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Words With the Shaman / Alchemy: An Index of Possibilities

Words With the Shaman / Alchemy: An Index of Possibilities
July 22, 2020 01:51PM
“Music to burn joss-sticks to,” sniffed the New Musical Express of David Sylvian’s instrumental EP Words With the Shaman, released in late 1985. Well, what if it was incense-friendly? Surely music, even when it’s recorded by refugees from the rock world, can have a meditative, even medicinal, quality. The three-part suite, which easily qualifies as accompaniment for your next mystical migration, was conceived as one long composition, but Sylvian broke it up because he worried that the work “had begun to over-reach itself…it sounded too much of a grand statement.” Words was also available as the first side of a cassette-only compilation of odds and ends, released simultaneously, entitled Alchemy: An Index of Possibilities. On that tape, the brief-but-lovely “Preparations for a Journey” concluded Side One, while “Steel Cathedrals” occupied the entire second side. These five compositions showcased Sylvian’s aptitude for instrumental music, an area that would become increasingly prominent in his work as the decades flew past.

If, as Sylvian has indicated, Words constitutes “musical footnotes” to the previous year’s Brilliant Trees, then these are some epic footnotes, indeed. Richard Barbieri, Holger Czukay, and co-composers Steve Jansen and Jon Hassell return from Trees, joined this time by the great Percy Jones. (Incidentally, if there’s ever been anything I’ve longed for bass-wise in Sylvian’s solo efforts, it's the gymnastic stylings of his former bandmate Mick Karn, but Jones’ playing is, as always, immaculate.) As with Trees, the music has a summertime feel; at times, the instrumentation positively glitters, especially on Part Three (“Awakening [Songs From the Tree Tops]”), wherein Hassell’s birdlike trumpet soars above Jansen’s hypnotic percussion. The entire composition has a ritualistic and revelatory feel, suggesting a shaman’s passage into a mysterious, interior landscape. Words never, despite Sylvian’s concerns, over-reaches itself, but make no mistake: this is a grand statement.

“Preparations for a Journey” was drawn from a television documentary about Sylvian, aired in February 1985, that a Japanese company, in an unusual move, assigned the artist himself to direct. “Steel Cathedrals,” which samples the voice of 20th Century Renaissance man Jean Cocteau and constitutes the second half of this project, was the score for Sylvian and Yasuyuki Yamaguchi’s widescreen ambient video of heat-shimmering, abstract industrial imagery—inspired by Sylvian’s interest in Joseph Beuys’ work—throughout Tokyo. Here Robert Fripp, Kenny Wheeler, and co-composer Ryuichi Sakamoto join the Words crew for nearly nineteen minutes of pure ambience. (Masami Tsuchiya, who’d signed on with Japan for the band’s farewell tour, is credited with something called “guitar abstractions.”) This track, which is also a grand statement, has a stark, autumnal-mutating-into-wintry air. Wheeler’s flugelhorn entrance near the seven-minute mark is stunning, like the sun bursting through clouds. Both “Preparations” and “Steel Cathedrals” were recorded first, oddly enough, but Words is the composition that I return to most often. “Steel” is significant, however, not only for its eerie, bare-bones beauty, but for initiating Sylvian’s friendship with King Crimson’s mastermind, a collaboration that would pay enormous dividends in the years to come. Sounds’ Ronnie Randall praised the EP and the cassette for being “full of warmth and tingling atmosphere.”

When Alchemy finally appeared on CD in 1989 as part of Sylvian’s Weatherbox retrospective, “Preparations” was inexplicably absent, replaced by the instrumental B-sides to the artist’s then-current single, “Pop Song.” These two tracks, “A Brief Conversation Ending in Divorce” (whose ironic title now, sadly, seems to foreshadow the dissolution of Sylvian’s marriage to Ingrid Chavez years later), and “The Stigma of Childhood (Kin),” are both essential, though the fussbucket in me wishes that Sylvian had left the original track listing alone. The vaguely bluesy “Stigma” is the only portion of his score to choreographer Gaby Agis’ dance piece that Sylvian has ever allowed to be released. Apparently, he was dissatisfied with his efforts in this realm, but the lone excerpt—the piece’s main theme—that has escaped its confinement is appropriately atmospheric. Judging from this track, one imagines that Kin’s cast must have moved about onstage in a zombielike trance. (“It’s not Swan Lake,” Agis admitted.)

Alchemy was eventually released with its original track listing on CD in the early Nineties, then later reissued with the additional B-sides. Like Milton’s Truth, this collection appears to have more shapes than one. In whatever form the work assumes, however, the warmth of Sylvian’s artistry remains, and the atmosphere continues to tingle, especially in these dark days. It’s enough to turn your blonde hair brown.
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