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Steven Wilson doesn’t have the huge discography in terms of number of released records, but the amount of material presented on his four albums is definitely unmeasurable. The english musician released four studio records since 2008, and is currently readying his fifth full-length release which will see the light of day later this year.
Each of the four studio albums Wilson released is unique. With 2008′s Insurgentes, the musician explored the realms of noise rock, post-punk, ambient, and shoegaze. 2011′s Grace for Drowning brought a change towards more experimental sound, combining Jazz Fusion and Progressive Rock. In an interview Wilson did with Guitar World back at the time, he commented:
This record [‘Grace for Drowning‘] takes that as a starting point, but it’s more experimental and more eclectic. For me the golden period for music was the late sixties and early seventies, when the album became the primary means of artistic expression, when musicians liberated themselves from the 3 minute pop song format, and started to draw on jazz and classical music especially, combining it with the spirit of psychedelia to create “journeys in sound” I guess you could call them. So without being retro, my album is a kind of homage to that spirit. There’s everything from [Ennio] Morricone-esque film themes to choral music to piano ballads to a 23 minute progressive jazz –inspired piece. I’ve actually used a few jazz musicians this time, which is something I picked up from my work remixing the King Crimson records.
Fast-forward to 2013 and the release of Alan Parsons-engineered The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories). Though much closer to Grace for Drowning, The Raven… has once again brought a stylistic change, focusing on a more dark-y approach of Progressive Rock, without too much experimenting — what was the case with the predecessor.
Finally in 2015, Wilson released his (still) actual, fourth full-length record Hand. Cannot. Erase. which made another “deviation from the form.” The album could possibly be described as the most accessible record from the Steven Wilson pot, but that’s definitely something to be take with a bit of caution. Inspired by a documental about Joyce Carol Vincent, Hand. Cannot. Erase. is the most lyrical concept records Wilson has ever written. Asked which Porcupine Tree record is the closest to the Hand. Cannot. Erase. album in terms of concept and writing, Wilson told us:
I think conceptually the closest would be an album like ‘Fear of a Blank Panet,’ because ‘Fear of a Blank Planet‘ was about isolation and alienation, particularly with regards to the modern technology of today, whether it is mobile phones or computers or computer games or social networking. ‘FAOBP‘ was an album very much about the way technology influences the way that we live, and particularly in that case it was more focused on young people, on the younger generation. There is a parallel with that record, because although this record (‘Hand. Cannot. Erase.‘) is more about an individual, whereas ‘Fear of a Blank Planet‘ was more general, about the whole planet, about the whole human race, if you like. This album is much more specific about one particular character.
In January 2016, Steven Wilson put out a mini-album entitled 4½ which included songs from the Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) and Hand. Cannot. Erase. sessions.
See how we rank Steven Wilson‘s full-lengths, and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
UPDATE (September 29th, 2017): In August 2017, Wilson has launched his fifth studio album To the Bone. The rankings below were updated.
05. Insurgentes (2008)
Steven Wilson has used this solo record to explore all of the facets of his music, not just the typical style that is heard in much of the Porcupine Tree material. There are a few songs a la Porcupine to entice listeners, but there is also stuff that resonates his other projects, particularly his drone project Bass Communion. All of these styles are melded into something that is mellow and noisy.
The first few times I listened to this album, I literally fell asleep. Not to discredit the album, but it is very quiet for the most part, and it risks slipping into the realm of background music. Some of the stuff sounds like something that you could expect from Steven Wilson typically (the soaring “Harmony Korine”), other material sounds almost exactly like The Mars Volta (“No Twilight In The Courts Of The Sun.”)
The album doesn’t work out to be one of the brightest moments in Steven Wilson‘s career, but it is interesting to see the man work without the parameters expected of Porcupine Tree. Highlights include the first track, “Harmony Korine” (which has a mind blowing video courtesy of Lasse Hoile,) the title closing track, and “Venero A Las Hadas” which at first passed me as being excessively boring and mellow, but it took me a few listens to see how aesthetically beautiful it sounds. Very dreamlike and lucid.
