Blog Archives

Using Available Light: The Skaldic Musings of Greg Spawton  

The cast.

The cast.

A review of “The Underfall Yard” from The Underfall Yard by Big Big Train (English Electric, 2009).  Song and words by Greg Spawton.  Additionally: David Longdon, vocals and vocal arrangements; Dave Gregory, guitars; Nick D’Virgilio, drums; Andy Poole, bass and keyboards; and [see image on right for a full list]


As much I love albums, I’m always looking for that perfect song. The song that longs to linger in our souls after we’ve heard its last notes. The song that cries to the heavens in triumph, praise, and rage. The song that hovers over that second away from eternity, rooted in the human condition, but reaching for timelessness.

In my first two pieces of this series, I looked at Rush’s “Natural Science” (1980) and The Tangent’s “Where Are They Now” (2009)? In this article, I turn to none other than a well-recognized masterpiece, a (perhaps, THE) cornerstone of third-wave prog, “The Underfall Yard” (2009) by Big Big Train. It originally appeared at the final track of Big Big Train’s 2009 album of the same name, the first to feature the vocals of the incomparable David Longdon.

Six seconds short of twenty-three minutes in length, “The Underfall Yard” is epic in every sense of the meaning of the word. I once gave it to a non-prog friend of mine as an introduction to the genre. He liked it (really, who couldn’t?), but he also joked, “Brad, when I started the song, I didn’t realize I’d have to miss dinner to finish it.”

The lyrics of the song reveal its scope best:

Using available light

He could still see far skies,

Deep time

Beyond, above, and yet below the far skies rests (not contentedly) deep time. Indeed, given the song, one must imagine deep time as equal parts restless but also confident in its restlessness, sure of itself even in its transitions.

Always a superb lyricist, Spawton reveals his most intimate and poetic sense in this song overall. The words are at once hopeful and melancholic, the piece as a whole trapped in a slowly shifting twilight. The loss is of England’s entrepreneurial and industrial moments of the interwar era, the parents Edwardian, but the children Georgian.

As one stands with Spawton, watching this scene fade in golden and royal hues, he might just as readily be standing with King Alfred hopeful against heathen men as hairy as sin; with Harold of Hastings, tilting against a bastard’s armies; or with Winston Churchill, toiling and sweating against those would rend idyllic places such Coventry with insidious and inhumane progress.

Spawton’s words endlessly capture that which is always true but never quite obvious to all at all times.

The opening moments of the song move from an earnest guitar into a driving and equally earnest interplay of bass and drums, Gregory, D’Virgilio, Poole, and Spawton weaving something both tribal and civilized. More guitars appear, jutting and jetting. Strings emerge as if from the land itself. At 1:45, David Longdon’s voice enters into the art itself with the necessary pitch, the perfect lilt and quaver, and a resonant meaning. If Spawton is coming from sacred soil, Longdon is coming from the heavens, thus allowing the horizon and sky to meet in an infinite moment.

Almost uniquely among singers, Longdon possesses both assuredness and humility in all of his vocal arrangements, but none more so than in this song. While his voice is the voice of a man, it also is the voice of a chorus of men, a plea for generations.

Chasing a dream of the west

Made with iron and stone

Man, in Spawton’s vision, if armed with genius and integrity, reshapes the land, not in man’s image, but in the sacramental, Adamic way had things in Eden not soured.

These are old hills that stand in the way

breaking the line.

It came out of the storm,

out of the sea

to the permanent way

Using just available light,

he could still see far.

Even in his broken state, some men–seers, prophets, bards, skalds, poets and prog rockers–can see beyond the immediate, toward that which is far and that which is deep. Of all creatures, they alone can imagine the heights and the depths of existence.

In Spawton’s vision, England becomes not just another place on this earth, but a place sacred, sacred because man has recreated nature, not through domination, but through creative understanding, the soul and the intellect of each in harmony, not tension.

