Steven Wilson – The Harmony Codex: Album Review

Mr Wilson in his latest escapade – in harmony or not quite so? Fetch an open mind.

Release Date: 29th September 2023

Label: Virgin

Format: CD / vinyl / deluxe CD set / Bluray

Following the recent Porcupine Tree diversion (the tease that was Closure/Continuation, leaving the door tantalisingly open), solo album #7 finds Steven Wilson running headlong into meeting the challenge of matching the acclaim for the likes of the Raven That Refused To Sing and Hand. Cannot. Erase. whilst avoiding some of the flak he spent time dodging as The Future Bites bit back sharply.

For starters there’s the enigmatic tease and significance of the multilink cubes that form the abstract icon. Perhaps a shout to Led Zep’s ‘object’ that defined a ‘presence’ on Presence? Within the package are various listening options including all manner of mind-boggling alternatives which are right up his street as a remixer of renown and will no doubt delight those with sound systems that will make the most of the technical sophistication. For most mere mortals, whilst wishing we could (afford to) appreciate the sonic depths and nuances, we call up our streaming service, slap on the CD or even drop the needle on our limited edition (natch) coloured vinyl to assess the state of play, for as has been said, all we need are two speakers and an open mind.

As per, we find SW bringing in a collection of contributors and collaborators to realise his visions and having studiously avoided the recent trend (yes, we’re pointing fingers at you Mr Peter ‘full moon’ Gabriel) of releasing most of the music via Youtube/Spotify etc before a physical release appears, we can absorb The Harmony Codex in its full glory. And it’s an album that finds the many sides to Steven Wilson finding a home in a series of pieces (it’s difficult to call them ‘songs’) that merge his electronic and ambient musings with the more off-kilter dashes of Prog Rock discordance which have earned him approving nods from those who know best. It goes without saying that on THC you’re never too far away from the shivers or a surprise lurking in a dark corner. For every track such as Economies Of Scale with its artfully choreographed video, there’s an oppressive counterpoint waiting to be imagined in some sort of disturbing sepia-tinged sub Horror context.

And while Mr W has his fingers in as many pies as he can reach, The Harmony Codex finds him creating nothing less than a very artful piece of work. The nearest reference point might well be The Future Bites given the synthesised vein that runs through much of the record, yet saying “it’s like TFB” might be an oversimplistic view. To say THC is the natural successor or reaction to TFB might be more on track. For sure, there are parts that you wouldn’t anticipate being on a Steven Wilson album – the opening part of Inclination for example that sets something of a tone until you hear the distinctive voice – but then Steven Wilson has never been about expectation; just like Peter Gabriel’s eponymous 1977 debut that carried the ‘expect the unexpected’ tag. We should be used to the MO now.

Some may even draw a comparison to the latest Gabriel works; music that requires some investment of thought and time and not accept as throwaway background musak. He’s certainly not going to let one of the wonders of the world go down.

The title track for example, sees him channelling some celestial Tangerine Dream-type soundtrack. It could even appear an improvisation, yet the truth is that its almost ten minutes have been minutely crafted in the subtle manner of a No Man piece. On the other hand, Impossible Tightrope is a catch-all of SW tropes, that offers a whiff of excitement via a slowly building, bass driven crescendo that could well have been a contender for Closure/Continuation given some nice knob-twiddling effects from Richard Barbieri. The squeal of sax, synth runs and jazzy, angular riffs all cross reference familiar works from the solo catalogue. It’s a satisfying workout that’s likely going to give the audience (and the band) something to get their teeth into on tour. A similar long form piece, the calm Staircase, might not challenge the likes of Routine or Ancestral, but takes several twists and turns to maintain the interest.

Niko Tsonev (The name may be familiar from The Raven…) the guitarist might expect to see when those touring plans come to fruition, makes several telling contributions. Guthrie Govan, Dave Kilminster and Alex Hutchings will be hard acts to follow with the standards they’ve set, but things are looking promising. and he’s earned his stripes in the early versions of the SW touring band.

Song-wise, Rock Bottom sees the almost expected appearance of Ninet Tayeb while Beautiful Scarecrow is the first of a couple of typically dark Wilson pieces replete with thumping tribal climax. What Life Brings is a languid Floyd-esque passage that wouldn’t be out of place on the (accessible stuff) album Transcience and read as much as you like into the “You no longer care if you’re well liked” line in Time Is Running Out; a skittering piece with a keyboard line that provides the hooks and gives the lyric analysts something to read into. Emerging as a personal favourite track, Actual Brutal Facts might sit comfortably on Grace For Drowning, containing one of those oppressive and intimidating atmospheres he created with the towering Index. All chilling images of Buffalo Bill and a cellarful of mannequins. Uncomfortable is the word…

…and admittedly it’s not the most comfortable position sitting on a fence. Do we declare the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ trump card and resist the temptation to blindly follow, shower praise and declare undying love because of who it is? Dare we say that in hindsight TFB was a bit underwhelming and initial thoughts on THC suggest we have enough evidence (Actual Brutal Facts, Impossible Tightrope, What Life Brings) to suggest that although not an obvious masterpiece, it’s a grower.

OR, do we resign ourselves to the thought that The Raven and HCE (AND To The Bone being truthful) might be his Close To The Edge – high watermarks never to be repeated. But, and it’s a big one, it’s Steven Wilson so it’s always going to be interesting, but whether we’ll be returning to THC on a regular basis over the next few months…maybe not. Time may show the wiser and over time, context will prove the album’s worth. We’ll offer a curmudgeonly, what do you think? And does it really matter? Ask me in a few years.

Here’s Impossible Tightrope:

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