Tuesday 17 October 2023

Steven Wilson - The Harmony Codex (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 29 Sep 2023
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I enjoyed Steven Wilson's previous album, The Future Bites, a great deal, but I surely like this more because it feels proggier and spends longer instrumental. As with that release, it's built on an odd combination of influences, namely Pink Floyd and Donna Summer, with the former most evident in the instrumental sections and the latter in vocal parts. However, it's not that simple, as there are other voices here too that do very different things. Ninet Tayab sings on Rock Bottom and Wilson's wife Rotem provides spoken word on the title track, each of them giving this album another angle. However, it only takes a couple of listens for everything to coalesce into a single vision.

I wasn't entirely sold early on. Inclination begins with a long instrumental intro that vanishes into the haze, to be followed by a vocal song that doesn't seem to tie to it to all. What Life Brings is also vocal and it's dreamier, as is Economies of Scale, if we isolate the voices and keyboards from a beat that's glitchy and fascinating. They're not bad songs, but Wilson paints in sounds and those sounds build moods that remind of colours and they're three very different pieces.

Where Wilson truly grabbed me here was Impossible Tightrope, which is the first epic of the album and the longest song on offer at almost eleven minutes. For a few minutes it reminds very much of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, but building quicker and into something more frantic. Everything's a highlight here, the overlapping layers of keyboards reminiscent of mountains behind mountains, but I have to call out the saxophone of Theo Travis. These few minutes are easily my favourite part of the album.

The rest of the song's pretty good too but, a dreamy interlude later, it moves into a territory that's part space rock and part jazz fusion. It's vibrant and perky and reminds of something I might hear from King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, not just instrumentally but because there are vocals but no lyrics, just voices as instruments. It's all highly immersive stuff and it doesn't remotely outstay its welcome. I could happily listen to an hour long improvisation on this track.

Much of the reason for that is that, as loose as a piece gets, and Impossible Tightrope feels like it's just a magical nexus of a host of instruments that was spun out of the air, Wilson is a very carefully minded composer. There's a huge amount of energy given to finding precisely the right sounds for every moment on this album. Perhaps the best example of that is Beautiful Scarecrow, which has a glorious and effortless groove to it, but one that grows in complexity the more we examine it, just like a Mandelbrot set.

That rhythm is a highly complex one with a very particular sound; I'm assuming those are electric beats created by Jack Dangers. Behind it, something is soloing, maybe Wilson on guitars or synths or Nick Beggs on Chapman Stick, but I see Theo Travis credited on duduk on this one. Now, is that a Balkan duduk or an Armenian duduk? Reviewing albums does take me down some odd rabbit holes. Whatever it is, it's a delightfully odd sound amidst a whole bunch of other delightfully odd sounds that were clearly placed exactly where they are because of an overarching vision.

This is a highly generous album, running over an hour in its shortest version, with quite the journey for an open-minded listener. It's pop and it's rock and it's electronic. It's catchy and commercial but it's expansive and progressive. It's smooth but it's glitchy. It's crafted but it's improvisational and loose. It's designed for Wilson's voice, both regular and falsetto, but the overall feeling is that his voice and the others he adds are just other instruments. It's a lot of things and the more you let it wash over you, the more you'll catch moments you'll want to explore. Our distance from the music as the title track begins is a clear invitation to come on in and make ourselves at home.

And if you fall into it that deeply, there are other versions available. There's a three album version that includes the regular ten tracks on one disc; a second disc containing remixes of most of them, along with a set of Codex Themes; and a third disc that repeats a couple of those but adds six parts of an audio play. I haven't delved into those other discs yet but it's The Harmony Codex that gets a seventeen minute long take rather than Impossible Tightrope. Whichever version you go for, you'll get plenty of Wilson's solo genius, which I'm appreciating far more than the most recent album by Porcupine Tree.

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