Steven Wilson – 4 ½

26 12 2015

SW_cover_4_1_2web4 ½, the new album from Steven Wilson, is released by KScope on January 22nd 2016. 4 ½ is like a super-sized, expanded EP, and acts as an interim release between 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. and the next (as yet unrecorded) studio album.

4 ½ is available in multiple formats – as a single CD, digital download, vinyl and blu-ray (the blu-ray includes bonus tracks, instrumentals and the 2015 version of Lazarus).

Album opener My Book of Regrets will be familiar to fans who attended recent live dates, and first started to come together during the early Hand.Cannot.Erase. period.

The song has a myriad of twists and turns, with a nod to the past in the Time Flies referencing evolving guitar riff running throughout the track. A great bass-line drives the mid-section, and all of the musicians get a chance to really shine on My Book of Regrets, which is built from a mixture of live and studio performances.

I love that recording technology has progressed to the stage that live recordings can capture unique individual performances that can then be easily dropped into studio sessions.

I think its safe to say that 4 ½ will appeal to Porcupine Tree fans as well as those who love the material released under his own name. The album feels like Wilson is cleansing his musical palette before the next album, which is likely to be very different from his last few releases (he has recently hinted at a more electronic sound for the next release).

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Year of the Plague is the album’s first instrumental track, and early on became my favourite song on 4 ½. Free from the need to follow a conventional structure with lyrics and verse-chorus, the song is simple but direct and incredibly moving. At times it reminds me a little of the mood of some later period no-man songs. It’s no secret that my favourite Wilson project is his work as no-man with Tim Bowness.

Year of the Plague is from The Raven That Refused To Sing sessions, but its clear why it was not included on that album, which had a very 70s feel and it fits perfectly in the album sequencing for 4 ½. The beautiful violin melody drifts through the song, sitting on top of one of SW’s most addictive arpeggio guitar lines. The strings are not performed by real players, but are sampled, in this case from an EastWest sample library (the violins in the only EW sample library I own – Goliath – don’t sound as realistic as this).

Year of the Plague also works well as a companion piece to Nuclear Head of an Angel from 2004’s self-released Unreleased Electronic Music Vol.1.

Happiness III dates back as far as the writing for the Deadwing album, but would not have sounded out-of-place on Hand.Cannot.Erase. Boasting an unashamedly pop chorus (reminding me a little of later period The Who / solo Pete Townsend), this song will no doubt be a highlight of the upcoming tour.

Sunday Rain Sets In harks back to the sound of Insurgentes at the beginning, but then expands into a fine instrumental with great piano and percussive guitar lines. It evokes the sights and sounds of a wet, night-time city landscape.

Vermillioncore is the album’s final instrumental. A disturbing jazzy intro leads to a discordant Chapman Stick solo from Nick Beggs, and a heavy bass and guitar end section. I’m not sure what the significance of the song title is, but Vermillioncore is nothing like Vermillion Sands from Buggle’s Adventures in Modern Recording album.

Its worth pointing out that one of the highlights of 4 ½ is that we finally witness the return of SW guitar solos, which have taken the back-seat on his recent albums.

4 ½ is bookended by two long songs. The album closes with a new version of Don’t Hate Me, a take on the song originally recorded by Porcupine Tree on Stupid Dream. The 2015 solo version is slower than the version recorded by Porcupine Tree, with the drums less to the fore in the mix, and with a wider range of layered keyboards and guitars.

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The original keyboards were solely analogue, whereas this version is augmented with organ on top of the electronics.

Wilson’s vocals have obviously matured since 1999, and they work really well alongside co-vocalist for this track, Ninet Tayeb (who you might have been lucky to see bringing the audience to their feet during a stunning Routine at the Albert Hall shows in November 2015). I love the subtle use of reverb on the verse vocals on this version of Don’t Hate Me.

Theo Travis returns to deliver another stunning sax solo that works so well alongside the haunting, smokey keyboard runs from Adam Holzman, who is becoming one of my favourite keyboard players.

Die-hard PT fans may prefer the studio take they have lived with for years, but for me, this is the definitive version. Don’t hate me.

Steven Wilson – 4 ½

My Book of Regrets (9.23)
Year of the Plague (4.15)
Happiness III (4.31)
Sunday Rain Sets In (3.50)
Vermillioncore (5.09)
Don’t Hate Me (9.34)

Blu-ray exclusive bonus tracks

Lazarus (2015 recording) (3:57)
My Book Of Regrets (edit) (3:34)
Don’t Hate Me (SW vocal version) (9:34)
My Book Of Regrets (instrumental) (9:35)
Happiness III (instrumental) (4:31)
Don’t Hate Me (instrumental) (9:34)

SW_cover_4_1_2webBuy 4 ½ on Amazon

CD from Amazon

Blu-ray from Amazon

Vinyl from Amazon

Buy 4 ½ from Burning Shed

Blu-ray from Burning Shed

CD from Burning Shed

Vinyl from Burning Shed

 

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Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)

22 02 2013

The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) is the third Steven Wilson solo album, but where it differs from the previous two releases is that it was written to be performed with the musicians who make up his touring band. This gives a real cohesion to the album, which was produced by Wilson but features Alan Parsons as associate producer and recording engineer.

