You can probably count the number of great bands to come out of Catford on the fingers of one hand but Japan is one such animal. Old school friends Mick Karn and Richard Barbieri and the brothers David Sylvian and Steve Jansen had long dreamt of pop stardom as they sat around in bedrooms listening to their heroes, David Bowie, Marc Bolan's T. Rex and The New York Dolls. Of course Bowie was something of a local hero, being from around the same parts – Beckenham and Bromley – and Sylvian was a fanatic. He took his name from a reference in the song Drive-In Saturday to a pick-me-up a la Viagra, which Bowie had in any case adapted from the pseudonym of New York Doll Sylvain Sylvain. Brother Steve also fancied an alter ego (the boys were actually both Batt's) and Mick Karn was born Andonis Michaelides into a Greek-Cypriot family.
Whatever the glamorous intent the band's first forays were largely pop funk affairs with interesting lyrics and lots of make-up. Although they fell through the cracks at a time when punk and new wave ruled, Japan were pretty hard done by and you can hear their anger in places on the opening Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives albums while Quiet Life is a more considered and eloquent disc.
The first album for Virgin is Gentleman Take Polaroids, their best and most sophisticated recording until that time, thanks to Sylvian's increasingly rich baritone vocals, the intrinsic layers of electronic sound integral to Japan's very being and some top class writing from the ranks on the expanded version where one can hear Richard Barbieri's instrumental 'The Experience of Swimming' and Rob Dean's final work with the band, 'The Width of a Room'. Meanwhile is well represented with the bulk of the pieces, including the very fine Nightporter and the title track – Japan's first charting single. Sylvian also gives an indication of things to come when he combines with Ryuichi Sakamoto on 'Taking Islands in Africa'. In keeping with their penchant for esoteric covers there's a Japan-style interpretation of Smokey Robinson's 'Ain't That Peculiar'.
1981's Tin Drum really nails the group's determination to fuse eastern and Western music and make full use of the emerging programme orientated sounds. An adventurous, farsighted experiment for sure, this album contains Japan favourites like 'Still Life in Mobile Homes', 'Visions of China' and 'Ghosts', which vindicated the in house method when it soared into the top five. The album also charted high and went Gold and in fact has since been posthumously awarded BBC Radio 6 Music's 'Goldie' for being the best album of 1981. It's every bit as good as that prestigious gong would indicate.
Oil On Canvas is a live album that was released after the band had split up in 1982, their passing much mourned by an increasingly devoted fan base. It sold over 100,000 copies. Two years later Sylvian sat down and assembled the fine compilation Exorcising Ghosts, a précis of Japan to date, including rare B-sides, remixes and instrumentals. A must have for those with an interest in this idiosyncratic and complex group.
Sylvian's own solo career has been equally fascinating as he explores areas of jazz, the avant garde, electronica and what is loosely termed progressive rock.
His debut solo proper, Brilliant Trees, includes contributions from Ryuichi Sakamoto, trumpeter Jon Hassell and Can bassist Holger Czukay. In many ways it's reminiscent of the contemporary albums being made by Talking Heads and David Byrne. Using the same core Sylvian's Alchemy – An Index of Possibilities is a welcome return. It was originally only available as a Japanese CD or a cassette. Again the delightful blend of world music, ambient sound and prepared tapes is well ahead of the herd. By now Sylvian was being taken seriously and any of the lingering glam/new romantic trappings, a hindrance in the first place, had long since gone. Robert Fripp plays guitar on the sublime 'Steel Cathedral's and the three-part instrumental 'Words with the Shaman' features Soft Machine bassist Percy Jones. This is heady stuff.
Gone to Earth finds Sylvian working with Steve Nye again and recording at Virgin's The Manor Studios in Oxfordshire, hence the rural title perhaps. Collaborators here are Fripp, Bill Nelson and BJ Cole, not forgetting assists from a few former Japan members and the great flugelhorn player Harry Beckett. In remastered form the original double album is expanded and improved upon with bonus remixes. It's all art rock of the highest calibre anyway and is one of Sylvian's genuine masterpieces. Secrets of the Beehive took David back to the charts in 1987 includes the sought after track 'Forbidden Colours' (music by Sakamoto, lyrics by Sylvian), their vocal version of the theme from the film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. In general Sylvian's work has matured to such an extent that he's almost left the art and avant garde tags behind since he's working with themes that might as well be termed modern classical. Certainly is rich in plush orchestration, strings and woodwind. A marvellous thing indeed.
