How I found Steven Wilson

Steven Wilson is known as ‘The most successful British musician most people have never heard of’. So how did I find him? (updated April 2022)

Steven Wilson and Nick Holmes at a book signing in Manchester in April 2022

In February 2009, Steven Wilson did something uncharacteristically violent; he destroyed five iPods. He shot the first one, smiling ‘wow’ when he hit it first time, but sensibly wearing ear defenders. He took a blow torch to the next one, wearing a mask that might be worn by a member of a heavy metal band (a new look for Slipknot?) or perhaps by a professional welder. The third iPod was murdered by Steven wielding a hammer; walking away from the scene of the crime in a smart black suit, he could be a star of a Scandinavian drama. In the fourth crime scene, Steven drives over the ipod in a small blue sensibly-priced car; to make sure it’s dead he stamps on it.  In the fifth crime scene, Steven takes a sledge hammer to his final victim.

These crimes against technology didn’t lead to an appearance on Crimewatch; no reconstruction was necessary as all the incidents had been filmed for YouTube. The first video did attract nearly 58,000 views (as at October 2019). Each video ended with a reference to an album called Insurgentes. Maybe he was just promoting the album? 

In 2015, I found out about Steven’s activities when I was researching a radio programme I was making. I was looking for a musician who was passionate about high quality sound. Neil Young was a possibility as he was developing a new device called a Pono (yes, without an r in the middle) to play back high-quality music files. I reached out to Neil (or his people) but presumably he was washing his hair (there is quite a lot of it). After a bit more searching, I found another hirsute musician called Steven Wilson. I had never heard of him, but I was intrigued by his crimes against iPods and also the things he was saying in interviews then, 

Unfortunately for me, I live in a world where download and streaming culture are here to stay; iPods are the dominant form in which people listen to music. I can no longer kid myself that people are listening to vinyl records at home or 5.1. There is a small group of audiophiles that have always listened to those things, and of which I am a part, but the majority of people listen to music streaming on their laptops or on MP3s on their iPods; I have to accept that, I can’t cut myself off to it, but I don’t have to like it, and I still think that it’s a very poor substitute for a high quality experience. 

I have never smashed any iPods but I shared Steven’s passion for high quality music reproduction. My Presenter and I duly went to Steven’s house to interview Steven. My Presenter had never heard of him either, but then my Presenter hasn’t heard of most of the people we interview. 

Steven opened the door of his house. He wasn’t wearing any shoes. I found out later that this was A Thing for Steven but at the time I didn’t think it odd that he asked us to remove our shoes – we had walked through the garden to get to the house and obviously he didn’t want us to get mud on his carpet. 

Steven was charming and articulate, and spoke passionately about his love of high-quality sound. He used a striking analogy; listening to a low-quality MP3 file compared to listening to a high-quality file was like looking at a work of art reproduced as a jpeg compared to going to an art gallery to see the original painting. He was quietly persuasive, firm in his views but gentle and thoughtful in delivery. 

I went back to the studio to edit and mix the programme which involved listening over and over again to the same bits of audio; and then listening to them again. I wanted to put in some of Steven’s music to illustrate the style. His most recent album then was the intriguingly titled The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories (true fans call the album simply The Raven). It sounded like a concept album from the 1970s such as Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, or Tales from Topographic Oceans.  I found out later that Steven had set out to write a 1970s-style concept album, which was fine with me…not only did I buy Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl, then cd, then on cd again for the 30th anniversary, then on remastered cd, but I also bought a triple live album by Yes called Yessongs. The latter sounded if it was recorded on wet socks (which is maybe why Steven doesn’t wear any) but the musicianship is amazing and it introduced me to long form rock music, otherwise known as Progressive Rock. 

Back in the radio studio, I was listening again and again to the title track of The Raven That Refused to Sing; there was something really haunting about Steven’s delicate vocals, and the repeating piano motif which kept switching from major to minor and back again. One of the joys of working in radio is that sometimes you can just sit in the studio and listen to good music on decent loudspeakers just for the pleasure of it and nobody can tell you off as it’s part of the Day Job. So I did…and realised that I found the piece very moving. Something about the sparse lyrics and the repeating piano chords spoke to me, 

Sing for me, 
Sing for me.
You can come with meYou can live with me. 
Heal my soul, 
Make me whole.

As the poet William Wordsworth once wrote, it felt like ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’. There was something of the Romantic Poet in Steven’s music. 

On the table in the smart little waiting room in Steven’s house there was a coffee table with a single item on it – a copy of the latest issue of Prog magazine. It’s possible that it had a picture of Steven on the front; I can’t remember now but I found out later that he has been on the cover a few times. Sometimes, reading Prog magazine every month as I now do, it seems to me that he is seen as the saviour of  prog rock, preventing it from becoming a comfortable branch of the nostalgia industry through all the remasters and reissues; why buy one remastered cd when you can buy a box with 12 cds of slightly different versions and multiple out-takes and live recordings? Why buy any new music at all? (I confess I am as guilty of this as anyone else of my generation; I admit that I turn first to the re-issues pages in the music magazines I read, but I have never spent £400 on a Pink Floyd box set). 

