Welcome to the future of Steven Wilson, departing on Track 21 this January. Are you all aboard the train, or did you already get off a couple of stops ago? Perhaps you’re still riding but nervously unsure if this is really the route you meant to get on. Or maybe you’ve just boarded for the first time, enticed by a single you heard recently? Please note the warning signs posted prominently on display: “ATTENTION ALL PASSENGERS: Be advised that STEVEN WILSON is an artist. He’s not your musical bitch. If you can’t f**cking deal with that, feel free to pull the emergency brake at any time and exit”
Yes, Mr. Wilson sees himself as an Artist. And thank God (;)) for that. As Bowie, Fripp and Prince have exemplified, music needs true artists who are ever-challenging themselves and their audience. Few may be the fans who honestly enjoy every twist and turn, but for the open-minded, constant change can lead to new discoveries and broader rewards. As it turns out, even though “The Future Bites” is yet another new sonic approach and drastically different from, say, “The Raven Who Refused to Sing,” there are many consistencies which run throughout most Steven Wilson recordings. For those who love the core of Steven Wilson’s artistry, there is plenty here to relate to, despite the new terrain. If you’re still game, let’s begin.
Modern and sleek, yet still baring emotional vulnerability, Wilson has created “an album that could only be made in 2019”. After his homages to past decades via recent albums, the Wilson time machine turned to present-day (and beyond) for TFB regarding instrumentation, production and ethos. Yes, it IS a shocking change. Even if we look back at previous album “To The Bone” – which stirred up its own fair amount of controversy due to its increase in pop sensibilities – we would now say that recent 2017 album feels like classic-Wilson compared to this new TFB. Although it is not a narrative concept album, “The Future Bites” certainly has central themes involving consumerism, ego and power, and so we begin with the one-two punch of the acoustic (and much too-short) “Unself” giving way to the tightly-wound “Self” which puts the audience squarely in the modern age, and with a swagger to boot. Indeed, it’s hard to sit still during this little gem, complete with percolating rhythm guitar line, female backup up singers and a compact, killer arrangement. You can pretty much see the curtain falling on the stage as his upcoming tour starts with this opening salvo, lights blazing on a futuristic set design (hopefully with Nick Beggs in shades and braided hair).
“King Ghost” follows, perhaps a bit too soon in the track listing given the impact of this devastatingly beautiful piece. Paradoxically retaining an organic feel while being one of his most electronic pieces ever, this is one example where Wilson’s aching falsetto truly shines even as it is electronically manipulated. A highlight of the album for those who aren’t scared of keyboards and the lack of guitars. “12 Things I Forgot” quickly shifts into more familiar terrain. Why this song wasn’t offered to Aviv Geffen for the recent Blackfield album is a mystery (don’t miss the Wilson-sung/Geffen-penned songs on that album, by the way), but it is a welcome respite from the synths and slick production of most other songs herein.
The presence of Roger Waters seems to hang about much of the album, perhaps due to the strong thematic conviction of its author, or perhaps from the copious use of backing female singers throughout, but nowhere are the cynical ruminations on power and control more apparent than in the swagger of “Eminent Sleaze”. A delightfully acerbic track, its rootsy bass contrasts well with the sweeping orchestral lines. This is a song made for Wilson’s larger-than-life vision of “The Future Bites” and it’d be interesting to know if he enjoyed playing the protagonist in the accompanying video
As many know, “The Future Bites” was dramatically impacted by the COVID era, changing the track listing and delaying its release by over seven months, not to mention an entire 2020 tour being scrapped where Wilson was to have played in his biggest venues ever. The ensuing delay may have given its audience more time to prepare for the change in direction, even as subsequent singles have been issued which collectively now account for more than half the running time of the full album. Initial single “Personal Shopper” was released in March of 2020, almost as a warning shot of what was to come. Although it is by far the longest track on the album, it is several generations away from “Detonation” (the only long track on “To The Bone”), a prog workout which actually dipped back into Porcupine Tree territory. By contrast, “Personal Shopper” is more of an electronic beats dance soundtrack – albeit with sinister undertones – with Wilson wailing away in falsetto. The inclusion of classic rock icon Elton John is quite epic, but does nothing to draw away from the futuristic vibe laid forth. Still, the chorus remains Steven Wilson at its heart and thus for the open minded, this apparently is our beloved artist simply trying on a new suit. Whether it fits or not is down to subjective judgment and for many this will likely be a love it or hate it moment.
And what of the other new songs, not yet released as singles? The clear winner here is “Man of the People”, a blissful five minutes of ambient Wilson that is overwhelmingly satisfying. It’s still in a compact pop-format but the arrangement allows the piece to breathe, sway and entice with some of Wilson’s finest vocals to date. “Follower” is a driving piece that fits right in with the vibe of the album, sonically somewhere between “Personal Shopper” and “Eminent Sleaze”, bringing loud and obnoxious punk guitar squeals to the fore at one point. “Count of Unease” concludes the album with a typical Wilson farewell (think “Collapse the Light into Earth” or “Song of Unborn”), offering a natural comedown from the futuristic bombast of most of the album.
All this in a tidy 42-minute package. Truly, it goes by so quickly that one finds it quite easy to just start the album over again at its conclusion. Let’s be honest: for most of Steven Wilson’s/Porcupine Tree’s longtime fans, this won’t be in their Top 5 releases. But it doesn’t need to be. It’s a damn good album on its own, one which will likely bring in a fair number of new listeners who hopefully will work their way backwards through the catalog. Brilliantly produced by Wilson and David Kosten, it sounds great in a way that no other Steven Wilson album has. Even if it doesn’t incite an overwhelmingly rapturous response, it may just have elicited something more important: respect for the artist. For, no matter what the subjective opinion of the listener, there is the recognition that in Steven Wilson we have found a musician who craves new challenges, new sounds, new inspiration. An artist who isn’t scared to go there. And someone who really isn’t “selling out” at all…rather, he is doing what he wants to do and if you want to leave or come along, fine. No, Steven Wilson isn’t your prog bitch. He actually just might be one of prog’s saviors, even when he’s not “doing prog”.
Released by: Arts & Crafts
Released on: January 29th, 2021
Genre: Pop Rock
“The Future Bites” Track-listing:
- King Ghost
- 12 Things I Forgot
- Eminent Sleaze
- Man of the People
- Personal Shopper
- Count of Unease
Over a year in its build-up to being released (exacerbated by COVID), The Future Bites finds Steven Wilson reinventing himself yet again. Woo’ing in a new audience while challenging his long-time fans, Wilson still weaves a consistent thread throughout the album that isn’t as far removed from past songwriting as some would be quick to believe. For those that love Wilson as an artist, there is much to appreciate here. It’s an evolutionary move he has taken which will undoubtedly continue throughout his career. Lucky us.