One is reminded of Spawton’s counterpart in the world of poetry, T.S. Eliot.

A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

–T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding

IMG_0001 - Version 3Even the timeless moment, though, can not be seen or understood forever. Timeless moments—the light falling on a secluded chapel—lasts only as long as man knows to look for it. As with all things of beauty, truth, and goodness, it is fleeing, at least through our abilities to perceive, incorporate, and understand.

Roofless engine houses

distant hills like bookends

frame electrical storms

moving out to sea

away from England.

Spawton’s words and Longdon’s voice combine to make the above lyrics not only the most moving parts of the song, but combine to make one of the most moving parts of any song in the rock era.

I could never even count how many times I’ve listened to this song over the last five years. Every time, my stomach drops and my heart and soul swell when I hear this. Every single time.

And, yet, despite the loss of the thing itself, the moment in all of the revelation of its glory, Spawton knows—with the greatest thinkers of the western tradition—that memory can comfort us. Perhaps memory alone.

Parting the land

with the mark of man,

the permanent way,

Using just available light,

he could still see far.

The imprint is true. It always exists. We, however, must choose to remember. When we do, the world becomes just a little brighter. Using just available light.

And, thus, Big Big Train reveals its ultimate contribution to the world of art. Somethings are worth remembering, whatever the cost, and memory itself is a precious and delicate thing beyond any cost.

Far skies, deep time.


Video of Big Big Train Accepting Three Major Awards at CRS

Video by Pete Waite.

From the best FB-group you can find!

Being a Passenger means you probably are a member of the evergrowing Big Big Train facebookgroup. Among all interesting subjects being discussed there we have now also learned how to bake bread the proper way! Read Jon Collin’s blog about Big Big Bread! Enjoy!

Classic Rock Society Awards Night 2014

As a lover of Progressive Music for many years now – from the days when I simply knew it as ‘good music’ back in my school days in the 1970s – I have been delighted to see the recent resurgence of the genre. This has been in no small measure down to the efforts of groups like the Classic Rock Society, who have been striving to keep the flame burning, particularly during the dark days when ‘Prog’ was considered by many to be a word not spoken aloud. This striving, though, happened (sadly) under my radar for a large number of years, but I recently came across them, and was delighted to discover that they functioned in my own neck-of-the-woods in South Yorkshire.

Once I’d made this discovery, I ventured out to a few of their gigs in the humble surroundings of the Wesley Centre in Matlby, near Rotherham – interestingly for me the site of a former Methodist Chapel – and when I heard that their awards night was on the horizon I decided to go along (taking my younger son with me, as a fellow traveller). These are my personal reflections on the event.

The venue – the Montgomery Hall in Wath-upon-Dearne – is similar to the Wesley Centre in lay-out, though it has a larger capacity and a larger stage, which proved helpful for the evening’s entertainment. We began with a short solo set from the brilliant Andy Tillison, who coped seamlessly with a keyboard malfunction shortly before the off which left him having to rely on someone else’s equipment for his performance. There didn’t appear to be any problems caused, and Andy gave us around 20 minutes of magic – one man and his keyboards performing without the aid of backing tracks, loops or a safety net and giving us stunning renditions of ‘GPS Culture’ and ‘Perdu Dans Paris’. As a recent ‘convert’ to his work, particularly with The Tangent, I found it sublime and wonderful.

