Issue 2012-006: Sylvan - Sceneries - Round Table Review
CD 1: Chapter 1: The Fountain Of Glow (14:50), Chapter 2: Share The World With Me (15:05), Chapter 3: The Words You Hide (20:10)
CD 2: Chapter 4: The Waters I Traveled (20:00), Chapter 5: Farewell To Old Friends (20:33)
Erik Laan's Review
There is something funny about Sylvan’s music. For example, when I listened to Sylvan’s 2006 masterpiece Posthumous Silence for the first time, I was totally overwhelmed and absorbed by it. But after a few times, I rarely took the CD off the shelf again. It’s successor Presets (2007) however, was in my car audio set for quite a while, though I was fully aware that it’s songs are not as good as the ones on Posthumous Silence. While the passionate concept album Posthumous Silence was brilliant in its compositions, somehow it was a bit too intense. And while the poppy Presets sounded nice and catchy, it lacked the depth I knew Sylvan had.
Well, for anyone recognizing this dilemma: Sceneries is the perfect mixture. Ever since I received it, I have been constantly playing this amazing album. I am hooked. The only reason why I took out a CD of my player this time is to put the other one in, as it is a double CD.
Already the first chapter The Fountain Of Glow is “bulls eye”, with an arousing guitar solo which brings up memories of the best days of Marillion’s Steve Rothery. And there are a couple of such highlighting guitar solos. Jan Petersen is, let’s say an essentialist guitarist: not too many notes, just playing the right ones on the right moment is where true geniality is to be found.
Petersen joined the band only a few years ago. He participated in Force Of Gravity (2009), but only on this last one he really joined actively in the writing process. I have the distinct feeling that his contribution was the missing link for Sylvan to become one of the most prominent progressive rock bands of our times. I expect Sceneries will do just that.
Other references are the recent Anathema which has a similar emo-quality to its music and post-Gabriel Genesis. It’s nice for instance to compare the dramatic “feel” of the grand finale of Farewell To Old Friends with Tony Banks’ composition Afterglow.
No experimental Banksian keyboards though on Sceneries. We hear Volker Söhls piano’s and orchestral sounds, and that’s it (although I think I heard a Moog Taurus bass somewhere?) But it works. The sound is natural, “earthed” and nevertheless modern and sparkling.
What makes the music so compelling is that the compositions do not sound constructed or designed; they rather seem to evolve naturally and organically. According to some interviews with the band members on Youtube, the songs were created in jam sessions in the studio, without a lot prepared ideas. Although this approach sounds very romantic, in many cases it just ends up in a lack of creativity or even in sheer dullness. Sometimes however, when the stars are in the right position and there is some unexplained chemistry between the musicians, it might work. Well, this time it did.
Sceneries is sometimes heavy, sometimes poppy, mostly dark, dramatic and melancholic, but always honest, pure, melodic and straight from the heart. Marco Glühmann’s voice expresses all that. His vocals have been subject to discussions on the net. Some like his passionate and expressive approach, others seem to have some trouble with his somewhat limited technique. I can see why. For instance, I noticed that Glümann nearly always sings “stepping stone” notes before the difficult higher ones, as if he is uncertain he can pitch these ones at once. I don’t care so much about that though, as this also makes his style sympathetic and unique. Once you accept that and open up to his voice, it’s hard to imagine Sylvan’s approach to work as well without Marco.
After the disappointing prog-year 2011, I was really looking forward to something “big” again, something that could animate the prog-community. Well, here it is. The German band Sylvan is the news. So don’t hesitate, just buy Sceneries and go visiting their gigs.
Jon Bradshaw's Review
Good, Sweet, Honey, Sugar−Candied READER,
Which I think is more than anyone has called you yet, I must have a word or two with you before you do advance into the Treatise. Music was intended for the exercising of men's passions not their understandings, and he is infinitely far from wise that will bestow one moment's meditation on such things. Music was never meant, either for a converting or a conforming Ordinance: In short, I think music the best divertisement that wise men have: This being my opinion of music, I have studied ‘Sceneries’ only to judge it as an entertainment and diversion which whether I have been successful in, my gentle Reader, you may for your shilling judge.
