Review Summary: A bold reinvention for the modern progressive rock giant that will polarize his audience.
Steven Wilson’s brand of forward thinking progressive rock has undergone some major changes these past five years. With each release since The Raven that Refused to Sing
, Wilson has slowly evolved from 1970s progressive rock elements and embraced more contemporary musical styles. Electronic and even a little bit of pop music crept into his solo career and the recent revival of his side project No-Man. This transformation is effectively complete with The Future Bites
, with no jazz, progressive rock, or metal to be found anywhere. His predecessor To the Bone
contained the Abba inspired pop song “Permanating,” and the recent return of No-Man saw the full embrace of a kind of long form synth-pop. An art pop and electronic music direction should not come as a total surprise to his devotees. Still, the general style of this latest record is a drastic shift from its predecessors. Steven Wilson adequately maintains his songwriting abilities in The Future Bites
, making for a sporadically intoxicating but ultimately shallow release that’s been sapped of the usual passion fans have come to expect.
The problem with The Future Bites
isn’t that Wilson has mostly exorcised a use of guitars or the lack of progressive rock, but with so much of his strengths not on display, what is there instead feels subpar. The short track lengths and overall run time of 42 minutes further displays the lack of substantial content. To the Bone
was more contemporary as well, but shined thanks to colorful layers of art rock melodies and ambitious song structures with emotional resonance. The Future Bites
is even more unexpected, being very different to anything he’s made before. The moody, one minute “Self” opens the record and leads into “Unself,” a representation of what the album has in store. Female backing vocals, bluesy chord progressions, and an upbeat rhythm make for a new band sound. Many of the following tracks contain similar elements.
“Eminent Sleaze” has promising Floydian elements and lush keyboards, but obnoxious singing and a lack of development makes for missed potential. “Follower” is a loud, bombastic rock song with annoying singing that would’ve made for a better instrumental. Many of these stay around the three or four minute mark, and Wilson’s excellent ability to develop an epic, ambitious song is unfortunately lacking. Even the nine minute “Personal Shopper” ends up simply being an elongated dance pop track with trance elements. A psychedelic bridge section has potential, but a spoken word section interrupts the enjoyment despite it being done by Elton John. The most successfully catchy song that does justice to the album’s direction is “12 Things I Forgot,” a blissful exercise in alternative rock reminiscent of the classic material by one of Wilson other bands, Blackfield.
The expected instrumental brilliance that shines in everything Wilson touches is unfortunately subdued for much of the run time. Too much feels stripped down and safe, though simultaneously acting as a bizarre attempt at not just expanding his audience but reaching an entirely new one. This is not to say that Wilson has sold out by any means, but he seems to be trying on a new identity that does not fit. The emotional resonance and ambitious songwriting that constitutes his body of work is noticeably lacking, both lyrically and instrumentally. His love for Prince is clear, as evidenced by a recent penchant for pushing the limits of his voice in too much falsetto territory, largely mismatched with his songwriting style and personality. Wilson’s lyrics have consistently had the subtlety of a herd of elephants; focusing on topical issues like consumerism and the impact of social media on society largely fall flat here. His writing has always been best when focusing on subjects like melancholic ghost stories in his mid-career solo albums. It’s been evident that ever since the Hand. Cannot. Erase. album cycle ended, Wilson has increasingly felt a drive to attain more mainstream exposure and success. He didn’t seem to care at all about this sort of thing for 25 years while just focusing on making the best music that he could. Perhaps after everything he has accomplished, Wilson feels owed a level of prestige that the likes of Thom Yorke and Tool have acquired. Whatever inspiration is behind this new brand is one that does not quite suit him. These matters wouldn’t be significant if the music was unchanged, but the whole picture is relevant when the end result is so affected.
Along with the disappointing elements, there are still worthwhile highlights to be found that keep The Future Bites
from failure. The aforementioned “12 Things I Forgot” is a successful reincarnation of classic Blackfield at a time when that band have also changed into something else. “King Ghost” is an intoxicating ambient electronic song that highlights Wilson’s production talents. The two highlights of the album are the Talk Talk-esque “Man of the People” and the gorgeous closer, “Count of Unease.” The latter maintains focus on Wilson’s voice and piano chords that bring to mind classic Porcupine Tree ballad “Collapse the Light into Earth,” with mysterious melodies drifting along for an atmospheric conclusion to the album.
The Future Bites
traverses a strange course ripe with rewarding avenues and detours of failed attempts alike. It’s nothing if not fascinating, and will perhaps be more rewarding to those with a high tolerance for unorthodox marriage of various elements influenced by Prince, 1980s pop, modern electronic music, and alternative rock. The stunning progressive rock arrangements and bold album concepts of past are so stripped down that there is a noticeable absence of what makes Steven Wilson’s brand of music so special to its core. Like with To the Bone
, this will further alienate a portion of his fan base while probably gaining some more who are open to sort of accessible music with an eclectic edge. It will be a hurdle for those accustomed to the ambition and musical complexity that Wilson often brings to his art. After such a creatively fruitful discography, both with Porcupine Tree and his solo work, it’s not unreasonable for Wilson to indulge himself and take some hard left turns to follow wayward ambitions. He has more than earned the trust of listeners, and those with an open mind will find something valuable to glean from the flawed, admirably different and bold mix of ideas that has resulted in The Future Bites