Although parts of his new album recall his work with his earlier project, Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson’s To the Bone is not a simple throwback to an earlier stage of his career. To my ear, it sounds like the Porcupine Tree guy and progressive solo artist jettisoning the metal riffs and keeping the song lengths (more or less) under control, while holding onto his earlier project’s melodic hooks, broad dynamics, and sprawling atmospheres. Wilson’s dialing back of his earlier metal and prog leanings casts his melodies on To the Bone in a direct light and allows his earthy, Gilmour-influenced guitar style and pop instincts to leaven the progressive depth of his songs. It’s ironic that Wilson’s music seems most welcoming of human contact when he is making more of it himself. On To the Bone, when Wilson features another musician—specifically vocalist Ninet Tayeb, who takes lead vocal turns on three tracks, most spectacularly on “Pariah”—the contribution really packs dramatic impact.
“Refuge” is the album’s centerpiece and perfect example Wilson’s patient melding of melody and atmosphere. The song builds to a drum-driven soundscape that recall 80s Peter Gabriel before slicing through with a three-part solo section that opens with a distorted harmonica, rides into Wilson’s guitar lead, and peaks with a Moog-sounding synthesizer. It’s as if “Red Rain” rear-ended “Comfortably Numb,” which collided with “Welcome to the Machine,” which tapped the bumper of a bit of “Love Over Gold,” except, as a whole, its absolutely nothing like those songs .
“Permanating” is probably the poppiest song I’ve heard from Wilson, with uplifting lyrics that balance savoring of life with awareness of mortality pulled together by contrasting sections that nonetheless voice-lead and modulate with impeccable flow. The song’s bittersweet emotional center is Wilson’s short, tasty neck pick-up guitar solo that flows out of the descending bass line of the Brit-pop flavored chorus. The chorus chord progression—C-C∆-Am-Am∆-G-G∆-G7-E7—is especially delicious as it moves back to the Eꚝ of the verse.
Perhaps the song on To the Bone that sounds most like it could be from Wilson’s Porcupine Tree era is “Detonation.” More than nine minutes long and filled with urgency, the song achieves a contemporary identity most obviously through attention to tone. The albums lone extended guitar solo, played by David Kollar, is timbrally more like something played by Wilson himself than like the “Regret #9” solo on his previous album, which cut with the distinctive pick attack and midrange edge of Guthrie Govan. However, the shifting tensions of the chords of the extended ride-out are also part of the equation. I don’t remember so many seventh chords in Wilson’s earlier material. The concluding low-string riffing rocks but does not approach the metallic heaviness frequently found on Deadwing and In Absentia; Wilson seems to deliberately avoid the signifier of a traditional amp sound.
Steven Wilson puts a strong fingerprint on all his music. It’s very difficult to imagine him in someone else’s band (though he does serves as a producer for others who want his thing on their albums). To my sensibility, it’s great to hear him again supporting his songs with his own instrumental talents. Even where influences are evident, Wilson’s sonic identity and songcraft unite for a strong and highly recommended album.