Steven Wilson: My New Obsession
Steven Wilson. God I love this guy. He’s quite a throwback, but in all the best ways. He cares about production values, making each one of his records as sonically rich, clear and varied as humanly possible. He cares, deeply, that each ‘project’ is packaged in as many different formats (physical and audio) as possible, from the most basic (straight CD) to the ridiculously detailed (his “Super Deluxe” versions contain ephemera so detailed, and so imaginative, that it makes all other contenders pale by comparison), and everything in between; no one is left out, no matter what your budget, or your level of obsession. He only hires the most talented, dedicated and like-minded musicians who share in his vision for sonic greatness. These players are not anonymous session men, either. They are giants, or soon-to-be giants in the industry, respected by all. He gives them room to breathe and encourages them to stretch out. He wants, and often uses, their input. The artwork (covers, interior booklet pages, pre and post-release advertising/marketing) is well thought out. It’s often provocative, but never in a pretentious way, and always compliments, perfectly, the music associated with it.
His influences are varied. Most associate him with Porcupine Tree, who has been labeled, wrongly for the most part, as “progressive metal”. The later part of their career does contain elements of that genre, but it’s so much more sonically interesting than that. Also, he writes songs, proper songs. Yes, some are epic, lengthy numbers with multiple passages/sections/movements, whatever you want to call them. The lengths, for the most part, are necessary and rarely indulgent; a rarity in modern progressive rock. Porcupine Tree started out as a joke project of Wilson’s and has morphed from it’s techno/jam band roots (think Ozric Tentacles with vocals) to one of the most respected bands on the planet. Maybe the best comparison I can make for modern day Porcupine Tree records would be “a cross between Radiohead (circa OK Computer) and Rush (circa Vapor Trails). If that sounds horrible to you then don’t bother with PT at all, least not the later records.
He’s quite prolific as well. His “side projects” vary from No-Man (synth pop, some trip-hop), to Bass Communion and IEM (ambient, chill, drone) and Blackfield (described by Allmusic as “an organic Pet Shop Boys”). In between al these collaborative gigs he finds time to produce a wide variety of artists such as XTC, King Crimson and Tears For Fears. Anything associated with his name has to be perfect. He agonizes over this stuff, and this leads me to his one flaw, in my opinion: his sense of humor, or lack thereof, actually. Unless I’ve missed it, in his drive for absolute perfection he has sacrificed that crucial element that makes serious artists more approachable and ultimately more human. It’s weird because in interviews he comes across as being extremely approachable, and more than willing to poke fun at his early shortcomings. This lack of humor doesn’t really detract from my enjoyment of his music, though. I just have to get myself in a very specific frame of mind to listen to it. His albums aren’t something you listen to in the background. You need to devote time to them, because there is so much going on in each song it would take a lifetime to identify all the elements. His love for rock/pop music in general, both classic and contemporary, comes through in his music. In an interview that comes with the CD/DVD version of his newest he says that of all the recording artists he knows a good 80-90% of them stop listening to music once they’re entrenched in the business of making music themselves. He says he just cannot fathom why someone would stop listening to music, period, and that he is even more passionate about being introduced to new music the busier he gets. Music matters to him, it’s part of his life, like breathing, and that’s something I can relate to.
His newest solo album, Hand. Cannot. Erase. is great. Is it as good as his brilliant 2012 effort, The Raven That Refused To Sing? I’m not sure yet, I’ve only listened to it a few times so far. What I’ve heard I dig, though. It’s not nearly as progressive as The Raven, although there are a few radical time signature changes, and the musicians are as prodigious as ever. But as an example the title track sounds like Manic Street Preachers circa Everything Must Go (no bad thing!), and is the most straightforward pop song I have ever heard from a Wilson project. The rest is more moody, but still filled to the brim with anthems. Allmusic states that Hand.Cannot.Erase is “an immense, imaginative landscape that melds classic album rock, sophisticated ’80s pop, metal, prog, and electronica in expertly crafted songs.” So it’s a melting pot of everything he’s ever done, and to my ears it all blends together perfectly.
Obviously I’m passionate about this artist. There’s a hole in today’s musical landscape Steven Wilson fills for me, and as such I give the man my time and my money. If he keeps putting stuff of this quality out I’m sure I’ll be opening my wallet until he decides to call it a day.