Steven Wilson – Grace For Drowning (2011) – an album review

Sorry for the delay. I meant to have this done and up yesterday, but life intervened.
This is the last of the three 2011 ‘Steve’ albums being reviewed this round, but only because I don’t know if Steve Morse or Steve Lukather released anything I should be reviewing. Steve Vai? Steve Winwood? Stevie Wonder? Stevie Nicks?. How about Steven Page… oh wait, I already covered him. Steven Tyler put out an album, didn’t he? Should I cover that? Maybe later. Anyway, I think this outlines the importance of being Steve.

tl;dr Version: The leader of Porcupine Tree recorded a solo album, apparently with the guys from King Crimson. Should be interesting.

‘Splain, Lucy Version: I have no idea how this album sounds. In fact, I have no idea what Steve’s solo musical output sounds like, because I’ve only just gotten my hands on it. So this will be my first taste of Steven Wilson outside of Porcupine Tree, other than his work in No-Man,which, to be honest, I didn’t care for.

Boring Version: Porcupine Tree is one of those modern bands that sort of defies definition, and hasn’t really followed any other band’s creative arc, either. Still, PT’s sound at any given time is sort of internally consistent and doesn’t leave much room for diverting experimentation outside of a specific sound. They’ve changed a lot over the years, but not nearly as much as Steve Wilson himself, who remains a musical enigma, taking on any style or genre you can think of, in one guise or another.
What I aim to find out is, what does Steven Wilson want his audience to hear that he didn’t think to record with PT at this time? Let’s find out.

Grace for Drowning opens with piano and plaintive vocalisation, a little on the mild side, even as the harmonies for the vocalisations get broader. And then it’s gone before you know what he did there.

Sectarian opens with an acoustic playing a curious 13/8 rhythm that is quickly joined by drums and electric guitar, but it’s not until the bass joins in that the crunchy side of the piece is revealed. Then the mellotron and synths join in and it gets even crunchier, with a simulated sax part that takes you right back to 20th Century Schizoid Man. This section makes way for a pastoral bridge that then leads us over an almost literal bridge of distorted horns, and then down to the basement for a little jazzy jam session with electric piano, bass and drums. Eventually the Crimsonian riff returns, building a huge wall of guitar, synth and drums. And then the clouds part and the song lets a little sunshine through, with a melancholy soprano sax taking us home.

Deform to Form a Star opens with a pretty piano figure, elegant and simple, with a bit of oboe backing it, until Steven finally starts singing. The piano figure gets a little more frilly, and then a flute joins the arrangement as Steven sings of tortured souls. Then the band starts up properly, and it’s a nice, slightly shady but lovely chorus that reminds you he can write pop songs, of a kind, when he takes a mind to. The guitar solo section is slightly jazzy, like something you’d hear in a 70s pop song from 10CC or Steely Dan, only not as annoying. Comes to that, that’s pretty much the vibe of the song as a whole. The final guitar section is a little more strident, but it opens up into a lovely passage that finishes the piece off in fine form.

No Part of Me starts with a sequenced percussion segment that builds a groove like late 90s electronica, a little too busy for the chill room, but not heavy enough to dance to. Then he starts singing a slightly moody number. The arrangement here is beautiful, with banks of strings carrying the melody while the bass plays a counterpoint melody. Then some crunchy guitar parts come into the mix, and at last the drums crash in with riot gear on, and it turns into something that could easily have been on one of the more recent PT albums. Fantastic groove, the bass sinuously tying together the guitar and the tenor sax. The song ends in a short sound collage of industrial noises and then vanishes.

Postcard starts with piano and cello (well, it sounds like cello to me, but I suppose it could be double bass) accompanying Steven, singing what threatens to be the most accessible song on the album. The wall of sound slowly builds, but then disappears for a verse while Steve sings with the piano rhythm, until the cello rejoins at thenext verse, and then the drums and choir join in for an instrumental recapitulation of the chorus, and it’s quite probably the prettiest thing Steven has ever recorded, from what I’ve heard so far. It takes a breath during a minor key shift into the instrumental outro, which bears no resemblance to the song we have just heard, but it quite pleasant, and sets the stage for the following number.

Raider Prelude  is a choral wash that is eventually joined by some rather moody bass notes from the grand piano. Very stirring. Very short.