Well, at least that’s how I think I must judge Sceneries, the 8th studio album from Sylvan. I only know two of their previous works, Posthumous Silence and Artificial Paradise and, having bought them on the strength of the rave reviews here at DPRP, I confess to liking them, but only liking them, I don’t actually play them much. In fact, I’ve not heard any of their work after Posthumous Silence, so when the opportunity to review their new album came up, I wondered how they might have progressed in the intervening six years and approached the listening with interest. As for the two albums I know, they’re both finely crafted and packaged, superbly played, and delightfully composed; rippling with dynamics and supported by meaningful lyrics and sterling production. So what’s wrong? Why don’t I play them? I struggle to pinpoint exactly what it is, but it’s the same problem I have with IQ. I appreciate them, sure but I don’t actively like them. They don’t stir my passions. Such the same can be said for Sylvan. I find the music a bit ‘vanilla’ in flavour. It’s pleasant enough, and it will go with pretty much anything, but could do with something vibrant and tangy to lift it into the realms of the extraordinary. At it’s worst, I find it positively sluggish and treacle sweet. Perhaps Sceneries will be different?
I’m afraid not. Sorry. If anything, the things I dislike about Sylvan’s work are more present here than on the two albums I already own. 5 tracks over two CDs, each clocking in at, at least, 15 minutes. How enticing to prog-heads is that? Whilst these 5 tracks have lots of great moments there is very little to warrant the exceptionally epic format, to my mind. Recurrent musical and lyrical themes get stretched out over vast epochs of time, or so it seems. It’s irritatingly long-winded. Imagine Coldplay expanding Fix You over 20 minutes and you’ll get my frustration with this album. Fix You works beautifully (I contend) as a four minute progressive pop song. Push that much further and it would quickly become mawkish and deeply repetitive. Perhaps I’m being unfair because each long track is divided into shorter pieces of, as a rough average, 4-5 minutes and, when considered in this way, each piece can be thought of as a an independent entity within a musically thematic whole. Nevertheless, what Sylvan are doing here, to my ears, is conflating alternative pop (eg Coldplay, Snow Patrol, Starsailor, Keane etc), and rock music with progressive themes and styles. These are fundamentally contradictory genres. Rock requires a certain amount of visceral passion and prog a certain amount of cerebral, genre-bending wizardry. Alternative pop can thrive with or without either of these things and whilst technically, Sylvan are indeed splicing these instinctively divergent gene pools, they are weakening them in the process.
What Sceneries may lack in focus, it more than makes up for in grace and melody. Many of the ideas and melodies are fiendishly catchy , Part Two of The Words You Hide, for example is an insanely joyous, hook-laden, toe-tapping ditty that Gilbert O’Sullivan could have penned in his early MAM Records years. Many others (more) are searingly, heart-rending. Part Three of the same song (the highlight of the album for me) is gushing with melodramatic romance, sadness and beauty. I could go on. The melodies throughout the album are really very good indeed and Marco Glühmann’s brilliant Brian Molko-inflected performance is never anything less than affecting and impassioned. I can lavish equal praise on the whole band and I particularly like Jan Petersen’s guitar work. His solos combine David Gilmour’s finesse and emotion with the muscle and bone of Bryan Josh (Mostly Autumn). Volker Söhl’s piano work is beautifully weighted and measured and the e-orchestra generated by keyboards is breathtaking in places. Sebastian Harnack (bass) and Matthias Harder are a titanic rhythm section emphasizing scale and gravity rather than complexity and detail, the vastness of Share The World With Me – Part Four, being a case in point. The production is also superb, if not a little overwrought in the reverb and echo stakes, lending everything that cavernous, ‘arena’ sound which, whilst not unpleasant (at all!), is perceptibly artificial..
When it comes down to brass tacks, Sceneries is a solid album with some disarming moments. Those who are already Sylvan acolytes as well as fans of Anathema, RPWL and even Coldplay will probably lap this up. It’s even-keeled and level-headed: something of a pleasant, agreeable listen; it’s unassuming and uncontroversial - that’s not a horrible thing - and I can’t really complain, but if you’re looking for something with a bit of progressive Oomph!, you will come away empty-handed. As you can see, I’m stuck between praising Sceneries for succeeding at what it does do, or lamenting what it doesn’t. I guess I’m stuck with Vanilla.
