Steven Wilson. The name sparks awe in thousands of fans around the globe. Whether that is legitimate or not, Steven’s musical endeavors are always viewed under a microscope when he releases them, and opinions are predictably divided every single time. Even here at The Prog Mind, the opinions vary on Steven’s new album “To the Bone”, due out on August 18th. So, we thought it’d be interesting to give both sides of that story: one positive review and one negative.
Before we get to that, let’s go over the new album briefly. “To the Bone” is meant to be a departure for Steven from the retro-styled prog rock he had been exploring lately. The new album is definitely inspired by the 80’s in many ways, especially in the synth pop of that era, but there are also many darker twists to be found. This time around, Steven again plays guitars and provides vocals, and his band includes David Kollar on guitars, Mark Feltham on harmonica, Craig Blundell and Jeremy Stacey on drums. Ninet Tayeb provides vocals on a couple tracks, and there are other guests, too.
I’ve never been a die hard fan of Steven Wilson’s work; whether solo, side project, or Porcupine Tree. I like his music, but it’s never been something high on my lists, so to speak. When I heard that Steven was going to be incorporating some 80’s influences on “To the Bone”, I was actually intrigued, as this lacked the typically innovative attitude his fans expect since the 80’s thing has been a bit of a fad for a couple years already. Additionally, I love 80’s synth pop rock music, and fully expected to hear Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears in the mix somewhere.
I’ll come right out and say it: I love this album. It’s his best solo album to date for me, though other solo albums do contain songs on par with anything here. “To the Bone”, though, is his most visceral and interesting work for me, as every track is different and unexpected elements come crashing in when you least expect them. The album definitely has a pop flavor to it, but there are plenty of solos, instrumentals, and eclectic elements to keep prog fans interested, so put that myth to rest. In fact, the way Steven utilizes the electronica and synth absolutely sears itself into my brain like fire, and there is a surprising amount of bluesy harmonica on the album, which I didn’t think much of on paper, but I love when I hear it in action. Additionally, the album has a bit more attitude and grit than his other works, and it’s even a bit, um, sexier, too; which is an adjective I never thought I’d use for Steven Wilson.
“Refuge” might be my favorite track he’s ever made. The echoing opening grabs me, but there is this fantastic instrumental that begins with a harmonica solo, transitions to guitar, and then fiery synth slices in like a knife to finish it spectacularly. It gives me goosebumps. Other favorites are the explosive “Pariah”, the darkly sexual “Song of I”, and the uplifting final track, “Song of Unborn”. Of all the tracks on the album, “People Who Eat Darkness” is the only track I really don’t like because of its irreverent nature, though it is growing on me. All the other tracks, from the catchy opening title track to the proggy “Detonation” to the blissful “Permanating” are all fantastically mixed and just excellently crafted.
The bottom line here is this: The album definitely has a synth pop element to it, but why is that a problem? The album is not nearly as “mainstream” or as much of a “sell out” as I’ve heard so-called fanboys ranting on social media. It’s a bit grittier than his past works (reminds me a bit of “Fear of a Blank Planet” here) and there is less musical wankery, but there are still the technical and proggy sides of Steven Wilson here that everyone knows and loves to discuss. The only real difference is that Steven has shown more restraint this time, and I say “about time” to that. “To the Bone” simply makes sense to someone like me.
Steven Wilson understands how to craft memorable songs. He does this by inventing emotive musical hooks, by digitally manipulating instrument sounds and voices for ethereal effect, by counter-melody, by theme and variation, and by largely ignoring conventional song structures and typical 4/4 patterns.
He usually does this.
Looking back into his solo discography, Insurgentes and Grace of Drowning – respectively, Wilson’s debut and sophomore solo releases – both indulged a different side of Wilson’s writing; dealing in dark, ambient prog reminiscent of early Crimson’s jazz fusion and VDGG’s grotesque dissonance. 2013’s The Raven that Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) and 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. both trod the path of modern “crossover” prog: technical, anthemic pieces; largely melodic in nature; with healthy doses of metal and powerful storytelling.
To the Bone is something else entirely. Wilson specifically cites the “hugely ambitious progressive pop records” he enjoyed as a young man as the album’s inspiration. And while there has always been debate about whether or not Wilson’s material is “prog enough to be considered prog,” due to the obvious pop influences that have always infiltrated his writing, I’ve always found the subtle technicalities of his writing, combined with his love for dark instrumentation, to create a truly palatable style of prog that intentionally harnessed and transformed said pop elements. In that regard, I can’t say To the Bone is uninteresting just because its pop is more blatant. It’s not uninteresting at all, actually. And I also can’t say it’s poorly written, because – again – it’s not. As a matter of fact, if I were looking for quirky, well-written pop music, this record is full of it: catchy songs that are easy to listen to, some straightforward rock‘n’roll with cool grooves, and even some darker NIN vibes in the album’s concluding pieces.
The problem is that I’m not looking for quirky, well-written pop music when I listen to Steven Wilson. When I drop a Steven Wilson disc into the stereo, I’m looking for ethereal soundscapes like Drowning’s “Postcard,” incredible proggy rides like Raven’s “Luminol,” and grinding metal structures with funk infusions – like Hand’s “Home Invasion.” If To the Bone’s “progressive pop” material is just ear candy, then it’s the off-brand mints that melt at the bottom of the candy dish in my office, because it’s not the kind of ear candy that’s even a guilty pleasure for me.
I’ve got to say some nice things though (and not just because Steve and Jason are much more favorable toward the record than I am). Not liking an album isn’t grounds to dismiss it, after all. And to be fair, after I cringed through my whole first listen, the second was significantly more enjoyable – because To the Bone isn’t a bad record. For the first time, I have to agree with the critics on SW, that this is just not truly a prog record. And on top of that, I just don’t like it.
To the Bone’s strongest points are its vocal arrangements and its musical hooks, and many of the songs still maintain that unmistakeable Steven Wilson “touch” – the psychedelic acoustic guitar and piano vibes against swirling, ambient backgrounds. The title track is a quality number, employing an ambient world-music feel to communicate its relative “truth is calculation” ideals. “Pariah,” “Blank Tapes,” and “Song of Unborn,” are all dreamy echoes of PT material, with nods to Pink Floyd chord structures. I really like the varying genre feel of “The Same Asylum as Before,” which is probably my favorite song on the record, and another composition that feels like a PT b-side. Furthermore, the whole album has really strong guitar work, memorable vocals, tight production, and some truly powerful instrumental passages (i.e. “Refuge,” “Detonation”), rich with emotion.
For the record, I actually like the potential of Steven Wilson “progressive pop,” but with cues taken from his earlier work. Take, for example, “Happiness III” on 4 ½, or even the title track from Hand. Cannot. Erase., which are both undeniable pop/rock songs working within prog structures. And frankly, if that were the overall tone of To the Bone – truly proggy pop that didn’t all seem to share the thread of head-boppin’ 85-95bpm 4/4 with clap track – my opinion of the record might be completely different.
But my enduring impression is not “Refuge” or the Franz Ferdinand-esque rock piece, “People Who Eat Darkness.” It’s not the title track or “Detonation,” another high point on the record, that sticks with me. My enduring impression of To the Bone is “Permanating.” And that just leaves a disappointed taste in my mouth.