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Steven Wilson - Grace for Drowning CD (album) cover

GRACE FOR DROWNING

Steven Wilson

 

Crossover Prog

4.20 | 1168 ratings

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AtomicCrimsonRush
Special Collaborator
Symphonic Team
5 stars Wilson's 5 star masterpiece has mesmirising musical beauty and a dark, chilling tale of desolation.

"Grace For Drowning" is a 2 CD magnum opus with an astonishing array of musicians, many of legendary status, and Steven Wilson is at his best in terms of compositions, musicality and overall concept. He is able to generate some of the most compelling music of his career, helped by special guest virtuosos and a cinematic symphony orchestra, and at the end of the album one is left with an overwhelming sense that they have heard something very special; transcending music itself it seems to creep into the system and you cannot get it out. I can never forget 'Index' for one track. This is an epiphany of Steven Wilson's career. Wilson stated in an interview that the album tried to capture the "spirit of psychedelia to create "journeys in sound" I guess you could call them. So without being retro, my album is a kind of homage to that spirit. There's everything from Morricone-esque film themes to choral music to piano ballads to a 23 minute progressive jazz-inspired piece" (gracefordrowning.com). Critics have mixed reviews, one stating that the work is an "emotional journey from sadness through anger to acceptance." On every level, this is a powerful conceptual album that will really impact a listener if they allow themselves to be drawn into this haunting tale of a man who goes off the deep end and drowns in his misery, turning him into a sociopath. Another interpretation, the one that I wish to adopt, is that the man experiences extreme loss and it drives him over the precipice where he becomes a sadistic remorseless killer; he has many names to match his multiple personas such as Black Dog, Collector, Raider, the Butcher. Or it could just be an allegory of a sociopath drowning in misery and manic depression, your move.

The videos that are available with the special edition are directed by master of the macabre Lasse Hoile who revels in twisted Gothic disturbia, such as Opeth or repellent videos for Katatonia, but the imagery on this CD package adds to the full sensory experience and seem to concur with the serial killer concept. We see images of Wilson in darkened shadows with a skull flashing on his visage; the cinema verite of the darker self. There are images of a man wandering a lonely beach, a burning bush, an owl flying in to the hands of a goat masked wraith, perhaps death personified, and a man crawling on his belly towards a creek, ropes bind the man and he metamorphosis into a dark creature, perhaps the moment when the protagonist loses his mind, then he buries a heart in the soil, which could be literal or a metaphor of the man burying his cold emotions. A striking image of dead arms lying in a forest, is followed by Wilson staring up into the sun through the trees. All the characters gathering at the amphitheatre is followed by death walking to a dead tree, and the man's face is in bandages with the words "did you arrive at the place that you came from?" appearing on it. In other videos, the most unsettling, we see Wilson seated in a catatonic state with mannequins, the collector at work, and there are images of spiders, insects, bugs, a ghoulish collection. The killer then chops the limbs off the mannequins and burns the remains, though we could take that to mean the killer is collecting real limbs and discarding the rest of the victim by immolation. Key flashed images of a girl clawing at a window, and then her hands bound, are the clincher, and most potent, a girl being dragged away screaming by an unseen assailant into the shadows. In any case, here is how I heard the music after several listens.

'Grace For Drowning' has very graceful piano by Jordan Rudess and gentle vocal intonation to start proceedings to this oeuvre. 'Sectarian' begins quietly with a steady beat, and reverb guitar phrases, and then locks into a strong rhythm helped by Nic France's percussion accents and the keyboard motifs of Steve Wilson. The atmosphere is esoteric augmented by choral vocals and sudden outbursts of key pads and loud guitar. The keyboard chimes are beautiful, played with virtuoso skill by Wilson and these are embellished by Theo Davis' exceptional soprano sax and mesmirising clarinet by Ben Castle.

'Deform To Form A Star' begins with dreamy piano by Rudess. Wilson finally begins to sing and his voice is as flowing and crystalline as usual; "I learn how to smile, horses shadows, rain on stone." It seems like a collection of happy memories and introduces the protagonist forcing smiles and remembering better times. It could almost be the disembodied thoughts of a suicide victim, "the way we recoil return to the soil." The concept will open up like a flower as the album progresses. There is more clarinet from Travis, and the bass is well executed by Tony Levin. At this point on the album a remarkable tranquil atmosphere has been created. It is unlike Porcupine Tree with its bursts of metal guitar, instead Wilson's solo material is emotionally charged and melancholy. The serenity really resonates with me and I am entranced by the spellbinding beauty of the clarinets playing off against Wilson's chiming keyboard melodies.

