Steven Wilson
Photo: Hajo Mueller / Big Hassle

‘The Harmony Codex’: Steven Wilson’s ‘Cinema for the Ears’

“If there was an agenda, it was to not have an agenda at all,” Steven Wilson says of his seventh solo LP, The Harmony Codex, in this extended interview.

The Harmony Index
Steven Wilson
29 September 2023

In one of the final chapters of his 2022 autobiography Limited Edition of One, the English musician and producer Steven Wilson reflects on his life: “What I can say is that I’m happier and more fulfilled than I’ve ever been, but maybe that’s the curse of life – just when you figure out what it’s for and what you’re supposed to do with it, you realize time is running out.” 

One year after the publication of that book, Wilson puts music to those final four words, which form the title of a song on his seventh solo record, The Harmony Codex. A hypnotic, repetitive series of piano chords reminiscent of Philip Glass in the verses lead to tense electronic drums and synthesizers over which Wilson laments the incessantly ticking clock of life. Fresh on the heels of Limited Edition of One, in which Wilson shares far more of his life’s story than many fans likely would have expected from him before, does The Harmony Codex represent a distinctly musical expansion of his biography?

Not quite. The origins of The Harmony Codex come from the contents of the chapter that immediately follows the “time is running out” recognition: a short story also called “The Harmony Codex”, sandwiched somewhat awkwardly between Wilson’s closing reflections on his journey. The story feels in many ways like a treatment for a film script, with the prose at times mirroring the rapid cuts between camera shots:

A mobile phone rings. 

Someone laughs.

A beat. 

An explosion.

Wilson’s narrative centers on two siblings, Jamie and Harmony, who are engaged in an enigmatic “game” with each other that intersects with an explosion at a London skyscraper where they were planning on meeting their father for lunch. The events of the story are thrown into skeptical relief when, in the closing moments, Jamie wonders, “Did he have a dream about his sister, Harmony? Or is Harmony dreaming him now?” 

That thought appears almost verbatim in The Harmony Codex‘s second half in the form of spoken word fragments on the title track and the propulsive closer, “Staircase”. The record seems not to follow a narrative that’s legibly close to the short story; save for those instances of direct quotation, the connection is oblique at best.

When I characterize the story of The Harmony Codex in this way to Wilson just days before the album’s late September release, he agrees. The nonlinear quality of the “story”, he explains, “comes from the fact that I don’t really like to make narrative-driven records. Or, at least, I like to think that the record is driven by the way the music unfolds, not beholden to any sense of needing to maintain a narrative. In a story, you have to create a flow, a logical arrangement of scenes that work together as a whole. You don’t have to do that with a record; essentially, what you’re trying to do is create a satisfying musical experience. Sometimes records that do that can feel conceptual even when they’re not because the music gives you the feeling that you’re being told a story.”

Yet as he describes some of the broader ideas of the story in the pages of Limited Edition of One, which recur in its musical incarnation, his comments take a turn that one might expect of someone who just put a significant portion of their biography into print. “There is one central motif in the story that is prevalent throughout the whole album,” he says, “which is the idea of the infinite staircase as a metaphor for life. It’s about the journey, not about the arrival. Even the songs that seem disconnected from ‘The Harmony Codex’ still relate to the idea that it’s about what happens along the way, not about achieving your goals or your dreams.”

It is ironic for Wilson to articulate a vision of life that deprioritizes achievement in 2023. Of his solo records, The Harmony Codex stands out as one of his most significant achievements. By the time he and I connect over Zoom, he’s received plenty of feedback about the album from the numerous listening sessions he hosted at studios in London and Los Angeles, in addition to interviews with journalists. (He and I have spoken for this publication twice before.) He says he’s entering release week with “more bullish confidence than I might have on some of the previous records.” I ask him if, even after all the albums he’s released in his storied career, any jitters emerge in the days leading up to the world being able to listen to new music from him. 