Remainder the Black Dog then a rather peculiar 15/8 piano figure invites Steve to sing a very early 2000 PT vocal that eventually gets a rhythm section, fairly unmistakably Tony Levin and Pat Mastellotto. Sounds like something that could have been on a late period Nine Inch Nails album, without sounding derivative, if that makes sense. Some choppy electric organ leads the way to a guitar solo that could easily have been played by Adrian Belew, followed by some very Ian MacDonald sax on what I’m pretty sure is a keyboard. A really crunchy prog metal section a la Dream Theater takes over for a minute, and then it retreats to what my ears tell me could bit from a Mahavishnu Orchestra or Chick Corea album, followed by a rather interesting instrumental passage that sounds like New Wave Jazz Fusion (Spyro Gyra?), followed by another prog metal moment that leads back out into the foyer with that plaintive 15/8 piano melody (if 20th Century music can have a melody). This turns into a groovy Projeckt-type jam that brings in a reverbed flute part like a hummingbird shot in slow motion, and the whole strange monster walks off over the horizon.

Belle de Jour starts as a pretty bit of acoustic guitar and keyboard, soon joined by bass and swells of strings and chiming piano like raindrops. A slightly sullen piece, but lovely. Perhaps not entirely surprising he didn’t put this on a PT album.

Index starts with electronic pulses and drum rolls accompanying Steven as he sings what sounds like an outtake from In Absentia. A gloriously moody outtake, mind you. Then come the loud drums and the song’s brooding nature takes on a level of power that threatens to shiv you repeatedly in a back alley and leave you for the neighbour’s dog to discover. Somebody adds strings and the song reaches an order of magnitude more moodiness, which threatens to end the world in a rising ocean of virgin tears.

Track One starts with Steven and a nylon-strung guitar, which eventually cheers up ever so slightly when the keyboard and mellotron choir join in with the growing layer of Beach Boyesque vocals. Then Steve pulls out an even moodier, more foreboding part than the previous song, and suddenly, the stars are winking out in sections, your head filled with the cries of dying civilizations. Eventually this section fades and makes room for another acoustic passage that is joined by a bluesy guitar and a little electric piano, and the song fades away.

Raider II is an extended piece that opens with more foreboding bass piano notes, soon joined by what sounds like oboe, clarinet and possibly flute playing in low register. There are a few lengthy pauses, so don’t be surprised when the song goes silent here and there. Your speakers haven’t died. Finally, the main riff, a very crunchy piece that evokes modern King Crimson, does some rather lovely things with flute and sax that haven’t been heard in that context in decades. The section gives way to flute, piano and acoustic guitar gently weaving about, like an ex agonizing over whether she’s going to get out of the car and come in to say hi to you and your family. Hard to say if it sounds more like Tull or Moody Blues here. When the inevitable mellotron flute section takes over, it uses an electronic pulse for a drum rhythm, but that makes way for a return to the Crimsonesque groove that in turn seems to become something you might hear on a Dream Theater album, which figures, since it’s almost certainly Jordan Rudess on keys. Then it takes things down a notch, and we’re in a dingy little club listening to a jazz fusion band while Jordan does his best Myles Davis imitation. The crunchy music returns, racing toward a climax that is still twelve minutes away. More keyboard and guitar racing each other, and then it all stops and becomes this ambient sound, filled with swelling winds and angelic choir sounds. Eventually, piano sneaks in and asserts itself, but the groove remains chill room efficient, right up until the sustain pedal washes it away. Then an astronaut talks over a slightly withdrawn acoustic guitar and keyboard part, flute taking over and bass coming in to compliment the part. The drum rhythms are also spare and delicious, only the occasional flourish to remind you how good they really are. Very moody segment, and Steve starts singing over it, until the rock riffs kick in, sounding like something from Red or Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. This section builds and builds to a cacophony of sound which goes on for a minute, leaving just a squalling electric guitar, which also fades out, leaving this little brooding bass figure, like a sound track from a late 60s B Movie. And then with a bit of gong, it’s done.

Like Dust I Have Cleared from My Eye opens with Steven singing and playing acoustic and electric guitar parts in C Major, which worries me. As the band joins in, it starts to sound like a late period Marillion piece, and I start thinking maybe THIS is the most accessible piece, and suspecting a back-to-back with Postcard is in my near future. It goes into a soft accordion and organ section about half way through, and then ambient sounds take over for a bit, but swelling synth sounds in the back threaten to turn into another section of music, like a Pink Floyd moment in ice, but it’s a section that never comes, as the song fades away, ending the album in tranquility.

This is a gorgeous album. I made a lot of spot comparisons, but really, it’s pure Steven, and it’s perhaps his most accessible album in years, if not ever. I think fans of PT might be a little disappointed with the relative lack of metal and the softer, more accessible numbers, but I think it’s a fascinating album. I must confess, I don’t know if I think it’s the finest thing he’s ever recorded, but it certainly is a moving album. Very nice work indeed.


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