Album Review: Grace for Drowning – Steven Wilson

No doubt about it, Steven Wilson has created a modern progressive masterpiece in the likes of the greatest albums of this generation, including Snow by Spocks Beard, SMPT: e by Transatlantic, Fear of a Blank Planet by Porcupine Tree, Aenima by Tool and Scenes From a Memory by Dream Theater. This is only his second solo work, he debuted with Insurgentes an album that was received with disappointment from his long time Porcupine Tree fans. He lured them in with some songs that resembled his work with the popular band and then got them in to a style that most couldn’t understand quite well. Grace For Drowning is a much better example of the direction Wilson wants to take in his solo career. The first thing I felt when listening to this album was the resemblance with 70′s Progressive bands. Sounds of King Crimson and Van der Graf Generator are everywhere. Genesis, Yes and even a little bit of Jethro Tull jump to you as early as the second track. It’s an awesome mix of the new with the old that will surely interest fans of modern prog with old school fans having fun at least hearing the similarities with their favorites.

Grace for Drowning is divided in two discs, it’s sort of like the light and the darkness, two sides to the coin. The album starts out in a very misterious way. It stays this way throughout the course of it’s tracks and it never backs down.   It’s almost like a surreal story playing out in front of your eyes.   Every song brings you a new part of this mysterious story, it transports you exactly where Steve Wilson wants you to be.   I kind of feel in the middle of the forrest when I listen to the album, sometimes loosing myself in the sounds without even paying attention to the lyrics.  It’s that powerful.   As I said before, the album is divided in two parts the first one is called “Deform to form a Star”  and the second part “Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye”.    Let’s go song by song:

DISC 1: Deform to Form a Star

1.-Grace for Drowning:  Magical.   A beautiful chant by Steve with a incredibly subtle Jordan Ruddess (from Dream Theater) piano line that isn’t anything like what he usually plays.   This tells you a lot of what Wilson had in mind, and he made sure Jordan came in playing exactly what he wanted.   From the moment this song starts you know you are in for a real treat.

2.-Sectarian: The first instrumental of the album.  Fusion, Experimental, Jazz, Progressive, you name it, everything is here.  It kind of reminds me of 70′s prog mixed up with modern jazz.     You can hear a lot of King Crimson here and there, also some things resembling Van Der Graf Generator.    All the usual progressive instruments are in hand:  Melotron, Guitar, Flute, Chorus, Drums, Bass, Synths; it just seems as thought  Steven Wilson didn’t want anything to be left behind.  This is what modern prog is supposed to sound (take that Dream Theater).

3.-Deform to form a Star: Oh my, it begins.   This is such an awesome melody, so full of compositional greatness it’s difficult not to give credit to Steve of what an amazing job he did.   The low volume piano with the big reverb brings you to a place the sort of makes you think of a haunted home, Dracula comes to mind.    The mellotron is in all of it’s progressive glory when Steve utters “oh once in a while I learned how to smile”.  Very mysterious and impressive.   The harmonical composition is among the best Steven has ever made including some beautiful melodical passages that enter throughout the song with excellent timing.   A lot of care was put in this song, and we can immediately tell.  This is a song that just makes me think Genesis/Pink Floyd.   Too much….

4.-No Part of Me: Steve is still part of Porcupine Tree and this song shouldn’t surprise anyone with the direction it takes.  It’s all Porcupine Tree and it’s ok with me.  It meshes quite well with the rest of the album giving it an original approach to the direction it was taking up to this moment, making it unpredictable and fun.    Influences are still evident in this song, as some of Peter Gabriel’s early work can be spotted in the beginning of the song.  It’s not the first time we hear this in a Wilson album, so it’s not a surprise to listen to it hear.   This song goes in to some heavy parts reminiscent of “The Incident” but much more coherent and composed.

5.-Postcard:  The typical pop contribution from Wilson.  He loves this kind of entry to any of his albums, and even though it’s not very original even in his own world of music, it still works pretty well.   The song itself is a great addition to what the album is offering us up to this point and it proves to be the lightest song in all of the production.  It builds up to a kind of Coldplay-ish sound, not going too much in to this kind of music, but you can’t deny the similarities.   A feel-good song to end the happiness.

6.-Raider Prelude:  Oh!  The darkness has arrived.   This song includes a dark choir and a piano with dark tonalities, it just evokes a mystery that only leaves you savoring what lies ahead with Raider II.   This is the perfect way to lead you to the second part of the album, even though we still have one song left in disc 1.  Masterful.

