by Geoff Bailie
I first plugged into the music of Steven Wilson with Porcupine Tree’s Signify album in 1996. Since then I’ve lost count of the albums, projects, and remixes that I’ve explored, never mind the videos, fanzines and books. I like some parts of what he’s done more than other parts, but I find that almost every project he’s been connected with is worth a listen… even if it’s just a single listen!
The new album, The Harmony Codex comes at an interesting point in the story! His last solo album proper was The Future Bites, which was ready to be released in 2020, was pushed by lockdown to the following year to align with a tour that didn’t end up happening. Then came the surprise, to many, of a Porcupine Tree reunion album and tour. I enjoyed the PT album and it was generally well received by fans – and, dare I say it, it was probably better received than his previous 2 solo albums. But right from the time The Future Bites was released, Wilson had mentioned he was working on his next solo album, reminding us of that in most of the PT interviews. A story in his autobiographical book Limited Edition of One was cited as the inspiration for the album -this isn’t a narrative concept album by any stretch, but like a short story, it’s best appreciated when listened to from start to finish.
One of the things that perhaps makes it tricky to write a review of this album is that, well, you really just have to hear it! It’s a pure sonic adventure. For any artist with a large catalogue or range of bands it can be easy to say – Track 1 sounds like this track from 3 albums ago etc. What The Harmony Codex contains, for me, is an incredible synthesis of lots of elements and styles of music that have been present from early PT through the solo albums, No-Man, Bass Communion, IEM, etc etc. But … the danger with that statement is that it might make it sound thrown together which it most definitely is not. Instead, it’s more like a painting where the artist has made careful decisions about which colours and brush strokes will best create the picture he wants his audience to see.
So I tried to think of some questions that people might ask about this album, and answer them:
Is it like Porcupine Tree? Depends which Porcupine Tree you’re referring to. Some of the trippier moments in the album reflect elements of some early PT … but there’s not really anything as straight ahead “heavy” as most of Closure/ Continuation. A track like “What Life Brings” has many aspects which reflect the simpler song formats and sonic beauty of Stupid Dream.
Is it like The Future Bites? Depends what part of The Future Bites you’re referring to! Yes the album contains electronic elements, which may draw some parallels to that album. However there are fewer songs in as “traditional” a format of many that appeared on TFB. This isn’t an album packed with catchy choruses!
Are there guitars on this one? Oh yes. But not on every track! Acoustics textures appear in a number of places and there are some superb guitar solos.
The first 4 minutes of the opening track, “Inclination,” is an ambient, electronic piece of music, with Middle Eastern sounding influences, followed by around 5 seconds of pure silence. This is broken by Wilson’s voice – initially solo and unaccompanied… and let me stick with “the voice” for a moment. The voice is very much treated as an instrument (or as per the previous painting analogy, a colour) within the overall soundscape. Sometimes voices are pure and untreated, like at this opening point. At other times the vocal sounds are layered, at times wordless, at times distorted beyond recognition, and beyond the traditional lead singer / vocalist format – you also have the voices of Ninet Tayeb and Rotem Wilson being the prominent features in the album. Inclination builds as layers of sound are added to the underlying programmed beat, including a very effective guitar solo by Slovakian experimental guitarist, David Kollar – and like the voices, the guitar features on this album will involve a variety of players for different effect.
“What Life Brings” is next, and for anyone who by now is worried that THC is going to be too strange or experimental, it has a more “normal” song format. Craig Blundell and Guy Pratt are the rhythm section here, with some really strong guitar by Wilson. The “love it all, and hold it in your hands” vocal section towards the close is something I expect will sound really fantastic in the Atmos mix (my review copy is just a streaming version of the stereo but is still a great audio experience!).
If you’ve been following the pre-release songs, and you aren’t saving your listens for the full album, you’ll likely already be familiar with “Economies of Scale” and “Impossible Tightrope.” The former was the first many heard of the album – and with such a diverse album, it’s simply impossible to capture all that happens in a “single”. While the album doesn’t have a narrative concept album structure, its completeness means that hearing 4 minutes out of context could be misleading. As a stand alone song, it’s not a traditional single, but following “What Life Brings,” it is a shift back to more electronic elements. Bar some Adam Holzman synth, everything here is Wilson including the layers of vocals – and while there is lots going on, what the listener won’t appreciate is that this track is the calm before the storm that follows it!
