David Sylvian & Holger Czukay

David Sylvian & Holger Czukay, "Plight (The Spiralling Of Winter Ghosts)"

David Sylvian & Holger Czukay, Plight + Premonition

From the Can meets PiL collab, we move to another fascinating krautrock meets postpunk collaboration; in the late 1980s, Holger Czukay teamed up with the guitarist and vocalist of the band Japan, David Sylvian, for a pair of brilliant, improvised ambient records on Venture. Japan operated for about a decade, from early 1970s through the early 1980s, moving from glam rock to experiment with electronic music and help give birth to the UK synthpop you probably danced to this weekend (Duran Duran, Soft Cell, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club). While I can't say much about Japan beyond what I read and the few things I have listened to, their openness to new influences and willingness to operate to the beat of their own drummer foreshadows Sylvian's distinguished post-Japan work. It's a body of work, particularly the instrumental ambient explorations, that I have been wanting to highlight here for awhile, as a lot of what we post bears his influence. I'm not sure how well-known Sylvian's work is known today, but his name doesn't seem to get thrown around much; I think looking back at some of his albums will get everyone hooked and might even allow for a new generation to be influenced by his sounds and restless experimentation.

These two LPs with Czukay, in particular, could not fit better into the Pound for Pound thread we are unravelling, as they both feature 2 extended ambient pieces that submerge the listener, create spaces of calm and contemplation, blend found and composed sounds and require deep listening. It's rare for me to cover two records in the same post, but it seemed more appropriate to treat them as a single, multifaceted conversation rather than separate, discrete projects. These two albums were the only releases from this Sylvian/Czukay collaboration that took place over a few years in the late 1980s, plus both came out on the same label in consecutive years. 

Plight + Premonition was the first release, coming out in 1988 on Venture, compiled from a series of sessions that went down at Czukay's studio from 1986-87. It features only Sylvian and Czukay and for me, it is the one that I find myself coming back to the most. Interestingly, when I first went back to these albums over the last week or so, this was not the case, as I found a more immediate appeal in the oceanic sounds of Flux + Mutability. Plight + Premonition benefited immensely from a quiet listening space, as this increased clarity allowed me to appreciate the subtle sounds that emerge out of the deep, dark drone that underwrites all of the music. Give a listen to the 18 and a half minute, wonderfully-named opener, "Plight (The Spiralling of Winter Ghosts)," perfect listening for these brutally frozen days. It begins with an almost-didgeridoo-like drone, which spirals and unfurls over the course of the entire track, sometimes taking center stage, but mostly receding into the background, a growling undercurrent out of which haunting howls, piano notes, guitar, organ swells, environmental sounds and more surface. A passage around the halfway point is beauitful and beautifully haunting, as 

David Sylvian & Holger Czukay, "Mutability ("A New Beginning Is In The Offing")"

David Sylvian & Holger Czukay, Flux + Mutability

A year after Plight & Premonition, the duo dropped a second album for Venture/Virgin Records, Flux + Mutability. It's fascinating to listen to these two in succession, as the duo just as easily conjures up calming and reassuring worlds as dark and foreboding ones. This time around, the duo add a few additional voices to the mix, which helps explain the fullness, almost lushness, of this music, particularly in comparison to its stripped-down predecessor. Both tracks have an oceanic quality to them, centering on Sylvian's atmospheric keyboards that swell and recede over the course of  the album's 38 minutes. Opener "Flux (A Big, Bright, Colourful World)" features flickering bongos, lilting guitars, warbled vocals and even a relaxed flugelhorn deep in the mix, evoking images of a far-off beach party whose sounds and excitement drift to you from miles away. Fantastic stuff.

I decided to highlight the 21-minute second track, "Mutability ("A New Beginning Is In The Offing)," because it sees Sylvian and Czukay joined by our boy Jaki Liebezeit and gives us another chance to hear 2/5 of Can jam with a brilliant but unsung collaborator. What makes this one so appealing is that Liebezeit plays the African flute, giving this one a blissful New Age-y feel that you know we love here. While we could still hear land in the previous track, this time we are completely adrift at sea, rising and falling with the breathy flute, billowy keys and buoyant. Repeated, close listenings had me hearing this calm ambience as the product of 3 distinct voices, songbirds singing and communicating to each other as we float out at sea. It's 21 minutes that you want to last 21 days, beautiful stuff.

We may look at one more record from Sylvian's early ambient period this week, then discuss some recent releases and maybe pick up some early threads that we left hanging. Check back soon and find out; in the meantime, enjoy these two wonderful releases and stay warm.