Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Introducing Steven Wilson

I think it’s time to return to writing proper blog posts and I will start with a couple of self-indulgent missives that will hopefully introduce you to a couple of contemporary musical heroes of mine. Over the years there have been lots of heroes, most of whom you will have heard of. I want to talk about the more obscure ones.

I’m going to start with a man who has been labelled the most famous musical star you have never heard of, a man who has managed to get Elton John to appear on his new album due out on 29th January. 

I have talked about him before and dedicated an entire post to his former band, Porcupine Tree, that he disbanded in 2009. As well as Porcupine Tree he has been involved in other musical projects over the years, including the bands Blackfield and No-Man, However, I am going to concentrate on his so solo work that he began in earnest after the demise of Porcupine Tree.

So who is Steven Wilson? 

He is a multi-instrumentalist and singer from the town of Hemel Hempstead in the south of England and has had a career in music since the late 1980’s in various guises. 

The style of music is broadly progressive pop and progressive rock and his influences range from Donna Summer to Pink Floyd, via Kate Bush and David Bowie. His latest album, released on Friday,  will be more of a pop album in the style of early 1980’s electronic music with some dance thrown in; quite a bold move in my opinion.

I have been a fan ever since I discovered Porcupine Tree on Spotify about ten years ago – just as Steven Wilson was about to release his first solo album. I love Porcupine Tree and I greeted his solo work with a little trepidation because he used it to free himself of the shackles of being a band. Porcupine Tree had adopted a heavier style and with his solo work it was a good opportunity for him to experiment. And I have loved his solo work perhaps more than Porcupine Tree, the musical styles being far more varied over the years.

So far, he has released five solo albums, one mini-album and his sixth is about to hit the shops.

The album “Hand. Cannot. Erase”, Steven’s fourth album, is a true masterpiece and is right up there as one of my favourite albums of all time. I have only seen him once and it was the tour associated with that album, which he played in its entirety in one of the best gigs I have seen.

When he’s touring, Steven has a band with him, but he is very talented musically. He can play guitar, piano, keyboards and sing and, judging by his newest album, he is fine with electronic instruments too. 

One of the reasons I love him is because he has a great ear for a melody and his style is such that you never know what you are going to get, for example, rock, pop or even jazz. 

Here is a sample from his albums so far and hopefully you will see what I mean.

Harmony Korine – from Insurgentes (2009)

Insurgentes is an album full of wonderful songs and in places is a little bit spacey in places, which is something I love. To me, it seems like he was trying to find a new sound after Porcupine Tree. However, as you will see, no two albums by Steven Wilson are the same.

Deform to Form a Star – from Grace for Drowning (2011)
Steven’s second solo album is a bigger affair, with a variety of styles and is more experimental than Insurgentes with elements of jazz. I have to say that I am not a huge fan of jazz, so as good as this album is, I prefer his first. He stayed with his progressive style with a monster of a track called “Raider II” which is a cool 23 minutes long. Don’t worry, the song I have chosen is not that one – it is much better in my opinion.

Drive Home – from The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) (2013)
The third album holds a special place in my heart. I played it to death when I was away from home on several business trips to Oman. I listened to it a lot on the long plane journey and when I was alone in in my hotel room in the evening after dinner. There are still elements of jazz in one of the songs but I can forgive that because the remaining songs are amazing. The theme to the album is ghost stories and each one tells its own tale. When I look at my iTunes playlist, the song below is top of the pile. The reason? It is a hauntingly beautiful song and the guitar solo at the end (around five minutes into the song) and courtesy of Guthrie Govan is breath-taking.

Routine – from Hand. Cannot. Erase (2015)
Hand. Cannot. Erase. is my favourite Steven Wilson album, a concept album based on the true story of a woman who died in her apartment in London and nobody missed her for two years. A truly sad story. In my opinion this album made a lot of people aware of his existence and I was lucky enough to see him live in Manchester – a truly great concert. The song I have chosen is Routine which is a very sad song, illustrated by the equally sad video. I hope you like it.

Permanating – from To the Bone (2017)
In an almost complete shift, for his fifth album, Steven Wilson drifted into the realm of pop music. I wouldn’t say that it was completely pop but the influences were there. The theme of the album is truth but that is largely irrelevant. There are a couple of good rock tracks on there but songs like Permanating have made some of his fans think again about his music. Steven Wilson described it as his “Abba moment” and I don’t mind because we all like a little bit of Abba. In fact, commercially this is his most successful album, racing almost to the top of the charts (it reached number 3 in the UK) and earned him an interview on BBC 1 Breakfast, something that he probably thought would never happen.

Personal Shopper – from The Future Bites (2021)
So where does Steven Wilson go next? The answer is electronic dance, with a macabre undertone. The new album The Future Bites is out this week – and of course I will add it to my collection. He has managed to acquire the services of none other than Sir Elton John for the first single – all about the love and perils of shopping. Elton John doesn’t sing – he speaks. I think some die-hard fans may question where Steven Wilson is heading musically with his new release but having heard a couple of the songs already, it does appeal to me (though I have to admit I would prefer something a little more rock oriented). See what you think of the rather macabre video.

I have a ticket to see him in Manchester again in September this year (virus permitting). I really hope things are back to normal by then.

I hope you like what you have heard.


Pandora Behr said...

And here I was thinking nothing good ever came out of Hemel Hempstead. You've piqued my interest PM.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Pand,

I have a very good mate from Hemel Hempstead or, as he says it "Hemew".

Shame it's not Steven Wilson but there you go.