The ‘business’ of the evening was the awards themselves, and after suitable lubrication with ‘Big Big Train’ beer, on sale at the bar, we settled down to find out who had topped the polls at the end of what many have called a classic year for Prog. The awards were presented this year by none other than Fish, who brought his own laconic wit to the proceedings. The awards went to:

Best Male Vocalist – David Longdon
Best Female Vocalist – Christina Booth
Best Keyboard Player – Rob Reed
Best Bass Player – Lee Pomeroy
Best Drummer – Henry Rogers
Best Guitarist – Steve Hackett
Best Album – The Twenty Seven Club – Magenta
Best Track – East Coast Racer- Big Big Train
Best Lyricist – Fish (presented by Andy Tillison)
Best CRS Live Act – Moon Safari
Best UK Band or Artist – Big Big Train
Best Overseas Band or Artist – Moon Safari
CRS Newcomer – Hekz
Unsung Hero – Summer’s End

Amusing incident of the night has to go to Steve Hackett, who having picked up the Best Bassist award on Lee Pomeroy’s behalf, disappeared and was nowhere to be found when his own award was announced. He did eventually return, but we were deprived of what would, I’m sure, have been a great acceptance speech!

The business done, we returned to the music, with a 2-hour performance, with numerous singers and a full band as well as visual images and a virtual choir, of Clive Nolan’s epic rock opera, ‘Alchemy’. This was not a piece with which I was familiar, but it carried you along with a good narrative, well-told and performed: I shall no doubt return to it in the future.

So, five hours after arriving, we set off back home, thrilled by a great evening of rock in the fabulous company of fellow fans and ‘passengers’. Three highlights for me: seeing Andy Tillison perform – an absolute treat; meeting Dave, David & Danny from Big Big Train – real, genuine guys who seem at times quite bemused by their much-deserved recent accolades; and seeing my young son, James, ask Steve Hackett if he would take a photo of James with Fish (he’d already got one with Steve when he came to Sheffield last year!)

All in all, a wonderful night, and a fitting celebration of another classic year for lovers of Progressive Rock!


Three Major Awards for Big Big Train

This photo was rather unceremoniously stolen from Steve Llewellyn's Facebook page.  Let's hope he doesn't mind!

This photo was rather unceremoniously stolen from Steve Llewellyn’s Facebook page. Let’s hope he doesn’t mind!

If you’ve not noticed before, we progarchists kind of, sort of, really, really like Big Big Train.  So. . . it’s with much excitement that we report this.

The Classic Rock Society of the U.K. has just awarded BBT with three well-deserved awards: 1) David Longdon for best vocals; 2) “East Coast Racer” as the best track of the year; and 3) Big Big Train as Great Britain’s best band.

The progarchists of progarchy hq in central Hillsdale County of Michigan are doing a little victory dance for our friends across the Atlantic.

Congratulations to Greg Spawton, David Longdon, Nick D’Virgilio, Dave Gregory, Danny Manners, Andy Poole, and Rob Aubrey.  And, of course, to Jim Trainer as well.  Amazing and brilliant and wonderful.

Progarchy: 2013 in Review, A WordPress Report

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 88,000 times in 2013. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 4 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Top Ten… or Top Thirteen?

For my personal Best of 2013 list, I have just posted (over the last few days) an alphabetical listing of my Top Ten:

Big Big Train: English Electric Part Two

Deep Purple: NOW What?!

Dream Theater: Dream Theater

Haken: The Mountain

Holy Grail: Ride the Void

Kingbathmat: Overcoming the Monster

Sound of Contact: Dimensionaut

Spock’s Beard: Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep

Steven Wilson: The Raven That Refused to Sing and other stories

The Winery Dogs: The Winery Dogs

But, as promised, I am now going to add three more to the list, as three bonus additions, and thus make this a Top Thirteen list.

Why? Well, because this is the year 2013, and also because Black Sabbath released 13 this year (which also happened to be one of Mike Portnoy‘s favorites).

So, stay tuned for #11 on my Top Thirteen of 2013…

Nick’s Best of 2013 (Part 1)

In this, the first part of my round-up of 2013′s best releases, I highlight eleven superb albums that all made it onto my shortlist and managed to remain there – no mean feat given the incredible quality of the new music that appeared this year. Each of these has made a huge impression on me and yet, amazingly, none of them feature in my Top Ten. (We’d best not dwell on the excellent releases from Days Between Stations, Lifesigns, Spock’s Beard and others that eventually got pushed off the bottom of this shortlist, but what can you do when progressive music is enjoying a fecundity not seen since the early 70s?)

