Reviews Column 52: Art-Rock

It doesn’t get much artier…

David Sylvian’s collaborative 65-minute piece There’s A Light That Enters Houses With No Other House In Sight (Samadhisound) is more of a sound installation than anything that might fan the peacock feathers of fairweather Japan admirers. Now echoing Scott Walker’s career trajectory, he’s sidelined the warm romanticism of his voice, preferring to lace piano, loops and samples under the readings of Massachusetts-based Pulitzer-winning poet Franz Wright. Christian Fennesz and John Tilbury contribute, glacially.

Wright was gravely ill with cancer when Sylvian recorded him (he survives), and this is a stark, wry meditation on mortality and transience: Beckett meets Bukowski. “Is death the mother of beauty?’” ponders Sylvian in his notes. “How one loves such huge sayings when young.” He’s journeyed so far since Ghosts, yet remains emphatically close to its essence.

The untimely death of guitarist Peter Banks in 2013 has prompted a welcome rehabilitation for the work of the Yes founder member who, after leaving that band, never found a comparable vehicle for his imaginative stylings. Empire, formed with then-wife singer Sydney Foxx after the demise of Flash, made three 70s albums. The Peter Banks Empire archival release The Mars Tapes (Gonzo) documents LA rehearsals at Mars Studios from 1979. Surviving members agreed that these previously unheard tracks and works in progress should emerge as a tribute. Not everything gels, but Somewhere Over The Rainbow Bar And Grill and Sky At Night (featuring Phil Collins) ring with impact and clarity.

Krautrock pairing Stefan Schneider And Sven Kacirek (the former, of To Rococo Rot, has worked with members of Faust, Kraftwerk and Cluster) claim to bring – as Schneider Kacirek – some of the latter’s Kenya-centric sounds to the dark electronica of Shadows Documents (Bureau B). Yet that’s misleading: don’t expect stereotypical African flurries. Instead, the album drifts elegantly through quietly pressing and faintly sinister rhythms. It’s nuanced and noir, with flecks of Edgar Froese around the crackling, hissing edges. Haunting.

Few musicians have fooled with the lines demarking ‘art’ and ‘rock’ more busily than Todd Rundgren. His 70s work spanned the spectrum of production techniques, virtuosity and songcraft. The Edsel label has reissued three of his diverse albums. His 1970 debut Runt was effectively his solo calling card, with piano-led songs emulating then-idol Laura Nyro, and guitar rock jumping between blues and proto-prog. It’s doubled here with The Alternate Runt, offering the previously unavailable Say No More and an uncut Baby Let’s Swing.

Initiation, from 1975, splits between six lush songs and a 35-minute second half (A Treatise On Cosmic Fire) of out-there synth-prog. By 1978’s classic Hermit Of Mink Hollow he was knocking out immense songs (Can We Still Be Friends?) and hot riffs (You Cried Wolf) with cavalier flair. The muse was his.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.