The solo works of Steven Wilson were in ascendancy by 2012’s accomplished The Raven that Refused to Sing, a musically morose but sonically warm homage to 70s prog rock which drew me in with its Fripp-isms and ensnared me in its powerfully emotive web. 2015 saw the decidedly harsher tone of Hand. Cannot. Erase., which similarly impressed me with its engrossing tale of obliteration with more modern tools. The prospect of a sequel named To the Bone surely had a number of AMG writers all hot and bothered. His production has always been top-notch while his music is constantly developing, promising at least that it would stand apart from prior albums to offer something fresh.
If I may adjust your expectations from the start, do not enter expecting a prog purists’ album. Just as HCE took ideas from Raven but is plainly separate, To the Bone is clearly written by the same hand but adopts new influences to forge a different experience. The release of the record’s singles, notably “Pariah” and “Permanating,” was nearly drowned out by cries that Wilson had betrayed his roots by writing pop music. It’s true: there is significantly upbeat, happy material here, with simple hooks which are likely to appeal to those who would not have bothered with him before. Those aforementioned examples are immediately engaging and feature chorus lyrics and melodies which you’ll know by your second listen. He persistently promised that such tracks would fit the entire record upon its full release – this is largely true so fear not if their joviality was initially perturbing. Wilson’s unique brand of melancholic prog still features though is saved for select moments. It ultimately pleases me that he refuses to stand still.
That sombre atmosphere on which Wilson has built his name is certainly prevalent by the conclusion of To the Bone. The back-half is slower and more introspective, representing quite the contrast from the front. While “People who Eat Darkness” boasts the most metal moment in its heavy lead riff, “Song of I” retains some of the earlier catchiness but broods. If I have a complaint, it’s that the final 3 tracks drag the album to a halt as they’re all slow burners. This bunching does none of them any favors as they bleed into one another. “Detonation” is mostly dull as it reaches over 9 minutes through simple repetition, while “Song of Unborn” particularly suffers as it’s a strong song but feels too close to neighbors stylistically. It’s better when taken alone which defeats the purpose of a complete album.
Nonetheless, it’s no surprise that each component part of To the Bone‘s sound sounds immaculate, from Ninet Tayeb’s incredible vocal additions to the strolling bass-lines provided by Robin Mullarkey, Nick Beggs and Wilson himself. This extends to the production, which is to the same high standard to which we are now acclimatized. That bass guitar warmly wanders in and out of the surrounding leads and the tones used are always pleasing. “Pariah” and “Permanating” are bright, vibrant and omit the dreadful brick-walling hampering most modern pop, while each instrument remains crystal-clear even in the deceptively subtle backing layers permeating the densest arrangement towards the end of “Detonation.”
I believe the net result of Wilson’s foray into pop influences is favorably comparable with the likes of Kate Bush and David Bowie. While sounding like neither, he tackles tougher topics than an average, modern chart hit and fuses a compelling musical depth with his undeniable hooks. This website caters to metalheads but making it past the disturbing poppy surface reveals superior instrumentation and compositions to flesh out a satisfying record. To the Bone proves progressive music need not solely rely on 70s rock; nay, it should not.