STEVEN WILSON – Grace For Drowning

Over the years following the release of Porcupine Tree’s ‘In Absentia’, the band moved away from progressive rock and psyche pop/ambient works and settled on a more progressive metal direction.  Although this was not always met so favourably by some of the band’s older fans, it bought a number of new listeners to the fold.  Founder Steven Wilson’s second solo release ‘Grace For Drowning’, rather understandably, sounds a lot like post-millennium Porcupine Tree in lots of places, but brings a welcome sense of experimentation back to the fore in others.   The album is comprised of two suites of music (‘Deform to Form a Star’ and ‘Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye’), which at first, you might suspect were of very contrasting moods.  However, despite lots of different styles appearing throughout the 80+ minutes, the two suites aren’t always as distinctly different as the structure of the album suggests.

The album begins with the title cut, which works solely as an intro piece.  A piano motif (played by Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess) and a choir of vocals blend together, to create a very atmospheric start to an epic journey.  It may sound like an obvious reference point, but it’s nearly impossible to hear this without thinking of David Gilmour’s vocal sounds and the gentle laid-back sounds of his 2006 solo release ‘On An Island’.  And with that, it’s into the real meat of the album’s first half.

‘Sectarian’ begins with slightly atonal acoustic chords and slightly disjointed lead guitar.  It’s a little unsettling, but manages to sound stable thanks to a great, live sounding drum part.  When the band hit their stride, it continues to sound a little unusual in places since, at first, the guitars don’t actually reinforce their presence.  Instead, a fuzz bass provides any aggression on show – until the arrival of a mellotron and soprano sax played in a jazz-rock style.  The best moments come soon after when a lead bass line vies for attention against a very 1970s electric piano.  With lots of prog bands seemingly moving towards a prog-metal stance, it’s great to know that supposedly unfashionable 1970s style prog is still alive and well in some quarters.  Granted, the more aggressive passages are still a little too metal-fuelled for a complete authentic sound, but Wilson delves into prog rock’s past far deeper than most of his contemporaries would even dare – and for that, he must be applauded!  This is a tune which straddles the ever fine line between tuneful jazziness and ugliness and, as such, is incredibly striking.

‘Deform to Form a Star’ takes things down several notches.  Wilson and his piano take the reins and take in 70s influenced music of a different nature.  The magic really happens when the rest of the band join the arrangement; the mellotrons lend a sense of retro (un)cool and the bass is terrifically understated.  In terms of lead guitar work this is a standout too, playing host to a jazzy yet tuneful lead break.  Throughout the piece, the use of harmony vocals – possibly multi-tracked in the studio as opposed to being created organically – provides great listening pleasure. During the closing section, a wordless vocal sounds equally good against a playful bassline, solid keys and drums.  In terms of a band sounding great without showing off, this track gets ‘Grace For Drowning’s gold star award.

With some great music already laid down, the album then takes its first dip.  ‘No Part of Me’ is somewhat of a musical curveball, featuring a slightly intrusive beat pitched against a busy keyboard loop and occasional stabbed piano chords.  Wilson’s vocal appears front and centre – much smoother than the arrangement initially implies.  The music, meanwhile, begins to take a fuller form, with the introduction of strings.  The ticking of the programmed rhythm continues to feel a little intrusive and then a Warr guitar riff crushes everything (unsurprisingly played by the instrument’s biggest champion, King Crimson’s Trey Gunn).  Couple that riff with an Eastern sounding solo and you have something which sounds not unlike a messy Porcupine Tree reject.  It’s not hugely objectionable by any means, but you’ll have heard Wilson venture into similar musical territory on other occasions.  ‘Postcard’ follows, and is a complete contrast; it’s not any better – in fact, it just isn’t that good, period.  It works almost solely around a circular sounding piano line, over which Wilson’s voice sounds incredibly thin and whiny.  This alone wouldn’t matter, since its general mood seems more intimate than most Porcupine Tree recordings, but the lyrics appear somewhat self-pitying.  The combination of disinterring tune and whining, on the whole, make ‘Postcard’ a more than dreary experience, which sorely lacks the epic beauty of something like PT’s ‘Lazarus’, for example.  Luckily, nearing the track’s end, things improve briefly. The drums kick in, augmented by synths and another choir of vocals.  For a couple of minutes, grandiosity points to a light at the end of the tunnel…but it doesn’t last.  Before long, the track returns to its original mission statement and Wilson is at the piano again, under the misapprehension his semi-confessional approach carries the same weight as an early Elton John or Billy Joel recording.  More often than not, this is a number designed with the skip button in mind.