04. To the Bone (2017)
Ever since the late ’90s, alternative rock and pop influences became somewhat of a muse for Wilson as he explored the sonic landscape of each new Porcupine Tree album, generating a mixture of the accessible and experimental. And truly, the album that brought his “modern vs. traditional” approach back in full force was 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase., which ranks among his finest albums from any project he’s dipped his hand into (no pun intended). But, in all honesty, it’s hard to know where to even place its successor To the Bone in regards to Wilson’s other material. All I know is that it’s both a great pop album and a great rock album.
This is Wilson’s wholehearted dive into singer-songwriter waters, right down to the rather individualistic (even somewhat egocentric) nature of the artwork and rediscovering the “art of writing songs.” As far as the songwriting goes, this is pretty much an art rock record with various layers of pop aesthetics. For those who have worried that this may be too much of a departure from his old work, fear not! It’s still the same Steven Wilson we know and love (?), just approaching his craft from a less familiar point of view than usual. Basically, catchy hooks and big pop choruses are the new order of the day (at least more than usual for Wilson), and the longer and more experimental tracks have now become the exception to the regular songwriting patterns Wilson is expressing. But that art/prog element still rears its head once in a while. After all, we still have a 9-minute powerhouse of a track known as “Detonation” — a piece filled with varied dynamics and extended solo work — to look forward to near the end of the experience. This is directly followed by a gorgeous and subdued piano ballad with subtle rhythms and wispy choir, “Song of Unborn,” proving that Wilson’s penchant for melancholy and complex emotional baggage is still there in spades.
That said, it’s not like the lyrics are exactly high art or anything. This is pretty typical of a Steven Wilson product anyway, and at least the words fit the context of a pop-driven record like this a bit more, but they’re still pretty damn cringey from time to time. One could perhaps forgive the nonspecific joyousness of the peppy piano-pop number “Permeating,” and the intimate love-oriented lyrics of the slow guitar-centric interlude “Blank Tapes” are nicely executed when Wilson and Ninet Tayeb sing them in a convincing duet. But yeah, that “I’m tired of Facebook” line from “Pariah” is pretty f**king hard to give a pass. A shame, too, because “Pariah” still manages to be one of the album’s highlights because of the beautiful acoustic balladry and post-rock climax that anchor such amateur lyricism. But, as far as I’m concerned, what really gives To the Bone its charm and beauty is that Wilson really sounded like he was enjoying himself on this one. Even in interviews surrounding the release, he seems more eager and excited than usual to put out this collection, and it shows when you get down to listening to the effort involved. I must admit that this is one of the first Wilson records that actually blindsided me because of some of the risks that he attempted. The best one? The ending of the power ballad “Refuge,” in which jazzy piano chords and a harmonica solo collide in one of the most beautiful moments you’ll hear this year. Also notable is the grungy hard rock banger “People Who Eat Darkness,” which ends up sounding like Wilson’s take on Foo Fighters (?). And yes, some moments are a tad too familiar as well. “The Same Asylum as Before” suffers the most from this, sounding like a boring mix of Porcupine Tree’s own “Prodigal” and something you’d hear from a mid-career album like Stupid Dream. But thankfully, this recycling is usually kept to a minimum.
Whether To the Bone will be considered among Steven Wilson’s best material or not, it does seem like the necessary way to move forward in his career. Hearing his usual tropes and motifs so stripped down and emotionally charged like this can be breathtaking, even if the songwriting isn’t always bringing his A-game. There have been a lot of jokes recently about calling Steven Wilson an “international popstar” and all that, but if he got that successful off an album like this, I wouldn’t mind that at all. A pop/rock record this beautifully organic and well-crafted deserves to reach many ears, and Wilson should be proud of its many merits as one of this year’s most thoroughly enjoyable experiences so far.
03. Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015)
To date, the only album concept from Steven Wilson that really meant something to me was Porcupine Tree‘s Fear of a Blank Planet. Deadwing and The Incident are conceptual works, but there’s not a great deal of narrative or symbolic sense to make of them. I’ve always loved Steven Wilson‘s intimately poetic lyrics, but I’ve rarely cared to draw conclusions about the album concepts themselves. In the case of Hand. Cannot. Erase., the concept is more clear, although Wilson‘s left particular lyrical meanings up for an audience’s interpretation. Suffice to say, the album’s conceptual foundations (of a woman who isolates herself from human contact for three years) fall in line with Wilson‘s recurring anxieties towards modernity. Even if the narrative’s character is female, the lyrics feel too personal to have come from anything but Wilson‘s own experience. What are we to make of the way the story ends? The woman finally re-enters society, but sees nothing has changed while she’s been away. It’s a bittersweet way to part ways with a character so disenfranchised with the isolation inherent in modern living. Still, it seems a brighter ending than the one shared by the concept’s real-life inspiration; Joyce Vincent (an abused woman living in London) was discovered in her apartment three years after she died. Given the anxieties Wilson explored on Fear of a Blank Planet, it’s not surprising he would have been moved enough to create art based on that story.
I wonder, were she alive to hear it, what the real-world Joyce Vincent would have thought of Hand. Cannot. Erase. The essential beauty of art and music is that it allows people to share their emotional experience, conveying the hidden depths of themselves to another person they have probably never met before. Humans feel more isolated than ever, and none moreso than in cities. The kind of feeling an artist like Steven Wilson brings to his music has never been so important. Hand. Cannot. Erase. feels resonant and powerful. Wilson may play with traditional progressive notions here, but unlike your Flower Kings and Transatlantics, he never succumbs to them. By this point, Steven Wilson‘s solo work has become a monument, increasingly independent from the legendary prestige of his old band. Part of me still hopes he’ll revive Porcupine Tree one of these days and follow-up The Incident, but I’ll eagerly await anything of his if he keeps up with this brilliant standard of quality. The man has no signs of slowing down any time soon.
02. The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) (2013)
Possibly the greatest thing about Raven… is not even necessarily Wilson‘s writing and arrangement, but the musicians that he has chosen to surround himself with. More than ever, it feels like Wilson has fashioned himself a Progressive Rock conductor of sorts, letting some of the best musicians in the scene bring his vision to life. Most notably, Wilson brings on two thirds of the virtuosic fusion band The Aristocrats. Guthrie Govan (guitars) and Marco Minnemann (drums) are each masters of their respective instruments. Of the musicians involved however, the top accolades go to keyboardist Adam Holzman, arguably best known for work he has done with Miles Davis. Especially on “Luminol”, his jazz improvisations are rich with detail, and his firm background in the jazz genre gives Wilson‘s music a different sound than it has had in the past. Steven Wilson‘s voice seems to be a love-or-hate-it case for many people. There is certainly a lesser emphasis on vocal melodies this time around, but his voice retains the same emotional depth I have come to expect. His overdubbed vocal harmonies are some of the best I’ve ever heard.
Although it’s certainly not the first time Wilson has done this, The Raven That Refused To Sing enjoys its status as a concept album. As the longform title implies, each of the songs here tells a different story, each about ghosts and an idealized notion of lost love. Of these, “The Holy Drinker” tells the most interesting story, about an alcoholic evangelist that plays a drinking game with Satan (spoiler: it doesn’t end well). This dark subject matter is reflected musically by a constant exchange between catchy vocal segments and dark heavy instrumentation. “The Pin Drop” is another interesting piece, distancing itself from the album’s lean towards longform instrumentation in favour of a more Porcupine Tree-esque song that seems to beg for ‘single’ status. Without a doubt however, the greatest piece on the album is the gut-wrenching title track and closing piece. “The Raven That Refused To Sing” (the song) is as haunting as Wilson‘s music gets. An eerie, filmscore-sounding piano piece plays under pensive vocals and ghostly synths. By the end of the song, it has built itself up to a thunder that hits the heart in a place only the best sort of music can hope to reach. To make it better, a fantastic music video was made for it that fits its ghostly subject matter wonderfully- well worth checking out, if you ask me.
