Wait long enough and everything old becomes new again. Steven Wilson's career has often seemed like one long exercise in putting that idea into practice. Through at least half a dozen different musical outfits, he's continually borrowed from and paid homage to the vast genre stew of music that's shaped his life, from progressive rock to psychedelia, house, shoegaze, noise/drone, acid folk and much more. Most albums through his solo career have tended to center around one particular niche from decades past while (hopefully) putting his own omnivorous spin on it. This begs some usual questions about the prospect of each new outing: which touchstones is he visiting this time, and how much is he looking backward or forward?
The initially striking thing about To the Bone is how modern it sounds. After the self-consciously retro 1970s art-prog pastiches of Grace for Drowning (KScope, 2011) and The Raven That Refused to Sing (KScope, 2013), he brought in electronics and drum loops with the more dense and eclectic concept piece Hand. Cannot. Erase. (KScope, 2015). This time around, the influences Wilson declares up front are Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Tears for Fears and Talk Talk, specifically their iconic art-pop works of the '80sXTC's Andy Partridge even makes an apt choice of co-writer on two songsand yet, ultimately it's one of his most successful efforts at making his familiar source elements thrive in the present century.
That feeling doesn't quite stay totally consistent throughout; the brief centerpiece "Permanating" bursts in with a chugging new-wave punk beat before mashing up an almost flower-child-ish disco chorus on top. It's an amusing irony that in the most obvious throwback song, the theme is about being present in the moment before experience fades into the past. ("Hold onto the minute / and sing it / and live it / it's always there.") The track also stands out just as much because its defiant positivity seems at odds with the album's more overarching thoughts of worry and paranoia. The affair is clearly inspired by the always-unpredictable state of the world, but mostly tends to avoid dating itself, give or take a mention of Facebook.
The passion behind these themes gives the pieces a gut-level immediacy which often tends to get overlooked in Wilson's cerebral songwriting. Ninet Tayeb's plaintive vocals pack a powerful punch in the couple spots she appears, and using Mark Feltham's harmonica as an electrified solo instrument is particularly inspired. To the Bone ends up as the most catchy-yet-heavy work he's made under his own name (and perhaps ever, comparable only to his early-noughties albums with Porcupine Tree).
There are inevitably a few speed riffs and unison fills scattered around, smoothly handled by a customarily top-notch backing cast (the frenetic space-rock suite of "Detonation" making a powerful highlight). Still, the balance of trickiness and accessibility is handled with impressive successit doesn't have the prog world's all-too-common habit of using odd signatures and complexity just for their own sake. There's more than a little Prince in the mix on top of those abovementioned names, and aside from a questionable falsetto verse, the Purple One's influence may prove to be one of To the Bone's key strengths. Wilson takes the right cues (without outright imitation) in blending gut-level energy with uncompromising smarts, and succeeds most admirably. For a musician who's been stubborn and often obtuse his whole life, he nonetheless sounds more honest and hits more bone-deep than ever.
To the Bone; Nowhere Now; Pariah; The Same Asylum As Before; Refuge; Permanating; Blank Tapes; People Who Eat Darkness; Song of I; Detonation; Song of Unborn.
Steven Wilson: vocals, bass (1-3, 5, 8, 11), keyboards (1-6, 8-10, 11), guitars (3, 5-8, 11), programming (3, 9-11), Mellotron M4000 (7), choir arrangement (11); Jeremy Stacey: drums (1-2, 4-6, 10); Peter Eckford: percussion (1-2, 6, 10), tambourine (8); Adam Holzman: piano (1-3, 5-7, 9, 11), Hammond Organ (1-2, 5-6 ); clavinet (1), Wurlitzer piano (4, 10), Solina Strings (5, 10), Fender Rhodes (8, 10), MiniMoog (11); Mark Feltham: harmonica (1, 5); Ninet Tayeb: backing vocals (1, 4, 6), vocals (3, 7-8); Dave Kilminster: backing vocals (1-2, 4, 11); Jasmine Walkes: voice (1, ); Paul Draper: Oberheim Sequencer (1); Dave Stewart: string arrangements (2, 4, 9-10); Craig Blundell: drums (3, 8-9, 11); Robin Mullarkey: bass (4, 10); London Session Orchestra: strings (4, 9-10); Necro Deathmort: programming (5), vocal treatments (5); Paul Stacey: guitar solo (5); Nick Beggs: bass (6); Sophie Hunger (9); David Kollar: guitars (9), guitar solo (10); Synergy Vocals: choir (11).
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