I won’t even attempt to rank this selection, but will instead list the albums by artist, alphabetically. Think of them all as being in a notional 11th place in my Best of 2013 list!

A word on criteria: I have considered only studio albums and I have ignored remasters, remixes and rereleases (whole or partial) of pre-2013 material. (In one case, this has had a significant impact on my choices.)

Ready? Off we go…

amplifierAmplifier – Echo Street

The masters of the heavy groove take a step back from the sprawling madness of 2011′s splendid The Octopus. The result is more reflective and refined but no less compelling. Echo Street is subtle rather than subdued, rich in atmosphere (‘matmosphere’?) and dreamy soundscapes but still with enough big riffs to get the blood pumping. The highlight is probably Where The River Goes, an epic that starts in delicate fashion with 12-string acoustic guitar before building to a thunderous conclusion.

ee2Big Big Train – English Electric, Part 2

Part 1 was my Album of 2012, but don’t be fooled by the follow-up’s apparent lowly position this year, as the difference in quality really isn’t that huge. Like its predecessor, Part 2 is a paean to the landscapes, history and fading industrial heritage of England. There are excellent songs to be found here – Worked Out, The Permanent Way and Keeper Of Abbeys are probably the highlights for me – but the album doesn’t flow as smoothly as Part 1 (a minor defect that combined album English Electric: Full Power has since rectified though a reordering of tracks and the introduction of new material).

????????Glide – Assemblage One & Two

Who knew that Echo & The Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant was such a fan of 70s electronica pioneers like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream? Or that he could pay homage in such a respectful and skillful manner? Assemblage is wonderfully evocative of that classic era of electronic music without being derivative. Strongly recommended if you are a fan of TD or other artists of that ilk. Its hypnotic rhythms will transport you to other realms…

guapoGuapo – History Of The Visitation

‘Guapo’ means ‘handsome’ in Spanish, but I’m not sure that’s an entirely appropriate term for the music that Dave Smith, Kavus Torabi, James Sedwards & Emmett Elvin have produced here. Visitation, Guapo’s first recorded output for five years, is a satisfyingly dense and complex slab of instrumental art rock, full of dark tones and edgy riffs. Intense 26-minute opener The Pilman Radiant dominates, providing all the shifting moods and time signatures that a prog fan craves, while Complex #7 provides a richly atmospheric interlude in which to catch the breath before the mayhem resumes with up-tempo closing number Tremors From The Future. Highly recommended.

lunarossaLuna Rossa – Sleeping Pills & Lullabies

The glorious voice of Anne-Marie Helder continues to delight, this time in partnership with fellow Panic Room member Jonathan Edwards. Panic Room’s Skin was one of last year’s surprise hits for me, a powerful demonstration of the growing sophistication and maturity of their sound. Much of that improvement carries over to the efforts of this acoustic double-act (unsurprisingly, given they are the principal songwriters for the band). Sleeping Pills is a delicate and beautiful album, beguiling in its simplicity.

midlakeMidlake – Antiphon

Imagine what it must feel like to be stalled in the midst of a lengthy and difficult recording process for your fourth album, when suddenly you lose your vocalist and principal songwriter! Midlake certainly demonstrated the ‘courage of others’ in scrapping two years of work and starting again from scratch. Given these circumstances, new album Antiphon, written and recorded in only six months, is a triumph. Stand-out tracks from these champions of American prog folk are probably The Old And The Young and Ages, although the whole piece is immensely enjoyable, albeit without quite the same degree of melancholic elegance as its predecessor.