On 'No Part Of Me' the musicianship is incredible, featuring acoustics by Pat Mastelotto, U8 touch guitar by Markus Reuter, Warr guitar and bass by Trey Gunn, and to cap it off a stirring score by the London Session Orchestra, arranged and conducted by the legendary Dave Stewart. The lyrics are poetic beauty though hold a dark concept of the sociopath struggling to tread water; "I feel worn out, there's no point drinking, there when life slows right down, and holds you up above the waterline, so sleep will never come." There is a heavier section that follows with very low distortion, and this is augmented by a scintillating saxophone solo by Travis, perhaps one of the most powerful passages of music on the album.

'Postcard' follows, dominated by the gentle vocals of Wilson mixed to the front. The protagonist is still feeling miserable and trying to make sense of his life after losing his loved one and consequently the will to live; "I'm the one you always seem to read about, The fire inside my eyes has long gone out, There's nothing left for me to say or do, 'Cause all that matters disappeared when I lost you." The music swells to a melancholy choir by Synergy and soulful string by the London Session Orchestra. The composition is moving with mesmirising and beautiful, powerfully arranged orchestration.

The angelic choral vocals continue in the intro of 'Raider Prelude' and it is rather a haunting atmosphere, very dark with the low bass drones. 'Remainder The Black Dog' ends the first CD with a killer track and the longest at this point at 9 minutes. The guitars on this are stunning and that is no surprise as the man behind them is the one and only Steve Hackett. Amazing to hear him on this album, and his presence makes a huge difference naturally. Multi instrumentalist Travis shines on woodwind playing flute, and clarinet, but he is especially exceptional here on sax. Soon the rhythm builds to a fast tempo and Hackett's brilliant guitar screams penetrate the wall of sound. There is an odd meter generated by Nick Beggs' bassline, and Nic France's drumming. This is a definitive moment on the album with stellar virtuosity and incredible emotional resonance.

CD 2 begins with 'Belle De Jour', with a nylon acoustic finger picking style from Wilson. The orchestra joins adding a lush atmosphere to the instrumental. The autoharp sounds angelic and the music reminded me of Pink Floyd. This is followed by 'Index', beginning with a low buzzsaw synth, and Wilson's estranged vocals. The story has developed now with the protagonist becoming obsessive compulsive and with dangerous intentions; "I'm a collector and I've always been misunderstood, I like the things that people always seem to overlook, I gather up and catalog it in a book I wrote, There's so much now that I forget if I don't make a note." The collector is becoming deranged in his thoughts though and taking his obsession one step further. I actually read somewhere that the song is about a serial killer who "collects" parts of his victims and keeps them as trophies and this makes sense, especially congruent with the video clip. The lyrics seem to point to this too "It isn't easy being me, it's kind of lonely work, my obligation to collecting is my only thirst." This is the thing that keeps him going but it seems he has regressed into the darkest recesses of human depravity. The 'index' of the title of course could mean that the collector is simply cataloguing his grim collection with an index of parts. It could also have the grim double meaning that one of his victims is about to have her index finger excised as part of this collection. Or have I seen too many serial killer movies? Think "Saw", "Se7en", or "Reanimator" for a start. This song can also easily be taken as a homage to collectors who hoard things others throw away, of which I am one of them, so this song was a little too close to home.

'Track One' features gorgeous acoustic and lead guitar tones like ribbons of gold adding to an atmosphere of solitude and desperate melancholy. This transition leads to the colossal jazz fusion piece.

