STEVEN WILSON – The Harmony Codex (Album Review)

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As we approach the autumn of 2023, amazingly the phenomenon of “lockdown albums” still continues. Our newest case-in-point: “The Harmony Codex”, Steven Wilson’s 7th solo release. With his previous album “The Future Bites” completed in 2021 and the Porcupine Tree reformation not yet upon him, Wilson immediately began writing for his next project, especially once the possibility of touring TFB was scrapped due to the impact of the pandemic. As is the case with lockdown albums, Wilson was unable to work up any new material live in the studio with his regular band. Instead, he file-shared the songs to a variety of musicians and waited to see how they would respond to his invitation. In some cases, what came back didn’t fit Wilson‘s “vision” and so was either scrapped or included on the bonus disc of alternate mixes. But enough did materialize which surprised and pleased him, ultimately resulting in an album of unexpected twists and turns. More to the point: it’s his most diverse solo album yet.

Wilson comes to “The Harmony Codex” a happy, content man. Having gone to great lengths to establish himself as an artist who should be expected to change directions with the each subsequent album, he now has the freedom to create as he chooses without worrying about how it will be received. (Though let’s not kid ourselves, he’s always wanting to reach a larger audience) He’s comfortable alienating some of his most fervent fans in exchange for gaining multifold new ones. And perhaps a few of the old ones will eventually come around, too. He’s also been happily married for 4 years with step-kids and dogs in tow. So, life’s a bit different now, with less to prove and more to savor. 

So, what impact does all this have on the music? In short, it means Wilson does what Wilson wants and when he wants. Given his wildly diverse tastes in music, there’s a hell of a lot of influences here on these 10 new songs. But despite declarations of “he’s never done anything like this before”,  I’d argue that there’s plenty of precedent in his catalog regarding this album’s approach, namely his first two solo albums – especially “Grace For Drowning” – where there were a wide range of artistic directions explored, from pop to rock to cinematic to folk to jazz to prog to shoegaze to avant garde. “The Harmony Codex” adds in many more electronics than those albums did, but the eclectic approach is similar.

“The Hamony Codex” Artwork

Still, considering the buzz around this album, there’s some expectations going in. We know that as a meticulous and esteemed sound designer, Wilson has poured over every note, shade and sound, including where and how they’re mixed & treated. There’s every reason to expect the unexpected, and to hope for brilliance. Opening track “Inclination” is determined to meet that first expectation, confounding any sense of familiarity, as Peter Gabriel did countless times in his career. Trumpet, synths, blasting percussion, effects, exotic scales, breathy vocal loops. Yes, this is what was promised. As if that weren’t enough, our orientation is toyed with as the music completely fades out at the 3-minute mark for a full 8 seconds before Wilson’s unaccompanied voice leisurely enters, “Come see the fool…” as the musical tapestry resumes for 4 more minutes. An admirable beginning. 

You want more? The pre-released “Impossible Tightrope” fully delivers, a nearly 11-minute prog/jazz/electronica romp which will likely be an album favorite for many of the faithful, as it veers closest to the “Luminol” sensibilities of his “Raven” era. Nate Wood’s incredible drumming meets Wilson’s own insistent bass patterns. Ben Coleman’s violin and added choir vocals send the vibes into the heavens. Goosebumps from Theo Travis’ saxophone are unavoidable, not to mention Adam Holzman’s Wurlitzer electric piano solos. And that falsetto vocal – incredibly those vocal notes were all derived from electronic manipulation. Yes, keep it coming.

“Beautiful Scarecrow” continues the experimental vein and, like “Inclination”, it’s Jack Danger’s drum programming that carries the most obvious impact to the sonic tapestry. Theo Travis jumps in on duduk, and Nick Beggs grabs the guitar this time around but we are wholly in Wilson’s world. Still, it’s not until the title track of “The Harmony Codex” that we truly experience Wilson’s courage to go further than he has dared before with a 9+ minute ambient piece, smack in the middle of the album. It confidently works, with its repetitive shimmering electronic orchestration, though its placement in the track listing continues to be questionable. Fun fact: Wilson’s wifey, Rotem Wilson, offers the mystic narration, sealing the deal. 

A late-entry highlight of the album is “Actual Brutal Facts”, a nasty track made edgier by Jack Dangers’ programming, David Kollar’s guitar, bass which must have come from Nick Beggs (though not credited in the sleeve notes) and – most of all – Wilson’s sinister spoken word monologue which has been modulated lower beyond recognition. Although its aggressiveness could easily have made it a contender for PT’s “Closure/Continuation”, its production approach brings a twist from other darker pieces in Wilson‘s catalog, resulting in an addictive listening that stays lodged in the cranium. 

