again.
Maybe John Abercrombie was the Andy Murray of jazz guitarists.
People say Murray was ‘unlucky’ to be playing tennis at the same time as Federer, Djokovic and Nadal; Abercrombie was arguably ‘unfortunate’ to have been forging a career at the same time as Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, John Scofield and Bill Frisell.
But a superb career he forged all the same. Starting out as somewhat of a John McLaughlin imitator playing unhinged jazz/rock with Billy Cobham and Dreams on ‘some of the worst fusion albums ever made’ (his words), by 1974 Abercrombie had settled into a long, intriguing career on ECM Records, where he could pursue all his interests, from acoustic guitar duos with Ralph Towner to organ trios with Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette.
But one of his best bands was this mid-1980s outfit with ex-Bill Evans/Lyle Mays sideman Marc Johnson on bass and legendary Peter Erskine on drums, often augmented by Michael Brecker on sax too.
Abercrombie was getting heavily into the guitar synth around this time, while also using loops and ethereal keyboard patches to beef up the studio sound.
’86’s Current Events was a fine ‘blowing’ record but followup Getting There– released 30 years ago this month – was arguably Abercrombie’s most commercial album. It’s big and bold but definitely no ‘fusion’ sell-out, and it distills its ideas into relatively short, concise statements.
It’s also somewhat of a rarity for the ECM label in that it’s not produced by Manfred Eicher – Lee Townsend is in charge here, assisted by James Farber.
The epic title track is loud and proud, almost approaching avant-rock with Erskine absolutely lamping his drums and a hysterical, exciting set of screaming guitar-synth solos. It gets near the approach of David Torn’s sometimes raucous Cloud About Mercury album.
Ethereal, gentle and gorgeous ‘Thalia’ (composed by Vince Mendoza) and ‘Chance’ are ambient/jazz masterpieces with shades of Mark Isham’s work.
Classic ballad ‘Remember Hymn’ initially sounds like a re-harmonisation of Sibelius’s ‘Valse Triste’ but slowly becomes a vehicle for Brecker’s haunting tenor. The latter also cleans up on the raucous two-chord blowout ‘Furs On Ice’, reminiscent of Johnson’s Bass Desires band, with Erskine at his most Elvin Jones-like.
Getting There predictably received a somewhat muted critical reaction (but did get a three-star review in Q Magazine). I wasn’t bothered about that – having been recommended Abercrombie by a guitar player friend, I bought it sight unseen from HMV Oxford Street on vinyl a few weeks after it came out. It’s still my favourite album by the guitarist.
But it would be the last time Abercrombie dipped his toe into ‘rockist’ waters – he quickly regrouped to continue his ever-eclectic, increasingly gentle career, and, to the best of my knowledge, never picked up the guitar synth again…
And so we come to the ultimate autumn album and the closing chapter of an incredible run of form for the ex-Japan singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.
For my money, Sylvian’s 1984-1987 output (Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth, Secrets) is the equal of any ‘pop’ triptych.
Each song is memorable, with its own specific mood and soundworld. Space and melody are the key commodoties. Arrangements are kept as simple as possible. If Sylvian can accompany his voice with just double bass and occasional piano, acoustic guitar or percussion – as on ‘Mother And Child’ – he does so.
Some may find this minimalism disconcerting; I certainly did back in 1987, at least compared to the rich musical stew of Gone To Earth. But the sparseness also makes it timeless. Secrets is an album to live with.
Quality guest musicians – David Torn, Mark Isham, Phil Palmer, Steve Jansen, Danny Cummings, Danny Thompson – are brought in only when absolutely necessary.
But Ryuichi Sakamato is a mainstay of the album and man of the match, contributing piano, organ and beguiling string/woodwind arrangements.
Sylvian’s detractors may label him ‘poet laureate of depressives’ but lyrically he goes way beyond ‘depression’ here. This is an unashamedly serious, ‘pre-irony’ album; many probably recoil from that too.
‘The Boy With The Gun’ is a controversial and eerily relevant character study. ‘Maria’ and ‘The Devil’s Own’ are genuinely spooky and quintessentially gothic.
‘When Poets Dreamed Of Angels’ compares modern-day domestic abuse with medieval abuses of power, ‘bishops and knights well placed to attack’.
‘Let The Happiness In’ initially comes across as a two-chord dirge – it took me about 15 years to really appreciate it – but becomes an affecting song about hope against all the odds. A brave choice of lead-off single, it crawled to #66 in the UK chart.
Second single ‘Orpheus’ didn’t chart at all but is no less than a late-’80s masterpiece featuring a gorgeous string arrangement from Brian Gascoigne. ‘September’ and ‘Waterfront’ are milestones in orchestral pop.
Secrets scraped into the UK top 40 at #37 – where it stayed for one week. It marked the end of Sylvian’s pop career. He would wait 12 years to release another solo album.