Tag Archives: Steven Wilson

Art pop A.D.

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More by accident than design: now there’s a cliché; in music as in life. A happy accident occurred mere weeks ago, when noted British singer-songwriter, Steven Wilson lost his voice at a New York gig and back-up singer Ninet Tayeb stepped up to the plate to perform all his parts on a one-off rendition of his last, flawed album Hand. Cannot. Erase. Happy because said album was written in Wilson‘s imagination from the perspective of a female protagonist; and the aforementioned flaw is mostly, if not entirely the lack of authentic female voice. I can’t vouch for any improvement re Tayeb‘s rendition, only imagine it myself based on her contribution to the Brighton gig I attended: bluntly, she stole the show – and this on the back of three songs, including a fantastic take on Space Oddity.

There’s nothing accidental about Confessions Of A Romance Novelist, the latest release from Catherine Ann Davies – aka The Anchoress. It’s a concept album of sorts, and artful in the best way; pulling the prog trick of drawing together disparate styles, moods and time signatures into a cohesive whole.

Long Year recalls Morcheeba’s swampy trip hop; Popular invokes Kate Bush; p.s. Fuck You is smooth R’n’B with biting lyrics not quite disguised by perfectly understated delivery; Bury Me resembles nothing so much as Amy Lee – of Evanescence fame – in balladic mode; Chip On Your Shoulder is a bit Ladyhawke…

It’s wistful, confessional, soulful and angry by turns, gripping from start to finish.

Co-writer’s – Mansun‘s – Paul Draper‘s* hand is all over Confessions…, but unlike – the aforementioned – Wilson, he seems happy to play second fiddle. He contributes characteristic melodic sense to his duet, You and Only You, as well as instrumentation and production thruout, but never gets in the way of Davies‘ story.

As accessible, female-led art pop goes, this is up there with Alanis Morissette‘s – criminally-underrated ‘difficult sophomore’ –  Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie; Paula Cole‘s – raw, incandescent debut, This Fire and Janelle Monae‘s Metropolis twofer.

Check in with the anchoress and order the album:

https://www.facebook.com/theanchoress/

*Draper’s first solo . If it’s a patch on Attack Of The Grey Lantern and Six we’ll be in for a treat

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Cremin of the crop

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Mere months after his return to album action, Musician and producer, Paul Mex is back again with a new release, Guilty Fist, that he describes as ‘the first record … since 1989 that (he’s) reasonably happy with‘. Personally, I was more than happy with Dr Jekyll and Mrs Hyde; and whilst much of what appealed to me about that record is present and correct here, this is a release with more layers and richer texture, both musically and lyrically.

Performance poet, Bernadette Cremin, who also contributed vocals to …Jekyll… had taken the driving seat this time around, enlisting Mex to complement a collection of mostly spoken word pieces with individual soundtracks. It’s a collaboration along the lines of Steve Hogarth and Richard Barbieri’s Not The Weapon But The Hand, a lyrical/musical split that hinges on a personal and musical sympathy.

For argument’s sake one might discern three intertwining threads amongst the nine tracks on offer: the album begins and ends with purely-instrumental pieces, created by Mex. High Ceiling has a somewhat perfunctory intro feel: affecting in and of of itself, albeit lacking any obvious connection to the following track….

….Mosaic Revisited sounds as though it was conceived during the …Jekyll… sessions: a swaggering, guitar and drums-driven number, over which Cremin lays a smokey drawl. It has an improvised, stream of consciousness feel that my head just nods along to unbidden, in a cool way. Along with Beat and the title track, it’s the most ‘rock’ sounding thing; though the aforememtioned are respectively lighter and more funk-flavoured; and slower with a grungy feel. Mex’s long-term friend and ex-Porcupine Tree player, Colon Edwin guests on Beat, and it’s a compliment when I say he leaves his personality behind in service to the track, contributing only groove (by contrast to a long-ago Liane Caroll gig which her bassist husband nearly ruined by wanking all over it).

