Small Metal Gods

‘A new frontier’

From the completion of The World is Everything tour in 2007 there was great anticipation of David Sylvian’s next vocal project. Sketchy details surfaced of earlier studio sessions with members of the experimental improvisation group Polwechsel, and a release date in autumn 2008 was mooted – but the year closed without any news.

The following March it was announced on David’s official website that preparations were underway for the release of a new album entitled Manafon, described as ‘a powerfully bold, uncompromising work.’ Still the waiting went on, with a September 2009 release finally confirmed and, a few weeks ahead of that, a new web-site launched for the forthcoming album. There, immediately available, was a video for the opening track, ‘Small Metal Gods’. After all the expectation there was new work to digest.

The visuals were provided by Japanese video-artist Hiraki Sawa who revisited the theme of his 2002 film Dwelling. In both pieces scale is distorted and there is a sense of surreal displacement as tiny aeroplanes fly serenely around the interior of a flat, out of place and yet strangely captivating. Passenger jets miniaturised and contained within mundane living quarters. The analogy seems to be of distance travelled in the physical world, and in our own inner lives. A living space may appear static and ordinary, the domain of the humdrum; yet as we live out our lives we travel great distances in experience.

The imagery matches Sylvian’s opening lines perfectly:

‘It’s the farthest place I’ve ever been
It’s a new frontier for me’

 …venturing beyond, into uncharted land – a sentiment perfectly apt for this point in David Sylvian’s creative path. Always fascinated by the exploration of improvisation in music, he was moving onwards from Blemish where he had responded to cues from his own guitar and keyboard sketches and the catalyst of a single performer’s improvisations in Derek Bailey’s guitar solos. Now he was pushing the boundaries further, seeking out performances from ensembles of free improvising musicians to provide the spark for his own intuitive response in melody and lyric. Deeper exploration into the deconstruction of the form of song (see ‘Blemish/Camphor’).

The nature of the creative imagination is a central theme on Manafon, whose tracks are characterised by third-party narratives; stories told of individuals through whom emotions or world-views are brought to life. Significantly though, the album starts with the voice of the artist in one of the few first-person accounts.

Blemish explored the end of a human relationship in all its raw pain. It was a jolt to the listener after the love songs of Dead Bees on a Cake. Now, the divine love so powerfully expressed on Dead Bees… is also fractured and no longer provides comfort:

‘I’ve placed the gods
In a ziploc bag
I’ve put them in a drawer
They’ve refused my prayers
For the umpteenth time
So I’m evening up the score’

Just like Hiraki Sawa’s visuals of bathroom and kitchen interiors in the accompanying video, Sylvian uses prosaic everyday images to ground the emotions expressed. His rejection of the gods might have come across as overly abstract or obscurely philosophical if the expression wasn’t so physical – effigies of deities in whom so much devotion had been invested, taken off the shelf, cast into a resealable plastic bag and consigned to a dark drawer.

The words that follow continue the theme, the former objects of personal worship now stripped of all value and seen as nothing more than cheap mass-produced trinkets whose only positive purpose is to provide a wage for their makers.

‘Small metal gods
From a casting line
From a factory in Mumbai
Some manual labourer’s bread and butter
And a single-minded lie’

Again, what could have been intangible expressions of doubt are made real through the vivid depiction of the metal figures rolling through production in what I imagine to be an uncomfortably hot factory in urban India, noisy from the machinery and the raised voices of the workforce. Heaven brought crashing down to earth.

‘Small metal gods
Cheap souvenirs
You’ve abandoned me for sure
I’m dumping you, my childish things
I’m evening up the score.’

The language of ‘my childish things’ seems significant. Are the gods childish, or is it in fact the singer? Faith that is ‘child-like’ is often seen as something to aspire to, in its innocence and purity. But child-like has become ‘childish’, now a pejorative term; less innocent, more immature.

‘The lyric is slightly bitter, quite petulant, disillusioned, angry. It’s not in the least bit rational. There’s a tit for tat aspect to it on one level but it’s also about superstition, false gods, the adopted traditions of others. It’s a “let’s see what’s real” moment. Let’s sweep those trinkets away (physical objects, yes, but all they represent as emotional and spiritual investment) and see what’s left standing. A cleaning house. It happens every so often. I don’t find it unhealthy. It’s a search for truth by removing the excess baggage that’s begun to cling to it like lint to a black overcoat. But the anger shouldn’t be underestimated.’ (DS, 2010)

I love the way that Sylvian’s use of English colloquial idiom adds to the prosaic feel: ‘I’ve told you once, yes, a thousand times’, ‘they’ve refused my prayers for the umpteenth time’, ‘I’m dumping you’, ‘I’m evening up the score’.

It may well be that, just as on Blemish, Sylvian was expressing something in lyrics that was beyond what he was actually experiencing; going to the extreme in order to explore emotions fully. He was at pains to point out in several interviews at that time that, ‘even when you reject the path, refuse to believe in the path, you’re on the path.’ Whatever, the despondency is manifest, and once we heard Manafon in its entirety it was clear that disillusionment was another running theme.

