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"This is not background music": the story of Storm Corrosion

Storm Corrosion
(Image credit: Naki)

It’s hard to imagine many fans of modern progressive rock that wouldn’t cheerfully donate a limb or two in order to have been a fly on the wall when Steven Wilson and Mikael Åkerfeldt finally sat down to begin writing music together. Arguably the two most significant musicians operating within our musical world right now, Hemel Hempstead and Stockholm’s finest have contributed such a huge body of work over the last two decades or so that the very idea they could embark on a wholesale collaboration has been one of the most frequently debated topics of conversation between prog fans for a number of years. 

In fact, given that these are both men for whom the music itself has always been paramount – reluctant heroes, the pair of ’em – there must surely have been a real possibility that the expectations of the wider world could have discouraged them from ever taking that first step towards artistic union. Delivering the expected or pandering to an audience of breathless admirers has never been a hallmark of either man’s work, and few informed listeners will be surprised to discover that Wilson and Åkerfeldt have created something that resounds with fierce originality and an almost defiant disregard for the progressive status quo. Storm Corrosion is one of those rare records that opens a door leading to an entirely new and thrillingly unsettling musical dimension: a sprawling, amorphous journey through fragile but foreboding soundscapes that takes in everything from elegiac acoustic folk and shimmering, shadow-shrouded psychedelia through to bursts of disorientating noise and scything swathes of diaphanous orchestral horror. It’s one of the only records you’ll hear in 2012 that truly deserves to be regarded as an unprecedented artistic statement. 

Of course, speak to the men responsible for this bold plunge into music’s unsullied subconscious and the response will be endearingly self-effacing. The simple outcome of two friends hanging out together, getting hammered on red wine and making music for the sheer hell of it, Storm Corrosion may be an album sodden with indulgent aspiration but it also seems to have evolved organically, as two inveterate musical mischief makers let the ideas flow with no real plans or expectations
of their own. 

“I think the thing is – and you can hear it in both of our work outside of Storm Corrosion – is that the pieces we write tend to unfold like a kind of travelogue,” states Steven Wilson. “The way that works is that each idea suggests the next idea. What I mean by that is that sometimes, if you’re writing a book and you have characters – not that I’ve written a book, but I’m hypothesising – and there’s a certain point at which those characters have been defined in terms of their personality and characteristics, and at that point their behaviour begins to almost lead you, rather than vice versa. And that happens with music as well. Mikael came in with the first riff of Drag Ropes [Storm Corrosion’s opening epic] and we put a couple of minutes of that down, and that suggested to us where it would go next. To use the same analogy, how would this character behave or develop? What would he or she do next? There was a definite sense of us both egging each other on, as if to say ‘What’s the most strange and bizarre tangential thing that could develop out of this?’”

Storm Corrosion

(Image credit: Naki)

What is extraordinary about Storm Corrosion is that despite Wilson’s insistence that these six songs emerged from a relaxed creative splurge between two firm friends, there is a degree of intricacy and intensity on display throughout the album that suggests a much more involved writing process than anything that could be bashed out while under the influence.

“In that sense, you’re right. Although the pieces came quite naturally, they do have a quite elaborate structure,” Wilson notes. “It was almost like writing a story, allowing the piece to unfold. In that respect, each riff, each rhythm, each sound, whatever it was we had, would suggest the next thing. That’s not to say that there wasn’t some kind of retrospective restructuring. For instance, the string arrangement that begins Drag Ropes wasn’t there to start with. It began with the piano and voice section, so I went back and added the strings later. So there was some reconsideration and re-evaluation. But we both have the attention span of a yoghurt pot, so we don’t like to get into a groove and sit there for 10 minutes. We like things to develop and move into other areas.”

It would be misleading to suggest Storm Corrosion gives no indication that it features the creative mainstays behind Opeth and Porcupine Tree. Certainly, both Wilson and Åkerfeldt have instantly recognisable voices and there are occasional ideas that emerge, albeit briefly, from the general melee of strangeness that provide a spectral link to those bands, but there is also a strong sense that this album has given its creators the chance to indulge aspects of their respective musical tastes that could be used only sparingly within the format of a more traditional performing unit.

“Yeah, I think that’s true,” says the Swede. “Before we began we were mostly talking about Scott Walker and some of the electronic bands like early Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. Also, we talked about what type of instruments we wanted to use. We wanted it to be earthy, with electric piano and lots of Mellotron. It had to be soaked in Mellotron! Pretty early on, we talked about drums and that the songs didn’t really need them. Drums would probably spoil them rather than add something, so we just kept a beat with a ride cymbal and stuff like that and that became part of the sound.”

