Multitalented musician Steven Wilson is often thought of as the leader of the current progressive rock/metal movement by critics and fans. As the genius behind Porcupine Tree, Wilson has proven time and time again that he is equally skilled as both a songwriter and a composer/arranger/musician. While he’s dipped his hand in many projects over the years (both as a member and as a producer/mixer), he’s only released one official solo record: 2008’s Insurgentes. That is, until now.
On his second LP, Grace for Drowning, Wilson once again combines poignant melodies, profound harmonies, and incredibly complex and catchy music. While he sometimes borders emulation as he pays respect to his influences, he brilliantly interweaves the techniques of his idols with his own creativity, forming a consistently fascinating synthesis of light and dark. As you probably expected, Grace for Drowning is pretty damn close to a masterpiece.
Because his main band (Porcupine Tree) only provides an outlet for certain styles (and because he’s so versatile), Wilson channels his other interests into other bands; Blackfield showcases his more poppy and commercial side, Bass Communion allows for ambient/electronic experimentation, and no-man combines spacey beats and lush orchestrations. With Grace for Drowning, Wilson combines all of his passions (and more) into one extremely focused and diverse package. He describes the album as a homage to his favorite period in music, “…the late sixties and early seventies, when the album became the primary means of artistic expression, when musicians…started to draw on jazz and classical music…combining it with the spirit of Psychedelia to create ‘journeys in sound’.” All in all, it’s simply amazing.
As for the musicians, well, Wilson has enlisted some of the genre’s best. Among the guests are Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater), Steve Hackett (Genesis), and Theo Travis (whom Wilson has worked with several times previously). Also, seeing as how genre pioneer King Crimson has always had a huge influence on Porcupine Tree (and seeing as Wilson has been busy remastering the Crimson catalogue for years now), it makes sense that Crimson alumni Tony Levin, Trey Gunn, and Pat Mastelotto also appear. Each musician complements Wilson’s vision with finesse and skill, making Grace for Drowningalso feel like a celebration of over 40 years of progressive rock.
Grace for Drowning is broken into two “volumes”: Deform to Form a Star and Like Dust I Have Cleared from My Eye. Arguably, Deform is the more accessible one, as it features a stronger focus on songwriting and melody; Like Dust, on the other hand, is centered on odd textures, complex time signatures, and a more avant-garde aesthetic. Taken together, they represent everything that makes Wilson so unique and talented.
Deform opens with “Grace for Drowning,” a sorrowful and sparse combination of vocal harmonies (40 tracks, apparently) and starry staccato piano. Rudess composes some superbly mournful chord progressions, and Wilson showcases a lot of fragility as he sings. “Sectarian” is the first of several progressive rock jams on the album. Wilson lays pounding guitar riffs over awesome syncopation, colorful sax and clarinet, and eerie and ominous sounds. These two introductory tracks lay a perfectly dark foundation for the following three songs, which are likely three of the best songs Wilson has ever written (which is reallysaying something).
“Deform to Form a Star” complements wonderfully painful piano with an equally poignant melody. The chorus is pure transcendental beauty, and it will stick to your soul immediately. Best of all, the song transforms midway into an eruption of more harmonies; in essence, it’s the optimistic counterpart to the melancholy of “Grace for Drowning.” “No Part of Me” is a very stark and cold piece about lost love (which is a popular theme for Wilson). The heartache in Wilson’s voice is exquisitely matched by subtle and emotional strings. Eventually, the track evolves into another jam, and the emphasis on saxophone foreshadows the rest of the album. As the saddest song on the record, it’s instantly identifiable for anyone who’s ever felt lonely. “Postcard” is the catchiest song on Grace for Drowning, and while it also deals with regret and love, it conveys the slight air of hopefulness that comes with closure. As always, Wilson’s lyrics on these three songs are great examples of how he can convey so much with such simple phrases and rhymes.
The brief “Raider Prelude” (which consists of an ominous choir bellowing for a couple minutes over a few piano chords), Deform concludes with “Remainder the Black Dog.” Wilson sounds ghastly as he sings over a complicated piano riff (which, I believe, consists of three different time signatures). Slowly, the track builds as it incorporates several instruments, including flute, sax, clarinet, keys, and glockenspiel. In a way, it feels like an all-star jam full of heavy riffs and fun, jazzy timbres and rhythms. Also, this track hints at the King Crimson vibe Wilson will use to full effect later.
Like Dust begins with “Belle De Jour,” a short instrumental that revolves around a haunting partnership between guitar and piano. The melodies are surrounded by a slightly askew ambience, as if Wilson is preparing us for a depressing, carnival-esque adventure. Actually, the track bares a striking similarity to the closing track of Opeth’s Heritage, “Marrow of the Earth” (which Wilson helped mix [presumably] as he was working on this album, so maybe one subconsciously influenced the other). As for “Index,” well, it’s probably the weakest track here. Wilson once again indulges in his fascination with psychotic people; he sings mechanically as the industrial music recalls Wilson’s previous nods to NIN, such as “The Creator Has a Mastertape” and “Strip the Soul” from In Absentia.
“Track One” is a seemingly straightforward song (with an appropriately simple title). Wilson sings a whimsical verse and chorus that would be perfect on a Blackfield record. However, more ominous keys and strings couple with intense drums to add a touch of evil to the proceedings. It also prepares the listener for Grace for Drowning’s most epic and ambitious track, “Raider II.”
At over 20 minutes in length, “Raider II” bursts with complexity and curious instrumentation. In fact, much like Porcupine Tree’s “Time Flies” was a tribute to Pink Floyd, this track recalls the timbres, rhythms, and brilliant dynamics of the first few King Crimson albums. Just about everything, including the melody, the fluttering flutes, and the ferociously jazzy horns, harkens back to classic Crimson. To be fair, Wilson told me that Lizard (and earlier records) played a big part in writing “Raider II,” so one can’t fault him toomuch for something he openly admits. Of course, none of this is meant to imply that “Raider II” isn’t an incredible, unique piece of music; it is. However, its musical foundations are quite apparent.
“Like Dust I Have Cleared from My Eye” closes the album wonderfully. Wilson confronts his enemies as he summarizes all that Grace for Drowning represents. His melody is direct as simple piano, keys, and guitar accompany his voice. As the track closes, Wilson’s harmonies act as a sort of crescendo for closure. He sings, “Breathe in now, breathe out now,” and in a way, it’s the perfect mantra to reflect on one’s life. Grace for Drowning ends just as it began: softly and sweetly.
Grace for Drowning is an amazing record. Wilson once again proves that he is not only thebest songwriter in the genre, but he is also simply one of the best songwriters around today. Likewise, his knack for constructing and performing intricate progressive rock/metal with delicate touches of emotion is as strong as ever. Best of all, Grace for Drowning is a joyful celebration of the foundations of Wilson’s artistry; he was a fan of the original scene long before he came to rule the current one, and he has crafted a loving tribute to his idols with this record.