Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Surrounded By Prog - Steven Wilson's Insurgentes

To start, a quick apology: if you feel that the posts have slowed somewhat here at the Prog Rock Blog, you'd be correct. The fact of the matter is that the Vancouver winter Olympics are well underway and most of my time has been dedicated to keeping an eye on the Canadian TV coverage for my Canadian media blog. Fear not though, while the Olympics are on for a few weeks, the world of Prog never sleeps. I'll post as often as I can here and will resume to full-tilt Progland once the closing ceremonies are over. Prog On! (hahaha that's a silly thing to say)
As much as I adore what Porcupine Tree has done over the last couple of decades, my favorite album by Mr. Wilson probably has to be the one he released under his own name. Steven's first solo album is not just another Porcupine Tree album. There are hints of the PT sound to be found for sure, but what makes Insurgentes so special for me is that it's really a compendium of everything Steven Wilson. Take a dash of Porcupine Tree, add some No-Man, sprinkle a bit of Bass Communion and heap in a health dose of Blackfield. This album features just about every aspect of the man. We often mention about how diverse and prolific the guy is, but I'm not sure we've ever considered what it would sound like if he brought all of his masks to the same ball. That really is the essence of what makes Insurgentes what it is: a work of art unique to one man. There is always a question of how much of the artist should be apparent in his art. This album is pure Steven Wilson.

Frankly, I have no idea why I haven't presented this album earlier in this series. The great thing about it is if you own it, you have the DVD-Audio. As far as I'm able to tell, every CD comes bundled with the DVD. That means that if you're even remotely into contemporary Progressive Rock, you probably already own it. And wow, what a disc it is to own. In fact, looking over my fairly large collection of surround sound music discs, this album probably ranks amongst the all time best. What I mean by this is that never has there been a better 5.1 music release in the history of the format. (It's likely that The Incident may take the crown once it comes out in a month or so, but for now Insurgentes is king) Everything about this disc is perfect: the music, as previously mentioned, is amongst the most diverse and interesting of Wilson's long career. When it comes to mixing music for surround sound, there are simply none better than Steven Wilson. He's taken what could have been sheer novelty and elevated it to level of beautiful art. Every track on this album creates a 3D sound-field that will envelope and surround you.

The album starts off with what I consider to be the least interesting track. Harmony Korine will probably remind you of Blackfield. This automatically means a focus on the pop song structure. It's a good pop song for sure, and the surround mix is excellent, but compared with what's to follow it seems tame and bland. Things start to get very interesting with the next track: Abandoner. As soon as it starts you are immersed in a world of vinyl crackle and analog warmth. Steven's voice takes to the centre channel with a chilling dry delivery of cynical verse. The first instrumental break occurs when one acoustic guitar plays a Spanish flavoured line in the front left speaker and a second responds in harmony in the rear right. Second verse (well if you can call it that, this is hardly standard songwriting here) comes with a chorus of Wilsons backing up the initial lone voice from the rears. Then we enter a state of quiet suspended animation. The delicate glockenspiel in the left rear doesn't prepare you for what's happening next. Suddenly a wall of white noise and distortion surrounds you like a veil of evil descending creating a thick fog of sound. It's an amazing effect that has to be heard to be believed. If you're familiar with this song in stereo, you aren't getting the full effect of this section.

Veneno Para Las Hadas. If the opening guitar chords remind you of Porcupine Tree's Sky Moves Sideways, you're not alone. What really makes this song unique and special is just how much better Wilson has gotten at creating lush atmosphere. This is a great track to play to anyone who is convinced that digital is incapable of the warmth of analog vinyl. The bounding bass and lush harmonies surround you and fill your body with warmth. This is a delicate track and the surround mix is ripe with soft detail. It'll send a shiver down your spine. And then there's the woodwind. You can hear the reeds vibrating! This is a master recording engineer at his finest.

No Twilight Within The Courts of the Sun is definitely the hardest rocking piece here. Fans of Porcupine Tree are going to see (hear) plenty to like. Check this out: Tony Levin on bass and Gavin Harrison on drums. What an out of this world rhythm section! The Fripp-like screeching and searing guitar that permeates this track is some of Wilson's most interesting. If there was any track you could use to show off the extended dynamic range of DVD-Audio, this would be it. It goes from ear bleeding loud to whisper quiet. A couple of moments will surely make you leap out of your flesh. Fantastic production. Check out the cool moment when Wilson's whispering vocal first enters: it's a cool effect that really sounds like he's inside your head.

My award for best-of-the-best surround (that is the best track on the best album) would go to Twilight Coda. This soft and beautiful instrumental is definitely a demo piece. Turn off the lights and crank up the sound. The rich guitars and piano (by Dream Theater's Jordan Rudess no less) creates the perfect audio replica for that eerie feeling you get at twilight. This is 5.1 bliss right here. (That's no over exaggeration my friends). Get All You Deserve is as creepy as creepy gets. Wilson's voice is so delicate and soft, at yet for some reason I feel it's subliminally threatening. The song ends with what Wilson dubs "Total Fucking Noise". I suggest you listen to it yourself to see exactly what he means by this. (Hint: it's very loud)

As we've come to expect from Mr. Wilson over the years, the album comes to an end with a beautiful and moving piano ballad. This track was apparently recorded in a church and the 5.1 recreates the cavernous space perfectly. It's a subdued and emotional way to conclude the disc. (Did I mention the koto? My oh my: the koto!)

I could really go on and on (and on and on and on...) about how great this album is. This is the perfect work of art and one of the best examples of artistic rock we've had in decades. It's completely original. Steven Wilson has put just about every other modern rock artist to shame. This is miles away from what you're going to hear on mainstream radio. You can't say that there aren't any original things being done in rock after listening to this masterpiece. This album came out early 2009 and completely blew out anything else created around the same time frame. Why do the majority of people continue to listen to what the mainstream rock stations are oozing out when there is such real creativity going on under the radar? The fact that this work, and pretty much everything Wilson's done in the last few decades, has been largely ignored by most rock critics and fans just goes to show you how miserable the mainstream has become (at least here in North America).

Do yourself a favour, if you don't already own this, you have to pick it up today. Keep in mind that if you buy the CD you are also getting the DVD-Audio. If you don't own a surround sound system but know a buddy who does, then ask to borrow it for an hour or so. It is the best mix I've ever heard coupled with some of the most original and dynamic rock music produced in the last decade. The Incident is about to come out on DVD-Audio very soon so expect me to review that as soon as I get my hands on it. There is no doubt in my mind that it's going to be fantastic.

Now, if you don't mind I have to get back to watching the Olympics. There's an exciting curling match underway.

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