Steven Wilson – Grace for Drowning

Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson has been one of the most celebrated figures in progressive rock of the past ten or twenty years. With his flagship band, his influence and impact goes without saying, but he has also made out with a number of side-projects and bands, largely in order for the man to explore different parts of his musical vision. Expanding his creativity onto a full- fledged solo career in 2008 with the ‘debut’ effort ‘Insurgentes’, Wilson met some fairly mixed criticism for this new work, with many stating their confusion for the challenging directions he was taking his music in. ‘Grace For Drowning’ is now the second full length album that Wilson has written, and it upholds this legacy of relative weirdness instituted by the first. Although fans of Porcupine Tree may have their doubts before listening, I have now digested the new album to the point where I can safely say that this is the greatest thing that Steven Wilson has ever done.

Much of the reason I think many didn’t warm up to ‘Insurgentes’ was the fact that it was very un- Porcupine Tree-like; there were a handful of songs meant to lure the Porcupine fans in, but the album was meant to be a cross-section of everything Wilson was interested in expressing. That included noise music, drone, minimalism, improvisations, and virtually everything else the man has dabbled in lately. ‘Grace For Drowning’ continues this trend of multi-faceted music making, but it is much less a sequel than a reinvention of what he is trying to do with his solo music. This is a double album, with each ‘half’ comprised of forty minutes of music, and has enough guest musicians on it to man a military regiment. Wilson himself has even stated that this is the ‘most important’ thing he has ever done before. Like many likely did and even still do, I had the feeling that this hype generating was over little more than the fact that Mr. Wilson was releasing an album, and had little to do with the quality of the music itself. This man has never failed to impress me before though, and even after a single listen, I was pretty sure that this was the greatest Wilson record ever made; a bold statement coming from someone who considers Porcupine Tree to be one of his favourite bands. To explain this point, I will attempt to describe the music itself.

As I could have predicted for this project, here is a wide variety of different sounds at work here, but the ingenious thing here is how wonderfully that the elements have all been combined in order to create something coherent. The two halves of this double album contrast each other, but feel like different sides of the same coin. The second disc ‘Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye’ is a darker, more experimental evil twin of the first; ‘Deform To Form A Star’. Both of these companion pieces open with an atmospheric instrumental introduction. The title track ‘Grace For Drowning’ opens the first disc, with Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess soulfully playing the piano while Wilson overdubs himself with harmonized vocalizations. By ‘Sectarian’, it is clear that this is not Porcupine Tree music; there are jazzy saxophone solos, King Crimson-esque dissonance, and eerie choir-like synths to create this truly progressive sound for fusion.

The first disc then focuses on some more conventional tracks, being the sort of sounds that Porcupine Tree fans are likely more used to hearing Wilson make. ‘No Part Of Me’ and ‘Postcard’ are both beautiful melody-oriented tracks, with the latter being arguably the greatest ‘pop’ song he has ever done; an acoustic number wrapped in melancholy, heartache, and all of the things you would think Wilson had abandoned completely only a few tracks earlier. Then, to close out the first part of this project, ‘Remainder The Black Dog’ transports the listener back to the weird instrumental anxiety that we first heard on ‘Sectarian’. Of special note is that classic Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett plays acoustic guitar here, although his appearance here is sadly too small to be worth much more than a name-drop.

As I have said before, the second disc here is a little darker, taking us deeper into the rabbit hole and deeper into Wilson’s mind. ‘Belle De Jour’ is a simple and eerie intro; a fitting overture for the disturbing material to come. It is a short piece of music that could do well to score a scene in a film, but it is quickly dwarfed by the nightmare that comes. ‘Index’ is one of my favourite tracks from this album, as well as undoubtedly the darkest thing this man has ever done. Putting his love and mastery of the studio to good work; he samples electronics and creates this very dark trip-hop soundscape , with a string section and disturbing lyrics to match. Think ‘My Ashes’ from Porcupine Tree’s ‘Fear Of A Blank Planet’, if that song suffered from PTSD and could not afford trauma therapy. By this point in the second disc, the second half of Wilson’s opus has proven itself to go places that the first was a little too timid for.

