Customer Reviews: Manafon
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on September 17, 2009
I'm sure there will be more opinions in the negative with David Sylvian's new album " Manfon ". This is definitely not for every Sylvian fan . If you want David's melancholic lilting ballads, you've got " Secrets of the Beehive " or " Gone To Earth ". If you want glam, you've got Japan's " Obscure Alternative " and " Adolescent Sex ". If you want perfectly manicure pop, you've got " Tin Drum " and " Gentlemen take Polaroids ". But if you want an artist such as David Sylvian to mature and find new ways to keep themselves've got " Blemish " and now " Manafon ". If I may make a comparison to Miles Davis, a man who searched and strove towards forging new ways of expression, new ways of rebellion, and at times wrestled with his artistic and personal demons. He continually struggled with himself and the public to make new music almost everytime. This artist NEVER stood still, and I'm sure lost and found listeners along the way. And in this day and age where music is manufactured in little plastic cases, all looking and sounding the same, safe as houses....with pop singers too afraid to say how they really feel ( or if they have anything to say at all ). Well I'm happy knowing that David Sylvian is in charge of his own creativity and is not afraid to show what he is feeling and communicating at this given time. At no point did I find this album a " smooth ride down the Nile on a hot summer's day ". Rather I was shocked in the same way it's sister album " Blemish " did a few years back. But with repeated listenings, I found a way to understand and appreciate the work. Music can either be a part of your furniture ( no real listening required ) or it can grab you attention forcing you to listen to it in different way. Manafon does this. So if you are up for charting unfamiliar waters, this album is for you. If not 1978's " Sometime's I feel so Low " beckons you !
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on September 17, 2009
I have just listened to Manafon the 5.1 version for the 4th time today and find the whole thing mesmerizing....incredibly poetic....its quite brutally beautiful.This sort of Artistic expression brings up the subject of Artist producing his/her vision without any regard for audience expectations.....its up to the listener to keep up or adapt...not for the Artist to produce what the audience expects etc.....most definitely challenging but highly compelling
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on October 7, 2009
How long has it been since "The Secrets of Beehive"? Twenty years? It seems David Sylvian's wheel of time is once again positioned in a very similar way than what was evident on that album. Two things. Like on that record, poet's experience and creativity is again the main issue. Another land mark from that same era. Few years later in "Ember Glance" exhibition book Sylvian refers to art as way to help heal the emptiness and neurosis of contemporary existence. In my opinion the same is achieved in this latest record, but in a very subtle way.

But maybe I am assuming too much here? After all Sylvian himself only says that the record is the twin sister of "Blemish" and that they both are contemporary takings on the genre of chamber music.

But there are also differences. Blemish is more of a duo, a duo of Sylvian's voice having a dialog with either Bailey's guitar or with the sparse electronic background. Here the size of the group is bigger, from three participants to combinations of 8 players.

But there is also another difference. As revolutionary as the discovery of Blemish was, there was also problems of loss of intensity within that record, especially at the second half of it. For me the record seems to lose its grip with the listener in "Late Night Shopping" and "How Little We Need to be Happy". In my opinion this is due to the fact there is actually two (wretched?) storylines in that record. One is the dialogue between Sylvian's wry storytelling and Bailey's guitar and the other is the discourse between him and the electronics. The two storylines do not come together and that leads to this loss of intensity at the second part of Blemish.

Nothing like this happens in "Manafon". It is masterfully played and masterfully constructed. As amazing as it seems, the record somehow manages to combine the freedom of improvisation to the overall construction of it. Though musical expressions are fresh and unexpected, at the same time the whole body of work is thematic to the degree of being conceptual.

The front door of the record, "Small Metal Gods", is fairly assessable to old fans. A folk song but a very intriguing one. Already here he puts you in the mindset of the rest of the record, or welcomes you to the undergrowth of it. There is something disquieting about it. Somehow getting into it reminds me of the hyper-cautious existence of a deer (like the one on the cover!). The hissing of wind, the birds, the non-regular plugging of instruments like someone is walking on dry sticks. Inadvertently you become strung up.