Growing Pains and Fruit for Rumours foreground (Cremin‘s) words more overtly. The music accentuates meter and bolsters the narrative without getting in the way. Exactly.

(Closer) Sad on the other hand (another Mex instrumental) is both affecting and effective, with subtle musical and emotional sophistication: it picks up on the sombre mood of preceding track Poetry (my favourite song on the album, synth-sax and all…) and ruminates unto sleep.

Having recently reviewed, and to a point, enjoyed, Steven Wilson‘s latest; I couldn’t help but be minded at times of that album, trailer single Perfect Life in particular. Superficially, the similarity is pronounced – a woman narrating aspects of her life over moody, electro-rock soundscapes – and there’s more than a passing resemblance between Cremin‘s vocal and Katherine Jenkins‘, a similar casual affectation belying emotive, subject matter. What slightly disappointed me about that album is showcased somewhat more effectively here, however: a sense of an authentic female voice. Wilson is a sensitive, imaginative man; but a man, nonetheless. And though the musical accompaniment is more rigid, less syncopated and ethereal, my second point of reference is Ursula Rucker: there’s a similar understated passion and grit in Cremin‘s delivery. Whether Guilty Fist is a ‘concept album’ per-se I’m not sure, but as Sad winds to a close, I’m left with a sense of catharsis, of a chapter (in her life’s) ghosts laid to rest.

Poigant and elegiac, and powerful stuff.

And the Wilson track, by way of comparison:

Style. Over. Substance.

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One step forward and three steps back…

The slow arrival of a new Steven Wilson record has established itself as an event to be savoured: the guy set the bar high from the off; before the off, even, if one factors in his musical pedigree as bandleader – Porcupine Tree – and collaborator – numerous. The Tree‘s output has been variously rewarding, if rarely less than interesting, Bass Communion and Blackfield have mostly left me cold. Never, though, could one accuse Wilson of being lazy, unimaginative or of taking anything for granted. Each successive release has broken ground that is, at least for him as writer and performer, new.

By contrast, Hand. Cannot. Erase. shapes up as something of a throwback; a project in the same vein as PT‘s ultimate release (The Incident, back in 2009) an ugly, overwrought, heterogenous; if not entirely unrewarding collection. Much like the granddaddy of prog rock operas, Pink Floyd‘s 1979 opus, The Wall, it played as something less than the sum of its occasionally considerable parts. In both cases one might feel justified in feeling surprised and a little let down: both bands had previous for handling the form (concept album; rock opera – call it what you will) with applomb: Animals and Fear Of a Blank Planet are both masterpieces in this writers’ opinion.

Perfect Life sounded rightaway to me as close to the ghost of PT as Wilson has sailed since his solo voyage began in earnest (let’s not forget that the former began as himself-in-bedroom-studio, sans backing band). Not that it sounds quite like that band, but the mood of the track, its apparent ‘interlude’ quality harks back to the piecemeal feel of The Incident. In that sense it’s quite a departure from his recent solo and collaborative output. As far back as Grace For Drowning and Storm Corrosion, Wilson has been favouring texture and exploration over narrative. The Raven…. signposted a move back in the opposite direction…

And so it is with H.C.E. as a complete statement. The allusions to Dreams of a Life* as the seminal inspiration might lead one to believe that this is a flowing, seamless storyteller of a record: it’s none of those things.

It really doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with Vincent‘s, or any woman’s life. Whilst there are pretty (and hummable) melodies scattered thruout, and fragments of a story, the overarching juxtaposition of brooding atmospheres and jagged shards of aggression contrives to create an air of decidedly masculine indulgence.  Wilson, one feels is coolly observing the pain of Vincent and others like her without offering the listener much by way of understanding or insight. It is, to The Incident, what Queensryche‘s Operation Mindcrime II was to its antecedent, in a way: more of the same, without the heart or the commitment. Not since Michael Rutherford‘s treatment of (Peter Currell Brown‘s) Smallcreep’s Day has a musical interpretation fallen so far short of justice to the written word.

