REVIEW: STEVEN WILSON – “4 1/2”
When his father, a talented engineer, built and gifted him with his first multi-track tape machine, Steven Wilson began experimenting with music at the tender age of ten. Multi-layering, overdubbing, along with many other production techniques, became second nature to the young musician, paving the way for the vast scale of experimental music he would later go on to produce. Now, Wilson is one of the most highly regarded, sought after producers and prolific artists in rock. January 22nd will see his latest work, the highly anticipated ‘4½’, released as a mediator between Steven’s recently released fourth album, Hand. Cannot. Erase, and his next studio album. As has normally been the way with Wilson what you expect is probably not what you are going to get.
‘4½ ‘ is comprised of six tracks with a total running time of thirty-seven minutes kicking off with the diverse and strong opener, “My Book of Regrets.” Comprised of an array of sounds and influence, each is attended to masterfully in both playing and audio quality. The opening chords are not chosen at random. They could equally be heard at the beginning of any good television show or film, and by that we mean they are inviting but give a strong handshake. The song takes several twists and turns, guitar style and sound reminiscent of Eric Johnson’s ‘Trail of Tears’ alongside uncomfortable drop off points that sit well. A trick mastered also by Eels. Lyrically, the song feels like the other side of ’98’s “Don’t Hate Me” (a point backed further later on) and does a full U-turn finishing as it starts with the once inviting chords now seeing you out.
“Year of the Plague” is an entirely instrumental piece that both captures and sets the mood. Whether it’s 3:00am smoking a cigarette by dim light or getting the tube to work on a gloomy morning, this brief piece, based around some relatively simple playing, has an effective sway that envelops you under whatever circumstance. Vocals are reintroduced on “Happiness |||” and almost eerily so given last week tragic passing of Scott Weiland. Lyrics are sung in the same low undertone, brilliantly phrased style of the late Scott Weiland, a compliment to Wilson’s versatile vocals and an asset here to this song.
“Sunday Rain Sets In” is the second instrumental track on ‘4½ ‘ and does quite the opposite of its predecessor. Where “Year of the Plague” swayed the listener into a comfortable lull, this piece creates a painful restlessness and discomfort. Like a twisted nightmare or a bad trip that will not stop spiralling, the sense of gloom and dread here is unmistakable, As a piece that stands next to “Year of the Plague” the two work brilliantly as opposite sides of the same coin. However, as a stand-alone piece, it is not a stand out and you would really need to be in the mood for it before pressing play.
The bass guitar does not follow its stereotype by taking a back seat on these tracks. Whether it’s supporting the music, solos, riffing etc., it is always found at the forefront with the other predominant instruments. Wilson has a talent for leaving no instrument behind and the listener never has to struggle to find what they are listening for. Ironic, given that four-piece bands usually leave the rhythm section in the dark. Yet here Wilson manages to unite all his players into a strong wall of sound. All of which is evident in “Vermillioncore,” unmistakably driven by the bass. For its entire duration, from the opening note right down to the last note heard, its presence is undeniable, most notably just before the two minute mark where its regularly hidden power is made blatant. Everyone wants to join in and, when they do, something very special happens. But it would be unfair to unveil all the surprises.
As was referenced earlier, opening track “My Book of Regrets” comes across as the next part to 98’s “Don’t Hate Me”. Porcupine Tree fans are in for both a surprise and a treat as ‘4½ ‘ closes with a re-recorded version of “Don’t Hate Me” that spans over nine minutes and is sung as a duet between Wilson and Israeli pop-rock musician Ninet Tayeb. Lyrically the two songs subtly mirror each other in imagery and tone. Length, too, plays a part as the running times both stretch to near identical finish. Even in structure the two begin as they end with the middle acting as a playing field for all things experimental. Fans precious about the original ’98 version may be disappointed, but this re-recorded version was based around a live recording on their recent tour of Europe with additional studio recording thrown in at a later time. Anyone with a semi open mind (which you would need anyway to consider yourself a fan here) will enjoy this haunting rendition of “Don’t Hate Me”.
Intentional or not, ‘4½ ‘ is a brilliantly structured mirror image of itself. From the opening and closing tracks, which speak as opposite ends of the same journey, to the battling instrumental pieces either side of happiness, there is more to be found here than a transitional EP of sorts. As an introduction to all things Steven Wilson, newer fans might be better placed researching his more accessible works. But for those who consider themselves die hard, and anyone willing to approach it with an open mind, 4½ ‘ embodies a greater depth and substance than what the surface may appear to offer. As is normally the way with Wilson, what you expect is probably not what you are going to get. What you get is much, much more.