“Not as much as there used to be,” he says, “because the actual release these days is much less of a significant landmark than it would have been when I was growing up and buying records. In the 1980s, when I was buying records, when you would go into the record store to buy the new album – by, I don’t know, Tears for Fears – you would take it home knowing nothing about it, except maybe for one single that had been released. These days, that’s no longer the case.” 

However, the London and Los Angeles listening sessions helped add some excitement to the pre-release atmosphere. Wilson has long been known for investing in audiophile mixes for his music; despite remaining comfortably outside the musical mainstream, he has earned nominations at high-profile award ceremonies like the Grammys for his 5.1 surround sound mixes. With The Harmony Codex, he pushes his mixes into newer territory: the early playback sessions included presentations in Dolby Atmos and L-Acoustics’ L-ISA formats, both spatial audio formats that allow artists to present listeners with music from, seemingly, all angles. The eclectic Harmony Codex, which leaps from genre to genre with an abandon that’s at once fresh and all-too-familiar to listeners of Wilson’s music, invites such immersive listening experiences. 

“Quite early, I knew I wanted this record to be a piece of cinema,” Wilson says. “My mindset was that I wanted this to be the best spatial audio mix out there; I want someone if they’re going to show off their spatial audio system to their buddies, to reach for The Harmony Codex and say, ‘Listen to this’. This was my goal with this record. And so right from the early point of recording, I knew I was going to be raising the bar in terms of what’s possible with spatial audio.”

Listening to The Harmony Codex, particularly with the context of the Limited Edition of One story in mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if this project gestured toward more literal cinematic possibilities for Wilson. Film has long been central to his aesthetic ethos. His live shows, both as a solo artist and as the frontman of the beloved progressive rock outfit Porcupine Tree, feature films made by his regular collaborators like Lasse Hoile, Jess Cope, and HajoMüller. 

Porcupine Tree’s 2005 LP Deadwing originated in a screenplay Wilson conceived with his friend Mike Bennion. For his debut outing as a solo artist, 2008’s Insurgentes, he took Hoile on a globe-spanning journey from Mexico to Japan and London, with scattered destinations in between, resulting in the abstract travel film of the same name. To Wilson, I bring up the example of Henrik Ibsen, the landmark Norwegian playwright who produced many stage works, notably Peer Gynt, that seemed to anticipate the capacities that film would unlock for artists working in visual media. Wilson’s albums often gesture toward cinematic manifestations even when they don’t derive from cinematic origins.

Wilson smiles lightly as I ask the straightforward question: is a Wilson-directed film a possibility? “You’ve tapped into the fact that I’m a frustrated filmmaker, as well as a musician. When I was growing up, I discovered music, film, and literature simultaneously. I was curious about all three of those things. Growing up and hearing music in movies, whether it was movie soundtracks or music being used in TV shows, I came to find the association of music and image to be, in many ways, the most powerful art form of all. If you get those two things right together, it’s arguably more powerful than music on its own or cinema on its own. Something like Blade Runner, for example, or Paris, Texas.”

I mention David Lynch, whose influence in Wilson’s work has been longstanding, notably in the Insurgentes film. Wilson nods and cites the American director as a “master” of the fusion between music and image. But for Lynch, of course, it’s not always music but sound that plays the key role in transforming an image. Wilson admires Lynch’s “sound designs”, such as those that make up the unnerving background to Eraserhead. “It’s amazing, isn’t it? That white noise, that industrial sound, creates something that isn’t there if you take it away. It lends this oppressive, claustrophobic feeling. The sense of dread you can create in the viewer by having some white noise droning over an apparently otherwise quite innocent scene is phenomenal.”

