[20 February 2013]
Most Steven Wilson fans go a little more than the extra mile in expressing their adoration for the famed British prog legend. They won’t just buy his music on the day of its release—they’ll shell out upwards of 150 dollars for a deluxe edition. They aren’t likely to just be content with going to one of his shows a year—in many cases, they’ll fly across oceans to see him, as many did for No-Man’s reunion shows in 2009. Since Wilson’s career began with No-Man (the art-rock duo featuring him and singer/lyricist Tim Bowness) in the late 1980s, his sound has expanded in ways few could have imagined back then. From the progressive rock and metal of Porcupine Tree, his most famous project, to the Krautrock-indebted pet project IEM, his many musical ventures depict him as the ultimate polymath; many hats fit comfortably on his head.
As a result of Wilson’s desire to always reach out into new musical realms, his discography has become impossibly expansive. Uwe Häberle, a clearly devoted fan, compiled all of the man’s releases into one PDF document, totaling an enormous 500 pages. With the winter of 2013 now upon us, Wilson has yet another release to add to this ever-growing list: The Raven That Refused to Sing (and other stories), his third solo LP, out on February 25th in the UK (26th in the US) through K-Scope. In light of this new album, PopMatters digs through the large collection of what Wilson has brought to the musical world thus far, selecting ten pieces that are especially relevant to his status as a legendary artist not just for progressive rock, but for contemporary music as a whole.
Over the course of seven years, Wilson embarked on a tiny yet nonetheless significant project where he would pair an original composition of his with a cover version of an artist who played a formative role in his growth as a songwriter. This took the form of six CD singles (also released on 7” vinyl) released between 2003-2010. The original pieces are often excellent—the cutesy “Well You’re Wrong” and the lush ballad “An End to End” are minor classics of his—but where he really shines is in the covers. The artists he chose to pay tribute to form a diverse group, with the millions-sold pop/rock of Alanis Morissette sitting (somewhat) comfortably alongside the perverse singer/songwriter pop of Momus. The latter’s “The Guitar Lesson”, a tale of a male guitar teacher sexually abusing his female student, is simultaneously one of the most chilling and engaging works of art Wilson has ever recorded. But where Wilson really sealed this project’s greatness is in Cover Version II, where he gives Abba’s “The Day Before You Came” a whole new life. It’s one of those rare covers that’s actually better than the original; few artists could ever pull something like that off, but he does it with a near effortless grace. This eclectic package has now completely sold out, leaving the box set containing all six to rack up prices upwards of $350 on eBay, but audio of the songs can still be found through places like YouTube.
One Little Indian dropped No-Man after Flowermouth. Björk, the label’s big-ticket artist at the time, was beginning to take off in a really big way, leaving artistically challenging but less popular acts like No-Man to face the chopping block. It’s a damn shame it had to happen, though, as Flowermouth is a leaps-and-bounds improvement over Loveblows & Lovecries, the duo’s 1993 debut.Here, No-Man steps away from the trip-hop of its early work (like “Colors”, which memorably mixed Donovan and a Tribe Called Quest) and into lush, romantic dance pop. Though No-Man’s career would later undergo several transformations, Flowermouth is the band’s early statement of intent, and many of its core traits are on full display with this record. Tim Bowness’ lyrical style involves emotionally mining through vague images and details: “I cannot scream for the dust in my throat”, he sings on “Angel Gets Caught in the Beauty Trap”. On “Things Change”, he delivers crushing lines like, “’Wherever you don’t go, I’ll be by your side’ / You lied.” Wilson matches Bowness’ poetic yearnings with gorgeous guitar loops and arpeggios, with the occasional dance beat (“Teardrop Fall”) to keep things propulsive. Heartfelt and ebullient unlike anything else in the Wilson discography, Flowermouth is a vibrant masterpiece that established No-Man as his most musically rewarding project early on.
Toward the middle of “Hatesong”, the dark ode to the bitter side of bittersweet love toward the end of Porcupine Tree’s sixth studio LP Lightbulb Sun, a hard-edged riff kicks in. Porcupine Tree was no stranger to heavy rock at that time—the thrashy coda to “Even Less” is a testament to its metallic tendencies—but the guitar work on “Hatesong” hinted at a new direction for the group. As it turns out, that riff wasn’t just a one-off; with “Blackest Eye”, the Opeth-influenced opener to 2002’s In Absentia, the band signaled a sea change that has defined itsstyle to this day. Tracks like “Gravity Eyelids” and “Strip the Soul” are examples of the ominous chiaroscuro that would form the basis for much of Porcupine Tree’s rock epics, with chilly calm passages segueing into stormy, jagged riffs. This shift toward progressive metal was hugely helped by Gavin Harrison, who took over the drums after Chris Maitland left the band. Whereas Maitland’s style was jazzy and often free-form, Harrison brought a sharp, techy prog style to the group’s increasingly complex music. While Porcupine Tree would go on to make better albums after In Absentia, no work is more important to its career than this one. The band’s popularity would skyrocket after this release, and its sonic identity has been defined by the groundwork laid here.
