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Music Review: David Sylvian – Dead Bees on a Cake

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David Sylvian’s solo output since 1984 bears some similarity to the likes of Brian Eno and John Foxx in that their solo albums of more conventional songs appear inbetween more ambitious, collaborative pieces of ambient soundscapes and soundtracks to multiple-media projects.

His 1999 album Dead Bees on a Cake was his first solo album since 1987’s Secrets of the Beehive, and features an impressive array of guest musicians. Musically, this album is very much in keeping with his previous work such as … Beehive, Brilliant Trees, and the Rain Tree Crow project which saw him reunited with ex-Japan bandmates. Songs are consistently mid-tempo, the performances are meticulous, restrained, and evocative of Eastern modes. The production and mixing gives a ‘spacious’ feel to the sound, allowing each musical part, both the sequenced and the performed, a massive amount of space to breathe.

The opening number, “I Surrender,” clocks in at a over nine minutes long. It’s warm, jazzy tones are at times angular and tense, but the underlying melodies are as strong as anything in Sylvian’s canon. There’s also a gorgeous flugelhorn solo from avant-garde jazzman Kenny Wheeler. Another of the guest illuminati, Ryiuichi Sakamoto provides one the albums highlights on “Alphabet Angel” with a luscious, soft Rhodes piano solo.

Throughout the album, Sylvian’s voice – a solitary, detached baritone is in excellent form, and whilst his solo albums typically don’t have a huge range of quiet-loud dynamics, there is enough diversity in the tones and influence of these songs to engage the listener. “God Man” almost sounds like an unplugged Alice in Chains experimenting with jazz, and the beautiful “Cafe Europa” provides moments which are as close to Radio 2-friendly as this album gets, and that’s attributable in no small part to the guest appearances of Ingrid Chavez and Talvin Singh.

I can’t rank Brilliant Trees, Secrets and Dead Bees… in order of quality. They all exist in their own space, yet also seem to be constituent parts of the same thing. They’re complex enough to warrant repeated listening (especially late in the evening with a glass of something strong), yet at the same time, penetrable enough for newcomers. It is perhaps, a blessing that David Sylvian doesn’t produce albums of this nature more prolifically – the perfection and subtlety in the performances would be lost if these pieces were composed too often, or with too little of the attention to detail that is their hallmark.

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