Following a brace of albums he made with Holger Czukay and the short-lived but fertile Rain Tree Crow period Sylvian worked on purely ambient music and began to explore a fruitful liaison with Robert Fripp. After working with Fripp in the studio and on stage Sylvian returned to his solo career with Dead Bees on a Cake (1991) where the recipe includes Bill Frisell's dobro, Talvin Singh's tables and lots of Marc Ribot's extraordinary electric, acoustic and slide guitar genius. Recorded here, there and everywhere – well Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios, Box in Wiltshire, Napa, CA, Minneapolis and Seattle - this is an approachable jazz-fusion affair. The ensuing Approaching Silence (1999) is an ambient compilation featuring Fripp and is a wise choice for those seeking something sonically unique. Everything and Nothing is a quite superb compilation of a quite different sort. Here you find old Sylvian and Japan favourites, cuts that didn't quite make Dead Bees… and Sylvian's contributions to the hard to find Marco Polo album by world music duo Nicola Alesini and Pier Luigi Andreoni. As a studied look at what was then a twenty-year stint with Virgin it's hard to fault. If nothing else the album was a wake up call to those who'd missed out the first time, or simply didn't grasp how good all this music was.
And so the present and the recent A Victim of Stars (1982 – 2012), another primer to what has been a truly extraordinary career bearing in mind where Sylvian and Japan started out – basically as two chord wonders. He isn't that now. What could be construed as the best of his work, though that's in so many other places too, A Victim of Stars is a triumph. Apart from a slew of defiantly modernist compositions from the vaults It also includes the newly recorded 'Where's Your Gravity?' It sets the seal for now on a body of work that improves with time.
We can only hope there is more to come from Sylvian. Well-dressed music doesn't come any more stylish than this. The gentlemen's relish.
The last album with Rob Dean, Gentlemen Take Polaroids was also unquestionably the album in which Japan truly found its own unique voice and aesthetic approach. The glam influences still hung heavy, particularly from Roxy Music, but now the band found itself starting to affect others in turn. Even the back cover photo says as much -- looking cool in glossy, elegant nightwear, the quintet had a clear impact on Duran Duran, to the point where Nick Rhodes obviously was trying to be Sylvian in appearance. Musically, meanwhile, the swooning, hyper elegant Euro-disco sheen of Quiet Life was polished to an even finer edge throughout, the title track and the obvious descendant of "Quiet Life" itself, "Methods of Dance," in particular sheer standouts. Sylvian's sighing, luscious croon is in full effect on both, and the arrangements are astonishing, Karn's fretless purring between Jansen's crisp, inventive, and varied drumming, Barbieri's icy keyboards filling out the corners. What makes Gentlemen Take Polaroids even more of a success is how the group, having reached such a polished peak, kept driving behind it, transforming their exquisite pop into something even more artistic and unique. "Swing," in particular, is an astounding showcase for the Karn/Jansen team; snaky funk at once dramatic and precisely chilled, brass section blasts adding just enough wry, precise sleaze, Sylvian delivering with focus and intensity while not raising his voice at all. "Nightporter," meanwhile, is a hyper ballad and then some; a slow-paced semi-waltz with Barbieri's piano taking the lead throughout with wonderful results. Further hints of the future come with the album closing "Taking Islands In Africa," which Sylvian co-wrote with future regular collaborator Ryuchi Sakamato, and which wraps up the whole experience with a gliding, supple grace.
Words: Ned Raggett
Partially growing out of their success in the country they were named after, as well as growing friendship and affiliation with such bands as Yellow Magic Orchestra, Japan, on Tin Drum, made its most unique, challenging, and striking album. It was also the final full studio effort from the group, and what a way to bow out -- there was practically no resemblance to the trash glam flailers on Adolescent Sex anymore. Rather than repeat the sheer restraint on Gentlemen Take Polaroids, Tin Drum is an album of energy, Sylvian's singing still the decadently joyful thing it is, but the arrangements and performances tight, full, and active. The fusion of exquisite funk courtesy of Karn and Jansen's joined-at-the-hip rhythm section and a range of Asian music influences, from instrumentation to subject matter, combined with an even wider use of technological approaches to create the dramatic, sly songs on offer. Only the Talking Heads showed the same attempt at reach and variety at the time, at least in the Western rock world, but Japan arguably outstripped the New York band with its sheer sense of theatrical style. To top it all off, the band was more popular than ever, with "Ghosts," an appropriately haunting ballad notable for its utterly minimal arrangement, almost entirely eschewing beats for Barbieri's textures and Jansen's work on marimba, becoming a Top Ten hit in the U.K. The wound-up dancefloor art grooves of "The Art of Parties" and especially "Visions of China," the latter featuring what has to be Karnand Jansen's eternal highlight performance (check out Jansen's jaw-dropping drum break) were also notable efforts. Meanwhile, the evocation of Chinese culture in general continued with such songs as "Canton," a slightly martial, stately march with clear inspiration from the country's classical music tradition, and the concluding "Cantonese Boy."
Words: Ned Raggett
Quiet Life is the album that transformed Japan from past-tense glam rockers into futuristic synth popsters, though they'd been leaning in that direction for a while. It's also a solid proto-New Romantic synthesizer record, enhanced by Mick Karn's superb fretless bass work and David Sylvian's smooth, sneering vocals spread over pop hits like the title track and "Fall in Love with Me."
