Sunday, October 2, 2011

New Release: Steven Wilson - Grace For Drowning

Release Date: September 26, 2011
Label:  KScope

Having received my much-awaited Grace For Drowning vinyl and deluxe edition mail orders, and allowing a few listens to set in, I feel compelled to provide my thoughts on this excellent new record.  Steven Wilson is the lead singer, songwriter, producer, and creative genius behind the progressive rock/metal band Porcupine Tree, and has been involved with many other projects (as both musician, producer, and general sound expert), including Blackfield, Opeth, and, notably, the new 40th anniversary King Crimson remasters.  It is the latter project that clearly had the most influence over the outcome of his new sophomore solo record.

I shall break this up into a few broad attributes.

Grace For Drowning vinyl edition
I bought both the vinyl and the deluxe blu-ray edition.  The vinyl is a standard double gatefold, with printed sleeves and 180g black vinyl.  This is what I listened to first, and it is an impressive package, but not any more so than similar vinyl releases.

The deluxe edition, running at a cool $80 plus shipping, is truly impressive.  This version comes with both discs of Grace For Drowning, and bonus disc with demos and outtakes, and a blu-ray disc containing 5.1 and stereo mixes of the album, videos, a couple of bonus tracks, photos, and handwritten lyrics.  I haven't had a chance to watch all of the videos, but the ones I've seen do songs justice, and fit their dark mood, as is typical of Lasse Hoile-directed videos.

Grace For Drowning deluxe edition
The deluxe edition is housed in a 120-page hardcover book, whose cover is fitted with embossed denim.  They certainly did not skimp on quality here.  The book's 120 pages - yes, there are really 120 pages - are photos that I'm assuming are thematic, interspersed with lyrics and reproductions of handwritten notes.  I don't know where all these photos came from, but it looks like almost as much work could have been put into the design of this edition as the music itself.  Steven Wilson considers the album artwork to be, along with the actual music, one of the critical components of an album, and this album artwork is as breathtaking as any I've seen.

I mentioned that Wilson is hot off his work on King Crimson's 40th Anniversary Editions, and these song truly phenomenal.  The new 5.1 remixes of those albums are largely responsible for my renewed appreciation for Lizard and Islands.  Thus, it is only appropriate for this album to include a 5.1 edition.

The great thing about this is the 5.1 mix doesn't make the album.  It still sounds spectacular in stereo; you don't even really need the 5.1 mix to appreciate the incredible aural experience this album offers.  What the 5.1 mix brings to the table is a little more subtle; Wilson essentially brings you, the listener, into the room by moving atmospheric elements and some vocals to the rear channels.  There is more separation between the sounds.  The blu-ray edition really shines during the quiet parts of the album, when there are but a few instruments, and you are not limited to the dynamic range compressed stereo CDs have.  A perfect example of this is the final track, "Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye."  You hear Wilson in the center channel, the piano in the rear, guitar chords in the front, some occasional strumming in the rear, and layered background vocals all around you.

Even if you don't buy the $80 deluxe edition, it is still worthwhile to have the blu-ray disc, when can be bought separately for about $15 on Amazon.

The Actual Music
Obviously the music is the most important part of any album, and there is no disappointment in this regard.  Grace For Drowning is far more ambitious than Wilson's debut solo album, Insurgentes, which is sometimes a recipe for trouble.  There is always the risk of coming across as overindulgent, and sometimes music just needs to be simple.

Fortunately, Wilson took a new approach here: he made two separate albums, Deform to Form a Star, which comprises the first disc, and Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye, which comprises the second disc.  He intended for these albums to be digested separately.  The first, Deform, is more structured, less ambitious, and contains a few beautifully simple songs (e.g., "Postcard").  The disc starts out with the delicate title track, whose vocals are limited to some layered la's.  The second track, "Sectarian," is a wonderfully discordant and rhythmic instrumental.  This starkly contrasts to the Insurgentes, which began with the catchiest song on the album, "Harmony Korine."  The effect here is that after ten minutes of textured music, the soft vocals become far more profound when the track "Deform to Form a Star" begins.

The second disc/album is more abstract and ambitious.  The centerpiece is a very Lizard-esque epic track entitled "Raider II."  The onset of this track seems to give a deliberate nod to Lizard, with its vocal melody and style that is very reminiscent of the beginning of Lizard's first track, "Cirkus."  This influence is noticeable throughout the entire album; for this record, Wilson employed several jazz musicians, and there are saxophone and flute parts scattered about.  Given the fact that Lizard is one of my favorite albums, this is a welcome influence.

The reason I like the way the albums are divided, is that if the whole album is a bit too much for you, you can simply stick to the first sub-album.  This disc alone offers enough depth to keep you occupied for some time.  When you feel like you're done absorbing the first disc, you can then move on to the second.

I don't know where this album will settle after I've had months to digest it, but my initial impression, after three listens, is that it's the best thing I've heard in some time, and it's Wilson's best work, which is a high mark indeed.  

This album, perhaps more than any album I've heard, offers the complete package.  It is pure art in every form.  It has excellent music, great photography, beautiful videos, and amazing sound.  Regardless of whether this is your preferred style of music, you can't help but be amazed by Wilson's ability to put all this together.  


No comments:

Post a Comment