With The Harmony Codex eschewing the narrative throughline of a more conventional concept album, I speculated when first hearing the music how it was Wilson knew when to wrap up the writing process. At what point does a collection this bustling get “done?” The brooding industrial electronics of the opening track, “Inclination”, segue into the radio rock of “What Life Brings,” which then gives way to the contemporary electronica and layered vocals of “Economies of Scale”, only for the album to then turn to the prog rock theatrics for which Wilson is famous in the form of the ten-minute “Impossible Tightrope”, complete with saxophone and electric organ solos. Several films have already been released for The Harmony Codex, including a hallucinatory animated short for the title track, where Wilson indulges in synthesizer textures that bring Jon Hopkins to mind. A collection like this, it seems to me, might not ever suggest a single ending point.

Wilson’s explanation is surprisingly simple and rooted still in the language of filmmaking. He starts by saying, “It’s a hard thing to explain”, but what follows comes out with ease. “The only way I can really answer that question is to go back with an analogy to cinema: you know a film is finished when you’ve got all the scenes that tell the story. For example, ‘Staircase’, which finishes the record, was the last track written for the record, and it was written specifically because I felt like I didn’t have a ‘closing scene’. Once I had that, it felt like the ‘movie’ was complete: the story cohered, the story the music was trying to tell was there, and all the aspects of my musical personality that I wanted to put across were all represented. 

“Also,” he adds, more practically, “I was tired, and the well was dry. You get to a point with a project – I’ve always found this – where I’ve just got nothing left. I need to release the album to move on, to create something new again. If I try to keep making material for this new record, it’s the law of diminishing returns. Maybe from experience, I kind of know when I reach that point?” 

Another factor in completing The Harmony Codex is its runtime. Despite Wilson’s longstanding associations with progressive rock, a genre replete with double LPs and concept albums that run at or past the 90-minute mark, lengthiness manifests more at the level of song than album throughout his discography. The disc that many regard as Porcupine Tree’s masterpiece, 2007’s Fear of a Blank Planet, concludes in 50 minutes, typical for an LP in the traditional sense. (Wilson, a vinyl enthusiast, speaks to me with his extensive personal catalogue of records forming a veritable archive behind him.) 

The Future Bites, Wilson’s last solo album, wraps up in a downright economical 41 minutes. The Harmony Codex pushes past the hour mark. As he worked on the record – he summarizes the writing and recording process as consisting of “three years spent on ten songs” – he acknowledged that it “had already hit the 65-minute mark… enough is enough. It’s hard enough to keep people’s attention spans as it is.”

While The Harmony Codex now occupies the bulk of Wilson’s professional schedule, I ask him about The Future Bites, whose 2020 release condemned it to being unable to achieve a full live actualization. The most satirical of Wilson’s works, The Future Bites, centers on “the alienating concept of an album being sold as a product,” which he parodied in the form of Supreme-style adverts for The Future Bites-branded toilet paper and cans of air

In the music video for the disco-influenced “Eminent Sleaze“, Wilson transforms into a besuited corporate drone that’s just steps away from becoming Patrick Bateman. Wilson promised quite a spectacle for the album’s tour, only to find himself confined to his home like the rest of the world. That same concept offered such satirical promise, not to mention Wilson’s most contemporary-sounding production to date, would have to wait before being presented on stages worldwide. It didn’t help, as Wilson says, that a record anchored on a notion of alienation was released “when the last thing that people wanted to be reminded of was the distance between everything.” 

The performance and conceptual ambitions behind The Future Bites, then, had an obvious place to go: the gestation period of The Harmony Codex, composed largely while Wilson was in lockdown. I contrast the tightly focused pop style of The Future Bites with the genre explorations of the restless Insurgentes, my favorite of Wilson’s solo records, which seems like the most direct antecedent to the similarly capacious Harmony Codex. “[Insurgentes] is also one of my favorites, too,” he says, and then adds a distinction: “I think what’s true of Insurgentes and The Future Bites that’s not true of The Harmony Codex is there’s a very clear agenda right from the beginning of the making of the album. Insurgentes, I knew, was going to be my ‘post-punk’ record – even though it’s not a post-punk record really… it’s more me, in my head, filtering my music through my post-punk influences. The Future Bites was meant to be my electronic pop record. And again, it’s not really a straight electronic pop record, but in my mind, I had that idea there. With The Harmony Codex, there was no agenda at all. If there was an agenda, it was to have no agenda.”

