Sunday, 14 August 2011

Steven Wilson – Grace For Drowning (Playback)

I've received a few invites recently to album playbacks – my remoteness from London generally precludes my acceptance – and they seem to be a developing method by which record labels will solicit reviews in the music press without distributing promo or finished products, generally I guess because of a fear of said music being leaked on-line in advance of the release date proper. Huddled together in a room, the massed ranks of music journalism receive a one-off advance listen to a major release, take notes and from that cut their text. I have to say I'm not particularly crazy about that since the label – artist – journalist relationship should entail a level of trust between all parties, and the methodology of proper criticism requires a more one-on-one intimacy with the work but I can understand the concerns and risks regarding promotional material.

That said, an invite came through recently that I found absolutely irresistible and which, despite being a new album playback, was very much removed from the listen-and-review concept since promotional copies circulated promptly after the date in question to enable reviews to be written from physical media. This playback was an opportunity to hear the new solo record by Porcupine Tree leader Steven Wilson, Grace For Drowning, in the rarefied atmosphere of AIR Studios in Hampstead and in the company of Wilson himself – an intriguing character whose artistic development since the formation of Porcupine Tree back in 1987 has been a fascinating journey. Can we describe him as the man who has legitimised progressive rock in the 21st Century? It's certainly the case that he's worked with and within a maligned and arguably creatively near-bankrupt genre, giving it new definition and process, bestowing respectability and at the same time raising it to new levels, helping detail the road map for a sort of new progressive rock that's fresh, vivid, contemporary, forward-looking and yet which also looks back into the genre's past to find the parts that were exciting or innovative and in so doing reshaping those ideas for a modern audience.

I'll be reviewing the record itself in print elsewhere – really its two distinct albums released as a double-disc package: Deform To Form A Star and Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye. Here, I'm really more interested in musing on the experience itself, since I've never been to something like this before and it's really quite a strange way of hearing and attempting to absorb such a complex work for the first time and listening back to the album at home I'm struck by the ways in which the experience of hearing a record differs through environment.

Grace For Drowning is indeed an intense sensory experience – I'd anticipated as much of course from reviewing Wilson's previous solo record, Insurgentes, a couple of years back for R2 magazine – and its first movement, if perhaps we could breakdown the two discs in that manner, or perhaps its first suite, is met with due deference among the collected reviewers ... at times I'm tempted to ask whether I should be stroking my chin in thoughtful supplication to the music but it's not really that, it's also that there is a herd mentality that may be subconsciously at work here – nervous glances around to see what others are making of what's being presented. I was once told a story about motorsports journalists who'd assemble at a Formula One test session, have myriad viewpoints of what they'd seen happening on track and in the pits but gather later over beer and sandwiches and from which process a collective viewpoint would emerge that resulted in many journalists across numerous magazines and newspaper back pages disseminating a broadly similar interpretation of what they'd seen. I wonder to myself if something of that unconsciously emerges from an album playback in a similar vein, generated from discussions across the plates of Indian snacks, piles of crisps and glasses of red wine that are consumed between discs and at the end of the session.

Listening now, I'm struck by how song-based the first disc is; I simply didn't hear it that way in the classical surrounding at AIR. Indeed, it has a lightness of touch within it that I didn't at all appreciate on first hearing it there. At time then, it must have been the case that the music soaked through the lyrics to such an extent that it became a wash of experimentalism and soundscapes – it's certainly true that one of the unusual experiences was found in hearing an album with a printed tracklist handed out but no visual cue to where one track ended and another began from which you start to understand how important it has become to simply see where you are within a record. Can it be that textures compete for attention so that the most striking or powerful texture overwhelms those around it so that? What I took away from disc one back then is almost what I'm hearing in disc two as I write. So I have to consider, and I'm finding that this is really informative for a critic and part of the learning process of self-improvement, the value of first impressions and the way in which contrasting parts of an artistic work will compete for that initial feeling or view of the whole.

We mingle amongst the refreshments. I tell my favourite music journalist story, of a boozy liquid lunch with the late and so very much missed Carol Clerk and in return I'm told something that I think I already knew: that if I was only ever going to have one boozy liquid lunch with a journalist then, by God, I picked the right journalist to drink with on so many levels. I have an interesting chat with Marc Saunders of There Goes The Fear during which we are both delighted to get a brief word and a handshake with Steven Wilson himself. I talk briefly to Classic Rock's Dave Ling, and have a good chat with their reviews editor Ian Fortnam.

I leave Air Studios in the grey drizzle of what regretfully constitutes an English summer in the 21st Century and head vaguely off uphill in search of Hampstead underground station where I'll met my Crouch End-based sister for an excellent pizza in a Pizza Express that can't do coffee that evening due to a malfunction on their cappuccino machine – and where we'll ponder whether the concept of instant coffee has not yet reached these parts. As I struggle into a waterproof jacket while trying to avoid my overnight bag coming into contact with the wet pavement and wondering whether I'm on the right road to reach the Hampstead tube I spot someone who looks as though he must be a local coming in the opposite direction. I think of asking him the way but, and bear with me here as I can't do his seemingly Polish accent and neither can I write in one, I'm instead asked whether he is on the right road to AIR Studios. I point out the way and ask, "Is this for the Steven Wilson playback?"

He confirms that is indeed his destination. "Steven Wilson," I say in return, raising a thumb to the prospect. "Excellent!"

Later, I'm standing in the entrance to Hampstead underground. The drizzle has turned into a sharp, heavy downpour. I'm approached by another person seeking directions. I must look more local than I think. "Do you know where Pentameters Theatre is?"

I ask if he's heading to the performance of Robert Calvert's Mirror, Mirror which commences a month-long run that evening – I'd have gone to see it, but I didn't know how long to allow for the playback and any potential networking as a result of it.

He confirms that is indeed his destination. "Robert Calvert!" I say in return, raising a thumb to the prospect. "I've no idea where Pentameters is, but Bob Calvert ... excellent!"

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