Steven Wilson – Prog’s Renaissance Man
Ever had the feeling you’ve been here before?
Drinking down the poison the way you were taught
Ever thought from here on in your life begins
And all you knew was wrong?
– Arriving Somewhere But Not Here (Deadwing, Procupine Tree)
Explaining music as an art form has got to be one of the more grueling tasks out there. To some, it provides an outlet for the rawest and the most primal of human emotions – those which cannot be put in words, but can be felt just the same. It can elevate, depress, mollify and agitate. Each significant period of time in human history is characterized by its music – it was the voice that their respective generations represented. In essence, it’s the universal language which serves as a means of communication across time, cultures and geographical distances.
Keeping the above in mind, English musician Steven Wilson may well be the voice of ours. Words fall short to explain the gravitas in Wilson’s deeply introspective works, which mark a slow descent into a deep-rooted psychedelic chasm which you wouldn’t want to escape from. Born in Hemel Hempsted near London, Steven Wilson was introduced to music at a very early age. His father, an electrical engineer, built him a vocoder machine and a portastudio for multitracking at the tender age of 12, which is what got him started on his journey of composing and recording music.
Porcupine Tree started off as nothing more than a source of private amusement when in 1987, Wilson collaborated with Malcolm Stocks to create a hypothetical progressive rock band, with a particularly detailed fabrication for each fictional band member. It was scripted in a very pre-eminent manner, inclusive of a chance meeting at a 1970s rock concert, and frequent visits to jail thereafter.
However, Wilson soon began to crave a collaborative musical environment. He worked with Richard Barbieri on the keyboard, Colin Edwin on the bass, and Chriss Maitland on the drums, who was soon to be replaced by the legendary Gavin Harrison in 2001. Although their record label seemed to evoke the giants of progressive rock such as Pink Floyd and Genesis, they also explored alternative rock and progressive metal in future albums.
“There’s a lot of beauty to be found in sadness and melancholia.
One of the things that you find time and time again – not just with music, but with literature – is that things that appear to be quite depressing on the surface can ironically be very uplifting and touching to other people.”
Melancholia has been a common element in Steven Wilson’s largely varied works. He believes melancholy music is more often than not happier than meets the eye, and that people who connect with an art form of that sort, do so on a deeper level.
Interestingly, the name of the band find its roots in the ‘Hedgehog’s dilemma’, or the ‘Porcupine dilemma’, a paradoxical specimen of human intimacy. It talks about how in the winters, hedgehogs crave to be closer to one another to keep each other warm, but they can’t get too close or else their spines would cause injury. Tree was the name of the home studio where Wilson worked, essentially his personal musical quarantine. So Porcupine Tree would be a legacy of Steven’s most profound, intimate work.
Lazarus is one of their more well known tracks, essentially dominated by soft piano carillons and Wilson’s angelic voice. Stemming from their eighth studio album, Deadwing, the song is about a mother calling out to her son from beyond the grave, telling him that this ‘cold world was not for him’. It is even believed to bear religious connotations, referring to Lazarus as the man allegedly resurrected from the dead by Christ. A certain lyric goes, “I survived against the will of my twisted folk”, likening itself to the resurrection theme, thus making the song likely about ‘starting afresh’.
Dark Matter, from their fourth studio album, Signify, is deeply reflective of the band’s krautrock influences and their need to feel as unrestrained as they possibly can. It harnesses a steady space rock theme that lays you in a comfortable stupor. This transcends both genre and comparison. Gavin Harrison introduces well thought out drum fills in Arriving Somewhere but Not Here, also from Deadwing. It features melodic and almost radio-friendly tunes combined with heavier riffs usually only found in the abysmal depths of metal genres.
Russia on Ice, from their album Lightbulb Sun is primarily a song about a man’s relationship falling apart and his inability to cope with it. It’s one of their most melancholic songs ever written, while the 18 minute epic, The Sky Moves Sideways is representative of Steven Wilson’s views on art.
“I grew up near a train station, and trains are somehow preserved in aspic for me, as a particular part of my childhood. It’s kind of a Proustian thing, which trivial or otherwise, triggers a whole series of memories, feelings, smells and sights.”
A lot of Steven Wilson’s work also features trains, or references to trains. Most of his musical inspirations stem from things he’s felt or experienced growing up, much like many musicians out there. Among the most recognizable of those, Trains, from In Absentia mesmerizes with its reverb-soaked string section and Wilson’s masterful use of the hammered dulcimer.
Blackfield is the result of Wilson’s collaboration with the esteemed rock artist from Israel, Aviv Geffen. The two had always been deeply appreciative of each other’s works, and Geffen even provided backing vocals for the ‘Sound of Muzak’ and ‘Prodigal’ from PT’s enthralling album, In Absentia. They realised a mutual passion for 60s and 70s classic rock and went on to record state-of-the-art traditional pop songs with a fraternized verse-chorus format. Owing to their packed schedules, their recording sessions were sporadic for the most part, which resulted in the release of their first EP ballooning into a year and half worth of delay. When they eventually reconvened at a studio in Tel Aviv, Blackfield’s debut eponymous album released by Koch records in 2005 met with a scintillating response.
Following three supremely well-received albums, Wilson conceded complete curatorship to Geffen for Backfield IV as his role progressively lessened to that of a mixer and contributor, for his new interest lay in an entirely different arena- Going Solo.
