Steven Wilson, 4 1/2; Album Review

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One of my favourite voices in Prog Rock, Steven Wilson. Having seen him for the first time live last March at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto I was blown away by his stage presence, humour, theatrics, music and his love for what he does. He returns to Toronto, Tuesday, March 1st at Massey Hall, my all-time favourite venue to see bands. Every album he has released has been given that Steven Wilson care that only he can do to his recordings. Former lead of Porcupine Tree and being a Part of Blackfield, Bass CommunionStorm Corrosion, No-Man, IEM, his limits….he has none. I was first introduced to his music during his days in Porcupine Tree and floored by their tone, dark lyrics, fusion of; Prog, metal, acoustic, rock etc, a colourful swatch of sounds on every album, In Absentia still being my favourite Lp and you felt every note pierce through you like dagger thrown at high velocity straight for you. He has proven that in his music he conditions each song for however long it needs. Roger Waters once said in so many words that they don’t intentionally write a “pop” tunes, if a song needs ten minutes it gets it, however long it takes is what it takes to make the song work. Steven Wilson does just that, he fills out each song as if it were a story and plays it just the same regardless of how long it takes, some being four minutes, others being fourteen minutes doesn’t matter to him so long as the song gets what it deserves.

I have found that every album he releases has a different theme to it and that he constructs an album around it. No two albums are alike in sound, song design, execution of music and its presentation to the listener. Sure it’s Steve Wilson but each album is a reincarnation of who he is, he reinvents himself on grand scales and that is one of many reasons why you continue to listen to his music and absorb his albums as a whole. His last album, Hand Cannot Erase was brilliant and I felt was his crowning Lp out of every solo album he has released to date. They just keep getting better. That’s not to say his previous albums weren’t good, they’ve all been outstanding in their own rite and have been a supporting role to lead up to Hand Cannot Erase’s command performance. I’m not sure as to what the album cover represents here but that’s often the case with Prog music, the cover doesn’t always match the music giving it that element of surprise when you first hear it through your speakers. I find it a rule of thumb with me that I don’t ask what the cover art6 is suppose to mean rather I interpret it to what I think it means and keep it to myself. Same goes for lyrics, I don’t delve in to what the song is about really because everyone will hear something different in the words, taking away form it what they want and I don’t want to give you my visions of what I think it means spoiling it for you or tarnishing what you think afterwards. Now we have an Ep/Album 4 ½ comprises of 6 songs. Four of which are songs during the sessions for Hand Cannot Erase, and one from the recording sessions for the previous album The Raven that Refused to Sing. The final track is a version of Don’t Hate Me, originally recorded by Porcupine Tree in 1998 (originally appearing on 1999’s Stupid Dream Lp),  based on a live recording made on the recent tour of Europe with additional recording later done in the studio. The vocals on this new version are sung as a duet between Steven and Ninet Tayeb, an Israeli Artist who’s music has contributed to that scene and has gained some much anticipated attention in North America, Europe and the UK as well through Steven Wilson. A powerful voice to equally as powerful music, more indie-pop-rock-alternative than Prog but it suits her well and she performs with confidence delivering a solid performance. She also had a solo vocal in the bonus disc to H.C.E. in the song, “Routine” Her work with Steven Wilson has been forthcoming to her entrance in the world of Prog and who better to work with?!

(http://www.ninetayeb.com/en/home)

Also appearing on the album are past and current members of Steven’s band over the last few years; Adam Holzman, Nick Beggs, Guthrie Govan, Dave Kilminster (who played on the Roger Waters Wall tours), Craig Blundell, Marco Minnemann, Chad Wackerman, and Theo Travis. The album albeit short, just under 40 minutes is powerful and punchy but has softer spots in it to give it curve and flare as well. Yet again this is an album that you just absorb like a breeze flowing through you in some European forest where you have no idea where you are but it matters not right now. What matters is that this album is a segue between Hand Cannot Erase and the next studio album from SW and it fills the gap that doesn’t leave you waiting too long between albums which can be a stressful journey for any fan of any genre but with Prog you always want to see your artists expand themselves even farther, deeper and more out there than the album before because that’s what makes it Prog and keeps it surging electrified currents through your ears. Other genres bands have to maintain a certain Je Ne C’est Quoi and keep their “sound” pure and consistent otherwise fans hate it and they sink in to the mire that is a giant pile of melted vinyl goo to be forgotten and left to rot in the pile of trash whereas with Prog artists you are anticipating to see what they do next because you know it won’t be predictable. This is what gives Prog music it’s distinctness and uniqueness in the world of music, you never know what you’re going to get! (Did anyone else hear Forrest Gump reciting that last sentence too?!)

