After 22 years on the Virgin label, as a member of Japan and as a solo artist, David Sylvian has finally called time on his association with the company that has been his home for nearly his entire recording career. Acting as a companion piece to the last year’s retrospective Everything and Nothing, Camphor, a collection of mainly instrumental tracks culled from the last 18 years of his career, is the full stop on a career that has straddled the boundaries between chart success and challenging experimental music like few other of his contemporaries.
But rather than just repackage a collection of old tracks, Sylvian has carefully selected from his vast catalogue, and in his own words, “started remixing these for reasons of curiosity and self-gratification”. Several of these remixes made the cut of the final album, offering a fresh perspective on older works. Presented alongside untouched pieces, Camphor is more than just a collection of various instrumentals, and deserves to be viewed as a new work in itself.
Despite being a collage of instrumentals from two decades, the album as a whole works well, and never feels dated, perhaps a result of the myriad influences Sylvian has brought to bear on his work. Like a cultural magpie, Sylvian takes from all around him. Found sounds lie next to ambient soundscapes, fourth world style experiments rub shoulders with electronic and synth drones and jazz or classical piano motifs will appear in the mix before subsiding back into ether.
Camphor features contributions from luminaries such as Robert Fripp, Bill Nelson and Holger Czukay, and tracks written with his former Japan cohorts such as Rain Tree Crow. Of special note are the pieces performed with Czukay. On the limited edition second CD are three Sylvian/Czukay pieces, reworked by Sylvian specifically for this release. Clocking in at over 35 minutes, these ambient dronescapes, with their intermittent bursts of noise, piano, and the crackle of shortwave radio disrupting the tranquil washes of sound, are the highlight of the album.
It’s not all perfect however. There’s pomposity occasionally lurking near the surface, represented by the song titles, The Song Which Gives The Key to Perfection and Mutability (A New Beginning is in the Offering). And he occasionally breaks into worrying bursts of guitar virtuosity – wailing solos that distract from the atmosphere. One can only imagine the pained grimaces on the face of the guitarist in the studio as each extended note is over-emoted. But thankfully these disturbing lapses are few and far between, and certainly not enough to distract from the album as a whole.
Despite the potentially forbidding nature of the work, it’s never an effort to listen to and there’s an inherent joy to much of the music, often recorded after hours. There’s a sense of this being music created and recorded for it’s own sake rather than any pre-conceived notions of fitting into a commercial album. This is music as a response to the mysteries that make up this world. A deep sense of the spiritual pervades the recordings, almost devotional in places, sounding like sacred music made with modern machines.
Fans of David Sylvian will no doubt buy this whatever, but for the newcomer, Camphor offers a great introduction to the more leftfield, reflective side of his work, and is vital for anyone with an interest in artists such as David Byrne or Brian Eno, as well as more recent artists like The Orb or Boards of Canada. Just make sure you pick up the limited 2 CD release for the extended Sylvian/Czukay pieces.