Note to self: don’t try writing reviews at the onset of a nice little stomach flu.
Such was the case when I began trying to tackle the latest from Steven Wilson, Insurgentes (***½). It’s not an easy album to love when you’re well, but when you’re not... well, straining to relate to the meanings of lyrics like “Rain, come down, and fall forever/ Drain, the dirt, into the wasteland/ Pray, for sound, to quiet the howling” on a track titled “Harmony Korine”... well, forgive me, but I can’t really see what it all has to do with the writer-director who gave us Kids, Julian Donkey-Boy or Mister Lonely.
Wilson, if he is not known as a great rock lyricist, is (and should be) known for his ability as a musician and producer. Beginning with his band Porcupine Tree in the mid-eighties, he has devised at least as many creative outlets for himself as the artist he bears most resemblance to, fellow Brit Robert Fripp. Unlike Fripp, however, Steven Wilson has now been unafraid to delve into more popular forms as he develops his career, i.e., working as a producer for prog-metal band Opeth.
Wilson has produced small releases under his own name, which have included bits of playful music making, including a great little cover of Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times” (on his fifth release in his “Cover Versions” series), and tracks like “King of the Delta Blues” (from his “Unreleaseed Electronic Music Volume 1”).
Why then, on “official” record, does Wilson get so mired in morose lyrical musings and repeat things on his first “solo” work that he already did much better with his full P-Tree line-up? In the write-up on Amazon.com he refers to the writing process that led to this release as “intuitive... almost unconscious... that resulted in a kind of `poetry of melancholy."
Still, among the things that save Insurgentes (and there are a few):
1) drummer Gavin Harrison (also from P-Tree) returns, turning in his always masterful and intriguing rhythm work. His change ups and fills, and his boundless energy (particularly on “Harmony Korine” and the “No Twilight within the Courts of the Sun”) overcome and energize Wilson’s otherwise dour set of songs here.
2) Wilson, the guitarist, doesn’t fail to bring a certain majesty to his playing (though he can go overboard with the drama, particularly on “Abandoner” and “Salvaging”).
3) Wilson, the producer, doesn’t fail to give you a pretty full sonic platter either, bringing in not only clarinet and flute from Theo Travis and additional guitar from Sand Snowman, Dirk Serries and Mike Outram, but a string orchestra and a “17-string bass koto” by Michiyo Yagi. Oh, and did I mention the alternate Dolby™ 5.1 version of the album available on the CD/DVD set for you Audiophiles out there?
Okay, already, so I guess that while Insurgentes is not the most original output from Steven Wilson, it has plenty to offer.
Still, as a remedy for stomach flu, I’ll still take P-Tree’s Deadwing over this.
Program Guide, 2009