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For years, Steven Wilson has worked behind other names - his main band Porcupine Tree being almost solely his 'baby' for a long time, Bass Communion (solo experimental soundscapes), IEM (again experimental but jazz/krautrock fusion in this case), as well as long-running collaborations with singer and lyricist Tim Bowness as No-Man, with Israeli superstar Aviv Geffen in Blackfield, and many other side-projects. However, in February 2009 he released an album, Insurgentes, under his own name at last. That was a fairly eclectic, quite heavy offering, and went down pretty well with both fans and critics alike. Grace For Drowning is the follow-up album, written between January 2010 and June 2011, and dedicated to his father who passed away in 2011. It was released in September 2011
This album represents Wilson's embrace, at last, of 'progressive' music as a definition of what he's currently doing. For some time he was very uncomfortable, particularly with Porcupine Tree, of being labelled as a progressive musician, since the word 'Prog' has been a dirty word in the music press since the days of Yes and Genesis. His is not the cape-laden, moog-playing, trolls-under-the-bridge Prog however. This is the experimental jazz-fusion end of heavy rock where anything goes - progressive in a far truer sense since progress usually comes when you push barriers
Disc one, subtitled DEFORM TO FORM A STAR, begins with the soft vocal and piano GRACE FOR DROWNING, which tends to mislead the listener if they think that they're in for an easy listening ride. This idea is soon dispelled by the darker syncopated rhythms of SECTARIAN, occasionally abruptly interrupted by discordant choir and spiralling saxophone (which takes a break in the middle for a far more laid back & loungy mood), and this sets the pattern for the album - to musically expect the unexpected. No one piece plays out the way that you might expect. DEFORM TO FORM A STAR follows, and is a track that would sit quite well in the charts or even a musical, with a big showstopper of an ending that somehow brings back a feel of the early 70s to me, which for me is very early childhood! Sunny afternoons and a dreamy, melancholic kind of an atmosphere.
From there, NO PART OF ME comes back down to earth with a bump, and an altogether more brisk tempo. The end of a relationship and the cold light of day are portrayed lyrically, while musically the beginning of the song to me paints a picture of offices and rat race, morphing into a middle-eastern style instrumental thrash for the second part. POSTCARD changes the mood again, with a seemingly cheerful tune backing words that betray the depression of loss and separation, the cheerfulness turning to a sweeping choral and orchestral ending that I think would serve well as a tear-jerker at the end of a sad film, following as it does the final lines "Everything that mattered disappeared when I lost you".
RAIDER PRELUDE is a short, spooky (and at times creepily discordant) choral piece with weighty bass piano notes providing punctuation; we'll come back to this again on disc two. The final track on disc one is REMAINDER THE BLACK DOG, at almost ten minutes in length there is plenty of room for development of a theme and this happens in abundance, with a lazy, moody beginning gradually gaining weight and purpose as more instruments build up, occasionally quietening again before another onslaught. This was the first track to be released as a 'taster' of what was to come and it summarises the feel of the album perfectly - diverse styles and tempos, a broad range of instrumentation, long passages of instrumental music, sudden changes, but an overall impression of jazz/prog/metal fusion that owes more than a little to King Crimson, whose back-catalogue Mr Wilson has been busy re-mastering into high resolution 5.1 versions in collaboration with Robert Fripp.
Disc two, LIKE DUST I HAVE CLEARED FROM MY EYE, begins with BELLE DE JOUR, a brief and pretty instrumental track of gentle guitar and a little keyboard which reminds me of quieter parts of early Mike Oldfield albums, a pastoral, summery sort of feeling. INDEX, which follows, contrasts immediately with a dark, brooding story of a compulsive hoarder. Musically it's primarily synth driven but some sweeping orchestral chords come in as the song builds to a climax. TRACK ONE starts off as a whimsical bit of acoustic & vocal then goes all loud and thumpy, with scratchy violins and various noises building in a crescendo only to suddenly fade, leaving way for the most beautifully atmospheric piece of acoustic guitar on the album, played by Sand Snowman.
After this moment of escape, RAIDER II lumbers in at the heavier end of the piano, with just slightly spooky woodwind accompanying. This is the longest track on the album at almost twenty three and a half minutes long. It begins with a distinctly ominous feeling, quickly moving into more established prog rock territory, then just as quickly into the jazz lounge with Theo Travis' flute accompanied by piano, and some subtle vocal harmonies. This all in the first six minutes.... Raider II, I have to admit, is quite difficult to appreciate as a 'whole' because it takes in so much musical scenery on the way to its final destination, but I for one enjoy the journey! My favourite parts have to be the heavier rock sections, but I also love the passages of syncopated rhythm where the percussion and woodwind weave together. A track to get lost in....
And then all of a sudden you've arrived at LIKE DUST I HAVE CLEARED FROM MY EYE, which after the ear-splitting finale of Raider II is almost an unexpected coda to the album. Wilson's bare voice emerges from the wreckage with "That's something, that you're laughing at me..." accompanied by a strolling, strumming of the guitar, a brighter yet still melancholic, resigned sort of a song lyrically, musically it's very summery, and if you take this as a concept album (which you could if you wanted to - happy then slowly disintegrating relationship, then loss, depression and insanity, followed by recovery and resignation), you could say that the album ends on a relatively positive note and moving forward - "breathe in now, breathe out now" - with a lovely play-out of ambient notes in a higher register.
This album in a sense sums up a lot of the reasons why I enjoy listening to Steven Wilson's music so much - there's never a dull moment, there's a huge depth of sound in the production, masses of different instruments woven together, no fear of mixing noise with subtlety. Musically he always seems to strive for the best melodies and harmonies possible, which is one of the things that I love. He is an extremely musically eclectic person with a massive knowledge (and collection) of all sorts of genres, even sound effect albums, and as far as I'm concerned his genius lies not just in the assimilation and construction of all of those influences and inspirations, but in making them fresh and new. While there are a great number of very obvious references to other artists' work in this release (and I've read a lot of fellow fans' and critics' thoughts on it!), to me it's the most complete, coherent and fresh-sounding album from Steven Wilson in any incarnation that I've heard.
The album is available as a double CD digibook, a Bluray edition of the album in surround sound plus a large amount of bonus material, and there is also a limited edition vinyl version still available from the Burning Shed independent music website.
Double Album, 12 tracks
Disc 1 Deform to Form a Star
1. Grace For Drowning (2:05)
2. Sectarian (7:40)
3. Deform to Form a Star (7:50)
4. No Part of Me (5:44)
5. Postcard (4:28)
6. Raider Prelude (2:23)
7. Remainder the Black Dog (9:26)
Disc 2 Like Dust I Have Cleared from My Eye
1. Belle de Jour (2:59)
2. Index (4:48)
3. Track One (4:15)
4. Raider ll (23:20)
5. Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye (8:00)
vocals, keyboards, autoharp, guitars, bass guitar, percussion, gong, glockenspiel, harmonium.
Theo Travis: soprano sax, clarinets, flute
Ben Castle: clarinet
Nick Beggs: Chapman stick, bass guitar
Nic France: drums
Jordan Rudess: piano
Tony Levin: bass guitar
Pat Mastelotto: acoustic & electronic drums
Markus Reuter: U8 touch guitar
Trey Gunn: Warr guitar, bass guitar
London Session Orchestra: strings (arranged by Dave Stewart)
Synergy Vocals: choir (arranged by Dave Stewart)
Steve Hackett: guitars
Mike Outram: guitar
Sand Snowman: acoustic guitar
Dave Kerzner: sound design (Raider ll coda)