'Raider II' is a 23 minute epic in the same vein as the 23 minutes of yesteryear that used to fill a whole side of vinyl. Wilson is clearly influenced by early King Crimson (he was working on the remaster of the album at the time). The musicians on this include Theo Travix on woodwind again, Jordan Rudess on piano and Mike Outram on guitar with Sand Snowman playing acoustic. All is accompanied by the amazing Synergy choir and of course Wilson's dexterity on instruments and vocals. The mammoth opus begins with low downbeat keyboard tones. A very sinister, ominous feel is created, as Wilson's phased vocals gently breathe out; "A fist will make you understand intention, to raise alarm is underhand, so I cut off the phone, I bind you up with tape and catch some TV." So the killer is now with his victim and awaiting the right moment to collect her parts. The song gets very creepy with King Crimson sax, as the serial killer is now at large and the police are on the hunt. Their search for the protagonist leads them to the scene of the crime and they conduct forensic investigation or autopsy and check "for fibres in the gaps between the teeth" and they are fingerprinting and dusting the whole area while the apartment is ransacked, "Check the fingerprints, go through the trash." Or is this the mind of the killer who is trying to reason out his obsessive cruel behaviour, "Maybe I just wanted some attention, Compulsion seeks its own way in rejection of the light", and he implies that he is about to end the life of his helpless victim in order to feed his insatiable fetish, "Every story needs to have an ending, we might as well give up all this pretending and clear the air." It is a terrifying notion but the album really transfixes with such lyrics and it is really open to interpretation.

Musically there is a lot going on. Mikael Akerfeldt enters the studio here and growls some incoherencies. The flute is Ian Anderson at his best, and that sax by Jaxon is Van der Graaf Generator back to form. Oh wait, I forgot this is Steve Wilson's album, got lost there for a moment in all this glorious music. Back to the story, is the whole thing in the protagonist's mind, is he fantasising, or is he really a sadistic killer? The lyrics are purposely vague and nothing is really given away as is the case with most Porcupine Tree material. The puzzle of the jigsaw can be solved piece by piece with the elaborate CD booklet, artwork, and videos of course. But I prefer to let the music do the explaining.

This chilling scenario is followed up by gorgeous flute from Theo Travis and organic swathes of keyboards envelop the rhythm of bass and drum. After a surge of electrifying musicianship, and a low groaning electrosynth noise, the track settles into an ethereal passage of eerie effects over grim silence. The choir is ghostly, reminding me of a Hammer horror movie from the 70s, and Rudess' piano is patient and unsettling. After a lengthy build up towards a disturbing conclusion, flute warbles with a very pretty melody, like a songbird breaking through the flames to escape. The stark vocals return and we barely hear; "A plague inside your home, I'm Raider, Defiling all you own, Raider". It seems that the killer is now finished his demented task and is warning us that we could be next. He is swallowed up in his own depressive delusional state and is indeed the "butcher and his prose". The music echoes the dark content with some sporadic dissonant sax blasts over an ascending staircase of guitar, keys and percussion clashes in 8 chords. The instruments compete wildly and suddenly go into an elongated frenzy to end this masterpiece. The chaotic effect defines insanity and the killers mind is collapsing; signified by a grinding effect. The soundscape is other worldly and alienating appropriately to echo the deranged mind of the protagonist. A piece of jazz guitar over a crawling bassline is followed by violining guitar swells to maintain a very creepy atmosphere at the end.

'Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye' is an acoustic ballad, and the lyrics continue to try and wrap this opus up with some sort of conclusion. The lyrics seem to point that the killer is awaiting capture which is inevitable; "it won't be long now, til they're reeling you in, the same situation, the same disappointment you bring, so I hope you're happy, with the impression you made." It is too late now to change anything and the man "in denial" is ultimately doomed. "You're lost to me, like dust I have cleared from my eye, your words have no meaning", implies that all is lost as far as the protagonist is concerned, but who is speaking here, the killer, the victim or other? In any case, the shimmering organ is wonderful, and it brings the album back to the beauty that it started with. There are fantastic harmonies on the repeated motif; "Breathe in now, breathe out now." Is this to remind the subject that life still goes on and we just have to keep breathing and go on despite the rejection or pain that comes? Has the whole thing been a dream or nightmare? Or is the killer now wracked in guilt by his atrocities? Perhaps all and neither, the music is the main drawcard on this album and it ends with some fine musicianship, mostly played by Wilson on this last track. The final passage of music is Pink Floyd type guitar and an ambient keyboard shimmering and then a spacey texture fading, like the protagonist's life, fading to dust.

Nothing more to say about after all this exhaustive analysing. Masterpiece sums it up.

AtomicCrimsonRush | 5/5 |

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