Steven Wilson: A Minority Report

In almost every way, Steven Wilson is widely regarded as the current leader of progressive rock music.  It’s a title he claims he did not seek, does not want, and, in fact, fought against time and time again.

Press photo, February 2013.

Press photo, February 2013.

And yet, he is, for all intents and purposes, “Mr. Prog.”  “No discussion on progressive rock is complete without mentioning Steven Wilson,” Tushar Menon has recently and rightly claimed at Rolling Stone (June 24, 2012).

Having turned 46 this year [I’m just two months older than Wilson], Wilson has been writing and producing music for over two decades.  Best known in North America for his leadership of the band, Porcupine Tree, Wilson came to the attention of the American and Canadian public through the appreciation offered by North American prog acts, Spock’s Beard, Rush, and, most especially, Dream Theater.

In addition to the thirteen studio albums released under the name of Porcupine Tree, Wilson also has played in No-man, Bass Communion, and, most recently, has released three well-received solo album.  Last year, he and Swedish progressive metal legend, Mikael Akerfelt, wrote a brooding folk-prog album under the name of “Storm Corrosion.”

He has also leant his talents–for he is one of the finest audiophiles alive [though, I much prefer the talents of a Rob Aubrey]–to re-mixing a number of classic but often forgotten or misunderstood progressive albums from the 1970s and 1980s, including works by Jethro Tull, Yes, XTC, and King Crimson.

Porcupine Tree music is very very simple.  There’s nothing complex about it at all.  The complexity is in the production.  The complexity is in the way the albums are constructed . . . . And that really is why I have to take issue when people describe us as progressive rock.  I don’t think we are a progressive rock band.–Steven Wilson, 1999 interview with dprp.net.

Porcupine Tree albums probably cannot be classified, at least not easily.  Beginning as somewhat of a satire on psychedelic music, not too far removed from the fake history of XTC’s alternative ego, The Dukes of Stratosphear, Porcupine Tree invented its own history when Wilson first released music under the name.  Since then, Porcupine Tree albums have crossed and fused a number of genres, including space rock, impressionist jazz, hard rock, AOR, New Wave, pop, and metal.  Wilson has been open about his influences, and he has prominently noted the work of Talk Talk, Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, Rush, The Cure, and a whole slew of others.

What Wilson claims to like most is the creating and maintaining of the “album as an art form, [to] treat the album as a musical journey that tells the story,” rejecting the importance of an individual song.  “That’s what I’m all about,” he told a reporter for the Chicago Tribune (April 26, 2010).

In hindsight, he believes that his fear of being labeled “progressive” was simply a fear of being associated with those he considers the wrong type of people  (interview with Dave Baird, dprp.net, June 2012)

And, yet, almost and anyone connected in any way with the progressive rock world would immediately identify Wilson as its most prominent face and voice.  One insightful English fan of the genre, Lisa Mallen, stated unequivocally, “Steven Wilson is THE most highly regarded person working in the prog industry right now.”  Though a long time devotee of progressive rock, Mallen has only recently started listening to Wilson’s music.  Wilson is also shaping and defining music in a way that probably only Neil Peart could and did for a generation coming of age in the late 1970s and 1980s.  A graduate student in the geographic sciences in Belgium as well as a musician, Nicolas Dewulf, writes, “Steven made me appreciate music in a totally different way, as an art form.”  Another long-time prog aficionado, serious thinker, and prolific reader, Swede Tobbe Janson (and fellow progarchist) writes, “I respect SW for being very serious about this wonderful thing called music.”  Still, with a mischievous Scandinavian twinkle in his eye, Janson asks, Wilson “is fascinating but sometimes I can wonder: where’s the humour?”

Most recently, Wilson has claimed the golden age of rock music to be 1967 to 1977, the years during which rock realized it could be an art form as high as jazz and classical but before the reactionaries of punk gained an audience through their simple, untrained, and unrestrained anger.  “I was born in ’67/The year of Sergeant Pepper and Are You Experienced?  It was a suburb of heaven,” Wilson sings in 2009’s “Time Flies.”  Wilson’s dates are probably more symbolic than literal.  For example, he cites “Pet Sounds” (1966) and “Hemispheres” (1978) as essential albums in rock.

