Former Japan band member and regular David Sylvian collaborator Steve Jansen releases his astonishing solo album on Samadhi Sound this Autumn. On ‘Slope’, tension underlies the crisp rhythms and intricate programming, while a collection of distinctive vocalists draw out the sentiment and expression in his songwriting. The album features guest contributions from Sweet Billy Pilgrim, Thomas Feiner, Anja Garbarek, Nina Kinert, David Sylvian, Theo Travis and Joan Wasser (Joan As Policewoman). Presented as ever in a beautiful digipak featuring exquisite artwork from Australian artist Dan McPharlin and designed by Chris Bigg.
Beautiful, minimalistic beeps and bleeps wrapped up in style that's as gloriously understated as its gossamer-strong substance. If this is where we'd known Japan would lead us, we'd have loved them all the more.
With David Sylvian (Jansen's brother and former Japan collaborator, for those of you with better things to do than obsess over the 80s) providing vocals on some of the tracks here (Playground Martyrs, Ballad Of A Deadman) and a succession of male and female vocals on many of the others (including Tim Elsenberg, Anja Garbarek, Thomas Feiner, Joan As Police Woman, Wasser and Nina Kinert) you'd be forgiven for worrying that this might all descend into one of those terrible vanity projects fuelled by an ego in need of a producer.
Thankfully, Steve Jansen is much too clever for this. From the minimalist five minute saxophone and synth (almost) instrumental of opener Grip, shot through towards the end with the ghost voices of another world, to its bassier and fuller successor, the midnight lullaby of Sleepyard and onwards, this is a truly beautiful album.
Perhaps if the honesty is turned up to 11 this is a record only a child of the 80s could love, but if that starts to put you off remember that it's filtered through voodoo blues. Interestingly, one of the best tracks is December Train, the only one on which Jansen performs alone. Credited with 'electric percussion, sampled instruments and synths', you do wonder why he bothered with anything, or anyone, else at all.
The reason of course, is because the addition of collaborators raises the bar even further. The wonderfully funereal Sow The Salt, for example, on which Thomas Feiner and Ingo Frenzel aid and abet. The beat is slow and languid, molasses thick and just as rich. In contrast, Gap of Cloud is, as its name suggests, barely there at all.
Most strikingly, this is an album that has no fear of silence because from silence can emerge the haunting clarinet of A Way Of Disappearing, the perfect contrast to the fuller, more layered Ballad Of A Deadman, on which Sylvian and Joan Wasser duet on a song that sounds as if it's risen from a velvet-wrapped grave. The vocal-less Conversation Over hints that Jansen might even have a sense of humour - never a top priority on the New Romantic rider.
Slope is a superbly structured album as well as a beautifully styled one. As we begin to wind down through the heavy piano chords of Life Moves On, we have time to reflect back on exactly what we have here: an album drenched in the self-assurance afforded by the critical acclaim of its predecessor Nine Horses plus more than 30 years of opting for critical acclaim over mainstream success.
Nina Kinert sees us out, with a reworking of the same Playground Martyrs David Sylvian sang for us at the mid-point of this musical odyssey. Slope is a beautiful album, styled and encouraged and groomed by two very beautiful boys who have grown into very beautiful men. If music was clothing, it would be a satin smoking jacket. Wrap yourself up in it, lie back and don't be afraid to inhale.
- Jenni Cole