He’s been described as ‘the most famous person you’ve never heard of’, consistently fills the world’s most prestigious venues with next to no press coverage and even earned a historic ‘not bad’ rating from YouTuber Anthony Fantano.
There’s no denying that Steven Wilson, formerly the brains of prog pioneers Porcupine Tree and now making his own way through the musical world, continues to defy musical convention. The crowned king of modern prog has never been one to chase critical accolades or acceptance from any scene.
Not even his own fanbase is immune from Wilson’s constantly shifting creative streak, with newest LP The Future Bites combining trademark Wilson melodies with a more retro pop/disco sonic palette. Throw in some cameos by members of The Cure, Everything Everything and even Elton John, and tie it neatly off with a sharply ironic critique of consumerism and self-branding, and you have the most polarising and ultimately progressive Wilson album to date.
“I like to think everything I make is a challenge, which is part of the thrill. I always like to challenge myself when I’m making records,” he tells us, speaking from his London home where his album has landed at number 2 on the national charts.
“I relish that controversy. I know that if I’ve upset the listeners, it’s probably because I’ve done the right thing.
“That idea of changing and confronting expectations…I think the only difference with myself and artists like David Bowie and Kate Bush in that regard is that they didn’t have that instant feedback from social media that can amplify those knee-jerk reactions.”
Like many artists in the alternative community (looking at you, Maynard James Keenan) Wilson has chosen to tee off against social media on his newest record, but does so in a way that feels devoid of any virtue signalling. Indeed, Wilson himself notes that his own habits inspired some of the themes for this album.
“The album was written during a quite traumatic time in the UK, Brexit was raging and it was very depressing, and it brought out the worst in people when it came to discussions on things like race.
“I was thinking about how lots of it boils down to social media. It’s clearly altered the path of human evolution and made us more narcissistic. I certainly include myself amongst this generalisation.
“I mean, here I am making a record about social media, and I can’t tour, do TV appearances or record signings – so I’m left with social media to promote my record.”
Aside from the more topical lyrical slant, The Future Bites largely rids itself of the guitar, which has formed the backbone of Wilson’s illustrious career, trading the six string for moog synths and icy falsetto-laced textures.
Having spoken at length in the past about the limitations of contemporary rock (including a controversial Instagram post that saw him express admiration for Billie Eilish, to the horror of prog purists), he notes that as far as music goes, it’s the urban-inspired scene that’s pushing the boundaries and inspiring him.
“I actually think pop music is in pretty good shape. There’s some really innovative stuff going on, but none of it is coming from the world of rock music,” he notes.
“When I listen to stuff like Billie Eilish, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, I’m amazed by how fresh in approach it is in comparison with the old fashioned tropes that rock music still clings to – and again, I include myself in that critique.
“These artists don’t know what they don’t know, and that’s good because they’re not weighed down by the legacy of huge bands. They’ve grown up in a world of electronic music and urban music which doesn’t conform to the same structural rules that a lot of rock music established.”
Whatever your opinion of Wilson and his new direction may be, there’s no denying that as far as ‘prog’ goes, he’s not limiting himself just to heavy riffs in odd-time signatures.
“When making this record I spent a fair bit of time listening to modern pop records and took some of the ideas that didn’t obey the modern conventional rules of songwriting,” he says.
Having said that, unlike some choice characters in the modern pop world, Wilson isn’t desperately competing for your attention or acceptance. But in the playlist-dominated modern day where streaming rules all, don’t expect him to be held to account by his previous manifestations either.
After all, the king of prog should be making music that lives up to the title: songs that progress and change.