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Steven Wilson

+ {Altamont} + {Karma} + {Incredible Expanding Mindfuck} + {Bass Communion} + {Blackfield} + {Storm Corrosion}

The brainchild behind NO-MAN and PORCUPINE TREE, English multi-instrumentalist/composer/solo artist STEVEN WILSON was also responsible for several pseudonymous projects (mainly of the ambient mode) while he plotted his plan to reinstate the once powerful prog-rock.
Born 3 November 1967, Kingston upon Thames, London, Steven was raised from the age of 6 in the new town of Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire. Almost fed up with guitar lessons duly thrust upon him, he and his electronic engineer father customised a classical guitar from the attic, which changed his attitude almost overnight. Armed with a multi-track cassette, vocoder, echo machine and everything else needed to enhance a mini-studio, WILSON finally surfaced with something he could show to friends and family. He was 15 years of age, his friend Simon “Si” Vocking was into synths and electronics, so ALTAMONT was shaped when the pair started to distribute their debut cassette PRAYER FOR THE SOUL {*4}. Released late in 1983 on Acid Tapes, it featured lyrics by the label’s owner Alan Duffy, who later founded Imaginary Records.
Steven was also side-lining with the heavier KARMA, an outfit that released a few private tapes, THE JOKE’S ON YOU (1983) {*5} and THE LAST MAN TO LAUGH (1985) {*4}, before splitting in ‘86; several tracks were later to take on a new lease of life with PORCUPINE TREE, an ambient retro-progressive/psychedelic outfit akin to PINK FLOYD fused with HAWKWIND and rave! He then compiled a progressive rock collection, Exposure, which featured several new bands alongside his own new project, No Man Is An Island Except The Isle Of Man (the track featured: `From A Toyshop Window’). The young musician shortened the moniker slightly to NO-MAN for another compilation, Double Exposure, adding ex-Plenty frontman, Tim Bowness on the song, `Faith’s Last Doubt’. NO MAN continued upwards and onwards for several years, initially issuing a few items for Plastic Head, including a couple of tracks for the label’s Expose It album.
Wilson’s next venture, PORCUPINE TREE continued in much the same vein, releasing the cassette-only `Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm’. Two further cassettes surfaced in the early 90s, namely `Love, Death And Mussolini’ and `The Nostalgia Factory’, whose tracks appeared on the excellent debut album proper, `On The Sunday Of Life…’ (1992). A 30-minute+ single, `Voyage 34’ was issued by Delerium Records soon afterwards; as was albums two and three: `Up The Downstair’ (1993) and `The Sky Moves Sideways’ (1995). Steven continued to spread out NO MAN on `Loveblows & Lovecries’ (1993) and `Flowermouth’ (1994), the one-man unit growing into a proper group featuring members of JAPAN/Rain Tree Crow (i.e. Steve Jansen, Richard Barbieri and Mick Karn); Steven returned the favour in ‘94 when he featured on two of their post-JAPAN albums, `Seed’ and `Stone To Flesh’ (the latter without KARN). In 1996, PORCUPINE TREE (Wilson, Barbieri, Colin Edwin and Chris Maitland) were raising the bar again for 4th set, `Signify’, while that same year his NO MAN project also reached for the stars when signing to 3rd Stone Records for the trip hop-orientated `Wild Opera’.
While both PORCUPINE TREE and NO-MAN expanded their arty prog-rock horizons by way of several subsequent masterpieces; the latter for `Returning Jesus’ (2001), `Together We’re Stranger’ (2003) and `Schoolyard Ghosts’ (2008), Steven just couldn’t stop himself from working on other side-projects.
INCREDIBLE EXPANDING MINDFUCK (safely filed under I.E.M.) was as the name suggested, Wilson’s kraut-rock alter-ego inspired by the cosmic jazz of SUN RA and psychedelia. Aware that this might be stretching his growing fanbase’s limitations, the multi-instrumentalist kept releases down to minimum limited-edition affairs, kicking off with the eponymous I.E.M. (1996) {*7}; check out the lengthy `The Gospel According To The I.E.M.’ and `Deafman’. Following on an EP entitled `An Escalator To Christmas’ (1999) – later expanded and turned into a proper full set – ARCADIA SON (2001) {*7} and IEM HAVE COME FOR YOUR CHILDREN (2001) {*7} proved beyond doubt that Steven could just about turn his hand to anything.
