A sentiment that has been floating around the periphery of music’s atmosphere for a long time now is the idea that rock music is “dying” or even “dead”. I’m not too sure what the advocates of this thought are trying to convey, but like the view that electronic music “isn’t real music” and other bizarre opinions, perhaps that’s because there’s not much to convey at all. Clearly rock music isn’t dying – there are seemingly infinite amounts of rock bands milling around nowadays. Oftentimes you can’t walk into a bar without witnessing the latest unsigned indie band shouting their insecurities into a small crowd of victims. But perhaps what people are instead trying to express is the feeling that rock music just isn’t as good as it used to be. These are usually the types of people you might find uploading sombre selfies in their Joy Division or Nirvana T-shirts to their Instagram, or who stopped listening to music after (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? hit the shelves. Great rock music isn’t dead, you just have to look a little harder – and a great place to start is Steven Wilson’s discography. The “king of prog rock” released his critically acclaimed fourth album last year, and is widely credited with re-invigorating the progressive music scene.
4 ½ (named for its position between Wilson’s recently released fourth and upcoming fifth studio albums) can be thought of as an extra morsel for the fans to chew on for a while. At thirty-seven minutes long, it’s nicely situated in that awkward limbo between EP and album, but there’s nothing ambiguous about the release’s quality. 4 ½ emulates a fusion of the styles explored on The Raven That Refused To Sing and Hand. Cannot. Erase. For example, opener My Book Of Regrets combines the quintessentially jazz-tinged modern prog of Raven with the lyrical leanings of Hand. Cannot. Erase., whilst Year Of The Plague’s mournful violin and delicate guitar prove the track could easily fit in amongst the more tender moments of either LP, or indeed Wilson’s earlier work.
It’s not all that stylistically rigid though. Vermillioncore sounds like it crawled out of the eerie cracks in the floorboards of Raven, determined to leave its abrasive jazz-fusion rumble in someone’s ear, whilst Sunday Rain Sets In is exactly what is says on the tin. Lush, vernal piano gives way to ominous riffage, and the track’s final section brilliantly rounds out its expert juxtaposition between light and dark. Elsewhere, album highlight Happiness III is a do-bad, feel-good tune, whose jubilant music almost overshadows it’s somewhat more dubious lyrics.
“Sorry that was cruel I only meant for you to lose your balance in the snow Slip on the ice so I could catch your fall Sorry that’s not true I didn’t think that you would take it all to heart I just made it up so I could watch you crawl”
Like many of his other studio efforts, 4 ½ is a wonderful demonstration of Wilson as a songwriter, lyricist, and singer. Yet one of its nicer features is the return of Wilson as a guitar player. Ever since the release of his third studio album, world-class guitar virtuoso Guthrie Govan has stepped up as lead guitarist. Whilst it’s difficult to fault one of the best guitar players in the world, it’s also a nice touch to be reminded of Wilson’s fragmented yet graceful approach to playing. His less-is-more style beautifully complements many of the EP’s tracks.
Final track Don’t Hate Me is a live recording of the 1999 Porcupine Tree song – a reworking I didn’t think was necessary until it first wormed its way into my ears. The crisp, spacy production adds to the baleful atmosphere of the original, whilst Ninet Tayeb’s cry of “Don’t hate me / I’m not special like you / I’m tired and I’m so alone” feels especially poignant this time around. Yet despite the truly phenomenal keyboard and saxophone solos which jazz up the track’s midsection, the final moments of 4 ½ are its best. As is often the case with music, I find the melancholic cries of the closing guitar solo express more than words ever could.
On the whole, 4 ½ may not be as conceptually immersive or musically cohesive as Hand. Cannot. Erase. However, it’s a great addition to Wilson’s already impressive musical repertoire, and a great way to appease the fans until his next studio album hopefully brings him the mainstream success he deserves.