Steven Wilson – The Harmony Codex (chill prog, electro-ambient)
I thought I was done with Steven Wilson. As much of a Porcupine Tree fan as I am, his solo albums have never really grabbed me and it seemed like he'd been on a bit of an electronica-induced downward trajectory, beginning with 2015's unremarkable Hand Cannot Erase and culminating in old-man-yells-at-cloud-core "masterpiece" The Future Bites (2012), which rubbed me all kinds of wrong ways. Add to that The Harmony Codex's trendy, faux-profound, "meta graphic" artwork and minimalist, TikTok-baiting, sad-prog lead single and my expectations couldn't be further through the floor. Indeed, I only really listened to the album at all out of morbid curiosity and a niggling sense of duty to this here column, but the moment I pressed play I was utterly floored.
The Harmony Codex continues Wildon's foray into electronics, often giving way to entirely ambient soundscapes and compositions that couldn't be further from the metal-leaning prog rock he made his name with or the more upbeat, pop-oriented route his previous records suggested. True to expectation, there's no real reason this album should appeal to me at all, except that it's composed and executed with the mastery and emotional resonance that made Wilson so remarkable in the first place. Along with all the ambient electronics comes a lot of sections that hark back to Porcupine Tree's (not-so) humble Beatles and Pink Floyd-aping beginnings, while the album's near-eleven-minute centrepiece, "Impossible Tightrope" cheekily quotes Led Zepplin's triumphant "Achilles' Last Stand". Wilson's sullen and notably more mature reflections on alienation and consumerism also feel like more of a continuation of Fear of a Blank Planet (2007) and The Incident (2009) than last-years surprisingly upbeat Porcupine Tree comeback record Closure/Continuation or the heavy-handed approach of The Future Bites.
The whole album is outstanding, but there are two major highlights. First is "Rock Bottom'' featuring Israeli singe Ninet Tayeb, who gets to "Great Gig in the Sky" out for the entirety of its extremely affecting four and a half minutes, to harrowing-yet-strangely-uplifting effect (and whose other work I will be promptly delving into at the earliest opportunity). Second and perhaps more impressive is album-closer "Staircase", which again feels like an extension (and possible culmination of) later Porcupine Tree, and is possibly the single best Wilson-led composition since Fear of a Blank Planet.* Instead of that late-career masterpiece though, the song more readily recalls the band's earlier and—I'd argue, greatest—triumph, The Sky Moves Sideways (1995), with its David Gilmour-style leads, and throbbing, electronic base. I truly didn't think he had it in him, but The Harmony Codex is a monumental effort that instantly earns a prominent place within Wilson's catalogue, if not that of progressive music as a whole.
*Someone should probably pipe up and tell me it's something off The Raven that Refused to Sing (2013) instead, but that album's always gone entirely over my head (when it's not dissapearing up other parts of Wilson's own anatomy).
Blood Command – World Domination (crusty crossover, sad cowboy-core)
My two top picks this week could barely be more different, but my experiences with them are strikingly similar. My once beloved Blood Command had me worried in the lead-up to World Domination. On top of coming only a year-after previous effort Praise Armaggeddonism (2022)—their first with ex-Pagan vocalist Nikki Brumen—the record was promoted via series of videos that saw the previously ravenous fairly reserved-looking band playing acoustic guitars while parading around as sad cowboys, or otherwise doing their best (worst?) 100 Gecs impersonation while dressed like Korn for some reason. Maybe it's because I have previous negative experience with people suddenly dressing "ironically" in Adidas gear (which is a weird thing to say/type out loud, but here we are...), or because, while many—including our own almighty editor in chief—heralded as Praise Armaggeddonism as a triumphant return for the embattled band, myself and resident underground hardcore ambassador Trent weren't all that impressed, but I had low expectation going into World Domination, to say the least. Concerns were raised even higher when, on top of doubling-down on their new (or should that be "nu"?) imagery, opener "The Band with the Three Stripes" began with a similar assortment of mariachi horns, which characterised Praise Armageddonism. I was prepared for the worst, but I shouldn't have been.
Instead of ill-fitting pop-punk and hyper-pop pastiches, World Domination is packed with anthemic, often sub-minute-long built around thrashy skate punk riffs that even border on grind at times. The first seven tracks form a perfect little hardcore EP of their own, book-ended by two of the band's best and most memorable tracks to date in "Three Stripes" and "The Plague on Both Your Houses". From there though, things get weird. While there's still plenty of rabid hardcore to come, World Domination's second half is characterised by ironic-yest-still-somehow-exhilarating hardcore techno and minimalist, lovelorn ballads. The obnoxious "Welcome to the Next Level Above Human" will have you big-fish-little-fishing harder than Kevin and Perry having it large and even provides a refreshing and memorable break from the surrounding chaos. It's the softer tracks that close the record out though that really shine. In isolation (and coupled with deliberately obtuse videos) songs like "Losing Faith", "Decades" and the title track showcase the usually snotty Brumen's strength as a melodic vocalist, capable of carrying a tune or few all on her own, and it would be interesting to see songs in this style more fully incorporated into future releases. Some might see it as a stopgap release, or a lesser effort in comparison to what came before, but with World Domination Blood Command seem to have finally hit their stride and I, for one, welcome our Swedish crust-pop overlords.