Mayweather v McGregor is the fight everyone’s talking about, right? Or maybe not. Bubbling away from the garish spotlight on the boxing v UFC bout, if The Sun newspaper is to be believed, Steven Wilson has been battling away against ginger-mopped pop singer Ed Sheeran with his new album To The Bone. “Cult rocker begs Ed Sheeran fans not to buy his album so he can top the charts instead” screamed a typically sensationalist headline, whilst the i paper and Guardian opted for the slightly more restrained “Prog rock celebrates revival as Steven Wilson closes in on first number one” and “The prog rocker topping the charts without anyone noticing.” He even graced the BBC Breakfast Time sofa this morning. “What is prog rock?” was the first question, and, after checking himself, offered a very good assessment of the long-form being used to take the listener on a journey. “Erudite and intelligent,” said one commenter on the Prog Magazine Readers Facebook group. “A great advocate of the music we all love.” He’s right too. I might even nick Steven’s description for my own use, in place of my favoured “Awkward music for awkward people.”
Well, now we know that Steven Wilson didn’t topple Ed Sheeran from the top of the chart. But his placing of No.3 is not only his highest ever, but equally a remarkable achievement for a musician like Wilson. Especially if one recalls the toys-out-the-pram furore that followed in the wake of the release of Pariah six weeks or so ago, and grew with every new stream or video, that Steven Wilson had gone pop, that he’d betrayed the genre and somehow personally every prog fan that walked the earth. Well, let’s just say that prog fans, favouring the grandiose gesture, aren’t shrinking violets when it comes to the odd over-reaction, either. We even tried to tell you there was nothing to worry about, but the trolls were out in force… to me that’s just musical snobbery, plain and simple. Popularity does not affect the quality of music our heroes make. Wilson, and therefore by proxy, progressive music, being talked about by the mainstream is a good thing. Sure, they’re ignorant about the genre, but they’re ignorant about a lot of things full stop. Seeing an artist who does things on their own terms surely serves as a massive inspiration to young musicians starting out today.
And Steven’s most recent journey with To The Bone has certainly put progressive music back in the media glare as it is want to do every few years or so. I was interviewed by the i paper newspaper this week to discuss whether “prog is back” in the wake of the current chart battle. I reminded them that months after we launched as a magazine back in 2009, the BBC were on the phone asking similar questions because Muse were at No.1 with The Resistance, while Porcupine Tree were also in the Top 30 with The Incident. Prog isn’t ‘back’. As we all know, it’s never gone away.
Given Wilson’s current tack – new management, new record label, new PR – some have grumbled about an evident showboating to the mainstream media and turning his back on his core audience. Really? I’m not hearing that in the tunes on To The Bone. To me it sounds like a natural progression from Hand.Cannot.Erase. In reality, Steven’s 2008 debut Insurgentes, with its breakbeats and lo-fi approach, is more of a pop album than To The Bone. Interestingly however, the desired mainstream press support didn’t come from the music press – a handful of good reviews was about it. Yes, we put him on the cover (something, interestingly, his online media round-up continues to steadfastly ignore) because the bulk of people buying To The Bone are still going to be his core audience. Hence the midweek of No.1 as the diehards flocked out to buy the album, and then the steady sellers of Sheeran and Elvis Presley in the 40th anniversary of his death overtake as the week went on. But the daily papers biting on the chart battle this week has certainly heightened Steven’s profile.
To see Steven finally emulate Muse is a great thing. It may be unlikely to add thousands on to his album sales, but anything that pushes progressive music onwards can only benefit all of us. It creates a healthier musical environment in which one hopes the likes of Opeth, Anathema, Big Big Train and the others snapping at Wilson’s heels can hopefully build on. Because, back in 2009, few outside the progressive world would have believed that Steven Wilson, nestling at No.30 with Porcupine Tree, would one day be battling to be who Muse were back then. Tomorrow, the likes of The Sun, the i paper and The Guardian will have largely forgotten who Steven Wilson is (until his next album, at least). They didn’t remember Marillion got to No.4 last year with FEAR, did they? But we won’t have forgotten and progressive music will be a stronger musical environment for it. Well done Steven Wilson, and well done Prog readers for supporting him. Onwards, as they say, and upwards…