‘Track One’ is a track that- along with ‘Remainder The Black Dog’- was chosen as a ‘single’ to support the album. While I would have imagined that ‘Postcard’ would have been the best way to once again lure unsuspecting listeners in, ‘Track One’ does do a good job of showing how the variety of styles on ‘Grace For Drowning’ contrast each other. The first moments of this song develop as a pretty straightforward, if not quirky acoustic song, much in the vein of some latter-era Beatles tunes. Without too much morning then, all sense breaks down and the listener is left with this looming mass of what I might describe as being symphonic noise; a sound as dirty and chaotic as any, yet meticulously orchestrated, and even musical.

After that relatively short piece comes what may be the most anticipated moment on the entire record. The ‘long’ song, the ‘epic’, the ‘fusion freakout’; whatever you want to call it, ‘Raider II’ has been peaking listeners’ interest even long before the album was even released. For what I was predicting would be the total antithesis of Porcupine Tree, I was not surprised that this is by far, the most challenging thing on the record. It begins with minimalism at heart; a very dark soundscape where the eerie atmosphere is created by the lack of sound, the silence in between the long, gloomy notes. ‘Raider II’ builds into something quite looming, and it seems that this is where Wilson found it most suitable to throw all of his ideas into one pot. Here, we have a flute solo a la Jethro Tull, and even a short-lived segment where it sounds like Wilson has either conjured Satan into his studio session, or is using… death growls? Admittedly, not all of these ideas are as brilliant as Wilson likely imagined them to be, but it’s easy to overlook that when it’s realized how risky Wilson is being by throwing out all of these ideas into his music. As was promised by press releases, ‘Raider II’ ultimately breaks into this frantic jazz fusion longform, where I am hearing a cross between the latest King Crimson project, The Mars Volta, and even Van Der Graaf Generator. Here, we are treated to some wonderful saxophone solo work, courtesy of Theo Travis. This is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious things Wilson has ever done, although I hate to say that for me, this is the lowest point of the album. That is not to say that ‘Raider II’ is not brilliant- because it is- but it does feel that some of the twenty-three minutes here could have been shortened and cut out, whereas I consider the rest of the album largely to be about as close to perfection as its going to get.

After such an exciting and intense journey with ‘Raider II’, we come to the end of our journey on ‘Grace For Drowning’ with ‘Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye’, yet another contrast that shows the album fade out with another song that could have closed any Porcupine Tree album beautifully since ‘Signify’. It reminds me quite a bit of ‘Glass Arm Shattering’ from Porcupine’s ‘Deadwing’ record in the way it is slow, brooding, full of feeling and hypnotic in the way it leads the listener out of the dream and back into reality. Of particular note here are Wilson’s vocals, particularly when the harmonizes with himself to create this overdubbed choral effect. As the album’s first run through ended for me, I sat motionless in utter admiration for a few minutes before I put it on again; even though there are quite a few songs here that are instantly enjoyable and accessible, ‘Grace For Drowning’ is one of the most challenging and deep records Steven Wilson has ever taken part in. As for which of these discs is better, it’s really hard to decide. I could certainly say that ‘Sectarian’, ‘Index’, parts of ‘Remainder The Black Dog’, and parts of ‘Raider II’ would make up my most loved material on this album, but as a whole, it leaves an absolutely beautiful feeling in me. The first disc is certainly a little more immediate, and maybe sent a few more chills down my spine, but I cannot underrate the second volume of this work either. Although there has been some incredible music coming out lately, an album has not come out since 2009 that pulled me in and never let go. Although many albums that we consider ‘classics’ are now decades old, Wilson’s ‘Grace For Drowning’ is one record that I am almost certain will be looked back at as one of the crowning prog rock albums of this decade.


CD 1 (39:38)

1. Grace For Drowning (2:06)
2. Sectarian (7:41)
3. Deform To Form A Star (7:51)
4. No Part Of Me (5:45)
5. Postcard (4:29)
6. Raider Prelude (2:23)
7. Remainder The Black Dog (9:27)

CD 2 (43:24)

1. Belle De Jour (2:59)
2. Index (4:49)
3. Track One (4:16)
4. Raider II (23:21)
5. Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye (8:01)


* Steven Wilson – vocals, guitar, keyboards, autoharp, bass guitar
* Jordan Rudess – piano
*  Theo Travis – soprano sax
* Ben Castle – clarinet
* Nick Beggs – stick
* Nic France – drums
* Tony Levin – bass guitar
* Pat Mastelotto – acoustic and electric drums
* Markus Reuter – U8 touch guitar
* Trey Gunn – warr guitar, bass
* Mike Outram – guitar
* Sand Snowman – acoustic guitar


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