Despite a career spanning more than 30 years, you probably don’t know who Steven Wilson is. Described by The Daily Telegraph as “the most successful British artist you’ve never heard of”, he rose to relative prominence as frontman of the band Porcupine Tree, as well as working with a plethora of storied bands playing prog or off-kilter pop, from King Crimson to Tears for Fears. However, the cover of “To the Bone”, his fifth solo album (although he has produced endless work through other names and projects) implies a literal and figurative stripping down. Rather than the studiedly moody Porcupine Tree album covers, here a shirtless Wilson is simply lit blue against a red backdrop in a repudiation of his previous tetchiness about publicity.
In some ways, “To the Bone” does seem to amalgamate all his divergent creations and influences: for instance, in dazzling highlight “Refuge” there are echoes of Rush in Wilson’s soft vocals—Geddy Lee but less shrill—or perhaps Tool in the mechanised, vaguely Eastern clatter. However, “Permanating” is weirdly reminiscent of ABBA at times, illuminating an underbelly of pure pop that intermittently surfaces throughout “To the Bone”. The album also strays into fleet-footed metal at times in the maniacal, jazzy riffing that concludes “Detonation”, or the trebley bite of “People Who Eat Darkness”, whose riff’s similarity to that of Metallica’s “The Memory Remains” is difficult to ignore.
However, this constant genre-hopping proves surprisingly stylistically durable. Even the broody Depeche Mode affectations of “Song of I” dovetail into typically maximalist string swells, snapping the song cleanly into the album’s track listing. The exception to this rule is the arpeggiated restraint of “Blank Tapes”, whose resemblance to Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage” isn’t too tenuous given Wilson’s prog credentials. The track is a welcome avenue of quiet prettiness, coming off more like “Ghost”-era Devin Townsend than the glittering bombast of “The Same Asylum as Before”, which balloons from tastefully bluesy soloing into a scalding climax somewhere between A Perfect Circle and The Chameleons.
However, despite the musical smorgasbord Wilson unveils, his undeniable technical skill sometimes struggles to gloss over a dearth of emotional engagement. The album’s lyrical opacity occasionally gives way to bland sloganeering: “I float above the stars, and I feel the rush of love” he gaudily declares on “Nowhere Now”. Nonetheless, “To the Bone” is largely carried by its musicianship, which is thankfully and necessarily excellent. Wilson’s virtuosity electrifies the album, providing it with its integral heft and invention. However, it is maybe this slightly alienating reliance upon technical ability that keeps Steven Wilson as “the most successful British artist you’ve never heard of”. Or then again, maybe he just likes it better that way. CO
Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0dLypToLzE