Out of all of his varied projects, Wilson has found the most indulgence in Bass Communion, where he channels his love of drone and ambiance. While each of his projects follow lines of growth and maturity, Bass Communion is especially diverse; to pick one record as “better” than another is to do a considerable disservice. Each LP has a different goal in mind: Ghosts on Magnetic Tape (the most popular Bass Communion release) is an attempt to conjure up the voices of the dead through 78 RPM records, Indicates Void is comprised of four tracks that are individually framed around one instrument, and Pacific Codex features the percussive use of metal sculptures. But if there’s one release that really nails the ethereality Wilson strives for in this project it’s Litany, a breathtaking little EP made up of only two songs. Using choral and orchestral loops, Wilson paints an evocative sonic landscape that’s completely immersive. These 23 minutes feel like hours if one lets his or her self be fully immersed in these airy compositions.
As I wrote in my Between the Grooves series last April-June, Stupid Dream is the transition album for Porcupine Tree. In Absentia may have been crucial for the introduction of metal, but Stupid Dream is the bridge from the experimental ‘70s Krautrock and psychedelia that defined Porcupine Tree’s output up to Signify (1996) and the incorporation of pop and rock that would remain consistent for the band’s style going into the new millennium. It’s also one of the key anti-mainstream statements that Wilson has made; the titular stupid dream is the notion that one can be authentic to herself whilst also turning a profit in the modern music industry. Stupid Dream’s release during the exponentially growing Boy Band Fever was all too fitting; as the seethingly funny satire ”Piano Lessons” put it, “There’s too much out there / Too much already said / You better give up hoping / You’re better off in bed.” Yet for all the cynicism, the music of Stupid Dream is evidence to the fact that pop music actually does have a soul, and as tracks like “Even Less” demonstrate, it can even be epic beyond our wildest imaginations. And then there are cuts like “Don’t Hate Me”, still to this day one of Porcupine Tree’s strongest, most adventurous pieces, where for just a moment the group slips into the role of a jazz band, with electrifying results.
Through Burning Shed, the online store that distributes the majority of Wilson’s musical output, one can purchase Returning Jesus Demos, a set of loosely drawn tracks that would later blossom into Returning Jesus seven years later. It’s interesting to listen to demos of songs like “Lighthouse” that were recorded around the same time as Flowermouth, yet bear significant differences to the music the band was putting out at that time. “Lighthouse”, which in its majestic studio rendition would serve as the penultimate track of Returning Jesus, is in every way the type of music that No-Man was always meant to write. In the career-spanning documentary Returning, Wilson himself admitted this, noting that some of the choices he made early in No-Man’s tenure were not for the right reasons. But with the mellow progressive jazz of Returning Jesus, the duo finally began making the music that Wilson describes as “quintessential No-Man”. No track demonstrates this better than the title song, a heartbreaking, minimalistic tome poem that finds Wilson and Bowness at their most vulnerable. “I don’t want to stay / A million miles away,” Bowness cries, the pain in his voice echoing for miles. Returning Jesus marks the beginning of No-Man’s peak, which would plateau splendidly not but an album later.
In 2008, upon the announcement of Insurgentes, many found the notion of a Steven Wilson “solo effort” to be redundant. After all, with one-man ventures like Bass Communion, IEM, and the early works of Porcupine Tree (in particular the debut, On the Sunday of Life…) Wilson had already given the world many examples of himself working in a “solo” capacity. But any reason for skepticism was cast aside upon the release of Insurgentes. There’s a reason why he chose this album to bear his name specifically, and it’s because unlike any other of his works, this album synthesizes every aspect of his illustrious career into a glorious whole. Ambient, prog, shoegaze, post-punk, classical, jazz, drone, and (just a hint of) metal all conglomerate into an adventurous, dynamic whole that showcases Wilson as a man never content to settle. Like the parts that form the whole, Insurgentes is a cosmopolitan, transnational effort; Wilson toured the world during its recording, a global reach spanning Japan to Mexico. The record feels uniquely incarnate in its composition, and as an abstract take on the road album, it depicts him as the ultimate connoisseur of all musical tastes. If one wishes to experience Wilson at his most unadulterated, Insurgentes is exactly the place to go.
Blackfield’s self-titled debut, released in 2004, was an important move for Wilson to make. Porcupine Tree has plenty of pop singles to its name, but the tendency toward long, proggier pieces meant that song-oriented material often gets left by the wayside. In Israeli superstar Aviv Geffen, Wilson found someone who he could write good, no-frills art rock that, while retaining some progressive influences, primarily utilized verse/chorus structure in a way that made Blackfield a prime candidate for radio play. Blackfield was a strong debut, but in 2007 they shot for and hit the moon with Blackfield II, a masterpiece of all things melancholy and sad-sack. The lyrics here are sometimes childish, like a less articulate Dashboard Confessional: “You say that there must be an end / But afterwards we’ll still be friends / It seemed so easy,” Wilson accuses on “Epidemic”. At other times, the duo is unflinchingly poignant, as on “My Gift of Silence”: “If I compiled all my crimes and my lies into amnesty / Would you come back to me?” It’s the balance of inarticulate frustration and poetically rich longings that makes Blackfield II so resonant a work.
