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Steven Wilson: To the Bone

John Kelman By

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From the moment that he decided to "go solo"—despite his previous flagship group, Porcupine Tree, beginning in the late '80s as a solo project that only evolved into a group when it became popular enough to necessitate putting together a band in order to perform live—Steven Wilson has, in many ways, defied categorization and expectation, while consistently imbuing his music with a seemingly infinite and richly diverse series of influences.

Wilson is, after all, a true music geek: as big a fan of ABBA as he is Ash Ra Tempel; as into the music of Tears for Fears, Talk Talk and Joy Division as he is King Crimson, Yes and Jethro Tull; someone who holds Pet Shop Boys, Van Morrison and Led Zeppelin in the same high esteem as he does Terje Rypdal, Miles Davis and Ralph Towner; and an avid fan as likely to include Simple Minds, George Duke, Chicago, Aphex Twin, XTC and Michael Mantler in the same playlist as he is Prince, Necro Deathmort, Bert Jansch, Marc Bolan and Shriekback.

Still, Wilson's four-and-half solo albums for Kscope (not including live releases like 2012's Get All You Deserve and 2013's largely live Drive Home)—beginning with Insurgentes through 2015's massively successful concept album, Hand. Cannot. Erase. and 2016's aptly titled 4 1/2—have largely been placed into the category of progressive rock...and for good reason, even though there were plenty of undercurrents from much farther afield to be found on each of them. Albums like 2011's double-disc Grace for Drowning, with its 24-minute epic "Raider II," and 2013 follow-up, the old-school conceptualized and executed The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories), were unequivocally progressive in nature, their complex, often virtuosic complexions harkening back to a time when musicians schooled in other disciplines like classical and jazz music felt the pull to take that training and apply it, somehow, in some way, to a rock context.

But for hardcore progressive rock fans—and even with Wilson announcing that his next album, while still imbued with the remarkable stylistic mashups that have been a significant aspect of his solo work since Insurgentes, would be informed less overtly by classic progressive concerns and more by '80s pop (but undeniably progressive) artists like Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Talk Talk and Tears for Fears—To the Bone may come as a surprise. Moving to a major label and with a new, higher-octane management company ready to take him to the next level, Wilson is taking a significant risk with To the Bone—though, as has been the case throughout his career, there's little doubt that it's a calculated one. Still, with a couple of tunes on Hand. Cannot. Erase. being unequivocal pop, and the 2015 compilation Transience representing a collection of more accessible tunes from his solo albums (aimed at those entering the Wilson world more recently), Wilson's decision to move towards an even more pop-centric direction should not come as a complete surprise.

With an unusual marketing program for To the Bone that saw more than half of the album's tunes made available in streaming format prior to its release—in some cases, months in advance—progressive fans on bulletin boards like the popular Progressive Ears forum were convinced that Wilson was releasing the pop tunes as they represented the album's significant change, and that the unreleased tracks would be more decidedly progressive in nature.

How wrong they were. With ten of To the Bone's eleven songs in the two-to-six minute range, and with only one track long enough to even be considered in the realm of "prog epic"—the nine-minute "Detonation," that largely eschews overt virtuosity, barring guest David Kollar's most impressive guitar solo—To the Bone is as unapologetically pop as The Raven was unabashedly progressive.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Any album should, after all, be assessed for what it is, not for what it isn't. Given Wilson's penchant for bringing together a multitude of diverse influences into a still deeply personal (and recognizable) conception—irrespective of what anyone may choose to call it—To the Bone is an album as expertly crafted as any of Wilson's previous releases, even if there are occasional moments when the music is rawer and less schooled than ever before.

As has been Wilson's habit in recent years, To the Bone is being made available in most currently used formats (CD, vinyl, downloads of various qualities and Blu Ray).

Once again, he has also released another in the series of beautifully crafted deluxe hardcover book editions (sorry, folks, already sold out) that began with Grace for Drowning, which includes: a CD with bonus tracks and demoes; the album on CD and high res media (DVD and Blu Ray, the latter also including an 85-minute "making of" documentary); 125 pages of longtime photographer Lasse Hoile's evocative imagery, photos from the recording sessions, and an interview done over a period of months with scribe Stephen Humphries, as Wilson ultimately shaped the final record; and a 7" single containing a song unavailable anywhere else. If there's any single quibble—and there truly is but one—it's that, while a download key for the album in 16/44.1 CD quality is included in the folder with that single, its bonus track is not included in the downloadable ZIP file; for those who don't do vinyl but have invested in this not-inexpensive box set, that would have seemed the right thing to do.

