David Sylvian, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Japan dissolved with barely a murmur, just as Ghosts brought the band overdue success in 1982. The strain of their avant-garde glam-pop suddenly being in tune with the New Romantic times was apparently too much for David Sylvian and his fellow band-members to bear.

This sense of refined withdrawal has only increased throughout Sylvian's solo career, as he continued to send his devoted fans regular, lush meditations from the periphery. But with his latest album, Blemish, the tasteful exactitude of his art has collided with messy emotion, the consequence, seemingly, of a failed relationship. Typically, he hasn't responded with the famously withering savagery and lashing confusion of a Dylan or Costello, who seem almost to relish heartbreak as fuel for their art. Instead, Blemish picks over emotional dis- affection with a scalpel, to the accompaniment of spare, minimalist sounds.

That sense of almost catatonically muted distress infects much of this gig. Sylvian sits throughout, all in black, his sculpted flop of hair still meticulously intact at 45. Two accomplices flank him, teasing sounds from their Apple Macs. Behind them, screens show jagged glass melting into liquid, and endless scenes of childhood, distorted, fuzzing over and flickering, like a dissolving golden age. Blemish's songs, meanwhile, play out their oppressively obsessive lessons in love, finding "the mind's devices" no longer count when "The Heart Knows Better", and making "Late Night Shopping" with your partner seem like a circle of hell. Flies seem to buzz in the computerised mix. No one seems happy. As the ennui crawls on, it's hard to care. Sylvian's pain stays too internal, and his music too cold to reach out and touch.

Only the shrieks and hysterical applause released by old songs, as Sylvian breaks out the acoustic guitar, let in some warmth. "I feel I'm among family," he responds, and this mass devotion, undiminished in intensity, must be a compensation for real domestic hurt. "Cries and Whispers" is given a dancing Spanish strum, and Sylvian adds a little white soul to his voice.

The real highlights, though, are distinct contrasts. "Praise", inspired by Sylvian's Buddhist guru, has a limpid lack of volition and simple gentleness more effective than Blemish's shocked vacancy. He follows it with "Wasn't I, Joe?", an electronic suite of emotional dismay, slowing like a stopping heartbeat, then growing to a techno blur, as Sylvian and a sampled woman sigh lyrics to some invisible bartender.

A new anti-US imperialism collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto, "World Citizen", shows Sylvian is not completely withdrawn. More moments such as "Wasn't I, Joe?", and he may crack the clinical detachment that froze so much of tonight.