Steven Wilson: To The Bone – prog or pop? The LTW view
To The Bone, the new album from Steven Wilson, is arguably one of the most anticipated records of the year. The highly regarded lynchpin of the progressive rock community has gone ‘pop’ – allegedly. Have his own words have come back to haunt him by those who hang on to every one of those words? Read on, listen up and maybe make up your own mind.
“My fifth record is in many ways inspired by the hugely ambitious progressive pop records that I loved in my youth (think Peter Gabriel’s So, Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, Talk Talk’s Colour of Spring and Tears for Fears’ Seeds of Love)”
Oh Steven – bet you wished you’d never opened your mouth. What followed was a pre-release period, almost over now, where prog fans put themselves to the test of attempting to double guess, analyse and assess a record that hadn’t been released, creating the sort of furore that fuels the ‘all publicity is good publicity’ marketing tool.
There’s no doubt that Steven Wilson has become an indispensable figure in the (progressive) rock field. For the likes of early prog trendsetters – Yes, ELP, Jethro Tull, King Crimson and Gentle Giant – he’s slowly worked his way through their catalogues, bringing 5.1 life to their seventies masterworks with a deft touch. Indispensible too in the way his Porcupine Tree and subsequent Tree-free solo career have slowly built milestones and seemed to serve as the torches that guide the way to prog enlightenment.
He’s basically the living prog god. One that some may say graces the pages of a certain progressive rock magazine rather too often in as much as the current issue (with SW on the cover, the subject of a six page feature and an additional six page feature on ‘prog pop’ chosen by the great and the good) prompted an editorial that picks up that gauntlet to justify his omnipresence.
In a nutshell though, he just writes very good music and more importantly very good songs, however they’re dressed. Their subject matter may continue to explore the disenfranchised, and the alienated and question values of modern society but at the end of the day, they’re great songs and great music. We know he can do catchy hook filled songwriting as his work with Aviv Geffen in Blackfield revealed, but that was just another side project in which he’s dabbled. One of several which ran its course and from which Wilson moved on. You could say the same for Bass Communion, Storm Corrosion and NoMan. Easily bored? Possibly, but single minded enough to continue to do what he wants to do until he’s had enough and it’s time to do something else.
Sure, Steven Wilson has emerged as a vital cog if not the keystone for modern progressive rock. His initial exploratory solo releases evolving into a confidence that’s never appeared to be questioned although To The Bone is the first time he’s taken the step to display himself on the cover.
Lyrically, To The Bone promises “the paranoid chaos of the post-truth era, the creeping self-loathing of the technology agely-on-the-wall observations of religious fundamentalism and a shot or two of wide-eyed escapism.” No real surprises there – always an astute observer and critical yet not tactful commentator. Although musically, the first indication of To The Bone came in the form of the video for Pariah. A track featuring a duet with Ninet Tayeb with whom Wilson had worked during the Hand.Cannot.Erase. period. (and was that a deliberately mischievous choice of title in the way that it seriously f***ks up your spellchecking). And a corker it is too; so far so good – a reasonably safe bet and no real indication of the anticipated ‘pop’ direction.
For those lucky enough to have had a pre-release snifter, To The Bone continues as an album that displays more of a focus on the songwriting face of Steven Wilson rather than Wilson the progressive experimenter. The one we saw on the time signature shifting and free form jazzy outbreaks on Grace For Drowning; the one who instigated the vast arrangements invoking a cinematic darkness on The Raven That Couldn’t Sing and the very same who mixed gorgeous melody with cutting edge ambition on Hand.Cannot.Erase.
To the fore pops his sense for a good melody and a good song, one that was highlighted on the Transcience compilation and makes light of any suggestion that he’s spitefully turned his back on the dark side. Announcing itself with the title track that recalls a sumptuously funky modern day Floyd – “don’t you want to see what’s at the core?” and Nowhere Now is as gorgeous an airy melody he’s ever written rounded off with some Townsend-y chording and Moon-y fills. The power packed riffing of Prodigal from In Absentia gets a recall in The Same Asylum As Before. Put simply, the first half is simply as good a Steven Wilson album as you’ll find.
The beginning of Permanating briefly sounds like we’ve skipped into a Madness track and yes, it’s an opinion divider as the one track that does have a distinctly eighties feel about it. Possibly even a grove or two from Saturday Night Fever. Abbaesque springs to mind, but we know from his series of cover versions that Steven isn’t averse to a bit of Swedish glam popping.
People Who Eat Darkness one of those TTB moments where you find that the call for reforming Porcupine Tree fall flat. This is what 2017 PT would sound like. Don’t forget, Ian Anderson has finally realised he is Jethro Tull. Porcupine Tree is Steven Wilson. As the man says, the chickens are coming home to roost while elsewhere there may be bits and pieces that you’d feel might be a good fit for the darkness of Deadwing or Fear Of A Blank Planet.
The proggers might drool when they hear the build that recalls the Index styled climax on Song Of I and spot the nine minutes of Detonation; yes the temporarily harder edged direction takes the song into funky guitar grooves that might soundtrack some smart soft focused eighties American TV cop show as the extended instrumental section visits a Santana latino styled guitar, dare we say it, indulgence.
And there you have it. As Freddie Mercury famously said once after Queen’s disco funk diversion on Hot Space “it’s only a bloody record!” Controversially, it’s not controversial, it’s not bold and there’s no fear of Wilson appearing in a wide shouldered baggy suit, hair trimmed on one side as a modern day Phil Oakey. He’ll still be in regulation black T shirt and jeans, barefoot and swinging the curtains of hair while conducting his band with the trademark spell casting gestures.
Approcah To The Bone, if you can, with no expectations. It’s a great Steven Wilson album, one guaranteed to deservedly feature in end of year polls. But next time Steven, how about taking a leaf from the Led Zeppelin book of marketing and keeping schtum on the release, package in a nameless brown paper bag and let the fans decide.
Get excited again over Pariah here:
The Steven Wilson website is here