Before meeting Steven, I discovered that he had a healthy side-line in remixing classic prog albums. I bought one of these and was relieved to discover that he had made excellent work on an album that I had always enjoyed musically but could barely listen to because the sound was so piercing. As were leaving his house, I thanked him for making a great album so good to listen to at last. I should point out that I tend to avoid letting interviewees know that I am a fan of their work; the objective journalist in me tells me that I should keep a professional distance. Also, I have never forgotten a line from the Peter Hammill song, Energy Vampires about the extreme view some fans have of their heroes 

Excuse me while I suck your blood,
Excuse me when I phone you,
I’ve got every one of your records, man, 
Doesn’t that mean that I own you? 

I'm not selling you my soul
Try to put it in the records
But I've got to keep my life my own

When fans suck all the energy from their heroes, it can lead to the kind of extreme alienation that Roger Waters experienced, leading him to spit at a fan and build a wall (and write a Wall). I can confirm that Steven Wilson didn’t spit at me. 

While in his home studio (not like your average home studio – it had high quality speakers, an original Mellotron and the a guitar pedal board the size of a small car) I was intrigued to see that the record that Steven was remixing on the day we met him was not by some Prog Hero, but by Tears for Fears. When his last album To the Bone came out later that suddenly made a lot of sense. He said 

My fifth [solo] record is in many ways inspired by the hugely ambitious progressive pop records that I loved in my youth. I grew up listening to a lot of very smart pop records by artists like Kate Bush, Talk Talk, Peter Gabriel, Prince, Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, The The. 

So at that time he saw himself as a progressive artist, but was he the King of Prog Rock as some people have viewed him? When I asked him if he saw himself as a Prog Rocker, his answer was more interesting than the question. He said he saw himself as a story teller, whose records were not a collection of 10 three-minute songs, but long form narratives, like a film or a novel. 

That was a good answer. It’s sometimes helpful to put music into a neat little box (like the little instructions to record shop staff on the back of records that used to say File under Progressive Thrash Metal etc.) But I was pleased that Steven didn’t want to be categorised. All he wanted to do was re-invent himself with every record he made, an ambition that is rarer than it should be, although no doubt David Bowie would have approved. 

It’s strange how music can find you sometimes, rather than you actively seeking it out. I found Steven Wilson’s music by accident, too. You could say it was Fate, but I wouldn’t believe you. I could put in one of my favourite quotes about Fate from John Lennon here 

Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans 

It turns out that the original quote is attributed to someone else who may have been called Allen Saunders. I may never Google anything again, to save future disappointment. 

In any case, I was making other plans when Steven Wilson (or at least his music) came to find me, 

Heal my soul
Make me whole 

Now, you should stop reading this for the next 10 minutes or so, to give you time to listen to The Raven that Refused to Sing. It’s on all the major streaming services, and also there’s a beautiful animated video on YouTube, made by Jess Cope from Owl House Studios.

I have started listening to the song on Spotify to as I write this, but I will stop now to listen properly. See you shortly… 

The comments about the song on YouTube suggest that it has created a river of tears in its listeners and viewers. I will pick only one, followed by an extract for the lyrics of the song 

My older sister died few years ago, so I can’t describe how it felt when I listened this masterpiece for the very first time, at some point it felt like the song was written for me.

Sister, I lost you, 
When you were still a child,
But I need you now,
And I need our former life.
I'm afraid to wake,
I'm afraid to love. 

The song ends with a very simple line on the piano. I can reach my piano keyboard from here to pick out the notes. They are easy to play, but also profoundly moving. 

That was a slight diversion; I hadn’t intended to stop and listen at this point, or to reveal the effect that Steven Wilson’s music can have, but I don’t feel embarrassed. Otherwise, as somebody once said (and you can spend an hour researching it if you want to find out who, and still not be sure who said it) 

writing about music is like dancing about architecture 

See you next time. 

Porcupine Tree – Hidden Treasures

Excellent songs that didn’t make the final cut

Some very strong songs were left off Porcupine Tree’s ten studio albums for reasons of space, changes of style … or in at least one case due to what the band’s leader Steven Wilson now regards as a mistake on his part.

I discovered some of these while writing my new book On Track … Porcupine Tree, a detailed analysis of the band’s songs. Many fans will already know them all, but to others I hope they will provide unexpected moments of joy.

The Sound of No-One Listening

This song starts with ominous soundscaping and sound effects, including the sound of an ice cream van, which has become a common horror film trope, though it may have a sense of nostalgia for some listeners. Although the band may have changed style by the time it was recorded, it’s an excellent track that stands up very well in retrospect, with a simple compelling bass riff and a lovely flute motif. Synth arpeggios provide a glittering, hopeful backdrop, as the song reaches a climax with very energetic drumming before falling back into a darkly disturbing noise-scape again.

Men of Wood

Steven Wilson said he found it difficult to find a home for this track. It was considered for two albums and as a single, but didn’t quite fit the band’s changing style, ‘It was almost a throwback to (the band’s) psychedelic pop, and that just wasn’t quite right – it was a context thing.’ The theme is the vacuity of modern society, sharing a sentiment with T. S. Eliot’s poem, ‘The Hollow Men’. The song begins with a dirty-sounding guitar, then heads for a memorable chorus with a nicely psychedelic key-change, giving it a rather wistful feel.