This paradigm shift between Wilson’s two most recent records does not obviate his designs to expand the possibilities of his live shows. His next tour will, in effect, be a tour of two albums: “When I go out and tour The Harmony Codex, I’m also essentially touring The Future Bites. I’ll be doing material from that record, too, because I never had the chance to do it, so there’s an opportunity to bring some of those ideas into these shows, too.” 

He has grown tired of what he calls the “two-dimensional” feeling of the traditional rock show, one where “you’ve got the band in front of the audience, and the sound is just coming at the audience” – he pushes both of his hands forward as if trying to open a weighted door – “and it’s a very ‘us and them’ scenario.” At the top of his mind? “I’m thinking about residencies in smaller venues where I can create more of a space, where I can have spatial audio, where I can maybe do light installations, screens, things that immerse the audience in an experience. A cinematic experience. There’s that word again.”

Whatever comes to pass of Wilson’s plans for The Harmony Codex live, once he takes the stage, it will surely feel like a long journey from creation to performance. The pandemic conditions of the album’s writing forced Wilson to undertake alternative forms of artistic collaboration, such as filesharing exchanges. To modern musicians, such electronic communications are no doubt commonplace, but to the more old-fashioned Wilson, exchanges of electronic files, with no in-person interaction, would hardly be the default. 

“It sounds very ugly as a concept,” he says of filesharing, “but it was a necessity, and I made it work for me.” In the end, it proved artistically rewarding: “I used [filesharing] as an opportunity to be ‘experimental’ in the sense that you allow yourself to be surprised by what you get back. You don’t control everything; you don’t stand there while the musician is doing their part and say, ‘Do this, do that.'”

As he gathered files from his collaborators on The Harmony Codex, including regular duet partner Ninet Tayeb and violinist Ben Coleman (a former member of Wilson’s duo project No-Man with singer/songwriter Tim Bowness), Wilson’s focus in his home studio was on a small gathering of analog synthesizers he purchased right before lockdown. “Now,” he admits, “I don’t really understand analog synthesizers. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing… I’ve got all these knobs! I’m just turning knobs!” Wilson’s lack of expertise with the synthesizers is a feature rather than a bug of his songwriting: “I’m one of those people who approach instruments in a very non-musician, kind of naive way – this applies to the guitar too, though I’m more proficient on the guitar. A: I haven’t got the patience to learn, and B: I’ve always liked the idea of allowing yourself to be an idiot, to be surprised by what you find. 

“The trick,” he says, “is to know when something is good, when something has got potential. This is the classic Brian Eno thing, isn’t it? He’s the most successful ‘non-musician’ of all time. His talent is knowing when something is worth pursuing and when instead it’s all worthless crap, which you have to go through a lot of to get the good stuff.” When it came to The Harmony Codex, he says, “I’d say eight of the ten songs started out with me mucking about with these analog synthesizers. I just allowed myself to be surprised – that’s always been a part of my process.”

Though Wilson has long played many instruments across all his projects, those who have seen him live will likely picture him wielding a guitar. This is not without reason. Wilson admits that he “comes from the tradition of rock music and the guitar”, a tradition whose roots are most apparent in Porcupine Tree. As a solo artist, he deploys the guitar on many of his best tunes, such as the dreamy chord progression on Insurgentes‘ “Significant Other” and the high drama of the guitar riff on the back half of the Hand. Cannot. Erase. closing epic “Ancestral”. In 2023, however, he reports, “I’m more excited and inspired by what I hear from the world of electronic music now.”

