I will never forget the first time I heard Grace For Drowning the second solo album made by Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree). I drove all the way to Zeeland to visit a dear friend who had the double album before anyone else did. I remembered Steven Wilson's advice in an interview, not to listen to both sides one after the other, but to take a breath in between - so I did. Played side A, which later I found is called Deform To Form A Star, on the way back in the car. Side B is called Like Dust I Have Cleaned From My Eye. Each disc contains 45 minutes of music, which is about the size of the old vinyl records. I couldn't comprehend it all immediately, but was impressed beyond belief right from the start.
Grace For Drowning appeared during a time when a lot of other new releases saw the light of day, but still I got the feeling Grace For Drowning would easily leave all the others behind. Only perhaps Opeth's Heritage comes close to the quality of this album. There are similarities between the two, the jazzy sections. Furthermore, Grace For Drowning can't be compared to anything else other than Wilson's solo debut, Insurgentes. And let's face it, this kind of music doesn't need to be compared either! I read other reviews which spoke of a retro style, influences from the early seventies. Well sorry, but I didn't hear them. I never said I'm an expert anyway.
Insurgentes was experimental and so is Grace For Drowning. But to me there is a distinct difference. After several listening sessions I came to the conclusion that Grace For Drowning is very cohesive. Not one note too many, not one word unnecessary. With Insurgentes the general feeling remained that there were some beautiful parts, and others I simply didn't like. That bipolar effect was the reason I stopped listening after a while. This is the risk every experimental album carries. But then again, I can be very intrigued by something new. Music that sounds like something I heard before doesn't interest me much lately. With Grace For Drowning you can't say you ever heard something like this, or it must be a subconscious thing.
It takes you through beautiful ballads, with Wilson's voice leading, and leaves you breathless at the end. Take for instance the title track of the first disc, Deform To Form A Star. The second disc is not as different as you would expect, given Steven's comment about the album comprising two different pieces. But I must admit I quickly jumped to Raider II, because of its length. After all, I am a progressive rock maniac, a sucker for the long ones. Well, this piece of music is simply brilliant. Everything comes together here and genius reigns. It's unbelievable- I listened to it over and over again. But let me warn you: it is not for beginners! At first it made me depressed and even afraid! It slaps you in the face. But after you discovered its beauty, it is pure heaven.
Wilson has picked his guest musicians from the cream of the crop; you wouldn't expect anything less. He can afford to choose from a long list of professionals. Amongst others there are Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater) on piano, Steve Hackett (guitar) and Tony Levin (King Crimson & Peter Gabriel) on bass guitar. The same goes for the artwork, for that matter - high quality. On the album there are so many layers, it takes a while to hear them and especially to get to appreciate them. Don't expect the famous guitar solos that Wilson likes to do with Porcupine Tree. Besides, most guitar solos aren't played by Steven himself on the album. No, listen to the subtle flute or the weird bass lines. All new to me, and so thrilling! But most of all, listen to his voice. Here on Grace For Drowning one can fully appreciate its beauty; it's never occurred to me before just how beautiful it is. And I don't think he ever had singing lessons, amazing!
I think I've raved enough about the music. Lyric-wise, the album is difficult to explain. The booklet has no lyrics. After thorough search on the Internet, though, you can find them. Dark as ever. According to Steven this is not a concept album, but a collection of short stories involving water and drowning. Grace stands for the feeling of surrendering, just before dying and gasping for air. To me it is mainly about human drifts - the human condition - but also mental problems. The collector could be about a person with autism. Raider could be about assault but is actually about a serial killer. Like the music, the lyrics also have a deeper meaning and are interpretable for various explanations. I personally am not so interested in what Wilson has to say, more in what I read and feel in the lyrics myself.
Of course I'm not a native English speaker, but I think my point is still valid for anyone. Sentences like “The way we uncoil, return to the soil, flaws are everything and chaos reigns” conjure up a world of associations for me. But I will never totally understand what he meant or felt writing this down. And that exactly is the beauty of it. We like to believe that we are all one, but this given shows us that we are in fact all alone. Sometimes it's like he explains the world to me. The universe at its place. The dark side of Steven Wilson's music and lyrics is what I love so dearly. You can feel very depressed by it, but in the end, it leaves you with a smile.
***** Janke Rijpkema
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