Buying New Soul

This track was recorded in writing sessions at Foel Studios, Wales, in March 2000, just after Porcupine Tree’s sixth studio album Lightbulb Sun was completed. It’s a gorgeous, poignant song with a haunting chorus. It follows the theme of the band’s fifth album Stupid Dream, the difficulty of balancing artistic integrity and commercial success. A highly personal song, it reflects Steven Wilson’s continuing fight against the music industry – ‘I still rage and wage my little war’ – but it ends with the depressing concept of selling out, of buying a ‘new soul at the start of every year’. The circling synthesizer motif that opens and closes the song perfectly matches the melancholy lyric and jazz-like upright bass. There is one moment of rage, but the feeling is generally one of resignation.

Cure for Optimism

This is a Steven Wilson solo performance at his home studio, No Man’s Land. The meaning of the song is just out of reach, but the track is still very evocative, with ghostly echoed piano motifs and subtle acoustic guitars. Mental health appears to be a theme here. The reference to a ‘serpent on a mobile phone’ could suggest a record company executive.

Drown With Me

In an interview in 2020, Steven Wilson told Lasse Hoile that he thought this song was going to be ‘one of the highlights’ of In Absentia, the band’s seventh studio album. He replaced it with ‘Prodigal’, ‘which I think is one of the weaker songs’, although he stressed this was a very personal opinion that others might disagree with. The reason for the substitution was that he felt ‘Prodigal’ was a better recording, although he regretted the decision later. ‘Drown With Me’ is a gorgeous, upbeat song in which the music contrasts sharply with the lyrics. The protagonist’s plan to drown the song’s addressee and her family seems to refer to the world of serial killers, one of the main themes of In Absentia.

Futile

This is the strongest example of the band’s interest in the music of Swedish heavy metal band, Meshuggah. The band’s drummer Gavin Harrison told Lasse Hoile that he wanted to write a Meshuggah-inspired track, that he could use as a challenge at his drum clinics, as he was finding it hard to play heavy metal. Gavin invited Steven Wilson to add guitar parts to the demo, resulting in ‘one of the heaviest pieces we ever recorded’. Lyrically, we may be back in the world of the serial killer that is so strong on In Absentia, ‘You were the one that made her cry … the world went black … lost my head.’ The chorus is fiercely dark, the metallic guitars almost burying the vocals. What makes the song remarkable is the contrast between the main guitar riff’s ferocity and the yearning delicacy of the backing vocals.

Nil Recurring

This and the next song were recorded during the sessions for Porcupine Tree’s ninth studio album Fear of a Blank Planet, which many fans consider to be their best. Both tracks feature on the band’s 2007 EP Nil Recurring. The title track of the EP is an instrumental featuring King Crimson’s Robert Fripp on lead guitar. After two minutes of guitar tapping and heavy riffing, a lovely, spacious breakdown highlights Colin Edwin’s bass and Richard Barbieri’s keyboards. Then, at around 3:20, the track gathers momentum, and a lovely riff cuts across a punchy one-note bass section. At around five minutes in, the opening echoed tapped-guitar theme returns, with a manic guitar solo and further heavy riffing, until the track suddenly dissolves.

What Happens Now?

This song’s protagonist seems to be suffering an existential crisis, rather like the main character in Fear of a Blank Planet. Material possessions mean nothing to him and they bore him, ‘So I got all these things, but so what?’ As he says, ‘You can’t take them with you’, and instead he seeks meaning through religion, asking the song’s mystery addressee, ‘You think you can save my soul?’ The answer – given in verse 2 – seems to be that he could die as a result of a suicide bombing, although the link between verses one and two is oblique. He boards a plane, in which somebody has concealed a bomb in a briefcase, as a result of which, ‘My body will spread through the heavens, across the sky/And my ashes will fall through the cloudburst.’ It’s a surprising and poetic image, despite its bleak suggestion that the answer is oblivion. Instrumentally, the track is very strong. Of particular note is the rhythmic illusion: beginning at about five minutes in, becoming much clearer at around six minutes, when the drums appear to move at half the speed of the other instruments, before the whole track slows down to an epic feeling of finality.

On Track: Porcupine Tree…every album, every song, published by Sonicbond, is out at the end of September and is available to order now at Burning Shed and other good bookshops.

Sources:

Sleeve notes to Stars Die: The Delerium Years 1991-1997 (2002)

Interviews with Steven Wilson and Gavin Harrison filmed for the In Absentia Deluxe Edition of 2020 by Lasse Hoile

Album Review – Fragments by Trifecta

*****

New Prog supergroup bring joy in fragmented times

Drummer Craig Blundell, keyboard player Adam Holzman and bass player Nick Beggs began playing together on Steven Wilson’s Hand. Cannot. Erase tour in 2015. They also joined Steven on his To the Bone tour in 2018 and 2019. When Steven went off for a cup of tea after a brief soundcheck, the three others would remain on stage to jam together, creating what they described as a ‘jazz club’. They recorded each other on their phones as they played, and decided to use these recordings as the basis of some of the songs for the new Trifecta project. The result is a version of jazz rock fusion, almost entirely instrumental, in a style described by Nick Beggs as ‘Fission! It’s like Fusion but less efficient and more dangerous … with fall out.’ The outcome is an explosion of joyful, melodic virtuosity.