Wilson has always experienced the fundamental necessity to constantly evolve as an artist, and he found that was much simpler to execute when he had only himself to answer to. In an industry that thrives on well-established bands keeping their style unaltered, Wilson manages to reinvent his technique for each album. Blackfield’s fifth album is due for release in February, 2017
In 2003, Steven started to release music under his own name, under his own label, Headphone Dust, each one featuring a cover version and an original SW song. The choice and treatment of the cover versions was unpredictable, as it featured songs by Alanis Morissette, Abba, The Cure, Momus, Prince, and Donovan. It allowed Steven to expand his musical horizons to electronica, noise music, and stripped down acoustic balladry.
Grace for Drowning, his second solo album was released in September 2011, which received massive critical acclaim and got nominated for Best Surround Sound Album at the 54th Grammy’s. It features an eclectic collection of sounds ranging from melancholic soft ballads like ‘Belle De Jour’ and ‘Deform to Form a Star’ to avant grade music in ‘Raider II’.
“Oh, you’re a musician?What’s your name?”
“What kind of music do you make?”
– Insurgentes (2009)
Another song from the album that’s worthy of mention would be ‘Index’, in which Steven Wilson gets into the shoes of a kidnapper or a serial killer, who’s obsessed with mannequins, particularly those of child figurines, which forms a truly eerie masterpiece that’s perversely beautiful at the same time. In reality, it’s a cleverly disguised song about Wilson’s love for collecting physical copies of albums, and his disdain for the download culture. The song lyrically talks about his production work, about being an individual who likes and makes ‘weird’ music, and the loneliness of the process of creating it.
In 2013, he released The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories), which contain some of his most celebrated works, particularly, Luminol, Drive Home and what he believes to be his finest work, ‘The Raven That Refused To Sing’. The album was engineered by Alan Parsons, and was recorded with Marco Minneman on drums, and the legendary Guthrie Govan on the guitar. The music videos and the songs embody melancholia itself. Every song on the album is story driven, and are Steven’s attempts at storytelling.
“There’s an overall theme that runs through the record, which is each piece being a self-contained ghost or supernatural story. But like all great books of short stories, all of them together make a cohesive piece.”
A lot of it is about coping with a part of themselves or their lives that doesn’t exist any more. ‘Drive Home’ is about a man who’s lost his wife in a car accident, and unable to deal with its reality, he blocks it out – like taking a piece of tape and editing a big chunk out of it. The title track is about an old man who lost his sister as a child, and who’s been traumatized by her death his whole life. In the song, he tries to keep a raven as a pet (which he projects his deceased sister onto) to alleviate his loneliness and misery, but in the end, he sets it free and reconciles with the ghost of his sister, only to have it disappear, much like the raven. The song ends on a harrowing note, with him walking off into the snowy forest, possibly to his death.
His 2015 album, Hand. Cannot. Erase is based on the life of Joyce Carol Vincent, who died in her apartment, and lay there dead for two years until housing officials decided to repossess her property on account of rent not being paid, which is when they found her rotting corpse. Prior to her death, she had resigned from her job and cut off all contact with friends and family. Inspired by the acutely despondent scenario, Steven Wilson creates a fictional account of her entire life in the album. Before releasing the album, he created a fictional blog for the character in the album, in which she documents her life up to her death, and the blog is presented quite fittingly in a reverse-chronological manner.
This was his first attempt at taking on a female voice for an album, and also the first album featuring Ninet Tayeb on vocals. The songs on the album subsequently coincide with the accounts of her life as documented in the blog, as well as telling stories of their own.
Hand Cannot Erase, the title track features what is possibly the very first semblance of ‘happy’ music that Steven Wilson’s ever made. It only seems happy musically, but it reveals itself to be as typically melancholic as any of his other works, upon closer inspection.
‘Routine’, according to Steven Wilson, is his saddest work to date, and therefore, by his own logic, also one of his most beautiful works. The protagonist of the music video in ‘Routine’ is a seamless homemaker with weary, cried-out eyes, gradually going about her tedious daily household chores-scrubbing dishes, folding clothes, smelling them as if they were reminiscent of a hallowing darkness, making the beds for children that do not feature anywhere throughout the poetic presentation, washing the floor until her hands bleed, and then undoing all her work in the evening just so that she may have something to do the next morning.
A newspaper flashes on screen, revealing that her husband and both her sons were shot to death in a school shooting. Her cooking their meals and tidying after them as if they were still alive, is all she can do, as characterized by the song’s heartbreaking climax – “Routine keeps me alive; helps me pass the time”.
His other notable works include a collaborative project with Mikael Åkerfeldt of the Swedish progressive metal band, Opeth, entitled Storm Corrosion.
While Wilson is mainly labelled as progressive, apart from being a brilliant guitarist and keyboardist, he’s also proficient at the hammered dulcimer, flute, and even the antiharp, possibly as a result his stellar abilities as a producer, arranger and songwriter. As if this weren’t enough to instill a profound sense of mediocrity, Wilson happens to be entirely self-taught in music and production.
The distinction in all his pieces comes from empty spaces and dusky places that so exquisitely convey the depths and reverberations of the sounds themselves. The reason Steven Wilson is so admired and highly regarded in the music community is not only for the beauty of his style of art, or his virtuosic live performances, but also the high levels of technicality and the intricacies involved in his music. Each note in his pieces has been tenderly so placed to fulfill a purpose, and partakes in constructing a work of well thought out art. He believes music to be a personal means of expression, and in a way, an extension of oneself, which is perhaps the best way to truly describe it.
Steven Wilson’s works are a mass of subtleties that a cursory dip of the auditory toe will miss entirely. There are very few pieces of music that appreciably encapsulate the essence of a tangled cluster of human sentiment, which may hold a widely contrasting connotation for each listener. Steven Wilson’s masterful musings manage to do just that.
– Rahul Basu and Ananya Roy
(Featured image courtesy of http://stevenwilsonhq.com/)