Progarchy’s Artists of the Decade: Steven Wilson

Back at the end of 2012, when I was compiling my year’s-end list of favorites (then a solitary pursuit, mostly for personal reflection), Steven Wilson’s Get All You Deserve was the only concert video that made the cut. Recorded in Mexico City at the end of Wilson’s initial solo tour, it’s still a ferociously intense — though oddly chilly — set, with tracks from Insurgentes and Grace for Drowning snarled by the glowering artist and meticulously brought to life by an all-star band of players. I had begun following Porcupine Tree when they hit Grand Rapids on 2005’s Deadwing tour, glomming onto them as The Great Progressive Hope and seeing them twice more that decade. So the video struck me as Wilson’s declaration of intent; the Tree was no longer bearing fruit for him, and it was time to make a name and a way for himself.

My thesis here is that, in the last ten years, Steven Wilson has done exactly that. And from the birthday of Progarchy through its tenth anniversary, Wilson’s next moves have consistently captured the attention of the subculture this website serves. As reflected in the frequent coverage of his projects here — whether we loved ’em, loathed ’em, or wound up somewhere in between! That’s why when the Progarchy editoral braintrust bantered about who to consider as our Artists of the Decade, I claimed SW.

Look at the man’s track record these last ten years, kicking off with 2013’s The Raven That Refused to Sing. So many genre boxes ticked here: a thematic album of ghost stories (!) cut live in the studio with Alan Parsons as engineer (!!), its jazz-rock leanings unmistakably influenced by Wilson’s remastering/surround mixing work for historic giants like King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Marillion, Gentle Giant and two or three et ceteras. Impressive writing, great playing, immaculate sound. When I caught that tour at Chicago’s Park West, though, it gave me an uneasy feeling; all too often, it felt like the onstage Wilson was peering into the lives of the damaged (“Harmony Korine,” “Luminol”) and disturbed (“Index,” “Raider II”) with no purpose beyond voyeuristic giggles and lurid thrills.

But then came 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase., Wilson’s rock opera portraying a young woman’s inexorable disappearance into the maw of the big city. Not only was this his most fully integrated album musically (reminiscent of his conceptual work with PT, with plenty of intense instrumental fireworks), but his latent empathy came forward again in his treatment of the “based on a true story” subject matter and his lyrics, to the benefit of both the album and the ensuing tour. Live again at Park West, an obviously proud Wilson played the whole thing, engaging with the audience instead of hiding behind transparent scrims and long hair, and even indulged in multiple Porcupine Tree tunes. If a bus had hit SW that year, at least a slice of retro-prog fandom might still be clamoring for him to join Rush and Genesis in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But then, as he regularly does, Wilson got restless. Changed his management, signed with a major label, spoke openly about his ambition to both explore different sounds and to court wider audiences. (Note that these are, at least potentially, two different things!) Since those pivotal moments, the howls of betrayal from a (probably) small but (spectacularly) entitled subset of online “fans” haven’t really stopped. Never mind that 2017’s To The Bone was steeped in both classic rock and the 1980s art-pop (Tears for Fears, Simple Minds) that Wilson had been buffing up for re-release; never mind that The Future Bites, with its pandemic-delayed 2021 launch date, boasted both a feral, prescient theme and a thorough assimilation of modern electronica; to SW’s new haters, sounding anything like ABBA — or even worse, non-rock dance music — was unforgivable. (And never mind that he’d made these moves before in multiple contexts.) Is there room to debate how artistically successful these excursions actually were? Sure: for example, I thought To The Bone was a winner out of the gate, while The Future Bites needed time to gain traction and still had its weak points. But reflexive rejection — even as Wilson did connect with broader audiences who wouldn’t know progressive music from a blank track in their online playlist — served no one’s best purposes, made nobody look good. If anything, it might have hardened Wilson’s resolve — or so one might think.

But then came 2022. And just when you thought he’d never do it, Wilson reformed Porcupine Tree with Richard Barbieri and Gavin Harrison, dropping the thoroughly recognizable yet remarkably fresh album Closure/Continuation and following it up with a triumphant US tour. (He’d briefly hinted at a “rock project” in some 2021 interviews. If only the haters had known . . . ) His engrossing postmodern stab at the rock memoir, Limited Edition of One, added more value, giving readers a whirlwind overview of his roots and influences, breaking the fourth wall to deconstruct standard biographical tropes, and even previewing 2023’s promised concept album The Harmony Codex. While the book is well-wrought evidence of hard-won maturity, it gives no sign that Steven Wilson is about to slow down.

And that is a heartening thing — to see and hear a musician who is simply unwilling to settle, following wherever his muse leads and doing so with integrity, whatever those who want to pin him down might think. Steven Wilson is emerging from the last ten years as a man who can (and will) cover (and has covered) an astonishing amount of new ground, has a bigger field to play on than most progressive artists, and is determined to leverage it so that his music reaches farther while staying true to his instincts. Sounds like an artist of the decade to me.

— Rick Krueger

6 thoughts on “Progarchy’s Artists of the Decade: Steven Wilson

  1. Bryan Morey

    Thanks, Rick. Well said. Regardless of what one thinks of Wilson, it’s undeniable that everyone in the prog world is paying attention to and likely reacting to what he does. That alone makes him the artist of the decade. I may not have liked The Future Bites (I do like “12 Things I Forgot”), but the new PT album is great and his book is the best music memoir I’ve read. He turned it into a work of art.

    Interestingly, I see a lot of parallels between Wilson and Devin Townsend, even down to DT’s new solo album “Lightwork” coming out soon. It sounds much more “poppy” than “Empath,” but I don’t think he’ll get the blowback that Wilson got, partly because it will have elements that Devin has sprinkled in on various albums before, including on Empath. Even though Wilson has done the same thing throughout his career, people seem to be more open to letting Devin be Devin than they are to let Wilson be Wilson. I imagine it’s by and large a different fan base, but still interesting to think about. Perhaps worthy of a more in-depth post after the album comes out.

    Liked by 2 people

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