Some reviewers have said that that the next piece "The Rabbit Skinner" is a difficult one to deal with because here Sylvian seems to sing against the rest of the ensemble, or his voice is disjointed from everything else that happens around it. This is just pure nonsense. Nowhere has Mr Sylvian's listening been more precise than in pieces like "The Good Son" and "The Rabbit Skinner". The voice registers players' every gesture. The end result is chamber music warm and singing (but in a different way than something you can whistle to). The closest comparison I can think of is Boulez's ground breaking study in timbre "Le Marteau sans Maitre".

After this the record starts its slow descension to a state where urge to express becomes more and more compressed and/or suppressed. In "The Greatest Living Englishman" the players are still able to "short-circuit" this by attacking the storyline with distorted samples of modern chamber music, but by the time of "Emily Dickinson" the expressive role of instruments is almost completely thinned out to that of providing heavy layers of colour to the half whispered - half talked confessions of Sylvian.

This process of the thinning out of expressiveness does not make the second half of the record in my opinion any way less rewarding. Quite the contrary, it is exactly through this process that the record manages to maintain potency for imminent violence and to captivate the listener.

"Emily Dickinson" is probably the most violent song Sylvian has ever made. Very hard to describe what cord it hits in your soul, but it hits hard. Irregular bursts of electronics and Parker's sax-solo like a wolf's howling. Terrible, chilling and beautiful!

But there is also deliverance. After a brief orchestral interlude Sylvian gives us a way out. Not an exotic place, no surrender to Hindu Gods, no wanderlust, no drugs, but a picture of a poet ascending the valley of grief with (considerations pertaining to?) time.

The title song is actually almost as easily assessable as "Small Metal Gods". A bit like his collaboration with Alesini and Andreoni in "Come Morning".

All and all, superb work. A must buy.
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on October 13, 2009
There is no doubt that David Sylvian is one of the most creative musicians since the late nineties. His new album, "Manafon" bears out his rich imagination and daring pursuit of original experimentation. This time though his effort has not worked as expected. In spite of the huge talent of the musicians accompanying him, one does not get to feel that they do their best to deliver a good performance, and it seems that "improvising" turns out to be a license to make nonsense noise. No matter the content of Sylvian's lyrics, it does not seem that they cohere with the sounds created for the occasion. Hence my three stars, an expression of my mild dissapointment, something very unusual on my part when I engage Sylvian's works.
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on September 26, 2009
It's well established that human beings are pattern-loving creatures, even able to convince themselves that they find patterns in instances where patterns emphatically do not occur (constellations, easy; this music, no need). As many of the negative reviews here attest, the utter absence of traditional musical patterns can prove quite disorienting -- even disconcerting -- for many, especially when the listener's purpose is simply reduced to one of fulfilling his or her pre-existing, subjectively preferential expectations. And, given how predictable and familiar most music already is, driven as it is into formulaic, narrow stylistic genres with the sole purpose of guaranteeing the commercial acceptance of artificially described and descried niche audiences, the time to move on surely arrived a while ago. After all, there are now some countless millions of readily recognizable songs and recordings available, meaning that Sylvian poses absolutely no threat to conventional music-making. Though he does offer much more promise.

With "Manafon", Sylvian takes many more steps into the directions set by immersions in sound and improvisation mapped out by "Blemish" and "Naoshima". His recent collaboration on "Cartography " by Arve Henriksen includes a few pieces that revealed some of these techniques within more conventional musical settings. But "Manafon" goes on to more radical ends, with a heritage that must acknowledge the highly staged "Orpheus, The Lowdown" by Peter Blegvad and Andy Partridge and the remarkable body of work assembled by Bryan Day and his "Shelf Life", "Eloine" and other improvising units. Less concrete than "Orpheus", and far more emotive than the "Shelf Life" recordings, Sylvian clearly aims at forcibly dragging the form -- and listeners along with him -- into a broader soundstage. And the soundstage is remarkable. Both an artistic and technical achievement, the sheer sonic presence offered by this recording is profoundly ear-opening. Set within the context of Sylvian's sense of conscience and consciousness, "Manafon" is not the first example of reconsidered improvisation, but it certainly opens newer ways of perceiving the open-ended and transient experience of music.

