Six years after Home, Hamburg-based neo-prog outfit Sylvan return with their tenth studio album, entitled One To Zero. The band have said that this latest, clocking in around 65 minutes, is another concept album – this time an autobiography of an artificial intelligence born into the problems facing contemporary society. The themes of identity and discovery, juxtaposed with those of alienation and dissociation, filter through the lyrics; the music, as ever, is gold standard modern prog.
Six years is the longest wait fans have had between albums, but, given that Sylvan have a resume filled with magnificent recordings, one would expect the wait to have been worth it. Happily, One To Zero does not disappoint. The band’s previous two releases, Sceneries and Home, are amongst my all-time favourite albums, but it’s fair to say that they both require time and patience for the listener to fully appreciate all of the different layers and textures. One to Zero is a more immediate affair. By this, I don’t mean it lacks subtlety, but the arrangement of the songs feels more conventional. There is a holistic journey here, no doubt, but one that plays out in ten discrete pieces. Overall, the sonic palette is more varied and the melodies – especially the choruses – stick in the listener’s head from the very first play. One To Zero sees Sylvan once again striking out into new territory whilst at the same time retaining the band’s distinctive sound. Album number ten is an evolution which remains true to the band’s roots.
With the album’s overall concept, one shouldn’t be surprised to hear that Bit By Bit eschews the orchestral strings or the piano that opened the last two Sylvan records in favour of a more urgent synth and guitar overture which becomes a repeated refrain throughout the opening track. There’s an early Riverside flavour to this one and the whole band is given the opportunity to showcase their undoubted talents.
The piano which opens Encoded At Heart feels more like something from Home and the melancholic tone strikes a real contrast with the opener. There are some intriguing twists and turns in the song’s opening few minutes and a gentle, but hooky, chorus. Some of the syncopation in the melody and rhythm here works very effectively. Even though the bass and drums on the album are quite subtle, they are very noticeable and for all the right reasons. The conclusion builds the soft chorus into something epic with choir and a quite superb guitar solo.
Start of Your Life is one of the album’s two sub-4-minute tracks and, whilst the band have selected Go Viral as the first single, this would have been my pick. A straight-ahead verse/chorus rocker which calls to mind tracks like One Step Beyond and Answer To Life from previous releases. It took one listen for me to have note-perfect recollection of this song and I was humming it the rest of the day. Really catchy.
Unleashed Power is another sonic contrast which opens, like Encoded At Heart, with the piano and some of those wonderful chord textures that Volker Sohl has made his own. The guitar accompanies beautifully, and Marco Glühmann’s vocals are superb; the chorus is exquisite. The compound time waltzes us through this ballad and gradually the tone builds up a little menace. This is a very moving piece, reminiscent of some of the elements of the band’s celebrated opus, Posthumous Silence; it is one of the finest moments on this very fine album. Following this, the electric guitar and programmed sounds and beats on Trust In Yourself lend a somewhat industrial sound to the track, even as it is counterpointed with strings.
On My Odyssey is without a shadow of a doubt the best track on the album. In fact, it might be the best song Sylvan have ever written. There is so much to take in over the course of its six-and-a-half-minute runtime, but each component of this track is a delight. The opening reminds me a little of much-missed Polish proggers Satellite. The strings and vocals are soon accompanied by drum loops and percussion set against the melody with a Latin groove. The bassline bumps everything along in a jaunty fashion over the bridge. The syncopation here is terrific and leads into a majestic compound-time chorus which builds into a strings, piano and guitar duel infused with Latin and Central European folk. It may sound overloaded, but the blend is magical.
Part Of Me is the album’s second longest track, and the one that I would label the ‘epic’. Piano and vocal once again open the proceedings. We are quickly led into another of the album’s great choruses. If I had one criticism of One To Zero, it would be that after the second verse on this track we are led into the instrumental section without getting a second chorus. We do get the chorus back at the recapitulation before the closing solo, but it’s such a powerful one that it would have been nice to see it feature once more. That said, the closing guitar solo is built around the chorus’s chords.
Another memorable chorus features in Worlds Apart before Go Viral returns to the more electronic feel of the record which featured on Bit By Bit. This is a heavier piece – well, heavier by Sylvan’s standards. A very effective two-part chorus forms the spine of the song and there’s another great guitar solo here. This is a track which wouldn’t have been out of place on Presets or Force of Gravity. The album is rounded out by Not A Goodbye, a ten-minute track which takes a relatively simple guitar signature and slowly builds it into a piece with a varied range of dynamics.
I’m a big fan of Sylvan, as I suspect is clear from this review. Nonetheless, even for a band who, I believe, consistently release excellent albums, this is a very special record indeed and one that has been worth the wait. Newcomers to the band will find One To Zero a highly accessible introduction to one of modern prog’s best bands, whilst long-standing fans are sure to be thrilled with this latest effort. Sylvan are one of the most talented and creative prog bands around and One To Zero is undoubtedly deserving of any prog fan’s attention.
01. Bit By Bit (6:16)
02. Encoded At Heart (6:41)
03. Start Of Your Life (3:14)
04. Unleashed Power (7:30)
05. Trust In Yourself (5:32)
06. On My Odyssey (6:26)
07. Part Of Me (9:16)
08. Worlds Apart (3:57)
09. Go Viral (6:40)
10. Not A Goodbye (10:14)
Total Time – 65:46
Marco Glühmann – Vocals
Volker Söhl – Keyboards
Matthias Harder – Drums
Jonathan Beck – Guitars
Sebastian Harnack – Bass
Record Label: Gentle Art Of Music
Formats: CD, Double Vinyl, Digital
Country of Origin: Germany
Date of Release: 28th May 2021