STEVEN WILSON - The Harmony Codex
September 20, 2023, 3 months ago
Anytime prog legend Steven Wilson releases an album, it turns out to be a bit of an event, often full of wonder and worry for longtime fans. After the release of 2020’s divisive The Future Bites, many fans wondered what Steven’s next output might be like. A very vocal portion of his fanbase were hoping that his reunion and tour with Porcupine Tree would signal a return to the style of some of his earlier solo efforts, chiefly the fan favorites The Raven That Refused To Sing and Hand. Cannot. Erase. In his 2022 autobiography “Limited Edition Of One”, one of the final chapters of the book was a short story entitled “The Harmony Codex”. This proved to be the title of the new album, and Mr. Wilson has successfully repeated two of his most consistent traits as an artist. Firstly, to create an uncompromising piece of art that is beholden to nobody, and secondly, challenge (and often alienate) his fanbase.
To get the elephant out of the room, this album is about as far from Raven and HCE as you can get. This album not only shares the musical DNA of The Future Bites, but embraces it to a far more cohesive degree than that album and pushes far more into the electronic territory hinted at there. There’s far more “Kid A”/“Amnesiac” era Radiohead or Depeche Mode musical DNA on this album than any of the other traditional prog bands that fans might be used to. The album opener “Inclination” immediately showcases the much greater influence of synths and electronic drums with a bold cinematic intro before quieting to showcase Steven’s plaintive singing and falsetto. “What Life Brings”, perhaps the albums most “traditional” song is a beautiful slow rocker, with Steven embracing layered vocal harmonies, a la Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Lead single “Economies Of Scale” is a gorgeously simple song, incorporating a simple modulated synth line with electronic drums that builds to a crescendo of layered vocals by Steven.
“The Impossible Tightrope”, is the proggiest piece on the album as well as the longest, and is a gloriously self-indulgent trip into the outer realms of prog and jazz. Featuring a blazing electric piano solo by Adam Holzman, and contributions from Theo Travis, this song (as well as its corresponding music video) is an adventure, and comparisons to Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother” immediately spring to mind. This song is a pastiche of different styles and genres that shouldn’t work together but somehow do.
Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb returns for another collaboration with Steven on “Rock Bottom”. Rather than having smaller parts (such as in “Routine” and “Pariah”), Ninet and Steven are both front and center in a more traditional duet structure, and quite simply, what a song. A beautiful melody with dramatic orchestral backgrounds, a killer guitar solo from former touring guitarist Nico Tsonev and Ninet absolutely cutting loose on vocals yields perhaps the best track on the album, and is sure to satisfy even the most snobby of fans. “Beautiful Scarecrow” follows, a darker piece with a brooding synth and drum background that almost begs to be the background for a video piece.
“Harmony Codex”, the title track, is an atmospheric ambient piece, punctuated by arpeggiated synths, a lovely piano line, as well as spoken words from his short story. Clocking in at over 9 minutes and being a fairly repetitive piece, I do have to say this song drags on quite a bit too long, and while not terrible, it certainly is a bit of a low point on the album for me. Lyrically, “Time Is Running Out”, which could equally fit within the themes of “The Future Bites”, is a wistful examination of growing older and dealing with disappointment. “Actual Brutal Facts” is yet another foray into darker industrial territory, with some trip hop vibes, along with heavily processed vocals from (I presume) Steven. “Staircase” closes the album out with a drifting, driving journey through the atmosphere, before closing out with further excerpts from the short story.
As always, the production on this album is absolutely magnificent. It’s a sonically masterful mix, and given how heavily Steven has fallen down the Dolby Atmos rabbit hole, you can absolutely tell that he wrote this album with Atmos in mind. He’s held listening parties in specially designed theaters with high quality Atmos setups, and the unanimous viewpoint has been that it’s an incredible achievement in that format, and it’s one I look forward to enjoying on my own setup when my deluxe edition arrives. Steven Wilson is a master behind the production software, and this album is further proof that he’s one of, if not the, best in the business when it comes to making incredible sounding records. Certainly, not all the credit for the success of this album should go solely to Mr. Wilson. As mentioned earlier, several long time collaborators (the aforementioned Craig Blundell, Ninet Tayeb, Adam Holzman, Nico Tsonev, as well as Dave Kosten and Nick Beggs) along with new collaborators from Interpol and Meat Beat Manifesto provide welcome and critical contributions to the musicality of this album.
One downside of reviewing albums is that as a reviewer, we only receive electronic copies of the songs. We don’t get physical copies, and we rarely if ever receive scans of the album art/liner notes. And certainly, if there’s been one thing that has set Mr. Wilson apart from some of his contemporaries, its been how the physical album package (especially the limited deluxe editions) has been a critical part of his solo works. In the cases of Raven and HCE, the album artwork was almost as crucial to understanding and contributing to the concepts and stories as the songs themselves. Just the same, The Future Bites album packaging contributed just as much to the biting social satire as the songs themselves.
The aforementioned short story from his book does tell a relatively definitive story, and several of the songs on the back half of the album contain direct passages from it, but beyond that there seems to be little cohesion throughout the rest of the album to said story in terms of a concept or plot. Whether this is expanded upon within the album art and packaging is unknown as of review time. If I had to haphazard an egregiously wrong fan theory, it’s that much like Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love”, the first half of the album (“Inclination” through “Beautiful Scarecrow”) is a collection of unrelated songs, with the second half of the album (“Harmony Codex” through “Staircase”) forming a conceptual suite related to the story.
Steven has created a fantastically surreal album, all while walking an “impossible tightrope” with his fanbase. While certainly a stylistic departure for many hardcore fans, those who are open enough to push back comparisons to previous albums will be treated to a lusciously ethereal album that has some of Steven’s best vocals ever, and some hauntingly beautiful melodies. It’s by no means a perfect album, but it’s extremely solid from start to finish. Where “The Future Bites” had a musical vision, but felt rather disjointed as a whole, The Harmony Codex is a fully integrated album where every song feels in its right place, and works well with every other song. This will prove to be Steven Wilson’s most controversial album he’s ever recorded…until he makes his next one.
While this album might further alienate longtime fans, open minded listeners will be thanked by being taken on a lucid dreamy musical journey on one of the best produced albums in recent memory. A wonderful mix of several disparate genres that forms a unified whole.