Steven Wilson – Grace for Drowning

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This CD is a prime example of of how repeated listening is sometimes necessary to “get” a CD.  Almost always, when they appeal enough to keep listening more, they ultimately become favorites.

In any of his related projects (Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, others), there has been a certain acclimation period, so it’s expected that this CD would be a challenge.  To put the CD in some sort of context, two things are notable. 

First is that I intend to interpret music in two ways.  One would be expressive music, designed to entertain, possibly causing people to dance or laugh or easily agree to whatever the message, or lack of, may be.  Think of just about anything on the radio (well, in the old days), that has commercial intent, if not appeal. 

The other type would be music that is internally focused, both for the musicians and the audience.  It might suffer from an overly intellectual approach, but whether lyrically or musically, it comes from an artist that is interpreting whatever it is that they feel, generally regardless of any commercial intent.  “Progressive rock,” tends to the latter, and can include many instruments, time changes, classical references, and assembled sections to form movements, a medley, sections, a suite, etc. 

Wilson’s music belongs within this latter category.

Secondly, the CD notes the passing of Wilson’s father. 

The CD begins with the title track, a piano and choral piece that sets a somber tone, absent of any lyrics. This isn’t exactly a high energy kick start that I might prefer for a CD, but given the title, it foreshadows that the CD is unlikely to be judged on the merits of its tracks but rather a thematic whole… one that hopefully has sunnier spots.

“Sectarian” strums its way into typical Wilson territory – a noodling electric guitar, odd ambient songs, and complicated percussion.  Then it moves to “Starless” era King Crimson, with angry power chords, towering Mellotron (keyboards), and saxophone, loosely connected to the first song through the repeat of choral effects that suggest a religious ponderousness.    Changing styles, the song eases into an ethereal, organ based jazzy section before returning to the King Crimson aggression. What the listener is to make of this, I’m not certain, but the shifting certainly brings about abrupt changes in emotions, and, again, there are no lyrics to guide us.  And throw in a clarinet for a few ending measures to keep us off balance.

A guide piano introduces Wilson’s vocals (finally) in the third song, “Deform to Form a Star,” in comparison a pretty song that provides the thematic element that was suspected all along: loss.

Oh once in a while
I learn how to smile
Horse's shadows and rain on stone
No God here I'm sure
This must be the cure
For all this carrion and aimless drift
Retreat from the begging
And invites to the wedding
Revelation means nothing here
In time we forget our
Need to devour
All the stories of tortured souls

Crawl into your arms
Become the night forever
Coiled and close, the moment froze
Deform to form a star
Here on earth together
I got time to share and a well-used stare

This smile isn't pure
Certain or sure
Cold precision was never there

The way we uncoil
Return to the soil
Flaws are everything and chaos reigns

Following the metaphysical bleakness follows a fine distorted electric guitar solo that briefly rises before a return to more introspective keyboard musings, and perhaps hopeful.  

Following is “No Part of Me,” which offers a certain detachment on a personal level of the subject to another, read to be Wilson and his father. The song is very good (though not for singular replay value), transitioning from reflective vocals to a Porcupine Tree sounding rocker, although played with different personnel. 

I feel worn out
There's no point drinking
When life slows right down
And holds you up above the water line
So sleep will never come
One last time then
Before I lose you
You don't have to pretend
I know that love for you was just security
There's no part of me in you

“Postcard” is imaginatively titled piece, suggesting distance between the person expressing themselves and the receiver.  Wilson goes reclusive lyrically after the loss, shutting out life in his response to a relationship that no longer can be reconciled.  A hopeful piano arpeggio carries the tune, but cue the choral effects at the end for a spiritual question mark.

I think it's time that I got off the kitchen floor
But is there really any point at all?
Waking up this morning felt the same
Better sleep while life is so mundane

It could have been yesterday that I locked the door
I blocked the windows up so I can't be sure
Now I haven't even got the will to eat
I'm lame and self-obsessed, that I will concede

I'd like to light a cigarette but I cannot
The lighter's dead and the gas has been cut off
I'm the one you always seem to read about
The fire inside my eyes has long gone out
There's nothing left for me to say or do
Cos all that matters disappeared when I lost you...

The fire inside my eyes has long gone out
There's nothing left for me to say or do
'Cause all that matters disappeared when I lost you

“Raider Prelude,” falls to the deeper and darker tones of depression, a thankfully brief but none less effective instrumental.

This leads to “Remainder The Black Dog,” which is driven by a sustained, brooding piano line that mimics the lyrical content: neurotic.  Electric guitar, organ, Mellotron, sax, and clarinet are each offered solo space, each peeling away seemingly as part of a very conflicted mind.  It also features a tight, if relatively restrained, electric guitar contribution by former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett.

