A lot of metal fans owe a great debt to Opeth for the countless hours of gratification delivered through their music, but many of us are also indebted to them (and Mikael Åkerfeldt in particular) because of the introduction provided through the band to the extraordinary talents of Steven Wilson, who co-produced, mixed and engineered 2001’s Blackwater Park, in addition to having a decisive influence on Deliverance, Damnation, Heritage and Pale Communion, plus further fiddlings associated with releases from Anathema and Orphaned Land.
Release date: August 18th, 2017. Label: Caroline Records.
The Åkerfeldt & Wilson partnership during those years clearly benefited both parties, as Wilson’s influence strengthened Opeth’s progressive predilections, and Åkerfeldt’s impact encouraged Wilson’s principal music outlet at the time, Porcupine Tree, to mix more metal into its “prog-rock strongly influenced by Pink Floyd” direction. These were good and fertile years for both artists, but the lid popped on the jar of Porcupine Tree proved to be a mere glimpse of the tireless work ethic brimming from the Wilson side of the fence.
In short order, Wilson’s interest in all manner of music styles – krautrock, drone, industrial, ambient, electronic, folk, mope-rock, et al – began filtering into assorted projects that included No-Man, I.E.M., Bass Communion and Blackfield, and the full range of the chops he sharpened through these outlets became fertile ground for authority over his solo works: Insurgentes (2008), Grace for Drowning (2011), The Raven that Refused to Sing (2013), and 2015’s celebrated Hand. Cannot. Erase. All these records, while still clearly rooted in a form of psychedelic art/progressive rock born from the Gilmour years of Pink Floyd, found freedom to tinker in whichever styles Wilson felt would better help render some given picture, and the amalgamation of genres has always been just as natural as water frolicking through stones in a stream.
As expected, To the Bone delivers all the fundamental components necessary to make it sound undeniably Steven Wilson; the record is smooth, drifty and pensive, and a prevailing Floyd affect shines and is intensified through Wilson’s light, velvety voice, generous use of atmospheric keys, and floods of stellar Gilmour-touched guitar work.
But equally counted upon, the record also represents a marked departure from previous works, and any one fan’s overall reaction will likely swing on one particular detail: how he or she feels about pop music.
On a personal note, it’s worth mentioning that I took an immediate shine to these songs before actually discovering the motivation behind their genesis. I, along with a few other Last Rites staffers, have always been forthright about a continuing affinity for the 80s pop records that featured a darker, more purposeful design: Tears for Fears’ The Hurting, The Motels’ All Four One, Talk Talk’s The Party’s Over, Icehouse’s Sidewalk, The Church, Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel, just to name a handful. That, in a nutshell, was Wilson’s game plan for To the Bone. This is a pop record that doesn’t counterfeit those records, but it displays a genuine reverence for their design. In the man’s own words, “Accessible, but not dumbed down.” And further, “People generally think my music is rooted in the ‘70s, but I came of age in the ’80s and grew up with post punk, new wave and Trevor Horn’s productions.”
In truth, most of Wilson’s solo work has flashed pop elements that are rooted in the artists mentioned above, but previous material has also regularly presented lengthy stretches where everything fully uncorks and sashays the runway like a wild prog-beast strutting in the latest designs. To the Bone mostly avoids those busiest moments, opting instead to allow the art rock crux to spend more time wrapped around a more fluid, moody & mellow design.
Generous use of electronic beats, touches of funkiness, ample slide guitar, orchestration (The London Session Orchestra) and a deep sort of gritty harmonica (provided by Mark Feltham) all mingle seamlessly with Wilson’s tried-and-true methods to build an hour-long encounter that’s as vibrant, welcoming and autumnal as a crisp afternoon stroll through a fresh carpet of leaves, and their depth is further augmented by Wilson’s smart lyrics that navigate twisted truths and timely issues such as terrorism, hate crimes justified through religion, and in the case of “Pariah” (one of two songs featuring a vocal accompaniment by Ninet Tayeb), self-loathing intensified through social media.
Wilson’s always good for a few curveballs, though, most of which occur in the second half of the record. “Permanating” is almost jarring in its carefree poppiness, and “Song of I,” which spotlights Swiss jazz-popper Sophie Hunger, has a strange sort of funky, dark, modern noir flavor that sounds like something Grace Jones would really love.
The back end of To the Bone also throws down some of the most hustling moments, beginning with “People Who Eat Darkness,” which is a few shades more disruptive and boasts a brilliant Rush sequence in its midpoint that’s anchored to an absolutely scorching bass run. Plus, appropriately enough, the album’s longest track “Detonation” (9:20) takes a couple minutes before managing to hit harder, and it eventually jams like a bastard during its closing three minutes.
To the Bone is being marketed as a “modernist pop record,” and that’s obviously key in determining how essential it is for any fan of Steven Wilson’s work. It’s important to keep the following in mind, though: despite the fact that the pop is prominent, it’s done in a way that’s clearly befitting the man steering the ship, so expect the trip to be enthusiastically original, sincere and nothing short of excellent, and trust that the end result will be something you’ll probably want to return to time and time again.
Ideal modern pop music for people who don’t normally care for modern pop music.