In the meantime and, around for much longer than his other side-step, BASS COMMUNION was his drone/ambient outlet that infused the likes of TANGERINE DREAM, ENO and BIOSPHERE. Taking in worthy guests such as ROBERT FRIPP and Theo Travis (on `Drugged’), the eponymous soundscape BASS COMMUNION (1998) {*7} set out his stall for something positively relaxing and horizontal.
BASS COMMUNION (II) (1999) {*6} and leftovers BASS COMMUNION (III) (2001) {*4} hardly strayed from their ambient souls, as was the similarly-textured 2004 set GHOSTS ON MAGNETIC TAPE {*6}. Limited editions of the vinyl-only INDICATES VOID (2005) {*6} and LOSS (2006) {*6} were the proverbial hen’s teeth for record collectors now at the altar of the kingdom of SW. Both or either Tonefloat and Headphone Dust imprints (and would ensure a somewhat healthier CD turnover for PACIFIC CODEX (2008) {*6}, MOLOTOV AND HAZE (2008) {*6}, the live CHIAROSCURO (2009) {*6} and CENOTAPH (2011) {*6}, but by this time, a solo STEVEN WILSON and his long-standing classic-rock PORCUPINE TREE ventures were filtering through beyond Britain and into America and the continent.
PORCUPINE TREE and Steven’s K-Scope imprint had signed to the Snapper Records for 1999’s `Stupid Dream’, a pointedly more expansive effort albeit couched in neo-prog terms. The undeniable influence of RADIOHEAD had made itself felt both lyrically and musically, while his band’s seemingly inexorable drive towards accessibility continued with `Lightbulb Sun’ (2000) and the seminal `In Absentia’ (2002). Drummer Gavin Harrison had now superseded Maitland, while the quartet were growing stronger and commercially viable with each studio release: `Deadwing’ (2005), `Fear Of Blank Planet’ (2007) and `The Incident’ (2009) ; the latter being their Top 30 benchmark.
Not so much his own project, but a shared experience with Israeli star-turn Aviv Geffen (who sang on two tracks on `In Absentia’), BLACKFIELD were yet another string to Steven’s bow. Formed in 2001, Geffen, Wilson, pianist Daniel Salomon, bassist Seffy Efrati and drummer Tomer Z (all but Wilson based in Israel) the band had definite cross-over appeal; many pundits at the time of their eponymous set in 2004 compared them to TEARS FOR FEARS and TALK TALK. While one could wax lyrical about a combo that has seen Steven take his leave from in 2014, the ever-evolving outfit were staking their claim on the continent with `Blackfield II’ (2007), `Welcome To My DNA’ (2011) and `Blackfield IV’ (2013).
Garnering his cosmopolitan approach to his effervescent styles, Steven joined forces with OPETH’s main man Mikael Akerfeldt for the eponymous Roadrunner Records set, STORM CORROSION (2012) {*7}; Steven had previously produced a handful of the Swedish black metal band’s albums. Rather sedate in places and almost folky and dream-like, the calm before the storm corrosion comes into effect on every luscious piece, including the title track and `Hag’.
So finally to STEVEN WILSON solo, whose name had become synonymous with the reincarnation of progressive rock, in all its shapes and forms. 2009’s INSURGENTES {*8} was closer to a lighter shaded Porcupine Tree; the opening track `Harmony Korine’ (with video directed by Lasse Hoile) very much in the shoegazing/prog mould. Flautist/saxophonist Theo Travis played his part on `Abandoner’, while other star guests: DREAM THEATER’s Jordan Rudess (keyboards), KING CRIMSON’s Tony Levin (bass), PORCUPINE TREE’s Gavin Harrison, plus Michiyo Yagi (koto) and Sand Snowman (guitar), give a sheen to songs like `No Twilight Within The Courts Of The Sun’, `Salvaging’ and `Get All You Deserve’. With cinematic touches coming via the CD/DVD package, WILSON creates a stark and bleak soundscape that is altogether beautiful.
