Regarded as a visionary and one of the driving forces behind the modern progressive rock/metal movement, Steven Wilson, the man who created Porcupine Tree, is an eclectic and prolific artist who is able to tap into the pure emotional heart of his music as well as the intellectual side without compromising either.
Witnessing a Steven Wilson live performance is to be engulfed by mind-bending visuals and a bombastic aural surroundscape. His latest album, The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) is perfectly built for the live stage. Actually, scratch that: the album is so ambitious and enveloping that it requires a special stage set-up in order to pull it off in a way that’s true to Wilson’s vision.
“The show is in many ways the most ambitious live event I’ve ever staged,” Wilson says. “Some people may think that because I’m doing a solo tour it’s more stripped down. In fact, no, the opposite is true. In many respects I’ve taken the philosophy of what I was doing with Porcupine Tree – the film, the visuals – one step further. We have films, multiple projectors, and we also have a quadraphonic sound system, to try to create a more immersive feeling to the audio and the whole experience.”
This approach makes perfect sense. After all, Wilson has made a name for himself as someone who has made many surround sound mixes, including of the Jethro Tull and King Crimson back catalogues. It’s a medium he understands better than most, for both its creative potential and its limitations. It’s not just a matter of putting different instruments in different speakers and letting it be. “It’s not as simple as that because it can’t be as simple as that,” he says. “The problem with quadraphonic sound is that every room you go into is different. Every room has its own dimensions and its own logistical and acoustic conditions. So we have to be very careful what we put in surround sound.”
Wilson is no slouch on the guitar, but he finds himself taking on more of a multi-instrumentalist approach in his solo material. And each of the band members is an established player in their own right, with their own voice and their own following, something Wilson is happy to emphasise in the form of plenty of spots for improvisation and solos. “That was almost fundamental to the whole philosophy of putting this band together,” he says. Guthrie Govan (whose band The Aristocrats just released their second album, Culture Clash), takes the lion’s share of big guitar moments. “Guthrie is absolutely extraordinary. Not only is he a brilliant technician, he’s also someone that completely understands how to do the right thing for the music, and those things very often don’t go together. You have extraordinary musicians who are somehow unable to do anything except inspire other people to also achieve Olympic levels of guitar technique. But that’s not music. That’s Olympic sport. And there are too many musicians out there that approach it as if it’s an Olympic sport. What I love about Guthrie is, if I ask him to play two notes for ten minutes, as long as he understands why he’s doing it and he agrees it’s the right thing for the song, he’s just as happy to do that.”
Wilson concludes of the new project, “It’s a foolish thing to do, to walk away from an established band and brand, and drop all of that material and play material which is new. I think in a way I’ve earned the opportunity to do that by virtue of the fact that anybody who’s followed my career has learned to accept that I’m someone that needs to constantly develop and evolve, and I can’t just stand still. You accept that as part of the deal in a way that you wouldn’t with AC/DC.”
BY PETER HODGSON