Steven Wilson may be the most popular underground musician in the world. If you’re a progressive rock fan, I guarantee you’ve heard his name at least once. Even if you’re not a fan, his influence is making its way into the music you love all the same.
Wilson entered my musical orbit by way of the band he is best known for, called Porcupine Tree. They entered my musical orbit because Wilson saw fit to hire both Adrian Belew (my musical hero) and Robert Fripp — both of King Crimson fame — as guest musicians on a couple of PT’s albums. I showed up to hear Adrian and Robert in a different context. I stayed because Porcupine Tree’s music was so damned good.
There can be no doubting Wilson’s love of progressive rock. It’s easy to hear in his songs. King Crimson, Yes, Genesis … Wilson is a fan of all of them. But his music is far more than the sum of his influences. The Englishman also brings a well-honed sense of songcraft to his work. Be it melody, harmony, arrangement, or accompaniment, it’s easy to hear that Steven Wilson is a serious music student.
The proof can be found in his musical output, which is savant-like. But for the benefit of relative brevity, I will focus on his creations as a solo artist. His other projects will gain my attention on this page at a later time.
Fans of Porcupine Tree were probably happiest with Wilson’s first solo album, Insurgentes. Released in 2009, it sounds the most like a PT album without being yoked with that label. It seems almost as though Wilson was testing his fans to see just how much he could get away with outside his original band’s context. The opening track, called “Harmony Korine,” is a prime example.
Now that the groundwork had been laid, it was time to stretch things out a bit. I’m sure that’s where a tune like “No Twighlight Within the Courts of the Sun” comes from. It’s a nice slice of progressive metal, layered with a little avant-garde for good measure.
Wilson was now free to make a more or less clean break from Porcupine Tree. This meant bringing on other musicians like Tony Levin (bass), Pat Mastelotto (drums), Adam Holzman (keyboards) and Theo Travis (saxophones and flute). The new musicians and arrangements made it possible to explore different avenues, which culminated in the ’11 release Grace for Drowning. The Porcupine Tree root was present, but not as prominent. Wilson and his fellow musicians were pushing the musical envelope, trying to see what else was out there. The results could be stunning.
Wilson took a positively amazing band out on the road to promote this album, consisting of himself (vocals, guitars, bass, and keyboards), Niko Tsonev (guitar), Travis, Holzman, Nick Beggs (bass and Chapman Stick), and Marco Minnemann (drums). Music already superbly played in the studio was being taken to the next level by this bunch. Maybe that’s why I keep featuring clips from the live release this band created, called Get All You Deserve, released in 2012. Wilson even began to display a tender side to his music, which I didn’t really know existed. The band kept pace, showing they could play a song with equal parts intensity and grace.
Grace for Drowning contains a couple of epic songs. “Raider II” clocks in at 23 minutes. In the interest of relative brevity (again), I present “Remainder the Black Dog,” which is only half as long.
Like most Porcupine Tree fans, I was pleased with Wilson’s solo albums. But I was also starting to wonder when he would put Porcupine Tree back together. After all, I’d missed my one best shot at seeing them live (stupid job), and was eager to atone for it. But Wilson was locked into his solo career, which it turns out was a very good thing. In 2013, he released The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories). I’ve listened to a lot of music in my 50-plus years on this planet. So when I say this is easily one of my five favorite albums OF ALL TIME, it is not something I say lightly. I also say with equal sincerity that this record is PERFECT. I can find something I don’t like in just about every album, no matter how much I like it. That is NOT the case here. It was a long, long time before I wasn’t playing this album at least twice a day. Raven establishes its authority from Note One, and never lets go.
Often, I find an artist has put his all into one track of an album, with the intent of making that song the hit. The rest of the album falls back into relative mediocrity. That is most definitely NOT the case here. To know me is to know I hate using the term “best” to describe music. It implies that I’ve heard everything there is, which obviously is not the case. But in this case, I’m going to make an exception. Raven contains seven of the best songs I have ever heard, all on the same album! And Wilson’s band could play it live, which is the true benchmark for musical excellence, from where I sit.
Wilson’s songs transport the listener to another place in the mind. It’s not about tricky time signatures (which do exist) and complex, intricate arrangements (also present). Many artists use these factors in their music, and end up sounding like they’re just showing off, or playing for the sake of playing. I can’t get behind that. Wilson uses these elements (and many others) as means to an end. The “end” being a high-quality song.
Wilson also knows how to use space, and make it his compositional ally. He’s able to find beauty in more sparse and open arrangements, making his songs almost seem to float on air. The results can be positively breathtaking.
The trouble with achieving perfection is that it’s very difficult to maintain, let alone top. I didn’t envy Wilson in the task of following up Raven. That being said, Hand. Cannot. Erase., from 2015, does its best to maintain an incredibly high standard, with great success. I wasted more than a little time trying to decide if I liked this album as much as I did its predecessor. My conclusion? IT DOESN’T MATTER. This record is incredible! Just sit back and enjoy it! What follows only serves to make my point for me. Every time I hear it (particularly the instrumental portion), I thank the music gods for artists of this caliber, and the fact I am privileged to hear them play.
Yes, Steven Wilson writes epics. They’re not designed for the radio. So much the better, I say! Let the man and his band stretch out, and say what they need to say. I, for one, am not going anywhere.
Wilson just signed a major record deal with the Caroline label. He plans to release a new album this year. Like Pavlov’s dogs, I am drooling at the anticipation of new music from one of my very favorite musicians of all time. In the meantime, I will continue to dissect the music I have, which contains layer after layer of excitement and adventure. Maybe he puts Porcupine Tree together again someday. Maybe he doesn’t. As long as his music is up to this caliber (and I’m quite sure it will be), Steven Wilson can do whatever he wants. I’ll be listening and buying at every turn.
Oh, yeah! Did I mention that he has an incredible gift for remixing classic music? Well, I’ll tell you about that some other time.