Before we get into the review itself, I want to be clear that I have the upmost respect for Steven Wilson. No matter what I think of The Future Bites, I am not calling into question Wilson’s integrity as a musician, writer, producer, or artist. Everything he does, he does well. This go around he decided to make a pop album, and the pop world certainly has much to learn from Steven Wilson. This is pop in the vein of Tears for Fears or Talk Talk, so if you like those bands, you may like The Future Bites. I don’t particularly enjoy those bands, although I respect them. I also want to make clear that I don’t see what Wilson is doing with this album as being just like what Genesis did after Steve Hackett departed. Genesis sold out and started writing boring trash, both musically and lyrically. Wilson’s lyrics and themes on The Future Bites lead the listener to reflection. This is far from “selling out.” Watching some recent interviews with Wilson only confirmed for me that Wilson is an honest man. This album is incredibly self aware, which I’m sure made this a very vulnerable album for him to make. With all that said, let this long review begin.
Perhaps not surprisingly The Future Bites is doing rather well in the charts, particularly in the UK (number 4 overall as of this writing). It’s wholeheartedly a “pop” album, whatever that actually means. I recall thinking that 2017’s To The Bone was a pop album when it came out, but going back to it now I see that it has far more in common with Wilson’s previous solo work than it does with The Future Bites. There are a few moments on To The Bone that clearly connect with this album, but overall it was a rock album.
Contrarily the remnants of what could be called “rock” are pretty much gone on The Future Bites. That doesn’t necessarily mean Wilson will never return to a traditional progressive rock sound, but he has said in interviews that he isn’t interested in making progressive rock music right now. As to why, well, we can only speculate. Some might say he’s making a lot more money doing this, but I don’t think that is what’s going on here. I think he’s tired of doing what he’s done before, and he’s pushing himself into new territory that reflects the kind of music he enjoyed when he was growing up.
For the most part the album sounds quite stunning. Not musically. Musically it’s nothing special at all, like most pop. It’s still more musically exceptional than 99% of what passes for pop these days, but compared to an album like Hand. Cannot. Erase., it pales. The actual mixing of the record is quite fantastic, apart from the vocals on “Count of Unease,” which sound like they were recorded in a college dorm bathroom. This record is Wilson’s first time mixing in Dolby Atmos. I’d love to hear the album on a good Atmos system, but I don’t have one of those. Even so the regular stereo mix sounds crystal clear, and there is a lot of depth to the various sounds he employs.
It’s really many of those sounds he chose that I take issue with. He leans heavily into electronic music, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of my favorite newer bands, Oak, uses elements of electronic music, and I know Wilson has done that before in the past, but Oak and Wilson always left the rock elements in tact. Without the rock, it leaves much to be desired. I don’t know much about electronic music, but I know there are artists and composers who specialize in and excel at it. On The Future Bites it feels like Wilson is using the electronic aspects in the same way he has in the past, but without the rock the album feels like it’s missing something. The other issue I have with the record is some of Wilson’s vocals.
“King Ghost” contains aspects of the album that I both enjoy and strongly dislike. I can’t stand Wilson’s high-pitched screeching on the album, and he does that in the more upbeat parts of this track. It just sounds like teeny bopper crap when he does that. However the song has this background synth that sounds like Rick Wright is playing, which is a nice touch. There is also some lovely choir vocals that feature prominently, as they do throughout the album. They add a very different sound than what we’re accustomed to from Wilson, but it’s very well executed throughout.
“12 Things I Forgot” is by far the best track on the album. This is peak Steven Wilson. It’s a sedate ballad somewhere between “Trains” and “Lazarus.” I’d go so far as to say it’s as good as those songs, although a bit more upbeat. If this had been the quieter song on a rock album from Wilson, I’d be happy as a clam. The problem for me is this is the closest we get to “rock” on the album. The guitar and keyboard work, while simple, fit the song well. The backing vocals add a nice layer of depth. It’s a brilliant song, but the rest of the album doesn’t live up to it musically or melodically. I’m sure I’ll be returning to “12 Things I Forgot” often in the future, even if I don’t listen to the rest of the album much.
Perhaps even more frustrating is how we go straight from such a brilliant song into the next song, “Eminent Sleaze” which sucks so much. I guess the bass line is alright, but the rhythm section beyond that is some clapping noise and bongo drum while Wilson screeches over the top of that. We get a string sound here and there before finally getting a Pink Floyd keyboard sound which almost redeems the song. Almost, but not quite. The song is too fast paced for the Pink Floyd effect that it seems to be going for.
“Man of the People” has promise… until we get more screeching at the very end. The first four minutes (out of four minutes and forty-two seconds) are actually quite brilliant. The synths are used to good effect while the song gently builds. But then in the last forty seconds the screeching starts… it’s a shame I don’t have this album on vinyl, because it would be incredibly satisfying to rip it off the turntable at this point and smash it. Therein lies the biggest downside to digital music. We, the capitalist-running-pig-dog digital consumers, don’t get the thrill of smashing albums when they enrage us. Perhaps this explains the massive increase in vinyl sales over the last five or so years. Sure you could do it with a CD, but you can’t really slam a CD on the edge of a table and get a satisfying crack.
Considering the next track, “Personal Shopper,” starts with the same high-pitched singing, my angst only builds. The lyrics on this song are the most in-your-face and perhaps the most spiteful towards prog fans. I think a lot of people new to Wilson’s music that are introduced to him through The Future Bites will miss what he’s talking about here:
Buy the boxset and the kind of stuff you’ve bought before a million times
Buy in green, buy in blue, buy in patterns cuz I tell you to
Obviously he’s talking about all the deluxe edition box sets of classic albums he has remixed over the last decade, along with the plethora of box sets released by other artists. Many of these albums people have purchased on multiple formats over the last 40-50 years: vinyl, 8-track, cassette, CD, digital… and now back to vinyl and CD with special tracks, live cuts, early edits, etc. Is Wilson mocking his fans? Maybe. But if he is then he’s also mocking himself, because in addition to selling boxsets, he also buys them himself from other bands. As I mentioned earlier, this album is very personal, and Wilson has always been a keen critic of modern culture. I happen to agree with his point on this song.
