Having fortified a 30-year career in progressive metal, krautrock and ambient music, Steven Wilson was always a bit of a stalking horse for a #1 spot in the charts. Surprisingly, not one of his concept albums about serial killers, ghosts or social isolation has brought him much commercial success. Yet incredibly, the 49-year old purveyor of some of Britain’s best experimental and progressive music has finally produced a pop album which has managed to buck the trend. The (briefly) #1 record is an enormous success, and as he sits down for his interview on BBC Breakfast, Wilson looks genuinely surprised. “Insane, I know. It’s crazy.”
The interview begins with a snippet from Wilson’s latest single, Permanating, which he described as “the most joyous piece of pure pop I’ve ever recorded”. Over three-and-a-half minutes, Permanating unravels itself as a crash course in the pop music archetype, recalling almost all of its phases, from its sentimental 60s heyday to the full-bodied production and unfiltered zeal of its modern form. For all the 12-minute progressive epics sequestered in Wilson’s oeuvre, Permanating stands out as a marvellous piece of barebones pop, which is why it’s somewhat surprising that the first question he’s asked is “So what is prog rock?”.
If Wilson was irked by this question, it (fortunately) didn’t show. He’s perhaps the first prog musician in a decade or two to be given a spot on mainstream television, and thereby a chance to expound the tenets and merits of the style. Getting annoyed at his hosts would likely be the final nail in the genre’s coffin, condemning prog to be perpetually considered as music by stuffy elitists for stuffy elitists - a stereotype which To The Bone does everything in its power to dispel.
So, to sum up so far - it’s a good thing Steven Wilson didn’t end up antagonising the hosts of his interview live on air.
Far from being elitist, the record may be the most accessible Wilson has ever written. Nowhere Now is his first song in half a decade to follow a conventional song structure, and this approach only serves to highlight the succession of endearing melodies woven throughout. Similar charms abound through the album - gorgeous swells of strings elevate the rousing singalong finale to Same Asylum as Before, whilst a captivating orchestral midsection lends further weight to the murky, brooding depths of Song of I. The finale of the LP, Song of Unborn, is perhaps its emotional centrepiece. As it slowly builds to a well-earned climax, complete with ambient pulses and choral apexes, Wilson’s ode to life and his chants of “don’t be afraid to die / don’t be afraid to be alive” become more and more affirming.
No Steven Wilson LP would be complete without some ambitious tracks. Refuge extracts an impressive emotional heft from just a few simple chords, before culminating in a staggeringly cathartic amalgam of harmonica, guitar and synthesiser. It’s the perfect accompaniment to Wilson’s passionate documentation of the plight of Syrian refugees. Stylistically opposed but equal in catharsis is the punkish sneer of People Who Eat Darkness. The track recalls early-2000’s Porcupine Tree, and Wilson practically snarls over a series of acerbic riffs and driving percussion as he explores humanity’s helplessness in perceiving the malady of terrorist ideology before it begins to spread.
The progressive highpoint of the record comes with its penultimate offering, Detonation. Beginning with stumbling electronic beats and minimal guitar arpeggi, the track soon traverses a real breadth of musical terrain, combining the graceful echoes of haunted string sections with the faint rumblings of trip-hop atmospherics. It intersperses some borderline metal riffs before a fantastic transition into 80s art-pop pastiche and a towering guitar solo to end the masterfully-crafted epic.
It must be said that To The Bone’s approach is partly inconsistent. One of the record’s central themes is the idea of truth as something malleable and subjective, with multiple sides to each story. The title track laments the imparting of personal truths as all-encompassing ones, whilst Blank Tapes describes the very different truths held by two people in the same relationship.
For all this broadmindedness, it’s frustrating that Refuge and Detonation come across as somewhat facile. Wilson considers these songs personal rather than political, but despite the far-reaching nature of their messages, his musings cannot help but have a political flavour to them. Wilson has failed to consider alternative sides to either of these stories, which is a little disappointing for an LP ostensibly exploring the flexibility of truth. Nevertheless, by subverting the format of progressive music, Steven Wilson may have redeemed the future of prog rock. I certainly hope so.