Back with his fifth solo release, Steven Wilson fuses his breed of futuristic progressive rock layered with a spectrum of electronic soundscapes that are sure to become classic over time. Strengthening his place in the world of pop, long-time fans will still hear delicate atmospheres, wild guitars and a rich set of songs. Stepping further onto the world stage, this marks his first album with Caroline International.
As is true with his previous releases, the album covers a general topic, this time ranging from a distain of the technology age, to the paranoid chaos of the post-truth era , as well as observations of the daily lives of religious fundamentalists. The eleven track album is a detailed snapshot of the disconcerting times we live in.
While analog audiophiles can get the album on vinyl, Wilson Holds true to his passion for multi-channel high resolution audio, releasing To the Bone on stand-alone Blu-ray or a deluxe edition that contains Vinyl, CD, Blu-ray and DVD. Reviewed here is the Blu-ray which contains both a DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 5.1 version, both in 24bit / 96kHz, along with a stereo LPCM 24bit /96kHz codec. Tonally I didn’t notice a difference between the two surround codecs, however there is a slight difference in volume and I felt the LPCM version was more open. Check it out, I am certain that you will agree that no matter your preference To the Bone sounds phenomenal.
Now that I have let the cat out of the bag, it is already obvious that simply based on sound quality To the Bone is a reference disc that enthusiasts can enjoy and share with their fellow surround fans. Wilson has once again created a mix that is enveloping and balanced to the upmost perfection, layering subtleties that invoke pure audio ecstasy.
After the Floydian like intro on the self-titled album opener co-written by XTC front man Andy Partridge, Wilson breaks into a chunky guitar rhythm that extrudes from the front left while his vocals pour out of the center channel. Percussion continues to percolate from the right rears with drums emanating from the front and reflecting off the back channels. The song builds with many other elements including backing vocals that literally fall all around the room, making for a fantastic immersive start to the album.
Synths float in from behind spreading across the back channels on “Pariah,” a song that stretches the bounds of dynamics between its low and high point. Keyboards arpeggiate across the front with guitar filling in rhythm. The song slowly builds, exploding into a combined distortion and angelic synths that keep extending higher while encompassing the listening space. Jasmine Well’s vocals sore from the center channel reverberating across the soundstage leading into Wilson’s closing message that nothing really dies.
For progressive rock fans, Wilson has stepped into the pop realm. But let’s be clear, if pop music was still written as amazingly as “The Same Asylum as Before,” there would be a lot more great music to enjoy! Yes, this is pop-Wilson with some of the craftiest guitar solos and catchiest melodies. I must mention that the drums absolutely sound wonderful, especially the balance between kick and snare, which doesn’t elevate the kick to unrealistic levels so often heard on modern mixes. The snare in particular is rich with plenty of snap, while guitars are gritty with plenty of roundness. Note the wild movement of the guitar during the first part of the instrumental solos which lead into an incredibly smooth section featuring Wilson’s ever so musical solo.
Placed in the middle of this fine album is the most pop driven piece titled “Permanating.” With great hooks and a driving drum beat, this will surely satisfy any bubble gum rocker. In good Wilson form he has given this his massive 5.1 touch and gives pop music an aural challenge.
By no means is To the Bone an even album, nor one that flows seamlessly across the 11 tracks. Reminding me of polished punk, “People Who Eat Darkness” drowns my expectations for another seminal progressive album from Wilson while also instantly becoming one of my favorite tracks on this release. One of my barometers of a high quality recordings is the fatigue factor after listening. The brittle edge of low resolution releases easily takes an already overdriven part, such as a guitar, and alters its overtones in such a way to literally change the tonal quality, causing listening burnout. This doesn’t exist on any of the high resolution versions on the Blu-ray disc.
Stereophiles also will find the LPCM hi-res layer to be an incredible sounding version, although it clearly flattens the surround field enjoyed by 5.1 listeners. Yet on one of the final tracks such as “Detonation” the 2.0 mix pushes forward from the speakers, adding a pleasurable spread and depth to the mix. Of course the immersive surround version throws the incredible guitar solo from the center channel, spattering it of the rear walls while placing strings and other ghostly parts behind the sweet spot. Carried by drums and bass the exalting guitar solo is a testament to modern prog ending all too soon, leaving us with the somber closer “Song of Unborn” that evolves and spreads across the soundstage.
Included on the Blu-ray are instrumental versions of the entire album, plus a couple of videos, albeit presented only in stereo, along with a making of documentary. No download code is included, so for those fans who want to listen while on the run, they will need to also get a hi-res download version or the CD.
Recommended for all Steven Wilson fans, high resolution and surround music enthusiasts, along with listeners who enjoy well crafted music, regardless of style. Long delays in receiving Blu-ray copies have made it difficult to source this wonderful album, but I recommend patience as I believe it is well worth the wait.
Steven Wilson Says, "Permanating’ represents a departure from the rest of the album and the more melancholic material I'm known for in that it's probably the most joyous piece of pure pop I've ever recorded. In my mind this is what ABBA and Electric Light Orchestra would sound like as produced by Daft Punk! While I expect it to create healthy debate amongst my listeners, it's one of the songs I'm most proud of on the new record."
Blu-ray with DTS HD MA and LPCM 5.1 24/96, along with 2.0 LPCM 24/96. Also available on vinyl.