So, even if you find this work intolerable, give it another listen every few months. If you're still unable to orient yourself outside the boundaries knocked down by "Manafon", Sylvian at least deserves your respect for his honesty in continuing to question his own work and his own methods -- rather than simply, reliably, predictably, commercially and tediously repeating them.
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on November 25, 2009
For the first five six times I listened to this record, I just couldn't get it. I felt I kept hitting my head against the brick wall that was Manafon - yes, there are vocals with concrete melodies, sure, but coupled with the sparse, haphazard instrumentation it just felt too minimalistic and as having no point. The listening experience was more numbing than satisfactory. Then, something happened. I learned to listen to the background more attentively, and where I thought before that there was silence I learned to hear the continuous background instrumentation - very seldom is there a silent moment against David's vocal lines but the backing track is actually full with instrumentation, soundscapes, ... yes, adventure. Where I first might have thought that the vocals don't coincide at all with the backing track I now distinguish patterns, interplay between the vocals and the instruments, thought-out songwriting as opposed just to pure 'dull' improvisation. In short, I managed to find a door in the brick wall, open it and glimpse deeper into the ideas behind this album - or at least I've been able to form my own interpretation of them. Now I find it a very stimulating, though of course still very demanding, listening experience. Where David lets the instruments do a solo, they burst into life, such as in 'Emily Dickinson' where the song ends in a beautiful sax solo resembling the cries of swans. All tracks are about equally strong, but somehow I like most 'Snow White in Appalachia' (for its overall atmosphere and imagery, as well as for the way the song wraps up in the end) and 'The Rabbit Skinner'(for its melody line). The songs on this album cannot be straight compared to his earlier, more conventional vocal work - the songs here are for meditation, contemplation and reflection rather than for humming along. That's why, even if in the big picture I do prefer songs like 'Orpheus', 'Buoy' and 'Ghosts', I give this album the full five stars.
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on September 17, 2009
Listening to David Sylvian's album is like looking at a painting, maybe a Lowie or Munch, painting. You cannot run away from the effect it leaves on your senses. At first you run away, you have to come back, you have to listen. This is not music to entertain, it's music to listen , feel. Take the time to feel this masterpiece.
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on September 21, 2009
Sure, there are people who miss that "persona" of Sylvian who created albums like BRILLIANT TREES or DEAD BEES ON A CAKE; and there are people who love to dive into this song cycle (I'm quite sure the great Richard Williams will like this album very much, the man who has just released the fine book THE BLUE MOMENT about the groundbreaking atmosphere of Miles Davis' KIND OF BLUE and its long echoes). The reason for such controversial reactions: the voice is nearly the only instrument that is carrying the melody.

There are no grooves, no classic harmonies that supply the perfomance (the flights) of the voice. The music comes from the free improv-scene (Evan Parker, Christian Fennesz a.o.) and creates strangely spidery textures you might never have heared before as a "background" or environment for a singer. Pop beyond Pop, modern chamber music with a touch of jazz and the Japanese art of playing sine waves and turntables...

The moods are exquisite, the lyrics enigmatic, and the singing has that kind of nakedness where artists risk a lot. This is music that belongs to the same class as the late Talk Talk albums and the late Scott Walker. It is a good thing that there are still some guys on the planet who are looking for new horizons and who are not so much interested in repeating a formula that will constantly please the conservative part of their audience.

