Steven Wilson: Insurgentes

Steven Wilson - Insurgentes
It’s not very often when I find something magical. The last time that happened was when I heard my first album from British quartet Porcupine Tree in 2005 (2002’s In Absentia). It is the album that reinvigorated my passion for music and for artistry of all forms in general. Front man Steven Wilson’s creativity and vision for music, musicianship, songwriting, production, art design, and overall cohesiveness was a true wakeup call for me, on what not just music, but what all art forms should aspire to be.

Almost four years later, the magic has reappeared. Once again, it is Steven Wilson leading the charge. Not to say his last two Porcupine Tree albums or his other bands Blackfield, No-Man, or Bass Communion haven’t released anything special since In Absentia, but his “first” solo album is surely one of his magna opera.

Steven Wilson
Insurgentes (Deluxe Edition)

Written and recorded all around the world over the course of roughly one-year, Insurgentes is a conglomeration of styles and genres that defy most anything you’ve ever heard. The different styles are never a hindrance; Steven manages to transition in and out at will without losing focus of the overall composition. Same too can be said about the guest appearances that are sprinkled throughout the album. Every artist always blends in perfectly, never forced. The one constant guest appearance is Steven’s Porcupine Tree band mate, drummer, Gavin Harrison. His contributions are astounding, which one comes to expect with a drummer of his caliber. The album comprises ten songs, beginning with the only song that really resembles Porcupine Tree.

Harmony Korine

The title is taken from a director and screenwriter of the same name, who wrote the movie Kids and is probably best known for his work as writer and director of Gummo. This track doesn’t seem to have any other connection to the director other than the name. This song features a nice smooth guitar buildup that leads into Wilson’s soft verse. The chorus explodes with a heavy electric guitar riff and soaring vocals that gave me goosebumps upon first listen. There are heavy and mellow interludes that lead into the final chorus. The way Wilson extends his vocal part after the heavy riff ends leaves my hair standing up. A very nice way to open things up. 9/10

Abandoner

A very nice drum and static intro opens this song. The beat reminds me of his cover version of Prince’s “Sign O’ The Times.” I can almost hear Steven about to start singing the lyrics of the aforementioned song; however, a very subtle keyboard chimes in as Wilson’s melancholic vocals begin. As the song’s vocal portion comes to a close, we are treated to a very open interlude. I felt like I was out in an open field, in the dark, with bright lights all around me. Then, all of a sudden, I was abducted. Wilson introduces an extraordinary heavy section that pounds your chest until you’re just about to pass out, and just as suddenly, the song smoothes out once more. This song took a few tries, but has completely won me over. 8/10

Salvaging

A slow, plodding guitar, electronic bass, and steady drum swaths guide the first verse into a rocky electric guitar riff that has me nodding my head profusely. When Steven thickens his vocals during portions of this song, they almost remind me a bit of some of his older material from On the Sunday of Life... and Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape (the one’s where he didn’t turn his voice into a chipmunk). After a very interesting guitar solo (yes, it is a guitar as Wilson noted in an interview) and a few more vocals, the rock riff leads us into one of the most beautiful orchestral pieces I have heard. Afterwards, Dirk Serries, of Fear Falls Burning, introduces a guitar drone along with a steady, lumbering drum section by Gavin Harrison. As the song fades out, there are strings out of a horror movie, synthesizers that sound like a swarm of bees, and all sorts of other concoctions Wilson throws at you. Wonderful! 9/10

Veneno Para Las Hadas

For those not wishing to go to Babblefish, the title means “No Poison for Fairies.” This is probably the slowest song on the album, but also one of the most gorgeous. It starts with what I believe to be glissando guitar notes, nearly the same chords as a 1995 Porcupine Tree song, “The Sky Moves Sideways (Phase One).” The guitar segues to a steady kick drum from Gavin Harrison that follows throughout the song. As soon as Steven begins singing, I can picture someone looking out a train as the towns pass by, as they stare in deep contemplation. The chorus has no lyrics, but great vocal patterns from Steven. Very layered harmony that moves in circles around you and leaves your heart melted. Verse two adds a very moving clarinet from long time Wilson contributor Theo Travis. Jordan Rudess, keyboard player for Dream Theater, provides subtle, but enchanting piano throughout. 10/10