The double-CD Top 40 follow-up, GRACE FOR DROWNING (2011) {*7} was divided in two, equally scary and paranoid sections; the first named “Deform To Form A Star”, the second and more angrier, entitled “Little Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye”. Whether prog, kraut, space-rock or something pundits have yet to pigeonhole, the ever-evolving WILSON encapsulated all his magnanimous MAGMA intensities on the 23-minute `Raider II’, while `Postcard’ and `No Part Of Me’ come up trumps.
Previewing his tight prog-vs-jazz-rock backing band on the live GET WHAT YOU DESERVE (2012) {*7} – namely, multi-instrumentalist Theo Travis, guitarist Guthrie Govan, keyboard player Adam Holzman, bassist Nick Beggs and drummer Marco Minnemann – THE RAVEN THAT REFUSED TO SING and other stories (2013) {*8} was the album that swept up WILSON into the hearts and minds of Americans and beyond. The ALAN PARSONS PROJECT “Raven” connection was reiterated with the man in question (the engineer behind PINK FLOYD’s Dark Side Of The Moon) was coaxed out of semi-retirement to co-produce the whole set. Almost MAHAVISHNU in scope and KING CRIMSON in instrumentation, `The Holy Drinker’, `Luminol’, `Drive Home’, `The Watchmaker’ and the lush, TALK TALK-esque title track conclusion are transcendental mini-suites that should never go sour.
With sales figures garnering Top 20 and Top 40 positions in the UK and the US respectively, 2015’s HAND. CANNOT. ERASE {*8} was the man’s most symbolic and thematic album to date. Inspired by the chilling headline-making story of a woman in her late 30s found dead in her London apartment in January 2006, whose corpse lay there rotting surrounded by undelivered Xmas presents for over two years, WILSON and engineer Steve Orchard were careful to tread lightly around the story’s veneer. Augmented by Israeli singer/narrator Ninette Tayeb and, once again, his luminous backing band (Chad Wackerman in, Marco out), the study of the woman’s world and her circumstances before she passed away come under the microscope fully in `Perfect Life’, `3 Years Older’, `Routine’, the 13-minute `Ancestral’ and the title track.
Neither a bona fide album or an EP! (no matter who says so!), the 36-minute/6-song 4 ½ (2016) {*6} mini-set, was basically a stop-gap of out-takes from WILSON’s previous “4th” offering and “The Raven…” – note that it hit No.21 in the UK “album” charts. Bookended by live excursions, `My Book Of Regrets’ and PORCUPINE TREE’s `Don’t Hate Me’ – from ’98 – (both totalling half the running time), all the prog-centric elements were in place. Needless to say, all Steven’s familiar traits were stationed among the remaining tracks also; the knotty `Vermillioncore’ and `Happiness III’, flexing the muscles of his full band that still featuring Theo Travis, Chad Wackerman, among others.
Switching labels from the steadfast K-Scope to Caroline International, this enabled the enterprising STEVEN WILSON to glean an extended listener base for 2017’s TO THE BONE {*8}, a double-set that cracked the UK Top 3 (Top 75 in the States). His fifth full set fulfilled its prog-pop promise and was not too distance from the works of ALAN PARSONS PROJECT and 10CC; although it was stated the musician was inspired by TEARS FOR FEARS, TALK TALK and PETER GABRIEL. One could certainly hear the “Seeds Of Love” within the wailing walls of the wondrous `Pariah’ (featuring sultry Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb; ditto `Blank Tapes’), whilst Swiss singer-songwriter SOPHIE HUNGER sat-in for third duet, `Song Of I’. The majority of the tracks – 11 of them in total – were penned by Steven himself; the exception to the rule the opening collaboration title track with ANDY PARTRIDGE. Neither prog nor psych for the most part, WILSON extended his Northern soul-meets-MANFRED MANN’S EARTH BAND aspirations via `Permanating’, or blip-dripping trip-hopping into `Detonation’; it’s worth noting, also, the edgy and soulful `The Same Asylum As Before’.
A further extension to Steven’s wide-ranging repertoire was his late 2019 Top 100 album entry (`Love You To Bits’) for NO-MAN summation record, alongside Tim Bowness, of course.
© MC Strong 1997-2003/GRD series // rev-up MCS Mar2015-Dec2019

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