(With apologies to Aphra Behn)
Roger Trenwith's Review
I find this album impossible to listen to in its entirety. There, that’s got your attention has it not? The eighth studio outing from Hamburg’s neo-prog stalwarts Sylvan first caught my eye simply because it boasted five “epics” spread over two discs and 90 minutes. I’ve always been a sucker for a “long ‘un”, you see. Initially enticing as the prospect of such a sprawling of epics might be, it does not take long before the unremitting over-emotive power balladry with very little meandering from a pretty basic formula begins to severely test my patience.
Taken as individual songs there are some decent moments on this album, and the guitarist in particular does his best to stir things up, but this band seem to delight in taking an idea and stretching it out waaay beyond the bounds of reasonableness. The five songs number two of around 15 minutes, and three, count ‘em, three of around the 20 minute mark. Like I said, I’m a sucker for epics, in fact I can think of at least three twenty-minuters that would make it on to my Desert Island Discs, but a piece of music has to do a bit of work to justify a length of over the ten minute mark in my book. Unfortunately this is often not the case here as the songs rarely show enough inventiveness to be easily separately identifiable, and again unfortunately they rarely rise above mid paced, and they are way too simple in construction to justify their length. I’ve played this album quite a few times, yet each time it ends I cannot recall any hook or line for longer than it takes to turn the hi-fi off.
The Fountain Of Glow kicks things off in what will become a familiar fashion, quiet melancholic piano and some nice guitar presaging a Supertramp-like sequence, before the piano theme returns building to a portentous mid-section. Although there is a decent melody in here, the thing is at probably twice as long as it need be in my opinion. I also note that the sound throughout the album is over-produced and the separation between the instruments is not the best. There are several moments where more clarity or subtlety would have been preferable, the acoustic guitar-led beginning and later classical piano section of Share The World With Me being a case in point. Marco Glühmann’s accented English and occasionally strained singing takes a bit of getting used to but he’s got a decent enough voice, and he sings the lyrics with obvious heartfelt emotion (boy, does he just), and it’s a shame my review promo copy did not come with the lyric sheet, as Marco’s singing is not always that easy to follow. Guitarist Jan Petersen does his best with some melodic soloing, but all these songs are over-long and stretch fairly simple if decent enough ideas to the point where this listener rapidly loses interest. In Share The World With Me, even a section where things briefly threaten to lift off is leavened by the inevitable slow-to-a-near-stop part, a trait that is practically signposted. Building back up to the repeated coda, where Marco is “gonna make it right” and in case you didn’t notice the first time round this phrase is repeated so many times I lost count, and by now I just want the song to end.…….please.
The problem is that last one was another 15 minute long trial, and the final song on CD 1 is 20 minutes long, and it starts with quiet piano and voice, and…hmm I wonder where we’re going with this one? A faux orchestral arrangement kicks in which at least is a bit different, followed by some sludgy almost riffing. I say “almost” because when this record sounds like it should get heavy it never quite makes it for some reason. The dynamics of The Words You Hide are following the now familiar pattern of build-to-a-slow-part-build back up again. A lot of bands use this dynamic, and it’s not a bad idea in itself, but why do it for every song? Taken on its own this song is the best on the first CD as it has a good atmospheric and cinematic quality about it, putting me in mind of The Wall. In the middle of this epic there is a straight song section that is actually not bad in a Coldplay kind of a way….blimey, did I just make a favourable comparison to Coldplay? Nurse, bring the strong swirly medicine!
CD 2 kicks off with the most overblown portentous and turgid twenty minutes of tub thumping on the album. The Waters I Travelled follows the same build up-slow down formula of before, and the third section (see footnote) at least has a decent guitar solo to redeem it, but boy is it overcooked! The other epic on this CD is probably the best thing on the album, with far more variety of styles in its twenty minutes than on most of the rest of the album combined. Farewell To Old Friends is what you might term a neo-prog tour-de-force, with all the obvious influences that sub-genre brings to the table, and unlike the rest of the album it did actually hold my interest to the end, and although said ending is typically overwrought it is the only song here to really justify its length.
Footnote: It is interesting to note how each of the five epic length tracks are split into separate but seamless sections on the CDs, so for instance the 15 minutes of The Fountain Of Glow is split into three “tracks” on the CD. I cannot see the point of this, unless it is for radio programming purposes?