Beggs and Holzman were due to tour with Steven Wilson again but tours due in 2020 and again in 2021 were cancelled due to Covid-19. Like many artists, the three members of Trifecta collaborated remotely during lockdown – Beggs and Blundell in England and Holzman in New York. But whereas the work of another Steven Wilson alumnus Richard Barbieri Under a Spell described darkly trouble dreams in lockdown, Trifecta cast a genial spell on tracks that they each completed at home before Holzman mixed the heady brew in his home studio. Further magic was sprinkled by expert mastering engineer Andy VanDette (who also worked on some of the Porcupine Tree albums). The light-hearted nature of the collaboration is shown by some of the tiles of the 15 ‘fragments’ that make up the album, such as ‘Clean Up On Aisle Five’ and ‘Nightmare In Shining Armour’. But don’t let that distract you from the serious levels of musicianship on display here.

Nick Beggs’ dry humour is evident on the only track that features vocals, the gently enticing Pavlov’s Dog Killed Schrodinger’s Cat, the lyrics of which he describes as ‘written from the perspective of a layman trying to understand quantum mechanics … and failing’. They include such memorable lines as ‘Wrestled to the ground by your quantum theory/ I’ve listened to your talk until my eyes grew weary’.

Despite the consistently high level of inventiveness and virtuosity shown by all three players, planting them firmly in prog rock territory, none of the songs are prog epics in terms of length; all of the 15 tracks are beautifully-crafted miniatures of around 3 minutes. The whole album is only 45 minutes long. Steven Wilson has recently called for a return to the shorter-form album, and his latest release The Future Bites lasts 42 minutes.

Opening track Clean Up On Aisle Five with its swirling keyboards, strong melody and powerful drumming is reminiscent of another prog rock supergroup, U.K. (John Wetton, Bill Bruford, Eddie Jobson and Alan Holdsworth) on their track ‘In the Dead of Night’, although without the impassioned vocals.

Other highlights include Proto Molecule with its amazingly funky bassline – worthy of Jaco Pastorius – evocative keyboard lines, syncopated jazz-funk riffing, and a delightful interplay between both instruments. There is more Jaco-style bass at the start of Nightmare in Shining Armor.

The Enigma of Mr Fripp cheerfully acknowledges its debt to Robert Fripp of King Crimson. It encapsulates all that is great about that band in less than three minutes. Nick Beggs plays Chapman Stick with Fripp-like intensity, the lines spiralling around each other. There are dystopian drums, sudden key changes, warm mellotron washes and rhythmic illusions. A complete King Crimson album in miniature. The track suddenly stops, delightfully segueing into the ultra-cool jazz keyboards of the next track Sally Doo-Dally.

Have You Seen What the Neighbours are Doing refers to the house next to Adam Holzman’s in the North Bronx, left empty when the man living there disappeared. It could easily have come from the soundtrack to a 1970s movie like Shaft. It begins with a disturbing film-noir scenario, with a looping funky bassline and luminous synths. There’s dirty distortion on the Fender Rhodes-like solo, adding to the sleaze. Holzman uses a similar sound on his recent live album The Last Gig.

The whole album is an unexpected lockdown delight that reveals its deep treasures with repeated listening. Two important questions remain. Are Trifecta working on new material, and will they ever tour? Hopefully the answer to both questions is yes!

Review – The Last Gig by Adam Holzman and Brave New World

Impeccable live jazz-rock from former Miles Davis music director and Steven Wilson’s keyboard player

*****

On 12 March 2020, keyboard player Adam Holzman and his band Brave New World drove to the Nublu club to soundcheck for a gig that night. The global pandemic was about to close New York City. Broadway had just shut down, but as Adam said later, ‘we decided to play anyway. Something big was coming, and who knew when we’d be able to perform again?… Only about 18 hardcore fans showed up.’

Adam Holzman has been Steven Wilson’s regular keyboard player since he joined the Grace for Drowning tour in late 2011 in support of Steven’s second solo album.

But Adam’s musical pedigree goes back much further than that; most notably he was with Miles Davis’ band for nearly five years, eventually becoming Miles’ musical director. And going back further still, Adam’s father is Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records (who signed The Doors) and Nonesuch Records (who began by specialising in European Early Music, but also commissioned the pioneering electronic album Silver Apples of the Moon, by the American composer Morton Subotnick in 1967). Adam tells stories of when he was a boy and Jim Morrison came to the house, and Adam showed Jim his toy keyboard and tape recorder; quiet moments when Jim was far from his rebellious and controversial public persona. Young Adam was also hugely influenced by The Doors’ keyboard player Ray Manzarek.

The album opens with Intro – The Age of Fear with dystopian synth noises, and ominous voices intoning, ‘The age of fear; the creative spirit must fight to stay alive’, words that take on a poignant significance in this context. But since the 1980s, Adam has made music under the title ‘Optimistic music in the time of fear’, so perhaps there is hope, and the vigorous drum solo from Gene Lake, with bubbling analogue synth sounds suggest that there is still life in music.

On the tour to support Steven Wilson’s third solo album, The Raven That Refused to Sing,  Adam began to do piano improvisations each night at the start of Deform to Form a Star, a song from Steven’s second solo album Grace for Drowning. He collected them together on The Deform Variations in 2015. The second track Pianodemic is another in that tradition, a moment of optimism despite the reference to the Pandemic in the title.

