One of the more exotic developments in ‘80s music was the evolution of art rock. The term might be too broad to describe the music of David Sylvian. Sylvian a former member of the glam turned New Romantic band Japan, was a early pioneer in the new movement that many say he (Japan) created. While Japan was a short-lived phenomenon, its members left a legacy of innovation wherever they went. For Sylvian a solo career saw him quickly elevated to the critics A-list while mainstream commercial success remained elusive.
To hear Sylvian’s masterpiece and fourth album Secrets of the Beehive is like listening to Frank Sinatra music made for a postindustrial world. Where Sinatra had swing, Sylvian had a Zen-like timbre that came across as emotive, cool and worldly. Sylvian’s croon was somewhere between the better moments of David Bowie and Jim Kerr but his inspiration was far more ancient. The Asian influences were all over Secrets of the Beehive as collaborator Ryuichi Sakamoto’s string arrangements gave the album a delicate beauty. The production also featured Steve Jansen, a former band mate from Japan who played drums.
The Steve Nye produced album originally featured 9 beautifully crafted songs. Moody and sophisticated, they recalled serene Japanese landscapes thanks to exotic instruments and sprawling synth arrangements. Even the cover was high art, despite being on Virgin records, it had the look of a 23 Envelope 4AD project. One of the most beautiful of the album’s tracks was ‘Orpheus’, perhaps Sylvian’s most critically decorated song. The accompanying video looked like an extension of the album cover and was the first David Sylvian video that most Americans had ever seen.
The album, like much of Sylvian’s work was more successful in Japan than it was in the US or England for that matter. Much of his catalog was available as imports in America up to the early ‘90s. His exposure in America was limited to the occasional airing on MTV late at night or PBS special. After U.S. distribution happened, the album was offered as a remastered special edition CD with three more songs in 2003.
David Sylivan’s music was more likely to have been heard on soundtracks like on the 1983 film Merry Christmas Mr. Laurance starring David Bowie. Sylvian and Sakamoto teamed up on that project as well as many others during their careers. David Sylvian is still active today, however it’s his early material from 1986 to 1988 that best fuses his art rock aspirations with ambient and electronic music. Secretes of the Beehive was the height of this period.