For his part, Wilson believes it critical to maintain his independence as much as possible.  “The moment you have a fan base, is the moment you start to lose a little bit of your freedom.  The greatest thing of all is to make music without having a fan base because [it's] the most pure form of creation.” (interview with Menon, Rolling Stone India, June 24, 2102)  Reading Wilson’s words, it’s difficult not to think of a younger Neil Peart writing the lyrics of Anthem (1975).  As Wilson recently told Menon, “For me, it’s still about being very selfish and doing what I want to do.”

Wilson even refuses to read reviews of his music, and he asks those around him (including his manager) not even to hint to him what been written, good or bad.  Wilson admits to becoming just as upset by good reviews as by bad, as he thinks even the good reviewers rarely understand him.  With the good reviews, Wilson especially despises when the reviewer “compare[s] you to somebody that you don’t like.”  Further, Wilson claims, he’s a “kind of idiot-savant” and “I think I’m incapable of making records [ ] for anyone else than myself.” (interview with Dave Baird, dprp.net, June 2012).

Wilson has proclaimed repeatedly that he is a “control freak,” and, frankly, it would be difficult for anyone to listen to any of his music without realizing the perfectionist side of him immediately.  It’s one of the greatest joys of listening to his music.  It’s never flawed in anyway.  Indeed, if there is a flaw in Wilson’s music, it comes with fatigue of immersing oneself in such perfection.

As Canadian classical philosopher and fellow progarchist, Chris Morrissey, has so aptly described it, “His use of 5.1 mixes perhaps shows us the way forward for prog’s future. The beauty and complexity of prog music seems to demand the sort of treatment that Steven Wilson has shown us it deserves.”

None of this, however, should suggest that Wilson is without his critics.  An American mathematician and highly-skilled artist of wood and glass, Thaddeus Wert (another progarchist!), offers an appreciative but equally objective appraisal of Wilson’s works: he “seduces the listener with beautiful music, but there is often an undercurrent of menace and despair in his lyrics that can be disturbing.”

Wert is correct.  One of the most jarring aspects of any Steven Wilson song is its gorgeous construction on top of very dark subjects and lyrics.  In interviews, he claims to give as much attention and detail to his lyrics as he does to the beauty and perfection of the music.  “I try to make the lyrics have some depth, yes, I mean I don’t want the lyrics to be trivial” (interview with Brent Mital, Facebook Exclusive, April 28, 2010).  His lyrics deal with drug (illicit and prescription) use, cults, the banality of modernity, commercialism (Wilson believes “Thatcherism” accelerated the western drive toward hollow materialism), serial killing, death in an automobile, and mass conformity.

Porcupine Tree, Fear of a Blank Planet (2007).  One of the best prog rock albums ever made.

Porcupine Tree, Fear of a Blank Planet (2007). One of the best prog rock albums ever made.

Widely regarded as his best work, Porcupine Tree’s 2007 “Fear of a Blank Planet” offers one of the most interesting critiques of modern and post-modern culture in the world of art today.  Based on Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, Lunar Park, the album explores the banal world of the “terminally bored” and features the disturbing front cover of a teenager, zombified by the glow of the T.V. Screen.  Wilson’s album is effective and artful social criticism of the best kind.   Even the EP released shortly after Fear of a Blank Planet, “Nil Recurring” offers some of the most interesting rock music ever produced.

Outside of being labeled and “forced” to conform to the expectations of fans, Wilson’s greatest fear comes from the irrationality and demands of religious belief, as he sees it.  In his lyrics and in interviews, Wilson speaks at length about his opposition to religion.  “Anything to do with organized religion really makes me really f***in’ angry.”  Even non-cultish ones are “living a lie, but, you know, ok, if it makes them happy, that’s fine” (Interview with Mital, FB Exclusive, April 28, 2010).  One can probably safely assume that Wilson has never read Augustine, Aquinas, More, Bellermine, or Chesterton.  Would they still appear so bloody stupid if he had?