Interestingly, Wilson recently spoke of the possibility of a PT reunion with Prog magazine,

“I would have to say to the guys, ‘Look, there’s no point in me writing the material. If I were to do that I might as well do it for a solo record. Let’s try writing together, or writing in partnerships.”

…Which sounds, in a roundabout sort of a way – and factoring in also his scaling back work with NoMan and Blackfield – like he feels the well is running dry for him as a writer. His most notable work of late has been as go-to-guy for remix work for the likes of King Crimson, Jethro Tull and XTC; as interpreter of others’ work. It would be refreshing to hear the results of a more fully-collaborative incarnation of PT, if this is where following his current muse is taking him.

Offering up such a seemingly comprehensive slagging kinda behoves me, I think, to point up what is right about H.C.E. The title track is a successful detour into accessible pop-rock, rightly-compared in a Prog review to mid-period Manic Street Preachers. Adam Holzmann (keyboards) gives of his best in a sublime solo spot in Regret #9, an exceptional moment on an album where Wilson‘s crack unit rarely get a chance to bring their indisputable virtuosity to the fore. And Wilson (and KScope) shine as never before in the packaging stakes: the box-set is a beautiful thing, showcasing wonderful attention to detail with its myriad artful photographs, collages and inserts (courtesy of Lasse Hoile and Hujo Meuller). There’s a wealth of extra material for conisseur/geek; including album demos and visuals on dvd and Blu Ray.

If you’re a fan of Wilson‘s work over the last two-or-so-decades, there’s much here to enjoy – it’s as much ‘signature Wilson’ as ever – with the caveat that returns appear to be turning in the direction of diminishing, as opposed to accruing; which isn’t what one feels his departure from PT et al in favour of ‘solo’was supposed to about.

*p.s. if you live in the Brighton area, Dreams of a Life is being screened as part of the 2015 Brighton Festival.

 

 

Cusp of release… almost.

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In case you missed the memo, Opeth are due a new album in a couple months and are now trailing it with Cusp of Eternity, track two from Pale Communion:

The full tracklist is as follows (see Prog magazine for more)

  1. Eternal Rains Will Come
  2. Cusp of Eternity
  3. Moon Above, Sun Below
  4. Elysian Woes
  5. Goblin
  6. River
  7. Voice of Treason
  8. Faith in Others

On this song alone, it’s hard to ascertain if Mikæl Åkerfeldt and co have made good on their promise of a record both, ‘more melodic’ and ‘darker and heavier’ than Heritage. In the vein of The Devil’s Orchard which trailed the latter, it purveys a slightly streamlined, sanded-down version of the classic Opeth sound – rich in characteristically-sombre melody, albeit shorn of the ‘Marmite’ growls – which walks a fine line between satisfying long-time fans and signposting a sound with broader rock appeal. On the strength of …Orchard, critics might have been forgiven for concluding Opeth had recorded their ‘Black Album‘, The reality turned out somewhat differently, as we now know: Heritage may be markedly less brutal, yet every bit as challenging for that: tracks like I Feel The Dark and Famine were never likely to trouble daytime radio listeners’ ears, never mind set fists-a-pumping in stadiums.

To my ears Cusp… would have sat quite comfortably on Heritage, had it been recorded at the time. Sure, the guitars are a little crunchier-sounding but the song is still recognisably a member of the same extended family of songs sired by Åkerfeldt and Steven Wilson during that fruitful period from 2010-12 which also includes Storm Corrosion and Grace For Drowning. One might even look back as far as 2008 and Mellotron Heart for signs that times were a-changing in camp Opeth. If that moody, idiosyncratic prog rock niche is your thing, Pale Communion is likely to be more music to your ears: Opeth fans of yore, yearning for a return to throat – and ear – shredding growls are liable to be further disappointed.