‘There’s a sense of liberation in expressing this disillusion, whether it’s true or not. It’s the freedom to doubt. I think it’s in the Tibetan Buddhist religion where they have these gatherings, I think even on a daily basis, where they dispute the teachings of the Buddha. They argue against him. That is extremely healthy for any community, for any democracy. Let alone a religious group. So in a sense this was me taking a look at an approach I’d taken to life and disputing it. And then really feeling it, true to heart. I still haven’t resolved that issue myself, but it felt liberating just to be able to express it. You know, you can wipe that page clean if you choose.’ (DS, 2009)

The cast of musicians on ‘Small Metal Gods’ was a step away from the familiar collaborators of previous releases. Christian Fennesz was the most well-known to fans of Sylvian’s work, having been responsible for the luminous sound environment of ‘A Fire in the Forest’ on Blemish. Other than that, Toshimaru Nakamura had featured on the track ‘Sleepwalkers’, then only available as an exclusive on the CD accompanying the tour brochure for The World is Everything, and more notable to most for Sylvian’s lyrical obscenities than the music that accompanied them.

Sylvian had pursued practitioners from the world of electro-acoustic improvisation to find the right musical prompt for his latest experiment in automatic lyric and melody writing. On this track are representatives from both the Austrian Polwechsel ensemble – Michael Moser, Burkhard Stangl, Werner Dafeldecker, and the Tokyo ensemble – Otomo Yoshihide and Toshimaru Nakamura. Fennesz provides a unifying musical thread throughout the album.

From the introduction of the song it is evident that every sound will be under the microscope, just as is every inflection of the vocal delivery. The music is sparse. It’s such a contrast to the layered arrangements of the earlier solo albums, but there are still moments of beauty here. I particularly enjoy the rich acoustic bass from Werner Dafeldecker, so deep and resonant. The chimes of acoustic guitar from Burkhard Stangl have a purity that contrasts with the wavering electronic tones produced by Toshimaru Nakamura’s no-input mixing board. Otomo Yoshihide uses the turntable to create crackle and static that add texture and atmosphere.

Nakamura is clear as to the key skill required for improvisation: ‘Listening is the major part of playing music. First you have to listen.’ Each musician must display sensitivity to the performances of their fellow players in order to respond and create something that is truly the expression of that group in that moment. This doesn’t imply constant deference, however. Fennesz: ‘It’s like having a conversation. You can have a polite conversation, you can keep yourself in the background, or you can be an ego maniac and just step in the foreground. It’s a question, I think, of character also. But sometimes it’s important to confront another player with your ego as well. That’s a very fine line… but I think it’s really related to a conversation.’

When I first heard ‘Small Metal Gods’ it was the strength of the lyric and vocal performance that caught my attention. I didn’t realise then that the collection of sounds that underpinned Sylvian’s performance would lead me to explore this world of free improvisation and that the music of this group of performers would become every bit as familiar as the collaborators of the past.


When I play the track on my playlist, I precede it with ‘Heater/Refrigerator’ from Toshimaru Nakamura’s album Egrets, which was released by samadhisound in 2010. It’s a track that also displays delicacy in the sparsity of the sounds. Performing with Nakamura is Arve Henriksen whose collaborations with David Sylvian started on the Nine Horses project. Here though he is not playing the trumpet in any conventional manner, rather he explores percussive valve sounds and breathy bursts and whispers which contribute to the texture alongside the drones created from the unlikely source of Toshimaru’s non-input mixing board. I find the piece helps me “tune in” to closely listen to the accompaniment of ‘Small Metal Gods’.

‘Small Metal Gods’

Werner Dafeldecker – acoustic bass; Christian Fennesz – laptop, guitar; Michael Moser – cello; Toshimaru Nakamura – no-input mixer; Burkhard Strangl – guitar; David Sylvian – vocals; Otomo Yoshihide – turntables

Music by Werner Dafeldecker, Christian Fennesz, Michael Moser, Burkhard Stangl, David Sylvian. Lyrics by David Sylvian.

Produced, engineered, edited and mixed by David Sylvian at samadhisound, 2008. From Manafon by David Sylvian, samadhisound, 2009.

Original sessions recorded between 2004-2007.

Lyrics © samadhisound publishing

Observations on improvisation by Toshimaru Nakamura and Christian Fennesz are from the DVD Amplified Gesture which accompanied Manafon it its deluxe edition (2009). Full sources and acknowledgements can be found here.

Download links: ‘Small Metal Gods’ (iTunes)

Physical media: Manafon (Amazon)

‘I heard from a number of people that have followed one path or another, that they felt a sense of release/relief hearing that lyric. As if permission had been granted to call it all into question. It had to have that degree of the irrational, the petulance, to get across the degree of personal investment, anger and disillusionment. Not dissimilar to the kind of conversations you hear between divorcing couples.’ David Sylvian, 2010

More about Manafon:

Snow White in Appalachia

One thought on “Small Metal Gods”

  1. Sylvian on ‘Small Metal Gods’: ‘I reached a breaking point where I wasn’t understanding the lessons that were being given me. This kept me treading water for some years, so I just wanted to express that frustration without any fear of repercussions. Being able to write about it was the first step. The piece is a rather childish stamping of the foot: “This isn’t good enough — so f**k off!” But it’s liberating in that way, because there’s so much respect for the hierarchies and the discipline itself. But that doesn’t put the cap on the whole thing. It’s me telling myself that I can eradicate anything that doesn’t work — even if it’s an entire belief system. I decided to put my faith in the creative spirit and see where it takes me.’ (2009)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: