Prog rock is a strange beast. Over time, “progressive” has become synonymous with “difficult” and, even worse, up its own ass. The self-indulgence of some bands has contributed to the notion that it’s little more than music school wankery with exotic scales and impossible chord voicings standing in for real human emotion. It often uses strange time signatures or complex polyrhythms. The lyrics are often sci-fi-based. The arrangements require incredible feats of memory and mental discipline. In short, prog rock is the opposite of punk, and seems strangely focused on some of the most regressive elements of music.
Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson has managed to preserve prog’s spacey, philosophical vibe, while doing away with much of the musical pretension on his latest solo album, The Future Bites.
Wilson is a household name in the buckyballs inhabited by prog fans. The English musician has worked with most of progressive rock’s old guard like King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Yes and Roxy Music. Wilson’s latest album feels like a prog rock album, but without all the self-pleasing virtuosity. Instead, the stripped-down album harkens back to the slightly sinister synth-pop of the 1980s.
The second song, “Self,” is a critique of contemporary culture’s narcissism, drowning in the social media reflections appearing on our screens. Over sparse synthesizers and programmed drums, Wilson intones the word “self” in a deep voice that evokes the wearing of sunglasses at night. During the anthemic chorus, he and a score of background singers give voice to our total self-involvement, singing “We are self, the self that loves itself now/ We are self, I only see myself now.” The song’s poppy synth vibe would sound right at home blasting from the speakers of Kit, David Hasselhoff’s car on the ’80s TV show “Knight Rider.”
“King Ghost” and album closer “Count of Unease” tread similar musical territory, with majestic and swirling keyboard pads similar to those played during commercials with closeups of steam coming off food of some sort.
Other songs feature live drumming and a more conventional rock sound. “Things I Forgot” begins with a simple acoustic guitar part before erecting a massive wall of sound when the rest of the band kicks in. The song is strangely ironic, dripping with sentimentality while chronicling the internal monologue of an apathetic jerk. “Forget what I’ve done/ To all of the people that gave me their love/ Well I have no problem sleeping at night/ I’ve done wrong but I just don’t remember,” Wilson sings. The song’s juxtaposition of emotional schmaltz with sociopathic apathy serves as a good reminder that despicable people often wear beautiful masks.
“Personal Shopper,” The Future Bites‘ first single, captures the whole album’s vibe pretty well. The song builds as programmed drums and fat, synthesized bass percolate with a vaguely sinister sparseness. Wilson delivers the lyrics in a breathy falsetto over a electronic groove that owes more to new wave’s Gary Numan than the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The song is a blatant critique of consumerism.
Sings Wilson: “Consumer of life, hold my hand, extend your rights/ It’s the power to purchase to excess/ That sets you apart and can give you the ultimate high /Abuser of our time, if there’s something that you want/ You don’t need it, but have to concede it’s making you happy/ And that’s all that matters to you.”
On The Future Bites, Steven Wilson seems much more concerned with getting his message across to listeners than burying them under a flurry of notes played against antagonistic time signatures. His album is likely to appeal to prog fans, while at the same time pulling in some new fans who don’t have music degrees.