Truth is individual calculation.
Still reeling from the fierce grasp Villains took on his life, the young dingus-like reviewer clambered on to the next album.
Yeah, that’s right, chaboi can bust out those all-important narrative skillages when needed, even a bit of third-person, a technique everyone loves. Or I could’ve just sounded like a douche, ahdunno. Even so, it’s undeniable that I am still reeling from the greatness of QOTSA’s last project. However, I found solace in the unlikeliest of places; the new solo record from Steven Wilson? Of Porcupine Tree? A band Reuben loves but I’m not too fussed over? Well, g’damn, let’s see what he thinks of it…
As I literally just said, IF YOU HAD LISTENED, MARK, Steven Wilson found fame as the frontman and overall creative force behind Porcupine Tree, a highly-acclaimed English prog rock outfit known for their complex, intricate compositions. After forming in 1987, the band released 10 albums and subsequently went their separate ways, with a reunion still being on the cards, however. Since then, Wilson has worked with many other artists, such as Opeth and Ian Anderson (of Jethro Tull), as well as a few solo records.
With this, along with Porcupine Tree’s trippy and layered Fear Of A Blank Planet, being the only record I’ve actually heard from Wilson, I was obviously expecting another delve into the deep waters of soundscapes and instrumental labyrinths. Because that’s obviously Wilson’s forte, so that’s definitely what he’ll do, right??? RIGHT??!!
Well, when I was greeted with the opening passage, from which the tagline above is a quote, of the titular opening track, To The Bone, I was definitely led to believe we were in for another spacey-atmospheric big boy album from Wilson. However, as the lead vocals kicked in, which are supported by an almost jungle-like groove (the bongos helped) and some tasty guitars, I knew then and there that this album was gonna have a catchy essence to it, and I was not mistaken. It is the aforementioned guitars on this track that run through, attracting my attention like a magnet, while those damn bongos and some funky bass shiz was going down, making for alternative rock song with the dense layers of prog. From the immediate offset, I like what Steve’s doin’.
That being said, funnily enough, it’s the second track, Nowhere Now, that probably stands out as one of my least favourite in the listing. While, on the face of it, the song doesn’t really have any definingly awful features, I don’t think I’m a fan of the particular chord structure or lyricism Wilson brings to the table. However, the song has grown on me slightly thanks to the complex drum fills that make a stark appearance in the back half of the song.
BUT, THEN, the album messes with my melon to an even further extent by introducing might be one of my favourite songs on the entire album in Pariah. The strengths here lie in exactly what didn’t work for the track before it; the beautiful musicality and mezmerizing vocal performances. The light piano chords dance Beauty And The Beast-style on an extremely subtle electronic beat, while guest vocalist Ninet Tayeb, who makes a number of appearances on the record, blows me away with her admittedly-Bonnie-Tyler-esque but nonetheless stunning, soulful voice. As the song progresses, there’s a shimmering crescendo in the cymbals akin to the glitter raining from the sky as Wilson closes the song brilliantly. I feel all the feelings when listening to it, an uncommon sensation for a
sociopa “awkward person” like myself… *ahem*…
Then, directly after that, Stevie Wills comes in with another classic with Same Asylum As Before. Balancing the grandiose strings with rough-around-the-edges guitar leads for a mind-bender of an experience, Wilson delivers one of the best hooks of his career (of which I have little) here, giving the song a really unexpected pop appeal. This also stands out as one of my favourite tracks on the record thanks to this and the overall light but layered alt rock edge, despite Wilson’s falsetto vocals putting a slight damper to the whole ting.
These falsettos also make a slight appearance in another song I’m not overly keen on, final single Refuge. This is an example of when you have a solid skeleton to a song, but you dress it all wrong. Yes, that rhymed, I’m as proud of me as you are. When you take the dipply-wobs and frilly-wiggles, Wilson’s songwriting on this thing is surprisingly strong, with the core progressions being very melodic and keeping in suit with the rest of the album rather nicely. BUT THE HARMONICA SOLO DIDN’T. OH HELL NO IT DIDN’T. H-HE PUT SOME GRATING HI-HAT, PONCY PRODUCTION AND A CHEAP, LYING, NO-GOOD, ROTTEN, FOUR-FLUSHING, LOW-LIFE, SNAKE-LICKING, DIRT-EATING, INBRED, OVERSTUFFED, IGNORANT, BLOOD-SUCKING, DOG-KISSING, BRAINLESS, DICKLESS, HOPELESS, HEARTLESS, FAT-ASS, BUG-EYED, STIFF-LEGGED, SPOTTY-LIPPED, WORM-HEADED SACK OF MONKEY SHIT HARMONICA SOLO ON THIS BITCH. HALLELUJAH! HOLY SHIT!