Red alert

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Frippin’ ‘eck, just when ‘comeback’ shows on the part of artists ‘of a certain vintage’ were in danger of becoming passé…

The same year that The Strolling Bones resurrected the ghost of their famed 1969 Hyde Park gig (by way celebrating of the band’s 50th anniversary) sees the latest, unexpected call to arms for arguably the most important, celebrated support act on that bill. Crimson had yet to make their recorded debut when they joined Family, Roy Harper, Alexis Korner and others to set the stage for that legendary Woodstock-inspired festival line-up; they secured their place on the strength of a club buzz that gained the approbation of the cream of ’60s rock talent including Pete Townsend, Bowie and Hendrix.

When In The Court of The Crimson King surfaced later in ’69, it, to quote oftentimes Crimson percussionist Bill Bruford, ”…signalled the emergence of the mature progressive rock style…” and its (the album’s and the band’s) influence has been felt and appreciated ever since by several generations of aspiring art rockers including Genesis, Nick Cave, Tool, Doves, Between The Buried And Me and Dutch Uncles. Crimson has only convened to record and tour but sporadically over the intervening years and, Bob Fripp aside, the band membership has been in more-or-less constant flux and yet in spite – or perhaps because – of this, and enhanced by its membership’s extensive and diverse repertoire – there’s scant sign of its creativity becoming stale. It’s arguably retained its freshness and credibility better than any other exponent of the prog era.

The band for the upcoming shows is yet to be fully confirmed but Fripp‘s latest online diary update reveals “…[t]he Seven-Headed Beast of Crim is in Go! mode…”, and names session veteran William ‘Bill’ Rieflin – best know for his stints with Ministry and REM but also a former Fripp collaborator – and hints that oftentimes Crimson stick-man Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel, Paula Cole, ABWH, Liquid Tension Experiment, Steven Wilson) is also on board.

One ostensible indicator of Rieflin‘s suitability for inclusion in the re-vamped line-up is his proven ability to lay down a tight groove in concert with a drumming partner; as evidenced by his position in an early incarnation of the Ministry touring band alongside PIL‘s Martyn Atkins (see below): for this writer, one of the most exhilarating pieces of rock concert footage ever committed to tape

But who are the other possible contenders for this according to Fripp ‘…very different reformation to what has gone before…’?

Completing the 4-strong English contingent alongside Fripp – maybe Porcupine Tree‘s Gavin Harrison (d) and Steven Wilson (g/v), and Jakko M. Jacszyk (g/v)? Harrison sparred with Pat Mastellotto (below) on the Crim‘s last stage outing and both Wilson and Jaczsyk have developed strong working relationships with Fripp thru studio projects in the last few years. There’s an outside possibility that Fripp may have tempted Bill Bruford (p) out of retirement, or John Wetton (b/v) back into the fold; or maybe decided to bring horns back into the mix: Theo Travis‘ star has certainly been rising over the last few years, considering his prolific collaborations with the likes of Wilson, Gong, the revitalized Judy Dyble and others.

On the American side, take your pick from Crimson veterans Pat Mastellotto (d), Trey Gunn (g/b) and Adrian Belew (g/v/d) plus the aforementioned Rieflin and Levin. Then again, one Michael Portnoy (d) has been busily pursuing a number of avenues since his parting of the ways with prog giants Dream Theater (unlikely, granted; but you know he’d kill for the job…) and Tool‘s Danny Carey must have a little time on his hands waiting for Maynard to write the next batch of lyrics; has been showing his Jazz rock bent of late and has previously played with Crimson on a double headline tour a few years back (the two bands being mutually-appreciative of the other’s gifts).

Buuuut… enough idle speculation already. Play mix’n’match to your heart’s content Crim-heads. Sufficed to say I’m excited about this (can you tell?). I’ve never seen this band live so here’s hoping I’m able to pick up tickets when the shows are announced.

