By ProgBlog, Jan 24 2016 10:07PM
With Steven Wilson’s London gig rapidly approaching it seems like a good time to reflect on my relationship with his music. Though my collection cannot be said to contain a surfeit of Wilson-related material, partly due to my ambivalence towards Porcupine Tree, it can’t be denied that his output covers a wide stylistic range largely owing to the trait of possessing a collaborative nature. I own his two most recent ‘solo’ efforts, The Raven that Refused to Sing (2013) and Hand.Cannot.Erase (2015) along with Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet (2007). I’ve also been loaned Lightbulb Sun (Porcupine Tree, 2000); Wilson’s solo material Grace for Drowning (2011), Get All You Deserve (2012), Catalogue Preserve Amass (2012); his project with Mikael Akerfeldt Storm Corrosion (2012); and Bass Communion albums Continuum (2005) and Continuum Vol.2 (2007).
I was first prompted to see him live at the Royal Albert Hall in October 2013 by friend Neil Jellis and I acceded on the strength of Raven; he’d assembled some supremely able musicians and produced an album that ticked all the right golden era of prog boxes but still retained an element of contemporary music. There’s a moment in Luminol where I can determine Siberian Khatru that reveals Wilson’s deep appreciation of classic prog but it goes further than this. His use of analogue sounds doesn’t simply conjure images of gatefold sleeves, long hair and flares and dirty university refectory floors, it gives the music a depth and warmth. Wilson is of course a highly respected producer and many of the classic 70s reissues have been placed in his extremely capable hands for a remix because of his respect for the original music and his undoubted talent at tweaking out some of the instrumentation that has been buried in the mix of the original recording; something he achieves without harming the balance of the music due to his mastery of nuances.
Raven is an excellent album throughout and the performance at the Albert Hall did not disappoint, from the opening video to the final bow, the music, the musicianship and the presentation were flawless. Presentation is obviously very important to Wilson for, like his 70s heroes, he has forged long-standing artistic partnerships with Lasse Hoile, Hajo Mueller and Jess Cope that (forgive me for sounding pretentious) create the visuals for the Wilson brand, such is their importance to the integrity of the production; even something as simple as a transparent veil draped down from the lighting gantry to the front of the stage produces a quite startling effect and this attention to detail, linking music, album art and stage presentation first emerged with the prog acts Wilson was listening to in the early 70s.
When I first heard Hand.Cannot.Erase I was a bit disappointed, not because I considered the album as a retrograde step though I had wanted more of a ‘son of Raven’, rather that the mix of styles on the one disc, electronica, industrial, post-rock and out-and-out prog, didn’t really include enough classic-style prog for my taste. Further listening has mellowed my opinion: It’s a very well constructed album but I still regard it less favourably than Raven. The playing is as good as ever and there is an outstanding guest performance by Ninet Tayeb but I think it’s more difficult to portray invisibility in a world dominated by social media that inspired the album as a musical concept compared to the very straightforward alternative ghost stories of Raven. Raven also features more sax and flute, courtesy of Theo Travis. To an extent, Hand covers some of the same territory that informed Fear of a Blank Planet, the social isolation caused by technology but, to his credit, Wilson explores a very different sonic landscape in his more recent release. This sort of fits in with the characters of the protagonists on the two albums, a male teenager in Blank Planet with its distorted guitar-driven riffs and Hand’s young professional woman.
The live performance at the Troxy in London in March 2015 was basically the Hand.Cannot.Erase. album, played in its entirety (apart from Transience) in running order, interspersed with tracks from his back catalogue that Wilson felt fitted in with the idea of isolation and loss. Seeing the band perform the piece live helped me appreciate the music more, despite the atmosphere in the Troxy being less welcoming than at the Albert Hall; from my seat in the circle, I had the constant distraction of the light and noise from the bar, like in the upper circle at the over-rated Shepherd’s Bush Empire. However, experiencing the album live meant I was better able to relate Ancestral to the song introduced as Wreckage at the Albert Hall in 2013, a piece that had been announced as a work in progress and which had different titles throughout the Raven tour. Another personal highlight was the extended First Regret, with the clever video of concrete apartment blocks that have (mistakenly) become inextricably associated with the breakdown of society; concrete jungles and problem estates.
The addition of two Royal Albert Hall dates at the end of 2015 meant I was once again invited to go along. When I signed up to the proposal I thought that I could only manage one night because of work commitments and so Neil got me a ticket just for the second evening. It transpired that to get the full experience you did need to be there for both gigs, which had subtly different set-lists. Guitarist Guthrie Govan and drummer Marco Minnemann were unable to make this leg of the tour and were deputised by Dave Kilminster and Craig Blundell respectively and over the two nights there were a series of special guests, including Guthrie Govan. The set list had relaxed from the album format and included a number of tracks I was unfamiliar with. This meant that I felt at something of a disadvantage compared to my fellow audients and though I witnessed an incredible show, I have to admit a little disappointment at the inclusion of what seemed like an unhealthy dose of Porcupine Tree; it’s almost as though I was crashing a party, not knowing the host but the feeling was partly offset by the gift of a personalised T–shirt from Neil – We have got the Perfect Life.
I’m looking forward to the performance on Wednesday. Hammersmith is a good, comfortable rock venue. I’d just like more of Raven and Hand.Cannot.Erase.