He's as challengingly divisive as ever, but the strength of Grace for Drowning is that it bridges that divide to Steven Wilson's benefit.
This review, over the course of the next few years, will become one of seemingly countless reviews of an album that involves British polymath Steven Wilson. Between Porcupine Tree, the prog rock band that remains his most popular, No-Man, which remains his artistically successful group – not to mention Blackfield and Bass Communion – and the incredible number of records he produces and mixes (Opeth’s and Anathema’s newest records being the latest two), Wilson is perhaps the most prolific musician working in music today. All of his musical projects each express an individual aspect of his musical taste; Bass Communion’s dark, static drones are indicative of his love of noise, Blackfield demonstrates his ability to write a well written, catchy pop song, and Porcupine Tree allows Wilson just to rock out. It was rather interesting, then, when Wilson decided to create a self-titled, solo outlet for his musical vision with 2008’s Insurgentes. With Wilson, it seems that one is going to love his incredible artistic talent and his ability to wear many hats, or hate his often self-indulgent, inaccessible fare, as well as his purist stance on music quality (he roundly disparages MP3s and the modern record label culture).
If one fell into the former of the two camps, then Insurgentes would have no doubt been an enjoyable record. While the more accessible elements of Porcupine Tree were present, the record served more as an integration of Wilson’s love of noisy and ambient textures into typical song structures. The masterful album highlight “Significant Other”, for instance, took an already brilliant guitar riff and built it up into a delirious, abrasive climax. The album was definitely a bright spot in Wilson’s career, and it legitimized his vision as a solo artist; this isn’t Wilson merely rehashing old ideas under a different name.
Fast-forward to three years later, and the noise that was so prevalent on Insurgentes has now given way to a different sort of experimentation: progressive jazz. Given his extensive work on remixing and remastering the King Crimson back catalogue, it’s no surprise that their influence is present on Grace for Drowning. The album’s skill comes in balancing the deeply melodic with the daringly complex, but the latter of those two elements comes out most often, especially when he devotes twenty-three minutes to exploring it (“Raider II”). Grace for Drowning isn’t a radical transformation of Wilson’s various sonic experiments; instead, it’s a highly refined, rich synthesis of his artistic vision as a whole. The album is a natural progression of all that Wilson has been doing up to this point, and it caps all of his most recent work rather nicely.
As is the case with many of Wilson’s releases, a word on the presentation of the album is necessary before commenting on the actual music. Like with Insurgentes, Grace for Drowning has, along with the standard double album, been released as a deluxe edition that comprises of the album on two discs, a bonus third disc with additional content, and a 5.1 surround sound Blu-Ray mix of the record (the first album of its kind to be released in that fashion). All of those are then housed in a 120-page deluxe art book, comprised of photographs by frequent Wilson collaborator Lasse Hoile. All of the stops were pulled out for this edition, and despite its high price tag (about $100), it’s absolutely worth it. Hoile’s photography is, as always, darkly gorgeous, and a perfect complement to the music. The packaging makes the album worth owning as a piece of art on its own, independent of the music. This edition is likely to sell out soon, but if one can snatch it up it’s highly recommended.
Grace for Drowning’s incredible quality doesn’t halt at the presentation, however. Overall, the record is a better encapsulation of Wilson’s sound than Insurgentes was, though it goes about it in a different fashion. The most melodious moments on Insurgentes were often abruptly halted by squalls of harsh, ear-blistering noise; here, the melodic moments expand into grandly beautiful compositions. The more bold progressive jazz experimentation on this record is no doubt the most daunting of the material, but overall the more accessible melodic material is actually the strongest. This is most evident on two of the songs on the first of the album’s two discs: “Deform to Form a Star” and “Postcard.” The former, which steals the entire album early on, is perhaps the most gorgeous song Wilson has penned yet. In this song Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess shines merely by toning it down; instead of the excessively extravagant solos that his prog metal standby excels at, here he gives a lovely but understated performance, only running up and down the keyboard in the song’s brief introduction. In true Wilson fashion, the song builds up into a powerful chorus, where he layers multiple tracks of his voice atop each other, creating an incredibly powerful vocal effect. (On the brief, eponymous album opener, he also layers forty different tracks of himself, with equally pleasing results.)
Not even the song’s Discordian musings can detract from its sheer beauty (“Flaws are everything/And chaos reigns”). “Postcard,” perhaps the strongest song lyrically on the album, is centered on a repetitive piano arpeggio; as the song concludes, a choir enters, elating the song to a whole other level. Though “Deform” is a much better song, that single moment is the best on the entire record. The song also has the benefit of being the most accessible piece on the record, which helps it lead up to the second disc, which focuses on Wilson's more ominous stylistics.
The darker side of the record is equally alluring, though not all of it is perfect. “Belle de Jour,” the brief instrumental introduction to the second disc, sounds far too akin to Opeth, in particular some of the material on their latest record. Wilson’s own sound is present to a degree in the song, but it sounds a little too close to the Swedish metal legends (who, of course, are likely indebted to and influenced by Wilson for his work on records like Blackwater Park). “Raider II” is no likely going to garner much of the attention critically given its portentous sound and length, but it’s actually not the strongest of the dark, complex jazz pieces present on the album. That title goes to “Remainder the Black Dog,” which blends an overall dark and at times crazed mood with flourishes of melody. The album’s darker moments harkens back to Insurgentes, namely the oddly titled “Track One,” which begins as a lovely, serene folk ballad, only to be completely turned around by a dark, brooding guitar drone.
The musical career of Steven Wilson, though prodigious beyond any typical standard of the word, is by no means a perfect one. Porcupine Tree’s career is by no means spotless, and some of his more eclectic outings, like his krautrock tribute IEM, were perhaps a bit too indulgent for his own good. What makes Grace for Drowning such a phenomenal recording is that it doesn’t squander in these weaker moments but instead highlights everything Wilson is doing right. This is a record that, while by no means an easy listen, is nonetheless highly accessible in many places. The album as a whole represents all of the facets of Wilson’s musical journey, from the keen ear for melody to the strong taste for adventurous musical endeavours. He may remain a divisive musical personality, but Grace for Drowning is such a fine listen that even the most adamantly opposed listener has to at least give him style points, both for the artistic presentation of the album and the music within.