Grace For Drowning is the second solo album from Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree / no-man). Whilst his debut release, Insurgentes (2008) seemed to draw inspiration from the post-Punk era, Grace For Drowning has a wider palette of sounds, and harks back to the late 60’s, early 70’s for inspiration, especially in drawing influence from film scores (Belle De Jour ) and some of the more jazz-rock experiments (Remainder the Black Dog).
The album is split into two suites (three on the limited edition). The opening title track sets the scene, a lyricless harmony over piano and hanging notes. Sectarian riffs on buzzsaw acoustic and electric guitar, and features an appearance by Nick Beggs (who will be part of the touring band) on bass / chapman stick , some wild sax from long-time collaborator Theo Travis, and powerful, at times jazz-tinged, percussion from drummer Nic France.
Then my favourite part of the whole album – the trilogy of songs beginning with Deform to Form a Star. There is a real mid-1970’s feel to the arrangement of this song – which harks back to a bygone era, and could have easily have fallen off a Steely Dan or Randy Newman album, or maybe The Strawbs Bursting At The Seams. Deform… also utilises the delicious Stars Die era harmonies long missing from recent Porcupine Tree albums.
The production has always been an important part of SW’s work, as important as individual musician’s performances and Grace For Drowning delivers one of my favourite Wilson productions (time will tell, but possibly on a par with my previous favourite production on no-man’s Returning Jesus). With no traces of metal to be heard on the album (the heavier passages are often powered by acoustic guitar and keyboards) there is a real sense of space, so key passages and moments can be emphasised with subtlety, and No Part Of Me, featuring a wonderful, emotive string section, fluid bass from Trey Gunn and spikey touch guitar from Markus Reuter, perfectly highlights how the album can switch from light to dark in an instant.
no part of me live – from the official Steven Wilson Soundcloud page
And then there’s Postcard. Fast becoming my favourite song of 2011, this track is by far the most accessible on the album, and is deserving of its release as a download single. Hopefully it will lead to a wider audience for the album, outside of the usual Porcupine Tree / progressive audience.
“I’m lame and self-obsessed, that I will concede”.
Simply executed, and with such a sad and lonely lyric, Postcard ends with haunting choral vocals from Synergy (who have worked with Steve Reich in the past).
“All that matters disappeared when I lost you.”
Remainder The Black Dog, featuring Steve Hackett, ends the first disc and sets the mood for the rest of the material, which is much darker in tone. Awash with Rhodes keyboards fills, and shifting time signatures, this is probably the only track that would not sound out of place on a Porcupine Tree album.
After the French-tinged lightness of Belle De Jour, one of the most disturbing songs on the album is Index, which apparently draws inspiration from the 1960’s John Fowles novel, The Collector, a story that inspired tracks from The Jam (The Butterfly Collector) and Nine Inch Nails among others. SW affects a strange accent on certain words on this track, sounding almost like an old fashioned London accent, which presumably ties in with the books content. The song ends with a vocoderised mantra laid over a powerful string and drums outro, leading into the equally dark Track One, which I read online might be inspired lyrically by the Swedish Eriksson sisters. The darkness of the song gives way to a simple, moving ending, of acoustic guitar and minimal piano topped by a Gilmouresque lead guitar solo.
The longest track on the album, at over 23 minutes is Raider II, which has some of it’s riffs referenced in other tracks earlier in the album, and during the first vocal section really reminds me of the underrated Martin Grech Unholy album from a few years ago. It’s a constantly shifting beast of a track, and even at 23 minutes, does not overstay it’s welcome. At times Raider II hints at 70’s jazz-rock, of the kind performed by Colosseum or Mahavishnu Orchestra, as much as it pays homage to past progressive giants such as Yes or Caravan. Raider II is one of the tracks were Wilson’s lack of compression/ limiters in the mastering stage really pays off, as the dynamics in some of the quietest parts are as powerful as when the track is at its most frenetic and chaotic. The track ends on a distorted bass solo and heads off into PT territory for a while as it arrives at its sinister jazz conclusion, like a long-lost outtake from a David Lynch film. I thought it was fitting that the longest track on Grace for Drowning has the longest section of this review! I hope you don’t mind. Have a listen to an edit of the track towards the bottom of this page.
Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye closes the album, as one of the more organic songs on Grace for Drowning, with little in the way of electronics, distortion or jazz inflections in the first half of the song. The familiar trademark mellotrons underpine a yearning lyric…
“But you’re lost to me, like dust I have cleared from my eye.”
As the song breaks down into a searingly bright ambient coda after the “Breathe in now… breathe out now…” lyric you get a real feeling of serenity that is a fitting end to the album.
Grace For Drowning is an ambitious and perfectly sequenced album, with fine accompanying artwork (especially as part of the deluxe special edition) from multi-media artist Lasse Hoile and I’m looking forward to seeing the London date on SW’s first solo tour (where apparently Lasse’s visual’s will feature as part of the stage show). The only question after immersing myself in this album for the past week or so is, where will Wilson go next when Porcupine Tree reconvene sometime next year? Grace for Drowning will be a hard act to follow.
Stream an edit of Raider II –
iPhone / iPad users listen here
Vol 1 – Deform to Form a Star
Grace for Drowning
Deform to Form a Star
No Part of Me
Remainder the Black Dog
Vol 2 – Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye
Belle De Jour
Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye