Steven Wilson – 4 ½ (2016)

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4 ½ is an odds-and-ends record by the neo-prog savant Steve Wilson, a bridge to get fans by until he produces a proper follow-up to last year’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. However, the idea of an ‘odds-and-ends’ release being inconsequential just doesn’t hold true for Wilson, a notorious perfectionist in the studio, whether it’s in the arrangements, the engineering, mixing and, firstly, the composing.

Each song has a story behind it, and none of these stories end with the punch line “it wasn’t good enough to go on a proper album.” Two tracks, in fact, are epic pieces that bookend this album. “My Book of Regrets” — as are three of the other tracks — was leftover from Hand. Cannot. Erase, not included because the album was already getting longer than Wilson’s liking and it wasn’t finished, anyway. The lively middle section, recorded last June during Wilson’s 2015 Tour, put the song across the finish line. Starting (and ending) with a funky guitar riff, it’s clean and lean before assuming a grander presence in the chorus, and then some stellar solos from Adam Holzman (on analog synth) and Dave Kilminster guitar leads with some of Wilson’s signature metal ‘flavoring’ tossed in for some well-timed thumps, followed by a Pink Floyd-ian dreamy section that bridges back to the opening riff. It’s ten minutes that just blows by because Wilson keeps the song dynamically moving from one idea to another.

“Don’t Hate Me” also runs about that long and is based on a recent live performance of Wilson’s band, but its beginnings go much further back. The centerpiece track from Porcupine Tree’s Stupid Dream (1998), Wilson wanted another go at this song at a little slower pace, and the addition of Ninet Tayeb to be the vocal counterpoint in the chorus to Wilson’s lyric lines in the verses was a master stroke that justifies the revisit. Bassist Nick Beggs hatches a wickedly looping circular bass line underpinning Holzman’s fusion-jazzy Rhodes solo followed by Theo Travis’ sax solo that for the most part stays true to his original one on the PT version.

Two of the three instrumental selections are without vocals because Wilson had hoped they would become a part of some movie soundtrack someday but the call never came. Too bad for Hollywood. “Year of the Plague” is the one piece here that was written and recorded during sessions for The Raven that Refused to Sing, adorned with acoustic guitar, acoustic piano and a pulsing electric piano. With a well-placed sampled violin and dreamy synth backing, the vaguely New Age chant sequenced right after “Regrets” offers the perfect respite. As part of the sessions for Hand. Cannot. Erase, “Sunday Rain Sets In” later evolved to the beginning of “Three Years Older.” Drummed by Chad Wackerman, this one is also mostly acoustic and gently flowing but with a brief metal explosion near the end.

The last instrumental “Vermillioncore” is no background music: at its core is a meaty groove powered by Wilson himself on bass and Craig Blundell on drums, and the thunder comes down at around 2:10 mark, signaled shortly ahead of time by Beggs on a Chapman Stick.

“Happiness III” was written back in 2003 for the aborted Deadwing movie project. A straight-up pop tune that Wilson managed not to subvert by adding long instrumental passages and extended solos, it might be radio ready, but Marco Minnemann’s thundering drums and Wilson’s brief guitar solo provide more reasons to like about this song aside from it having a catchy melody.

We’re not about to witness another masterwork like Raven, but 4 ½ didn’t gestate from that level of ambition, anyway. The upshot of 4 ½ is that Steven Wilson’s chaff still beats most of contemporaries’ wheat because his creative zeal doesn’t ever seem to take days off, even for songs he sets aside.

4 ½ will drop on January 22, 2016, courtesy of Kscope Records.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron

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