[Sly and the Family Stone’s album ‘There’s a riot goin’ on’] is Muzak with its finger on the trigger . . . If you listen, you get sharper, and you begin to hear what the band is hearing; every bass line or vocal nuance eventually takes on great force.Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock’n’Roll Music
Steven Wilson’s The Future Bites didn’t click for me until I stopped listening to it. Let me explain.
It was when I was playing TFB for the fifth time, as I was doing something else, that I finally heard it — almost as if the album was designed to catch you by surprise when you’re focused elsewhere or distracted. I found myself drawn toward the interplay of backing textures instead of the spare surface detail, zooming in on the ambience of the foundational grooves and pads instead of the gyrating vocal and instrumental leads. Instead of missing the rock rhythms, the power riffs, the extended structures and the virtuoso musical moments of Wilson’s previous efforts, I started digging into what was actually there. The minimalism — maybe even the monotony Bryan Morey detected in his review — becomes the message.
Which, whatever you may think of the results, is a pretty neat trick. So the thought struck me: is this latest release meant to work as background music, as much or more than as a foreground listening experience? When you turn the frequently static norms of today’s electronic pop inside out, is this what you get?
If so, it fits with more of Steven Wilson’s catalog than later adopters might think — sample the extended trance trip of Porcupine Tree’s Voyage 34, the forlorn, scratched-up drones of his Bass Communion efforts, even the symphonic disco of 2019’s No-Man comeback Love You to Bits if you doubt me. (Not to mention his remastering of vintage efforts by German synth wizards Tangerine Dream.) And it seems to me his new sound — a postmodern British upgrade of Greil Marcus’ concept? — is not just purposeful, but channeled for a purpose. After all, the man knows (and has lyrically railed against) the sound of Muzak. By embracing it here, he’s planting depth charges beneath our buffed-up virtual lives, triggering both our individual delight as we succumb to the age of the algorithm and our creeped-out, collective unease with the results. We may be having a good time amusing ourselves into financial and spiritual bankruptcy, but Wilson’s depictions of lost, alienated souls (by turns ironic, empathetic, furious, blackly hilarious) hold up a mirror — one with the caption “Limited Edition Deluxe Box Set Purchaser” across the bottom — and dare us to study the reflection as we spiral downward.
Throughout The Future Bites, Wilson’s music fits snugly with the character sketches of his lyrics, locking together in remarkable unity. Kicking off the album, what better portrait could there be of an oversized ego’s banality than “Unself/Self” — distanced, plaintive strumming tailing into glacial, politely propulsive funk, garnished with gibberish choruses, kids shouting “I am the universe!” and cut-up guitar noise? How better to depict the same icy obsession from the outside than with the insidious electroglide and shortwave radio loops of “King Ghost”? And sure, “12 Things I Forgot” slots in alongside previous Wilson mid-tempo rockers — but this heart-on-sleeve drive-time ballad has a sublimated bite to it, given that what the narrator forgets, the object of his indifference never will. It’s a confession without a hint of repentance, and as the final chorus swells, the hollowness of the kiss-off chills.
With “Eminent Sleaze”, the perspective shifts as the ruling class takes center stage. Given the static strut of the lyrics’ “bona fide reptile,” gleefully dancing as others’ ethics collapse into the black hole of his celebrity, Nick Beggs’ greasy funk riffing hits the bullseye with its obsessive repetition, while Wilson’s head voice, the Floydish backing vocals, and the looming strings set up Adam Holzman’s nasty little Fender Rhodes interjections. “Man of the People”, with its throbbing synth bass and distorted vocalese solo, feels like an enervated answer record — the high-definition song of the seduced, admiring damaged goods from up close.
And then there’s the bludgeoning dance epic “Personal Shopper”; as Bryan mentioned, this one’s way on the nose — and thus to my mind, also way ironic. As the overlords of elite consumerism rip off their mask and exhort us to get with the program, Steven Wilson (and his wife Rotem) (and Sir Elton John) (and you) are in on the bleak joke — acknowledging the exhilaration and the emptiness of extreme retail therapy. It’s easily the most ominous soundscape of the album, on the widest sonic canvas; when it backs off into the lone choirboy crooning under Sir Elton’s shopping list, I actually flinched thinking about what weirdness might come next. And as a purchaser of an entire closet full of CDs and another of deluxe edition box sets (some I’ve sold on and then bought back, some I’ve bought before a million times), I have to admit it. I’m complicit. And sometimes a bit ashamed. And delighted. And enthralled. Say, when is that remaster of The Underfall Yard coming out?
(This is as good a time as any to mention that the physical “Limited Edition Deluxe Box Set” takes the mordant glee of “Personal Shopper” to an even more extravagant level. Along with the main album, instrumental disc and bonus content on CD and “obsolete media”, you get: stickers! [“Making it easy for people to be aware of your financial investment in this branded product.”] A warranty! [“Your guarantee is unique to you and has a unique identification number. Which makes you just like everybody else.”] A consumer survey! [“Would you recommend The Future Bites to your friends? To your enemies?”] Product reviews! [“What I really wanted was the same product as The Future Bites made the last time, but under a slightly different name.”] Ads for the rest of the TFB product line, including a credit card pre-loaded with debt! It’s a giggly, absurd high-concept design parody of . . . high-concept design. Which leaves the purchaser wondering again who the joke’s really on.)
Meanwhile, back at the album, “Follower” is the hardest rocking moment here — possessed power-pop that sounds like a full band in full swagger, featuring Wilson’s strongest vocal and most straight up guitar work, selling the smirking, misplaced self-confidence of the online influencer. Then “Count of Unease” serves up an extended finale in Wilson’s grand tradition. But instead of the comfort of “Song of Unborn” or “The Raven That Refused to Sing”, “Count of Unease” leaves us with a question mark. The elegance and delicacy of the accompaniment are unbearably fragile; the narrator’s fuzzy vocal sound stakes out the unbridged distance between himself and whoever he’s talking to (present or not). In the end, the lyric’s unsettled attempts at connection sabotage themselves, as the yearning, melancholy backing track wilts and fades.
Any personal preference aside, it’s arguable if the upfront elements of The Future Bites’ music are solid enough to handle the burden of Steven Wilson’s heady concept and grimly humorous lyrics. But again, I wonder if that’s by design; listening below the sleek permafrost liberally spread on top, the sturdy substructures of these tunes carry that weight and then some. Not as grandiose and forthright as Hand.Cannot.Erase or To The Bone, I still found this album subtly compelling, gaining strength and added, disturbing resonance over repeated listens. You might not be blown away by The Future Bites; but if and when it gets under your skin, it just might startle you awake.
— Rick Krueger