Cannot. Stop. Listening. – Steven Wilson: Hand. Cannot. Erase.
If prog were to have a reigning king, that title would surely be bestowed upon Steven Wilson without any opposition, no doubt. Primarily known for over 20 years as the mastermind behind Porcupine Tree, Wilson completely changed the face of prog in ways that has made it more relevant, more original, and more successful than ever. In addition to his work with Porcupine Tree, Wilson has also spent almost thirty years as one half of no-man (the influential synth-pop duo with Tim Bowness) as well as projects such as Bass Communion, IEM, Blackfield (a successful collaboration with Israeli superstar Aviv Geffen) and Storm Corrosion – his 2012 album with Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt.
If that wasn’t enough, Wilson has also become an in-demand producer, having been responsible for remixing the entire King Crimson catalog, as well as classic albums by Yes, Jethro Tull, and others, and is revered in the audiophile community for those projects.
And, yet he still has time for solo albums.
Following 2013’s mind-bogglingly-amazing The Raven That Refused To Sing (and other stories), Steve put his solo band to task on this new set which stands damn near, if not AT, the very top of his entire output. Fans of every facet of Wilson’s style will find something to love on this album, from the ambient to the heavy. It’s like he looked at everything he’s done before and decided to better it.
Building from a sound sculpture, the opening “First Regret” sets the mood with sparse piano and a subtle beat before drifting right into the epic, “3 Years Older”, which comes in sounding not all that different from Permanent Waves-era Rush, with further detours through Yes, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and perhaps even a little Crosby Stills & Nash. But with all those influences, this still sounds like Steven Wilson. While never one to write particularly happy songs, there’s a certain mood in this, and the other songs on the album, that sounds considerably less dystopian than a lot of his work. This is clever music that sounds like it was fun to write, and even more fun to play.
Oh yeah, and the playing. My, oh my, this band is tight. All the musicians are established in their own right – guitar wizard Guthrie Govan (Asia, Aristocrats), bassist Nick Beggs (Kajagoogoo, Iona), jazz keyboard virtuoso Adam Holzman, and the great Marco Minneman on drums. Originally assembled for dates to support 2011’s Grace For Drowning, this band has had time to morph into a formidable unit, sounding like they’ve always played together.
Fans of early PT albums like The Sky Moves Sideways will totally love the dark groove of “Perfect Life”, featuring a spoken-word appearance by classical powerhouse Katherine Jenkins, and an absolutely gorgeous vocal refrain that builds and builds into something akin to nirvana. The title track, on the other hand, is an almost perfect pop song that betters pretty much anything on Lightbulb Sun. One of my favorite tracks.
The multi-sectioned “Routine” begins with a long acoustic-driven movement with Mellotron and piano and a haunting vocal cameo by Israeli pop star Ninet Tayeb, that moves into some explosive instrumental passages that rival anything done by Genesis, Pink Floyd, or Rush. Tayeb wails amidst the musical grandeur in a way that bands like Touchstone can only dream of, before Wilson sings us back out on a quiet, reflective, and hopeful note.
Wilson, as always, is in perfect voice. One of my favorite singers, the way he is able to carry such dramatic music without ever resorting to shouting or gut-wailing is a special talent. He sounds cool and calculated, yet brutally honest in his crystal-clear delivery and I love him for it.
The razor-sharp math-rock of “Home Invasion” is jarring at first but it cooks. All that time spent deep in the King Crimson vault has surely paid off. This is some seriously intense playing. The vocals don’t come in til about the four-minute mark and it gets kinda funky, with a punchy vocal by Wilson and some good fuzz on the guitar, and a nice spaced-out ending that segues right into the chilled-out groove of “Regret #9”. Featuring a killer solo by Holzman and amazing guitar work from Wilson, this jam more than cements this album’s status as a masterpiece. The ambient banjo in the outro confirms it.
Short and sweet, “Transience” has a spooky, old-English folk feel to it. Subtle, yet intricate, the fingerstyle guitar carries you like waves, and the bass pedal bombs send you soaring. “…this is only the start”, Wilson sings at the end. And once you hear what comes next, you’ll know exactly what that means.
Clocking in at 13:33, “Ancestral” starts out sounding like an ambient remix of some lost Sgt. Pepper outtake before the band kicks in about four minutes in, laying down a dark, slow, heavy vibe, setting Wilson up for one of his best guitar solos of the record. Ninet Tayeb makes another appearance before the band begins flying through an intricate musical maze, full of sinister twists and turns. This is seriously some of the most impressive stuff I’ve ever heard.
A whirlwind of that magnitude commands a breath of fresh air and Wilson does not disappoint. “Happy Returns”, with its light piano and strummed acoustic, reminds me of 1999’s Stupid Dream, but with one of the most personal, reflective lyrics I’ve ever heard from Wilson – “the years they pass like trains / I wave and they don’t slow down”. I think we all can relate to that.
Closing out the album, ‘Ascendant Here On”…light piano and choir taking us out in a most tranquil fashion.
While Wilson has not ruled out an eventual return of Porcupine Tree, it seems he’s enjoying the freedom of solo work, and the success it’s been bringing him. It’s obviously working. With this album, Steven Wilson has reached a new peak in his career. This is a true work of art.
Written by: Chris Anderson