A man who needs very little introduction: Steven Wilson, widely considered to be the flagbearer of 21st century progressive rock, has just released his fifth solo LP, To the Bone. Alongside its announcement earlier this year, Wilson stated that he would be departing from his usual brooding prog rock aesthetic in favour of more straightforward pop rock. As you may well imagine, this caused quite the stir amongst his followers.
Following 2015’s emotive Hand. Cannot. Erase., and the instrumental excellence of the 2016 EP, 4½, the singles released from To the Bone showed a big shift in Wilson‘s sound and songwriting. But is To the Bone on the same calibre of quality as his other albums? Can he still be considered the frontrunner of modern progressive rock?
Join Cerpin, Leth, Sacul, Frog and guest writer SirPent as they scrutinize To the Bone – the biggest, and potentially the most controversial, prog release of 2017. Will they commend or condemn Wilson‘s evolvement? There’s only one way to find out, it’s time for another Roundabout!
We’d like to remind you that our Roundabout reviews are compilations of each Prog Talk admin’s subjective opinions established after multiple listens of an album. While we may have expressed our thoughts on the album beforehand, we do not collude while writing our reviews. So without further ado, let’s talk Steven Wilson:
To the Bone‘s uncharacteristic poptimism from prog’s poster boy of gloom makes the record an odd listen.
Steven Wilson‘s vocals and lyrics here often feel self-indulgent, unconvincing or parodic, but are balanced by effective instrumentation, catchy melodies and predictably excellent production. However, this is not enough to stop Wilson‘s fifth studio album from being his weakest yet.
Lyrically, To the Bone is uninspiring when it’s not being hysterical. The album revolves around current political and societal affairs; topics which I find to be quite dull and predictable when presented so explicitly. As for its hilarity: ‘Pariah”s signature line, ‘I’m tired of Facebook’, is by far the funniest thing I’ve heard all year; ‘I can hear you fuck your girlfriend through the wall’ from ‘People Who Eat Darkness’ is abysmal in both its butt-rock delivery and inappropriateness, given that it’s coming from a 50-odd year old trainspotter; and ‘Song of Unborn’ is woefully ham-fisted in its social commentary alongside its drab delivery. Those are just a few examples of many. To the Bone lacks the emotional weight of Hand. Cannot. Erase. and the enthralling storytelling of The Raven That Refused to Sing, leaving a lot to be desired.
Some of Wilson‘s higher vocal registers are equally as awkward, such as in ‘The Same Asylum as Before’, ‘Refuge’ and ‘Perman–
You know what? Fuck it. I’ll admit it – for all of its flaws, I’ve grown to like ‘Permanating’. I laughed at it when it was announced as a single, it was the second funniest thing I’ve heard all year. Now I accept that it’s a great toe-tapping pop track with an addictively campy chorus, even if the ABBA-worship is eye-rolling.
There, I said it.
If Wilson‘s high notes were performed by Ninet Tayeb or some other guest vocalist, they could’ve worked out great. Thankfully, Tayeb does appear throughout the album to salvage the odd chorus here and there, but not frequently enough. Though credit where credit is due, most of the songs are solid outside of the vocals, and I feel that To the Bone would’ve faired a lot better without them, especially ‘Pariah’ and ‘Refuge’.
The trip-hoppy ‘Song of I’ deserves the most commendation here. It’s an effective fusion of Wilson‘s brooding attitude alongside guest vocalist Sophie Hunger; a new and accessible aesthetic and with minimal lyrical faux pas. The Autechre-esque beats at the beginning of the murky ‘Detonation’ were also a nice surprise, along with the funky bassline and erratic guitar solo in the track’s closing segment. Structurally, ‘Detonation’ feels like a parallel to Hand. Cannot. Erase.‘s ‘Ancestral’, though not quite as haunting.
I don’t find To the Bone to be a bad album – it’s good, in fact. But ‘good’ is still sub par for the highly acclaimed Steven Wilson, and this record’s pitfalls and varying song quality are mainly caused by his self-indulgence or poor lyricism. While I do feel that it’s worth a listen or two, there have been insurmountably better progressive pop rock albums released in 2017 than To the Bone; most notably Everything Everything’s A Fever Dream and Bent Knee’s Land Animal – and those bands don’t act like martyrs about it.
Favourite tracks: Refuge, Song of I, Detonation
Steven Wilson is a big fan of bands such as XTC, Tears for Fears, The Beach Boys, ABBA, Talk Talk (he even got their harmonica player on this album!), and he has admitted that in To the Bone, he was trying to create his version of those big ‘Art Pop’ records that artists like David Bowie, Kate Bush or Prince have released. These influences translate into a more song-oriented record than we’ve seen from him, and with more catchy choruses for the most part.
