1992 and some intriguing snippets started to emerge, first from Japan and later from Italy. David Sylvian had linked up with Robert Fripp, last heard on Gone to Earth, and stick player Trey Gunn. As a trio they had accepted the challenge of allowing only very short preparation time before a series of live performances. Material was being written quickly and further developed through the shows themselves.
The improvisational approach was not in itself a surprise given Sylvian’s latest releases were both rooted in that – 1989’s Flux and Mutability with Holger Czukay, and 1991’s exquisite Rain Tree Crow, Japan re-formed to explore new territories. Those recordings were both immaculately presented and displayed moments of musical intimacy and beauty. As some (generally poor) recordings of the Fripp/Gunn/Sylvian trio drifted through, it was evident that in places this material was very raw – raw in emotion, evolution and content.
Emerging from a swooping soundscape at the start of the Japanese shows, a succession of angular chords assaults the listener and it’s clear that this work is taking us in a new direction. A very early version of ‘Firepower’, around three minutes duration, unleashed. The loud guitar and stick effects provide muscular accompaniment to Sylvian’s vocal, with no drums or beats to bind the piece together. Indeed, it sounds perilously like the performance could fall apart at any moment as the musicians’ contributions jostle with one another.
‘I was offered this brief tour of Japan in February ’92,’ the singer recalled. ‘I mentioned it to Robert in passing and he said, “Let’s use that as an impetus to write.” So we got together two weeks before and started writing this stuff. In performance it was obviously in a state of flux.’
David Sylvian has not always looked back favourably on the entirety of the output from this collaboration, but I so like the fact that he embraced something different and in doing so extended his musical boundaries into areas not visited before or since. The immediacy of the creation of the pieces and instant presentation to an audience is markedly different from the finessing of the past. Also, the aggressive nature of some of the music seemed literally to shake Sylvian out of a dark place he was inhabiting at the time. ‘I went through a hellishly difficult period of four years from 1988. I can only describe myself as being in a mental and spiritual crisis. It was a very negative period and I was taking on this collaborative work as a means of working through it. Starting The First Day I felt I was coming out of that period and able to write about it and confront it. This was important because as I was coming through I could actually resolve the album on a much more optimistic note.’
The version of ‘Firepower’ on The First Day is much more together musically when compared to those formative live performances. The aggressive guitar is still there right from the start – sheer power unrivalled on a David Sylvian recording – but now there is interplay between several guitar parts replacing the previous chord-battery, and a wonderfully syncopated drum pattern holds everything together. Trey Gunn’s assured bass part provides a melodic counterpoint which subtly varies as the track progresses.
Sylvian: ‘This was a piece that Robert and I started touring from the outset in ’92. I think Trey and Robert had been working with this riff for some time in different forms. Sometimes very speeded up, sometimes slowed down; sometimes distorted, sometimes clean. And they presented it to me in a variety of forms and asked me if I could contribute to it, which version I felt most comfortable with. And the one you hear is the one I felt most comfortable with.
‘In the studio this piece got greatly extended. The coda wasn’t something we were performing prior to getting into the studio. But when we started working with a drummer for the first time the piece took on a new dynamic, and the coda was improvised.
‘Robert’s solo by the way is one solo, one take. It was a wonderful moment when he took that solo and I think it’s a beautiful piece of playing.’
There are so many voices from Robert Fripp’s guitar repertoire showcased on this track. From the snarl at the beginning, loops as he experiments with soundscape effects, to the sustained solo elements around five minutes into the track that wouldn’t be out of place on Gone to Earth. Fripp is truly a master of the instrument and it’s thrilling to hear different aspects of his signature playing.
Mirroring the distortion of the usual creative framework for Sylvian, the most characteristic element of all – his own voice – is contorted through various effects. Beauty amplified and twisted to serve the mood of the composition. Apparently, this was in part achieved by David Bottrill feeding the vocal through a cheap Radio Shack amp.
Lyrically, gone are the internalised reflections and instead we watch a man out of control in a ‘third party’ idiom that Sylvian would return to more often in the future:
‘He beats the door and breaks his watch
Raids the fridge and eats the lot
No room for silence, pause, or thought
To ease the hurt inside him’
You sense this character is a living expression of the confusion and darkness of the preceding years for Sylvian. The angst within the protagonist is powerfully portrayed, as he is ‘shot through with anger and desire’. The outcome of inner turmoil is insomnia, violence and frenzy. It’s implied that the cause is something beyond him:
‘They placed a barrel at his head
Raging blind and rising
Cursed by saints and all the rest
He can’t stand up for trying’
…his behaviour may be brutal, but he is described as ‘brutalised’.
In ‘Firepower’ the mystery of the stars brings something sinister; there is a dominating power from above:
‘Causing casualties by the hour
Outweighed by stars and firepower
Causing casualties by the hour
Waylaid by stars and firepower’
Resolution may be coming in the radiance of the album’s final track, ‘Bringing Down the Light’, but the character in ‘Firepower’ is in the midst of the struggle and nowhere close to experiencing it. Sylvian described him as ‘somebody with a survivor’s approach to life who is constantly coming up against obstacles and not opportunities and therefore is defeated in life.’ He saw the song as a counterpoint to the preceding track on The First Day, ‘Jean the Birdman’, which he says is ‘mirrored by ‘Firepower’ on the album,’ the latter track having ‘a character with a similar approach to life but always fails. Fails to bear up under the weight of circumstance.’