Prog gives us that world of expansion and sound and allows us to revere them as adventurers of the new world of sound. Sure there aren’t too many new instruments out there that give us new sounds but what Steven Wilson uses is more than enough to create and exploration of sight and sound in his live performances and in the studio enough to fill our senses with the excitement of a new record. So let’s have a look at it without any further ado!

4 1/2 (January 2016)

  1. My Book of Regrets
  2. Year of the Plague
  3. Happiness III
  4. Sunday Rain Sets In
  5. Vermillioncore
  6. Don’t Hate Me

My Book of Regrets opens up the album with a nine minute and change with a quick roll in of funky guitar and Steven starting off with the confidence it needs to overcome the guitar intro before the rest of the band enters in shortly after. The swing step glide to the song builds up to the familiar tone of Hand Cannot Erase and carries onward in true SW fashion of starts and stops with quick turn overs and flowing keyboard waves with a tight drumming pattern that stomps and jumps throughout encouragingly as the guitar soothes and compliments the vocal track. The guitar solo about half way through seers through as if a hot knife through butter and controls the floor with sweeping authority. Then drops down to a cooling keyboard riff that carries us in to the latter half of the song as a segue to the opening funky guitar riff. Clearly one of the songs from the H.C.E. Lp but with the sense that it didn’t make the album due to it’s familiarity and close resemblance to other songs. An epic in its own right and glad that it made the light of day on this record rather than being lost on the previous album and not conveying the robustness it presents here. Good move Steven! A great thing here as with any of his albums is that his influences drive him to make his own sound and music and not dictate how he across musically. This song could easily be a second part to any of the songs on H.C.E. album but stands out better as a track on its own. The song has a stout bounce to it that makes it a great opening track and it calms and roars at varying intervals throughout the song. The PROGness of this song definitely carries forth the torch of the genre here proudly as it displays the recipe for all the classic pincer moves of a Prog songs wants. Like with Punk music the bass line is a driving and solid force behind the song’s rhythm and flow and Nick Beggs doesn’t hold back a note here giving it the full bass treatment of clean and crisp fills and root notes as he dances up and down the neck. The drums gallop in spots that are a recognizable trait in some of the more recent SW songs and the short rapid gunfire of double kick bass is epic and just enough to make your chest rattle! The vocals are well…. Steven Wilson’s tone that is nothing short of clarity and plenitudinous as it croons and sways through the song carrying us to the sweet refrain in the end.

Year of the Plague sneaks in to our ears with a soulful introduction of strings and synths that floats like a gentle breeze over calm waters. For a song with that title we don’t get that impression here at all which is another great Prog characteristic. Opposites attract here and the songs never leaves the comfort of a mother’s hold on her child as it’s rocked to a deep warming sleep. The song has the earthly presence of a hymn and the gentleness of an autumn day by a stream. Instrumental and best kept this way unless a remorseful poem was read over it, Steven Wilson commented when I saw him last year that for some reason sad songs make us happy or feel better about ourselves. Strange how that seems to fit, it’s all within the music and how said lyrics are sung. But sometimes you don’t have to have a single word spoken to get your point across. It’s a quiet serene piece that gets your attention as if paused in a lull and lets you forget the outside world. Perfect.

Happiness III enters in with a sweet acoustic riff with a classic Steven Wilson vocal and it doesn’t take long for the song to kick in to gear and get going. A great driving song that clambers down and takes control of the wheel. Every instrument including the vocals hold fast as it speeds along. Another misfire from the H.C.E. album and you can smell the same sweet fragrance from it as it clearly has that tone and ambiance to it. Perhaps too “happy” for the album but definitely a worthwhile track. Like it’s predecessors I am glad that it made this album and not the prior. These songs seem to have a life of their own and come across as their own entities. The collaboration of sound here is tight and well laid out. Nothing over powers another and the melding of instruments gives off the final product of perfection. No screeching guitar solos, no over sappy synth waves, and no viking hoard of drums present, and that’s the great thing about Steven Wilson music, you don’t get that horrible decaying abused tone that’s polluting airwaves around the world. Just a great tone from all here. Not so much a “Prog” tune but certainly a SW tune, and that is not to say he’s turning in his Players Club Card of Prog here but he’s doing what the song in his head directed him to do. Appropriately titled and it’s a feel good song here that combines talented musicianship and that SW sound you immediately recognize.

