May 8, 2021

Sylvan have surely produced one of the best progressive rock albums that have seen the light so far this year.

In times of rapidly changing line-ups and rapidly evolving musical styles, Sylvan seem to be an exception. They have had a remarkably stable line-up with keyboard player Volker Söhl and drummer Matthias Harder being founding members of a group called Temporal Temptatio in 1990 which then morphed into the appropriately named Chameleon before singer Marco Glühmann joined them in 1995 just prior to the final name change to Sylvan in 1997. Sebastian Harnack on bass is the relative newcomer, having joined the group as late as 2000! Guitarists have been less stable over the years, and for this their tenth studio album they have again brought in Johnny Beck as a guest guitarist. That stability has allowed the band to steadily evolve while maintaining a very distinct and identifiable sound. For those not familiar with the band, they would broadly be described as progressive rock or perhaps neo-prog. Keyboards are very dominant in their music, both classical piano and synths (hence the ability to operate without a permanent guitarist), frequently songs are slow tempo or at least slow burners, and while more aggressive moments do occur the music often veers towards serene and in some cases an almost radio-friendly melodic sound. Personally, I’d place them somewhere between the neo-prog of Arena and the Floydian prog of fellow Germans RPWL.

Now quick thinkers amongst you might have jumped to the conclusion that One To Zero is a clever way of celebrating the fact that this is Sylvan’s tenth album. Well, that would be absolutely wrong! The ‘one’ and ‘zero’ are a reference to binary notation and set the scene for the concept behind the album which is an autobiographical tale of an A.I. device. That might bring to your mind memories of films like Terminator or Bladerunner, but Sylvan are a little more cerebral than that and they weave a fascinating story around the perceptions of the A.I itself and the evolution of its thought processes over its ‘lifetime’. As you might guess, the story starts with the birth of the A.I device in the opening track Bit By Bit, where a nebulous beginning and a hesitant voice seem to represent the creation of the A.I. itself. The track builds up with a fine Moog theme being used repeatedly. Next up is Encoded At Heart which reveals the mission of the A.I as Glühmann repeatedly sings: ‘Won’t you save our wonderful world?’. But our A.I is …well, intelligent of course, and self-awareness arises and doubts about its mission before it eventually decides humanity doesn’t deserve to be saved and on the closing track it commits digital suicide as the music disintegrates into the same nebulous electronic noises that opened the album. That’s definitely a more subtle concept than Terminator!

Musically, all the usual masterful Sylvan touches are here: the beautiful chorus melody in Worlds Apart; the climatic Floydian guitar solo of Encoded At Heart; the melancholic piano in Part Of Me; and the irresistible pop groove of Start Of Your Life. Interestingly the instrumentation of the music changes during the course of the album in order to subtly reflect the storyline. The human element represented by organic instruments is prevalent in the first part while later tracks have a stronger electronic element representing the A.I. taking control of its own destiny. There’s a pivotal moment in Trust In Yourself where a short warm cello solo seems to almost represent a last plea from humanity before it is blown away by a discordant guitar solo.

As usual Sylvan give their compositions time to breathe with most tracks in the six-to-ten-minute range. If I had to pick a standout track it would be Part Of Me, which has a deeply melancholic melody brilliantly delivered by Glühmann, and is perfectly crafted as it builds up to an epic conclusion. But in truth the album is consistently excellent musically and the concept neatly glues it all together into a single thread. As with a concept album such as Supertramp’s Crime Of The Century, the result is much more than the sum of its parts. It’s been six years since the last album, Home, so fans have had to wait for a long time, but I can reassure them that it’s been worth the wait because Sylvan have surely produced one of the best progressive rock albums that have seen the light so far this year.

One To Zero is released on 28th May on CD and double vinyl with gatefold.