The synth-driven glam of Japan appeared with the first frothy peak of new wave and set the stage for the new romantics (we’re looking at you, Duran Duran) before embracing an avant-garde globalism on its masterful final album, Tin Drum, in 1981. Principal to the band’s success were brothers David Sylvian (singer/songwriter) and Steve Jansen (percussion). Japan disbanded in ’82; Sylvian has since worked with Christian Fennesz, Talvin Singh, Robert Fripp and Can’s Holger Czukay in a successful solo career, and Jansen has worked with Annie Lennox and Scottish singer/songwriter Perry Blake. So it’s no small surprise that Nine Horses, a collaboration between Sylvian, Jansen and electronic composer Burnt Friedman (a.k.a. Drone), features a revolving cast of inventive performers including Swedish singer Stina Nordenstam, Supersilent trumpeter Arve Henriksen and frequent Sylvian collaborator Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Born of two distinct Sylvian projects (one with Jansen, one with Friedman) and created largely through file sharing, Snow Borne Sorrow combines glacial synths, brisk soul, down-tempo beats and jazz textures with Sylvian’s seismographic vocals in a detailed and profuse work that’s alive with ideas.
Built upon a jazzy drum loop, “Wonderful World” glides seductively along tremulous strings and smoky double bass. Sylvian’s vocal is mixed to the fore, but it’s the paper-thin hyper-sensuality of Nordenstam’s contribution that adds a delicate brilliance to the song’s dark-water motion. Somewhere in Bristol, the members of Portishead are enchanted and dismayed. “Atom and Cell” weds Sakamoto’s sparse piano to a ringing metallic beat that encircles a soulful and layered vocal with lyrics referencing an encounter Sylvian had with a homeless woman in New York City on the evening of September 10, 2001. Originally an instrumental earmarked for a Jansen solo release, “Snow Borne Sorrow” is built on a churning loop and static-drowned melody. A heart-rending confessional born of Sylvian’s early 2005 divorce, the disintegration of the instrumental reflects deeply personal lyrics that move from the caustic (“strip the branches/ unsheathe the hatchets”) to the distressed (“when their feet touch the ground/ naked, unbound/ I want them to know they can trust me/ let the children come to me”).
As the curtain closes on Snow Borne Sorrow there’s no question as to its worth: It is undoubtedly a pinnacle in the careers of Jansen, Friedman and Sylvian – who is clearly the captain at the helm. Though the album is truly collaborative, it seems a natural sibling to Sylvian’s 2003 release, Blemish, especially considering that work on Snow Borne Sorrow commenced before Blemish was written and recorded. Based on more traditional pop forms while taking the electronic manipulations into an expanded setting, Snow Borne Sorrow is the light to the stark vulnerability of Blemish. Sylvian’s constant exploration of faith is a scaffold surrounding the album’s intricate architecture. Each song spirals upward under the strength of the perfectionist drive of a mature and significant artist.