18 February 2009
Music Snob Journal #1: David Sylvian - Secrets Of The Beehive
I first heard of David Sylvian sometime in the early 1990s. I was in my mid-teens then really had no idea about his work with Japan. Back in those pre-Google days, information came in books and magazines. And if you were growing up in a town like KK, with an allowance of RM50 a month, you would rather spend it on other more worthwhile things, like cassettes! (I remember when cassettes sold for RM12.90! LOL.) I was a cassette fiend. My family frowned upon the habit. I remember having to hide my latest purchases as though they were contraband. Ha ha ha...

Anyway, I didn't even hear the song, but I read the lyrics to a song he did with Ryuichi Sakamoto called "Heartbeat." And I fell in love with the words. I remembered saying to myself: I need to listen to this. So I pestered a friend to buy the CD for me from somewhere... which he did. (I didn't even have a CD player then! What was I thinking?) And I heard it... at first I wasn't too sure... what was this strangely languidly jazzy yet queer piece of sombre pop music? And why does he sound like that? What's wrong with his voice? Why does it quiver like that? Did he have a cold?

Of course, I was young and stupid then. I was still in training to become the music snob that I am today. It took a while...

I got reacquainted with David Sylvian a few years later while studying in Australia. A friend, Paul Bambury, lent me Sylvian's late nineties comeback album "Dead Bees On A Cake" (which was a sort of non-sequel to "Secrets Of The Beehive"; Sylvian had said somewhere that the bees are dead, so we shouldn't be expecting a part deux - love these pretentious artist types!). Though I liked some of the songs on that album, I wasn't entirely taken in by it. But it did change my mind about his voice. I love his voice now. He's one of my favourite male vocalists. Not to mention that he's also a hottie. (Sylvian was once voted one of the most beautiful people in the world back in the Japan days.)

Paul had also recommended me to listen to his third solo album "Secrets Of The Beehive" which he said was more interesting. I never got around to borrowing his copy however.

When I got to KL, of course, who should I meet if not another fellow Sylvian fan? Pang Khee Teik, who is more of a music snob than I am, lent me a Sylvian compilation called "Everything & Nothing" which had songs from almost all his albums, excluding the avant garde experimental instrumental stuff he did with Holger Czukay during the eighties. It was in this compilation that I first heard songs from "Secrets Of The Beehive". Paul was right. The songs from that album really had something special about them.

Then when I moved into Villa Scott, one of my flatmates Hari Azizan, also a fellow music snob, lent me her copy of the coveted album! Sometime later I got my own copy of the album, a remastered version.


David Sylvian - Secrets Of The Beehive (1987, Virgin Records)

1. September
2. The Boy With The Gun
3. Maria
4. Orpheus
5. The Devil's Own
6. When Poets Dreamed Of Angels
7. Mother And Child
8. Let The Happiness In
9. Waterfront
10. Forbidden Colors (on the original release)
10. Promise (The Cult Of Eurydice) (on the remastered version)

First of all, this album doesn't rock nor does it swing. If Duke Ellington had heard it, well... it really is white boy music... brother probably would've yawned. So let's leave that aside. It's not an album to put on for when the vodka shooters kick in. Sylvian's music, for better or worse, is poetry set to music. And not just any poetry... but the bookish, sensitive, haunted romantic soul kind.

Sounds bad, does it? Well... that's probably the reason why this album didn't break any sales record.

Unashamedly moody, "Secrets Of The Beehive" exists in its own storm-tousled universe. Like a troubadour of lonely shores and damp wilderness, Sylvian has gathered all the autumnal and wintry elements he could find, leeched out all traces of summer, and condensed them all in what would be his ultimate statement as a musician. The album is tender, melodic, poetic, haunted, timeless... I can just imagine him in a big black cloak dragging all the folds across some bare forest as he sang these songs, with a coven of crows tagging behind... but that would be too gothic... maybe he's just wearing a nice black suit and a guitar.

Musically the album is a cross between chamber folk and textured soundscapes (with a few avant jazz asides), with outstanding arrangements and performances by top notch musicians like Ryuichi Sakamoto (whose adventurous and exuberant piano appears on almost all the tracks). Strings, pianos, acoustic guitars, tape loops, double bass, flugelhorn, et al are fused into an multigenre hybrid.

Post rock comes to mind. But as I said, there's no rock here... although "Secrets Of The Beehive" share an almost similar mood as Bark Psychosis' "Hex", the two albums couldn't be more different. There's a polished lushness to the production on "Secrets Of The Beehive" that is so hi-fi it's almost embarassingly middle class.

And whereas "Hex" is all about mood and texture, the music on "Secrets Of The Beehive" is always in service of its narrative heart. , in the tradition of sixties and seventies concept albums. There's a story being told here. And its evident in the lyrics to the songs. From the first track to the last, Sylvian plays the poet, always opaque, not giving away anything. Every word is carefully chosen and placed in the melodies that sneak under and above the arrangements.

It's not all flawless, of course. Sylvian comes from the "schooled" school of verse. And some of the lyrics tend to come across as too... too... well... overly precious. Bring out the evidence, please...

From "Mother And Child":
"Shadows form knights and pawns
Upon the squares

Blood is drawn up from the well

Secret signs brought the crime

Right to your door

An innocent guilty as hell"

From "September":
"The sun shines high above
The sounds of laughter
The birds swoop down upon

The crosses of old grey churches

We say that we're in love

While secretly wishing for rain

Sipping coke and playing games"

From "Orpheus":
"Sunlight falls, my wings open wide
There's a beauty here I cannot deny

And bottles that tumble and crash on the stairs
Are just so many people I knew never cared

Down below on the wreck of the ship

Are a stronghold of pleasures I couldn't regret

But the baggage is swallowed up by the tide

As Orpheus keeps to his promise and stays by my side"

They're beautifully written, I can't deny that. The man is a skilled wordsmith. But at some point, you kind of tune out from what he's saying... because you're not really sure if you should be paying attention or not at all. Still it fits the sombre mood of the album...

One of the standout tracks, "The Boy With The Gun" has some of the more straightforward though harrowing lyrics about a mass murderer.
"He carves out the victim's names
In the wooden butt of the gun

He leans well back against the tree

He knows his kingdom's come

He'll breathe a sigh self satisfied

The work is in good hands

He shoots the coins into the air

And follows where the money lands"

Dark they may be, what makes this album bearable is really Sylvian's voice. If the material had been channelled through anyone else's pipes, it would've been either too dramatic or lack enough gravitas to pull it together. By the time this album came out, Sylvian's voice had deepened from the rather reedy voice of his younger Japan days, and has remained so until today.

A tad raspy but smooth like Cognac, Sylvian's voice has a gorgeous echoey baritone quality to it. It's very sexy... not like any other voice I've ever heard. Even when he reaches for the higher notes, that baritone doesn't let go. First time listeners may think it's rather monotonous... but that maybe because Sylvian doesn't do melismas...

But he does do that quiver... especially when he stretches a note at the end of a line. More of a tremolo than a vibrato. Sort of like how Billie Holiday does it. I love it. I love the thrill of hearing that trill in a voice. I try to emulate it all the time. And hearing David Sylvian do it is like having gold poured into my ears. Sonic orgasm...

Which goes to explain why I listen to this album almost once every week... it's definitely a keeper.

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