Review Summary: Steven Wilson's solo career's magnum opus
I have to admit, Steven Wilson lost me somewhere along the way. After the hiatus of Porcupine Tree and the focus on his solo career, Steven Wilson seemed to veer off in a direction that simply was too self-indulgent and jazzy for me to contemplate. He started off on the right foot, with the 80s and industrial-inspired Insurgentes, a raucous and dark album with threatening soundscapes and haunting quiet material (such as the exquisite "Veneno Para Las Hadas" and the title track), but Grace for Drowning was a long exercise in 70s prog, jazz and self-indulgence combined into a double album. I figured Raven would be more of the same, and skipped that album as a result, despite the hype - the flamboyant, stylish chops of old-school prog I tend to forego when there are melodic soundscapes to devour and darkness to immerse myself in.
And then, some time ago, someone sent me a link to "Routine", and somehow, I realised Steven hadn't completely lost his touch. Whereas I felt his last Porcupine Tree opus was a bit by the numbers by his standards (The Incident is underrated, but long and eclipsed by its predecessors), Routine seemed to hark back to a time when Porcupine Tree was still fresh and relevant. The lyrics relating to death and the delving into routine in order to escape the pain seemed more vital than ever. Routine is not a joyous number, it's a slow-driven piano ballad with an exquisite crescendo towards the end, provided courtesy of the phenomenal voice of Ninet Tayeb. I assume Aviv Geffen must have turned Steven onto her - if so, he's got the right connections.
The rest of the album is an eclectic mass of styles, drawing from all of Steven Wilson's inspirations simultaneously. It's clear that the man is a musical omnivore, even though the 70s strand of prog still runs through the album, but here it doesn't come to the forefront as much as it does in some of his other works. The opener is really the only track which really revives the classics with a main riff reminiscent of Rush (and a bit similar in style to "Time Flies". "Perfect Life" takes more from industrial music and electronica than it does from prog, and the spoken word segment actually works in context of the album (more on the concept later). "Hand Cannot Erase" would have been a standout track on any of the Blackfield albums and works as a great slice of pop-rock. It's well worth remembering that Wilson is always lambasted for his willingness to indulge himself in musical opulence, but he is actually a master crafter of melody and has a knack for great choruses proven all along his catalogue. Ancestral is the most Porcupine Tree-esque track in his catalogue, featuring a whopping metal riff at the end and some virtuoso guitar solo work. And closer "Happy Returns" is simply an exquisite piece of melancholy with some of SW's best lyrical work.
The best part, however, is that SW has managed to craft the whole record around a concept (namely the isolation and disappearance of a character in the big city, based on the real-life events of Joyce Carol Vincent, who disappeared into the void and was only found dead years later in her apartment). Whereas most prog leans towards the fantastical, SW always eschews it in favour of trips into reality and the human condition, lending a very human touch to his work (most prog feels robotic). This informs the music because it has a much more modern, electronic vibe than "Grace for Drowning", but it also makes the songs very relatable. Happy Returns is the best example, because it closes the album with the notion of the main character writing to her brother after a long absence, but never finishing her letter or fully allowing herself to express her existential doubts.
People who pine for the return of Porcupine Tree or those who miss the metal leanings of SW will be very happy with this record. However, its diversity means there's something for everyone to enjoy here, and most of all, SW's vocals have never sounded better. I'd almost dismissed him as becoming irrelevant in the latter stages of his career, but this album puts him squarely back on the map and at the top of the hill, exactly where he belongs.