Musician, singer, guitarist, producer and songwriter Steven Wilson pushes musical boundaries and yet somehow continues to create music that is relatively accessible to a wide audience.
His latest and now sixth album, The Future Bites, is not exactly a continuation of the Porcupine Tree mindset or even of his recent, sometimes heavier solo material such as the impeccable Hand. Cannot. Erase., but there are threads of development to his current destination evident in hindsight. It is more electronic based where traditional guitar and rhythm section sounds are utilised only through a programming filter, which actually creates some stunning results.
Wilson does intriguing things such as using a backing vocal as the driving force in a chorus, making growing overdubs of keyboard washes push a song’s melody lines or mixing up the spatial dynamics by reprising sudden shifts in production within songs. It is a masterfully testament to his musical vision. Wilson is willing to push his own talents but does it judiciously with generally concise songs that, whilst open to exploration, partially adhere to expectations. Progressive fans with open minds would embrace this growth and in doing so will be rewarded with an adventurous listening experience.
Of course, his lyrics are insightful with plenty of scathing social commentary, pinpointing the plight of the human condition and impact on brain function from the invasive and burgeoning electronic age. After the atmospheric opener of Unself, Self presents a pop single with serious bite. The accompanying film clip, directed by Miles Skarin, is disturbing yet poetic art, skewering not just the insipid narcissism of social media but the repercussions of a detachment from reality. Musically, Wilson combines beats, vocals with varying amounts of reverb, gated bursts of white noise or distorted guitar against a muted but clean, funk vibe into a tight three minute arrangement.
The undercurrent bass on King Ghost works against a synth and a partially falsetto vocal driven piece where the album’s co-production skills by David Kosten and Wilson let the song swirl. The excellent accompanying video from Jess Cope uses nebulous imagery that perfectly fit with the sounds, mostly derived from analogue keyboards with additional percussion from Jason Cooper [The Cure] and Michael Spearman [Everything Everything].
As the album continues, sections of ambience meld with acoustic instruments, as heard on the gentle track 12 Things I Forgot. Backing vocals and a bed of keyboards interact nicely with the doubled vocal melody, ending with a dash of surf guitar tones. The following tracks Eminent Sleaze and Man of the People build on the layering approach with various sections of production styles that flow together seamlessly, be it slinky bass with sprinklings of bright guitar to reprising interludes with additional sounds that shimmer and resonate, utilising a wide range of frequency choices. In other words, plenty of treble and bass sounds are mixed together perfectly.
This process of ebbs and flows between nuanced segments reaches the natural climax with the album highlight on the almost ten minute track, Personal Shopper. The intensity increases as a pulsing beat drives the rhythm section whilst vocals flip succinctly between falsetto to a kind of soulful baritone backing vocal that segues into breathy, deep reverb enhanced lead vocals. Keyboard layers increase organically with a variety of 80s, new wave era tones that shift emphasis but never lose sight of the overall melody and feel.
Lyrically, the song hammers rampant consumerism and flagrant marketing of previously inconceivable sales angles to a populace embracing their demise in exchange for instant gratification. It’s not exactly a revelation but the section with dialogue about copious branding is telling about the current state of society in general. Again, the associated video, direct by Lucrecia Taormina, is indicative of Wilson’s incredible artistic vision and new anthropology put to music.
The last two album tracks are very different but round out the album well. Follower simply pops with studio embellishments of synth sounds, and bounces along with melodic ease. The acerbic lyrics about the nadir of narcissism within social media and the radicalisation of weaker minds would be at odds with the musical content if not for accents of brittle guitar sounds. By contrast, Count of Unease closes out the album in a haunting, reflective fashion as soft keyboard chord changes let long, sustained vocal lines float until the eventual fade out.
One of the charms of Wilson’s music is his aptitude for harnessing ideas from deep wells of thoughts into listenable musical pieces, without being overbearing or pretentious in making a statement. Wilson’s vast range of experimentation includes treating instrumentation choices as a means to play with the usual rhythm figures, interchanging how sounds work. Be it jarring bursts of muted guitar alongside synth figures and slinky basslines, all weaving in and out of the song’s thread, concise structure is never compromised.
It is a natural progression with electronic music coming into focus on this latest album. Steven Wilson is a musical genius and that is a term that is often misplaced but here it is a justifiable appraisal. The Future Bites is something to be taken in, absorbed, appreciated and ultimately allowed to sink into the mind. Admittedly, it is not for everyone but Wilson’s challenging of the tribal norms of progressive music makes perfect sense.
12 Things I Forgot
Man of the People
Count of Unease