Review Summary: Not an album for those averse to experimental noodlings and disjointed drawn-out compositions, Manafon is for the patient listener and will transport the willing to a downbeat, dysfunctional yet intriguing world of sonic pleasure.
David Sylvian has never been one to do things the easy way. After splitting from his breakthrough band Japan at the height of their (moderate) success he went on to forge an unconventional and often underappreciated solo career where he shafted most of the new romantic inclinations of his former group and realised the beauty of experimentation. Since his early works in the 1980’s, Sylvian has consistently sought help from the best improvisational musicians around. Having worked with icons such as King Crimson’s Robert Fripp and Can’s Holger Czukay it should come as no surprise that on Manafon
this collaborative spirit remains. Austrian electronica expert Christian Fennesz once again rejoins Sylvian and is perhaps the most recognisable name amongst a myriad of session musicians who provide most of the atmospheric background accompaniment to Sylvian’s distinctive smoky vocals.
In many ways Manafon
, Sylvian’s tenth proper album is his most polarizing yet. Having discarded the heavy use of bassy synths that he integrated into 2003's Blemish
Sylvian has instead stripped Manafon
down to its bare bones. The sparse minimalist orchestration adopts the role of a mere passenger to the ashen vocals that provide the momentum to drive Manafon
forwards. Subtle guitar twangs, warbling cellos and the weeping cry of a lone saxophone can all be made out in the slow droning stillness’ between stanzas. When the sporadic silences become too overwhelming a chaotic fit of fuzzy static will cleanse the memory before starting afresh in the same arrhythmic manner as before. Vocally the poetic instincts shown in glimpses throughout Sylvian’s lengthy back catalogue dominate here as many of the tracks are delivered in a downbeat, understated fashion. The worldly elegiac lyrics further add to the depth of the album and help cast the lonely scenes of detachment.
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sets the mood for the rest of the album. Depressingly slow background music enters before the ashen voice ominously articulates a dismal narrative describing a man’s lost faith in his “cheap” false idols. Eloquence unfit for such an outlook entwines with the music before Sylvian pronounces the final outcome; “They’ve refused my prayers for the umpteenth time, so I’m evening up the score” with the figure ruthlessly discarding the hoard of childhood mementos. And yet, it seems that this opener is the most optimistic track on the album. The pessimistic, bleak atmosphere created throughout transcends any Sylvian has created before and with his poetic lyrics the artist paints a dark melancholic picture that compliments the tone justly. Abstruse strings vibrate in harmony as the next track opens. Cello and saxophone are used in unison to magnify the vulnerability of the lyrics as they construct yet another ill-fated tale. There’s grief here too, and not for the last time. In amongst the foreboding lyrics are the isolated wailings of a man not quite himself. Hints of a loss are prevalent and provide insight and realism to the illusion.
This format works exceptionally in short doses but fails to work as well on the longer cuts. The albums longest track, The Greatest Living Englishman
, is a fusion of the same minimalistic style shown thus far. The fusion works for the first five minutes or so before quickly outstaying its welcome. The persistent droning can become tedious and doesn't help the tracks cause, and the instrumental break, while welcome, continues the minimalist theme and fails to stringently make any kind of impact. Similarly all seven minutes of Random Acts Of Senseless Violence
seem to drag on and on for about an hour, and with the two tracks placed next to each other in the album, Manafon
loses any momentum it had from the openers. Emily Dickinson
however, running at just half a minute less, is fantastic. There is more than just a resemblance of the jazz-infused Sylvian of old in the three minute build up and the wood-wind led acoustic break in the middle is simply put the best musical moment throughout.
The overbearing soberness of the music is a facet of Manafon
that will be subject to criticism. The unorthodox passages and long sections of nothingness can overburden a listener and at times it would seem that Manafon
takes itself too seriously. Amongst the multi-layered instrumentation and dry wordy accounts it is easy to get lost at times and those averse to experimental noodlings and disjointed drawn-out compositions should steer clear. The track lengths are another stumbling block. As mentioned earlier, the musical style just fails to work in the more protracted compositions, and with six of the nine tracks exceeding the five minute mark, patience is required in order to enjoy the music fully. Given the somewhat tedious path Manafon
treads, boredom can easily overpower an audience if they do not succumb fully to the mood of the album. Beware, Manafon
is not an easy work to digest. Those willing to jump straight into the album will find themselves isolated from the music and a good five or six plays are needed to get to grips with the musical landscapes, let alone enjoy them.
is a reserved experiment in artistic minimalism. The lack of exuberance in the song structure can grow wearisome after a while, especially in the bloated, prolonged middle section. Musically the vocals are the standout, and often the only obvious driving force behind the songs. The poetic lyrics and thought provoking metaphors are delivered with considered style, especially considering the abject despondency of the majority of the album. The withering misery could put many potential listeners off, as indeed could the long-lasting silences reminiscent of Sputnik favourite Godspeed You! Back Emperor’s F# A# ∞
in style, if not in substance. At times it can be a difficult album to get through and without a doubt cannot just be put on at any time; listeners need to be in the mood for it. In the end Manafon
doesn’t live up to previous works such as Brilliant Tree’s
or Secrets Of The Beehive
, but it has been 20 long years since Sylvian released those masterworks and Manafon
is a good enough contemporary effort to tide fans over for another few years.
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Overall 3.5 Great