With the February 25th release of Steven Wilson’s third solo LP The Raven That Refused to Sing (and other stories) approaching, PopMatters looks back on Wilson’s storied career to pick out ten of his strongest recordings, ranging from beautiful works of ambience to transcontinental art rock.
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.
(Headphone Dust/Tonefloat, 2003-2010)
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, 1994)
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.