“Maverick in scope and enormous in scale… but it owes much of its sprawling nature to its contributors”: Steven Wilson’s The Harmony Codex

Modern prog’s great visionary throws away the stylistic rule book to deliver an enigmatic, luxurious post-pandemic masterwork

Steven Wilson - The Harmony Codex
(Image: © Virgin)

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Buried in the world’s record shops, personal collections and web troves, there are Steven Wilson recordings that no one knows are his. Musical curios, mostly electronic, all released under different names without the expectations that come with being a known artist. Who knows what they sound like, or where they are?

There is something of that free spirit in his latest solo album The Harmony Codex, a 65-minute, electro-organic opus that’s maverick in scope and enormous in scale. The most complete, immersive representation of his artistic palate to date.

Wilson has never denied his eclectic influences, but there was always a limit on how much he revealed per album. We’ve had post-punk (Insurgentes), pastoral jazzy sounds (Grace For Drowning), a love letter to prog (The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)), a stirring concept (Hand. Cannot. Erase), art- pop (To The Bone) and electronica (The Future Bites). Then 2020 happened, and the parameters were all but erased.

It would be wrong to suggest that The Harmony Codex wasn’t a product of lockdown. The ghosts of the pandemic are all over its introspection, otherworldly textures and remote, ensemble approach. Stuck at home with thoughts of memory, mortality and the modern age, a contemplative Wilson found himself free to make exactly the record he wanted, with collaborators from across the world just an email away.

In one sense, it’s kind of all over the place. The credit list is gigantic, and varies from track to track. There are artificial and organic strains, samples and guitar solos. Three songs are about 10 minutes long, while others clock in around four. By turns you’ll hear dark, cavernous drum machines (atmospheric opener Inclination), cascades of Americana (What Life Brings) and dreamy synth and spoken-word layers (e.g. the title track, featuring the voice of Wilson’s wife). It’s a trip, but it works.

As multiple listens affirm, each song flows into the next, sharing some DNA with a surreal short story (also called The Harmony Codex) from Wilson’s lockdown-written book Limited Edition Of One. Earthy and processed ingredients soar into the abyss like a Trent Reznor film soundtrack with an ear for classic rock epics. It was recorded with spatial audio in mind, but don’t worry, it’s still suitable for mere mortal home systems (we’ve listened to it at a spatial playback, through a basic Bluetooth speaker and headphones – it sounded great on all three).

None of which is to say that this doesn’t feel like a Steven Wilson record. It absolutely does. Labyrinthine stand-out Impossible Tightrope marries Roger Waters’ expanse with the skewed jazz side of Grace For Drowning. The creepy, breathy whispers of Beautiful Scarecrow channel the serial-killer pallor of Raider II. Actual Brutal Facts reflects Porcupine Tree’s Fear Of A Blank Planet – their Bret Easton Ellis-inspired ode to the screwed-up youth of today. Elsewhere Israeli pop star Ninet Tayeb makes a welcome return, bringing the phenomenal storyteller voice that powered past live favourites such as Pariah and Routine.

Indeed, as much as The Harmony Codex peers into its creator’s mind, it owes much of its sprawling nature to its contributors. Certain tracks are effectively Wilson solos – including Economies Of Scale, the delicate, electronic first single, warmed with acoustic strums – but others feature mini ‘supergroups’. Familiar faces in the prog scene, as well as outliers including 90s DJ Jack Dangers on drum machines and experimental composer David Kollar on guitars.

Guy Pratt and Lee Harris feature on bass and guitar respectively (both of Nick Mason’s Saucerful Of Secrets by day), and King Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto pops up too. Bassist Nick Beggs is there, along with fellow Wilson mainstays Adam Holzman (keys/Wurlitzer) and Theo Travis (flute/sax/clarinet). The aforementioned Tayeb sings on various tracks and contributes lyrics to Rock Bottom – a powerful Pink Floyd-meets-Bond-theme ballad, which draws from her experience of bipolar disorder. The collaboration continues on the deluxe edition, which includes a reimagined version of the album, with remixes and interpretations by Manic Street Preachers, Interpol, Mikael Åkerfeldt and Tears For Fears’ Roland Orzabal.

It’s perhaps The Harmony Codex’s closer Staircase that most embodies this chapter in his career. Over 10 minutes it flies through a kaleidoscope of electronics, guitar, Vangelis-y synths, gnarly bass, horn swells, dark space and, finally, spoken-word. The sound of rain. Vastness and intimacy. A compelling finale to Wilson’s existential free-fall through the fears, twists and hopes of the mind, and of life.

The Harmony Codex is available now via Virgin.

Polly Glass
Deputy Editor, Classic Rock

Polly is deputy editor at Classic Rock magazine, where she writes and commissions regular pieces and longer reads (including new band coverage), and has interviewed rock's biggest and newest names. She also contributes to Louder, Prog and Metal Hammer and talks about songs on the 20 Minute Club podcast. Elsewhere she's had work published in The Musician, delicious. magazine and others, and written biographies for various album campaigns. In a previous life as a women's magazine junior she interviewed Tracey Emin and Lily James – and wangled Rival Sons into the arts pages. In her spare time she writes fiction and cooks.