Steven Wilson‘s new record The Future Bites places itself in a curious lineage of Wilson’s continual efforts to fuse art pop, dance music and progressive rock. The earliest roots of these experiments can be found all across early recordings from No-Man, Wilson’s art-rock duo with Tim Bowness. In a certain reading, Porcupine Tree began as a way to explore more outre psychedelic and progressive rock ideas outside of that art-rock/art-pop framework he had come into, a relation that would be challenged by the release of Voyage 34, a series of extended psych/prog workouts that would include lengthy portions of dance music including trance and house music in their midst. This struck one of the key tensions of early Porcupine Tree music, seeming to waver often quite dramatically between lengthy Floydian expressive psychedelia and compact, danceable pop-oriented work, where the only common ground between the two was the pop-psych world of prog. It seemed these intentions had worked themselves out to a satisfactory degree sometime in the early 2000s, however, when the work of Porcupine Tree grew more metallic, No-Man more ethereal and post-rock driven, and even his lingering side projects on the darker side of art rock.
The release of Hand. Cannot. Erase, Wilson’s fourth studio record, suddenly resuscitated this seemingly settled tension, drawing on the pop rock touches of Grace for Drowning and fusing them to a more 80s-style neo-progressive framework. At first, the results seemed intriguing, a way to refresh the jazz-rock, fusion, and prog core of Wilson’s solo-era material by infusing it with gestures of more neon-driven explicit pop frameworks. Then came To The Bone, his previous studio record. It would be far too harsh to call To The Bone a bad record; it has far too many good songs, such as the ebullient “Permanating” and the Porcupine Tree-reminiscent “The Same Asylum As Before.” The problem was largely one of lack of structure, one that seemed to be brought about by the shift toward writing a more defiantly pop record. By eschewing an ordering motif, whether it be a concept or the standard progressive rock trope of the longform sequenced track list, Wilson arrived unfortunately at a set of intriguing and sometimes satisfying songs that did not sit all that well together. This, coupled with the fact that it was his highest charting solo record to date, made the idea of a followup somewhat concerning, especially when the debut single for The Future Bites titled “PERSONAL SHOPPER” dropped, revealing itself to be a 9-minute dance-rock song about the ills of consumerism.
There is a second strand of lineage for this record, one that offers a far more optimistic outlook for it. No-Man, the collaboration between Wilson and Bowness, had long been in hibernation with each performer pursuing their own solo material. The fact that they would occasionally guest on each other’s records seemed more an indication of that group’s quiet demise rather than a refutation; why get together for a full collaborative record, after all, when each could have their own personally helmed projects and still get to work amicably with each other? So it was a pleasant surprise when No-Man dropped Love You To Bits seemingly out of the blue, a record composed of a single 36-minute song broken into two tracks like it might have been on an old LP. The material of Love You To Bits was longform dance rock and art pop in a prog rock framework, having recurring mutated melodies, multiple parts drawing elements from each other in new contextualizations, and the same kind of emotional transformationism as seen on some of Pink Floyd’s lengthier meditations. The piece felt closer in form to Porcupine Tree’s previous Voyage 34, a record which successfully fused electronic dance music and psych-prog, rather than To The Bone, a record which felt inspired by Wilson’s then-recent work remixing and remastering classic synth pop records from the 80s but lacking that same interior drive toward work of that shape. Love You To Bits quietly became one of the best records of 2019 and a firm indication of some of the limitless potential for prog to interface with the world of dance music and exuberant pop, something not seen since the days of Frankie Goes To Hollywood and their 15-minute prog-pop epics about Kublai Khan featuring guest guitar work from Steve Howe of Yes. But, more importantly, it provided a possible redemptive path for this new dance-prog formation of Wilson’s solo work to be executed successful.
It is a great relief, then, that The Future Bites takes more after its immediate predecessor in No-Man than in Wilson’s own solo catalog. Nearly half the record’s tracks were released as singles before the album came out and, based on them, it was hard to see how they would sit well together. But the context of the final record changes everything; songs which before felt middling instead feel like they are operating under the specific emotional terrain set up for them by previous tracks, their movements meant more to modify those existing feelings and experiences rather than to stand fully on their own. The perennial boomerish fixation Wilson has with consumerism (as opposed to, say, the engines of capitalism which create the conditions of the consumer) feel less eye-rolling and obnoxious when put in the fuller context of the record, which seems less to attack the consumer for consuming as it does the corporate imperialist-capitalist framework which creates the Commodity in its abstract form. But, most importantly, the record feels less caught up its own ass about its own metaphysics and social commentary as much as it uses those feelings as a framework to create an album-length experience. Much like Manic Street Preacher’s The Holy Bible, you may not ever know or care what the record is about, but it’s hard to deny the songs work well as an efficient and well-oiled unit.
The primary change comes in Wilson seemingly accepting that having standalone pop singles is not particularly in his skillset, at least in an album-oriented format. As a result, the material feels less disjointed and unnecessarily broken apart from each other, instead leaning on his well-honed skills as an album-oriented composer. There are no recapitulated melodies or figures, but each song feels cognizant of the emotional space of the material before it and the ultimate need to setup whatever comes after, whether it be another track or a sense of conclusion at the end of the record. As a result, there is a great deal more sense of shape and emotional continuity over the span of the record, which picks up into disco and dance rock for stretches and dies away to ambient-adjacent mournful etudes in others. This in turn does more to redeem the usage of out-and-out pop and dance music in prog than his previous pop-oriented record could have hoped to do; by viewing those modes as manners to express certain moods and feelings, Wilson frees up those moments to really dig into danceability and big pop hookiness, letting other tracks take on the more ethereal and stereotypically artsy material he is perhaps better known for. The results are admittedly muted; this record does not seem to destined to be an explosive landmark record but, nonetheless, its material is satisfying.
Label: Arts & Crafts
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.