Storm Corrosion

(Image credit: Naki)

One thing that clearly separates Storm Corrosion from Opeth and Porcupine Tree is that the dominant instrument is acoustic guitar. An enthusiastic advocate of the stranger end of the folk music spectrum, not least the brilliantly odd Comus, Åkerfeldt seems to have taken this opportunity to indulge his penchant for acid folk and pastoral psych rock. Curiously, he attributes his love for acoustic guitar to an even more eclectic set of inspirations.

“It’s not just that acid folk thing, although that played a part,” says Åkerfeldt. “I basically only played a little bit of electric guitar on this record. I started playing acoustic guitar a long time ago, but back then I was influenced by classical instrumental pieces on death metal records, like on Schizophrenia by Sepultura, that classical interlude. So that’s how I got into picking up the acoustic guitar. I wanted to write some death metal instrumentals. The whole folk influence came a lot later. It’s a strange combination of death metal interludes and some folk music, Bert Jansch and shit like that, and Comus of course. Also, Joni Mitchell. Not all of it’s dark, but a lot of it is.”

Having stepped so deliberately away from the metal-influenced prog (or, indeed, prog-influenced metal) of their day jobs, Wilson and Åkerfeldt’s new project could be superficially mistaken for a rejection of heaviness, of extremity and of anything that fans of aggressive music might regard as sonically satisfying. And yet, Storm Corrosion is arguably the most extreme record either man has ever made; its moments of macabre serenity, bleak elegance and otherworldly malevolence make it a far more uncomfortable listen than any more traditional barrage of distorted riffing and guttural growls.

“In a sense this is even more extreme than that kind of thing these days,” insists Wilson. “The vocabulary of extreme, aggressive music is so overly familiar to us now, especially those of us with connections to the metal end of the music industry. That kind of metal vocabulary is now so overused that actually it’s much easier to be shocking and surprising by going to the opposite extreme. I don’t think it’s possible to make music that will shock anyone by making music that’s ‘heavy’ in the traditional sense. That extremity, there’s nowhere left to go with it, so it’s almost about retreating back to an organic pagan minimalism. I know those three words shouldn’t go together, but I’ve put them together now! That’s kind of the way I think of this record. It almost has a flavour of classic ancient folk songs. There’s a tradition in folk music called the murder ballad, things like The Unquiet Grave, songs from centuries ago about people haunted by the ghost of the one they murdered and so on. They’re very tragic English folk songs, and I think that does come through in this music. There’s a lot of inspiration from ghost stories, and by that I mean quite classical, old ideas, like witchfinder generals and hauntings, and that’s all in the music too.”

Storm Corrosion

(Image credit: Kscope)

One particularly stunning moment occurs midway through Storm Corrosion’s gloriously unsettling 10-minute title track. A subtle and slow build-up of static, dissonance and atonal strings emerges as one gently melodic part subsides and morphs into another beautiful acoustic guitar figure, culminating with the underlying wave of noise’s stuttering disintegration, as if someone is wrenching wires from the studio mixing desk in an act of wilful sabotage. 

“Yeah, I think we were both into that idea of using both extremes of music, like going from a beautiful part and then fucking it up with something disturbing,” states Åkerfeldt. “We were pushing each other to go in that direction. Once we had a beautiful part, we both thought we should make it evil and fucking disturbing. That happened for a couple of songs. There was one song, Ljudet Innan, where we said, ‘Let’s keep it beautiful all the way through’, but I think we were trying to fuck that one up too! But that was one of the first ideas. Even on the first song we did, Drag Ropes, we had something like a beautiful melody line and then in the middle section there’s some kind of dark, noisy thing going on. That was established pretty on, as we were writing for this. It’s just our taste, really. If you listen to [Scott Walker’s] The Drift, the vocal lines are always beautiful, but I wouldn’t be able to fit those over those kinds of noisy parts. That was a very influential record for both of us, I guess.”

Anyone who has seen the superb Scott Walker documentary film 30 Century Man, which combines an extended tribute to his life and career with footage of the great man in the midst of recording The Drift, will never forget the image of a hired gun providing percussive embellishment by punching a huge side of beef. Even if Storm Corrosion doesn’t quite touch upon that level of mischievous insanity or rival The Drift in terms of suffocating aural terror, it does seem to emulate a degree of Walker’s hyper-evolved sense of limitless experimentation, where no idea is deemed too preposterous to warrant consideration. Åkerfeldt, who has frequently cited the eccentric crooner’s recent works as a guiding light, agrees that the shackles of conformity were well and truly off when he and Wilson started to hit their stride during the Storm Corrosion sessions.

