It may only be two-thirds of the way through January, but already i’m fairly sure that i’ve heard the album that’ll be my best of the year: Steven Wilson‘s Insurgentes. Wilson is the musician behind, among other acts, Porcupine Tree and Bass Communion, and Insurgentes—the first album he has released under his own name—brings together the best elements of those projects and much else besides. Strictly speaking, it was released last year, in a limited edition of 3,000 copies; the retail version was to have been released at the end of February this year, but appears to have been pushed back to March. However, in true Trent Reznor style, if you pre-order, you’re immediately given a link to download the entire album in mp3 format (256Kbps) to tide you over.
It all stems from a plain, arpeggiating guitar, quickly joined by bass, drums and vocals; together they enunciate a gentle, slightly plaintive melody, before suddenly erupting into a fierce, anthemic chorus. Structurally, “Harmony Korine” is pretty familiar, but the abrupt juxtaposition of material and expressive harmonic language are prescient; the tracks that lie ahead are far from conventional. “Abandoner” is in similar vein, heavily suggestive of Radiohead, inhabiting a world strange and claustrophobic—and yet, also highly lyrical; Wilson has a lovely singing voice, and when sotto voce, as here, is arguably more powerful than when he lets rip. Once again, the gently circling music suddenly bursts into a gush of abrasive noise, drenching the ongoing chord progressions in a kind of aural rust. Riffs redolent of Nine Inch Nails pervade the start of “Salvaging”, a song built with great economy of means, cycling round and round, slowly growing in intensity—until, that is, it suddenly opens out into a meditative episode for strings, into which Wilson spills droplets of guitar notes. This emerges, via a strange, static accordion, into a miasma of noise akin to of Scott Walker‘s “Clara”; overall, “Salvaging” is a highly disconcerting song, its structure beautifully weird. The intensity is immediately quashed in “Venemo Para Las Hadas”, a mellow, delicate piece that sounds surprisingly reticent following the first three tracks. This is nothing more than an interlude, however, as the elaborately-titled “No Twilight Within The Courts Of The Sun” initiates a slowly crescendoing chaconne, over which more and more layers and intricacy are laid. For four minutes this continues, until an abrupt drop in dynamic heralds Wilson’s vocal entry, with a distinct hint of The The‘s Matt Johnson, especially when the softness subsides, and the song reaches its dynamic zenith. There’s a brilliantly-judged false ending, the song ostensibly dissipating into piano fragments… before the hard-edged guitar riff returns for a final fling—it’s a breathlessly thrilling conclusion. Once again, this complex track is followed by one that relaxes the mood, although “Significant Other” has more to it than its lilting quasi-Goldfrapp opening rhythms would suggest; it quickly rocks out in a lovely harmonic sequence; and so it continues to fluctuate, until an unexpected faux-vinyl-scratched glockenspiel coda brings the song to a bizarre end. Conventionality returns more convincingly in “Only Child”, although pitched very low throughout, stopping it from very feeling entirely comfortable; and it’s followed by “Twilight Coda”, an exquisitely soft and tender instrumental. Traces of Radiohead return (Wilson even sounding a little like Thom Yorke) in the soft chromatic opening of “Get All You Deserve”; sadly, the final third of the track—another layered crescendo, above a static pedal drone—doesn’t live up to the rest, which is among the most beautiful music on the album (particularly from 2:16, when the guitar—dripping with distortion and reverb—is added to the melody). The final, title track, is, surprisingly, less engaging than most of the others, but it doesn’t detract from the overall effect of these 10 tracks, which together create a breathtakingly original, passionately moving album, that may well turn out to be my favourite of the year.
The limited edition comes with an equally impressive bonus disc, although it gets off to a faltering start, with the downright weird “Port Rubicon”; but then, one of the finest songs so far: “Puncture Wound”. This song triumphantly resurrects the nocturnal angst of 1980s The Cure, its chord progressions and guitar treatments strikingly similar to “A Forest”; the conclusion is all Steven Wilson, though: a vast wall of shifting chords, utterly elating and triumphal. For all its technical aplomb, “Collecting Space” is a rather mundane interlude, its layers of material not quite adding up to something substantial (it’s significant that this track pre-dates all the others, and by at least 4 years, written in 2003). But substance abounds in “Insurgentes (Mexico)”, an alternative take of the title track, and far exceeding it; the piano is used with more heartfelt emphasis, and the drifting clouds of distorted guitar combine wonderfully. The final track, “The 78”, sets up rhythmic patterns and vocal lines that again bring Nine Inch Nails to mind; it continues in this same vein, and despite fading out at the end, it still brings the album as a whole to a stirring conclusion.
i can’t recommend this album highly enough; it’s an absolute must-have.