Steven Wilson: ‘The Future Bites’ Review

The ‘Limited Edition Box Set’ edition of ‘The Future Bites’

Steven Wilson has released his 6th solo album ‘The Future Bites’, 4 years after his previous work ‘To The Bone’. Both albums of which mark a distinct change in production and songwriting styles for Steven. Now having firmly moved away from traditional rock-influenced progressive music, Steven has launched himself into modern pop-driven production techniques to elevate his sound.

The album was originally supposed to be released in June 2020 but got delayed significantly because of the pandemic to January 2021. It’s also worth noting that Steven’s tour was cancelled too for this album, with everything still being very much up in the air when it comes to live music.

He’s also taken this another step further and mixed the album it not just stereo and 5.1, but also ‘Dolby Atmos’. A relatively new form of audio consumption that’s almost exclusively found in Imax theatres and cinemas. I’m not sure how soon if ever, that sort of audio setup will become accessible to the normal music listener – but ‘The Future Bites’ is ‘Futureproof’ in that regard…

Subsequently, the personnel behind the scenes has changed a fair amount with this record too. And with Steven hinting that his next album is going to go more down this production road, maybe this might mark the end of Nick Begg’s collaboration in the studio as this time around he’s only made it onto 2 tracks. Nick has been a lineup staple more or less since Steven left Porcupine Tree and went solo in 2010, known for his work in A&R, as well as Kajagoogoo.

Inside of the box set, there are 5 discs and a cassette tape with bonus tracks, instrumental versions, and alternate versions of tracks from the album.

Collaborator Ninet Tayeb is also off the cards for this album, with the vocals mostly being taken over by Steven himself. However, there are a handful of spoken word sections dotted throughout the album which is undoubtedly fresh for Steven. Elton John was brought on board for the track ‘Personal Shopper’, reading out items off of a shopping list to re-assert his title of the worlds biggest consumer. When I first heard about this with the initial single release from last year, I was slightly shocked to see him on board with Steven Wilson, as well as Elton coming out as a big fan of his prior work. It’s certainly a unique and unexpected collaboration, but certainly a welcome one.

Upon my first full listen of this album, I was transported inside of a surrealist art installation. Particularly so with the opening tracks ‘Self’ and ‘Unself which come as a pair. ‘Unself’ is a very docile entry to the record which does a great job at setting the mode and tone for the artistic goals of the work which I would describe as a near-future consumerist utopia. The abrasive instrumentation choices in ‘Self’ do a lot for me to keep the track dystopian and sterile at the same time with how clean it all sounds mixed together.

‘King Ghost’ was one of the singles that we’ve been privy to for a little while, the music video of which was created by Jess Cope, now well known for her fantastic visual storytelling of Steven’s music (‘Routine’, ‘Drive Home’, ‘Song of Unborn’). Musically the track doesn’t do a whole lot for me. I found Steven’s falsetto a tad painful to listen to, more like a whimpering dog than pleasant vocables. And the repetitive arpeggiated synth lick got very stale very quickly. I was hoping the track would develop a bit more, but it doesn’t.

’12 Things I Forgot’ makes me immediately reminisce of Keane, a late 2000s UK indie rock band. It has very similar instrumentation, a classic verse-chorus structure, and simple catchy melody lines. But mostly it feels restrained. I always sit waiting for the song to explode, and it doesn’t end up going anywhere, much like Keane’s releases. It also feels like an odd track out when it comes to the overall flow of the album. From Steven’s general opinions about music consumption, I’m aware that he’s very much a preacher of not listening to albums on shuffle. But this just feels like a misplaced bonus track within the context of what surrounds it.

‘Eminent Sleaze’ gets us back on track with some very tasty Chapman Stick playing from Nick Beggs. I love the counter vocals in the verse in this song which are very tightly knotted together. You can also hear Adam Holzman’s playing on this track too which is tonally reminiscent of much of his prior work in Steven’s discography, particularly the synth leads. The song closes with an eclectic blues-driven guitar solo under the final chorus which continues the dissonance and chaoticism, but blends together with pristine cuts as if the player’s actions are very exact creating a contrasting melodic duality. Possibly with a deeper meaning to represent the nefarious undertones of superfluous consumerism.

‘Personal Shopper’ was the original single for the album that came out in early 2020 before the album delay. This is as close as we’re getting to a ‘prog epic’ from Steven at near 10 minutes long, even though when it comes to the instrumentation,  it’s a million miles away from one. This is hands down my favourite track on the album, just for how the track develops and evolves. The chorus is catchy and funky, the guitar solo at the end is completely nuts, and it keeps up the clinical and surrealist feel with dystopian lyrics and vocal samples.

Originally the album was supposed to end with ‘Anyone But Me’ which was has been released as a bonus track in the ‘Limited Edition Box Set’ version of the release on tape. And I can see why Steven opted to do something different for the closing track, as ‘Anyone But Me’ is a little too upbeat and informal for the tone of the music.

Subsequently, this leaves us with ‘Count of Unease’, which to me lands like a soggy pancake. It’s a pleasant enough piece of music, but it’s just an elongated outro, with little thematic direction. Maybe I’ve missed a trick here.

Something Steven is known for is his long continuous concepts and even suited music as we know from ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase.’ and ‘Fear of a Blank Planet’. Whilst the tracks in ‘The Future Bites’ share a thematic purpose, musically they sound very disjointed when it comes to the overall flow. I guess having a 45-minute album written in a sterile style can make for rather jarring listening – and given the context of Steven still settling into his new style of writing, perhaps he is still holding back with the more ‘rock’ inspired tracks, or trying too hard to provide a contrast that doesn’t quite fit in with the narrative.

‘The Future Bites’ is certainly an outlier in Steven’s discography, and I’m certain that it’s not for everybody. On the whole, I enjoyed it. But I do wish that Steven would fully commit to the style of the art that he’s aiming to create rather than jump between such different compositional styles. I think the album’s concept would be far more successfully executed if he’d been more assertive and consistent in his compositional choices.

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