Thursday, December 22, 2011

Steven Wilson's star shines bright on Grace for Drowning

I'm a collector and I've always been misunderstood
I love the things that most people always overlook.

These two lines could sum up how Steven Wilson has built his career. Wilson has always had a peculiar outlook which has always colored not only his music but also his view on things in general. He's always gone outside the bounds of what people thought music should be, or could be, and in the process he's developed some of the most thoughtful and pertinent music in recent memory.

On his latest solo record, Grace for Drowning, he's tinkered the formula even more. His previous outing, Insurgentes, was a very eclectic record, hopping from one musical style to another. Conversely, Grace for Drowning builds up slowly and deliberately, enveloped in a fog of ambiance and mystery.

Wilson has never shied away from utilizing extended instrumental pieces in his music. In fact, he's released a pair of 100 percent instrumental albums with Porcupine Tree, which helps explain his decision to eschew lyrics on the first two tracks on Grace for Drowning.

After a brief uplifting intro, the album kicks in with Sectarian. The beginning sounds like the prelude to some epic battle, then tapers off after awhile but hits you with a sweet bassline. But the moment when it became obvious that this album wasn't going to play by the rules came during the heavy conclusion to the song. It was not at all what I was expecting and totally threw me for a loop.

From there we get into the real meat of the album. "Deform to Form a Star," easily one of the best songs of the year, opens with a series of absolutely beautiful piano chords and is accompanied by vocals to match.

The chorus feels dreamlike and mystic, as if a star is being formed before your very eyes. And there are a pair of majestic guitar solos to boot. The lyrics Wilson sings wrap around a haunting melody, focusing on the raw emotion of listlessness and despair. In the opening verse, he croons:

"No god here I'm sure,
this must be the cure
for all this carrion
and aimless drift"

In many ways, the sentiment delivered here is the overriding theme of Grace for Drowning; Wilson's words deal with picking up the pieces and attempting to deal with stagnation and regret. Though the event that prompted him to pick up the pieces is never made totally clear.

The thread continues onto the next track, "No Part of Me," which seems to be about a former lover that he realizes he never had true feelings for. Musically, the track is defined by a frantic and frenetic drum beat, but the music over top of that is hazy and and relaxed. It's a total contrast. But it's clear that the song is building up to something big, and then it hits in the second half when a meancing heavy riff breaks out, along with a guitar solo.

Then comes "Postcard," on which Wilson might as well be John Lennon lording over his piano. The track is still downbeat but has a vague sense of optimism that was largely absent on the two preceding tracks. It's like going through hell after a breakup, and then you finally hit that point when you realize that things might actually be okay, and that it isn't the end of the world as you know it.

The first disc concludes with "Remainder the Black Dog," a song title that sounds pretty creepy of its own accord. The eerie piano riff that plays through most of the song will nothing to dispel that notion. What impresses me about this track is how many different types of solos the band plays off that initial piano riff.

About halfway through you get a free form jazz solo played over a heavy riff, followed by a wall of riffing and some spastic solos, which then leads into a great bassline and acoustic guitar riff. There's a bit of minimalism, some ambiance, some messing around on the drumkit, and even a flute solo. It's enough to make even Yanni's head swim.

The second disc I don't feel like is as strong. My favorite song on that one is "Index," a very downbeat, minimalist piece with slight tinges of electronica. The theme of the song is about a compulsive collector who becomes obsessed with trying to organize and catagorize everything and it eventually puts a great mental strain upon him.  "Track One" is nice, but doesn't feel fully fleshed out, and "Belle De Jour" is an okay attempt at a New Age sounding intro piece. It's just that we have enough of those on the album already.

This brings us to "Raider II," the 23 minute behemoth and clearly the intended centerpiece of the album. The song's premise focuses on the elements that are damaging our planet and lives, to which Wilson assigns the term "Raider." The first 8-10 minutes are are great. Wilson's delivery grows increasingly intense on each verse, and the instrumentation is as taut as a drum. Later on it gets a bit indulgent. There's your fair share of progressive rock guitar noodling and several minutes of minimialist ambiance, but he's simply repeating himself.

If there is a major criticism of Grace For Drowning, it is that does perhaps feel a bit indulgent at times. While we do get to see more than a passing glimmer of the man's talent, I can't help but feel like this album is simply an indulgence for him. Much of the album feels like he's just dicking around; it's like he's trying to wade though layers of sonic soundscapes to see what sticks to the wall and what doesn't. Sometimes the album sounds somewhat unfocused, particularly on the second disc.

The 1-2-3 punch of "Deform to Form a Star," "No Part of Me" and "Postcard" is terrific, and I also really liked "Remainder the Black Dog" and "Index." It's a very good album, but Wilson seems to be more concerned in tinkering with various progressive landscapes and experimenting with different songwriting mechanics. It doesn't appear that he's aiming to make his next career defining LP here. That can wait until the next Porcupine Tree LP.

Score: 89/100

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