Steven Wilson bites back at the future
In the early years Steven Wilson’s band, Porcupine Tree, were often compared to Pink Floyd and Steven himself admitted the importance of that musical influence although he later distanced himself from the Floyd, moving towards a more distinctive sound. It is not surprising that he came to be regarded as a new hero in the genre of Progressive Rock, even though again he has often tried to distance himself from that label.
But as he says on his website, Steven grew up not only listening to Dark Side of the Moon but also to Love to Love You Baby by Donna Summer, produced by disco and electronic dance music pioneer Giorgio Moroder. So the fact that his latest album The Future Bites™ heavily features electronics and very little electric guitar should not come as a surprise, although some of his fans have been upset by the change of direction.
Steven announced a while ago that he would be working with producer David Kosten, who makes dance music and electronica under the name Faultline, which suggested that another change in direction was coming. Steven doesn’t like standing still or repeating himself musically, which means that over his very long and varied career he has written music which could be defined as, at various times…psychedelia, space rock, trip-hop, jazz fusion, progressive rock, progressive metal, pop, ambient, art rock, alternative rock, pop rock, drone music and trance. The theme that unites Steven’s music in all these different styles is his searching musical intelligence, a gift for melody, the willingness to innovate even at the risk of alienating some of his fans, and the ability to write songs that sound sophisticated yet familiar. Like the film director Stanley Kubrick, one of Steven’s cultural heroes, he likes each piece of work to be different from anything else he has produced.
What is rather surprising is that Steven admitted in a recent interview to promote the new album that he is no longer inspired by the guitar,
I got to the point where I would sit with a guitar on my knee and I didn’t know what else I could do…I’ve done everything with this thing.
He has spent the last few years collecting vintage keyboards, which he has now installed in his new studio, and he has based most of the songs on the new album around these keyboards rather than around the guitars that feature heavily in most of his music to date.
Steven has also written an album which is feels very contemporary from a musical point of view; previous solo albums have sometimes been consciously nostalgic, such as the superb 2013 album The Raven That Refused to Sing which referenced the peak of 1970s progressive rock story-telling, and To the Bone (2017) which was influenced by 1980s art rock. His current abandonment of the guitar as his main instrument perhaps reflects its demise in the 21st century – and certainly the demise of the guitar band. It will be interesting to see whether the increase in guitar sales during lockdown will lead to new guitar bands being formed.
But if Steven has moved on from the guitar at present, one of the themes of the album is one that has troubled him for many years, the way that the human brain has evolved in the internet era. He first explored the possible negative effect of the technology 25 years ago, while he was still with Porcupine Tree, in the song ‘Every Home is Wired’ on the album Signify and on Fear of a Blank Planet in 2007 (see review here).
The other major theme of the album is consumerism, and in particular the urge to buy vastly overpriced ‘designer’ products. He set up a website selling products branded with the TFB™ logo, mostly items which would usually be inexpensive. The site was a well-executed concept, a sarcastic joke, although some of the products were genuinely for sale such as volcanic ash soap. The branded toilet rolls suddenly took on an unexpected and highly ironic resonance during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic when there were shortages of toilet paper in the UK and elsewhere.
The opening pair of tracks Unself and Self are a bitter commentary on self-identity in the age of social media. Unself, which is only a minute long, starts with a gently-strummed acoustic guitar, sounding distant as it’s drenched in echo, perhaps a nostalgic nod to Steven’s past as a guitarist. The instruments fall away and his solo voice is brought sharply into focus with the words ‘the self can only love itself’ leading to the industrial funk and pulsating sequencers of Self, a fierce critique of the effects of social media,
Self sees a billion stars But still can only see self regard
Richard Barbieri, former keyboard player with Japan and Porcupine Tree provides atmospheric soundscapes on the track.
King Ghost is one of the most beautiful songs Steven has ever written, with poetic lyrics, haunting synthesiser lines, and soaring falsetto vocals which create an atmosphere of sparkling luminosity perfectly matched by Jess Cope in the official video.
12 Things I Forgot shows that one of the things that Steven has not forgotten is how to write simple, catchy pop songs just as he did with Porcupine Tree (‘Lazarus’ and ‘Trains’), on his solo albums (‘Pariah’) and with Blackfield (pick almost any song).
Eminent Sleaze is crisp, dystopian, industrial funk, similar in style to the equally satisfying ‘Song of I’ from his last album To the Bone. The song features very few electronic instruments. It includes cameos from Nick Beggs on bass and Chapman Stick, Adam Holzman on keyboards, and strings from the London Session Orchestra. Yet the production cleverly combines these elements to create an electronic sound. The central character, as shown in the official video, encapsulates Steven’s fears that social media and technology companies have more power now than politicians; the title of the song is a play on the term éminence grise, the hidden power behind politicians.
Politicians don’t escape Steven’s searching gaze either. In Man of the People he adopts the point of view of a member of the family of a politician who has been damaged by a scandal, the long-suffering partner who stands beside them with a fixed smile for the cameras. It’s a gentle, poignant song which shows some degree of sympathy for the victims who stay with the disgraced politician even though they know that the love and trust they receive are fake. The song includes some of the most powerful lines on the album,
Ambition froze me out Like a demonic winter.
The centre-piece of the album, both in terms of concept and length, is Personal Shopper. It’s a powerful satire, urging us to buy things we don’t need and can’t afford, to ‘have now, pay in another life’. It has the melancholy disco feel of Steven’s most recent album with no-man, love you to bits (see review here).
The middle section of the track includes a list of pointless items which the modern consumer can buy, read out by perhaps the most famous shopper of all, Sir Elton John. The list of possible items to buy has been approved by Sir Elton himself – for instance he rejected a reference to ‘mobile phone skins’ as he doesn’t own mobile phone himself so wouldn’t buy a cover for it. The list includes obvious examples like ‘designer trainers’ and ‘monogrammed luggage’, but also ‘deluxe edition box sets’. Ironically, Steven Wilson has released a deluxe edition of this album, limited to 5000. This is done with great self-awareness of course. Steven has also admitted that he does enjoy shopping, including buying box sets…
In Follower the target is social media again, and in particular social media influencers. It’s the most direct song on the album, and the one that sounds most like a conventional rock song, showing Steven’s anger at the influencers with their needy cry ‘Oh follow me, follow me’. These lines show Steven’s view of the vitriol that the internet (or more accurately the people that use it) can generate.
Future biting Millions spiting
Steven has often ended his albums, both as a solo artist and with Porcupine Tree, with a transcendent ballad. For instance in 2002 he ended In Absentia, one of Porcupine Tree’s heaviest and most disturbing albums, with the beautiful solo ballad ‘Collapse the Light Into Earth’ (recently revisited in one his Future Bites Sessions recorded in lockdown). After the fury and satire of much of the rest of the album Count of Unease plays a similar role. Steven plays all the instruments here, except for the ‘drone’ credited to co-producer David Kosten. It’s a lovely end to the album.
On The Future Bites, Steven seems to have found a new musical language as he stares the future in the face. As is always the case with his work, the album is superbly recorded and produced. Where it differs from much of his previous work is that he has eliminated the signs of musical virtuosity that were so spectacularly and thrillingly present before, and has created music that serves his message as directly and compellingly as possible. Does that mean his music is no longer ‘progressive’? Perhaps in the narrow sense of the musical genre that is Prog Rock, this album marks a departure, but in terms of Steven’s musical journey, this album shows that he is continuing to make progress, constantly moving forward into the future.