Consumer of life, hold my hand, extend your rights
It’s the power to purchase to excess
That sets you apart and can give you the ultimate high
Abuser of time, if there’s something that you want
You don’t need it, but have to concede
It’s making you happy and that’s all that matters to you
We comfortable westerners love to consume. I happen to be fairly frugal. I don’t even own a TV. I don’t have the 5.1 or Dolby Atmos stereo, even though I’d like one. I’m typing this on an 8.5 year old laptop. My iPhone is almost six years old. My car is 36 years old. I don’t buy the big deluxe box sets, although I purchase maybe 10-20 CDs or live albums on Blu-ray a year. Nevertheless my coffee table is currently covered with nine books I’ve purchased over the past month, with probably 8 more books ordered and on the way. Wilson’s point on this song is relevant to all of us – some more than others. The music video shows someone going through a mall purchasing everything in sight and cutting off fingers, eyes, ears, etc. to pay for more junk when he runs out of money. There are plenty of people out there who spend every dollar (or pound, euro, *insert currency of choice*) they have left after paying for their rent, mortgage, food, and car payment (don’t get me started on people’s obsession with buying new cars they can’t afford every few years). Many people spend far beyond that, choosing to rack up credit card debt just so they can appear to live an affluent life. Yes, Wilson’s point is all too relevant.
The theme is good, but the delivery, well, not so much. It’s a pop song, which means it’s catchy yet simplistic and, in my opinion, boring. The driving drum or electronic beat certainly fits the music video well, with the beat matching the bizarre strutting of the character in the video. From an artistic standpoint, it makes sense. From the standpoint of music that I would enjoy listening to for years to come? Yeah I’ll take a hard pass on that. With that said the song does get better as it goes along. Wilson’s singing comes back down to earth, and the backing choir adds a nice touch. The screeching does come back periodically though, but thankfully not for the entire track length.
Hilariously this quote (specifically the part I’ve highlighted in bold) from the director of the music video gets at the absurdity of pop music:
The track is a social criticism of consumerism and how we fill our lives with unnecessary goods to feel important, special or loved. But the truth is, the feeling of unhappiness won’t go away with the next pair of sick trainers. Those feelings will only go away when we look within, and if we don’t… well, then we’re going to end up with a lot of stuff around us, but still pretty empty. Luckily the track being 6 minutes gave me the opportunity to develop an interesting narrative. I wanted to create a fictional world in which people buy goods and the transaction would not only be money but also a part of their body, alluding to the concept of the more you look for answers outside, the more you disappear on the inside. – Lucrecia Taormina
She thinks 6 minutes is a long track. I’m amazed at how people can live their lives listening exclusively to 2-3 minute pop drivel. Six minutes is a short song in my book.
One of my biggest disappointments in The Future Bites was the absence of Ninet Tayeb. I loved her work on Wilson’s previous few solo albums, and on tour she proved herself to be vital, including filling in on lead vocals when Wilson lost his voice and was unable to sing for a show in New York. Her voice fits Wilson’s music so well, and it’s beautiful to listen to. Her absence is very apparent on this record. She would’ve been great on “12 Things I Forgot,” and a solo version of that song with just her on vocals would’ve made a great bonus track.
While I didn’t purchase the big deluxe edition, I did acquire the digital versions of the deluxe edition CDs. Disc 1 is the album, disc 2 is an instrumental version of the album, and disc 3 is a collection of extended versions of album tracks along with some bonus tracks. For the life of me I don’t understand including an instrumental version of the album, especially when this isn’t a particularly brilliant instrumental showing. Haken also releases the instrumental versions of their albums on the special editions, which I don’t understand, but at least with them there’s some exceptional musicianship at work. That can’t really be said about The Future Bites, even though it can be said of Wilson’s past solo albums.
The extended versions of the album tracks don’t do me any favors. The only song I would want an extended version of is “12 Things I Forgot,” and apparently that was one of the twelve things Mr. Wilson forgot. Instead we get an almost 20-minute version of “Personal Shopper,” an eight and a half-minute version of “King Ghost,” and an over eight minute version of “Eminent Sleaze.” How about I go slam my head against a wall instead.
I’m left wondering what the deuce do people find so appealing in pop music? Beyond the one or two tracks I enjoyed, I’d have to say the only redeeming quality about The Future Bites is it isn’t particularly long. Wilson could have easily made a half hour more of this to make us suffer through, but mercifully he didn’t. Actually he did, but he didn’t include it on the main album, choosing to relegate it to the bonus disc instead.
The Future Bites is clearly a Steven Wilson album in that there are elements you will recognize from past work, but it goes in an entirely new direction. If you thought To The Bone was too poppy, you’re definitely not going to enjoy this record. Nevertheless his skill as a writer is blatantly obvious throughout. He writes good melodies, and he has become a better pop songwriter. But for the love of rock and roll give me some real drums and some extended guitar solos along with extended instrumental jamming that goes somewhere. I don’t want computer-programmed noise. If you like electronic music more than I do (and I really don’t dislike electronic music, but it isn’t my preferred genre), maybe you’ll find more to appreciate. For the most part the lyrics are still up to par with Wilson’s past output, and the audio mix is quite stunning. Those aren’t going to be enough to make me want to revisit this album in the future, though. Maybe I’ll change my mind someday, but I doubt it.