Steven Wilson – The Harmony Codex (2023)
The highly anticipated new album of Steven Wilson will undoubtedly be a great commercial success and I have read many raving reviews so far. For my history with Wilson and my current stand towards his music I have to refer to my column “Prog Snob” which you can read by clicking on the button below.
So I can skip a further intro and go straight to the album. Although there are ten Different songs on the album Mr. Wilson advises us to listen to the album as a whole, so a genuine concept album. Hmmm, sounds very “proggy” to me. Oh dear, I’ve said the forbidden word. Prog is for snobs as you know.
When I am very honest I have to say that there are some really “proggy” parts on The Harmony Codex but they are alternated with some very “poppy” tunes and therefore we can call this a very eclectic album. As said in many reviews already it is a kind of overview of Wilson’s career so far with bits and pieces from all we know from him until now. So is it a kind of “Best of” or has he created something very new and adventurous?
Well, you do have to like a lot of electronic soundscapes and rhythms and some frantic wind instruments (which is not something I like to much) and opener Inclination immediately shows a lot of both. Actually, throughout the entire album a lot of beeps and bleeps can be heard and also quite often spoken lyrics are used. Where a flesh-and-blood drummer, Craig Blundell, Sam Fogarino or Nate Wood, is used, the music immediately comes to life. Old time companion Nick Beggs uses the Chapman stick on a few tracks and that immediately provides a drive I really like. (Staircase)
As strange as it may seem but I hear some Tangerine Dream here and there and I can relate to the reviews I have read so far that say the early period of Porcupine Tree clearly shines through. A lot of synths and the occasional guitar solo with the characteristic sound of Wilson who has used some solos of Niko Tsonev and that is not a bad choice.
If you think The Raven that refused to sing is the best Wilson has made so far, you will have to conclude that The Harmony Codex is much more of a solo record and lacks some of the virtuosity of the musicians on this album, although Adam Holzman plays a nice long solo on keys in Impossible Tightrope. But there are some very nice melodies with a typical Wilson signature to them.
I won't go through all the songs individually but you can roughly divide the album into shorter songs that mainly rely on rhythm and atmosphere and the somewhat longer songs in which there is a bit more room for instrumentation and experimentation. You could say there is a good balance between these and that makes for a well constructed whole.
To follow the story you would probably have to read Wilson’s book The Limited Edition Of One in which a short story called The Harmony Codex provides the base for the lyrics. A sci-fi story with a somewhat dark outlook on the world to come. Throughout the album some beautiful melodies appear and Wilson’s voice is as good as ever. A bit of an acquired taste and for me it’s okay but not special except for Rock Bottom in which he pairs up with the great Ninet Tayeb again and their voices just complement each other so well. Nice guitar solo in here as well.
I do have to mention Impossible Tightrope because this is a real rollercoaster of a track being mostly instrumental with great guitar parts but also a frantic saxophone solo by none other than Theo Travis. Very dynamic with a few very high-pitched vocal lines, a choirlike section and the already mentioned solo by Holzman. My favourite track of the album.
I can't help but comment on the quality of the recording, because it is fantastic. That's how I would like all of my recordings to sound. No surprise, of course, because Wilson is truly an authority in this field and has proven before to have a ”good ear”.
Well, I have to come to some kind of conclusion and I find that difficult. For me this is not the absolutely stunning work that some claim it to be. I like parts of it but as a whole it does not overwhelm me and for me it does not reach the level of The Raven that refused to sing or Hand.Cannot.Erase but it certainly isn’t a bad album. Much better than The Future Bites or To The Bone for instance. Good but not essential as a fellow Dutch site would say.
The cover is one of the least appealing I know but that was and is never a strong side of Mr. Wilson. (the last PT album cover is awfull too)