As if this weren’t enough, the record finds Blackfield writing some of the best pop songs of their time; “Christenings” is pure Floydian charm, and “Once” is one of the great lost alt-rock tracks of the 2000s. Wilson has been comfortable to remain on the fringes of the mainstream even as his stature has grown, but given the right label and the right promotion, Blackfield II could have been his ultimate breakthrough. Sadly, Blackfield’s future is one where Wilson won’t be present, and as integral as Geffen is to the Blackfield vision, things just won’t be the same. But for one glorious moment, these two musicians met forces in a flash-in-the-pan way that led to an LP both can be proud of for the rest of their lives.
To those unfamiliar with Wilson’s body of work, the lyric sheet to Fear of a Blank Planet will read a lot like the all-caps rants of a crotchety old man turned senile by light emitting from the computer he still can’t figure out. There’s lots of talk of kids running around high on drugs, having sex with each other, and getting their eyes glued to the Xbox games on their TVs. This apocalyptic future vision, while a bit overblown in its technoparanoia, is nonetheless an uncompromising vision that marks the fullest realization of the Porcupine Tree experiment to date. Structured like a classic concept record—six songs totaling about 50 minutes with one long epic centerpiece—Fear of a Blank Planet hints at all the steps it took to get to this record. There are moments of unrelenting brutality (the Meshuggah-like midsection of “Anesthetize”), subdued balladry (“Sentimental”), dark ambiance (“Sleep Together”), and, of course, true-to-the-bone prog (the serpentine title track). Yet, curiously enough, the greatest track on Fear of a Blank Planet—and indeed the band’s whole career—is the orchestral ballad “My Ashes,” a five-minute oasis in a sea of knotty prog and hard-edged riffs. Inspired by Bret Easton Ellis’ semi-autobiographical novel Lunar Park, “My Ashes” is the prog ballad to end all prog ballads, a phantasmagoric portrait of a young boy remembering events in his life in the casting of his ashes. It’s a small but powerful moment of transcendence, one that affirms Porcupine Tree’s status as the preeminent prog outfit of the 21st century. Though the dystopic Blank Planet may not yet exist, but Wilson’s prophetic voice still lingers.
The sting of heartbreak has been a predominant theme in Wilson’s musical life. On no other album is this more evident than Together We’re Stranger, No-Man’s 2003 minimalist magnum opus, the work that represents the finest music Wilson has help put to tape. This LP represents not only the purest example of genius that is the Wilson/Bowness duo; it also represents each of them at their weakest. Together We’re Stranger is defined by pure emotional nakedness to the point of intractable aching. The heart-stopping “Things I Want to Tell You” is one of those guaranteed tear-inducers that points out all the details people try to push past while suffering through the pains of loneliness. Bowness’ poetic style is brutally frank: “It’s harder in the evenings / Waiting for the phone rings / (The hollow thump of life that has no taste)”. Wilson backs these words with sharp, ringing plucks of an acoustic guitar; each note so piercing it sounds as if the string is about to snap.
While Together We’re Stranger is many things, it is perhaps best seen as a minor poetry collection unified by an opaque narrative. Bowness could have very likely published these poems in journals; his economic use of image and detail is devastating, painting a portrait of a person who has lost everything but still isn’t aware of how to take it all in. There are only fragments of suffering and hurt—“the needle that pushed the red”, “the cold that eats your bones”, “the poisoned weather”—and each one is as probing as it is up to interpretation. Wilson, along with a cast of musicians including Brian Eno, Peter Chilvers, and Micheal Bearpark, lets Bowness’ words ring loud and clear by keeping the musical arrangements sparse without sacrificing any richness. “All the Blue Changes”, especially in its live incarnation, is a tour de force of a crescendo, concluding in a beautiful layered vocal chorus: “The city in a hundred ways / It would never let you stay / The city in a hundred ways / It would never let you stray.” Wilson even pulls out the wild card on a few occasions, like in “Back Where You Were Beautiful” when he follows up a fragile chorus lyric with a gently plucked banjo. In the review that accompanies the CD/DVDA edition of this album, Johnny Black describes this move as having “the same effect of seeing a clown cry”.
But of all the things that make Together We’re Stranger the defining Steven Wilson recording, it’s the album title itself. “You and I are something else together”, Bowness sings to an unnamed lover on the title track. Thematically it links up with the rest of the sorrow on the record, but it’s also as apt a summary of Wilson’s existence as a musician as there could ever be. As a solo artist, a band member, a producer, and a collaborator, he’s been invaluable in producing some of the greatest albums of his day. In the end, however, there’s always one project where Wilson has sounded distinct in a way he does nowhere else, and that’s No-Man. He and Bowness are truly something else together.