Steven Wilson - The Harmony Codex

Steven Wilson – The Harmony Codex

This is Steven Wilson’s seventh outing with a full studio album release. Anyone that has been following his career will be aware of his beginnings in the late ’80s, with his Porcupine Tree and No-Man projects, his success in the ’90s with Porcupine Tree as a band unit, and his eventual blossoming as a full solo artiste in the late noughties. Even though Porcupine Tree musically evolved over the decades, it’s Steven Wilson’s own solo career during the last 15 years that has seen the biggest leaps in style and direction. As such, each new album brings anticipation as to what he’s going to deliver next. Because he’s a man that does not like to rest on his laurels, he actively pushes for change and advancement, knowing full well that it could lose him a few followers along the way. So with that open-minded approach, I have listened to this album carefully to see if this latest offering appeal to my own tastes and preferences… or be the one that leaves me cold and makes me want to get off this journey.

What we have here is a 64-minute album of 10 tracks, ranging from under 4 minutes through to around 10 minutes in length. Some are essentially instrumental with occasional sung or spoken sections, stretching through to more traditional song structures, yet none of it is predictable in the slightest. Probably more so with this one than any of his previous releases, he wants to take the listener on a journey. Yeah, that may sound a little clichéd, and is perhaps an overused expression, but as this album pushes boundaries of sonic excellence, experimenting with sound design to let those sounds pave the way for the music to go, then this truly is a listening experience where you are taken on a journey. The order of the tracks is important, and even though separate tracks have been made available via social media, the concept of listening to this album in its entirety in an undisturbed session is what Steven Wilson is hoping for. Rather than play this in the background, it was a case of headphones on, no other distractions, and let’s see what the album has to offer.

Inclination starts with a soft intro, but soon develops a throbbing rhythm which drops out to reveal some stark vocals and piano, only to be accompanied later by that strong pulsating rhythm once more. The song continues in that manner of chill-out moments and the beat kicking back in again, going from an almost industrial sound with a marching tempo, through to some lovely atmospheric sections of floaty reverb-drenched vocals and chiming piano chords.

What Life Brings is the shortest song on The Harmony Codex, and is easily the most accessible too, with a more recognisable verse/chorus/guitar-break structure. One of the few tracks to mainly comprise traditional sounding instruments, with acoustic drums, guitars, piano, etc., I really like it. Its melancholy vibe and slow reflective pace make it easily the most instant of the tunes here to get into your system – in a good way of course.

Economies of Scale begins with electro-beats and programmed percussion, keeping the rhythm pulsating throughout. Piano and acoustic guitar make appearances along the way, but overall this is a fairly stripped back song, allowing space for some gorgeous layered harmony vocals. This song is a real grower – the more I listen to it the more I appreciate it. Some fabulous vocals, and in particular I love the ending where the reverb drops out to leave a dry solitary vocal.

Impossible Tightrope is probably my favourite track on this album. It dupes you in a false direction with its strings intro, soon to be replaced with the drums kicking in with a marvellous groove. As with the first track, this also has its chill-out moments of piano or acoustic guitar, or even some falsetto vocal, yet overall it’s mainly an instrumental that takes you on a fabulous journey. Sax solo, electric piano solo, angelic choirs breaking into song, this is such a ride. And if you seek out the accompanying video, with its stunning computer generated animation, then that experience will take you on a proper trip. But you’ve got to watch it on a big TV… not a tiny smart-phone screen.

The main lead vocal for Rock Bottom comes from regular contributor Ninet Tayeb, who also wrote the song. A slow, steady-paced track with a Floyd-esque Comfortably Numb vibe, it’s yet another showcase for the amazing vocals of Ninet, which really are quite unique. It’s basically a pattern of four chords repeating over, but building in mood and intensity as the song progresses to finally end up stripped back as it comes to a close. Again, this one wasn’t instant for me, but definitely a grower.

Beautiful Scarecrow starts with electro beeps and blips, with a filtered lead vocal. It takes a little while to properly kick in, but when it does it’s a big commanding sound. Again, it has a lot of programmed percussion and sequenced sounds, with little or no guitar in it at all. Perhaps not strong with melody, but there are certainly a lot of light and shade elements contained within the one song, which seems to be becoming a bit of a theme on this album.

The title track begins with a series of descending 6-note melodies, which match the descending chords played underneath, with the addition of spoken word vocals from Steven’s wife Rotem. And here comes the journey word again, as this mainly instrumental track is definitely meant to take you on a journey. It builds in layers and textures as it continues, and clearly the intention is to take you on an aural trip throughout its duration. I’m in two minds about this one with it being close to 10-minutes long, and me personally feeling that it could have faded out within half that time and still got its message across. Yet it has a haunting beauty about it which is most pleasing.