Scintilla falling behind
Did you arrive at the place that you came from?
A cultivator of dread
The paranoia took root in your cold heart
Neurotic up with the dawn
Prescription pills to ignore, the map is useless
If you would dare to dissolve
You'd get the thing that you craved for so long now

Overall, Disk 1 is a challenging listen, which even if not thoroughly satisfying, has its instrumental moments and nuances that maintain interest.  If it could not have been handled as well by his full time band, at least Wilson brings in other enjoyable instrumentalists. 

“Disk 1,” which was titled “Deform to Form a Star,” implies a “Disk 2,” which is titled “Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye.”

The first track, “Belle De Jour,” is a short, acoustic and piano piece that suggests a rise to a less gloomy place, though still an unsatisfying one.

If that piece is a better place during the day, then second song, “Index” is definitely of the night, the sort of song that might be a favorite of Hannibal Lecter or John Wayne Gacy. 

Index:

I'm a collector, I collect anything I find
I never throw anything away that's mine
And I'd collect you too if I was given half a chance
And trap you under the glass and add my autograph
I catalog, I preserve, and I index
And file you into my collectable Rolodex
I keep the rubbish what other people give away
And keep all of the pieces in a metal tray

Hoard - Collect - File - Index
Catalog - Preserve - Amass – Index

I'm a collector and I've always been misunderstood
I like the things that people seem to always overlook
I gather up and catalog it in a book I wrote
There's so much now that I forget if I don't make a note
If I collected you and put you in a little cage
I could take you out and study you every day
It isn't easy being me, it's kind of lonely work
My obligation to collecting is my only thirst

Assuming Wilson isn’t disposing of odds and ends that don’t fit elsewhere in his catalogue, then this song and its placement is assumed to be reflective of one of the many paths possible when one ponders death and brushes against nihilism.

“Track One” (actually Track 3) is perhaps another direction, one that takes depression and enters a brief psychedelic escape… before bad things happen in the form of dark Mellotron washes backed by foreboding keyboard voices.

Fall of winter
Fall of all sundowns
The treachery of the coldness of your smile
Violator, among the trees they hide
Perambulator, fade into the night
Buzz killer stride, fall into the tide
Headlong
Twin sister stars, bouncing off cars
Headstrong

“Raider II” is not the penultimate prog-rock piece de la resistance.  It’s very, very good; it’s just not bright enough for a person to want to jump into it regularly.  It starts off with a stark nod towards Peter Gabriel’s “Intruder,” nod towards paranoia.  And from there, well, that’s what prog rock is all about when given 24 minutes to work itself out. 

A fist will make you understand intention
To raise alarm is underhand, so I cut off the phone
I bind you up with tape and catch some TV
It's getting late, the shadows in the street are watching us

Check for fibres in the gaps between the teeth, the floorboards
Check the fingerprints, go through the trash
Maybe I just wanted some attention
Compulsion seeks its own way in rejection of the light
Every story needs to have an ending
We might as well give up all this pretending and clear the air

The night is crawling closer to the action
Your mouth is driving me into distraction, you talk too much
Well every story needs to have an ending
We might as well give up all this pretending and clear the air

A plague inside your home, I'm raider
Defiling all you own, raider
A cat among the crows, I'm raider
The butcher and his prose, I'm raider

If, and I do mean if, the second disk is related thematically to the first, then the outworking musically in “Raider II” brings our subject to life, or, at least, out of the depths.  The jazz tendencies here and elsewhere serve well to add that effect, and possibly reflect Wilson’s familiarity with King Crimson’s Lizard.

The final song, “Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye,” is, even at 8 minutes in length, a straightforward song that reflects acceptance, even amidst what was a complicated relationship.

Well that's something that you're laughing at me
And I hope you know what it is that you're laughing about
Cos it wont be long now 'til they're reeling you in
The same situation, the same disappointment you bring
So I hope you're happy with the impression you made
Deep in denial, like you planned it this way
But you're lost to me
Like dust I have cleared from my eye
Your words have no meaning
So I stare up into the sky

Breathe in now - Breathe out now

Echoing the absence of a satisfying closure, there is an ethereal fade out musically, breathing in and out being the evidence of life.

Overall, this is a superbly conceived and orchestrated work, though it’s appeal will likely be limited to those who are already fans.  It’s a nice progression musically, and hopefully the jazzier elements will continue to make their way into his future work.

4 of 5 STARS

 

 

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