Usually far more articulate than this, Wilson expresses his greatest Bono-esque opposition to televangelists who use faith to create power and promote self-aggrandizement.  In the same interview, Wilson states that Christians of all kinds must find the need to divorce his lyrics from his music if they’re to appreciate his work.  “I’m sure we have fans that are Christians and . . . . [in original] I know we do, you know.  That’s not something lyrically I think they could ever find sympathy with or I could, but musically they must love the music” (Interview with Mital, FB Exclusive, April 28, 2010).

An "artsy" scene from a Storm Corrosion video.

An “artsy” scene from a Storm Corrosion video.

Wilson’s most blatant statement of skepticism comes from the video for a single from his Storm Corrosion album, “Drag Ropes.”  Stunningly beautiful and haunting gothic folk prog–akin to some of the earliest work of The Cure–drones, while stained glass images of Tim Burton-eque creatures defy the Catholic Church and embrace some form of paganism.  A Catholic priest, under the bloody image of a Crucifix, laughs diabolically as a pagan is dragged to the gallows.  Paradoxically, not only is the art and animation of the video utterly dependent upon the iconography of the Christian tradition, but the music also carries with it an intense if elegiac and funerary high-church quality.

Whether Wilson recognizes this explicitly or not, he’s correct about what a Christian might find appealing about his music.  Whether he’s writing a solo work or working in Porcupine Tree, No-man, or Storm Corrosion, his music exudes the liturgical despite what genre he employs on any given song or album.  Consciously or not, it’s almost certainly one of the qualities that most draws listeners to Wilson’s vast corpus of work.  Liturgy predates Christianity, of course.  It dates back to the public performances of the polis of ancient Greece, a way to incorporate all through art and performance into a community. Every person–no matter his or her race, ethnicity, or religious (or lack thereof)–desires to be a part of such a thing.  It’s worth remembering that we define a sociopath precisely as this because he or she refuses to be a part of community.

As is clear from the Storm Corrosion video, Wilson does not understand the mass of Christians (at least Catholic and Eastern Orthodox ones) and their desires or their serious failings.  In this, he’s not much different from the rest of the modern world, and probably few serious Christians will get upset with the attempt to upset them.  Christians have endured far, far worse than Wilson’s video, and, of course, sadly, they’ve dealt out far worse than the priest of Storm Corrosion’s imagination.

Theology aside, if there’s one essential thing missing in Wilson’s art, it’s his inability to present something in a truly organic form.  One sees this most readily when comparing his work to that of other progressive greats (though, to be fair (well, honest) to Wilson, he’s claimed that there really is no competition within progressive rock; of course, he’s completely wrong).  His most Talk Talk-eque song, for example, is his two-minute “The Yellow Windows of the Evening Train” (2009).  In almost every way, with one vital exception, it could have appeared on Talk Talk’s 1991 masterpiece, “Laughing Stock.”  Porcupine Tree’s most Rush-eque song is the 17-minute masterpiece, “Anestheize” (2007).  Each song, though, remains an abstraction, a stunning mimicry.  As great as each song is, each is missing the very soul that made Talk Talk and makes Rush so good.  And, this despite the fact that Rush’s Alex Lifeson performs the guitar solo on “Anethetize.”  It might, interestingly enough, be Lifeson’s best solo, ever.

Compared to other prog greats of this generation, Wilson’s music seems impoverished.  Not because it’s not great, but because it lacks a sense of the human and of the humane.  Even at his best, Wilson remains abstract and disconnected.  When one hears the music of much of the last two decades, one feels the very depth of the soul and being that each of these groups/artists brings to the art.  Five minutes of listening to Big Big Train, Matt Stevens, The Tangent, or Cosmograf makes me realize how human and humane these artists are.  They give their very selves to their art.  Listening to Wilson, as much as I appreciate the precision put into the music, the lyrics, and, especially, the audio quality, I can’t help but think he’s reading a treatise from the most rational person of the 18th century.  Where are the kids?  Where are the relationships?  Where are the foibles?  Where is the greatness?

What hit me hardest came not with Storm Corrosion, with its blatant anti-Christian posturing, but with Wilson’s third solo album, The Raven That Refused to Sing, released this year.