“Nothing was too crazy. Nothing was too outrageous,” he states. “Both of us have many different influences when it comes to music,” Åkerfeldt explains. “If you like everything between Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell through to the old death metal bands I grew up with, and then The Drift and everything in between, there’s a lot of shit going through our heads! Nothing was too extreme and nothing was too scaled down or delicate. It was a very easy record to make in that sense. There was one song that we worked on and that was going to be pretty disturbing from the get-go, the song Hag. We worked with the song for a couple of hours and it wasn’t really going anywhere, but it took some twists and turns and eventually became something really interesting. That’s a really fucked up song from beginning to end! You don’t want it to be unlistenable. Some people would say that The Drift is unlistenable, but to me, it’s very interesting. At the same time, you really don’t want to copy that formula or any formula. It’s no fun and not interesting to me if it’s just purely noisy and doesn’t have any depth to it. We just tried to keep it interesting. As long as we both liked it, we felt we were home and free.”

“One of the sickest moments for me is the canned laughter in the middle of Hag,” Wilson suggests. “It’s one of the bleakest songs on the album, musically and lyrically, and putting canned laughter almost randomly between lines of this incredibly morose lyric, it’s kind of perverse. But it comes back to that Scott Walker thing. There’s a track on The Drift [Jolson And Jones] where it’s incredibly bleak and then at the end he does an impression of Eeyore the donkey. It’s a musical joke and it’s funny, but at the same time it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It’s horrifying and perverse and sick and demented, and I love that. Those things, if you get the balance right, they can be the scariest of all. That’s why the clown has become this iconic horror image, not least because of serial killers like John Wayne Gacy who used to wear a clown costume, and we now associate clowns with the most horrific things. There’s probably a thesis in that somewhere!”

Storm Corrosion

(Image credit: Naki)

By this point, those of you yet to hear Storm Corrosion’s myriad wonders may be wondering if you really want to venture into such a disturbing and schizophrenic musical world, but it’s also essential to acknowledge the importance of humour – albeit of a distinctly peculiar nature – in these elaborate but compelling pieces. Midway through the otherwise deeply peculiar Lock Howl, the song’s mood takes a sudden sideways step to make a way for a lurching and pointedly groovy burst of Mellotron-soaked psychedelia, replete with boisterous handclaps, that is
both subtly reminiscent of the rambling instrumental section at the end of Opeth’s Closure [from 2003’s Damnation] and the kind of affectionate pastiche perpetuated by tie-dyed XTC offshoot The Dukes Of Stratosphear. In the context of such a dark album, it works more as a bewildering musical joke than a sincere attempt to provide a dose of emotional equanimity: a cheeky grin on the face of that murderous clown, perhaps?

“I know what you mean. I think of that section as almost like a swinging, sea shanty thing,” says Wilson. “Again, it’s a very perverse thing in the middle of something that would never suggest that it would go in that direction. Why did we do that? I can’t remember. It was something that Mike came up with and someone said ‘Let’s put some handclaps on it!’ We were both hammered and egging each other on to do the most ridiculous things. Some of those things didn’t work and, believe you me, there are some things on the cutting room floor that were beyond the pale! 

“But a lot of it did work and there’s a lot of musical jokes and things that are designed to work in an almost theatrical way, that idea of watching a play or a movie and you have incredible shifts in emotion and what you expect to feel. In one scene, all the people in the movie are really happy and then something tragic happens and the mood changes completely You don’t often get that in music and progressive rock is one of the few kinds of music where you can do that, have those incredible shifts in mood and dynamic and it can go into the realms of bad taste and maybe this is one of those times. I really don’t know!”

Beauty, fragility, mischief, surrealism and horror: such is the atmospheric depth on display throughout Storm Corrosion that for once the old cliché about music conjuring movies for the mind seems to ring true. This is extraordinarily visual music that owes a small but undeniable debt to the soundtrack work of mavericks like Angelo Badalamenti, John Carpenter and perhaps even Italian celluloid progenitors Goblin. Although Steven Wilson is reluctant to commit to the notion that the album was made with such thoughts in mind, he concedes the cinematic realm’s presence was lurking as Storm Corrosion was pieced together.

“We’d always watch a movie before we went into the studio,” he admits. “Mike was staying at my place, so we were at the mercy of my paltry DVD and Blu-Ray collection. One thing I do have is a lot of very odd, experimental European films and horror films and things that you could say are parallel to the music in some respects. I’m not a fan of things that are too logical and neat and Mike is the same. With these songs we don’t follow traditional song structures, and the same is true of some of those movies we were watching. They’re sometimes quite surreal, with a broken narrative sense. European directors are very good at doing that. Hollywood always tries to make things very neat and logical. European directors like to leave things hanging in the air, maybe making you think a bit more about what they’re trying to do. So it’s interesting that people might pick up on that too.”

