Steven Wilson sealed his reputation as a guiding force of modern prog-rock through conceptual albums and concerts that mixed dramatic sweeps, sinuous changeups and ominous imagery akin to ’70s predecessors Pinky Floyd and Rush.
But the English singer/multi-instrumentalist came of age in the ’80s. Before he made last year’s To the Bone, he listened to records from that era that were both pop and progressive, such as Peter Gabriel’s So, Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love and Tears for Fears’ The Seeds of Love.
“I missed that kind of record,” says Wilson, 50, whose parents weaned him on ABBA and Donna Summer as well as Floyd. “That’s a really hard thing to pull off—to maintain your personality and to keep that experimental edge whilst making something that potentially has mass appeal.”
For his fifth solo album, the former Porcupine Tree frontman says he cut back on conceptual rock elements to focus on the songs and melodies, though he stayed open to lyrical and sonic experimentation. While To the Bone doesn’t dig into one subject the way that 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. exposed the life and death of Joyce Carol Vincent (a woman whose corpse went unnoticed in her apartment for three years), the new album addresses weighty, topical issues such as the shifting nature of truth and the looming face of terrorism in melancholy tones. Yet there’s joy and hope in the falsetto-spiced keyboard glide of “Permanating,” a song that winks at ’80s hitmakers like A-ha or ELO.
“Every night, ‘Permanating’ gets the biggest reaction of all,” Wilson says the day after a three-night stand at London’s Royal Albert Hall, ahead of a U.S. tour where he’ll bring his crack band to the Berklee Performance Center on April 27. “I was surprised by that, because I was expecting there’d be a little dissent from the old prog-rockers. But no. Everyone gets swept along with it, and ultimately that tells me one thing: At the end of the day, everyone can appreciate a catchy pop song.”
Wilson acknowledges that he’d like to expand his audience—British newspaper The Daily Telegraph called him “probably the most successful British artist you’ve never heard of”—and suggests that “In any other era, ‘Permanating’ would have and could have been a massive mainstream hit.” However, it’s difficult for a rock artist to rival today’s hip-hop and pop on streaming services, says Wilson, who after shying away from that platform has recently seen five tracks from To the Bone reach a million Spotify plays. He expects young new listeners are part of that, “because streaming is a demographic that hasn’t been familiar with my music until now.”
Such fans likely take an opposite mindset from the reissue crowd that knows Wilson from his remixing of classic albums in 5.1 surround sound—an endeavor that spread from prog icons King Crimson and Jethro Tull to more pop-conscious acts XTC (whose Andy Partridge co-wrote some lyrics on To the Bone) and Simple Minds. Says Wilson, “There’s been almost a parallel between my mixing career and my music, opening up to more mainstream artists and crossing into other genres.”
When it comes to his process and philosophy on remixing—and why so many bands hire him—the four-time Grammy nominee says, “I’m a fan of the music. I do it with sympathy and enough reverence that I do what I think is the right thing to do by that record and by that artist. I say that because there’s a history of people that have come to these remix projects and they clearly have no empathy for the music. … People were trying to modernize the sound of vintage records, and I don’t do that. I’m very much the opposite.
I try to get as much of a vintage sound as I can.”
Wilson’s concerts also nod to the legacy of bands like Pink Floyd through quadrophonic sound as well as thematic visual projections that reflect his fascination with cinema. “I’m looking to create that cinematic experience,” he says. “I’m looking to put the audience inside the music.”◆
Steven Wilson plays the Berklee Performance Center on April 27.
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