22 January 2015; Kscope
To make that age-old claim that Steven Wilson is rock’s hardest-working musician feels somewhat disingenuous, because it somehow seems to understate his work ethic and dedication. Not only is he experiencing the boon of a lucrative solo career, aided by his constant touring, but he also maintains an involvement in countless musical projects, groups and ventures, whilst also remixing some of the 20th century’s finest albums, including King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, and XTC’s Nonsuch on the side. As you can see, the term “hard-working” simply doesn’t cut it. The commitment he shows to his endeavours requires nothing less than the most hyperbolic of statements in order to accurately describe his activities.
Nevertheless, Wilson’s solo project remains at the centre of this progressive solar system. Riding on the success of his latest album, Hand. Cannot. Erase., Wilson has decided to release yet another disc. A mini-album by the name of 4 ½, it is designed to serve as an interim between his previous and forthcoming projects, a bridge between the old world, and the as-of-yet undiscovered country. The opening track ‘My Book of Regrets’ starts off in contemporary Wilson fashion, catchy riffing, electronica bubbling underneath, and subtly complex drumming, before detonating into a potent chorus, and then retracting into the secluded calm of acoustic warbling. Then repeat. Of course, this is progressive music, so you’re going to have to change the style up a bit, which he does, with a riff that sounds eerily similar to his earlier song ‘Time Flies’, that quickly breaks free of repetition with a warbling synth solo and crunchy guitar. The problem, however, is that it’s a bit too long. It’s a good song, I won’t deny that, but with a running time of 9:35, you do begin to tire after the third thematic shift.
Whilst it’s certainly nice to listen to, there’s nothing to grab your attention
Middle track ‘Happiness III’ is undoubtedly the most accessible song on the album. A proggy piece of pop music, its accessible hook and catchy, sing-along chorus means that one is quickly drawn into the fray. Combined with some impressive drumming, courtesy of Marco Minnemann, it can proudly hold its head high as yet another strong exhibit of Steven Wilson’s talent.
4 ½ contains three instrumentals, two of them book-ending ‘Happiness III’. Unfortunately, they’re also the album’s two weakest tracks. ‘Year of the Plague’ is a pleasant enough string-and-acoustic-guitar concoction, with some lilting piano and mellotron work, but it never strays outside of its ambient domain, instead preferring to keep itself firmly rooted in simply being pleasant. Whilst it’s certainly nice to listen to, there’s nothing to grab your attention, which thus leaves you at a bit of a loss.
Likewise, ‘Sunday Rain Sets In’ is a reverb-laden piece of ambient, packed with piano arpeggios and gently caressed cymbals that do little to liven the atmosphere outside of confirming its place as the albums filler piece. Whilst a few agreeable solos are thrown around, alongside four metallic chromatic runs, they’re not enough to lift the piece beyond the pedestrian. Nevertheless, contrary to the other two instrumentals, ‘Vermillioncore’ is able to keep the listener hooked throughout. Varying between sci-fi keyboard stabs and woodland guitar/flute arrangements, the song is just as happy to combine metal riffing with elaborate solo work in order to produce a cumulative sound that could perhaps be best described as some sort of pagan Blade Runner; think of a concept not too dissimilar from steampunk, expect that it blends the dawn of history with the end of it. In many ways, it feels like the bridge between Wilson’s sophomore solo release, Grace for Drowning, and his latest.
The final track is a re-recording of one of Wilson’s earlier songs, ‘Don’t Hate Me’. Originally appearing on the 1999 Porcupine Tree album Stupid Dream, it’s been granted a new lease of life in 2016. Featuring a beautiful vocal contribution from Ninet Tayeb; pained, strained, and gloriously emotive, as well as an epic Floydian saxophone, courtesy of Theo Travis, its re-recording lifts it up to tender new heights, and will undoubtedly cement it as a fan favourite for many years to come. As such, what we can conclude is that this album should be enough to keep even the most rabid Steven Wilson fans content until the release of album number five. Immaculately produced, as always, it’s another solid release from the progressive overlord. Although it’s certainly no classic, one simply cannot resist a bit more music from this particular artist.
Steven Wilson’s 4 ½ is released on Kscope this Friday, and can be pre-ordered here.