The Future Bites is the new album by Steven Wilson, the now near legendary producer composer performer musician and all around progressive music renaissance man. The album is a fascinating study about consumerism and modern living — by way of identity loss and technology overload — in some ways it feels like a 21st-century update on Radiohead’s landmark OK Computer album which also dealt with these sorts of themes. And I mean that in the best possible way…
Steven Wilson, for those of you not in the know, came to public attention as the founder of a number of progressive-leaning independent groups, most notably Porcupine Tree. And over the years he’s become an incredible front leader of the resurgent interest in not only progressive rock but also surround sound music.
Somehow this one-man army that is Wilson seems to have gone were no other producer / engineer has been able to go in terms of making the surround sound format more visible, viable and interesting to a mainstream consumer. In the early 00s, many fantastic surround sound producers had embraced the medium (then largely delivered on DVD-Audio Disc and SACD formats, amidst an industry format war) and most efforts stalled at retail. Beyond the format confusion, support also stalled with many artists who were not always thrilled with the liberties taken in creating the surround mixes.
Thus it was a big deal years later when Wilson secured the confidence of many of the leading edge progressive rock and pop groups beginning with Robert Fripp and King Crimson. This work led to catalog reinventions for no less than Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Tears for Fears, Jethro Tull and XTC.
While there is no doubt a big vinyl resurgence — and I am certainly a huge life long vinyl fan, as many of you know — when it comes to Steven Wilson’s music I prefer to get his surround sound releases, usually on high resolution Blu-ray Disc these days.
I know that his mixes are going to be fascinating and they will probably sound the best that they can since I’m quite sure that he works in the digital domain to begin with. Plus, on these discs you usually get both Stereo and 5.1 mixes, sometimes in multiple codec options so really it is the best value in that sense.
On this Blu-ray Disc of The Future Bites there are are four different variants of the album to explore including regular Stereo plus three flavors of surround: DTS HD Master Audio, LPCM and Dolby Atmos.
As I currently do not have a Dolby Atmos-ready AVR, my primary format of choice is indeed the 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio version. I choose this not because I handled PR for the company for eight years — true story, look it up – but simply because it sounds the best on my particular system. The LPCM version sounds a little weak on this edition. And contrary to a factoid somebody on a Facebook forum told me, on my system the Dolby Atmos version gets cut down to Dolby True HD at 48K and it sounds it. The DTS HD Master Audio track plays at 96 kHz, 24 bits and sounds richer and more complete.
For those who might not believe me, I took some photos and included them here to show you what my Oppo BDP203 Universal Player was delivering into my AVR from the disc when I called up the information screen.
But really, it’s not even so much numbers of the frequency response that bothered me — I’ve heard plenty of excellent sounding 48kHz recordings! No, what bothered me is that there was some sort of alteration to the music occurring when I played the Dolby Atmos/Dolby True HD version. The DTS HD Master Audio track sounded very crisp with much discrete detailing going on in all the channels on the great track “Follower.”
However, in the Dolby True HD presentation that perspective seems to get lost and ends up feeling a bit like a fancier version of the classic Dolby Digital processing with a rather non-distinct and decidedly non-discrete approach to sound delivery. Again this is not a slam, this is just me reporting on what I’m hearing and it may well be a stylistic presentation of the music that you personally might well prefer. Also, your system might handle the sound differently than mine, so take this for what it is — just one reviewer’s perspective. Someday, when I get an Atmos systems I hope to circle back to update reviews like this once I can hear that mix (I mean, if Wilson is embracing it, I’m sure it is going to be great!).
Not surprisingly, the sound on The Future Bites is excellent, crafting a terrific balance between modern 21st century pop sheen and the rich warmth of his instrumentation and textures.
I’m especially enjoying how it seems to pick up — at least musically — where Wilson left off on his last brilliant album called To The Bone which I reviewed previously (click here to jump to that article).
There are some beautiful chord sequences amidst the new song craft, once again underscoring that Steven Wilson is a quite brilliant composer of strong pop melodies, not just epic progressive rock dramatics. In some ways, I think this type of music is actually more difficult to create than progressive rock because it has to be so concise, engaging the listener in 3-5 minutes or less. There are nice touches echoing classic 80s electronic music and synth pop from the likes of Depeche Mode, Tears For Fears and perhaps even Heaven 17 and The Human League.
And yet there is room for a gorgeous acoustic guitar driven strummer like “12 Things I Forgot” with a lovely lift in the chorus that is a classic Steven Wilson twist. It has some magnificent sequences and melodies going on there.
The Future Bites is growing on me a lot even after just a few listens. The three videos you get on the Blu-ray look fantastic and “Personal Shopper” is particularly powerful to watch with the 5.1 soundtrack. The animated “King Ghost” is quite gorgeous while “Eminent Sleaze” is dramatic, if a bit MTV-ish in it’s look and feel (that may be intentional). My only disappointment is that there was no video for the song “Follower,” which sounds like quite a take down of the whole social media universe and mindset.
The Future Bites is another bright, bold statement from Steven Wilson and I suspect it will make many people’s favorites list for 2021. I know I’ll be playing it a lot in the months to come, and that is the best compliment I can offer.
You can also find the album streaming in high resolution 96 kHz, 24-bit Stereo, in MQA format on Tidal (click here) and Hi Res via Qobuz (click here). Both versions sound excellent as streaming services go. But to get the surround sound experience, you’ll need to get the Blu-ray Disc so do seek out a copy soon.