September Songs: David Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees

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 1984is 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). And, lucky for us, footage exists of the latter’s recording session, focusing in on Wayne Braithwaite’s bass overdubs (did they change the song’s key at a later date?):

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 on this, 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 that things were never quite the same again.

 

 

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Stump: A Fierce Pancake 30 Years Old Today

If you read the press blurb about Stump, the general consensus seems to be that they didn’t quite ‘make it’. But rather we should probably be thankful that they got it together for as long as they did.

The Anglo-Irish band made me smile (and continue to do so), released a great mini album (Quirk Out) and one full-length one, A Fierce Pancake. Released 30 years old today, the latter is probably in my ’80s top 10 (and is reportedly one of Faith No More/Mr Bungle frontman Mike Patton’s favourites too).

It was never going to be easy: the drummer (Rob McKahey) sounded like he belonged in Beefheart’s Magic Band or Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, the fretless bassist (Kev Hopper) was into sampling, Pere Ubu and Brand X, the guitarist (Chris Salmon) sounded like a cross between Hank Marvin and Adrian Belew and brilliant frontman/lyricist (the late Mick Lynch) was more than likely to engage in a bit of onstage belly dancing.

But it somehow works. A Fierce Pancake is dedicated to the life and works of physician/psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and writer Flann O’Brien. It was released on Ensign Records, mainly known for breaking Irish acts like Sinead O’Connor and the Waterboys. Recording sessions at Hansa in Berlin were apparently long and difficult – original producer Holger Hiller jumped ship halfway through and then ‘stabilising influence’ engineer Stephen Street got summoned away to work with Morrissey.

But the album’s sometimes hilarious (‘Bone’, ‘Charlton Heston’, ‘Chaos’, ‘Eager Bereaver’), sometimes touching (‘Alcohol’, ‘Boggy Home’) and always musically interesting. I think of it as something like a cross between Viz magazine and XTC. It’s a shame that they couldn’t maintain the John Peel-endorsed momentum of their early days.

Their manager persuaded them to call it a day after a disastrous Camden Electric Ballroom gig supported by The Blue Aeroplanes on 21st December 1988. A Fierce Pancake hadn’t come close to recouping its costs and the Rave scene was in full flow. It was all over, barring a one-off comeback gig in May 2015.

For more on the band, check out this excellent podcast.