It was widely reported that David Sylvian, one of the more enigmatic figures associated with so-called progressive rock, collaborated on his most recent full-length album, Blemish (2003), with Christian Fennesz, the generation-younger electronic musician who has artfully employed glitches and laptop-tweaked guitars in his own music. Fennesz brought those same textures, and along with them a certain freshness, to “A Fire in the Forest,” the closing track on Blemish, Sylvian’s first album on his own Samadhi Sound label. Fennesz’s presence also brought to mind Sylvian’s past recordings with other guitarists known for using technological means to push their instrument of choice into new territory, including Robert Fripp and Bill Nelson.
The extent to which Sylvian has embraced an aesthetic more closely associated with Fennesz is nowhere as apparent as on a fine MP3 he subsequently posted on his website, davidsylvian.com. (Modern electronic music owes a great debt to Sylvian, but there’s no room here to trace that lineage with any detail. Just pick up an album by his early band, Japan; listen to his singing amid Fripp’s loops; and ponder the subsequent musicians, such as Trent Reznor, who commissioned one of his, and Brian Eno’s, favorite album-jacket illustrators, Russell Mills.) Click over to the Downloads section and listen to “Mothlight” (MP3), nearly nine minutes of lovely stillness, interrupted by flashes of field recording and foregrounded digital synthesis. The track’s title phenomenon is represented both by the stereoscopic suggestion of erratic motion and by these whizzy cues that at first seem very much like a close-flying insect, but frequently flip over to things that merely resemble that familiar flutter: quick switches, looped static, shrill-pitched tones and other compositional fragments.
Best known as a vocalist, Sylvian doesn’t sing a word on “Mothlight,” yet the piece is clearly marked as his own; like his best work, notably the album Gone to Earth, it appears at once florid and concertedly restrained. Sylvian explains on the site that the track was composed after an editor requested his participation in a book of work by the Starn Twins, the photographers. Though that project never materialized, some of the sounds later made their way onto the Blemish album. Those same sounds have gone on to have a third life on a recent compilation, The Good Son vs the Only Daughter, featuring remixes of Blemish tracks by, among others, Akira Rabelais, Burnt Friedman, Yoshihiro Hanno and Ryoji Ikeda; Nils Petter Molvaer guests on trumpet. “Mothlight” is apparently where it all started.