No Twilight within the Courts of the Sun

The longest title on the album is also the longest song, clocking in at over 8-minutes. The song features some rather dazzling, over-the-top guitar work by Mike Outram, accented by a stellar display from Gavin Harrison on drums and Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel, King Crimson) on bass guitar. “No Twilight” would be the anti-radio friendly song. The track begins with a four-minute long guitar solo, one verse, one bridge, and one chorus, as it goes back into another instrumental section. The track has a very jazz/rock feel to it and just really cuts loose at the end of the guitar solo, during the chorus, and the explosion at the end that nearly gave me a heart attack. The track is in quite an odd time signature. The majority of songs in the world are in common time (4/4), but this monster is in 21/4; a feast for virtuoso Gavin Harrison and his rhythmical chops. “No Twilight” is one of my favorite tracks that I will cherish for some time to come. 10/10

Significant Other

Besides "Harmony Korine", "Significant Other" could be a radio single. Not to say it would do well in America though. The majority of us Americans just cannot appreciate outside-the-box thinking for whatever reason. That is a whole other topic. The opening sequence of “Significant Other” is very inviting and comforting. As odd is it may sound, I picture snow everytime I listen to the verse and bridge sections. The vocals, especially during the bridge, are just sublime. Guest vocalist Clodagh Simonds (Fovea Hex) delivers an absolute stunning vocal performance, most notably as she enters the second chorus. It gives me chills every time. 10/10

Only Child

The simplest track of the album has a great groove. Very brooding and kind of grungy guitar with sinister vocals from Wilson make this one of the darkest songs on the album. When Steven brings in the piano and Gavin begins accenting the quarter notes on the hi-hat, it just really grooves. It also gives it just a slightly brighter feel and not quite so brooding. I cannot help but bob my head during these parts. The simple ending is really nice. 8/10

Twilight Coda

An extension to “No Twilight within the Courts of the Sun,” Coda gives us a really relaxing piece comprised mainly of acoustic guitar and atmosphere, with bits of piano and electric guitar for good measure. It is a really lovely piece that gets dark for the very end of the track, which leads you into the very interesting penultimate track, “Get What You Deserve.” 8/10

Get What You Deserve

One of the more interesting tracks I’ve heard in quite some time. The beginning is a stark contrast to what you get in the end. The track begins with a soft piano and Steven singing a bit off key, somehow being both haunting and beautiful at the same time. This would be one of the more challenging vocal parts for Steven as a singer yet. About half way you begin to hear the darker tone creeping in. All of a sudden you get straight molly whopped with noise. Dirk Serries, Steven Wilson, and Gavin Harrison deliver such a gut wrenching wall of sound that leaves you rattling your head when it is all over. It is such a counterpoint to the beginning of the song; you’re surprised Steven could even find a way to transition into it. But producer extraordinaire Steven Wilson always finds a way. 9/10

Insurgentes

The title track opens with a simple piano, but this is probably one of my favorite piano melodies ever. Not to be outdone by the pretty piano, Steven blows me away with his vocals on this song. I really feel the emotion from every note, so clean and perfect. Other than a nice reverb, there are no effects on his voice. It’s raw and delightful, all be it very melancholic. After the second chorus, a Japanese koto is introduced by Michiyo Yagi. It is one of my favorite instruments, alongside the mellotron. The track is short, but sweet, a real highlight. 10/10

Overall Result: 10/10

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoy this album. I cannot stop listening to it. I loved it the first time I heard it, but each song grows on you more and more with each listen. Steven is a master at giving you songs that last a lifetime, as opposed to the month or two bog standard of mainstream music. This album is best realized as a complete piece and makes the overall experience even better than just skipping around track-to-track. The production values, overall sound quality, and cohesiveness, despite the eclectic styles, are awe inspiring. Anyone who enjoys being left with their jaw on the floor should purchase this album immediately.

The Limited Edition

Preorders began for this album in October 2008 for the deluxe edition. Three thousand copies of the CD version and one thousand copies of the vinyl version were pressed. The CD version featured the album on disc one, bonus outtakes on disc 2, and a DVD-Audio disc that featured the whole album in advanced resolution surround sound. The DVD also featured two trailers and an 18-minute extract to a documentary/road movie being filmed during the making of this album. Steven hopes to release the film sometime after previewing it at film festivals next spring.

Both editions came housed in an 11” x 11” super high quality book featuring 120 pages of exquisite, all be it mostly haunting, images from long-time acquaintance Lasse Hoile. My only complaint would be that I wish I could have seen more pictures like the one with Steven with his parents or him in the cathedral in Mexico City, as opposed to the deluge of baby doll pictures. They are creepy and fit in well with the type of music Steven creates, but it was a bit overdone, in my opinion.