7.-Remainder the Black Dog:  It starts with a piano arpeggio that is as prog-like as it gets.  Harmony in this song is key for its development.   Darkness is still the main theme musically speaking.  We keep getting hints of 70′s prog, specially King Crimson, which are subtle here and there, but in moments are so evident it just brings a smile to your face.    Saxophone solo is the introduction to a musical passage that has to be the highlight of the first disc, it demands a listen.   Another excellent song.

DISC 2:  Like Dust I have Cleared from my Eye

8.-Belle du Jour:  As you may have noticed if you are a regular The RepubliKa reader, I posted this song yesterday for your hearing pleasure.   At this point is where the album just goes to a different atmosphere.   This song takes it to another level in my book.    Another mysterious song in Steve’s catalog, Belle du Jour is a masterpiece of a song.  Just scratching the 3:00 minute mark, this awesome melody makes use of strings, guitar and synths to create an atmosphere so dark it makes you feel like you’re a lost ghost in search of real death.    I just can’t stop listening to this song without feeling this.   A great introduction to disc 2.

9.-Index:  This is another song that makes you think about Porcupine Tree, specially the last couple of albums.    The snare drum loop combined with Mr. Wilson’s voice is just a way of making you feel seriously disturbed.   Exquisite use of Keyboards is a highlight here; he never over uses a sound, he just knows exactly were to introduce sounds that just contribute to the whole song.  Strings make an appearance sort of like Signal to Noise from Peter Gabriel, but never going in to the powerful passages Peter evokes.

10.-Track One:  This definitely is more of an introduction to Raider II  than anything else, at least for the first couple of minutes.  It then goes in to an inspired solo that only makes me remember a scene from Resident Evil 4 (the video game).   If you’ve ever played those games, you know that the composer always makes you feel uncomfortable but he uses nice music to do this, sometimes with a little reverb to up the tension.   This is the kind of song Track One is.

11.-Raider II:  Everyone was expecting this song with much anticipation once the album was announced.  A 23:00 minute track always demands attention.  What kind of song is it?  Could Steve do a good enough track to keep you interested for so long?   The song starts out as the rest of the album has been developing until now, it leaves you in the middle of darkness with long pauses between mysterious melodic paths with a piano and flutes.    In comes Steven with uttering some lyrics on top of these chords, keeping it dark and mysterious.     When the song finally “starts” it continues in a King Crimson way, utilizing a flute in complex arpeggios over marked tones finally concluding in a smooth soft piano section that is so good it can’t be described in words.  And we are only scratching the first part of the song, it’s only the beginning.    The solo flutes continues for a couple of minutes, only extending the virtuosity of the performers and the composer himself.    If you’ve ever heard Supper’s Ready, imagine the first instrumental bridge before going to “The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man” section.   There is a continuing arpeggio that comes after this part that is very prog-metal like, giving it the dynamic it needs to achieve the modern greatness that listeners of this era might expect from a twenty first century masterpiece.    After the arpeggio it comes back to a classic Jazz section utilizing a soprano sax that is reminiscent of some of the best jazz fusion artists have to offer.    Bass line is also very dark oriented with the drummer just going all over the place without ever taking it to confusing levels.    It then goes back to the Arpeggio, progressing it until it ends it with a distortion sound leaving you with a mystifying chorus pad, again choosing to leave you with textures that induce fear.   It continues in this line until it enters what I would say is the beginning of the end of the whole project.   It’s an awesome ending to an epic song that doesn’t disappoint.

12.-Like dust I have cleared my Eye:   A light ending to a dark album.  A sort of ballad that concludes in a way that I expected from Steve.   Lyrics are still dark and emotional, ringing hard on my ears.  A fitting conclusion to an awesome album.

This is without a doubt the best album of the year, and one of the best progressive albums of the last 20 years.  Steven Wilson has made his best album ever, musically, lyrically and artistically.   The ambience it immerses you is unparalleled and is truly a work of genius.    References to 70′s prog will attract the purists and the modern style will keep the metal heads happy.   It excels in every department, not having a weak song is also a plus, since most conceptual albums tend to be debilitated by their own intellectual pretentiousness.    Raider II is also a big plus, if that song had failed to deliver, the whole album would have plummeted.    Without a doubt both sides of the coin are beautiful, a work of art, a masterpiece.  No album this year competes.  Almost perfect!

Score: 9.7 out of 10.0

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