Evolution, Not Revolution: Inside “To The Bone”

Much has been written already about Steven Wilson’s supposed change of direction, with the great man himself talking up this new release as his “pop album”. Others have likened Wilson’s recent trajectory to that which took Peter Gabriel from the innovative, Fairlight-driven experiments of ‘4’ (or Security, if you prefer) to the more finely-honed commercialism of So.

Yet as I press Play for the umpteenth time, I’m not struck by any real sense of sonic revolution. To these ears, at least, To The Bone sounds like an entirely natural progression: a logical step further down a path he had oriented himself towards with 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. The clues to how this new album sounds are there in HCE’s title track and in ‘Perfect Life’, and they are there in ‘Vermillioncore’ from the 2016 follow-up mini-album . There are pointers from further back in his career, too, should you care to look for them: ‘No Part Of Me’ on Grace For Drowning, ‘Abandoner’ on Insurgentes (echoed here in more up-beat fashion by ‘Song Of I’), even some of his work with Porcupine Tree and No-Man.

If anything, Wilson seems to be not so much moving in a new direction as he is circling back to revisit and revive influences that have been present only intermittently in recent years, bringing them to the forefront and giving them more room to breathe. But even that may be overstating the case.

All of which makes the whines of complaint from certain unenlightened denizens of Internet forums simply mystifying. How well do these people understand Wilson’s artistic credentials? Have they never listened to No-Man, or Blackfield, or his covers of Abba and Prince? Whilst not liking what he’s done here is fine, to suggest he’s ‘sold out’ or is somehow ‘betraying prog roots’ is frankly absurd.

I suppose this album could be described as more pop than prog in the sense that Wilson has taken the opportunity to rein in what some see as the bombast of earlier solo work. This is no Raven, which unashamedly flaunted the virtuosity of its stellar contributors. The closest it comes to excess is in the extended guitar wig-out of the nine-minute epic ‘Detonation’; barring that, this is an altogether more restrained and refined affair.

Which is not to say that To The Bone lacks drama or intensity. There is plenty of that on display – the thrilling sudden crescendo in ‘Pariah’ as Ninet Tayeb’s voice gloriously spans octaves stands out, as do the angry wails and unexpected profanity that open ‘People Who Eat Darkness’. But generally this album dials back the melancholy and strips away some of the concept album earnestness that permeates (permanates?) earlier work.

Be in no doubt that this is recognisably a Steven Wilson album, beautifully crafted and balanced, but with few real surprises. The biggest eyebrow-raiser by far – and the only genuine indulgence in pure straightforward pop to be found in the solid hour of music on offer here – is the pulsing three-and-a-half minute ‘Permanating’, an infectiously joyful earworm quite different from anything appearing on his earlier albums. Whisper it, but Steven could actually be having fun here… Yes, shocking, isn’t it?

If To The Bone isn’t quite as dense and audibly complex as earlier work, there are still many layers to explore. The production is impeccable, of course – we’ve come to expect nothing less – but it is the songcraft that shines through, more than Wilson’s customary nerdish attention to the minutiae of the recording process. This may not be the absolute pinnacle of his achievements, but it is surely his most accessible work to date: a hugely enjoyable album whose subtle charms deserve to be relished rather than dismissed.

Ulver – The Assassination Of Julius Caesar

New music from Norwegian experimentalists Ulver is always something to savour, and its diversity might surprise you. 2016’s cryptically-titled ATGCLVLSSCAP was mostly instrumental and partly-improvised, veering from ambient to intensely atmospheric post rock and back again. Their latest release is a quite different proposition, however.

The Assassination Of Julius Caesar channels progressive, pop and electronica influences to utterly glorious effect. Repeated listens variously bring to mind Pure Reason Revolution, Anathema, New Order, Propaganda, early Simple Minds and Massive Attack, amongst others (a list of musical reference points that will have a few Progarchy readers salivating, I’m sure).

It’s difficult to pick out highlights in an album of such consistently high quality, but right now I’m particularly enamoured by the expansive dark groove of Rolling Stone (at over 9 minutes, the album’s longest track), the elegant pop of Southern Gothic and the achingly beautiful chorus in Transverberation.

I’m calling it now. One of the best albums of 2017.

The Tangent News

More news on the next release from The Tangent, which now has the title The Slow Rust Of Forgotten Machinery. Andy put a 10-minute video on YouTube before Christmas, summarising plans for the album and giving us a tantalising preview of the music in demo form.

If that’s whetted your appetite, why not head over to the ‘prepreorder’ page on The Tangent’s website? £50 will buy you a signed CD with your name in the accompanying booklet and a personal message from Andy, and you’ll get it a couple of days before the official release. You’ll also get an hour’s worth of album demos right now and some more track samples in March. The price drops to £30 if you can live without your name in the booklet.

This is expensive, true – but Andy’s commendably honest about the reasons for these prices. Check out the prepreorder page for a full explanation and for a preliminary track listing.

Rest assured that a normally-priced preorder option will be available in due course…

When I’m not cleaning windows: the joy of being in a part-time band

This piece in the New Statesman, from Scritti Politti’s Rhodri Marsden, will resonate for prog musicians everywhere – and for prog fans too, I guess.

There’s some really good stuff in here, particularly on the idea of ‘small but sustainable’, on the economic pressures favouring “solo projects with computers and acoustic guitars”, and on the role played by fortunate personal circumstances (the “Mumford & Sons route to success”), but I was particularly taken by the following amusing quote, from Tommy Shotton, former drummer of Do Me Bad:

We were among the last crop of bands who took advantage of an industry that had money to throw around… The label seemed to think that it validated their investment if we agreed to travel around in a funny taxi with flowers and magazines in the back. There was a lot of ‘Oh, give the artists space to be artists’ – but all we were doing was sitting about, arguing about the sound of a cowbell while eating free doughnuts.