Steven Wilson - The Harmony Codex

Steven Wilson remains a stalwart in the world of progressive music, and while he may not single-handedly have reignited the genre, his contributions have been significant. His tireless dedication to the craft as an engineer, producer, composer, and musician has certainly given him the right to release music outside his fans comfort zone or even something they dislike. Wilson has become a true artist growing his sound from one album to the next. The core question is will his fans continue to follow him as his stylings change?

On "The Harmony Codex," Wilson takes on a new direction from his previous works, yet with plenty of familiar elements. The lineup includes Steven Wilson on vocals, keyboards, sampler, guitars, bass, percussion, and programming. His virtuosic performances are complimented by lead and backing vocal work by Ninet Tayeb, while Craig Blundell and Sam Fogarino add drums, along with Adam Holzman and Jack Dangers on keyboards, plus Rotem on spoken word. This album once again is not the progressive rock sound many fans had hoped for, instead, it primarily incorporates pop and electronic influences, with a progressive undertone. Compared to “The Future Bites” guitars are somewhat back in style, which contrast Wilson’s earlier statements about moving away from them. Blending electronic beats, real drums, and moments where pop, prog rock, and electronic elements converge, listeners will find a myriad of sonics to please the ears.

Wilson manages to balance several different styles and when peeling back the analysis, it's simply a beautiful album. Wilson's vocals are resilient and distinct, strongly shining through, and Tayeb's contributions are absolutely terrific. Their collaboration consistently yields great results, but listeners won’t find very much technical progressive rock here. In my simplest of words, the music is a cross between completely brilliant and boring at the same time. Repetition of drum patterns and synth sequences lead one into a placid state, a lighter version of EDM. Yet, among all these rhythmic driven pieces are brilliant solos, modern synth sounds, and intriguing musical movements that raise the bar. Fans who appreciate a diverse range of ideas, tones, and sounds coming together will certainly find this album to be very special, and I feel it is one of his most artistic releases.

The initial tracks include a couple notable singles. "Inclination" which stands out with its melodic synth and industrial rhythms, while "What Life Brings" and "Economies of Scale" offer their own unique pop driven qualities, with "Impossible Tightrope" extending the experience into the progressive realm.

For many enthusiasts it is the Dolby Atmos mix that has become widely talked about and already considered by many, including yours truly to be the best spatial mix heard to date. Immediately out of the gate on “Inclination” synths parts move across the back heights, pushing to the front on occasion. The front heights snap in with percussion and effects swirling above and behind the sweet spot. Meanwhile the floor thunders with riveting drums up front and keyboard parts that fall to all corners.

Like a sculptor that finesses specific details for each piece, Wilson mixing artistry showcases his high level of detail to the Atmos mix with various uses of the height speakers. Ambient vocal and guitar delays are prevalent on “What Life Brings” while backing vocals galore rise to the heavens on “Economies of Scale.” The kick hits the floor with incredible power and keyboards seamlessly flow across the listening space.

Audiophiles are continuously looking for demo worthy material, and in a discussion with one of Hi-Res Edition’s long-time readers, we agreed that the nearly 11 minute “Impossible Tightrope” hands down qualifies as the Atmos mix to measure everything else against. Neither of us say that lightly, having experienced other fantastic immersive mixes. Yet, Wilson has masterfully placed a variety of elements above, accentuating these parts throughout the piece such as synthesizer swells to angular guitar riffs, explosive effects leading into heavenly harps, and strings along with ambient vocal accents. Also note the subtle movement of a helicopter sound up front and behind to the skyward choir, plus in turn Wilson accents the riveting off-kilter rhythm with effects that shoot across the height channels. By far this is absolutely the most progressive piece on the album. Dynamics shine from blasting highs to somber quiet sections and as one would expect transparency is excellent, along with sonic detail from the lowest low to the highest high. Listeners will find themselves completely enveloped with sound from every corner literally at every moment in the song. “Impossible Tightrope” is truly a three-dimensional audio experience. It is the best demonstration Dolby Atmos track I have heard to date.

Further into the album "Rock Bottom" showcases a beautiful duet between Wilson and Tayeb, while "Beautiful Scarecrow" transitions from a dreamy, spacey beginning to a marching techno beat. The album's remaining tracks are more lyrically sparse, starting with the title track. "The Harmony Codex" exudes Wilson's signature sound in an ambient, rhythmic track with Rotem's excellent spoken word adding depth.

"Time is Running Out" begins as a ballad, evolving into an electronic piece with unique vocal effects, leading to "Actual Brutal Facts," effectively a rap song with cosmic undertones. The closing track, "Staircase," is another standout, combining various elements into a nine-minute masterpiece.

While the Atmos mix of the album is outstanding, showcasing the full potential of spatial audio, I would be remiss by not mentioning the compelling DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 mix and LPCM Stereo mixes that are also part of the standalone edition I am reviewing here. Wilson is no stranger to surround mixes, and while the elevated experience is brought down to the floor, the 5.1 mix is none the less very immersive. My odd side note is sonically it felt like there was something missing from the top end, especially when compared to the stereo mix. Setting that top-end oddity aside, listeners will find themselves nicely enveloped with sonic excellence and an absolute stellar mix that is perfectly satisfying. Having read comments on some forums, other fans felt that the stereo mix yielded an album that was not interesting, noting that it only came to life when listening in Dolby Atmos. I disagree with those comments, and felt the stereo mix is truly fantastic and a great representation of the work, albeit certainly lacking in ear candy. Sonically the stereo mix is one of the clearest I have heard, even if I felt the kick drum was mixed too loud on a couple of tracks and tonal balance leaned a bit to the bright side. Still, I believe most fans picking up the Blu-ray edition are primarily interested in the Dolby Atmos mix or the 5.1 surround if they have not yet upgraded to Atmos. In my case I will only be listening to the Atmos going forward as it provides the most open sound and plenty of movement, both aspects that continue to draw me into the world of Atmos. Obviously Atmos elevates the listening experience while revealing possible hidden details in the music.

For some the album initially may seem eclectic, but from my perspective with repeated listens, its depth and uniqueness become apparent. Undoubtedly Wilson has delivered another impressive album with "The Harmony Codex." It's a beautiful and natural representation of who he is as an artist, one that followers of Wilson surely will want to include in their collection. Spatial audio enthusiasts most certainly will want this, and those interested in new sounds and unique mixing of genres, this is your ticket too. Please know that surprisingly stock has been very limited… so digging further than the links noted below may be required to get your copy of the Limited Edition box sets, along with vinyl editions, cassettes, and CD versions, or the standalone Blu-ray edition I reviewed here.

Released September 29, 2023.

 Format Info

Standalone Blu-ray with Dolby Atmos, DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM Stereo mixes.  Also available in a limited edition box set with CD+BD, on vinyl, cassette, and single CD editions.  Preview on streaming services.

 

 

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 About the Author

Wesley Derbyshire Profile Image

Wesley is a lifelong music enthusiast. He started his career in the recording industry in New York City as an audio engineer, producer, and studio manager. Subsequently he toured across America as a guitarist with the short-lived band Land's Crossing. After many years in the technology sector and amassing a substantial vinyl and CD collection, he delved into immersive audio and created Hi-Res Edition to share with other listeners about the sound quality and discrete mixes available on many formats. He recently upgraded his system to 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos and continues to seek out and share about the best sounding releases.

 

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