I have the honour to write a review of one of my favourite artists Steven Wilson. I'm a collector, my collection has more than 160 items with “one way or another” collaborations of this man. Well, I can find myself in the song Index in this case.
This release was again highly anticipated. What will he do? Will it be a worthy successor to Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015, see review)? Will he surprise us? Or disappoint? The prog media was nervous when he announced the release. 4 tracks were officially released before the major release. I think it was too much. Maybe it's the influence of the new record company he signed. One song in particular blew the lid off conservative prog lovers. I read a lot of negative things about Permanating. It was too poppy, it was not Wilson, he “bent the knee” to the commerce etcetera. At first I thought so too. The critics spontaneously forgot the other 3 tracks. Was it tactical? Maybe, but there are still 7 songs left! Whatever Mr. Wilson does, everything seems to explode. And now he tries to reach the big audience! I think he deserves it after 30+ years of hard work.
I think every Background Magazine reader knows about the comments SW gave about these premature critics. And how he defended himself against that. What his inspiration was for this album, and that he just did what he wanted to do. The internet is full of it.
Yes, our Steven is becoming a superstar.
This review is about the boxset that is released. A beautiful book with a huge amount of perfectly shot photographs over 120 pages done by home photographer Lasse Hoile. Also the blog of the road “to the bone” written by Stephen Humphreys is worth reading.
I'll restrict myself to the Blu-ray and the 2nd CD in this set. Although the one sided 7” has another track (Antisocial) that is not released in any other form (they say) is interesting enough to talk about...on the side. Those 3 have all the tracks that are available in this release series for now. The instrumentals on the Blu-ray speak for themselves. It's the same as the CD but SW shuts up. Many critics say he's a moderate singer. So if you don't like his voice this one is ideal for you. (I beg to differ...) Maybe it can be used for backing track if you want to take a shot at Idols or some other disgusting TV programme of that sort.
The excellence of Mr. Wilson is in the mixing of a lot of different music from a lot of different bands that he has been influenced through the years. Maybe I should make a list of all the bands I hear in his songs, it would be long. Pour it over with SW sauce and voila, recognisable but unique music. You can always hear the SW sound, from an obscure production of a Coltsfoot tape to a massive production of the last shows done in the RAH you always hear his touch.
Speaking of mixing. This good chap is also capable of mixing outstanding multichannel tracks. His work is praised and awarded in many ways. If you listen to this Blu-ray in DTS-HD you're in for a treat. Everything matches. All instruments are in sync and blend together to a perfect whole. SW manages to pull you “in” to his music. Brilliantly done.
Starting off with track 1. To The Bone. I could sum up a lot of bands that I hear already in the first 20 seconds of this song. But I'll leave it up to you. Listen to it and it'll amaze you. A nice sounding typical SW track where we know him for. Everything is in the right order. It's just a good song.
Track 2: Nowhere Now could also be on a Blackfield album. Snippets of this song you'll hear all over this album. Easy listening with the right amount of tempo changes to be as “prog” as it can be, but friendly enough. Could be a bit longer...
Track 3. Pariah. It gave me goosebumps. The beauty of this song is absolutely of high level. This song features the voice of the beautiful Ninet Tayeb. Accused of sounding like Brian Adams when the little rough edge in her voice sounds. Total bullcrap, but I personally prefer the softer version of her sound as in the live performance they did in HMV London. No rough edge, more beauty. And then this Porcupine Tree climax! Holy shit! Absolutely stunning.
Track 4: The Same Asylum As Before. SW starts off with his voice in falsetto. Not my cup of tea. It does not fit him well. And it's trying quite hard to be a “sing along song”. The beautiful intermezzo makes up a lot.
Track 5. Refuge is another song that was released earlier. Just a quiet song that sounds magical with a nice climax in the end with a brilliant harmonica sound that reminds you of Talk Talk. SW also uses his high pitched voice on this one. It's debatable.
Track 6. Permanating. The track that was released just before this album came out that shook the prog scene. Yes it's poppy. Yes, I think it's SW's try to score a hit single. With ABBAesque piano's and Beatles sounding passages. Etc. A sticky beat completes the whole to make it an “earworm”. Without losing the prog feeling, it's somehow a perfect tune. For SW standards it's a simple song. But if you analyse it more closely it's surprisingly complex. And I like that in a song.
Track 7. Blank Tapes. The hidden gem of this album. Genesis, Cardiacs. (Cardiacs? You'll have to listen) and the beautiful voice of Ninet. Short but very powerful in its own humble way. Definitely one of my favourites on this album.