Package Result: 9/10

DVD-Audio: The Ultimate Listening Experience

Sadly, many of today’s younger generation probably find the mp3 as the standard as to the way an album should be heard. What a terrible way to think. The CD adds so much extra musical information that if heard on a nice system, as opposed to some iPod dock, the difference can be quite profound.

With this in mind, take it to the next level and listen to this album in advanced resolution surround sound via the DVD-Audio disc. Once you hear it, you’ll wish you could always listen to music like this. Steven Wilson did such a magnificent job with this mix. He has been renowned in the past few years for his effectiveness in this field of 5.1 surround sound. He was even nominated for a Grammy last year for Porcupine Tree’s last surround sound release.

The most enchanting part of his surround mixes are his vocal harmonies. I get goose bumps every time he does something magical with his harmony vocals. For instance, his vocals in the title track for the first two verses and the first two choruses are coming from the center channel speaker. During the final chorus his voice is coming out of every speaker and in such a way that they all seem to be coming together in a point just in front of your face. It is such a powerful moment especially as they are the last vocals heard on the album. These touches can be found all over the DVD-A disc. His voice during the chorus of “Veneno Para Las Hadas” is another prime example. There are no words, just his voice circling all around you, fading in and out. It is a very touching section of the song as well as the disc.

Another point of this album, as well as Steven Wilson in general, are the dynamics he places in all of his albums. What I mean by that is, the peaks and valleys of the music. One moment things will be real loud and chaotic, the next they will be very calm and soothing. In most of today’s music, everything just remains constant. There are no shifts that change your perspective on what you are hearing. Steven’s DVD-Audio really brings to light the effectiveness of sudden and not so sudden changes in dynamics. Wilson’s uncanny knack for smoothly transitioning from section-to-section, really help things along.

Overall Result: 10/10

Steven Wilson
Bonus Disc

Port Rubicon

The bonus tracks are exclusive to the deluxe edition and are really nice to have. It begins with a song called “Port Rubicon.” I feel this was originally going to be the song to follow “Significant Other” from the main album. Simply because “Significant Other” ends with the typing of a keyboard and “Port Rubicon” begins with the same. “Port Rubicon” is definitely a hard track to get a grip of. It begins with some minimal keyboards and friend Suzie Moyaho’s voice. Suddenly, a violent eruption of chaos followed by another sudden shift to a saxophone and Steven’s spoken word, and you are thoroughly confused. Vocal harmonies for spoken word are quite strange, but strangeness defines Wilson. The track pays homage to Scott Walker perhaps, as there are many influences in this song. The track finishes with another flurry of noise. 7/10

Puncture Wound

This song continues where Wilson’s Cover Version III single left off. Cover Version III was Wilson’s simpler version of The Cure’s “A Forest.” Not that this is another cover, no Wilson chose to change things up and put his own lyrics to it. However, the bass line and vocal pattern are eerily similar. It has a very creepy electronic feel. Gavin Harrison’s simple, yet strong drumming makes me wish more electronic bands would incorporate real drums to their recordings. The guitar and synth sounds in this track are stellar. 8/10

Collecting Space

This was originally a demo recorded just before the Porcupine Tree Deadwing sessions took place. Steven stated it was a way for him to warm up for the writing process. So even when Steven is “warming up” he’s hotter than 98% of other bands out there. This is an incredible piece that has been re-recorded for this release. Structurally the song is the same, but now spruced up a bit. A great collection of sounds are implemented from all instruments. The added synths to the song are a nice touch. 9/10

Insurgentes (Mexico)

This was the original version of the title track of the main album. It was recorded in a cathedral in Mexico. This version is just about all piano, except for just a few synths. While this is a nice track, it pales in comparison to the final album version. 8/10

Untitled

A hidden Easter egg, goodie! Luckily this egg isn’t rotten. What a wonderful little track this is. It sounds like it may be a demo, but what a hell of a demo it is. It’s more electronic in nature and features programmed drums from Steven. Wilson provides great vocals even though it doesn’t sound like he was even trying that hard. Not in a bad way. The guitar sounds are probably one of my favorite parts of the song. I really like the first line of the chorus too, “I threw my life away and for what?” That line speaks to me for some reason.

Conclusion

This is my album of the year. It ranks up there with the best albums of all time. It is a masterpiece in concept, design, and musicality. It defines what music and art are and how they relate to each other. Steven Wilson has outdone himself. He is a genius of our times and should be a household name. However, in this day in age, appearance means more than substance. Wilson’s time will come sooner or later.

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