“You know, this is not background music,” adds Åkerfeldt. “It is like a movie in some ways. It’s demanding and you need to pay attention! I listened to the 5.1 surround sound version at Steven’s place and it was incredible. It blew my mind. I heard a lot of things I hadn’t heard listening to the regular stereo version. If you’re gonna enjoy this record, surround sound is a great idea! I don’t know how people listen to music these days, but if they have it on their phones and they’re multi-tasking and doing other shit while they’re listening to music, this is going to pass by like elevator muzak. You really have to sit down and listen to it properly on your own, otherwise you won’t notice what’s going on.”

Storm Corrosion

(Image credit: Naki)

One of the tools that Wilson and Åkerfeldt  use to devastating effect on Storm Corrosion is the dramatic power of sweeping strings. Arranged by Dave Stewart, these orchestral flourishes contribute greatly to the album’s celluloid sheen but also to the sense of disquiet and unease that underpins the entire record; a simmering, omnipresent hum of discord seeping through fissures in reality’s protective walls. While countless artists have harnessed the emotive heft of strings in the past, they are generally used to add a reassuring symphonic flourish akin to a blast of Vivaldi or Mozart down the phone line while you wait on hold for some banking assistance. Here, strings scrape firmly against the grain, much as early 20th century classical composers like Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Varèse embraced atonality as a means to confound and confront orchestral convention.

“Yeah, I like 20th century classical music very much,” concurs Wilson. “I don’t really like the classic classics, so to speak. When I was very young I discovered Karlheinz Stockhausen and I loved that. It’s a very conceptual form of music and sometimes it seems that the theory is as important as the music itself, although very often that doesn’t necessarily make for good music! The song Storm Corrosion has a section soon after the guitar solo where the strings play microtones, which are basically – in layman’s terms – the notes between the notes, like deliberately having the strings players playing out of tune. It’s something that people like Ligeti and Stockhausen and an Italian composer called Giacinto Scelsi used to do. If you want to hear scary classical music, listen to Scelsi. It’s like musical death. He’d have the orchestral musicians playing between the semitones so you get this incredible discordance. I love that.

“To take that and put that in the context of rock music is quite unique. I don’t know of anyone who’s done that, outside of Scott Walker, but even he didn’t have an orchestra playing microtones. These are professional musicians and they’re not used to being told to play wrong. You ask them to play wrong and they can’t do it. So Dave Stewart, the arranger, bless him, somehow got the musicians to play like that and it just sounds extraordinary. It sounds black and extreme in a way that no metal music could, with that sense of evil, that sense of creeping death.”

On an album that bulges with astonishing moments, perhaps the most startling few minutes on Storm Corrosion come with the ironically-titled Happy, a song that revels in its own lightness of touch; a skeletal anti-ballad that determinedly blacks out the faint glimmer of light at the end of life’s tunnel. Intriguingly, the song’s opening section is faintly redolent of some of Radiohead’s more low-key recent moments. While it is questionable whether such a parallel is anything other than the wild speculation of a music journalist with too much time on his hands, there is a case to be made that Wilson and Åkerfeldt share Thom Yorke and co’s steadfast disinterest in toeing the line or keeping fans on-side. Not surprisingly, Steven Wilson is happy to acknowledge Radiohead as kindred spirits.

“I’m a huge fan of Radiohead, because I think that they very easily could have become U2. At the time of OK Computer, everything was set up for them to become U2 and they very wilfully turned their back on that and at that point they became immortal, a band that will be forever regarded as one of the most significant bands, and maybe the last of their kind,” he muses. “I often wonder why more bands don’t do that. Coldplay, for example, are in a perfect position to do something really interesting and educate their fans, and yet they seem to keep making the same mediocre records over and over. 

“What’s great about Radiohead is that they did follow their own muse and increasingly frustrate and confront the expectations of their fans, but at the same time the fans still love them for it. I think that may well be the case with Storm Corrosion too. It’s a very rare breed of artist that can say that sometimes the fans really don’t like the records that they make but they will still buy the next one anyway. There are not many artists that can say that. I think of someone like Neil Young. He’s made a lot of records that have really pissed off his fan base, but they all go out and buy the next one anyway because there’s an inherent respect for his right to do that. I would like to be seen as someone like that and I definitely think that Radiohead are the best contemporary example of that, and you never really know what they’re going to do.”

