Artist: Steven Wilson | Album: The Future Bites | Genre: Art pop, Synthpop, Soft rock | Year: 2021
From: Hertfordshire, UK | Label: Caroline International
For fans of: Steven Wilson’s other recent solo work – beyond that, I’m not sure; this is outside my normal wheelhouse
Steven Wilson, likely the biggest individual name in the current world of prog, returns with his sixth solo album. After making a name for himself with his longtime prog metal/rock band, Porcupine Tree, he struck out on a solo career (which I’ve documented here) that has tacked increasingly poppy over his last few releases.
Wilson had commented that he currently does not feel inspired when playing guitar, and his continued gravitation toward synthesizers is evident on The Future Bites. I have to give him kudos for following his musical heart and not kowtowing to prog traditionalists demanding another Deadwing or Hand. Cannot. Erase. I really respect him for broadening his horizons and playing what he wants to play. I wish more artists had that sort of integrity and adventurous spirit.
However, a good attitude will only get you so far. You still need to write good, engaging music. Ulver is the clearest parallel to Wilson’s career trajectory. After starting out as raw, kvlt black metal, that Norwegian duo shifted to making some top-notch electronica and synthpop. Unlike Ulver, Steven Wilson’s chops as a pop songwriter are iffy, at best.
Many of the songs on this album have sparse arrangements which put his vocals front-and-center. Wilson has a nice voice, but it’s more suited to rock or contemplative folk than pop. He lacks the power and oomph you need for something as bombastic as some of these disco-inspired tracks. He heavily leans on falsetto delivery on TFB, and his falsetto simply is not that good.
The lyrical content is something of a continuation of what was on Fear of a Blank Planet: wariness surrounding technology and a fear that people are growing too isolated. While that’s a good subject to tackle, it’s tough to do well without coming off like some hackneyed boomer-humor-type “phone bad” commentary. Plus, Steven, don’t you think it’s a bit hypocritical to put out an anti-consumerism album and then turn around and offer expensive limited-edition box sets?
TFB continues to demonstrate his skill as a producer, though. Divorced from the quality of the songwriting, the sounds themselves are very nice and work well together. The volume and textures are balanced.
After a brief, lonely-sounding intro track, “Self” isn’t a bad way to kick things off. It’s not particularly good, but it’s not bad. The verses sound like something that was scrapped during the Deadwing sessions; it bears similarities to “Halo” off that record. The chorus, though, fails to grab any attention, and the melody’s not memorable.
“King Ghost”, on the other hand, is bad. The moody opening synths again feel like a Deadwing outtake, and this is the first time we hear Wilson deploy his falsetto on this record. Everything comes off as thin and strained, and the musical backing is too light. It’s fluff upon fluff, which results in auditory cotton candy.
The next song—“12 Things I Forgot”—might be the worst goddamn thing Steven Wilson has ever recorded. This is one of only a couple songs to feature prominent guitar, and perhaps not coincidentally, it sounds deeply uninspired. This falls somewhere between Christian rock and Roger Waters’s solo material. Generic is the best descriptor I can give this song.
The music video for “Eminent Sleaze” showcases Wilson’s shallow, latter-season-Black-Mirror-style commentary, and the music doesn’t do much to improve upon it. Parts of this sound like a weaker version of “Have a Cigar”, and the Middle Eastern-inspired strings and percussion feel incongruous against Western instrumentation and beats. On the plus side, it has an interesting jagged, halting guitar solo that I like a lot.
“Man of the People” continues with its allusions to Roger Waters’s work, this time “Welcome to the Machine”. Though the allusion is brief, there is a momentary jab of dark, pulsing synth paired alongside acoustic guitar, which feels almost like a rip-off. Beyond that, most of this song is dull, acoustic soft rock that uses too much falsetto.
The nearly-10-minute “Personal Shopper” features some of the most driving, engaging, and fun music on all of TFB, but this is also one of the most maddeningly repetitious things I’ve heard in a long time. The dark, pulsing synths of the opening lead into a segment which reminds me of Ozric Tentacles’ recent electronic experiments. Wilson again over-relies on his falsetto during the verses, but the chorus has good impact. However, this verse-chorus structure quickly wears itself out, and by about four minutes in, I was looking at my watch. After a bit of ambience and narration (provided by Elton John), there’s an unnecessary reprise of the chorus, but Wilson delivers another notably odd guitar solo full of squealing, atonal stutters.
“Follower” is probably my favorite song on the album, and even that is a mixed bag. The opening percussion sounds like a minimalist post-punk composition, but the sparse arrangement once more emphasizes how un-robust Wilson’s voice is. It’s not weak, but he can’t really belt it out or command the listener’s attention. After about two minutes of unimpressive power-pop, though, the song improves markedly. Warm synths and piano tones remind me of Klaatu, and I really enjoy the diversity of this song’s second half.
The Future Bites ends on “Count of Unease”, a weak retread of some of his past gentle piano pieces. “Collapse the Light into Earth” is the clearest comparison, but this song suffers from severe aimlessness. Aside from some dramatic piano chords in the middle, this track is too wispy and ethereal.
TFB is about what I expected. It’s the logical culmination of Steven Wilson’s recent proclivities, and I can’t say I love it. I admire him for steadfastly doing what he, as an artist, wants to do. But the result is half-baked, shallow, and unremarkable.