Steven Wilson
The Harmony Codex


4.0
excellent

Review

by Brendan Schroer CONTRIBUTOR (262 Reviews)
October 4th, 2023 | 124 replies


Release Date: 09/29/2023 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Steven Wilson: A Feature Film Presentation

Let’s start this off with a quick exercise. First, I want you to take a listen to Steven Wilson’s 2013 opus The Raven That Refused to Sing. Even if you’ve heard it many times before, just take a moment to re-absorb that vintage prog majesty once again. The elaborate bass lines, the lush mellotrons, the jazz fusion tinges… yeah, that’s good stuff. Now that you’re done with that, let’s fast-forward to 2021 and revisit The Future Bites. The electropop sound, the (attempted) social commentary of the lyrics, the cold sparse atmosphere… now, that’s a stylistic 180 if I’ve ever heard one. Obviously Wilson was building up to the style found on The Future BitesTo the Bone definitely primed the pump for that – but when jumping straight from one end of his catalog to another, it’s enough to give one whiplash.

More than anything though, To the Bone and The Future Bites served as a message to his fans: expect the unexpected. For every elaborate prog number like “Luminol” or “Raider II”, there might be a dance-pop tune like “Permeating” or a bluesy rocker like “Eminent Sleaze” to catch you off-guard. And it’s this type of thinking that got me extremely curious about what Wilson would bring with The Harmony Codex. After all, what stylistic turn could he make after going all-in with the pop and electronic influences?

Well, Wilson did the best thing he could in this situation: take what actually worked on the previous record, and expand it into a more sprawling, cinematic experience. And he seemed poised to fully take advantage of this direction both aurally and visually, as the video for lead single “Economies of Scale” features two people dancing in a large chapel space with impressive choreography, shot entirely in one take. Oh, and Wilson himself makes a cameo appearance! See if you can spot him. Meanwhile, the music itself is just as grand and engaging; Wilson creates a complex tapestry of layered vocals, as the skittering Radiohead-style percussion gives the ornate instrumentation some grounding and tension. More than anything, “Economies of Scale” served as an excellent bridge between The Future Bites and the rest of The Harmony Codex.

Of course, much of the record delves even further into this sweeping musical territory. The other big single, and the one that Wilson really wanted people to be hyped for, is the 11-minute “Impossible Tightrope”. And how many lyrics do we get throughout this lengthy excursion? Three lines. That’s all we get. The rest of the track is an ambitious exercise in worldbuilding, including (but not limited to) the following highlights: wailing sax lines, cold post-punk-esque guitar leads, jazzy keyboard breaks, and a beautiful ambient section in the middle to cap it all off. And it’s at this moment that I realized something: The Harmony Codex as a whole is basically an olive branch between the traditional and modern prog sensibilities of Wilson’s solo career (granted, I suppose we already got this earlier on with Hand. Cannot. Erase., but still…).

While “Impossible Tightrope” might be the best example of that bridge, it’s certainly present elsewhere too. For another extended tune that exhibits this middle ground extremely well, we get the highly atmospheric title track. The guitars and synths drone on hypnotically as Wilson’s wife Rotem provides some lovely narration to flesh out the ambiance of the piece. From then on, it’s mostly a suspenseful post-rockish buildup for the rest of the song… simple in concept, but strong in execution. Still, this is not to say that Wilson’s abandoned that more tender, singer-songwriter side of his DNA, as cuts like the pensive alt-rocker “What Life Brings” and the emotionally gripping ballad “Rock Bottom” prove. The latter is especially notable because it marks the return of longtime collaborator Ninet Tayeb, as she and Wilson embark on the first duet together since 2017’s “Pariah” – and, as always, Tayeb brings the house down with her raw, passionate delivery.

Despite all of this praise, I can’t help but feel as though something’s missing here. It might have to do with the overall lack of these more self-contained, concise moments, but the aforementioned worldbuilding could stand to be reined-in at times. While the extended, sprawling pieces are neat from a conceptual and atmospheric perspective, they also make The Harmony Codex more emotionally distant at times and – dare I say – even a bit hollow. I did mention earlier that “Economies of Scale” was like a way of connecting The Future Bites and The Harmony Codex together, and this does apply to some of the other songs as well. Unfortunately, that also comes with the former album’s baggage – whether it be in moments of questionable songwriting, dull vocal inflections, or an overly synthetic vibe.

Still, this shouldn’t deter Steven Wilson fans from checking out The Harmony Codex, as it’s a huge step up from its predecessor. If anything, this is basically the direction he should have gone in immediately after To the Bone, as it seems like a logical development from that record’s electronica-tinged prog-pop style. In any case, this is essentially Wilson’s “cinematic” album, and allows him to play around with a wide variety of fun styles and experiments using that theme. It’s sprawling, it’s immersive, it’s widescreen, and – most of all – it’s a sign that our favorite(?) modern progger still has plenty left to say, even over 30 years into his illustrious career.



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Comments:Add a Comment 
Koris
Contributing Reviewer
October 4th 2023


20763 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

My first review for a new album in over three months! Where does the time go?



