May ’17 Earworm: “Drive Home” by Steven Wilson

The album cover for “The Raven That Refused To Sing”

Although I listen to music as diversely as most millennials these days, I do not have a single, diverse playlist like most millennials these days. I tend to go into cycles of listening to the a single artist or genre for months. For a good few months of late last year, I was listening exclusive to the Bee Gees, whose earlier works leading up to Odessa were criminally underrated. Recently, I am listening to a lot of Steven Wilson- the prog prince of darkness.

English artist Steven Wilson has been around for 3 decades and is most recognised as the lead singer of Porcupine Tree. At the risk of oversimplification, the music of Porcupine Tree is dark, moody, heavy and weighty. But what separates Porcupine Tree from other bands that might occupy a similar niche is Steven Wilson, who has a Trent Reznor-like approach to realising his artistic vision and also possesses a mellow singing voice that cuts through layers of dense music with great effect.

One Steven Wilson song that has stuck to my head throughout the month of May is “Drive Home”, from the 2013 album “The Raven That Refused To Song”. Although my favourite song on The Raven is “Luminol”- a rare progressive epic that, to my ridiculous delight, celebrates vintage Yes (and Chris Squire)- it is Drive Home that cannot leave the head (check out the Drive Home music video). The relatively down-tempo track comes after the exciting album opener Luminol, so it took a few listens for the track to become a pernicious earworm in my head.

The piece opens with a plaintive guitar melody, followed by Steven Wilson’s signature guitar arpeggios that can summon dark clouds over the most cheerful summer wedding. Steven Wilson’s voice sounds distant and gentle. As I listen to the track on earphones amid the warm, tropical climate of Kuala Lumpur, Steven Wilson clinically delivers the cold, depressing Autumn of England into my ears. And the chorus does not take the form of a loud hook accompanied with grandiose power chords like 90% of the minor rock ballads. Instead, Steven Wilson employs light acoustic strumming and sumptuously sinister strings (is that a mellotron?) to deliver the hook.

The real highlight of the track is the guitar solo, performed by virtuoso-meets-muso (they don’t always meet, you know), Guthrie Govan. His solo begins with sparse, maudlin notes which lulls the listener into a false sense of security before building up  into a terrifying bluesy crescendo with chromatic notes expertly weaved in to disarm the listener. It’s shocking and exhilarating. If David Gilmour’s solo on Comfortably Numb were New-Year’s fireworks, Guthrie Govan’s solo on Drive Home is a volcanic eruption- even if you’re watching from afar, you do not know if you’re safe from the immense power or heat.

Steven Wilson (left) and Guthrie Govan during The Raven recording sessions. This is a still from Youtube (Video: Steven Wilson – Recording Luminol in LA)

Many people say that Steven Wilson and Radiohead are similar. However, I would argue the main difference between Steven Wilson and Radiohead is the method of evocation. Radiohead relies on apathy and absence in their music to disarm the listener- its music (especially post-Kid A) being spatial, ambient and often mechanical. Steven Wilson on the other hand relies more on musicality, lyrics and progression to connect with the listener. And while Radiohead aims for the abstract, Steven Wilson’s music is deliberately dark and human. And Drive Home epitomises Steven Wilson’s music.

I have every intention of posting what I think of The Raven as it is a unique album by the standards of the 21st century in the future. For now, I will be taking my time exhausting the earworm that Drive Home has unwittingly planted.

REVIEW: One More Light by Linkin Park

I don’t listen to much radio music these days, but I make an exception for Linkin Park, an artist that left a great impression on a teenage me with its unique but accessible sounds. The Band has always been experts at making core music accessible to radio: accessible metal, accessible hip hop, accessible electronica, accessible folk (Castle of Glass) etc. And they’re great songwriters to boot.

LP’s latest album, One More Light, is a u-turn from the exploration of heavy rock in 2014’s The Hunting Party. The album is all songs, all hooks and all contemporary radio production. The last two months building up to the release of the album have seen a huge schism among the band’s fans: one camp denouncing the released material as a contrived commercial effort and another defending said effort for various reasons.

Upon listening to the album intently on Spotify, I conclude that it would be unfair to judge One More Light as an unequivocal surrender to the current pop trends, but the album does not showcase the band at its best.

First of all, One More Light does not sound like a new LP. The album has some likeness to 2012’s Living Things in terms of sound, but minus the distorted guitars and screams. The synths and beats throughout the album. are recognisably post-Living Things LP.  For instance, the second track Good Goodbye sounds like Living Things opener Lost In The Echo but with more rap. There are three tracks on One More Light that stick out from the rest: the second track Talking To Myself is a close cousin of Until It’s Gone from The Hunting Party, while closing tracks One More Light and Sharp Edges have a noticeably stripped-down approach. In terms of sound, the greatest changes in One More Light are: the sampling (most obvious on Nobody Can Save Me Now, Battle Symphony); the singing style (lead singer Chester Bennington opting for less rasp and more gloss); and the lack of distorted guitar (there are cleaner embellishments throughout). One More Light is crafted to take on today’s Top 40, but the band’s signature is sufficiently present on the album to distinguish it from generic factory pop.

As a successor to the intense The Hunting Party, the level of musicianship on One More Light is greatly reduced. Instead, the best musical moments on the album are often nuanced, such as the gentle guitar work on the title track, the clever use of snare on Battle Symphony and the simple but effective keyboards on Heavy.

The real victim on One More Light is the songwriting. LP has aggressively promoted One More Light for its collaboration with notable pop industry songwriters, such as Julia Michaels and blackbear. So it is rather ironic that the songwriting on One More Light are, in my opinion, inferior to their previous efforts. The arrangement of the songs are by and large lazy, and consequently do not leave much impression on the listener. For instance, 9 out of 10 of the tracks feature a soft to loud final chorus that I find extremely frustrating (LP also used the same party trick on previous albums, but more sparingly). Would it kill to have an instrumental break, or a different chorus? The lyrics are also unexceptional and middle-of-the-road. LP’s ability to add depth and dimension to their lyrics, such as on outstanding songs like Waiting For The End, The Little Things Give You Away and Final Masquerade, is completely missing on One More Light. It appears the collaborations with external songwriters has dulled the band’s lyrical expression.

One thing I do like about One More Light is the theme of family. It is certainly more pertinent for LP, now a sextet of middle-aged family men, to write songs about familial relationships and children. The band would be truly selling out its artistic integrity if they were still writing songs about teen angst.

One More Light suffers from safe arrangements and a lack of imagination. The album will be favourably remembered for its moving eponymous track, which is an outlier amongst the otherwise homogeneous radio-ready production. On the whole, I see this as a ‘been there, done that’ effort by the band, and I will be very surprised if they continue to collaborate extensively with other songwriters on their future studio albums.