Sunday Rain Sets In swaggers in with a film noir guitar tremolo you just want the hazing sound of rain in the background. The soundtrack to a rainy day absolutely. Not a song that really fits to the H.C.E. album so it’s rightful place is definitely on this album here. It actually sounds like a sombre piece from a  James Bond movie until it’s last minute when it does that “jump scare” of everyone striking their instruments in an onslaught of quick punches then silencing down to a fade away to nothingness. Another instrumental that would certainly garner attention as an intermission piece accompanied by a equally dark visual piece like the one that is attached to “Routine” in live performances and is also the official video clip as well. This is an ideal piece of funeral music at a wake until the last minute burst out by the whole band, unless that’s what was requested to be played!

Vermillioncore grinds in like a machine that’s out of oil and then the drums snap in and take over with a dirty bass line as the backbone with the guitar and synthesizer competing for first place but each backing off then pulling ahead greedily. The tempo gets in to a swing mode and starts driving faster as if kicked in to high gear like a jet fighter running through a canyon after it’s target. Coming to a smack in to a wall stop just after five minutes. This song could easily gone on for another five minutes and kept the fast pace going. It could be your driving music to whatever fast driving PlayStation or Xbox game you need a new soundtrack for, this is THAT song you want. I’m sure that’s not what they had in mind when they wrote this piece of course but it definitely applies perfectly here! I find that I make that “mixed tape” collection of fast songs for when I feel the need to play such games, you want good music to go along with it! This song, a couple of Ozric Tentacle tracks, definitely Porcupine Tree, & some Motorhead, Giants of Science and A Helmet of Gnats and I’m good to go!

Don’t Hate Me starts off brilliantly haunting as it slowly builds up its beginnings of a song from the past. Steven’s vocals step in with confidence as solid as it did on the original recording but more mature now giving it a darker presence. Ninet sings the chorus with an angelic refrain of sorrow and release in her voice that emanates from some ancient tome reopened for the first time in centuries. In the middle we’re blessed with a raunchy sax solo that conjures up the first time you heard Pink Floyd’s “Money” and that Dick Parry solo that just shredded your idea of what a Prog rock band should have in it and the jazzier side of Prog makes its way in to your ears. Like with the Floyd, this sax solo is short and bursting with tight crisp notes that languish through like being stabbed repeatedly by its tone of bright but foreboding moodiness. Ninet’s vocals here add such a new level to this song and make it an even darker song with her presence in it and she can clearly make the transition from Israeli pop alternative star to a haunting songstress in the world of Prog. The song never leaves it’s original style and maintains the even keel flow of seductiveness in it like the original. Comparing the two is difficult because they both have their place and what makes it difficult is that it’s Steven Wilson both times! Perhaps there is no comparison but as equals they stand side by side. Clearly though, the new version with Ninet has given an entirely new lease on life for it and has made it a far more robust track. Prior to the sax solo in the original was a flute solo but the 2016 version replaces the flute with synths in a piano-synth mix blend sound. SW getting in touch with his Dark Side of the Moon roots? Post sax solo on both versions we get that subdued section that reminds us again of The Pink Floyd with a segment similar to parts of A Saucerful of Secrets and Echoes before Ninet comes back in to sing the chorus once more and leave us wanting more of her voice only to be silenced by a mild fuzz tone guitar solo by Dave Kilminster that closes out this epic track. Kilminster plays very Floydian himself, he’s had plenty of practice after being on part of Roger Waters’ original Wall tour where I first saw him. I don’t think it was intentional because he played the solo with the same notes as the original but for some reason it has a more ’70’s feel to it which gives it a more timepiece sound that carries it to its finish perfectly.

 

Like with any Steven Wilson album you can’t just walk away with one or two songs, you have to absorb the entire album as a whole experience. This album, 4 1/2 is plenty to absorb and experience time and time again. Here’s to hoping that Ninet will be on future recordings of SW’s as well going on tour with him as a guest singer, full band member or an opening act or all of the above. Sometimes we don’t get to discover artists like her as they are not accepted in the North American market because their music sounds too much like the commercial clap-trap that plagues our airwaves now according to record companies and they get pushed aside and forgotten.But we need to discover these artists and what they have done in their own countries and what they have to offer musically because it’s time we woke up and smelled the rotten airwaves and MTV channels and realize that we are being fed nonsensical noise that’s really not music but more so just a rush of white noise to provide a sound to the background of our lives.

4 1/2 is an album all on it’s own and would have been a full blown album had a few more songs made it on to the track listing but when it comes to the music of Steven Wilson, we take what he gives graciously and without question because it will always be approved by him before it gets to our ears, so with his stamp of approval we have 4 1/2. Enjoy.

 

 

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