sandSand – Sand

A magnificent solo effort from North Atlantic Oscillation’s Sam Healy. Sam has suggested that Sand serves as a ‘musical palette cleanser’ before work begins on new NAO material, and he has spoken of this album’s different feel – but in truth, Sand could easily be mistaken for a new NAO album. The characteristic NAO ingredients are all here – drum machines, samples, layered electronics and dreamy vocal harmonies – but Sand manages to eclipse 2012′s Fog Electric, feeling somewhat gentler and more refined. Stand-out tracks for me are Clay, Destroyer and Astray.

shinebackShineback – Rise Up Forgotten, Return Destroyed

A bold statement from Tinyfish frontman Simon Godfrey, ably assisted by lyricist Rob Ramsay. With its strong pop, dance music and electronica influences it certainly won’t be to every proghead’s taste, but adventurousness such as this is surely necessary to evolve and reinvigorate the genre. Highlights are probably Passengers, the languid Faultlines – the “A paper doll in Scissorland” lyric is particularly memorable – and the ten-minute title track. The vocals are at times a little too thin and tend to get overwhelmed by the more forceful passages of music, else this might have made my Top Ten.

solsticeSolstice – Prophecy

I’ve always had a soft spot for Solstice. I saw them live many times during the mid 80s and the feel-good hippy vibe of their performances never failed to put a smile on the face. It was gratifying to see them return in 2010 with Spirit and even more gratifying to see them take further strides forward this year with Prophecy. The focal point, as ever, is the superb guitar playing of Andy Glass, but everyone plays their part and Jenny Newman’s violin playing contributes greatly to the overall feel of the album. Forget the new age lyrics if that kind of thing bothers you and just revel in the gloriously uplifting sounds that this band can produce. A most welcome bonus is a trio of Steven Wilson remixes of tracks from the band’s 1984 debut Silent Dance that greatly improve on the originals.

Sound-of-Contact-Dimensionaut-Cover-300x300Sound Of Contact – Dimensionaut

The debut release from the new project of Simon Collins and Dave Kerzner is another of 2013′s unexpected pleasures. The underlying concept doesn’t really fire the imagination, to be honest, but the music most certainly does! Ironically, the album’s prog epic – the 19-minute Möbius Slip – is probably the weakest track, but that’s mainly because the rest of it is so melodic and catchy as hell. It is difficult to pick out highlights, but the five-track sequence from Pale Blue Dot through to Beyond Illumination is near-perfect. Simon Collins is excellent on vocals, with just the slightest hint of father Phil prompting a shiver of recognition here and there.

Spooky-Action-CD-Cover-FinishedOverThe Fierce & The Dead – Spooky Action

Matt Stevens & Co move from strength to strength with this, their second album. As before, it’s an unfailingly energetic and heady mix of King Crimson, math rock, punk and other influences – difficult to categorise adequately, but that is surely part of the attraction. This is the sound of a band charting new ground and growing in confidence as they do so. I can’t wait to hear what they come up with next.

David Longdon Reflects

The ever-wonderful David Longdon, lead singer of Big Big Train, looks back at his life, 2013.  A fine reflection.

Here we are at the end of another year and what a fantastic year it has been, not only for Big Big Train but also for Progressive Rock Music in general. There have been some tremendous releases in our genre this year.

This post is intended to be a brief overview of our year, from my ‘behind the mic’ viewpoint.

On the 2nd of January 2 2013, we found ourselves on location at theEastleigh Railway Works in Southampton. As you would expect, it was cold despite the addition of an industrial heater. The works were in use by the railway carriage engineers and we were in awe of the sheer scale of the work that these men carry out, as if it was nothing. It felt most strange performing along to our track in the midst of all this dramatic industrial scenery. Eventually though, after a few runs through, we began to get used to the absurdity of it and we adjusted to the weirdness of it. The video was made to give those who are interested in us, a glimpse of what it might be like, when we perform live. The video was directed by Peter Callow and upon it’s release in September this year, it has helped to opened up new possibilities for us.

To keep reading, go here:

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

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,, 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,, 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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,689 other followers

%d bloggers like this: