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Steven Wilson
To The Bone Antonio Poscic , August 29th, 2017 08:01

Prog rock comes round again, with glimpses of greatness buried in disappointment

Everything is cyclical. The contentious matter of progressive rock, for example, resurfaces every few years as a nagging speck in the public’s eye. Countless think-pieces and counter-pieces are written, offering undeserved derision, hate or fervent defences while the genre continues to march solemnly, undisturbed and oblivious. Steven Wilson’s latest full-length arrives just in time for one such episode - spurred on by David Weigel’s book The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock - yet it’s those stable and immutable inner sanctums of prog rock, not the mainstream’s perception, that it threatens the most.

Never shying away from experimentation and eclecticism, To The Bone marks Wilson’s most intense stylistic departure as he reaches towards sumptuous pop vibes tinged with retro tones. Inevitably, it becomes characterised by what it isn’t rather than by what it is. Seen as an affront and betrayal of prog rock’s ‘trueness’ by one of the genre’s savants, To The Bone exposes and splinters insular communities and their ideas of elitism. But by observing the album through this prism alone, its real nature is obscured - that of a flawed and powerless homage.

While Wilson’s work as a musician and producer, solo or in Porcupine Tree, has always been ingrained with pop music sensibilities, To The Bone exaggerates this aspect until it explodes into a contrived exercise in style. The music, often reduced to a mimicry of 80s progressive and art pop tropes - from Peter Gabriel to Tears For Fears to Kate Bush - clumsily coexists with complex themes. A sophistic invocation about ‘truth’ introduces the first cut, ‘To The Bone’, a lethargic song, and becomes a blueprint for the rest of the tracks. Burning social issues like refugee rights and religious extremism are explored from a privileged position, only to be enveloped in a pristinely preserved musical framework within which pop loses its transformative potential.

This edgeless approach is underlined by the warm, lush production that tries to recreate the fondly and wrongly remembered organic sound of old records. Occasionally, during the album’s more inspired moments like the sparse ballad ‘Blank Tapes’, Wilson goes beyond pure pastiche as his recognisable, visceral songwriting emerges. It’s those moments that reveal glimpses of the intimacy, conceptual coherence and deeply felt emotions that made his previous effort Hand. Cannot. Erase. as excellent as it was. In comparison, To The Bone fails in its attempt at grandeur.

The few standout tunes, such as the aggressive and dark ‘People Who Eat Darkness’, similarly feel successful because of their narrower scope, while ‘Detonation’, a heavier, riff-driven epic that deals with the subject of suicide bombers, never lives up to similar compositions from Wilson’s earlier records. Ironically, the song that will surely be most controversial among his fans, ‘Permanating’, is a self-contained, resounding success, a fun, light romp clearly and proudly influenced by the likes of ABBA and Electric Light Orchestra. To The Bone would have been a better album if it had completely embraced this sort of levity.