Album Review: Steven Wilson, Insurgentes

[from MadeLoud, February 4, 2009]

It’s usually unfair to hold a solo album up to the expectation of its creator’s main band. Without the tether of their bandmates, the briefly (or newly) solo artist is free to indulge their every strange artistic whim, for better or for worse – but what happens when the solo artist is also the lead vocalist, producer and near-exclusive songwriter for the band that made them famous?

As the veritable chief executive of British proggers Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson has steered his main group from early-90s acid trips to latter-decade space rock and Radiohead indulgences, then most recently into the increasingly heavy, riff-oriented metal exploration of their last three albums. With each release, Wilson added another layer of complexity to his band’s sound and style; with Insurgentes, his first proper solo album, Wilson takes everything he’s learned with Porcupine Tree and a host of side projects (most similarly Blackfield and Bass Communion) and rather than simply peel the layers back, instead collapses them all onto themselves. The result, as expected, is a widely mixed bag which will leave fans of other Wilson pursuits either highly satisfied or thoroughly disappointed. Newcomers, however, will be pleasantly surprised and most likely intrigued by Wilson’s highly progressive brand of drone-heavy art rock ballads.

Insurgentes, as the liner notes will tell you, was recorded across the far corners of the globe, and much of the album’s structure is that of one long journey, with songs themselves veering from vicious grooves to classical piano interludes to abysmal dalliances in doom metal. Wilson has made quite a name for himself in production and engineering circles, and he wastes no opportunity to flex either muscle, be it the guitar interplay on the Black Sabbath-via-Rabid Rabbit sludge of “Salvaging”, the fade from the delicate balladry into the haunting koto solo by Michiyo Yagi on the title track, or the sparse pads-and-pianos layering by special guest Jordan Rudess on “Veneno Para Las Hadas.” Still, this sense of adventure ultimately becomes Insurgentes‘ fatal flaw: the seemingly meandering nature of the songs can at times leave the impression of these not actually being songs at all, but instead the strange sonic collages of a star producer run amok.

Fans of Wilson’s primary outfit will immediately recognize the striking similarities between album opener “Harmony Korine” and the title track (also the opener) from Porcupine Tree’s 2007 Fear of a Blank Planet; this may be entirely coincidental, as the two were written around roughly the same time, but more likely than not Wilson is simply reminding us that we are about to take an alternate, highly experimental route through his brand of musical sensibility although if strange music and unexpected choices were Wilson’s plan all along, consider Insurgentes a runaway success.