But back to the music. A pop record To the Bone may well be, but it's one that only Steven Wilson could have—would have—made. The song structures may be (relatively) simpler, the melodies (even) more consistently hummable and the grooves more decided, but the album still draws upon his far-reaching musical tastes for its colors, textures and complexions, ranging from crunching guitars and thundering percussion to string-driven soundscapes, choral beauty and ambient landscapes. As a characteristically dark-hued songwriter—in this case, biting in his condemnation of the times and current events in which he finds himself while, at times, still poignantly melancholic and occasionally spiritual (albeit in a thoroughly non-religious fashion), Wilson has also managed, this time around, to find some surprising positivism—joy, even—on the surprisingly upbeat "Permanating."

Still, from the opening title track, with Jasmine Walkes' spoken word setting, to some extent, the tone for some of Wilson's most topical lyric writing to date—and layered, as it is, over Peter Eckford's percussion before dense chords create the foundation for a sound never before heard on a Wilson album, yet fitting perfectly (Mark Feltham's blues-drenched harmonica)—there's no mistaking this for anything but a Steven Wilson record:

"Once we've made sense of our world we wanna go fuck up everybody else's because his or her truth doesn't match mine. But this is the problem: truth is individual calculation, which means because we all have different perspectives, there isn't just one single truth, is there?"

There may be no single truth in a world of "fake news" and world leaders more interested in chest-thumping than building unity, growth and fair, ethical treatment for all...and there's little doubt that To the Bone will be perceived—and misperceived—with similarly disparate definitions of the truth. Wilson's risk here is, indeed, alienating some of his core constituents: the progressive fans who got him to this place in his career. But based upon his growing and more demographically diverse (and gender-mixed) fan base—especially with the release and tour behind Hand. Cannot. Erase.—there's every chance that To the Bone will net as an overall win for the guitarist, keyboardist, singer, songwriter, producer and engineer.

There's little to nothing in the way of complex meters and virtuosic soloing is kept to a minimum; but when it comes to sonics, overall subject matter and general song construction, the vast majority of To the Bone's sophistication still fits easily within Wilson's larger body of work—a body of work which extends beyond his solo releases and those with Porcupine Tree to Bass Communion, Incredible Expanding Mindfuck, Blackfield, and No-Man. It's an album that has also benefited from lessons learned in his additional production work for artists ranging from Norway's Anja Garbarek and ex-Marillion singer Fish to Swedish progressive metal band Opeth. And there's little doubt that, in addition to his seemingly unfettered musical tastes, To the Bone is also the consequence of Wilson's still-growing discography of surround sound and stereo remixes of classic progressive music from King Crimson, Yes and Jethro Tull to Hawkwind, Gentle Giant, Steve Hackett and Caravan, in addition to more pop-centric bands—all still leaning heavily on the word progressive, but less as a genre and more as a means of articulating individual innovations—that include XTC (whose Andy Partridge contributed the lyrics to To the Bone's title track), Tears for Fears and Simple Minds, as well as other groups like Chicago, Roxy Music and, even, Marillion.

For the first time since putting together a most formidable band to tour Grace for Drowning—initially featuring keyboardist Adam Holzman, woodwind/reed multi-instrumentalist Theo Travis, bassist/stick player Nick Beggs and drummer Marco Minnemann, with a few of guitarists in play before settling on the mind-boggling Guthrie Govan for The Raven and its accompanying tour, but which then went through further lineup changes due to availability and need—Wilson has made a record where there are very few of what were, for the past few years, regularly recurring characters; instead, as a most palpable sign of Wilson's increasing confidence, he contributes a significantly larger percentage of the album's instrumental work on various guitars and keys, bass, programming and choral arrangement... plus, of course, his own voice, which he takes to some places previously unexplored.

Guitarist Dave Kilminster appears solely as backup vocalist on four tunes: the densely layered title track; initially soft, balladic "Nowhere Now," which turns anthemic and harder-rocking midstream, but which remains melody rich; the similarly lyrical "The Same Asylum As Before," where Wilson spends a surprising amount of time in falsetto as the song evolves from near-funk to almost-metal before leaning just a touch towards the jazz world with Holzman's Wurlitzer voicings, and with Wilson contributing everything from gossamer acoustic guitars to gritty electric slide and thundering low register metallics; and the spare but still beautifully evolving closer, "Song of Unborn," which may possess, in the midst of its darker sentiments, some his most hopeful lyrics ever.

Nick Beggs plays bass on just one track: the four-on-the-floor, thumping "Permanating," perhaps the closest Wilson has come to writing a dance floor hit while, at the same time, possessing a few harmonic surprises.