There’s definitely more of a rock approach to this album. I expected more electronics on this one, and I would love more tracks to have been in the vein of ‘Song of I’, but I do enjoy the diversity on songwriting and influences here. ‘Refuge’ is basically a huge build-up to a powerful climax; ‘Detonation’ has really great jams and it’s the most ‘prog’ song here; ‘Permanating’ is just a jolly piano-driven song that’s very catchy; ‘Blank Tapes’, essentially a short ballad with guest vocalist Ninet Tayeb; and ‘People Who Eat Darkness’ takes influence from modern alternative rock and sounds a bit like 2000’s Porcupine Tree. Though saying that, the most Porcupine Tree-ish song on To the Bone is ‘The Same Asylum as Before’, where the main riff sounds straight out of Stupid Dream – I’m not complaining, I love that record. The mood overall is actually joyful (!) for the most part, with only a few melancholic songs and where the transition from ‘Refuge’ to ‘Permanating’ is the clearest contrast of both moods.
Ninet’s vocals sound a bit off at times; on ‘Pariah’, it sounds like she’s got the flu, but otherwise I do like her role on this record, more so on background vocals and with just a couple of solo spots. Speaking of vocals, I guess I don’t mind Wilson‘s use of falsettos on To the Bone, though I’m sure many would be turned off by them. The production is, of course, stellar as usual; every instrument sounding full of life and crystal clear. It’s curiously an atmospheric album, layered with synths, vocal harmonies, and many other instruments – lots of details here. It’s a progression of the sound developed on Hand. Cannot. Erase. with some cool additions, such as harmonicas, and a few being a little cheesy, such as the synth line at the beginning of ‘Pariah’.
Lyrics are… not very good. I mean, I wouldn’t go to say they’re downright atrocious, but ‘I’m tired of Facebook’ on ‘Pariah’ and the entire spoken word sample in the title track make me cringe a little. Also, some of the song titles here are questionable: ‘People Who Eat Darkness’? Really? But Steven has never been a notable lyricist for me so I wasn’t expecting much more.
Overall, I don’t think I have that many complaints. To the Bone is unlikely to be AOTY material, but I stopped expecting that level of quality from Steven long ago. However, I do connect with this record and I’m glad that he decided to make something a little different, though I wish this was what Blackfield’s V ended up being. I’m curious about what he will do after this album, I think he’s mentioned maybe getting into soundtracks or just working as a producer. Either way, I’m sure it’ll be something interesting to talk about.
Favourite tracks: Song of I, People Who Eat Darkness, Song of Unborn
Favourite track: eject disc
Steven Wilson, as we know, gilds already fine works, framing them with his name and superb production skills. He does a fantastic job using his Midas touch, often bringing a softer edge to many bands we know and have loved. In contention to this, his previous Porcupine Tree and solo works have been in my ‘meh’ list for the most part.
So with low expectations, To the Bone begins.
The perspective of philosophy always gathers my interest, so the immediate Dream Theater-esque spoken word introduction (think ‘The Great Debate’) in ‘To the Bone’ was a slap round the face and a complete reassessment of a probably slating review; though it’s not long before classic Wilson vocals and ferreting harmonica usage kick in. This is refreshing and interesting – however, this is before the ‘duet’ begins. Oh yes, the ‘duet’ of dull, repeated lines. Despite this, the guitars and drum tone are enough to keep the song interesting throughout; not forgetting a standard, but gorgeous bass tone.
The next few songs are nothing special: yawn-worthy drums, horribly droning or piercing vocals etc., but they can take an interesting direction or two (though hardly progressive), with the exclusion of ‘Pariah’ (with another female voice, this time rough and to my liking) and ‘Refuge’’s vaguely amusing harmonica solo. Where ‘Permanating’ feels like a bad radio-friendly track from The Pineapple Thief (oh, also ‘Permanating’ isn’t a word), ‘People Who Eat Darkness’’s soothing lyricism and synths brings the interest back to the album over a decent sounding acoustic guitar and sudden electric guitar solos. ‘Song of I’ had me excited upon first listen, but cringing upon later runs. Wilson uses overall decent minimalism here, but I honestly prefer A Perfect Circle’s ‘Counting Bodies like Sheep to the Rhythm of the War Drums’ over ‘Song of I”s clap-beats and completely boring repetitiveness.
Thankfully, the last two tracks complete the album, changing it from a mostly boring listen to a fulfilling experience with plenty of classic and cheesy Wilson joy-cringe and soothing melodies. ‘Detonation’ certainly did not feel like almost 10 minutes with a lovely twiddly solo to end and ‘Song of Unborn’ has soaring Anathema-style melodies with uplifting lyrics and feel.