"Steven Wilson" by the very talented Anne-Catherine de Froidmont.

“Steven Wilson” by the very talented Anne-Catherine de Froidmont.

From Jerry Ewing to Greg Spawton to Harry Blackburn to Richard Thresh to Anne-Catherine de Froidmont to a number of other folks I respect immensely, The Raven has received almost nothing but praise.

For me, though, it’s almost 55 minutes of parody—cold, perfect, distant, abstract.  From the opening few lines and minutes of the album, I thought, “This is simply Andy Tillison’s work without the humor, the warmth, the depth, the breadth, or the sharp-witted intelligence.”  I thought this on my first listen, and I thought this on my most recent listen (today).  I certainly don’t want to put Tillison in a bad spot, and I don’t want to praise one while knocking down the other.  But, the comparison between Wilson and Tillison, I think, is a fair one.  Listen to the 55 minutes of The Raven (2013) and the 60 minutes of The World That We Drive Through (2004).  While it’s not a note for note similarity, it’s clear that Wilson has found his style (compare The Raven to his first two solo albums) in what Tillison has so wonderfully cultivated over the last decade.

I have absolutely nothing against honoring or borrowing from the greats.  But, it does rankle a bit thinking about the genius who has spent most of his career separating himself from his brethren while the thinking of the other genius who has struggled so seriously in the very name of his brethren.

Honor should go where honor should go.  Really, who deserves to be Mr. Prog?

Please don’t get me wrong.  I’m a fan of Steven Wilson.  I own everything he’s produced (even the more obscure stuff from early in his career), and I almost certainly will continue to do so.  But, his own self-admitted quirks will always keep me at a distance.  And, from what I’ve read from him, he’s perfectly fine with this.  In fact, he’ll almost certainly never even know this article existed.

"The World That We Drive Through" by The Tangent, 2004.  Cover art by Ed Unitsky.

“The World That We Drive Through” by The Tangent, 2004. Cover art by Ed Unitsky.

About Brad Birzer

By day, I'm a father of seven and husband of one. By night, I'm an author and prog rocker. Interests: prog rock, cultural criticisms, Macs, history, hiking, and science fiction.

Posted on December 26, 2013, in progressive rock music and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. A very valuable critique, Mr. Birzer .I’ve always felt that for all his great qualities as a musician & producer, emotionally & intellectually, he’s still a teen, listening to LPs in a suburban bedroom.Ironically, this is best illustrated by his “Don’t care” kind of posturing; if you have to try to make this clear, of course you do care.You care so much you can’t read a word about how you’re perceived without being seriously bothered by it.
    This attempt at coolness via feigned detachment ( the generic “darkness”, etc.) backfires over and over again & I think he suspects as much.Tackling that – exposing to the world what you truly value- would mean risking looking like a dork (the wrong kind of people).The safety of the headphones in the suburban bedroom , where cool fantasy selves (histories , bands, etc) can seem pretty real, would have to go.

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  2. Excellent work, Brad!

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  3. A title like “Mr. Prog” should only be bestowed based on an objective standard of measure: e.g., the quantity of artistic output in a year; i.e., count up all the releases, the remixes, the live gigs, the collaborations, etc.

    Then, whoever has the biggest total, is “Mr. Prog” — whether you like his stuff the best or not.

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  4. Brad, for me this is one of your best pieces.
    I absolutely love the work of WIlson, but there is definitely a coldness to it that never draws me in the same way as BBT or others. I think he has improved this with The Raven though …
    I’m not clever enough to know if this is the production techniques employed or the structure of the music itself, or indeed the subject matter,
    I adore the PT work, and the earlier work in particular, but it never gives me a feeling of ‘connection’ which can be so important.
    Anyway, a great article, food for thought and for me, one of your stand-out pieces ….:-)

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  5. Great stuff. I’ve only just recently become aware of Wilson’s solo work–I’d never been drawn to Porcupine Tree in past, though it’s also been a while since I’ve listened–but I think I can hear what you’re saying in listening to The Raven. I very much enjoy it, but it only very rarely grabs me on an emotional level.

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