This week, I am taking a slightly different approach to ‘Spillin’ The Beans because I am going to discuss an album released by a major artist back in August. That album is Steven Wilson‘s fifth solo release, “To The Bone“. It isn’t really a review, more of a personal reflection upon the music and how it has been received.
Now, first, a confession. I am a huge fan of Steven Wilson’s music, whether as the mainman of Porcupine Tree, as half of Storm Corrosion or as a solo artist, although I have never been particularly fond of his Blackfield collaboration with Aviv Geffen.
The album has been touted by the media, the mainstream media too, something almost unheard of in the case of a progressive musician, as his “breakthrough” album, and as somehow being unfaithful to his “prog” roots. Time here for a second confession – I have really come to hate the term “prog”, because it has turned into some kind of cause célèbre for trainspotterish types who seem to have decided that only they have the right to decide what is prog and what isn’t, and many of them appear to have decided that this album is utterly beyond the pale and is some kind of mere pop confection, full of songs and tunes and worthy only of their opprobrium. Frankly, in my honest opinion, and I am not going to mince my words, this is bollocks, and I am going to explain why I think that is the case.
I grew up in the 1960s, and my musical tastes were, and remain, a by-product of those times. At first, it was all pop. There was the stuff like The Shadows, and the stuff your mum and dad listened to. Then, along came The Beatles, followed by The Rolling Stones and others and then the whole musical landscape blossomed in ways that might have seemed impossible a few years before. Of course, now, we all know that the roots of the 60s pop boom lay in the 1950s and the growth of a blues and jazz scene, plus a growing awareness of folk music and other musical forms that rarely, if ever, impinged on the wider public consciousness. Anyway, we all know what happened. Around 1966, we saw the first stirrings of what became an alternative, counterculture scene, with psychedelia, experimentation, louder bands, longer songs, jamming, the rise of the album and a rejection of the charts. Some of us thought that that was all a lot more interesting and took the woozy, technicoloured road to the underground. Back in the late 60s, there weren’t really any names for this at first, but it started to get called things like head music, underground music, rock, heavy rock, heavy metal and progressive rock. The term “prog” came along a lot later. I can’t remember anyone using in in the 60s or early 70s. Prog, as opposed to progressive, seems to have been intended as a pejorative label, but one later picked up and reclaimed by fans of the music. There is even a magazine, to which I subscribe, called “Prog“. Fine, but don’t let labels get to define the music, nor who is acceptable and who isn’t.
So, on to Mr Wilson’s latest album. Apparently, the pitchfork-waving proggist lynch mobs think that it is all a big sell-out and that Wilson has turned his back on the faithful in search of fame, power and wealth beyond the dreams of Croesus. Personally, I think that it is a really good album. I tend to judge music by what I hear, not by the labels that get attached to it. OK, labels are OK, up to a point, because they do give you some idea of what you are letting yourself in for and also so you know where to look in a record shop, but that is about as far as it goes for me. After that, I engage my ears and decide whether I like it or not, which is why I am not particularly fond of Blackfield but I really like Storm Corrosion, as one example.
For me, “To The Bone” sounds a bit like later Pink Floyd in places, the post-Roger Floyd with David running the show, but that is only part of the story. Mostly, to me, it sounds like Steven Wilson enjoying himself. I’ve seen reviews that suggest that it has a range of influences from the 80s, people like Tears For Fears, Talk Talk and post-Genesis Peter Gabriel. Well, up to a point, I suppose, but you really do have to listen quite hard to get to hear them, and mainly then because they are what you are looking for. Even so, is it really a problem if those influences are there? They are hardly disreputable acts, are they? If you go back to the early days of Porcupine Tree, when it was just a Steven Wilson project and not an actual band, you get all kinds of oddities in the music. “Voyage 34” is probably more akin to trance and ambient music than anything else. What can be said about “To The Bone” is that it is full of concise pieces of music, song-based tracks that stick in the brain. It also has some fantastic soaring crescendos and glorious epic moments. The production, like all Steven Wilson albums, is superb, with a fantastic clean sound. Unlike some of his other solo work, it is not a concept album, neither is it self-indulgent, experimental or full of tricky time signatures, and I think that this is what upsets the Prog Puritans. It is accessible. I suspect that being accessible is a sin in their eyes, I mean lots of people might like it and might buy it, people who have never heard of Porcupine Tree, people who don’t care that Wilson has remixed the King Crimson back catalogue.
Ultimately, there are only two sorts of music; music you like and music you don’t. Is it prog? I don’t know and, more importantly, I don’t care, because I like it. Anyway, if you want to hear the album, it has been posted on YouTube (isn’t everything these days?) so you can make your own minds up.