With the legendary Alan Parsons (whom you may know as the engineer for Dark Side of the Moon) coming onboard to help on the production side of things, it’s little surprise that Raven… is about as close tor recording perfection as one can get. Even during the album’s most harrowing moments, every instrument comes through in full dimension, and are balanced with a mix that gods might praise. Despite this refined sense of calibration, the album retains a warmth and organic appeal that echoes many of the very same artists Steven Wilson has been influenced by on the record. While the classics of Progressive Rock are present in spirit here (with King Crimson taking the front seat on most occasions), many passages on The Raven That Refused To Sing sound very much like Wilson is also paying tribute to some of the more contemporary progressive artists he loves. There are many times on the album- particularly on the fiery groove of “Luminol”- where Steven Wilson sounds as if he’s conjuring the style and scope of The Mars Volta. The lush title track begins as were it a Radiohead piece, but it eventually bursts into a life-affirming climax that instantly brings Anathema to mind. This mix of the old and new feels very natural given Wilson‘s tastes, and though the homages are often noticeable, no one influence ever takes over completely. With this being said, The Raven That Refused To Sing is widely defined by this sense of ‘tribute’ to other artists. In the past, many of Steven Wilson‘s bands and albums have had a staunch sense of personal identity and style.
With The Raven That Refused To Sing, Steven has tried out something new and unexpected, fusing many of his favourite artists into something intelligent, classic and as musically proficient as a listener could hope for.
01. Grace for Drowning (2011)
Expanding his creativity onto a full- fledged solo career in 2008 with the ‘debut’ effort Insurgentes, Wilson met some fairly mixed criticism for this new work, with many stating their confusion for the challenging directions he was taking his music in. Grace For Drowning upholds this legacy of relative weirdness instituted by the first. Although fans of Porcupine Tree may have their doubts before listening, I have now digested the new album to the point where I can safely say that this is the greatest thing that Steven Wilson has ever done.
Much of the reason I think many didn’t warm up to Insurgentes was the fact that it was very un-Porcupine Tree-like; there were a handful of songs meant to lure the Porcupine fans in, but the album was meant to be a cross-section of everything Wilson was interested in expressing. That included noise music, drone, minimalism, improvisations, and virtually everything else the man has dabbled in lately. Grace For Drowning continued this trend of multi-faceted music making, but it is much less a sequel than a reinvention of what he is trying to do with his solo music. This is a double album, with each ‘half’ comprised of forty minutes of music, and has enough guest musicians on it to man a military regiment. Wilson himself has even stated that this is the ‘most important’ thing he has ever done before. Like many likely did and even still do, I had the feeling that this hype generating was over little more than the fact that Mr. Wilson was releasing an album, and had little to do with the quality of the music itself. This man has never failed to impress me before though, and even after a single listen, I was pretty sure that this was the greatest Wilson record ever made.
As I could have predicted for this project, here is a wide variety of different sounds at work here, but the ingenious thing here is how wonderfully that the elements have all been combined in order to create something coherent. The two halves of this double album contrast each other, but feel like different sides of the same coin. The second disc “Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye” is a darker, more experimental evil twin of the first; “Deform To Form A Star.” Both of these companion pieces open with an atmospheric instrumental introduction. The title track “Grace For Drowning” opens the first disc, with Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess soulfully playing the piano while Wilson overdubs himself with harmonized vocalizations. By “Sectarian,” it is clear that this is not Porcupine Tree music; there are jazzy saxophone solos, King Crimson-esque dissonance, and eerie choir-like synths to create this truly progressive sound for fusion.
The first disc then focuses on some more conventional tracks, being the sort of sounds that Porcupine Tree fans are likely more used to hearing Wilson make. “No Part Of Me” and “Postcard” are both beautiful melody-oriented tracks, with the latter being arguably the greatest ‘pop’ song he has ever done; an acoustic number wrapped in melancholy, heartache, and all of the things you would think Wilson had abandoned completely only a few tracks earlier. Then, to close out the first part of this project, “Remainder The Black Dog” transports the listener back to the weird instrumental anxiety that we first heard on “Sectarian.” Of special note is that classic Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett plays acoustic guitar here, although his appearance here is sadly too small to be worth much more than a name-drop.