Steven Wilson called “Impossible Tightrope,” a “mash-up of progressive rock, spiritual jazz and electronica”, a description that makes much more sense when you hear the almost 11-minute, almost entirely instrumental epic! Stand out aspects of this track are Nate Wood’s drums, a fantastic Crimson-ic saxophone solo from Theo Travis, which ticks the Prog box if that’s on your “Must Have” list and the psychedelic guitar of Saucerful of Secrets’ Lee Harris. Like “Inclination,” it’s a long track with radical shifts, as the Prog/psyche work out in the first 4 minutes shifts to a lone piano, with heavily treated vocals whose pitch and sound distort and twist. I mentioned the short story, and if you’ve read that, this vocal section “Harmony little sister” is one of the few direct references in the lyrics to that narrative. As that section fades, the prog section returns, with rhythmic and melodic shifts and variation, leading to a distinctive Adam Holzman electric piano solo – so for anyone wanting “touch points” from their past Wilson experiences, this is a comforting aural hug! The ending section has elements which even encapsulate things that wouldn’t be out of place in the earliest of Porcupine Tree albums, which haven’t necessarily been part of Steven’s recent musical palette.
Where do you go from there? Well, of course, contrasts are what this album is all about – so we switch to a song, “Rock Bottom,” that is not only sung, but also written by Ninet Tayeb, which evolves into a duet with Steven. Again the use of the voices here is very creative with closely tracked unison, shifting to harmonies, separating into different parts, then coming back together, expanding and contracting – it’s mesmerising. And … phew… then comes a brilliant guitar solo by Niko Tsonev, one of many on this album. “Beautiful Scarecrow” is next, and even within its 5 minutes there are many shifts and contrast – a heavy electronic background with Theo Travis soloing on an Armenian duduk being one. Wilson’s voice is heavily treated with distortion, but it’s very effective. The song itself is like THC in microcosm.
And so to the title track – “The Harmony Codex.” I may be wrong with the connection but in the short story, Jamie finds his sister Harmony riding a horse on a carousel. The sounds that begin this track sound very like a carousel to me, in their circling repetitiveness, building and growing in clarity but relentlessly turning. It’s a track that’s more about the sounds and textures than a more traditional song – and it’s almost 10 minutes long! Almost all of it is Steven bar spoken passages by Rotem and some electric piano from Adam Holzman. It’s quite unlike anything that’s appeared on a regular SW solo album before but feels very much in line with the sonic textures he likes to create, whether or not they become a traditional song. To place something so different into the middle of an album is a brave step – and for me it works really well.
“Time Is Running Out” has Wilson using the same instrument set as the previous track to create something completely different. Treated and slowed down voices make this a very accessible song. This is followed by “Actual Brutal Facts” and the deep slowed down voice that appeared on the last song is back, in what some have referred to as the “rap section” – I’ll let you be the judge. Moving from programmed beats, with PT touring bassist Nate Navarro, plus Craig Blundell on hi-hat and percussion, to a breakdown feedback section, topped by another great guitar performance by David Kollar, leading into the final track: “Staircase.”
If you’ve read the story, you will know the importance of staircases, where the main part of the activity is centered. I know that for many fans of previous SW album, some elements of The Harmony Codex may prove challenging, as they do sit outside the forms of previous SW solo albums. I see “Staircase” as, in some ways a reward, to those who get this far! Many of the elements present earlier in the album are here, but with Beggs/ Blundell/ Holzman/ Tsonev present, you get something closer to the sound of past SW live bands. Rotem Wilson’s voice returns, tieing the ending into the rest of the album, leading to the closing soundscape, with Adam Holzman soloing on Moog to bring things to a close.
The Harmony Codex is an enormous and adventurous sonic journey that you are invited to join. On the voyage you’ll hear from a lot of musicians, different voices, and many different sounds and textures. In many places it won’t be what you’re expecting, but repeated plays will allow you to get deeper into the overall sound and concept. It’s an album that stands up to, and indeed demands, repeated listenings.
Released on Sept.29th, 2023
What Life Brings (3.40)
Economies of Scale (4.17)
Impossible Tightrope (10.42)
Rock Bottom (4.25)
Beautiful Scarecrow (5.21)
The Harmony Codex (9.50)
Time is Running Out (3.57)
Actual Brutal Facts (5.05)
Steven Wilson / vocals, guitars, keyboards, sampler, bass, percussion, programming
Ninet Tayeb / lead & backing vocals
Craig Blundell / drums
Sam Fogarino / drums
Adam Holzman / keyboards
Jack Dangers / keyboards
Order the album here: https://stevenwilson.lnk.to/theharmonycodex