When Sylvian recorded BLEMISH, he discovered new areas for his songwriting - MANAFON is the best continuation of that path you can imagine. Although this music is at times raw, violent, tender and melancolic, it has a rewarding impact on everybody who is ready to follow this rare combination of free playing and deep melodies. In his fine review in MOJO Mike Barnes writes about the fact how surprisingly well music and voice are moving around one another though they come out of totally different worlds.

By the way, the deluxe package contains Phil Hopkins' excellent black-and-white film AMPLIFIED GESTURE. I had the opportunity to see a pre-screening of it at the 5. PUNKTFESTIVAL in Kristiansand at the beginning of September. You do not hear Sylvian singing a single note in that film, but you listen to well-chosen instrumental passages of the music as well as to all the great stories of the pioneers of the free improv-scene from Japan, England, and Austria who made a living thing like MANAFON possible with their passion and love for a music without safety nets.

With all due respect - and knowing that some words are simply used to often in the description of music, this record is stunning, beautiful, heartbreaking and, yes, kind of blue. Nothing less.
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on September 20, 2012
I own every album David Sylvian has released from Brilliant Trees onward. I bought "When Loud Weather Buffetted Nooshima" without listening to it because I was sure I would like anything new from Mr Sylvian.

I found that the album was unlistenable no matter how many times I listened to it. In the end I just threw the CD in the rubbish bin. The album was commissioned by the Naoshima Fukutake Museum Foundation. This was not a stand alone David Sylvian Solo Album so I convinced myself that I didn't like the CD for this reason.

When eventually Manafon came out I immediately went out and bought it knowing this was a new solo album by the great man. To my shock and horror I found this album also unlistenable.

I read favourable reviews of this album by various people so I played it again and again and again trying in desperation to like the album by force. No matter how I tried to like it I just couldn't get it! That album too went straight in the bin.

If this cd was released by another artist I am sure it would be ridiculed. But because David Sylvian composed it, it is a masterpiece! What rubbish. What self indulgent crap. This is not music.

I have not given up on Mr David Sylvian. I will wait with anticipation for his next effort. But next time I will listen before buying.
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on February 14, 2012
It's been three years since Sylvian released the brooding "Manafon". Has it matured with age? Has it rewarded the listener who bravely set upon its path and stayed on to see where it takes her? Has the release of "Died in the Wool" influenced our reception of "Manafon"? The answer to all three questions is the same: yes.

For those who come to the music for the first time, as well as long-time Sylvian fans, "Manafon" comes as a shock. Most of the tracks resist the artist's common conceit - to produce prettiness. "Manafon" is a masterpeice of reticience: its distinctive style flows from a self-conscious refusal to give too much and to hold back conventional pleasure.

For the ear trained on mediocre melody, Sylvian's self-discipline can seem harsh, perhaps even a little aloof. But the thick textures and moody undergrowth of "Manafon" requires us to listen and listen again and keep listening until, finally, we reach a clearing. And then, there it is: the persistent listener discovers what she thought to mourn - beauty.

Admittedly, "Manafon" requires its listener to plunge deep into its forest in order to find that beauty. But it's there - listen to "Small Metal Gods", delicate yet resolute, it is one of the finest songs Sylvian has ever written. Then go to the title track "Manafon". There is enormous melodic and emotional power packed into this few minutes of musical grieving. If you can be moved by this track, then you have the capacity to engage "Manafon" as a whole.

Other tracks where darkness cracks to let dazzling light blaze through include "Emily Dickinson" and "Snow White in Appalachia".

More than any other release, I believe, "Manafon" is an extremely private, whispering dialogue between Sylvian and the listener - sometimes it feels like we are eavesdropping on Sylvian's own private thoughts. Finally, "Died in the Wool" re-casts many of the tracks on "Manafon", enhancing the uncanniness of the original versions (see comment attached to this review). Importantly, "Died in the Wool" calls the listener to return and re-assess "Manafon". In my experience, "Died in the Wool" underlines the thing I discovered on my path through Manafon: that the journey is worth undertaking.
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