This release isn’t generally considered to be a David Sylvian album in the purest sense (he doesn’t sing) – the confusion is actually three fold; firstly, when it was released in 1985 it was cassette only, secondly it has been re released with tracks added and tracks removed and last but not least – it is purely instrumental.
I have always been an admirer of Sylvian, his evolutionary arc is fascinating. From the first glam Japan album in 1978 to their Euro period through to the groundbreaking electronic band (with proper vocalist) on Tin Drum 1981 and then his work with Ryuchi Sakamoto in 1982 before releasing the first solo album, Brilliant Trees 1984 followed by this excursion into textures and experimentation.
Musicians here on various tracks include, Robert Fripp on guitar, Sakamoto on piano, Jon Hassell on trumpet, Holger Czukay on dictaphone, Steve Jansen (Sylvian’s brother and Japan’s drummer) and Percy Jones from Brand X on bass. We also mustn’t forget the ghostly voice of Jean Cocteau who can be heard on Steel Cathedrals.
Produced by Sylvian and Nigel Walker, Alchemy investigates a similar territory to Burnt Freidman and Jaki Liebezeit’s later Secret Rhythms series and on the opening track, Words For The Shaman, the native voice from who knows where is evocative and atmospheric on top of the drum pattern. Ethnic flutes and synths sit comfortably next to distant guitars. The piece is in three parts (written with Hassell): Ancient Evening, Incantation and Awakening (Songs From The Treetops) – last track co-written with Jansen and it sounds like Holger Czukay may have been a source of inspiration, looking at the dates on his first two solo albums Movies 1979 and On The Way To The Peak Of Normal 1981. In any case this electronic, World Music sounds even better to me now than it did then when it was originally heard in a climate of less thoughtful studio wizardry.
Preparations For A Journey starts with voices perhaps from a market square in Vietnam and then a fluid sound like an unknown wind instrument through effects, eventually picked up with low drums and returning to the voices.
The Stigma Of Childhood (Kin) originally a piece from a play has treated keyboards and searching guitars in the foreground with soft moodier guitars in the background and even some muted Ebo.
I absolutely love the next track despite its uncomfortable title – A Brief Conversation Ending In Divorce. John Taylor plays piano and Stuart Bruce is responsible for the computer programming. It sounds like the avant-garde as interpreted by modern composers in the fifties. This certainly isn’t for everyone – if you are looking for a chorus don’t look here – don’t even come here for ambience, this is more like the soundtrack to an early Czech animation.
The last track, the 18 minute Steel Cathedrals is co-written with Ryuchi Sakamoto. Masami Tsuchiya from Japanese band Ippu Do features on “guitar abstractions”, Kenny wheeler appears on flugelhorn and you can pick out Robert Fripp’s distinctive guitar style. It’s a soundtrack to a short film by Sylvian and Yasayuki Yamaguchi shot over two days in and around Tokyo.
The Japanese aesthetic certainly took hold of Sylvian whose real name is David Batt and comes from Beckenham in Kent, but I have all the time in the world for his arty musings and collaborations and only wish there were more of them. Having said that here are still many more projects to discover for the uninitiated. Sylvian collaborates with Holger Czukay on two ambient albums and tours with Robert Fripp spawning a live and a studio album that are really worth investigating. His projects are many and if I was discovering Sylvian for the first time I would start right back at the beginning with the first Japan album (you won’t believe the difference) and make my way through his fascinating, eclectic and esoteric career.