The next three tracks are taken from Adam’s 2018 album Truth Decay. As is often the case with jazz, the live versions have more power and energy than the studio versions, good though they are. The first of these, Ectoplasm, bursts into life with fierce drumming and cool Fender Rhodes keyboards. On the NewEars Prog Show podcast Adam described the Fender as ‘the electric guitar of jazz’, and it plays an important role on this album (although the instrument Adam plays is a Korg SV1 Stage Vintage piano). Throughout the album, Adam gives space to the other players in the band rather than just showing off his keyboard skills, virtuosic as they are, so the album feels like a true band album.

The next track, Phobia has a lovely, spacey, open feel with an atmospheric main theme with evocative harmonies. It gives all the band their chance to shine above the backbeat – first Adam with some distorted Fender Rhodes sounds, then Ofer Assaf, with evocative saxophone, then Jane Getter on heavily echoed guitar. An excellent track.

Growing up as the son of a record company executive, Adam could easily have had a very cynical view of the music industry, the kind of view expressed by a relative who might have said, Good Luck with your Music, in the way that we might say, ‘good luck with that.’ But Adam’s father has been supportive of his son, and it seems that Adam has retained his joy in music making. This is a seriously funky track with an earworm for a chorus, featuring excellent rumbling bass playing from Freddy Cash jr.

Adam originally recorded Maze, a Miles Davis song in 1985, live in the studio just before the sessions for Miles’ 1986 album Tutu. The track finally appeared on the Rubberband album released in 2019. Adam described the track as having, ‘a killer groove…with a flat-out burning solo.’

The final song, Abandoner is a cover of a track from Steven Wilson’s first solo album Insurgentes. The original track begins with a lovely, introspective quality, and Steven’s plaintive vocals are replaced here with soulful saxophone playing from Ofer Assaf. As the title suggests, the song is about loss and abandonment, and Adam’s version perfectly captures this. Steven’s song descends into terrifying noise, perhaps reflecting bitterness and anger at being abandoned. Adam’s version takes a slightly quieter, but equally effective approach.

This is a stunning live album, although it often sounds like a studio album both because of the quality of the playing and the recording, and the fact that the audience is small due to the Pandemic. Holzman says, ‘As of now, it’s still the last gig’. Let’s hope it’s not too long before he is able to tour again.

Album review – The Future Bites by Steven Wilson

Steven Wilson bites back at the future

*****

THE FUTURE BITES™

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 Wilson’s new studio (Twitter)

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.

Album Review – Fear of a Blank Planet by Porcupine Tree

The 2007 classic album finally appears on streaming services

*****

Lasse Hoile’s striking cover image for Fear of a Blank Planet

Within Porcupine Tree’s canon of ten studio albums, their 2007 album Fear of a Blank Planet has a similar status to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon within the Pink Floyd catalogue, a cohesive and deeply-satisfying concept album about alienation in modern life. So it has been a source of surprise and frustration to fans of Porcupine Tree that arguably their best album has been unavailable to stream, despite the fact that most of their albums have been on Spotify and other services for some time. Hopefully its availability will bring new listeners to a record which was Classic Rock Magazine’s Album of the Year in 2007.

Fear of a Blank Planet is now on Spotify and other streaming services

The album takes its title from Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, a hip-hop album greatly admired by Steven Wilson, Porcupine Tree’s band leader and principal song-writer until the band ceased to exist following their final album The Incident in 2009.

The fear of a ‘blank planet’ expressed in the album’s title reflects Steven Wilson’s deep concern about the effect that technology was having, particularity on teenagers who he felt were failing to connect with the real world as a result of their obsession with their computers, their iPods, mobile phones and gaming platforms. Writing the lyrics for the album in 2006, Steven may have been unaware that smartphones and social media were about to become ubiquitous. His fears seem prescient, bearing in mind for instance the recent Netflix docudrama The Social Dilemma in which former employees of major tech companies make serious allegations about the monetization of social networks, and the dopamine hits that engaging with them can apparently bring.

Steven Wilson said that the album’s theme of alienated teenagers was strongly influenced by the novel Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho. The novel features a character called Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho, and is a strange but weirdly compelling amalgam of partial autobiography, satire, fantasy, horror and satire. Steven was intrigued by the central character’s son Robby, who spends his time in his room playing games and watching TV, or hanging out at the shopping mall with his equally vacuous friends. According to Steven Wilson’s website,

The lyrics deal with two typical neurobehavioural developmental disorders affecting teenagers in the 21st century: bipolar disorder and attention deficit disorder, and also with other common behaviour tendencies of youth like escapism through prescription drugs, social alienation caused by technology, and a feeling of vacuity—a product of information overload by the mass media. 

In Lunar Park, the over-reliance of parents on prescription drugs to control their children (and themselves) is satirised mercilessly in a scene in which a birthday party features six-year-olds who are so over-medicated that they move lethargically and speak monotonously, chewing their fingernails until they bleed. A paediatrician stands by in case further medical intervention is needed.