Words: Keith Farley
Although Japan later became one of new romantics' poster children, their 1978 Adolescent Sex LP predated the movement by two years. A remarkable debut, the set snarls with leftover punk intent, a few glam rock riffs, and a wealth of electronics that not only reach back to the band's youth, but also predate much of what would explode out of the next wave of British underground. Sounding absolutely nothing like MTV's mainstream Japan, the quintet snarls across the opener "Transmission," all snotty lads and frazzled hair, setting the stage for what follows. Except, rather than toeing that line, the band pull some remarkable tricks out of their admittedly tight sleeves. The "wow factor" of an incredibly funky bass and guitar on "The Unconventional," repeated again on "Wish You Were Black," is not only a surprise but leaves one wondering if the band were closet Chic fans -- especially in light of the seven-minute jam "Suburban Love" that follows a little later on. Elsewhere, though, the band play closer to their roots while defining their own style, which includes David Sylvian's wonderfully sexy, tousled vocals -- most notably on the epic, and sexy, post-punker "Television" and a cover of the vintage showstopper "Don't Rain on My Parade." A more exciting album than just about anything else they'd ever record, Japan were young, hungry, and more than a little rough around the edges. Despite the slick R&B work twined in, it's important to remember that this band were in the sonic foothold of an early edgy era -- groundbreakers at their own inception. The sound, that look -- it fit them well.
Words: Amy Hanson
The final Japan release was sold and marketed as a live album, though actually it's a bit of a catchall -- it is indeed mostly from concerts, but also includes a variety of studio instrumentals and a re-recorded version of "Nightporter" mixed in to sound like it's part of the show. The various re-releases of the albums over the years confused matters further, with re-sequencings, the excision of cuts, and more adding to general confusion about the release (not to mention the fact that some reissues completely omitted where the shows were recorded anyway!). Two of the instrumentals, "Oil on Canvas" itself and "Temple of Dawn," are brief, gentle pieces by Sylvian and Barbieri respectively. "Voices Raised in Welcome, Hands Held in Prayer" is a more involving effort, combining a quiet, gamelan-inspired rhythm with found-sound samples from what appears to be a religious ceremony. As for "Nightporter," it's a nice enough new version but isn't notably different or varied from the earlier studio take. The remaining live cuts show that the exquisite tension and serene sounds in the studio were easily transferred to the stage in all their elegant complexity. The Tin Drum selections, which make up most of the release, make the case even more that Japan was as much a prog band as a glam one, Sylvian's captivating vocals flowing over Asian-derived scales and melodies, the guitar parts handled by guest performer Masami Tsuchiya, who also plays some keyboards. "Visions of China" sounds especially grand, Jansen's entrancing drumming seemingly impossible to be created and yet clearly existing. The extended introduction to "Ghosts," Karn's saxophone welling up from the distance like a siren call, is another highlight, along with the slightly rocked-up -- but only just -- "Methods of Dance."
Words: Ned Raggett
Streamlining the muted, organic atmospheres of the previous Gone to Earth to forge a more cohesive listening experience, Secrets of the Beehive is arguably David Sylvian's most accessible record, a delicate, jazz-inflected work boasting elegant string arrangements courtesy of Ryuichi Sakamoto. Impeccably produced by Steve Nye, the songs are stripped to their bare essentials, making judicious use of the synths, tape loops, and treated pianos which bring them to life; Sylvian's evocative vocals are instead front and center, rendering standouts like "The Boy With the Gun" and the near-hit "Orpheus" -- both among the most conventional yet penetrating songs he's ever written -- with soothing strength and assurance.
Words: Jason Ankeny
For an album of only seven tracks, Brilliant Trees is an eclectic affair fusing funk, jazz, and ambient. Its best pieces are the moody jazz of "Red Guitar," the dusky atmosphere of "Weathered Wall," and "Brilliant Trees" itself, both of which feature the woozy trumpet of Eno collaborator and fourth-world pioneer Jon Hassell. The record also showcases guest players like Holger Czukay. Some CD editions also carry the three-part "Words With the Shaman" to make up a fuller album.
Words: Kelvin Hayes
David Sylvian is a brilliant rock & roll guitarist and vocalist. He is also a great electronic minimalist. Sadly, he tries hard to do both together. Gone to Earth has moments of brilliant instrumental ambience with deep samples and misplaced vocals. The instrumental virtuosity grabs listeners immediately. Sylvian surrounds himself with some of the greats -- Bill Nelson, Robert Fripp, and Mel Collins among them. The sound is dynamic and gentle at the same time. There is an ambient version of Gone to Earth, which is a better disc but hard to find.
Words: Jim Brenholts
"David Sylvian’s second solo album released originally in 1985 on cassette only and re-issued originally in Japan in 1991. The album was remastered in 2003. Highlights include ‘Words with the Shaman’ and ‘Steel Cathedrals’"
A Victim of Stars is a collection encompassing material released by Virgin Records over a 30 year career from David Sylvian plus newer material released originally by his Samadisound label and a new recording of the track ‘Where’s Your Gravity’ as an exclusive track to this album.