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David SylvianHolger Czukay - Plight & Premonition / Flux & Mutability Music Album Reviews

A double reissue of late-1980s albums by the Can co-founder and the synth-pop savant finds them laying the groundwork for years of ambient music that would follow.

When David Sylvian set about making his first solo album, 1984’s Brilliant Trees, he enlisted a handful of former collaborators, including Yellow Magic Orchestra co-founder Ryuichi Sakamoto as well as his Japan bandmates Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri. The most crucial contributions, though, came from an artist with whom he had never worked before: Holger Czukay.

Surprisingly, Sylvian’s interest in the German artist’s work derived not from the latter’s tenure in the pioneering krautrock band Can but from his solo albums, particularly his 1979 release Movies. There’s a clear connection between the warped rhythms of that record and the equally off-balance funk of Brilliant Trees’ “Pulling Punches” and the fluid pop of “Red Guitar.” Czukay’s contributions—guitar, vocals, and samples played on old dictaphones—added just the right touch of tumult to Sylvian’s generally straightforward tunes. Where Czukay left his most lasting mark was as an improviser. As Sylvian told the British publication Fourth Door Review, “Holger’s approach was… joyful enthusiasm, wild invention, much paint thrown at the canvas to see what sticks.”

Those qualities, and the two men’s friendship, kept their paths intersecting through the 1980s. After expanding upon their freeform compositional ideas on 1985’s Alchemy - An Index of Possibilities, Czukay and Sylvian went on to collaborate on a pair of fantastic albums—1988’s Plight & Premonition and 1989’s Flux & Mutability—that presaged not only the more experimental turn Sylvian’s career would take in the 2000s but also the ambient strains taken up by 21st-century artists like Loscil and Grouper.

Those albums, newly remastered and re-released as a single two-disc package by Germany’s Grönland Records, each feature two long instrumental works built around drones from a synthesizer or guitar interrupted by random shortwave-radio intrusions and occasionally disorienting tape edits. But in keeping with the dynamic nature of the two musicians’ artistic relationship, the sessions for each record, and the moods they conjure up, were dramatically different.

In the case of Plight & Premonition, Sylvian initially visited Can Studio in Cologne under the pretense of recording a vocal for Czukay’s 1987 solo album Rome Remains Rome. Instead, the two men spent a pair of long nights improvising. Sylvian held court in the main recording space, teasing out melodies and drones on harmonium, synthesizer, piano, or guitar, while Czukay played loops and samples for him to respond to. Whenever Sylvian started falling into a pattern or found a hook, Czukay would encourage him to try something else. As Sylvian recalls in David Toop’s liner notes for this reissue: “He’d only wanted the process, the uncertainty, the ambiguity of the searching out of ideas.”

“Plight (The Spiraling of Winter Ghosts)” reflects that recording experience. The track starts in medias res with a harmonium and a bit of tape both coming to life. Some interwoven drones and a small piano figure float by before a brief sample of what sounds like a chorus line of cartoon skeletons collapsing in a heap bursts through. It’s a jarring moment, but it sets the tone for the piece, which feels meditative yet active—like listening to an ambient record on headphones at such a low volume that the background noise of the metropolis bleeds through. Floating chords and long stretches of chilling beauty find a rough harmony with police sirens and bits of radio broadcasts.

“Plight” benefits from Czukay’s judicious tape edits and processing. “Premonition (Giant Empty Iron Vessel),” which takes up the B-side of the album, is beautiful but far less exciting. Recorded as it was performed, the 16-minute track rolls steadily by with more radio sounds and little swells of electronic noise interrupted by Sylvian’s piano embellishments that are pleasant but almost intrusive to the otherwise enrapturing atmosphere.

Flux & Mutability was another collaborative effort—after a fashion. “‘Flux’ is Holger’s piece and ‘Mutability’ is mine,” Sylvian told The Wire’s Richard Cook in 1989, meaning that while the two men worked together on the album, each took conceptual charge of one sidelong track. Czukay’s side is the more active of the two. Driven by a small drum pattern played by Can percussionist Jaki Liebezeit, the piece is evocatively subtitled “A Big, Bright, Colourful World.” Its light synth drones and radio noise are illuminated by the lens flares of Markus Stockhausen’s flugelhorn and then slightly darkened by some fragmented guitar figures added by another Can member, Michael Karoli.

Sylvian’s side of the album is, again, not as impactful or challenging in comparison. It feels of a piece with the work that he and his collaborators had created for his solo albums Gone to Earth and Secrets of the Beehive—lovely washes of melody played on synth and guitar that drift to the surface before slowly sinking into the depths again—but with the pop elements stripped away. The subtitle (“A New Beginning Is in the Offing”) is apt, however. Looked at within the span of Sylvian’s 40-year career, the piece marks a turning point. He would better realize some of the same free-flowing ideas that he cultivated with Czukay into his next recordings, including Rain Tree Crow, his reunion with three of his Japan bandmates, and his work with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp.

Much of Sylvian and Czukay’s respective work, either as solo artists or in collaboration with other musicians, has been re-released or cherry-picked for compilations in recent years, but somehow this material never seems to make the cut. The albums’ return to print feels like a footnote to Czukay’s death in 2017 and the career-spanning box set Cinema earlier this year. The albums aren’t treated poorly; Grönland has remastered them warmly and wrapped them both up in new packaging that emphasizes photos of the two men together. But hearing them now and sensing the connection these records have to similarly minded modern efforts by Mirrorring, Liz Harris and Jesy Fortino’s dream-folk project, and Brian Eno’s recent studio collaboration with pianist Tom Rogerson, this reissue, while welcome, highlights the ways in which many of these ideas were more successfully executed by subsequent artists.

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