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Steven Wilson - To The Bone CD (album) cover


Steven Wilson


Crossover Prog

3.59 | 407 ratings

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Rock Progressivo Italiano Team
4 stars The last several years have seen British multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer extraordinaire Steven Wilson well and truly leave his Porcupine Tree past behind him and gradually hone a rewarding solo career that's been a mix of welcome experimentation and reliable expected moody alt-rock with lashings of both modern and retro-flavoured prog-rock. His last full studio album, 2015's `Hand. Cannot. Erase' delivered a mix of melodic tunes with experimental rock instrumentation that served as a good foot in the door for newcomers both young and older, so perhaps it was little surprise that Wilson might reign back his indulgences even that little bit more to capitalise on this fresh outside interest on a future recording. He's an artist that has managed to build great credibility and an elevated status but who can still fly under the radar just enough to allow himself to indulge in works like this, 2017's `To the Bone'.

Fuelled by THAT cover art, an early press release that proudly proclaimed the album as a pop work, a bouncy jangly pure-pop first single that had most of the prog-rock fans racing for the hills (and it's probably quite surprising that it wasn't a self-titled disc), `To The Bone' was instantly hit with the dreaded `sell out' tag and dismissed as career suicide. But careful and patient repeated listens reveal an album that has much merit, with plenty of the usual smart art-rock and blending of styles already associated with the well as some rather (slight!) disappointing surprises.

First issue to address: `To The Bone' is NOT a pop album, even if it has several more obviously poppy moments scattered throughout it. Nor is it so far removed from prog-rock as to be unrecognisable, and if anything many parts wouldn't have sounded out of place on mid-period `Stupid Dream/Lightbulb Sun'-era Porcupine Tree with their indie-rock crossover appeal. It's just that where his former bandmates (and even Wilson on his recent solo albums) would likely offering sublime instrumental passages, here Steven usually works in ambitious vocal arrangements of multi-part harmonies instead of show-boating soloing.

On to the disc - Steven and his frequent co-singer Ninet Tayeb open with the title track `To The Bone', a smouldering groover with plenty of ragged guitar soloing and a catchy lyrically defiant chorus, but for an album that many are ready to instantly dismiss as too straightforward or `pop', the piece also drifts into languid enveloping harmonies full of dreaminess in the climax that you sure wouldn't hear on the radio. `Nowhere Now' is just a great uptempo poppier tune that finds Steven in great spirits with a loved up and freed chorus. But the first `wow' moment of the disc has Steven teaming again with Ninet for `Pariah', a tender ballad that has already drawn comparisons to Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush's `Don't Give Up', and along with its weary yet supportive lyric, it also delivers a big bold emotionally charged finale that soars to the heavens with great poise and overall class.

The lyrically pessimistic `The Same Asylum As Before' is powered by punchy drumming and swampy grinding guitars burning around Steven's crooning falsetto, and there's a lovely laid-back interlude in the middle with lightly jazzy flavours to Steven's guitar bursts and some sparkling electric piano. Sure to be a favourite of many of his existing fans, `Refuge' is bookended with a low-key unhurried melancholic introspection and that sad beauty that Wilson has perfected to a fine art over the years, and some carefully executed dramatic lifts give the piece a weight and great tension. After wallowing in brooding contemplation, the `controversial' first single `Permanating' then proves a welcome respite, a buoyant and proudly peppy piano n' falsetto-powered pop burst that not only reveals Wilson's keen honing of strong melodic sensibilities, but is unashamedly comparable in parts to Electric Light Orchestra! Lighten up, people, and just enjoy a cool and (whisper it!) fun pop tune. `Blank Tapes' is then a fragile little ballad interlude of a pristine aching beauty and precious warmth.

Lyrically threatening and instrumentally brash (just listen to Steven's bouncing thick bass pounding away in parts, you'd swear it was Nick Beggs on this one - perhaps it was and there was a misprint in the CD booklet?!), `People Who Eat Darkness' is a relentlessly sleek indie-rocker that is bound to become a live favourite on the tour supporting this album. `Song Of I' is a darkly cool fusion of New Wave and eerie electronica that has Ninet and Steven swapping confessional lyrics over gloomy piano and maddening breathless orchestration.

The longest piece at just over nine minutes is `Detonation', and among its clipping electronic programming, delicate chiming guitars and Steven's purring words that are laced with spite and hostility, the instrumental second half slinks in and out of aggressive blasts, fiery near jazz-fusion-like runs and dreamy shimmering caresses - see, still much here for the snootiest of prog fans! Closer `Song Of Unborn' is a tender piano ballad with exquisite ethereal choir work that replaces gentle regret with reassuring optimism for its smart chorus, and it might not only be one of the most stirring finales to appear on a Wilson/Porcupine Tree disc, but one of his loveliest songs overall.

After all of that, there's little things that do let down `To the Bone' in a few surprising ways. While there's not a truly bad song to be found on the disc, much of what is included can perhaps be considered `reliable', with little that could be placed among Wilson's very best work, even if there's a few occasionally genuinely thrilling moments here and there. It's also a far cry from being the new direction or unexplored area of his sound that was hinted at in the press release, as it still sounds very much like a typical Wilson product, mood and lyrical theme wise. Honestly, the thought of Wilson writing a REAL pop album is more intriguing and daring than many parts of what was included here!

But `To the Bone' is still consistently enjoyable all the way through and can be especially appreciated as a less demanding background listen full of cool tunes and great playing that rarely gives in to instrumental self-indulgence. While it's not one of his best works, it achieves the enviable balance of being able to be enjoyed by existing fans of both his solo work and previous band, as well as being inviting to newcomers and non-prog rock fans (call them `muggles' if you like, prog snobs!), and it still showcases Wilson as an intelligent artist well deserving of his status in both the general music industry overall and as a modern progressive music icon of note.

Three and a half stars for just a great rock album.

Aussie-Byrd-Brother | 4/5 |


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