Drummer Craig Blundell contributes kit to just four tunes: in addition to "Song of Unborn," the contrasting hopelessness and optimism of "Pariah," featuring the world-weary Wilson with, back from Hand. Cannot. Erase, Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb as the voice of comfort; the harder-edged, new wave and, perhaps, XTC-inspired "People Who Eat Darkness" that, nevertheless, possesses some unexpected sophistication; and "Song of I," a sparsely constructed duet with Wilson and Swiss-born/Berlin-based singer Sophie Hunger about sexual and emotional obsessions, that builds in its own way and time, thanks to ever-compelling string arrangements from the returning Dave Stewart.

The only constant companion for Wilson, in fact, on almost every track since The Raven has been—and remains—Adam Holzman; but To the Bone provides no real opportunity for the keyboardist to demonstrate the overt instrumental mastery and jazz-centricity that has defined his work with Wilson since first touring with him in 2011. While he's also performed in a strong support role for Wilson (in addition to countless remarkable solos), here this is Holzman's primary function, whether it be the gentle, classically informed pianism of "Song of Unborn" or his broader textural contributions to the title track. But, as always, every note, every color that Holzman adds to Wilson's sonic mix is nothing short of perfection.

Rather than emphasizing past collaborators, To the Bone features a wealth of names new to Wilson's work...though not necessarily new to any who also consider themselves in the same category of "music geek."

Drummer Jeremy Stacey, for example—who has worked with everyone from jazzer Iain Ballamy to Oasis' Noel Gallagher and the current eight-piece lineup of King Crimson (heard recently in Montréal and Toronto, Canada)—drives a total of six tunes, including the title track and "Nowhere Now." He also powers the back-to-back trifecta of "The Same Asylum As Before," the slowly evolving "Refuge"—with its vocal treatments from the hardcore Necro Deathmort; even grittier work from Feltham; and a brief but impressive solo of visceral lyricism from guitarist/co-producer Paul Stacey (Jeremy's twin brother, and collaborator with Oasis and the Black Crowes)—and the buoyant "Permanating." Stacey also lends positive thrust to the album's penultimate, episodic "Detonation," whose orbit approaches Wilson's past albums while still being an irreplaceable component of To the Bone's overall narrative. And if To the Bone doesn't have a specific concept, as did Hand. Cannot. Erase. and The Raven, Wilson's sequencing of the record's eleven tracks absolutely lends it an arc all its own.

Wilson's astute decision to recruit Feltham for two of To the Bone's tracks from a purely musical perspective also creates a direct link to one of the artists he cites as inspiration for a fundamental stylistic shift that, nevertheless, remains unmistakably Wilson. The harmonicist was also a featured guest on three albums by Talk Talk, the '80s group that began in more straightforward synth pop space but, with its third album and first to feature Feltham, The Colour of Spring (EMI, 1986), turned more experimental, intriguing and forward-reaching. Whether or not this was Wilson's intention is irrelevant; direct connection it does, indeed, make.

This may not be progressive with a capital "P," but nor is it—even with the more straightforward "Permanating" and atypical "People Who Eat Darkness"—anything remotely resembling the kind of superfluous pop that seems endemic to these times. It would be hard to imagine a lightweight pop record including a song like "Blank Tapes"—a largely acoustic miniature, again featuring Wilson in duet with Tayeb, that tackles the heartbreak of a relationship's end; nor would it be easy to think of an album of little substance closing with a track as powerfully moving, as utterly beautiful and as sonically spare yet texturally profound as "Song of Unborn." Another classic Wilson tune, "Song of Unborn" possesses a strong emotional kinship with the closers to his last two full-length records: The Raven's hauntingly beautiful and heartbreaking title track; and Hand. Cannot. Erase's transcendent—spiritual, even—"Ascendent Here On..." Featuring some positively celestial choral work from Synergy Vocals—returning for the first time since Grace for Drowning, but also renowned for work with contemporary classical artists like Steve Reich—"Song of Unborn," like much of To the Bone, defies easy categorization...and yet, at its core is, indeed, a balladic pop song.

But it's Wilson's broader expertise, far-reaching musical taste and penchant for writing music that, even when made with greater accessibility in mind, possesses the kind of sophistication and depth that makes his idea of a pop record into something far more substantive. To the Bone represents a number of firsts for an artist who is absolutely looking to grow his audience; in an interview in the current issue of Prog, Wilson makes perfectly clear that he wants to reach a larger audience...and be considered in the same breath as bigger names like Radiohead's Thom York. And why shouldn't he? To the Bone just might be the record to do it.

But, for those who count themselves amongst the progressive rock fans that helped Wilson reach this point in his career, a point of clarity: To the Bone is not a sellout, even if a couple of tracks might seem a tad questionable to some. Instead, it's an unequivocally intelligent pop record, just like the touchstones he has cited; and if it garners him a larger audience while still allowing him to make records this good, then everybody wins.

Track Listing: 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.

Personnel: 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).

Title: To the Bone | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Caroline International


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