Anyway, I hope I'm not too rusty after all that time away. Enjoy :]

Sunnyvale
Staff Reviewer
October 4th 2023


5623 Comments

Album Rating: 3.8

Great review Koris!



While I've never really gotten into Steven Wilson, I'm quite enjoying this album. The electronic, post-rock, and prog elements flow together really nicely. May bump my rating, we shall see.

Gyromania
October 4th 2023


36904 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

nah this is boring af

insomniac15
Staff Reviewer
October 4th 2023


6135 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

I feel like I barely scraped its surface after 3 listens. He assembled an army of musicians who played on the record. Wilson embraced his status in the prog world lately, this is that kind of record meant to be a statement. Still, so far I find it kind of disjointed? idk Will listen more.

KrillBoi
October 4th 2023


419 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Enjoying this a lot more than The Future Bites, the production is fantastic.

TheWatchman71
October 4th 2023


342 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

After about 5 listens I’m finding this very mediocre and for me this is his weakest album. Just so many tracks feel like generic SW songs that he could write by AI in about 5 minutes. The Ninet Tayeb duet sounds quite tired and formulaic now. And this one doesn’t bring anything new to the table. What life brings and time is running out are probably his worst songs ever - and considering how much I dislike permenating and personal shopper means that what life brings and time is running out come in at an all time low. The Harmony Codex and staircase just bore me. Beautiful scarecrow and economies of scale are okay but really do much. I like inclination and impossible tightrope quite a lot. And the clear stand out track is actual brutal facts. Loving this song. But this album while the production and mixing and how it actually sounds on my headphones is phenomenal- the actual music and songs fail to provoke any kind of emotions in me. to the bone did take its time to connect and I do enjoy that album considerably more now, and even the future bites has better tracks - king ghost, 12 things I forgot, man of the people and count of ease. Like with these last 2 albums, some of the best songs were on the deluxe versions so here’s hoping there are some jewels to be found in the non album tracks. And my last regretful dig - what is going on with the guitar solos. They just sound so recycled and uninspired. I’ll persist and continue to play this more in the hope my view my improve but I suspect I’ll just like my favourite few tracks more, and enjoy the rest even less.

Jasdevi087
October 4th 2023


8089 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

not impressed tbh

Tundra
October 4th 2023


9275 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5 | Sound Off

Sensual stripper music I said what I said

JohnnyoftheWell
Staff Reviewer
October 4th 2023


59359 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

If Steven Wilson is making anything remotely close to what you consider stripper music, imma have to ask you to get some sunlight and touch some skin asap. Horrifyingly decrepit take

Flugmorph
October 4th 2023


33249 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

this is a good album. textures on here are fascinating.

Flugmorph
October 4th 2023


33249 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

ok I love "Actual Brutal Facts"

Flugmorph
October 4th 2023


33249 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Staircase is amazing aswell.

Nice review btw, enjoyed the read



Koris
Contributing Reviewer
October 4th 2023


20763 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

@Sunny & Flugmorph: thank you! :]



"Sensual stripper music I said what I said"



I mean hey, you do you. lol

Ryus
October 4th 2023


36073 Comments




Sensual stripper music I said what I said [2]

WalrusTusk
October 4th 2023


1767 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

"It might have to do with the overall lack of these more self-contained, concise moments, but the aforementioned worldbuilding could stand to be reined-in at times. While the extended, sprawling pieces are neat from a conceptual and atmospheric perspective, they also make The Harmony Codex more emotionally distant at times and – dare I say – even a bit hollow."



^This right here. I'll probably give it another listen at some point but my first three listens haven't really drawn me in.

Pikazilla
October 4th 2023


28930 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

yeah

MarsKid
Staff Reviewer
October 4th 2023


20927 Comments


Sweet rev my man, welcome back! Could hardly tell any rust, this is a great piece of writing.

Never checked Wilson's stuff, doubt this is an entry point for me lol

pourradass
October 4th 2023


549 Comments


Great review. First listen without paying much attention but enjoyed it, will give it another listen for sure.

TalonsOfFire
Emeritus
October 4th 2023


20944 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5 | Sound Off

Good review and generally agreed. I really like the singles and the album epics. His early-mid 2010s releases are cinematic but TFB not so much and pretty underwhelming, especially after TTB which I loved. This is a big improvement, basically a whole rating point higher than TFB for me. Also I don’t usually care much for music videos, but the ones for the t/t and Impossible Tightrope are fantastic, especially the latter.

urainus
October 4th 2023


2 Comments

Album Rating: 2.0 | Sound Off

It’s boring. It’s a shame that this is the best he can give us now. The Raven and Hand.Cannot.Erase basically defined my mid adolescence and set me on the path to finding my favorite groups, and he swapped some truly exciting music for formless drivel and vapid hooks that he repeats to a numbing extent. I think the song Detonation really marked the beginning of the end for Steven. Even the new Porcupine tree album has some of these issues, but many songs on that were written back when he could actually write good music. Truly the disappointment of the year for me.



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