Monday, July 30, 2018

Steven Wilson

I've said it time and again, the 90s, at least from a quality + quantity point of view, were a musical desert. We get Radiohead, who would produce what many feel is the greatest rock album bar none (although there's a battle royal over whether that's Kid A or OK Computer), and there was Weezer and Nine Inch Nails, and although the decade started off promising, Cobain had to go and ruin it for the rest of us. And there you have it, this writer's endless diatribe of why the 90s sucked. Yet, over time, I've warmed up to the decade, nostalgically, finally accepting into my canon The Pixies and My Bloody Valentine and, more than any other, Porcupine Tree. I only found the band accidentally one day on an 80s bent while listening to Japan's Gentlemen Take Polaroids. Having remained a great fan of David Sylvian, I ventured deeper into the audiophile quality of Japan's recordings and out of it came a new love and lust for guitarist Richard Barbieri, and from there to Porcupine Tree. The genius behind the band, Steven Wilson, is responsible for a collection of remastered progressive albums, each an audiophile's dream.

With analog recording, each generation of "dubbing down" loses  fidelity. So while it sounded great before, in theory it could sound even better if the producers were able to go back to the individual tapes, transfer them to a modern, high resolution digital recording format and remix them without generational loss. This was accomplished to great effect by Wilson for artists like King Crimson, Jethro Tull, XTC and ELP. Leading his own band Porcupine Tree into the upper echelon of modern progressive rock royalty, he has clearly earned the respect of his prog forefathers due to a gift for remixes which honor the artist's original intent, intensifying the fidelity. 

Close to the Edge

The best of his achievements for this writer is Yes' Close to the EdgeA 40-minute album with just three tracks—the side-long, epic and episodic title track, and a second side with two 10-minute tracks, the majestic "And You And I" and more hard-rocking but still utterly complex "Siberian Khatru"—Close to the Edge is almost over-brimming with ideas, and yet each piece feels complete, beautifully constructed and far more than the sum of its multitudinous parts. Jon Anderson's lyrics were never so oblique, his soaring voice never so pure, with an upper limit yet to be discovered. Howe's various guitars—from 12-string acoustics and pedal steel to hollow-body electric—are played with absolute precision, his solos some of the most unexpected to come from what was still considered a rock band, with the possible exception of Crimson's Fripp. Wakeman's plethora of keyboards, from multiple mellotrons to synthesizers, pianos and organs, facilitate rich underpinnings and searing solos. Bassist Chris Squire's treble-heavy Rickenbacker bass was far more than a mere anchor, instead managing to both serve that function and act as a contrapuntal foil to everything going on around him. And Bruford? One of the most recognizable snare drums in rock history, a drummer with an interest in jazz but capable of creating challenging polyrhythms, where left and right hands and feet played individual parts that coalesced into grooves of mathematical logic and precision, meeting sometimes only after many bars had passed. 

And with Wilson's new mix, both in stereo and surround sound, we hear it all in crystal clarity. The immersion starts right from the get-go as you enter the album's cavernous world of chirping birds and atmospherics. It sounds as if layers of muck have been removed and in a way, they have. We are hearing here the entire album in the same fidelity as the master multi-track recordings. For the acoustic sections it' almost like sitting around a campfire, with Yes! 

The Power and the Glory

This is a classic Steven Wilson production which remains true to the sound and intent of the artists' original recording. The undulating vocals pop up around the listener, punctuating the music. Of course, the often quirky, jittery musical details fill the room. It's immersive and not particularly gimmicky. Gentle Giant's music casts a long shadow in that it's perhaps more powerful today, particularly with Wilson's guidance. This is not Gentle Giant's best LP, nor is it for beginners (with the exception of Kerry Minnear's lovely "Aspirations), and may not be the best GG starter kit. The obvious first step is the quirky Octopus, but for the long time Giant fan, what may have been pushed aside in the past, should now be one of your top choices. While I have a tendency to anthologize Gentle Giant, the Steven Wilson mastering trumps the thought and brings to life an album that in 1973 had far too little.


Featuring sophisticated pop music with a distinctly British flair, Nonsuch is an LP worthy of a revisit and XTC at their finest.  With Close to the Edge and The Power and the Glory, Wilson was hadcuffed by the primitive, if emerging, technology of its time. When Leonardo painted "The Last Supper," he was experimenting with the latest painting innovations of his era. By using an egg based tempera that was new and vibrant in its hues, Leonardo left the world a fading masterpiece doomed to time. With the recording of both LPs reviewed here, that same kind of innovation in the studio led again to a disappearance act, that, in the case of Close to Edge, was compounded by lost original master tapes. Such was not the case with 1992's Nonsuch.

 The opening track, "Peter Pumpkinhead," spreads Dave Mattack's drums enormously wide, providing a massive sound, with harmonica and harmonies placed in the rear channels. Colin Moulding's bass is pronounced with a resilient grumble and warmly fills the bottom of the aural field. The surround mix of "My Bird Performs" is gently immersive with snare and tom tom drums percolating in the rear speakers. The guitars' mid tones are smooth losing the original mix's thin and overly bright sound.   "Humble Daisy" takes us back to a melancholy Beach Boys vibe, with dreamy vocals placed around the room with the guitar hitting the downbeat from the front left channel and nicely plucked strings at the front right and the mellotron taking its spot centered in the rear. And all this in just the stereo mix! AM gives XTC's Skylarking an AM10, but this is the more accessible and enjoyable LP, particularly in the remaster.

Since 2009, Steven Wilson has remixed 42 classic LPs, most in the art or progressive rocks genre, though a few, like Chicago II and, most recently, Rush's A Farewell to Kings have also been adapted. Those adaptations, alongside the phenomenal remixes of the King Crimson Catalog, Jethro Tull's most important LPs and those by Gentle Giant and XTC make for a mighty line up. LPs like Yes' highly criticized Tales From Topographic Oceans are given a new life, indeed, a life they never had. Look for two new releases in the early parts of 2018, Jethro Tull's Heavy Horses and the eponymous Roxy Music debut.

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