But that’s just my opinion.
It’s a good thing, then, that Steve brings out another banger with penultimate single Permanating. From the get-go, the song has a good pace to it, with some bouncy piano and bass-ery to match. This is also one of the only songs on the album where I thought Wilson’s falsetto was actually quite appropriate. It’s a real break from some of the more complex stuff on the album, with a groovy beat where you can just have a bit of dance really. And you know I like to dance.
And whadda ya know, we’ve got another great one, in no small part thanks to another appearance from Ms. Tayeb. In Blank Tapes, we have the shortest song on the album, clocking in at just over 2 minutes. That being said, it remains a really lovely, not as beautiful as Pariah, but just as lovely, piece of work. Perhaps one of my favourite piano pieces on an album full of great piano pieces, the musicality of Wilson is one full display here, with the sparce but, somehow, full instrumental seeming to stretch way longer than just 2 minutes. And, of course, Tayeb’s vocals here are, yet again, a beauty to behold and showcase a talent I can’t wait to explore further when I dive into her solo discography.
But the bite comes back in People Who Eat Darkness. From the profane opening line, it’s evident that we’re gonna be treated by something without the same broodingly beautiful atmosphere, as the skittish drumming and bouncy bass soon proves. I think my favourite part about this track though, is the guitar melody, slithering through the song like a snake made out of prog-flavoured jelly after a healthy helpful of Dominican disco dust, especially the mini-solo that sounds straight out of Tom Morello’s Guide to Guitars Not Actually Sounding Like Guitars, I Know, Crazy, Right?
After that, we have third single Song Of I. Featuring Swiss jazz singer Sophie Hunger, the song features a great vocal melody, with the backing vocals in particular (provided by Hunger) being the perfect balance of subtle and noticeable. However, apart from a slight string arrangement in the middle of the song, I don’t feel like it really goes anywhere, kinda drifting, nonchalantly, from the start-to-end point. This is probably one of the only times on the album where I’m disappointed with Wilson’s arrangement and structuring ability.
Following this, we have the longest song on the album, clocking in at just over nine minutes, Detonation. Undoubtedly a return to Porcupine Tree-levels of prog-infused jamming, the song’s loose structure makes it ripe for improvisation but also contains a number of musical landmarks to keep in mind. I dunno why that last sentence kinda sounded like a lesson, oh well, we’ll all move on and just say that I am the ultimate music writer, literally ever. Anywhom’st’ve, the song has strong spine to it nonetheless, and the multiple elements layering on top of each other, like some kind of aural tiramisu, make for a very detailed and engaging listen.
Finally, the closer to album, Song Of Unborn, is without a doubt the slowest on the album. Following very particularly to the melodic theme of the album, with similar instrumental motifs to earlier tracks, like Pariah and Blank Tapes, the song holds a number of fine, delicate pieces from the piano and guitar, going to together like cocaine and waffles (extra points if you can name that reference). It does build, musically, to brilliant finale and does serve as top notch closer to the album.
The production, by Wilson and engineer Paul Stacey (who did a little bit of Oasis but none of the big stuff), suits the musical style really well. I’m particularly impressed with the mixing the guitar leads. Usually what you get with guitars is that they whore the attention of the listener and little thought is put into shifting the volume around and, while they’re still grabbing, here there is evidentally a lot more thought put into it, with the layering melodies playing with the volumes and intertwining over and through each other. The ethereal sense of atmosphere, seen in earlier Porcupine Tree efforts like Blank Planet is still here, at least in spirit anyway, with little sound effects and dipplywobs serving as familiarities in the mix. All in all, a sterling job indeed.
Overall, Steven Wilson’s fifth and latest solo record To The Bone sees the Porcupine Tree mastermind delve a bit closer to the surface for something no less complex but much more accessible. While there are some surefire inconsistency issues, especially in the first half of the album, and a goddamn motherf*cking harmonica solo (there’s a reason they’re only played in prison), this album also contains some of my favourite tracks of the year. Not just that, but To The Bone also packed that surprise factor punch in that it turned out to be really groovy at points. This album has definitely sparked some interest in what Wilson has done in the past, and hopefully it’s a smidgen as good.
BEST TRACKS: Pariah, Same Asylum As Before, To The Bone, Permanating, Blank Tapes, People Who Eat Darkness
WORST TRACKS: Refuge, Song Of I, Nowhere Now
Lots of hugs, kisses and lacerations
3 thoughts on “To The Bone – Steven Wilson (2017) – Review”
A really phenomenal review Milo! You write so well, and it’s always a pleasure to read your reviews. I was not very familiar with Steven Wilson, but I’m impressed with his compelling music.
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Really big thank you for the comment! I’m not so knowledgable about the guy myself, but I too was impressed with the record. 🙂
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