The high spot of the first disc (if not the whole album), ‘Remainder The Black Dog’ is a work of absolute genius.  Wilson (with a heavy treated vocal) lends a soft vocal to a proggy arrangement which in addition to another circular piano riff, includes a warm bass, some fantastic drumming and a hint of jazz.  The jazzy hints escalate, as the track swells to include soprano saxophones (played by jazz man Theo Travis) and electronic treatments in a way which really highlights Wilson’s fondness of 70s jazz-fusion/prog bands Soft Machine and Hatfield and the North.  These elements could provide some of the most interesting music Wilson has committed to tape for years.  It’s not quite so cut and dried though, since he just can’t resist introducing the kind of metallic riffing which has provided the heart of so many PT recordings leading up this point. Rather more interestingly, however, the harder riffs are not actually the work of Wilson himself, but of guest guitarist Steve Hackett, reprising a sound similar to his own ‘Mechanical Bride’.  Luckily, any prog-metal tendencies are balanced out by some absolutely stunning basswork and the inclusion of a few huge, but still jazz-tinted piano chords.  Throughout the tail end of the number, things decend into jazz-rock noodling, but never in a way which feels pointless.  If you’re fond of Wilson’s earliest work, you’ll certainly find some joy amongst the wandering basses, flutes and keys.

The second disc is noticeably weaker all round, as if Wilson frontloaded ‘Grace For Drowning’ with his best ideas.  However, it would be an outright lie to suggest this second disc is without flashes of true greatness…  One of the album’s most laid back offerings, ‘Belle Du Jour’ brings a mood which would befit a film score.  For three minutes, Wilson immerses us in a world of soft neo-classical guitars, swirling keys and bell-like tinkling.  Stylistically, it hovers somewhere between a Vangelis piece (albeit one played by a real band) and Mike Oldfield without the bucketload of pretension.  As part of the whole album it could be considered filler, but as the introduction to the second act (for the want of a word), it’s quite charming. ‘Track One’, at first, gives the false impression that it’s about to be just as mellow, with more fingerpicked acoustic guitars and gentle keys, but before long a darkness settles, with booming drums, waves of semi-aggressive keys and a general impending doom.  The threatening vibes eventually subside and the acoustic work makes a return – this second time joined by lead guitar work which echoes Pink Floyd, though played without as much finesse.  As the yin to ‘Belle Du Jour’s yang, ‘Track One’ is enormously cinematic too, but there’s a strong sense of it being three unfinished musical strands glued together.

Clocking in at over twenty three minutes ‘Raider II’ sees Wilson taking his audience on a grandiose musical voyage which takes in elements of ambient music, progressive rock, metal and jazz rock.  After a long intro, over which Wilson’s vocals have been subjected to studio tinkering, the riffs chug and crash, while a choir of neo-operatic voices add to the all round menace.  Wilson’s vocals appear fairly non-descript in comparison, even with some kind of demon vocal muscling in.  In absolute contrast to the heaviness, at about four minutes in, a jazz-rock flute attempts to make its presence felt – and eventually wins out. The three minutes which follow present what is possibly the best chunk of this overblown epic.  There’s a hint of Caravan here – thanks to that flute – as well as traces of Wilson’s other beloved jazz-rock/prog favourites.  In some ways, this section ought to have been longer, since once the guitars return, it’s all but forgotten.  More metal riffing and choirs (oddly reminiscent of those from the ‘Baccinale’ section of Vangelis’s ‘Heaven & Hell: First Movement’) repeat their earlier patterns (which possibly could be considered padding) before the arrival of a second jazz-rock freakout – this time with more room for the bass.   At the twelve minute mark, Wilson should have thought about wrapping things up, since several minutes of ambient drones and plunky keyboards follow (definitely padding).  For the closing section, things take a more obvious prog rock stance.  Nic France’s drums have a great sound, but looking beyond that, there’s nothing too remarkable here – it resembles various bits and pieces already recorded for Porcupine Tree albums.  While Wilson undoubtedly will consider this one of ‘Grace For Drowning’s greatest musical achievements, there’s only about eight minutes worth of music to be culled from within.

‘Index’ has a cold musical backdrop with militaristic drum rolls, a Massive Attack ‘Teardrop’-esque heartbeat and an unemotional keyboard sound.  Over this, Wilson adds an equally unemotional vocal.  It’s dull and mechanical and also hints at filler material.  ‘Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye’ brings things to a mellow end, with Wilson accompanied by a ringing guitar and old fashioned Hammond organ swirls.  The warming bass and old fashioned keyboards have charm, but Wilson was never the greatest vocalist in the world – and this is no exception – so it falls a little flat in places.  It’s funny, although Wilson probably intended this to sound heartfelt and atmospheric, it’s not so interesting…and certainly doesn’t sustain interest for eight minutes.

Since Porcupine Tree’s sound has embraced too many progressive metal elements since their big breakthrough, the more out there prog/jazz-prog moments of this ambitious release are very, very welcome indeed.  Since Wilson pulls so many influences into the project, ‘Grace For Drowning’ can prove quite tough listening in places (especially if attempted in one sitting).  It’s a great album, but it may have been much better still had Wilson trimmed ‘Raider II’ and lost ‘Part of Me’ and ‘Index’ altogether.  A lengthy single album – trimmed of the flabbier moments – would have worked better than releasing something with obvious filler, only just warranting a 2CD release.

Minor complaints aside, though, the good material is fabulous – some of the greatest material Wilson has released.  Who knows, maybe years down the line, even the filler will prove itself essential to the overall package? One day, this could be seen as Wilson’s masterpiece.  After all, even the second half of ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’ has more than its share of flaws…

September 2011