Steven’s lyrics for the album are largely quite earnest rather than satirical, although the odd turn of phrase expressing teenage angst can be witty:

Your mouth should be boarded up
Talking all day 
With nothing to say

Fear of a Blank Planet

And…

I'm trying to forget you
And I know that I will
In a thousand years, or maybe a week

Way Out of Here

In interviews around the time of the album’s release, Steven Wilson expressed deep disquiet about the effect of teenagers’ access not just to drugs but to guns, which he related to the massacres at Columbine and Virginia. He also referred to the links between violence and obsession with fame fostered by reality TV, and the shootings at the Westroads Mall in Omaha where the protagonist apparently left a suicide note to say this would make him famous.

All this makes the album seem very serious and heavy, and in some ways it is. But as with many great rock albums the lyrics serve the music, which is a perfect example of Porcupine Tree’s mature style. Steven Wilson has said that at that time he was strongly influenced by the Swedish extreme metal band Meshuggah, who inspired him to write heavy riffs. But in an interview with Dutch Prog Rock headed Fear of a Dull Band there is an amusing discussion involving all four band members trying to decide exactly how heavy they had become. Steven decides that even he isn’t sure,

I think Fear Of A Blank Planet gives the impression that it is heavy because it starts with a long heavy song, and then there is Anesthetize which has this long heavy section. But I don’t know, you’d have to analyse it. ‘My Ashes’ [track two] is pretty mellow as is the last section of ‘Anesthetize‘ [track three]…

You can sense the frustration he feels in his music being categorised, something he has always resisted as his musical taste and influences have always been very wide. The fact that the whole album consists of only six songs, made into one continuous suite of around 50 minutes sounds suspiciously like Prog rock, a label which Steven has often resisted with some degree of irritation both for his work with Porcupine Tree and his later work as a solo artist.

Perhaps the best way to describe the music is a unique combination of heavy rock, melodic pop and art rock and metal with classical strings and gorgeous vocal harmonies. Progressive rock doesn’t really do it justice, except to the extent that it gives some idea of the scope of ambition…and the length of some of the songs.

The first track Fear Of A Blank Planet immediately establishes the album’s theme, beginning with the sound of keys on a vintage computer keyboard. The opening riff, on acoustic guitar, begins with a repeating octave interspersed with a tritone – an interval known as the ‘devil in music’ often used in heavy metal as in the song Black Sabbath.

Gavin Harrison, one of the finest rock drummers in the world (now with King Crimson and the Pineapple Thief) enters with a syncopated rhythm which sets up the dystopian mood of the song.

But this being a Porcupine Tree song, the heavy suddenly morphs into a beautiful moment of introspection, an instrumental at around four minutes in, still using the opening guitar riff but with atmospheric synth playing from Richard Barbieri and languid drumming from Gavin Harrison.

The driving urgency of much the song is paradoxically at odds with the lyrics that often express the torpor of the teenage boy’s life

I'm stoned in the mall again
Terminally bored
Shuffling round the stores...

The sense of boredom is felt so keenly felt that it bursts out into the burning rage that perfectly captures the hormonal maelstrom of a teenage boy. This is combined with a sense of cynical detachment and the sedative effect that prescription drugs have on him ‘my face is mogadon…I’m tuning out desires’. The effect is heightened by the heavy compression applied to Steven’s vocals in the verse, creating a sense of detachment.

Most of the music for My Ashes was written by the band’s keyboard player, Richard Barbieri, who was previously a member of Japan and its spin-off project Rain Tree Crow.

 In keeping with the theme of the album, the song is shot through with melancholy resignation but also with a degree of bitterness; the central character is presumably the teenage boy who is the protagonist in the opening track, based on the character in Lunar Park. In the novel, the relationship between the narrator (who happens to be called Brett Easton Ellis) and his son Bobby is very strained, and in the song the boy blames his problems on his parents 

When a mother and father 
Gave me their problems 
I accepted them all 

Anesthetize

After the simplicity of the previous song, this track is of epic proportions and length. Various YouTubers, who have usually not heard of Porcupine Tree, can be seen reacting with genuine surprise and delight when hearing the song for the first time, and for those who are new to the band it could be a good place to start. To fans of the band it has become a classic.

The first section of the song features a guitar solo from Alex Lifeson of Rush (around four minutes in). Steven Wilson told Prog Archives that that he read a magazine article that mentioned that Lifeson was a fan of Porcupine Tree, causing him almost to fall off his chair as he had grown up listening to Rush. Steven got in touch with him via the journalist who had written the article and asked him to contribute the solo to the album.

The second section features astounding drumming from Gavin Harrison, which is isolated in the video below.

Gavin Harrison plays the drum parts on the second section of Anesthetize, The Pills I’m Taking 

Most bands would have ended the song at this point, perhaps with a metallic flourish or a faded final chorus repeating itself as it disappears into the ether, but Steven Wilson takes us in to a completely different world in the final section, with lovely vocal harmonies and a gorgeous melancholic feel.

Sentimental

On 4 June 2007, NPR (National Public Radio) in America picked this track as their Song of the Day, which means that it was picked up by over 1000 public radio stations in the US. Cecile Clouthier reviewed the song under the heading Progressive Rock Gets Mordantly Witty and her description is not only pleasingly witty but very accurate. 

The wit arises mainly from tension between the charmingly calm atmosphere of the chorus, particularly the third time with smooth backing vocals from John Wesley, and the words which describe the ‘sullen and bored’ kids who are ‘stoned in the mall’ again, returning to the theme of teenage alienation.

