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David Sylvian

Brilliant Trees/Words With The Shaman

Review by Steve Alspach

With the demise of Japan (the band, not the nation, y’all), David Sylvian launched his solo career with Brilliant Trees. Some of the songs still have a dated feel to them, but it shows Sylvian to branch out musically. As a debut solo, Brilliant Trees has a very confident feel to it. Although he employs fellow Japan members Richard Barbieri and Steve Jansen, Sylvian also enlists the aid of the likes of Holger Czukay, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Danny Thompson, Percy Jones, Kenny Wheeler, and Mark Isham, among others.

This reissue of the CD includes the addition of Words with the Shaman. Sylvian has always had an exploratory side to him – the entire second album of his Gone to Earth album will attest to that – but here is a small project that he created with Jon Hassell and Steve Jansen.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2006 Volume 5 at

Track by Track Review
Pulling Punches
This has a real Talking Heads feel to it. Wayne Braithwaite fills out on bass with some good, funky playing, and there is a solid synth playing to mimic a brass section that is tastefully done and is well understated.
The Ink In The Well
Here Sylvian goes with a more acoustic arrangement. Reliable double bass warhorse Danny Thompson lays down the anchor with Steve Jansen’s nimble brushwork. Kenny Wheeler adds a flugelhorn solo in the end.
Again Sylvian goes for a “less-is-more” approach with a sparse arrangement of guitar, muted synthesizer, and Jansen’s syncopated hi-hat and rim-click drumming. There’s a lengthy instrumental passage in the middle, and Wheeler again makes an appearance on flugelhorn. It’s a bit humorous to hear Sylvian pronounce the title – “Nos-tal-jee-uh.” Well, it fits the line.
Red Guitar
Maybe it’s me, but this is another of those “you recorded this in the 80s, right?” songs. Still, it stands on its own. Sylvian adds some nice jazzy piano fills in the break between verses on this swinger. Brasswork this time goes to Mark Isham for a short, well-stated trumpet solo.
Weathered Wall
This is one of the more “out there” tracks on the album. The instrumental fills are distinctively Middle Eastern in feel, and again Jansen dances around the beat. The chord structure is more challenging as well.
This has a bizarre “chorus of frogs” synthesizer line, what sounds like a 9/8 meter, and the occasional vocal snippet from Holger Czukay.
Brilliant Trees
What starts again as a Middle Eastern call to prayer turns into a more solemn section, rich in keyboards. The Middle Eastern flavor returns in a lengthy end section as the drones, accompanied by various hand percussion, enters.
Words With The Shaman, Pt. 1: Ancient Evening
Saddle up the camel; we’re off to Marrakech. Over a simple drum riff, Hassler lays some treated trumpet lines, but then a female voice comes in. It almost sounds like a call-and-response between the voice and the trumpet.
Words With The Shaman, Pt. 2: Incantation
This sounds like the backing track that would work on the Byrne-Eno My Life in the Bush of Ghosts album but more in the Byrne dance mode than the Eno ambient mode. There’s no chord progression in this, just a groove.
Words With The Shaman, Pt. 3: Awakenings (Songs From the Treetops)
The first part of this final movement feels much more developed than the first two parts. There are a couple of interesting chord changes that sound like Sylvian may have had vocal ideas for this. “Awakening” sounds a bit like Mike Oldfield with its tuned percussion, and the repetition of the percussion patterns are a bit Philip Glass-inspired. The piece then maintains a single chord accompanying Hassell’s trumpet phrasing.
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