The noted Fellini film 8½ was a study of an artist wrestling with creative block.
It’s safe to say the prolific Steven Wilson doesn’t suffer from that condition, as 4½ continues his extended hot streak, a run of triumphs which shows no signs of flagging. Both in his own career and his role as remaster-of-ceremonies for prog’s heritage, he is absolutely flying, borne on wings of confidence and craftsmanship.
This 37-minute, six-track mini-album is so titled because it forms an interim release between last year’s all-conquering Hand. Cannot. Erase. and his fifth solo magic trick. Four cuts emanate from the Hand sessions, while one was born during the The Raven That Refused To Sing recordings. The closer, Don’t Hate Me, is a new version of a 1998 Porcupine Tree track, part-recorded live, honed in the studio. He draws on his usual pool of musicians throughout: Nick Beggs, Guthrie Govan, Adam Holzman, Dave Kilminster, Craig Blundell, Marco Minnemann, Chad Wackerman and Theo Travis. Israeli star Ninet Tayeb duets with him beautifully on the nine-minute finale.
He is flying, borne on wings of confidence and craftsmanship.
Coming in with senses alive, 4½ doesn’t mess about. The guitar riff which opens My Book Of Regrets (another nine-minute ride) boasts one of the best sounds you’ll ever hear. Lush, louche, layered, languid, it’s the kind of instantly engaging, irresistible sound other guitarists would kill for. Wilson, of course, makes it seem effortless. ‘In the back of a taxi cab in London town/ It’s like watching TV with the sound turned down.’ So begins the observational story, before drums kick in and we’re propelled into an arrangement with flecks of 10CC, specks of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and a heck of a lot of tempo shifts and surprises. You’ll have no regrets about this one.
Year Of The Plague and Sunday Rain Sets In are softly evocative instrumentals; the former openly displaying a debt to A Trick Of The Tail-era Hackett, the latter shimmering with a Morricone feel. Happiness III (‘Something in this town is draining me/Could be the junk food or the gasoline’) is a more conventional song but the high-pitched guitar solos have a dash of Steve Howe. Vermillioncore broods in with duelling guitars and basses, which proceed to race each other heavily and headlong to the finish.
Don’t Hate Me – again seemingly set in a lonely, exhausting London – pitches Wilson’s restrained vocal against Tayeb’s emotional release, while keyboards and sax soar. It’s a moving climax to a majestic record. One day Wilson might do something less than brilliant, but this isn’t it.