For all his masterful "prog rock" work, I think Steven Wilson is at his best when he's focusing on creating melodic, more broadly accessible (if you will) pop music. His most recent album, To The Bone is a fine example of that factor. Released last year, many fans and friends have been gushing about Wilson's records and concerts of recent vintage, justifiably. I finally got my hands on the Blu-ray Disc versions of his most recent two releases late last year and felt it was worth sharing some thoughts for those who might have skipped over this or missed out on the surround sound mixes.
Actually, this is a good point for me to mention how I came to be a fan of Steven Wilson's music. It wasn't through In Absentia and Deadwing, the first albums of his music I heard by his group Porcupine Tree -- nor even Fear of a Blank Planet -- all of which I now have in 5.1 surround sound formats. No, my real acceptance moment as a genuine fan -- that point where I put my hand on Ye Olde Book of Wilson and said "I believeth" -- came from a crude MP3 a friend sent me of an old radio show he did in the 1990s when he was a DJ which included an absolutely haunting and gorgeous acoustic flavored pop track in the mix. That track turned out to be Wilson's song "Pure Narcotic" (from Porcupine Tree's Stupid Dream album). That song impressed me more than any of the metal-infused progressive rock pyrotechnics the band displayed on the later albums (thing many seem to focus on when it comes to this band). I'm far more impressed with a composer's ability to write a lasting melody that etches itself into memory than hammering out innovative electric guitar riffs and "shredding" styled gymnastics. That latter stuff is cool, no doubt, but a really good song is what it takes to hook me in for the long haul.
And so it goes on To The Bone, the first Wilson album I've heard since Stupid Dream that I've been enjoying start to finish (note: I have yet to immerse myself in 2015's Hand. Cannot. Erase and also need to catch up on prior albums such as Grace For Drowning and some Porcupine Tree albums I've missed along the way).
Wilson in fact considers To The Bone a "progressive pop" record and that may well be a big contributing factor as to why its resonating more with me. From his website we learn: "My fifth record is in many ways inspired by the hugely ambitious progressive pop records that I loved in my youth (think Peter Gabriel's So, Kate Bush's Hounds of Love, Talk Talk's Colour of Spring and Tears for Fears' Seeds of Love)."
Among the new songs on To The Bone that have roped me in is "Permanating," a super-driving, modern rock-infused slice of upbeat, neo power-pop -- and yes, there were three hyphens there for you to navigate, folks -- with a great hook ("hold on, hold on to the minute and feel it..."). "People Who Eat Darkness" delivers some big rock power reminiscent of recent Queens of the Stone Age by way of Jeff Buckley's second album ("Nightmares By The Sea" comes to mind in particular). "Pariah" is another one of those (seemingly) "simple" -- and I must underscore that it is really difficult to write a good, genuinely new song using those basic pop chords, so its not at all "simple," folks -- power ballad type songs that creeps into your psyche. Like the aforementioned Porcupine Tree song that made me a fan (again, "Pure Narcotic" from Stupid Dream), its the most subtle type of ear-worm any composer (and pop music fan) could wish for: a song that works its way into your heart. I found myself humming it and replaying the track over repeatedly.
"Song of I" has a great slapping percussive hook this side Violator-era Depeche Mode. The presence of Israeli-born singer Ninet Tayeb adds a lovely texture for Wilson's music, giving some tracks an almost Kate Bush-like flavor at times ("Pariah," "Blank Tapes"). Prog rock heads needn't fret that there isn't anything for them on To The Bone: "Detonation" positively rocks and toward the end, Wilson channels the likes of Allan Holdsworth, Jeff Beck and Al DiMeola.
Speaking of rocking, some of the players on this album are spectacular including current "third" King Crimson drummer Jeremy Stacey. And, while we're on Mr. Stacey, I should mention that his brother Paul Stacey has done an immaculate job bringing all the facets of Wilson's music together as co-producer and engineer. From the "making of" video included on the Blu-ray we see exactly how To The Bone was assembled using a great deal of vintage gear, getting a great warm sound going into the old school analog mixing board before depositing the information into a modern, high resolution 96 kHz, 24-bit, computerized digital audio workstation.
To The Bone sounds great in stereo on the Blu-ray and in the Tidal stream (at 96/24 using the MQA format). Where it really shines -- for me at least, however -- is in the 5.1 surround mix which is no surprise as Mr. Wilson has established a name for himself as the wizard of all things surround sound for rock 'n roll progressives. It is a rich mix for sure, but one that even those of you who are more two-channel centric may well enjoy -- the surround mix on To The Bone is gently immersive, mostly keeping the band soundstage front and center while using the surround channels for tasteful textures and melodic counter parts to the main song structure.
You also get two complete music videos and a lengthy, interesting "making of" mini documentary showing the process Wilson and his players went through to create To The Bone. Perhaps my only complaint with the Blu-ray Disc version of To The Bone is that it didn't come with a download or CD for mobile use. But given that it includes 96/24 quality stereo, surround sound and instrumental versions of the entire album, I really can't complain.
Indeed, To The Bone is anything but a stripped down affair -- there is a lot of audiophile and musical muscle on these bones worth exploring here.
If you are a song focused music fan, following are some good places to start when exploring Steven Wilson's catalog past and present on YouTube and Tidal (plus links to Amazon if you click on the album titles):