A restless progressive and inquisitive collaborator since the end of the extraordinary Japan in the early ’80s, exquisite London-born singer David Sylvian (né Batt) spent the first stage of his solo career discharging what remained of Japan’s dreamy, high-art pop explorations while infusing them with jazz and world musics on Brilliant Trees and paring it all down to pure ambience (on the cassette-only Alchemy — An Index of Possibilities and Words With the Shaman, the EP drawn from it). He then moved further down both roads on the ambitious Gone to Earth, a double-album of semi-conventional songs and languid instrumentals. Without any loss of ambition, the jazz-oriented and acoustic-based Secrets of the Beehive is more simply presented and accessible. Recapitulating all of that, the gorgeous Weatherbox is a lavishly packaged five-CD cardboard cube containing Brilliant Trees, an expanded Alchemy, Gone to Earth and Secrets of the Beehive, plus an extensive and detailed booklet.
Sylvian’s two albums with Czukay, which feature other members of Can, consist of long, lulling instrumentals not unlike extensions of Gone to Earth and Secrets of the Beehive. The subtitles of the two pieces on Flux + Mutability — A big, bright, colourful world and A new beginning is in the offing — fairly reflect the music.
After that, Sylvian went back over some old ground, either in an effort to refashion his past into his future or to clear the decks for the new undertakings he would venture in the mid-’90s. First, he reunited with his old bandmates — bassist/bass clarinetist Mick Karn (Anthony Michaelides), synthesist Richard Barbieri and drummer Steve Jansen (né Batt; he and David are brothers) — but perversely declined to call the group Japan, instead settling on the enigmatic Rain Tree Crow. Improvising loose but impressively structured music in the studio (to which Sylvian added lyrics), the four easily reclaim their old sound in the ethereal spaciousness of “New Moon at Red Deer Wallow” and the smoothly flowing Bryan Ferry illusions of “Every Colour You Are,” “Boat’s for Burning,” “Blackwater” and “Pocket Full of Change.” Few “rock” musicians have ever better understood the value of not playing, and Rain Tree Crow owes its soaring beauty to the gaping holes left in its sonic net.
For his next trick, Sylvian resumed another old alliance — with guitarist Robert Fripp, who played a prominent instrumental role on Gone to Earth. Using a handful of musicians — including Stick player Trey Gunn (with whom Fripp would soon reform King Crimson), drummer Jerry Marotta and co-producer David Bottrill taking the Enoesque role of treatments and programming — the pair made The First Day, a fascinating and rewarding dialectic between Fripp’s searing, rhythmically intense physicality and Sylvian’s cerebral nonchalance. Although the elder statesman clearly gets the upper hand in setting the sonic agenda, Sylvian inserts himself productively into the process with confidence. He palliates Team Fripp’s furious aggression with delicate keyboards and vocals whose shapely curves are not quite hidden behind harsh distortion. Five of the seven tracks go on too long — a contiguous point in the stars’ approaches that doesn’t serve the purpose of what’s going on here — but The First Day is an engrossing, invigorating and mind-expanding adventure of sharp teeth and smooth skin.
The Sylvian/Fripp tour that followed featured Gunn, guitarist Michael Brook and drummer Pat Mastelotto (who also wound up in King Crimson). As documented on the phenomenally clear-sounding Damage album, this group’s center of gravity is weighted toward Sylvian; Fripp calmly rips shit up as usual, but in the context of a record whose overall mood is quieter and more placid than the studio release. Expanding the majority of the material from The First Day with Rain Tree Crow’s “Every Colour You Are,” three Gone to Earth oldies and three otherwise unreleased songs written by Fripp, Sylvian and Gunn, the quintet brings more skilled accomplishment to live performance than most bands can manage in months of overdubbing.