Wilson attributes his increasing emphasis on non-guitar instruments in large part to his place and time as a musician. The weathered spines on many older entries in his vinyl collection and his love for gray-haired genres like progressive rock belie his appreciation of the contemporary musical landscape. (In fairness, he has, on more than many occasions in the past, fashioned an image for himself as someone working against the currents of contemporary songwriting.) The Future Bites and The Harmony Codex in moments speak in unison with popular chart-topping artists: the former’s “King Ghost” and the latter’s “Economies of Scale” could have been Billie Eilish collaborations in a slightly different life. 

In his words, “One of the reasons I don’t use the guitar as much anymore is that I’m a great believer that the guitar – and I don’t mean this in a negative way – is the sound of the second half of the twentieth century. The sound of the twenty-first century is, indisputably, the sound of electronic instruments. We’re surrounded by electronic sound all the time.” He means this not merely in musical terms; as he says this, he holds up his cell phone. “Our world is one of electronic sound; it is no longer the sound of the electric guitar and the drums. In the same way that the first half of the twentieth century was dominated by jazz music, big-band jazz was the mainstream music of the area. Then rock music came along and consigned that to become a cult form of music, which I think has now happened to rock music in the twentieth century.”

But the element of The Harmony Codex, which finds Wilson stretching his musical abilities most pronounced, hangs on his singing voice. Wilson’s tenor has rarely been the primary distinguishing feature of his work, as he readily acknowledges. “My constant battle throughout my career has been with the limitations of my voice. I never planned to be a singer. I never planned to be anything, really, other than someone who made records. All the other stuff had to come as a result of that ambition: learning a bit of guitar, learning a bit of keyboards, teaching myself how to write songs and lyrics.” 

Throughout his autodidactic musical career, he would, in turn, set up challenges that tested his acknowledged limits. I recall seeing Wilson live for his 2017 LP To the Bone, during which he talked on stage about the vexing falsetto part he’d written for himself on the driving rock number “The Same Asylum as Before”. His inspiration for the track came from one of his musical idols, Prince, whose voice can vault considerably higher than Wilson’s.

“The voice was always the most limiting thing for me. There’s not a huge amount I can do with it – I’m not Jeff Buckley, clearly,” he says. “I have to find material that works with my voice. I think a lot of the reason I’ve ended up playing the music that I have over the years is because of my voice. For example, one of the things I’ve experimented with since very early on in my career is harmonies, multi-tracking my voice many times over. I listened to a lot of Brian Wilson, Todd Rundgren, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young to learn about harmony vocals – not just because I love harmony vocals, but because I needed to learn the technique to make my voice more convincing in context.” That device has not left him still, as “Economies of Scale” and “What Life Brings” attest.

“Now, notwithstanding all of that, I have become more confident over the years,” he declares. “I like to think I have become more ‘soulful’ in the way I sing. I’m not so afraid to use my voice as an emotional instrument, whereas for many years, it was like, ‘Here’s the melody, here’s the word, sing it as in tune as you can, and quit while you’re ahead’. Now it’s like, ‘You know, maybe I can do a little Marvin Gaye twist here!'”

Steven Wilson
Photo: Hajo Mueller

Wilson quickly names two moments on The Harmony Codex where he takes pride in his vocal performance. “‘Economies of Scale’ is, for me, quite soulful. And on ‘Inclination’ the way the voice comes in is quite startling: the instruments come in, then the song fades to complete silence, and then my voice comes out of nowhere, a cappella. I would never have been brave enough to do that before. Even at my age, I’m still gaining confidence.”

It all comes back to that infinite staircase. The Harmony Codex contains the grand conceptual ambitions that have made Wilson a cult musical icon, and it would be easy to spin the record as a kind of career-summative achievement. Undoubtedly, many will receive it that way; to my ears, it ranks among his best solo albums. But his phrase “gaining confidence” indicates an ongoing process without a definitive end. Wilson may have a heightened awareness that time is running out as he sings on The Harmony Codex. This music, though, sounds like the product of someone who intends to go on reinventing himself, the clock be damned.