Wilson certainly sounds most comfortable and within his own genre in To the Bone than ever before. Let us hope that he progresses and makes the most of this pop stylising, though saying that he’s already had plenty of time to perfect his sounds.
Favourite tracks: Pariah, People Who Eat Darkness and Song of Unborn
Last Tuesday, I was practicing finger tapping techniques to optimally annoy my friends and family when I received a letter in the mail. To my delight it was an invitation to the factories of Stephan Wellson Confectioneries to sample To The Bean, their latest brand of snacks, said to be their most adventurous exploit yet.
Once I’d arrived I was told we’d be sampling each sweet and snack one by one, each contained to its own specialised room for an optimal experience. ‘What a progressive idea’, I thought.
- ‘To The Bean’
The first I tried was a jelly bean named after the brand itself; it tasted of the rains down in Africa, combined with that special Stephen Wellson signature texture. That said, it was rather hard to focus on the flavour itself when a woman started power singing loudly on the room’s intercoms. Don’t get me wrong, it was a pretty solid bean overall, a delicate mix of sweetness and durability, but at the time I was like ‘sheesh, lady, it’s not that good’. This ended up being a repeat annoyance and distraction for most of the day, unfortunately.
- ‘No Mint Now’, ‘Blank Tapes of Gum’ and ‘Stick of Unborn’
I wish I could say more, but these were just blank sticks of mint chewing gum. They tasted like Orbit™ and Wrigley™’s had come together to find the most generic flavours of peppermint, spearmint and watermint imaginable. The tastes dried out in about 30 seconds. I think there might have been a hint of Nyquil™ in some of them as well…
- Anathematic Sugar
Two snacks, titled ‘Pariah’ and ‘Refuge’ (dramatic much?) had a subtitle warning me that they contained something called ‘Anathematic Sugar’. I have no idea what it is but I want more of it; a single bite and I felt like I was flying. I’m pretty sure I had had this experience before from some other sweet company, (probably Cadbury™ or something) but I wasn’t exactly going to complain when they pulled the adaptation well. Even the power-singing grew likeable on this sugar, it actually felt like it fit the sensation for once.
- On ABBA, aka ‘Permanating’
I have no sweet analogies for this one. This was ABBA on a Steven Wilson album. It broke me. It was fun as hell. Please don’t falsetto again. Great song. The strangest tonal shift to possibly follow Refuge. Great song. Those two songs should never come one after the other though. Had a stupid grin on my ugly mug the whole time. Great song. Please don’t falsetto again.
- ‘People Who Eat Dark Chocolate’
I’ve felt that Stephen Wellson are rather funny about their branding ever since I noted the words ‘GO OUTSIDE YOU GODDAMN LOSER’ scrawled hastily on a bar of their chocolates this one time. This branding rang true at this event as well, though it was generally handled a bit more delicately than prior occasions with ‘Song of Ice Cream’ and ‘Detonating Candy’. All of that was undone however with ‘People Who Eat Dark Chocolate’, a dark chocolate bar with a picture of a skeleton at a computer blemishing the rapper (how meta…). That said, these were some of my favourite flavours from the bunch, reminding me of the similarly edgy but similarly delicious ‘Feathers of a Black Parrot’ line of confectionary from one of Wellson & Co.’s other branches. Great texture and a greater mixture of bittersweetness which only a Wellson snack could pull off.
Overall, To the Bean was a pretty interesting new line. The variety, while definitely exciting for the tongue, also kept the line from really having its own identity which made it feel less memorable overall. That said, some of these flavours were a fresh first from Wellson, and welcome ones at that. Just… try to stay away from the chewing gum, ok? You might see yourself go full mastic.
Favourite tracks: Song of I, Refuge, People Who Eat Darkness
(Leth’s nagging nitpick of the day: Why are the stresses placed on all the wrong words in the chorus of ‘Pariah’? ‘It’s up to you now’ should have the stress on ‘you’ and not ‘now’.)
(P.S. – What saddens me most is the fact that I could summarise To The Bone as being
‘🅱oneless Wilson’ and it would be a wholly accurate descriptor in addition to being a horrible meme.)
I think we can conclude that the majority of admins agree that To the Bone is a very diverse album in terms of both tone and quality. Though where Cerpin, Sacul, SirPent and Leth liked it on the whole (…I think?), there’s a disparity in opinions as to whether To the Bone is a good album or whether it’s a good Steven Wilson album.
Oh, and Frog hated it.
What did you think of To the Bone? Have you been practicing your Bollywood dancing to ‘Permanating’? Are you preparing a Wilson-shaped effigy? Also, what did you think of our guest writer, SirPent? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!