Do you think that fans of Opeth, Porcupine Tree and your solo work will be surprised by Storm Corrosion or do you think you’ve trained them well to expect the unexpected?

“Well, the other thing is, and this is key, in terms of Radiohead’s public persona, they don’t seem to care whether people like what they do or not and that’s the best definition of an artist, someone who apparently doesn’t care that much if their fans like what they do!” Wilson notes, with audible glee. “The problem with having fans sometimes is that you can think too much about what they want and the moment you start thinking like that, you’ve already compromised. Radiohead really don’t give a shit, and me and Mikael, with this record, we’re really only trying to be ourselves. I don’t believe there was ever a time during the making of this record where we thought: ‘Let’s piss people off!’ We were just making music to please ourselves and nothing more. 

“Now, in retrospect, I can see that it’s going to piss people off! For me it’s very important, as an artist, to have a constant sense of motion and development. And Mike, of course, with Heritage and Damnation in the past,he definitely confronted the expectations of his audience. So I don’t necessarily think that our audiences are completely averse to the idea that this might be something that they’re not necessarily expecting. If AC/DC had made this record then there would be trouble! I think people are expecting something weird and wonderful.”

In-keeping with the music on Storm Corrosion, the album’s lyrics offer very little
in the way of obvious clues or signposts to indicate exactly what is being expressed.
A combination of hazy declarations of despair, ambiguous poetic invocations and dreamlike nursery rhymes from the other side of Alice’s cracked mirror, they throw up more questions than answers and contribute greatly to the record’s overall air of rudderless exploration. Amusingly, Mikael Åkerfeldt hasn’t got the faintest clue what’s going on either…

“Steven wrote all the lyrics except for one little piece in the last song. I don’t really know what they’re about!” he chuckles. “I actually misheard a lot of the lyrics! I think he’s singing about ‘Racing doors…’ at one point and I thought he was singing about racing dogs, like greyhounds or something. I honestly don’t know what these songs are about and I haven’t asked! Even though we’re in the band together, if I asked Steven he’d react like I’m some fuckin’ journalist and say, ‘Oh, they’re personal… fuck off!’ They’re his lyrics. My contribution is a few lines and the last song title, Ljudet Innan.”

“The lyrics are more painterly than specific, in a way,” Wilson adds. “They’re not trying to be too meaningful. They’re trying to be part of the texture of the music, throwing out evocative words and images. That was very much part of the writing process. It
was almost automatic, splurging out all these ideas. There wasn’t a great deal of intellect going into them. It’s more like someone putting paint onto a canvas and the lyrics become part of the fabric of the music. The titles were just random images that jumped out from the lyrics, except for Ljudet Innan. One day, we were struggling for titles, and I said to Mike ‘Why don’t we have a Swedish title for one of the songs? How do you say ‘ancient music’ in Swedish?’ and he said ‘ljudet innan’ – and there it was, a great title. That was just something that popped out.”

Intuitive, organic and borne as much from friendship and shared passions as from any desire to make waves in the music world, Storm Corrosion will not be to everyone’s taste but its significance to the concept of progressive music as a constantly evolving artform is beyond question. Once the record has been released into the wild, the men behind it will return to focus on other projects. Steven Wilson is currently working on a new solo record, while Mikael Åkerfeldt has plenty of festivals and other touring activities to keep him and the rest of Opeth busy for much of 2012. In the meantime, it will be fascinating to observe the impact this extraordinary album has, both on common perceptions of what these artful musicians are capable and on their own creative aspirations. One thing is for sure: Storm Corrosion confirms that rules are made to be broken and the best music still has the power to take our breath away. Let’s hope Steven Wilson’s supply of wine never runs dry.

“Part of this project that I loved was that it was so easy, effortless and we had a fucking good time doing it,” concludes Åkerfeldt. 

“I don’t feel boxed in with Opeth, but I’ve been doing that for such a long time that this is a bit of a release and you find other ways to express yourself. I’ve been writing columns and doing radio shows, which I love doing, but I always come back to writing music. 

“I have already told Steven that we’re gonna do another record! It depends if we can find the time, we’re not gonna push for it and we don’t really know where to take it in the future, but right now? Yes, I want to do more. The only worry is that we don’t want it to become too serious. We don’t want all the usual musical industry bullshit to spoil it. We don’t want anything to spoil this, because it was great fun making this record. I’m really proud of it and I don’t care what anyone else thinks. 

“As long as I have a copy of it, I’m happy!”

This article originally appeared in issue 25 of Prog Magazine.

Dom Lawson has been writing for Hammer and Prog for 14 intermittently enjoyable years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He listens to more music than you. And then writes about it.