Monday, January 25, 2010

The Unknown Legend in Rock Today -- Part 1

As a kid who grew up listening to hard rock, and more or less always rejected music with pop sensibilities, I've spent the better part of the last decade trying to expand my palate with different genres of music.

The effort mostly stemmed from curiosity, but it was also partly driven by my picky tendencies with rock and a degree of boredom with the genre. I knew as I began this "quest of expansion" that I had lots of work ahead of me as I sifted through tons of material -- some rented from the library, and some purchased -- in search of lost or forgotten gems in the form of songs, albums, and artists.

I've expanded very deeply into jazz to establish certain tastes and preferences in that genre...I've also investigated some country, some bluegrass, some classical, some opera, world music, and noodled a bit into the blues. For the most part, I've been
willing to dive into almost anything; and in the process I've uncovered a TON of gems ranging from lost Johnny Cash songs to seeing Allison Krauss & Union Station perform in person twice, to a love for Andrew Hill's spellbinding jazz piano work and Clifford Brown's mastery of the trumpet. In the process I also circled around and bit deeply into the catalogs of Radiohead and Neil Young.

However, through it all, perhaps one the big
gest gem I've uncovered has been out of the rock genre -- and specifically more of the progressive type -- interestingly enough, where I start and was trying to get away from in the first place. Odd, yet somewhat predictable.

In 2007, as I was anticipating the upcoming release of Snakes & Arrows, I read somewhere in one of the pre-release interviews that Neil Peart was endorsing a band called Porcupine Tree and their new CD Fear of a Blank Planet (a band on the same label as Rush, Atlantic, so I don't know if the record company had anything
to do with that -- I'm sure if he didn't like them he wouldn't have said anything). Porcupine Tree was a complete mystery to me at the time, but I decided to take a chance and pick it up...something I don't do very often. I usually like to have a flavor for what the goods are before I dive in...but Neil recommended it, and Alex Lifeson was making a cameo with a guitar solo on it, so there had to be something decent happening with Porcupine Tree.

Needless to say, it was a decision I would not regret.

The album didn't take right away, even though I liked it. I may have been distracted with other things at the time, but through an initial listen I liked what I heard. I could also tell that this was something new and different, so I wanted to sit down and give it a diligent listen when I was in the right frame of mind.

When I did give Fear of a Blank Planet it's deserved time, I was totally blown away with the musicianship and songwriting. In terms of sound and studio wizardry, it's unlike anything I've ever heard before...the sonic textures of Pink Floyd being the closest thing that comes to mind (surprisingly, somet
hing few bands have tried to recapture since the Floyd) with some of Radiohead's modern day studio tricks to boot. Those passages are interspersed with the hard rocking and jamming tightness of Rush...and I catch other influences in there too such as Kraftwerk, and maybe a little Beatles...and maybe a little U2.

At some point, typical of my curiosity, I decided to find out who was behind all this...and who I ended up uncovering is a total anomaly in music: Steven Wilson. He's an ultra-talented one-man show who can do everything -- AND does everything very, very well.

Outside of being a songwriter and lyricist, he owns his own home studio in north London, called "No Man's Land," and manages an online distribution of his rarer material through Headphone Dust.

He has all the latest equipment in his studio to noodle with and produce albums. He's a modern-day Renaissance man, serving in no particular order as the writer, arranger, acoustic and electric guitarist, performing multi-instrumentalist, singer, technician, equipment manager, recording eng
ineer, audio mixer, and producer all rolled into one. In addition to being involved in some of the distribution, he works through another independent UK distributor Burning Shed, begun by a longtime collaborator of Wilson's Tim Bowness (more on that partnership in this series -- it's very significant).

It wouldn't surprise me if Wilson was revealed to be the airline pilot who fle
w the latest copies of his releases over the Atlantic. Seriously...I'd probably shrug my shoulders and say, "Sure, why not? No surprise there."

This talent as a one-man entity also has, in some ways, contributed in part to why he's not very well known. After all, the only reason I found about Steven Wilson was through something Neil Peart said one time in a random interview a couple years back...otherwise I'd have no idea. As a small act, it's difficult to get exposure. Sure, there's the internet, but with so many artists competing for the listener's ear, how does one tap into it deeply enough to be successful and maintain artistic autonomy, let alone simply survive and make a living?

While word of mouth is a slow process and bears a slow trickle of fruit -- there's another way -- which is right out of the rock 'n' roll textbook: touring.

Touring is essential, IMO, to being seen and taken seriously as a real act...and that being said, that can be a full-time job for a man or woman involved with ONE band...but what if you're touring in more than one band?

Now here's the brainmelter about this guy. Wilson has SIX different bands he's in. SIX...and he's the leader and
initiator (or co-initiator in the case of 2) for of all of them. SIX bands, and they all make albums and put out material. Out of those six, five of them are touring acts as real living, breathing entities. I don't know if my brain can fully absorb that, let alone understand how it's logistically possible -- but all of it is dead-on and completely true. To add, Wilson has even revealed that he loses money when he tours. That's how dedicated this guy is to his art.

All the bands are completely different and have their own unique motif. Wilson's first, No-Man, began in 1987 and has lasted as a collaboration with singer/songwriter Tim Bowness to this day...and they just released their very first DVD Mixedtape, which serves as the perfect introduction to the band. After No-Man began, Wilson started to take on other projects that began as essentially studio of which, oddly enough, formed into his most successful band Porcupine Tree. We'll get to them later.

One experiment he formed out of the krautrock/avant garde jazz genre, I.E.M. (short for the Incredible Expanding Mindfuck), put out music in the mid-late 90s, much of which is difficult to find copies of thes
e days.

Another experiment of more of the ambient/electronica genre is Bass Communion, also formed in the mid-90s -- and he's performed live with this act, which is captured in a recent concert in Mexico City and has tracks available for download. Bass Communion has several albums, many of which take on a an ambient drone of the more acclaimed being Ghosts on Magnetic Tape, which may soon become a rare recording (I believe I just got my hands on one of the last 2CD issues through Headphone Dust).

Blackfield, Wilson's collaboration with Israeli musician Aviv Geffen, formed in the early part of the decade and they have since created two albums of original material, in addition to performing as a worldwide touring act. Check out their DVD Blackfield - NYC (Live in New York) (also just released as a CD/DVD set), which captures the energy and depth of this songwriting collaboration...Geffen's involvement puts a really interesting spin on the love song/melancholy thing. The textures, songwriting, melody, and live presentation of Blackfield is new, fresh, and exciting. I hope we see more material from this band soon!

There's also Wilson's blossoming solo career and Porcupine Tree, which need their own post. We'll talk about those bands in the next post on Steven Wilson's career -- and continue more in-depth discussions of Blackfield and No-Man -- in addition to his other experiments and collaborations.