As I have said before, the second disc here is a little darker, taking us deeper into the rabbit hole and deeper into Wilson‘s mind. “Belle De Jour” is a simple and eerie intro; a fitting overture for the disturbing material to come. It is a short piece of music that could do well to score a scene in a film, but it is quickly dwarfed by the nightmare that comes. “Index” is one of my favourite tracks from this album, as well as undoubtedly the darkest thing this man has ever done. Putting his love and mastery of the studio to good work; he samples electronics and creates this very dark trip-hop soundscape, with a string section and disturbing lyrics to match. Think “My Ashes” from Porcupine Tree‘s Fear Of A Blank Planet, if that song suffered from PTSD and could not afford trauma therapy. By this point in the second disc, the second half of Wilson‘s opus has proven itself to go places that the first was a little too timid for.
“Track One” is a track that, along with “Remainder The Black Dog” was chosen as a single to support the album. While I would have imagined that “Postcard” would have been the best way to once again lure unsuspecting listeners in, “Track One” does do a good job of showing how the variety of styles on Grace For Drowning contrast each other. The first moments of this song develop as a pretty straightforward, if not quirky acoustic song, much in the vein of some latter-era Beatles tunes. Without too much morning then, all sense breaks down and the listener is left with this looming mass of what I might describe as being symphonic noise; a sound as dirty and chaotic as any, yet meticulously orchestrated, and even musical.
After that relatively short piece comes what may be the most anticipated moment on the entire record. The ‘long’ song, the ‘epic’, the ‘fusion freakout’; whatever you want to call it, “Raider II” has been peaking listeners’ interest even long before the album was even released. For what I was predicting would be the total antithesis of Porcupine Tree, I was not surprised that this is by far, the most challenging thing on the record. It begins with minimalism at heart; a very dark soundscape where the eerie atmosphere is created by the lack of sound, the silence in between the long, gloomy notes. “Raider II” builds into something quite looming, and it seems that this is where Wilson found it most suitable to throw all of his ideas into one pot. Here, we have a flute solo a la Jethro Tull, and even a short-lived segment where it sounds like Wilson has either conjured Satan into his studio session, or is using… death growls? Admittedly, not all of these ideas are as brilliant as Wilson likely imagined them to be, but it’s easy to overlook that when it’s realized how risky Wilson is being by throwing out all of these ideas into his music. As was promised by press releases, “Raider II” ultimately breaks into this frantic jazz fusion longform, where I am hearing a cross between the latest King Crimson project, The Mars Volta, and even Van Der Graaf Generator. Here, we are treated to some wonderful saxophone solo work, courtesy of Theo Travis. This is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious things Wilson has ever done.
After such an exciting and intense journey with “Raider II,” we come to the end of our journey on Grace For Drowning with “Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye,” yet another contrast that shows the album fade out with another song that could have closed any Porcupine Tree album beautifully since Signify. It reminds me quite a bit of “Glass Arm Shattering” from Porcupine‘s Deadwing record in the way it is slow, brooding, full of feeling and hypnotic in the way it leads the listener out of the dream and back into reality. Of particular note here are Wilson‘s vocals, particularly when the harmonizes with himself to create this overdubbed choral effect.
Grace For Drowning is one of the most challenging and deep records Steven Wilson has ever taken part in. As for which of these discs is better, it’s really hard to decide. I could certainly say that “Sectarian,” “Index,” parts of “Remainder The Black Dog,” and parts of “Raider II” would make up my most loved material on this album, but as a whole, it leaves an absolutely beautiful feeling in me. The first disc is certainly a little more immediate, and maybe sent a few more chills down my spine, but I cannot underrate the second volume of this work either. Although many albums that we consider ‘classics’ are now decades old, Wilson‘s Grace For Drowning is one record that I am almost certain will be looked back at as one of the crowning prog rock albums of this decade.