Steven Wilson – The Future Bites Review

Given that we’re no longer in the 1970s, for better and for worse, Steven Wilson is now the unwilling “King of Prog.” He’s the writer of what some consider modern classics; a remixologist extraordinaire; a sophisticated producer; a musical experimentalist; a successful imitator; and even a pop star. And yet it appears he’s still not the star he wants to be. Recent interviews suggest a growing preoccupation with his own position in the UK’s music scene1 and divulge that the inspired-by-a-true-story concept for Hand.Cannot.Erase (a woman dying alone in her London flat) is really “about me, being invisible in plain sight – a metaphor for my career”2.

Tackiness of this notion aside, this discomfort has bled more and more into his music. As he steps away from rock, and dives more deeply into pop, he appears trapped between the horns of achieving greater popularity and retaining his experimental verve3. His song-writing hand and musical voice since 2008’s Insurgentes has shifted significantly, and in this context I probably overrated To the Bone; it’s far from bad but is a conspicuously mixed release, touching on many parts of his sound since then as it floats between spirited pop, melancholic prog and synth-inflected bloat. The Future Bites follows nearly four year later and it marks his greatest step out from his prior life.

“Self,” as the first proper track, demarcates that this is not like before. The varied vocals, sometimes-subtle but sometimes-driving beat, layers of electronic sound, crisp drumming and muted guitar strike out from the typical guitar-orientation of rock music, and from Wilson’s (most famous) music to this point. It’s tough to escape the ubiquity of the guitar in rock and this album finds him shedding its skin. The short instrumental passage around 2:00 in this song features a guitar but not for a lead. It’s staccato and used for its electrified tone in the soundscape, rather than a controlling rhythm or melody. Even the tracks driven by strong rhythms, such as “Personal Shopper” and “Follower,” are pulled forwards by their bass, drums and keyboards more than the guitar. It feels like a conscious decision; making the guitar just another instrument illustrates Wilson escaping rock and finding something new. The Future Bites has a voice which is consistent from prior work but the new instruments and synthesized textures lend it a new and distinct flavor.

So what is Wilson trying to achieve? The Future Bites is poppy but not chart music. Each track features a vocal hook and the opening of the record is especially brisk and perky, with “Self” and “King Ghost” speeding along and scarcely exceeding 3 and 4 minutes respectively. Wilson’s singing is cleaner than ever too, adopting a pleasant, poppy style with lots of lyric-less “ahhs” and “oohs.” He’s smooth and comfortable at this range. While the music sounds simple with clear melodies, this belies a surprising depth on repeated listens. A lot goes into this simplicity, with many instruments, electronic layers and quirky embellishments. Further, the closing of the album is longer and more grandiose. “Personal Shopper” nearly tops 10 minutes and “Count of Unease” at the true finale is the second longest track behind this. It’s lilting, slow and strange, closing things on an atmospheric note. It’s tough to pigeon-hole the music here – perhaps synth-prog-pop would suffice?

Nonetheless, the theme of the record imposes itself over the music. The lyrics address rampant consumerism, social media and the alienation of people from themselves because of these. The production follows suit, adopting a crisp, modern tone and computerized vocals to give color to (or perhaps drain it from?) the music. The impeccably balanced mix and spacious master ensure that each instrument pops with a crystal clarity which simultaneously blend into satisfactory whole. In all, the concept of the future biting is perfectly represented and Wilson is plainly a master of his craft when it comes to production.

It’s a shame, then, that the record’s subject matter isn’t handled with care. The lyrics are all too unsubtle, especially compared with the thoughtful music and production; it comes across as a very pretty and artful bat to the face. When Elton John (Elton John!) delivers his sonorous spoken word passage on “Personal Shopper” on the more ridiculous excesses of consumerism (“teeth whitener,” “deluxe edition boxsets,” “volcanic ash soap,”) any legitimacy in the approach is utterly undermined by Wilson’s very own special edition boxset of The Future Bites. But “ah!” I hear you say. “Wilson is aware of this and is having a joke at his own expense.” No. Just because his boxset, prime Times Square advertising spot and merchandise competitions were carried out with a nod and a wink doesn’t absolve him of cheapening his own artistic output (or should I call it his ‘product’?). The Future Bites isn’t as clever as it thinks it is.

Porcupine Tree is not Genesis, and Steven Wilson is not Peter Gabriel.”4 Perhaps not, and although The Future Bites is less deep than it first seems and still may not shine the light he wants on his career, it’s far from without merit and a worthwhile addition to an increasingly diverse and interesting discography. It’s a more cohesive and streamlined album than To the Bone and for this it deserves recognition as Wilson sounds more confident with his contemporary musical voice. There’s pop here to be sure but it doesn’t sound like anyone else and I suppose that’s the point. I would feel its contemporary message more strongly through this alone and without its lyrics and ridiculous marketing campaign.


Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 10 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps MP3
Label: Caroline International
Websites: stevenwilson.com | facebook.com/stevenwilson
Releases Worldwide: January 29th, 2021

Show 4 footnotes

  1. being what some have described as “the most successful British artist you’ve never heard of” (Link)
  2. Link
  3. This strife for recognition is arguably also reflected in his album artwork. Wilson’s projection on to his albums is as visual as it is visceral, progressing from a hidden face and a haunted, cartoonish face, through a more definite but alienated human, to his own image with stark, contrasting colors and finally reinforcing his own image in the muted monochrome of the modern day
  4. Lord AMG
« »