Track 8. People Who Eat Darkness. At first you might think,: “SW is trying to make a rock song.” But it gets a complete different angle when the refrain kicks in. The beautiful breakdowns and the voice of Ms. Tayeb make this song undoubtedly beautiful. I absolutely love the use of mellotrons. That's my weakness.
Track 9. Song Of I. Throw Prince and Porcupine Tree in a blender. It was the fourth song that was prematurely released. It shows the versatility of Mr. Wilson. No Ninet, but Spohie Hunger accompanies SW on this song. Nothing wrong with that. One of the songs that features the London Session Orchestra, very subtle indeed.
Track 10. Detonation. The best track (for me) on this album. It's Porcupine Tree. Yes, I can't separate SW from his old band. A song that was criticized by a few fellow colleagues. It was too standard, thrown together, a filler. I don't agree. 9:20 minutes of absolute prog! Ok, I can be critic about one thing. It's too short! Luckily enough the demo version on the second CD exceeds the 10 minute barrier, but it could easily last for 20 minutes. It's great!
Track 11. Song Of Unborn. A beautiful quiet song. It's serene with a beautiful choir arrangement done by Synergy Vocals. The credit of Dave Kilminister will not pass unnoticed as he accompanies the voice of SW just like the great combination with Aviv Geffen. Dave complements SW on other tracks too.
This concludes the main CD/Blu-ray. All in all a beautiful piece of work. It lets you hear SW is perfectly capable of composing music that is out of the (prog) box. I won't criticize him on that. No, I'll praise him for it. I hope he will do it more often but without renouncing his background. I could go on about the politically correctness or criticizing lyrics of this work. But I won't. Undoubtedly SW has put a lot of effort in it. And I can even agree with a lot of his perspectives. These are more than enough discussed about by many others.
The second CD in this boxset contains 10 tracks that are unreleased or demo's that are worth to be released.
It starts off with a nice intro music piece. Also the title of the documentary: Ask Me Nicely. Nothing wrong with some slightly orchestral background music. Followed by A Door marked Summer that would have nicely fitted on the Damnation album of Opeth. Beautiful 7:40 in ¾ . Pariah is missing the beautiful voice of Ninet and lets you listen to a “sort of” unplugged version of this song. It's very modest sounding, but still beautiful. But how I do miss the female vocals. The instrumental version of People Who Eat Darkness lets you hear the beauty of this song in all it's simple complexity.
The 5th track is a rougher version of Refuge. Same asylum is an instrumental demo version. I don't miss the falsetto's. The complete version of Ask Me Nicely is quiet dreamy with some vocoding to give it a more floaty atmosphere that transforms into a slightly messy sounding climax. Northern Cyclonic indeed sounds like an idea that has not been completed. You can hear that some parts are used on various parts on the album.
The demo version of Detonation is less polished than the one on the album. And it just has a bit more. I can't describe it. And it's not only the duration of the track as it passes the 10 minute mark. Yes I'm a little autistic about that. But think every prog album needs at least one track that is 10+ minutes. As I mentioned in the main article, it's a Porcupine Tree song. It has all the ingredients in it to sound like that. It would have been great on The Incident or Fear Of A Blank Planet. And I wonder how it would have sounded with Gavin Harrison on drums. This is a song that will be awesome played live. It leaves so much room for improvisation. The long end part screams for it. Song of Unborn is also the closing track on this CD. It's 1 minute longer than the definitive version. An absolutely stunning song. It has all SW's trademarks in it.
And then there is the 7”". Only released with this stunning boxset. It's single sided and gives us the instrumental track: Antisocial. You can see it as a reprise of People Who Eat Darkness. It's more frivolous. A 3:11 minute feast. Mellotrons, up tempo, Rush, WahWah, psychedelic synths, etcetera. Great!
And then there is the documentary. What is it with documentaries. Is it an insight of the life and works of the artist? Does it give you a view of how To The Bone is made? Or is it simply a film to satisfy the ego of the artist? Lasse Hoile made this short (is 84+ minutes short?) movie about the making of the album. His rough camerawork and distinct lightning reminds me a bit of Anton Corbijn who made a lot of movies with Depeche Mode.
Interviews, insights, a crapload of equipment, many musicians and other people all mentioned in the book are included in this movie. Is it interesting? Maybe. I can't say it's a total waste of time but I won't rate it. I thought it was quite boring.
As A fan of SW I'd give the boxset 5 stars. But as a critic too! My partner hates him. Not for his music but for his high output that tests my credit every time he puts something on the market. I'm an addict and I'd like to have and hear as much as I can afford of his work. Just because I like it. It fits right in the middle of my quite broad taste.
For doubters: Just listen to this album a few times, it'll grow on u. Even Permanating.
*****/*****/***** Erik van Os (edited by Tracy van Os van den Abeelen)
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