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Steven Wilson - Grace for Drowning CD (album) cover

GRACE FOR DROWNING

Steven Wilson

 

Crossover Prog

4.19 | 1128 ratings

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ergaster
4 stars 4/5

I have been a follower of The Mighty Wilson Machine for only a couple of years, but one thing I have learned is that when a new project is announced, the fan-driven hype gears up into overdrive. Grace for Drowning was no different -- maybe even more extreme, fed by the occasional release of teasers -- a song here, a snippet there, videos. Steven drops hints in interviews: It's BIG. It takes a different musical direction. No Porcupine Tree guys on it, but musicians that some of us had to go look up. He thinks it's the best thing he's done.

It is very easy (believe me on this) to get sucked in, but is it all too much? Is it even real? The guy's seriously talented, probably an actual genius, but let's face it: Welcome to My DNA was a bit of a damp squib. So when the Big Blue Deluxe package finally arrived, anticipation and trepidation faced off across the hardcover book...well anyway, does Grace for Drowning live up to its huge hype or has fanboyism (once again, the cynics might say) trumped common sense?

After listening for a few weeks I am happy to report that Grace for Drowning has not only cleared the hype hurdle but soared into the stratosphere. This is a fine, fine album: Steven Wilson has managed to distill almost two decades of experience into a release of remarkable assurance and sophistication, a musical statement of sweeping grandeur and vision -- it really could be the best thing he has ever done.

GfD is big, a double album on two separate CDs of about 40 minutes each, Wilson's sly tribute to the good old days when 40 minutes was about as much music as one vinyl record would hold. Each CD has a similar structure songwise, but they evoke somewhat different moods. Disc 1 (Deform to Form a Star) feels wistful, even nostalgic; Disc 2 (Like Dust I Have Cleared from My Eye) is dark and disquieting. The standard Wilson lyric themes are all on display: love leaving, love lost, ambiguity and, well...sociopathy....At any rate, the album for all its length and moods presents a beautifully coherent, unified experience that seems nowhere near 83 minutes long.

Wilson made it clear that 70s jazz-fusion prog rock and especially the Lizard-era King Crimson material form the majority of the influences that flavor the album, but in truth it covers a huge amount of musical territory. This is not by any means King Crimson Redux, or Porcupine Tree with saxophone -- Wilson has an enormous talent for absorbing ideas and turning them into something fresh and authentic, and he has outdone himself this time. Point of fact, he has outdone himself in just about every aspect of songwriting, arranging, performance, and production.

There is so much musical goodness that singling out highlights is just an exercise in personal taste, but here goes. Disc 1 has the one-two punch of the mighty "Sectarian", a jagged, brooding instrumental that almost physically assaults with monstrous bass and mellotron, followed by (in a brilliantly-conceived juxtaposition) the achingly beautiful "Deform to Form a Star". Wilson's gift for the gorgeous melody is almost cliche, but with "Deform..." he demonstrates a heretofore unsuspected mastery of the form. I generally tend to favour Wilson's harder material over the ballads, but this...! This is extraordinary songwriting.

From Disc 2 comes the unnerving "Index": Wilson's clear, delicate tenor delivers a detached discourse on obsession, over a tense, bass-laden track thick with foreboding. One can impose several layers of meaning on this song -- what, exactly, does this person collect? Do we merely have the standard Wilson fascination with sociopaths or is there a statement in there about being on the receiving end of a fiercely dedicated fandom?

And then there is "Raider II": a massive, 23-minute monster of a piece, the dark and brutal soul of the entire album, an epic showcase of sheer genius by all involved. It winds its way from a slow musical build and a rather horrific lyric, and builds into a huge jazzy improvisational centerpiece, before ending...and ending....

There is very little to complain about on this album. "Postcard" feels a bit out of place and purposeless (it has been released as the "single", which seems self-defeating for an album that is so not standard radio fare); and "Raider II" has more endings than are strictly necessary. But these are minor failings, easily forgiven.

Grace for Drowning is jammed with nuance, rich with sound and atmosphere, saturated with impeccable artistry from every single musician involved. I am astonished, with each listen, at the level of maturity and assurance that permeates every single note. There are huge, brutal moments, stretches that are almost physically terrifying, and moments of heartbreaking delicacy. It is compelling listening -- it certainly takes time to get the hang of it, but don't be surprised if you find it has taken up residence in your subconscious--this is not epiphany brilliance but stealth brilliance. Well done, Mr. Wilson, well done indeed!

ergaster | 4/5 |

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