In the meantime here’s a little reminder or several of Fripp & co.’s previous genius…

plus a couple affectionate tributes…

Amplified (to the power of 4)

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Like the best of today’s ‘prog’, Amplifier have never really been prog. Part dirty-ass Zeppelin stomp, part early-Verve sprawling dreamadelica, minus the latter band’s annoying tendency to implode acrimoniously between every other song. That said, a little ‘creative tension’ can serve to freshen the creative punch-bowl, as it were: four albums and a slew of EPs into their career, Ashcroft and crew were still sounding vital and full of ideas: Forth is as good as anything in their oeuvre. Zep. Four. Nuff. Alas, the same cannot be said for the Amp boys this time around.

Don’t get me wrong, Echo Street isn’t a terrible album by any means, it’s just that it has the unenviable task of succeeding an amazing one, and suffers for it. The Octopus is that rarest of beasts; a double-disc opus which, if not quite wall-to-wall brilliance, is worth hearing from start to finish. At a little over half the length, this album is at times an uphill slog, too rarely rising above the pedestrian. Whilst the addition of Steve Durose (ex-Oceansize) on second guitar and harmony vocals adds nuance and depth, particularly in quieter moments, the fundamental problem is that musical ideas are somewhat thin on the ground this time around. It’s a rather low-key affair, rarely approaching 11 in either pace or volume: the title track a case in point; harping on for six minutes without ever really getting going. Paris In the Spring is pleasingly infused with a Wilson-esque melancholy, though at nearly nine minutes could also benefit from tightening up. Album trailer, Matmos (see below) is perhaps the best thing on here – though the extra minute-long fade-in left off the ‘single’ edit adds nothing – along with Where The River Goes. Both follow a proven balladheavy bitback to ballad arc. Between Today and Yesterday is a pleasant, wistful acoustic interlude and as such stands out from the rest of the album; as does The Wheel: with it’s bass and drum (as opposed to drum’n’bass) groove and spacey feel it’s perhaps the closest thing to The Octopus on here.

Despite some good songs, Echo Street feels somewhat too loose and directionless, perhaps because the songs were developed in a short time thru jams, and doesn’t really cohere as an album. Changing up the pace with something groovier and harder-rocking, along the lines of Interstellar or The Consultancy would have helped.

Listeners who pre-ordered the limited 60-page digi-book version are better served on two counts: firstly because the packaging – designed by frontman Sel Balamir – is handsome indeed, but mostly because the inclusion of the Sunriders EP raises the overall standard of songsmithery several notches. The relative brevity of the four songs work in their favour: where Extra Vehicular is flabby and meandering, the likes of Sunriders and Close manage to sound both epic and dynamically-satisfying. Equally, if not more important, the band sound like they’re enjoying themselves on this disc. I’d actually have been happy with just the EP, but since it doesn’t appear to be on sale separately I wholeheartedly recommend forking out the extra £6 for the digi-book from the new Amplifier site (assuming it hasn’t sold out already) and they’ll even sign it for you if you’re lucky. Upcoming tour dates can also be found on that page.

Sadly I’ve not managed to catch the band live this time around but there’s a review of what I missed to be found here.

Worth raven about

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This third album from British singer/songwriter, Steven Wilson is anything but difficult. Following two-plus decades establishing his reputation primarily thru the rise and rise of his Porcupine Tree project, the Hertfordshire-based musician seems to be on a roll: a meeting of minds with Stockholm metal innovator, Mikael Åkerfeldt has prised open a creative seam characterized by an ability to juxtapose pure pop craftsmanship with the sonically-challenging. That they both share a love of ’60s folk rock, avant-garde pop and bedroom troubador melancholy is the key to the astonishing series of albums that they have – individually and collectively – produced since 2009, including Opeth‘s Heritage, Storm Corrosion‘s eponymous debut and Wilson‘s last solo outing, Grace for Drowning. They make dense, multi-layered records that are more accessible than they reasonably ought to be, yet pull no imaginative punches. If you were lucky enough to get hold of one of the 5000 special edition pre-orders, your listening experience will be enhanced by a beautiful 10″ hardback volume including Wilson-penned expositions of the six ghost stories accompanying each song, plus studio demos and assorted multimedia gubbins. His select but dedicated audience eat this stuff up and the £40 I paid for it before Xmas last year seems like a snip for such quality product.

