- 5.1 mix that requires Depends
Unless you are living in a cave or hate prog (in which case I question why you are reading this blog), you’ve probably heard the name Steven Wilson. His band Porcupine Tree has been rapidly gaining in popularity. If you are a newcomer to the genre, it may have even been your introduction. Besides Porcupine Tree, Steven has been quite prolific in output, with several side projects (such as Blackfield, No-Man, Bass Communion), guest appearances (such as Opeth and OSI), production, mixing, and re-mixing (including some classic Crimson and Jethro Tull’s Aqualung), and has become quite the name in the 5.1 world. Where he ever found the time amidst all of that to do a solo project, let alone a second release for one, I can’t help but wonder. I’m glad he did though, because Insurgentes was a fantastic album and I was eagerly awaiting his second solo outing Grace For Drowining.
It took a few listens to let his new double-disc effort to sink in. There’s a lot of length (there are two discs after all), but there’s also a lot of depth, so there was quite a bit there to digest, and I must say, it was quite delicious…or even scrumtrulescent!
The sheer depth was the first thing that struck me. There are many layers to work though, each with their own subtle gems to discover. Multiple listens are definitely rewarded and under no circumstances should this be ripped or downloaded and listened to as an mp3 (perish the thought!). Higher quality allows the subtle textures to flourish, and if you have a surround system and a dvd-audio or blu-ray player, then I can’t recommend the DVD/blu-ray versions highly enough. The surround mix is nothing short of astonishing!
One thing this album really drives home is that Steven Wilson wields the studio as an instrument with unparalleled virtuosity. He takes a myriad of elements, many of them quite simple when considered on their own merits, and weaves them into breathtaking tapestries of intricate complexity. His songwriting is good on its own, but he works his studio magic to magnify it with textures, layers, and the most pristine production quality that ever did grace this planet, that elevate excellent songs to new levels of aural awesomeness. God is truly in the details.
This album isn’t exactly standard Steven Wilson fare (if there even is such a thing), by which I mean it doesn’t sound like Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, No-Man, Bass Communion, or even his last solo album. It certainly has elements of his other projects, but it is also something else entirely: different, but still Steven Wilson. His high production values are definitely still evident, as I mentioned earlier, as well as some of his common musical stylings, but he treads a lot of new ground as well.
There are a lot of jazz and 70s prog elements to be found. One can’t help but wonder if all that time spent remixing King Crimson’s 70’s catalogue might be the cause. The delightful scratching of a mellotron plays a prominent role, and is implemented to great effect in extended, meandering (in a good way) passages of instrumental exploration, similar to what one might find on an old Crimson album.
Speaking of King Crimson, Tony Levin, Trey Gunn, and Pat Mastellato all make guest appearances on the album, and if I hadn’t read the liner notes, I wouldn’t have been able to pick them out, so different was their playing on this album than their work that I was familiar with. Jordan Rudess was also on the guest list and similarly non-characteristic in his playing style. In fact, the only guest musician that I was able to clearly distinguish without help from the liner notes was Steve Hackett. I found it quite refreshing that the guest musicians really contributed to the overall feel of the album rather than trying to showcase their presence at the forefront.
I don’t feel I can really discuss individual songs on this album, since it really needs to be enjoyed as a whole. It’s a bit like watching a good film. While individual scenes might be enjoyable on their own, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I will mention the song Raider II, by far the longest song on the album, which might intimidate some, especially those newer to prog, by its 23:21 runtime. Don’t skip this song. Your patience will be rewarded.
In closing, I would like to reiterate once more the importance of listening to the album as a whole, or at least each disc as a whole, and of listening more than once. The individual songs may be good on their own, but Grace For Drowning is a prime example of the art of the album. It’s a musical journey, and if you take shortcuts, you miss a lot of the scenery.