Steven Wilson’s albums, whether solo or with his main bands Porcupine Tree or no-man, have always been expertly produced. The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) takes it up a notch, with the best sounding Wilson release to date.

A case in point is album opener Luminol.  Devoid of vocals until nearly 5 minutes in, switching time signatures, bass-driven instrumentation and layered mellotron / piano all feature. The production allows the instruments the space to breathe, and there is no brick-wall mastering in evidence.

At times reminiscent of Yes, Luminol sets the scene for the rest of the album, which is a mixture of progressive and classic rock.

Drive Home is one of Wilson’s best songs to date. Like a modern-day Stars Die, layered harmonies, strings and acoustic guitar underpin a tale of loss and regret.

“Well love can make amends
While the darkness never ends
You’re still alone
So drive home”

Drive Home is the one track on the album that really harks back to that mid-70s LA classic rock feel, and ends with a breathtaking guitar solo from the newest member of the Wilson live band, Guthrie Govan.

The Holy Drinker is one of the darkest songs on The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories).  Featuring some wonderful interplay between Theo Travis and Adam Holzman, the first few minutes of the song wouldn’t sound out of place on Wilson’s previous album, Grace for Drowning.  But it then mutates into a mid-70’s classic rock Deep Purple / Pete  Townshend / Yes hybrid. Speeding up and slowing down, crossing genres at will, it’s clear that playing together over recent tours has really helped this group of musicians gel and become much more than a backing band.

Photo by Naki Kouyioumtzi

The subject matter for the album’s lyrics also help make the album a complete piece, like in those distant days when album’s were made to be heard in one sitting, not split into easily digestible iPod-friendly chunks. Drawing on inspiration from 19th Century ghost and supernatural writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, the lyrics touch on subjects such as the spirit of a busker who continues to play (badly) long after his body departs this earth (Luminol) and a man who is haunted by the ghost of his wife whose body he buried under the floorboards (The Watchmaker).

The Pin Drop has a real Martin Grech feel about the arrangement, and contains the wonderful line, that sums up the theme of the album:

“I have not lived and loved enough”

It’s the shortest track on the album, and one of the most immediate and powerful. Lyrically almost a companion piece to Porcupine Tree’s Heartattack in a Lay By, both sets of lyrics touch on regret and sadness as someone’s life reaches it’s premature end.

The Pin Drop is one of the tracks that I keep coming back to and one which would make a fine single – although do singles exist anymore?

The Watchmaker will probably appeal most to fans who lean towards progressive rock.  A slowly building pastoral sounding arrangement for the first quarter of the song, before the organs and percussion up the pace.  The mighty Nick Beggs really shines on this track.

Photo by Naki Kouyioumtzis

The Raven That Refused to Sing is the album closer, and what a beautiful way to end the journey.  Starting off like a track from Storm Corrosion, before developing into the song that will surely be a staple of Wilson’s live shows for many years to come.

I hear hints of Radiohead and Sigur Ros in the arrangement, but also a flavour of Wilson’s first solo release Insurgentes. It’s an incredibly moving song that hits you really hard the more you hear it.

“Sing to me raven
I miss her so much
Sing to me Lily
I miss you so much”

If you don’t shed a tear as the song reaches it’s climax, you have no heart, no soul, and you should leave my blog now!

The deluxe version of this album includes a CD of demo versions of all the songs – obviously Steven Wilson demos are the quality of most people’s finished albums, but they offer a fascinating insight into the albums development and show what an impact the musicians and Alan Parsons made to the finished release.

Album of the year already? It depends on what else comes out over the next 10 months, but I think it’s safe to say that The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) will be on my list come December 2013. A Wilson career best?  Yes, it’s up there with no-man‘s Together We’re Stranger for me, and is already shaping up to be my favourite Wilson solo release.

The only negative for me (which I touched upon in my Grace for Drowning review) is that the freedom Wilson seems to be really enjoying in his solo work means I really don’t see Porcupine Tree reconvening anytime soon.  I hope I’m wrong, as Porcupine Tree are one of my favourite bands, but with albums of this quality, the blow is somewhat lessened.

Watch the video for The Raven That Refused To Sing:

The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) is released by Kscope on 25 Feb 2013.

You can buy The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) in various formats, including vinyl, from the official Steven Wilson store on Burning Shed.

Buy The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) CD on Amazon UK

Buy The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) Bluray on Amazon UK





Steven Wilson – Grace For Drowning

8 10 2011

Grace for DrowningGrace 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 SeamsDeform… 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

iPhone / iPad version

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
Sectarian
Deform to Form a Star
No Part of Me
Postcard
Raider Prelude
Remainder the Black Dog

Vol 2 – Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye

Belle De Jour
Index
Track One
Raider II
Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye

Buy Grace for Drowning at Amazon UK
Buy Grace for Drowning at Amazon US
Buy the Postcard mp3 single (with exclusive tracks) from Amazon UK

Steven Wilson HQ  








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