It’s interesting that the ballads that emerged during the writing sessions were set aside for the future, with Sylvian seeming to wish to dwell in the aggressive vibe as a kind of exorcism of his experiences. Fripp: ‘When we got into the studio the album developed this particular way with David wanting to rock out.’
As the ‘Firepower’ lyric dies away the musical elements continue more calmly whilst the letters of the song title are vocalised, out of sequence in each channel of the stereo mix. This technique recalls a similar section in the title track of Robert Fripp’s 1979 solo album, Exposure. Sylvian’s sound sculpting is evident as ‘Firepower’ draws to a close: ‘the orchestration in the coda…is culled from various sources: recordings from short-wave radio, samples from various forms of classical music – there’s a little sampled string quartet in there.’
This exemplifies the differing approaches of Robert Fripp and David Sylvian to the creation of recorded work. Fripp: spontaneous, prolific, suspicious of over-working material. Sylvian: perfectionist, seeking a distinct and layered sound design. Whilst all energies had been aligned in the live performances, these preferences came to the fore during the recording of the studio album that followed. As a result, it seems the pair worked to their own strengths and therefore not always together. Fripp: ‘The album took longer than I’m used to. You see, I’m more interested in the overview than the details. David’s more interested in the details. I paint with broader strokes. He’s more fastidious, just getting this, just getting that. David prefers computer mixing. I prefer live mixing, albeit with editing. There’s a difference of temperament there and each reinforces the other.’
Some might conclude that Sylvian and Fripp were ill-matched to collaborate on a full album. However, I’m fascinated by how the two musical approaches intermingle and what the chemical reaction produces. The partnership shows Sylvian embracing a new way, forging a different sound and articulating fresh emotions. More and more I think of The First Day as part of a trilogy of collaborative albums working with songs in a (loosely) pop context: Rain Tree Crow, The First Day and Snow Borne Sorrow. In these recordings Sylvian shares the billing with others who have differing dispositions to his own, the individual projects bringing us something unique through the blending – and sometimes clashing – of each musician’s distinct approach. I will always value The First Day alongside the others and am grateful we got to hear an extended collaboration between David Sylvian and Robert Fripp.
‘I guess I used my relationship with Robert to explore a different dimension in my writing. I was surfacing from what had been an enormously difficult time in my life and I needed to find the means of expressing myself in both music and lyrics when dealing with such heavy subject matter. ‘Firepower’ typifies the mood of the time quite well, I think. I felt more comfortable at that time making oblique social observations or statements as a means of dealing indirectly with a mental state that was baffling not to say overwhelming for me.’ (DS, 1998)
One of the aspects where Robert Fripp differs from David Sylvian is in his approach to his archive of studio sessions and live work. If you’ve never explored the Discography section of Robert’s DGM Live website, then I heartily recommend it. Here you can find studio out-takes and miniatures alongside soundboard recordings of many shows. Between the 1992 Japan and Italy shows of the Fripp/Gunn/Sylvian trio, Robert and Trey appeared live as part of the Robert Fripp String Quintet, and there is an excellent show from the Red Door Cafe in Allentown, Pennsylvania available for download on the DGM site. Alongside ‘Firepower’ on my playlist I have ‘Fire Scape’ from this show. I love the interplay between Fripp and Gunn who create an energy reminiscent of their work with Sylvian in an extended instrumental that would have fitted perfectly within their 1992 set. The show also contains ‘Asturias’ which was performed by The Californian Guitar Trio as part of the Sylvian/Fripp/Gunn shows in Italy and Japan.
David Sylvian – guitar, keyboards, tapes, vocals; Robert Fripp – guitar, frippertronics; Trey Gunn – grand and tenor sticks, vocals; David Bottrill – treatments, sampled percussion, computer programming; Jerry Marotta – drums, percussion; Marc Anderson – percussion
(from full album credits)
Music by David Sylvian, Robert Fripp and Trey Gunn. Lyrics by David Sylvian.
Produced by David Sylvian & David Bottrill. From The First Day by David Sylvian & Robert Fripp, Virgin, 1993.
Recorded at Dreamland Studios, Woodstock, N.Y., and Kingsway Studios, New Orleans; mixed at Electric Lady Studios, New York, N.Y.
December ’92 to March ’93
Lyrics © samadhisound publishing
Download links: ‘Fire Scape’ (DGM Live)
David Sylvian and Robert Fripp quotes are taken from interviews in 1993/4 unless otherwise indicated. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here. Originally published in July 2018 and subsequently expanded in May 2021.
‘I forced myself to do collaborative work, so that I would be forced on the spot to come up with material. I was hoping that by looking at the material, I would be able to see what was happening to me…It was this project that offered me that possibility, because I wanted to get involved in something that was more intense musically, more aggressive and confrontational. That was necessary for the kinds of things I wanted to express.’ David Sylvian, 1993