Way Out Of Here

This song perfectly demonstrates two of Steven Wilson’s favourite and most successful vocal techniques. It begins with one of his most beautiful vocal lines, intimate, delicately poised between speech and melody, creating a great sense of empathy with the subject of the song, dreaming of escape. The chorus then changes focus completely with a full-voiced, almost epic delivery, to express the main character’s desperate need for escape, to find a way out of here’.

Sleep Together

The final song on the album remains one of Steven Wilson’s favourites, as shown by the fact that he played it on his huge tour to support the release of his 2017 solo album To the Bone. It appears on the Home Invasion: In Concert at the Royal Albert Hall live DVD released in 2018 (track 17). 

Generally, Steven Wilson unconsciously absorbs his musical influences but as he told Roy Povarchik of Alternative Zine ‘there is one exception, which is that I wanted the track Sleep Together to sound like Nine Inch Nails, with John Bonham [of Led Zeppelin] on drums, and produced by Massive Attack!’

So ends a classic album, with six very strong but very different tracks; you are in for a treat if you haven’t heard it before. And if you want more of the same, also try Nil Recurring, the companion EP of material recorded during the Fear of a Blank Planet Sessions.

See you next time.

Personnel

Steven Wilson: vocals, guitars, piano, keyboards 

Richard Barbieri: keyboards and synthesizers 

Colin Edwin: bass guitars 

Gavin Harrison: drums 

Alex Lifeson (Rush): guitar solo on ‘Anesthetize’ 

Robert Fripp (King Crimson): soundscapes on ‘Way Out of Here’ 

John Wesley: backing vocals 

London Session Orchestra: strings

How I found Steven Wilson

Steven Wilson is known as ‘The most successful British musician most people have never heard of’. So how did I find him? (updated April 2022)

Steven Wilson and Nick Holmes at a book signing in Manchester in April 2022

In February 2009, Steven Wilson did something uncharacteristically violent; he destroyed five iPods. He shot the first one, smiling ‘wow’ when he hit it first time, but sensibly wearing ear defenders. He took a blow torch to the next one, wearing a mask that might be worn by a member of a heavy metal band (a new look for Slipknot?) or perhaps by a professional welder. The third iPod was murdered by Steven wielding a hammer; walking away from the scene of the crime in a smart black suit, he could be a star of a Scandinavian drama. In the fourth crime scene, Steven drives over the ipod in a small blue sensibly-priced car; to make sure it’s dead he stamps on it.  In the fifth crime scene, Steven takes a sledge hammer to his final victim.

These crimes against technology didn’t lead to an appearance on Crimewatch; no reconstruction was necessary as all the incidents had been filmed for YouTube. The first video did attract nearly 58,000 views (as at October 2019). Each video ended with a reference to an album called Insurgentes. Maybe he was just promoting the album? 

In 2015, I found out about Steven’s activities when I was researching a radio programme I was making. I was looking for a musician who was passionate about high quality sound. Neil Young was a possibility as he was developing a new device called a Pono (yes, without an r in the middle) to play back high-quality music files. I reached out to Neil (or his people) but presumably he was washing his hair (there is quite a lot of it). After a bit more searching, I found another hirsute musician called Steven Wilson. I had never heard of him, but I was intrigued by his crimes against iPods and also the things he was saying in interviews then, 

Unfortunately for me, I live in a world where download and streaming culture are here to stay; iPods are the dominant form in which people listen to music. I can no longer kid myself that people are listening to vinyl records at home or 5.1. There is a small group of audiophiles that have always listened to those things, and of which I am a part, but the majority of people listen to music streaming on their laptops or on MP3s on their iPods; I have to accept that, I can’t cut myself off to it, but I don’t have to like it, and I still think that it’s a very poor substitute for a high quality experience. 

I have never smashed any iPods but I shared Steven’s passion for high quality music reproduction. My Presenter and I duly went to Steven’s house to interview Steven. My Presenter had never heard of him either, but then my Presenter hasn’t heard of most of the people we interview. 

Steven opened the door of his house. He wasn’t wearing any shoes. I found out later that this was A Thing for Steven but at the time I didn’t think it odd that he asked us to remove our shoes – we had walked through the garden to get to the house and obviously he didn’t want us to get mud on his carpet. 

Steven was charming and articulate, and spoke passionately about his love of high-quality sound. He used a striking analogy; listening to a low-quality MP3 file compared to listening to a high-quality file was like looking at a work of art reproduced as a jpeg compared to going to an art gallery to see the original painting. He was quietly persuasive, firm in his views but gentle and thoughtful in delivery. 

I went back to the studio to edit and mix the programme which involved listening over and over again to the same bits of audio; and then listening to them again. I wanted to put in some of Steven’s music to illustrate the style. His most recent album then was the intriguingly titled The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories (true fans call the album simply The Raven). It sounded like a concept album from the 1970s such as Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, or Tales from Topographic Oceans.  I found out later that Steven had set out to write a 1970s-style concept album, which was fine with me…not only did I buy Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl, then cd, then on cd again for the 30th anniversary, then on remastered cd, but I also bought a triple live album by Yes called Yessongs. The latter sounded if it was recorded on wet socks (which is maybe why Steven doesn’t wear any) but the musicianship is amazing and it introduced me to long form rock music, otherwise known as Progressive Rock. 