A shorter tune this time, Time is Running Out is mainly piano led, accompanied by programmed percussion, with some rich keyboard sounds and a tasty guitar solo break. I like the chord progressions and the overall vibe of this song, and there are some lovely harmony vocal sections too. It doesn’t really seem to go anywhere, but it’s beautiful to listen to. Again, I think this one will grow on me the more that I hear it.

Actual Brutal Facts is another song based around a repeating 4-chord pattern, this time with a spoken male voice over the top. With occasional electric guitar coming in to play little parts over the same chords, it’s not really a song with a catchy hook. The entire feel of this tune is sinister and menacing, with the spoken vocal reinforcing that vibe. The back-end has a processed and distorted guitar solo playing over it, adding even further unease. It’s probably my least favourite track here, yet it’s still brilliant to listen to just for the unnerving atmosphere of it all.

A sequenced synth melody starts Staircase, which is once again primarily written as a 4-chord pattern with a solid rhythmic groove that changes in mood and intensity. It has its chill-out sections as well as more driven parts, but the highlight for me is when Nick Begg’s marvellous bass sound kicks in with full fury – awesome stuff. The song then changes direction with some piano led chords and spoken female vocal, moving into string-style keyboards with an almost pan-pipe sounding melody, finally fading out to the sound of falling rain. A nice way to round things off.

I’ve listened to this album fully three times right through, giving it my full attention, but I know that a piece of work like this is definitely going to need a good half-a-dozen listens to truly get a good grasp on it all. The first half seems stronger to me, yet in its defence, four out of those five tracks had been released prior to the full album dropping, and as such I’m obviously more familiar with them. The second half doesn’t feel quite as strong, yet the final song does bring it back in a good positive way. This is absolutely an album that requires plenty of playing, and I’m sure it will grow on me in time. Not immediate, but then some of the finest albums that you want to play over and over again do not instantaneously hit that mark the first few times you play them.

If you’re interested in The Harmony Codex then there are two questions you should ask yourself. Firstly, “Am I going to like it?” Well, if you’re a big fan of Porcupine Tree’s rock-guitar driven In Absentia, or somebody that adores the retro-prog themes of The Raven That Refused to Sing, then this may not be for you as it doesn’t really reflect any of those aspects. However, if you liked Steven’s last solo venture, The Future Bites, and its electro-pop sounds, drum programming, and the limited guitar inclusions didn’t faze you, then this new album could be right up your street. It’s distinctly pushing towards an ‘ambient’ direction, with the emphasis on being a listening experience as opposed to catchy hooks, guitar riffs, and strong melodies.

Now the second question you should be asking is, “Is this worth listening to?”, to which I say yes, sweet Jesus, YES… do it! This is probably one of the finest produced albums I have ever heard. Steven Wilson has one of the greatest pair of ears in the industry and knows how to get the very best out of any recording. This is the man that remixed and brought new life to classic albums by Jethro Tull, Yes and King Crimson, just to name a few. If I did a loud fart in an empty stairwell, I swear Steven Wilson could mix the fuck out of it and make it the most glorious and majestic fart ever in the history of all farts… that’s how good he is. But joking aside, this is an incredible listening experience even in just the basic stereo version. I’d imagine that in Dolby Atmos it will sound absolutely stunning.

This may never end up being one of my instant go-to Steven Wilson albums, yet it is still a magnificent work that is worthy of being heard by as many people as possible. And as for any audiophiles out there, you seriously need to listen to this album as it is pure ear candy, and whole-heartedly very satisfying indeed.

01. Inclination (7:15)
02. What Life Brings (3:40)
03. Economies of Scale (4:17)
04. Impossible Tightrope (10:42)
05. Rock Bottom (4:25)
06. Beautiful Scarecrow (5:21)
07. The Harmony Codex (9:50)
08. Time is Running Out (3:57)
09. Actual Brutal Facts (5:05)
10. Staircase (9:26)

Total Time – 64:07

Steven Wilson – Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards, Sampler, Bass, Percussion, Programming
~ With:
Ninet Tayeb – Lead & Backing Vocals
Craig Blundell – Drums
Sam Fogarino – Drums
Adam Holzman – Keyboards
Jack Dangers – Keyboards
Nick Beggs – Bass

Record Label: Virgin Music
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 29th September 2023

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