The cast of characters behind the scenes is the latest incarnation of Wilson‘s touring band from the Grace For Drowning dates: keyboardist Adam Holzman, stick-man, Nick Beggs, Marco Minnemann on drums and guitars by Guthrie Govan. Whilst Wilson entered the studio with songs sketched out to a high level of detail, it was always his intention to let the final versions reveal themselves thru live-in-the-studio chemistry between the band members. Their essence is ably-captured by studio veteran Alan Parsons behind the console, the latter invited to the party by Wilson on the strength of his work with Pink Floyd in the ’70s.

The Raven… is definitely closer to Grace… than Insurgentes, as one might expect given the band-driven approach: there’s much more of the long-form symphonic mode of composition showcased within Raider II and Remainder the Black Dog, though whilst the dynamics are as varied as ever, the transitions are smoother and more organic. The more jarring left-hand turns of the first two albums have evolved, for the most part, into mood shifts that feel more intuitive, though no less dramatically-satisfying, and the juxtaposition of conventional rock/pop with heavy, grey, emotionally-dense dronescapes is conspicuous in its absence, along with the Darkwave-influenced feel of much of Insurgentes.

Opening cut, the 11-min Luminol will already be familiar to most Wilson aficianados: a live recording has been in circulation for a while. The urgent, drum and bass-driven intro has rightly been compared to vintage Yes, and it, especially the ‘Tempus Fugit’ harmony vocal does feel a little derivative. Cleverly, though, just when you feel you know where the song is headed, the clanging bass and distorted keyboards give way to a shuffling, slow, jazzy section that, melodically and in mood is the closest Wilson strays to his PT years, In Absentia/Deadwing period specifically. Like the other long-form compositions on this album, it’s full of nuance and dynamism, pulls the listener in from the off and there’s no sense of it outstaying its welcome. The pace picks up again for a climax that recycles and resolves the opening motifs.

The Holy Drinker is a fitting centrepiece for the record, seguing thru multiple movements that showcase the talents of each musician, most especially Holzman: he really owns this song with some seriously dark and dirty keyboard parts. They anchor the song thru its twisty ten-minute journey even as guitar and sax fly off into the ego ether.

Drive Home and the title track embody the kind of rich, aching melancholy that has long been a staple of Wilson‘s ouevre. Both benefit from string arrangements which lift them to a level that his work with PT only hinted at, and whilst the former explodes into a soaring, wheeling guitar work out, the latter develops more gradually, building denser, rounder layers of orchestration, accented by strategically-placed notes on flute and piano. There’s more than a passing resemblance to Radiohead‘s Pyramid Song, a piece that Wilson has in the past described as ‘devastatingly beautiful’. Such approbation is apt here too. The elegiac tone is leavened with a sweetness never so fully realized before in Wilson‘s work: it’s a perfect end to the album. Released as a trailer shortly before the album, it’s accompanied here by an animation by Jess Cope, whose work also accompanied Storm Corrosion‘s Drag Ropes.

In short, this is Wilson‘s best album to date. He has pared back his writing to develop his own strength as a songwriter and composer, whilst simultaneously – in a manner akin to Miles and other jazz-rock greats – thrown open the doors and invited in the cream of contemporary talent to more fully realize the potential of his ideas. If certain of Wilson‘s long-time followers mourn the apparent stagnation of PT, I for one, would be intrigued by the possibility that he might at some point reconvene that band with this new-found sense of artistic freedom. What sets The Raven… apart is his ability to assimilate a multiplicity of creative modes in pursuit of better harnessing and refining his own unique vision. A new PT that similarly unleashed the approaches of – in particular – Edwin and Barbieri would be a fearsome beast indeed. In the meantime I don’t miss that band at all: this one is just too good, and it’s tempting to believe that its potential remains scarcely tapped. It’s a supergroup in all but name, and The Raven… has barely taken off.