To sum up, I’m put in mind of a sort of Gothic Coldplay on steroids, Chris Martin haven woken up one morning, leaning over to his missus...“Hey Gwyn, I’ve decided that me and the boys are going to make a prog album, that should confound the critics”. Gwyn groans “Yeah Chris, but do please remember that stretching one of your endless supply of overly emotive stadium ballads for over more than fifteen minutes does not necessarily mean you’ve made a prog record”, as she turns over and goes back to sleep.
If Sylvan had made one hour long CD it would have worked far better and not put this reviewer into a deep slumber.
Basil Francis' Review
As a prog fan, I like long songs. In fact, I love long songs. I don't really care about how interesting, beautiful, intricate, emotional, conceptual, clever, complex, moving, or powerful my music is, just as long as it takes up more of my life than other forms of music. As a result, I listen to Transatlantic's The Whirlwind non-stop, as it is surely the pinnacle of all music, stretching to nearly 80 minutes in length. I also regularly take trips to Halberstadt, Germany, where the organ in the church is currently playing a John Cage piece lasting 639 years.
Coincidentally, Germany is also where Sylvan are from, and they also seem to like long songs, without caring how interesting, intricate or clever they are. Indeed, four of the five tracks on this album will qualify to be listed on our very own Long Songs list, but I feel this is a hollow victory, as the music is really quite uninspiring.
You see, when an album with such lengthy songs is released (e.g. Tales From Topographic Oceans, Third, Tubular Bells) the listener should expect nothing less than a mind-blowing musical journey. However, here Sylvan have cobbled together pieces of separate songs to form loose, incohesive and above all repetitive suites to try and take all the time they can to say what they have to say.
What they have to say can either be interpreted as positive and heartwarming, or soppy and uninspired. As a person who's cynical enough of this album already, I want to think that the band put in a bit of time into the concept, which is about "the search for those very things that make our life worth living". There are five tracks on the album, and each track is associated to one member of the band, the 'godfather' of that particular track. The press release claims that this makes this the most personal Sylvan album ever. Most ostentatious album, more like.
It should be noted that Sylvan are not a very energetic group. Each song has a relatively slow tempo, with a symphonic backdrop. Every song sounds very 'nice' and accessible, but there's nothing very meaty to sink your teeth into. All the 'powerful' parts of the record seem quite overblown, with none of them standing out. In fact, all the music is pretty samey, and I wouldn't be able to tell you which track was which if you simply played me a random clip from the album. The music is very consistent, but sadly it is consistently bland. However, I do have a favourite track: the yawn-inducingly titled Share The World With Me actually has a pretty decent structure for the most part, with a lovely intro and a respectable instrumental after the first chorus. In addition to this, The Waters I Traveled [sic] has a very beautiful ending, although I'm not sure it's worth sitting through the first fifteen minutes to listen to.
A sign of danger is that each track on the album is split into four parts, except for The Fountain Of Glow, which is split into just three. The separation of the parts suggests that the tracks will sound less like a whole song, and more like four songs glued together, rather like Dream Theater's Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence, or Transatlantic's The Whirlwind. A few of the tracks, such as Share The World With Me get away with this treatment, but others, like Farewell To Old Friends don't fare so well. In this case, the track feels like it has at least three seperate conclusions within the same suite, making for a rather disjointed feel.
The members of the band are all very competent, but there's very little virtuosity in the music. There's no spectacular moment on the album where the band crack out something unbelievable. The potential for a wicked instrumental in the ninety minutes of this album is giant, yet never comes to fruition. I'm also not such a fan of the singer, with his sometimes bizarre pronunciations of English words, and nasal vocals.
All in all, this album is a bit of a gimmick. The twenty-minute songs are entirely gimmicky, and the band knows it. They've purposefully churned out long songs to entice unsuspecting prog fans into buying their album. I know that the length of the songs is no accident, because on the brief YouTube previews, the band properly advertise the full length of the track in question; a cheap and underhand trick. It's a shame that Sylvan aren't the only band nowadays who have written a long song purely to boost sales. There was a time when a lengthy track on a record would signify how much care and dedication had been put into a track, but more and more it seems to show how greedy a band can be. As I said before, this is a very pleasant-sounding record, but for five lengthy tracks, this album falls short by quite a distance. Like Tales From Topographic Oceans, this will surely be an album to split the fans.