Steven Wilson Presents – The Harmony Codex (Album Playback and Live Set)
EartH, London – 27 September 2023
Steven Wilson’s The Harmony Codex album has now been officially release. But on Wednesday evening, Sept. 27th, in London, the first (proper) public airing of the album took place and I was fortunate to be able to attend the event. The venue is called EartH and the layout is theater style but equipped with a 69 speaker layout (for those into the finer detail, it’s a 17.1.8 system which includes five frontal loudspeaker arrays, 12 surrounds, 8 overheads and 4 flown subwoofers, 69 speakers in total). So certainly this is more immersive than even many cinema experiences – and of course the music has been entirely designed to be presented in this format.
Initially it felt a bit unusual – the lights go down, the music starts and, unlike, say, a regular gig where at some point a performer will appear on stage, it was simply the audience and the music without any visual stimuli. That’s where the spatial audio does the work, and I actually found listening was enhanced by closing my eyes (I understand for earlier playbacks blindfolds were provided!). Removing the visual meant that your focus was on where the sound was coming from and brought much more clarity to that. Unlike many present, I’d had the opportunity to hear the album for my review but in this experience, the loud / deep sounds were louder and the smaller more subtle elements were clearer – so in many cases I was hearing things I had never noticed before.
Taking a song like the title track, the spatial audio drew you into a different place. Speaking after, people were commenting how they’d got lost in the music, particularly within the longer, ambient parts of the album. It was mentioned online that the plan is to do more of these and Steven’s desire is that more people will get to hear the album this way – if you get the chance, do!
During this performance, the stage was set for the second part. Left to right, there was a single microphone (was Nenet going to be here, people speculated?), a keyboard set up, and then some guitars and amps. When the lights dimmed, Niko Tsonev was first on stage, and began coaxing sound from his guitar and pedals. Next on was the man himself, taking his place behind the keyboard which is where he remained for the show – but this wasn’t an Elton John style appearance, or even a Wakeman-esque multi-keyboard scales-fest. Ear-piece in his ear, Wilson began to manipulate the sound to produce the atmospheric / wind noises that open The Harmony Codex title track. Moving between the different keyboard stations the track built replicating pretty much exactly what we’d just heard on the playback. I will admit that a lingering question I would have had about THC was: how do you do this music live? Within 5 minutes that question was answered! Staging was minimal, but the THC object backlit Steven as he moved between the devices. The reason for the mic on stage was revealed shortly as Steven’s wife, Rotem, joined the musicians to recite the spoken word parts of the track.
The other thing to note was that all of the spatial audio equipment was as active in this part of the show as it had been in the playback, with the audio team (the youngest people in the house, apart from the Wilson kids?) manipulated what was happening on stage to spread it throughout the venue. You can’t help but imagine that this smaller scale production is a glimpse into what might have been envisaged for The Future Bites tour that never happened … and to reinforce that (and in case you were thinking “play one we know”) the distinctive opening of King Ghost began, to a murmur of recognition approval. It was a strong version, similar to the TFB Sessions video that appeared on YouTube at that time. This was the first opportunity for Steven to sing, which he did for the rest of the set. The dimly lit stage made it hard to distinguish but Wilson was using some sort of face/ radio mic and, like many of the instruments, the vocals were processed to cover the repeat / additional parts.
That was followed by two more selections from TFB. The first single, Economies of Scale came across very well, with the sound being thrown up down and around the theatre. During the playback, Actual Brutal Facts was a real standout song for me – something about the surround mix, the rap-like treated vocals, and bass parts in particular meant it took on a new life compared to previous listenings. So to hear this presented as a live piece was even more of a revelation. The spoken vocals had a different tone, plus Niko got the opportunity to add an enormous contribution on guitar, as David Kollar had covered this on the original. Steven had mentioned that he’d sent tracks to many different musicians and chosen what he felt worked best – and equally in his live bands, the members are not necessarily the ones who played on the original tracks. Niko’s improvisational style meant his guitar playing went in multiple directions, while Steven moved between keyboards both playing and controlling the noises we were hearing.
As a fan of Wilson, and of this album, it was a great event: a real buzz from hearing THC as the maker intended, and a fanboy thrill from hearing the ever live performances of 4 songs! Here’s hoping this was the first step on the journey to bring this music out to the wider fan base!
The Harmony Codex
Economies of Scale
Actual Brutal Facts
Order the album here: https://stevenwilson.lnk.to/theharmonycodex