Steven Wilson is set to release The Future Bites, the follow up to To The Bone, on January 29.
If there is one album that probably makes old school Steven Wilson fans long for a Porcupine Tree reunion, it’s The Future Bites. The predecessor To The Bone had already been influenced by more popular music, even if only by the artsy kind of the 80s, including Peter Gabriel, Talk Talk, and Kate Bush. Still, songs like “The Same Asylum As Before” and “Song Of Unborn” wouldn’t have been misplaced on Porcupine Tree’s In Absentia or Lightbulb Sun, hinting that a certain pop music impact has always been present in Steven Wilson’s music. But an ABBA infused up-tempo dance track like “Permanating” was definitely a novum in the artist’s catalog – and perhaps a bit too much for some fans.
To their horror, The Future Bites’ lead single “Personal Shopper” sounded like what some described as a slightly darker ten-minute version of “Permanating,” reprising the straightforward disco groove and even including some female background singers. Many listeners of Wilson’s music might identify themselves as likers of progressive rock music, however, the artist insists that his music shouldn’t be categorized into any particular genre. The sound of his former main band, while often considered “prog,” was always quite different from contemporary bands of the neo- or retro-progressive rock movement. But each album explored something new, reaching from the Pink Floyd influenced psychedelic soundscapes of the earlier output and the brit-pop like phase of the late 90s to the metal-infused drop-D riffs on Fear Of A Blank Planet and The Incident. The stylistic restlessness has continued throughout Steven Wilson’s solo career, including drone-sounds, drum machines and King Crimson mellotrons while satisfying his admiration for more experimental music with his side project, Bass Communion. Wilson earned his placement within the “progressive” shelf of your local record store with a progressive career in the truest sense of the word, instead of playing one single type of music that is sonically connected to a five-year period of the early seventies – which one might even call regressive.
With all these stylistic changes, it’s impossible to please every fan with every output, yet Wilson has earned mostly praise for constantly breaking fresh grounds over the last decades. It’s ironic that of all things, it’s the excursion into contemporary pop music that earns the most criticism from his fans. Artists have been panned for going exactly this path and fanbases have even been split, up to the point where there were exclusive Collins- and Gabriel-camps or Classic Yes- or Yes West-camps. Wilson seems well aware of this risk and launched a self-mocking advertisement campaign for The Future Bites, creating the fictional eponymous brand which sells useful or useless stuff for horrendous prices. A fake online shop portrays “sold out” canned air and a £200 toilet paper roll, throwing a bridge to the insane toilet paper grab during the first lockdown of the COVID pandemic. Going with trends, consumerism, and following instead of leading seem to make up the main concept of Wilson’s new album. And then he goes on and covers a Taylor Swift song.
Releasing an album full of what seems like three-minute pop ditties while beefing about consumerism was bound to bump into some lack of understanding. Some fans even accused the man of hypocrisy. But after laying down the rage about the scarcity of 13-minute epics with extended instrumental passages and layers of polyrhythms, The Future Bites actually reveals a lot to please Wilson-fans. Despite the new influences and changes he has incorporated into his music, there’s also a number of things that haven’t changed. Wilson has a very distinct way of composing a melody and his characteristically stretched, mellow motives are still beneath the layers of the flashy wall-of-sound production of the album. And it’s not like all of his new music suddenly sounds jolly and cheerful.
Take a song like “Man Of The People” for instance: a Barbieri-esque soundscape and tasty Edwin-bass line probably would have turned this song into a second “Lazarus.” Instead, the only rhythm in this track comes from a minimalistic drum machine and a keyboard ostinato in the background. It is also one of the few tracks where an electric guitar takes a significant role of the sound construct, at least in relation to the rest of the album. In “King Ghost,” another song you could describe as a ballad, Wilson goes a step further and eliminates almost all acoustic instrumentation in favor of a futuristic, all-electronic sound construct. Both cuts are equipped with melodic hook lines that are trademark Steven Wilson, suggesting that it’s not entirely the compositions that are to blame for the musician’s new direction – it’s (also) the arrangements.
Wilson and co-producer David Kosten made sure this album is not a gram too heavy, despite ideas lavishly being thrown around every other second. The songs are concise and richly layered, but every contributing instrument has only a very static and minimalistic role. This approach sacrifices the innovative contributions previously made by Wilson’s musical companions and replaces them with a far less impulsive and rather stale sound. The disco-y “Eminent Sleaze” might feature Adam Holzman’s signature Fender Rhodes and Chapman Stick by Nick Beggs, but these once integral contributors are kept tightly on a leash and almost overshadowed by clapping sounds, late 70s string chords, and soul-inspired background vocals. The whole song sounds like a “Have A Cigar” of the 21st century. However, like on the rest of the album, there’s no long keyboard or guitar solo sections, no fast ride cymbal attacks or flute cameos, and no spontaneously jammed interludes. Everything that “Regret #9” was, The Future Bites is not. This might be a big letdown for many fans who preferred a band’s sound for Wilson’s music, but it surely was a consciously made decision. He has done that, why do it again?
Even the “epic” of the album, “Personal Shopper,” is miles away from “Detonation” from Wilson’s predecessor, and surprisingly unepic. But it makes ends meet without much complexity or variation throughout its ten minutes running time. Walking on a fine line “between being a love-letter to shopping and the […] more insidious side of modern consumerism,” the listener is left to decide if the song’s lyrics are supposed to sound reproachful or ironic. It’s almost hilarious however, that of all people, Wilson got one of music’s biggest consumers, pop giant Elton John, to read a shopping list with his buttery voice – starting off with sunglasses.
It goes on. “Follower” mocks influencers and followers on social media, while Wilson promotes his new album on the very same platforms. The Coldplay-like “12 Things I Forgot” talks about not being able to move on from the past, or about Wilson himself. Some social media comments on his recent posts weren’t exactly kindhearted and I can’t help but think that Wilson is sitting back on his couch right now, smiling and thinking that his provocative promotion proves all of his points.
Despite all contemporary influences, Steven Wilson can’t hide his past as a 70s and 80s music nerd. The broad Pink Floyd E-minor chords in “Man Of The People” are unmistakable and you can make out a slight touch of Yes’ “Tempus Fugit” during “Follower.” The closing “Count Of Unease” sounds more like a cut from Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock rather than a concise pop song, completed by fragile percussion and swelling, uneasy harmonies. It’s the first time the album really comes to a rest. And it’s this tradition of a Steven Wilson album ending on a quiet note that comes across like a subliminal peace offering to his confused fans.
But the stream of new Steven Wilson music doesn’t end here. In order to make The Future Bites as concise as possible, Wilson has eliminated more than half of the already written and recorded music from the final tracklist. Some of the excluded songs have now been released as b-sides to promotional singles. They proved to be in no way inferior to the album’s cuts and in some cases even required more time and work to be arranged and recorded. But the inclusion of the technoid “Eyewitness” would have meant a third song featuring female background vocals and “More Like A Fever” is a good two minutes too long for the concise character of the album. The beautiful “In Floral Green,” however, sounds like the ballad Wilson wished he composed, but it’s only a cover of fellow musician John Mitchell’s band Lonely Robot. Still, it brings back the sound of To The Bone makes up for the lack of an epic ballad on the album. Hopefully, the rest of the sidelined songs will see the light of day somehow.
It’s hard to believe that between songs like “Ancestral” and “12 Things I Forgot” there lies only one album. Gone are the rock- and metal influences, gone is the retro sound, and gone are instrumental escapades. Unfortunately, the virtuosic musicianship of an organic band that defined Wilson’s previous outputs is also gone. While still relying on subtle contributions from an army of great musicians, The Future Bites sounds more like a solo work than any of his predecessors. Luckily, it is undeniably a Steven Wilson album and filled with his characteristic lines and gloomy atmosphere. For all the fans not approving of this new direction, here’s a word of comfort: Steven Wilson’s career up until now has mostly consisted of phases. He has never been content with stagnation. Rest assured that whatever there’s to come, it’s going to be something entirely different…
The Future Bites was originally set to be released on 12 June 2020 but had to be postponed a whopping seven months due to the COVID pandemic. It will now drop on 29 January 2021. Last year’s promotional tour was to feature some of Steven Wilson’s biggest concerts to date and is also postponed to the coming Fall.
Steven Wilson yet again surprises us by remaining true to himself. In a career spanning over three decades, he has never been content with just one style of music. But despite its slick, big-scale production and futuristic sound, The Future Bites can’t hide Wilson’s unmistakable thumbprint.