David Sylvian - Blemish (2003)


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By Tom Johnson

It isn't necessarily that blemish was so drastically different than anything David Sylvian had done before. He'd done ambient, both alone and with such visionaries as Holger Czukay and Robert Fripp, and some of it verged on being noise to me. (I'm not a fan of noise-as-music, but I do like good ambient.) And he's of course done his share of vocal pieces—first as the voice of Japan and then solo. But never before had he blended these elements together quite the way he did on blemish.

Sylvian takes on all aspects of the recording here: He composed and played everything, he recorded it, and he produced it. This gave him the freedom to stretch out as he never had before, creating a decidedly uncommercial album in the process—no surprise there. “Vocal ambient" is the best way to describe the outcome, as the music behind his vocals is often formless and beatless, but is nonetheless an intriguing bed over which to weave his lyrics.

I worried that an album like this would be an utter failure, as there are no bounds that would prevent it from straying too far. Fortunately, Sylvian's melodic sense is so strong that he is able to carry the burden with his voice alone, allowing the music to swim free underneath him. And Sylvian's voice is in strong form; his husky baritone has developed a warmth and depth over time that only seems to grow more seductive. At an age when most vocalists become more wispy and thin, David Sylvian was in better form both vocally and musically than the majority of his peers—of which he truly has few.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Remembering David Sylvian's 1986 album 'Gone To Earth,' this beautiful work of art—a rarity at any time in rock music's history but particularly today.]

Sylvian employed jazz-guitarist Bill Frisell on several tracks of his previous project, Dead Bees On A Cake, and the duo tracks the two recorded hinted at the direction Sylvian committed fully to on blemish. But where tracks like “Dobro #1" fell slightly flat and felt forced and stiff, it is Sylvian's freedom on this outing that enables these atmospheric tracks to really come to life.

Along for the ride on three tracks is avant-garde freak-guitarist Derek Bailey, who is either tremendously talented at playing the way no one else has, or has absolutely no idea what those long shiny thin strings on a guitar do—and so he plinks and plucks, seemingly at random. His work is like utterly alien sounding abstractions of traditional Chinese music. It was both intriguing and grating at the same time. This is Bailey's art—playing the illogical as musical, finding sounds from the grating of a string on a fret; stopping a note before it rings out; frantic, dissonant scales. He truly knows no bounds, and could easily take any project too far out. But under the engaging melodies of Sylvian's voice, Bailey's odd plinkings and pluckings work. Christian Fennesz, a name I know but whose work I am unfortunately unfamiliar with, provided electronics and arranged the album's beautiful, liquid-dream closing track, “a fire in the forest."

blemish was a well developed extension of the things Sylvian is already known for—mood and atmosphere. The execution is a bit more committed than on other projects, as he has no worries about making a commercial success. With the reigns of a record label lifted, David Sylvian was able to push these pieces as far as they needed to in order for them to take on lives of their own.

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