Back in the radio studio, I was listening again and again to the title track of The Raven That Refused to Sing; there was something really haunting about Steven’s delicate vocals, and the repeating piano motif which kept switching from major to minor and back again. One of the joys of working in radio is that sometimes you can just sit in the studio and listen to good music on decent loudspeakers just for the pleasure of it and nobody can tell you off as it’s part of the Day Job. So I did…and realised that I found the piece very moving. Something about the sparse lyrics and the repeating piano chords spoke to me, 

Sing for me, 
Sing for me.
You can come with meYou can live with me. 
Heal my soul, 
Make me whole.

As the poet William Wordsworth once wrote, it felt like ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’. There was something of the Romantic Poet in Steven’s music. 

On the table in the smart little waiting room in Steven’s house there was a coffee table with a single item on it – a copy of the latest issue of Prog magazine. It’s possible that it had a picture of Steven on the front; I can’t remember now but I found out later that he has been on the cover a few times. Sometimes, reading Prog magazine every month as I now do, it seems to me that he is seen as the saviour of  prog rock, preventing it from becoming a comfortable branch of the nostalgia industry through all the remasters and reissues; why buy one remastered cd when you can buy a box with 12 cds of slightly different versions and multiple out-takes and live recordings? Why buy any new music at all? (I confess I am as guilty of this as anyone else of my generation; I admit that I turn first to the re-issues pages in the music magazines I read, but I have never spent £400 on a Pink Floyd box set). 

Before meeting Steven, I discovered that he had a healthy side-line in remixing classic prog albums. I bought one of these and was relieved to discover that he had made excellent work on an album that I had always enjoyed musically but could barely listen to because the sound was so piercing. As were leaving his house, I thanked him for making a great album so good to listen to at last. I should point out that I tend to avoid letting interviewees know that I am a fan of their work; the objective journalist in me tells me that I should keep a professional distance. Also, I have never forgotten a line from the Peter Hammill song, Energy Vampires about the extreme view some fans have of their heroes 

Excuse me while I suck your blood,
Excuse me when I phone you,
I’ve got every one of your records, man, 
Doesn’t that mean that I own you? 

I'm not selling you my soul
Try to put it in the records
But I've got to keep my life my own

When fans suck all the energy from their heroes, it can lead to the kind of extreme alienation that Roger Waters experienced, leading him to spit at a fan and build a wall (and write a Wall). I can confirm that Steven Wilson didn’t spit at me. 

While in his home studio (not like your average home studio – it had high quality speakers, an original Mellotron and the a guitar pedal board the size of a small car) I was intrigued to see that the record that Steven was remixing on the day we met him was not by some Prog Hero, but by Tears for Fears. When his last album To the Bone came out later that suddenly made a lot of sense. He said 

My fifth [solo] record is in many ways inspired by the hugely ambitious progressive pop records that I loved in my youth. I grew up listening to a lot of very smart pop records by artists like Kate Bush, Talk Talk, Peter Gabriel, Prince, Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, The The. 

So at that time he saw himself as a progressive artist, but was he the King of Prog Rock as some people have viewed him? When I asked him if he saw himself as a Prog Rocker, his answer was more interesting than the question. He said he saw himself as a story teller, whose records were not a collection of 10 three-minute songs, but long form narratives, like a film or a novel. 

That was a good answer. It’s sometimes helpful to put music into a neat little box (like the little instructions to record shop staff on the back of records that used to say File under Progressive Thrash Metal etc.) But I was pleased that Steven didn’t want to be categorised. All he wanted to do was re-invent himself with every record he made, an ambition that is rarer than it should be, although no doubt David Bowie would have approved. 

It’s strange how music can find you sometimes, rather than you actively seeking it out. I found Steven Wilson’s music by accident, too. You could say it was Fate, but I wouldn’t believe you. I could put in one of my favourite quotes about Fate from John Lennon here 

Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans 

It turns out that the original quote is attributed to someone else who may have been called Allen Saunders. I may never Google anything again, to save future disappointment. 

In any case, I was making other plans when Steven Wilson (or at least his music) came to find me, 

Heal my soul
Make me whole 

Now, you should stop reading this for the next 10 minutes or so, to give you time to listen to The Raven that Refused to Sing. It’s on all the major streaming services, and also there’s a beautiful animated video on YouTube, made by Jess Cope from Owl House Studios.

I have started listening to the song on Spotify to as I write this, but I will stop now to listen properly. See you shortly… 

The comments about the song on YouTube suggest that it has created a river of tears in its listeners and viewers. I will pick only one, followed by an extract for the lyrics of the song 

My older sister died few years ago, so I can’t describe how it felt when I listened this masterpiece for the very first time, at some point it felt like the song was written for me.

Sister, I lost you, 
When you were still a child,
But I need you now,
And I need our former life.
I'm afraid to wake,
I'm afraid to love. 

The song ends with a very simple line on the piano. I can reach my piano keyboard from here to pick out the notes. They are easy to play, but also profoundly moving. 

That was a slight diversion; I hadn’t intended to stop and listen at this point, or to reveal the effect that Steven Wilson’s music can have, but I don’t feel embarrassed. Otherwise, as somebody once said (and you can spend an hour researching it if you want to find out who, and still not be sure who said it) 

writing about music is like dancing about architecture 

See you next time.