Monday 31 May 2021

Sylvan - One to Zero (2021)

Country: Germany
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 28 May 2021
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Here's another welcome discovery for me and they may be for you too. Sylvan are a progressive rock band from Hamburg who have been around in one form or another since 1990, when they were a hard rock band called Temporal Temptation. Their rename to Chameleon later that year marked their shift to prog rock and they became Sylvan in 1997, at which point they started releasing more than demos. This is their tenth album and it's a very easy one to listen to but one that also has depths should we want to dip below the surface.

I read that they're primarily neo-prog and have appropriately supported Marillion and Pendragon in their time. While this definitely sounds British in style and is sung in English, I'm hearing a lot beyond that neo-prog tag. Sure, Marillion may be the best initial comparison, albeit more the Steve Hogarth era than Fish, though there's definitely some of the latter in Unleashed Power, along with some older influences like Genesis and Camel. However, there's a lot more here than Marillion.

The excellent opener, Bit by Bit, also includes elements of post-punk and new wave. There's Ultravox in here and Gary Numan too, though musically it's harder, heavier and with a very different approach to keyboards. Ultravox show up here and there throughout, especially on the closer, Not a Goodbye. The songs in between trawl in a lot of British alternative rock too, people like Muse and Radiohead, whose lush arrangements can be both interesting and commercial. My favourite song may well be Go Viral, a more contemporary piece which adds a lot of pop and dance-oriented electronica. I'm beginning to realise just how influential Steven Wilson is.

As you can imagine from that, there's plenty of variety here but it's always approachable. In fact, it's perhaps a little too approachable. Apparently this is a concept album that explores an attempt by an AI to save the world from humans, but the concept kept sliding past me at every listen because I found the voice of Marco Glühmann so smooth that I automatically tuned into it as another instrument and not a means of delivering meaningful lyrics. He's really good at what he does, but he could easily sing synthpop or join the New Romantics without changing his tone.

Without ever managing to focus on the lyrics, I can't speak to the concept, but the songs are all good. They're also smooth enough that I'd find myself enjoying them without extracting myself far enough to take notes but enough listens through allowed me to put some thoughts down on paper. What may impress me most is how smooth Sylvan remain while changing from one focal instrument to another, even one emphasis to another. Trust in Yourself is a great example of this, as it moves from machine samples, effortlessly woven into the music, to a point that softens the song with cello and another to harden it back up with wilder electric guitar. This sounds jarring, but it's done very smoothly indeed.

It shouldn't surprise me that a band this far into their career can make something so interesting feel so effortless, especially given that none of the members are new. Glühmann dates back to Chameleon days and both keyboardist Volker Söhl and Matthias Harder on drums go all the way back to Temporal Temptation. Only bass player Sebastian Harnack joined after they became Sylvan, but he's been with them since the turn of the millennium, so he's hardly new. I should add that there's also Jonathan on guitar, but I know nothing about him at all, so can't say if he's new, old or guest.

What I can say is that the production is strong enough that we can follow each musician's contribution here easily. These songs really know how to breathe and the musicians are very good at backing away when their instrument isn't needed but stepping right back in the moment it's needed again. Oh, and that holds true whether a song runs three or four minutes, like Start of Your Life and Worlds Apart, or extends out to nine or ten, like Part of Me and Not a Goodbye. Well, the latter also runs nine, but has an unusual extra machine bit to take the album home that makes me want to read the lyrics to get on board with the concept.

I like this album a lot, though it's so smooth that I didn't realise how much I like it until maybe a third or fourth time through. It certainly makes me want to dive right into their back catalogue, though it's worth mentioning that this is Sylvan's highest rated album at Prog Archives, though they've garnered good ratings throughout their career. Now, let's get caught up so I can go and do that.

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