The five pieces mentioned above are arguably the most innovative, novel sounds on the album and do indeed push further than Wilson has up to now. Yet, most of them can trace their DNA back to earlier Wilson pieces. So, again, it’s not as if “The Harmony Codex” is truly traveling into entirely unexplored territory, it’s just doing it damn well. 

What remains are five songs that fall more inline with what we’ve heard from Wilson before, albeit with heavier electronics and production sheen. Three of them are, unsurprisingly, included in the initial singles/videos released. “What Life Brings” is his most “Blackfield” contribution, an excellent prog rock single supported by Guy Pratt’s bass foundation and Craig Blundell’s drumming. Even a too-long-absent Wilson guitar solo is included! 

“Rock Bottom” is Wilson’s “Don’t Give Up” moment, even though the song is actually written by co-singer Ninet Tayeb. Perhaps more than on any previous Wilson album, Tayeb’s vocals realize their full potential with her breathtaking performance, matched by Niko Tsonev’s Floydian guitar solo section. Good news – Wilson recently mentioned that a full collaborative album with Tayeb may be in the cards for a future project. We should be so lucky. “Time Is Running Out” and “Economies of Scale” are essentially piano-based Wilson solo pieces – save for another emotive Tsonev solo on the former – his harmony vocals sounding impressively layered as always. Even here, the synths provide some unexpected turns which make each song travel a slightly altered route. 

What remains is “Staircase”, a sprawling 9 1/2 minute closure to the album. Aside from the synth programming this is a fairly familiar Wilson-structured composition, but a very good one at that. We even get a return visit from the tuned-down voice in “King Ghost” and “Walk The Plank” once again: fittingly, “And you come back for more.” Another luscious guitar solo from Tsonev graces this track, along with fretboard work from Beggsy, before Rotem’s voice is reprised to tie the theme together as the album closes over celestial keyboard runs out through the clouds. 

Thematically, as many are aware, the album’s title is based on the short fictional story written by Wilson and included in his autobiography “Limited Edition of One” last year. While a few of the songs’ lyrics can be tied directly to the story of Harmony on a never-ending staircase, the larger concept of the album is one of searching for meaning in a finite life. Surprisingly for Wilson, a credo of “love it all and hold it in your hands” seems to crop up repeatedly. As we mentioned, he’s a happy man these days. But the packaging remains dark and foreboding, there’s not a lot of cheeriness in this recording. It’s largely a challenging listen, requiring focused attention from the listener and repeated visits for it to become a grower.

We can summarize that Wilson has certainly met his ambitions to offer his most diverse album yet, while still retaining much that is familiar. Still, the actual quality of the songs compared to his previous catalog doesn’t necessarily guarantee that this is his best album ever. Not even close, if we’re being honest. Each song is successful in its own right but does it all tie together in a meaningful way, or does it feel a bit disparate and unconnected? After over two dozen listens I still can’t draw a conclusion to that question. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that “The Harmony Codex” is a brave and respectable next step in this artist’s career. 

Released By: Virgin Music
Release Date: September 29th, 2023
Genre:  Progressive Rock

“The Harmony Codex” track-listing:

1. Inclination (7.15)
2. What Life Brings (3.40)
3. Economies of Scale (4.17)
4. Impossible Tightrope (10.42)
5. Rock Bottom (4.25)
6. Beautiful Scarecrow (5.21)
7. The Harmony Codex (9.50)
8. Time is Running Out (3.57)
9. Actual Brutal Facts (5.05)
10. Staircase (9.26)

Line-up / Musicians:

  • Steven Wilson / vocals, guitars, keyboards, sampler, bass, percussion, programming
  • Ninet Tayeb / lead & backing vocals
  • Craig Blundell / drums
  • Sam Fogarino / drums
  • Adam Holzman / keyboards
  • Jack Dangers / keyboards

Pre-order the album, for a September 29th release HERE.

9.0 Excellent

Steven Wilson’s “The Harmony Codex” finally lands this September, offering new vistas alongside more familiar terrain. Clearly the most diverse release in his catalog, this is a Steven Wilson Experience album which touches on a majority of his musical tastes, all saturated with an electronic sheen. Yet happily the presence of acoustic guitar remains and there is even room for the return of the guitar solo. Taking a few chances and pushing the dial further still, Wilson continues to evolve his career in challenging and ultimately satisfying directions

  • Songwriting 8
  • Musicianship 9
  • Originality 9
  • Production 10

1 Comment

  1. I’m happy to see these song lengths. This will be quite the experience in surround sound. So excited for a new SW album to grace these ears. Amazing review as well!

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