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 Bites
– To 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.