Steven Wilson is one of the most prolific and talented rock musicians active today. The frontman and driving engine for modern progressive rock icons Porcupine Tree and collaborator in the melancholy rock group Blackfield, he also is developing a strong solo career and even found time recently to remix five vintage King Crimson albums for their deluxe reissue editions. Indeed, in the last two years the singer/multi-instrumentalist has been heard on the P-Tree concept album The Incident, the Blackfield CD Welcome To My DNA and two solo releases (Insurgentes and the forthcoming Grace For Drowning, due out September 27th), not to mention various live releases and the Insurgentes film. (There’s also the Storm Corrosion project on the horizon, and he mixed Opeth’s new CD.) Most impressive is the fact that these are quality releases, each with their own distinct stamp and place in his musical universe, not simply an excuse to pump out a plethora of product into an overcrowded music marketplace.
Heading into the first listening session for Grace For Drowning yesterday in Studio B at Avatar Studios in NYC, I knew that this was going to be Wilson’s most ambitious musical project to date. While Porcupine Tree’s The Incident centered on a 55-minute musical suite, his second solo album is a double-disc affair spanning twelve tracks over more than 80 minutes, mixed in 5.1 surround sound onto Blu-ray and featuring video accompaniment for nearly every track from director Lasse Hoile. Wilson’s solo work is part of a musical continuum that showcases his different sides: Blackfield focuses on simpler three and four minute tunes; Porcupine Tree create more complex structured yet accessible progressive music that breaks the genre mold; his solo albums, particularly the new one, embrace a more experimental approach that expands his music into deeper, darker and now more psychedelic realms. The three projects ultimately represent the many different aspects of Wilson’s musical personality.
Grace For Drowning features a bevy of talented musos: bassists Tony Levin, Nick Beggs and Trey Gunn (also on Warr Guitar), sax, flute and clarinet player Theo Travis, drummer Nic France and keyboardist Jordan Rudess, among others. A London string orchestra and a choir were employed for some tracks and arranged by Dave Stewart. The music is jazzier and more free-flowing than Insurgentes or anything by Porcupine Tree or Blackfield. Upon hearing the entire album, I thought of influences like Brian Eno, Gong, Univers Zero and King Crimson. Wilson certainly concurred with the latter two. he loves them both.
An important distinction with Grace For Drowning is that the heavy parts that would be played in a metal style on a P-Tree release have a different flavor here, particularly as a lot of the sounds on Wilson’s second solo effort are not produced by guitars. “I think [with] the metal thing for me, the party’s over,” Wilson admitted to A.D.D. following the afternoon listening session. “I’m kind of bored with it. It’s interesting that you mention Univers Zero, because that’s a band that creates heavy music with acoustic instruments. It’s really heavy, it’s not pretend heavy. A lot of metal is not really very heavy at the end of the day because it’s very textured music; but really dark [non-metal] music [can be], things like Univers Zero, Art Zoyd and early King Crimson with a lot of woodwinds. The guitar really is not the instrument creating the heaviness on this [solo] record. There’s very little guitar on it at all. There’s a lot of keyboards, woodwinds, percussion, drums, choir and orchestra — there’s a very wide palette of sounds on this record, but the overall feeling is one of darkness for sure. I suppose that does come from the Crimson thing. Insurgentes was very much routed in my love of ’80s post-punk music, which is what I was listening when I was making that record — Joy Division, The Cure, Cocteau Twins. This record is completely coming from my love of early ’70s progressive music, but particularly the fusion of rock music and jazz music. The important thing about this record is that it’s jazz musicians largely playing rock music.”
Despite its epic running length, Grace For Drowning is an immersive listening experience. The album does not feel sprawling or overly long, although admittedly listening in a professional recording studio with large speakers and a killer 5.1 surround system made it easy to get lost in the sonic sea that poured over the journalists present. But the proof is in the pudding, as they say, and it is obvious that a lot of thought and care went into the creation of this opus. It is definitely an album that invites multiple immersions, luring you into an aural landscape rich in texture and melody yet also cloaked in mystery and abstract concepts. The accompanying videos on the Blu-ray were created by Lasse Hoile, who directed last year’s Insurgentes documentary, and the new clips offer more of the striking images and non-linear cinematic surrealism that is his trademark. The images of Wilson sitting amid a menagerie of mannequins in “Index” possess a disturbing David Lynch quality.
Wilson’s new album opens innocently enough with the title track, a lush tapestry of gentle piano chords and rich vocal harmonies, before diving into the album’s denser sonic realm where dissonance and melodic beauty juxtapose one another and occasionally grapple for dominance, as on “Sectarian” and “Track One,” the latter tune reminiscent of “Abandoner” and “Salvaging” from Insurgentes. “Deform To Form A Star” is a pretty ballad with a Seventies rock flavor, while “Raider Prelude” sounds like fantasy soundtrack music. Meanwhile the mammoth, 23-minute piece “Raider II” moves everywhere between acoustic beauty and demonic incantations. The 5.1 surround capabilities get used in creative ways throughout Grace For Drowning, such as when “machine gun” bursts of electronic drums dance between the speakers during the brooding “Index” (which was inspired by the John Fowles novel The Collector) or the psychedelic flitterings of flute swirl through the mix of “Remainder The Black Dog”.
These are just initial impressions, and it is clear even from one listen and a quick 20-minute chat with Wilson that this album and its process of creation will offer a fascinating behind-the-scenes tale. Grace For Drowning redefines Steven Wilson’s music and points to a bold new direction for one of the few artists able to make progressive music for a wider audience. Hopefully his more mainstream followers will come along for the ride this time. Maybe there is still a future for the album format and ambitious rock music after all. Steven Wilson certainly believes so.