"It would be an obtuse listener who didn't grasp how splendid this record is": Steven Wilson's The Harmony Codex is a high-wire act that few artists could pull off

Solo album number seven The Harmony Codex finds Steven Wilson triumphing by not trying too hard

Steven Wilson: The Harmony Codex cover art
(Image: © Virgin)

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Thirty-three years after the self-pressed single Colours, a Donovan cover which all but invented trip-hop, gave his first significant outlet No-Man their ingress, Steven Wilson finds himself in a unique position: he's very successful, both as a ferociously inventive solo artist and as leader of Porcupine Tree. Yet nobody seems sure how to categorise him. Which, actually, is great. Too prog for the prog-averse, not prog enough for prog diehards. 

He's made a lot of electronic music in recent years, yet is rarely cited as a luminary of electronica. He's acknowledged as a techy sound wizard, although his later albums have passionately questioned the health of our screen-addicted world. In a time of boxes and groupings, Wilson is a maverick outlier, a polite dissident who does his own thing. Or rather, his own various things, whether that leads him into pop, pomp or a kind of musical polymathy.

If previous albums have sometimes skidded with screeches between genres, that solves any such jump-cut issues by blending his skills with remarkable fluidity. It's as if he's stopped stressing – impressive as The Future Bites was, it felt self-consciously big – and allowed all the muses in his head to hang, chill and jam. 

This one's about memory, more than future shock. You absolutely believe his anecdote that the Christmas his parents exchanged Pink Floyd and Donna Summer albums as gifts was his origin myth. Like the best Tears For Fears records, when they float into zones that might be described as funk Floyd, The Harmony Codex, by relaxing, relaxes you into it.

It's an hour-plus of music that glides seamlessly from skittering digital soul to Gilmouresque soft guitars to colossal riffing to eerie spoken word to honeyed tunefulness. It's gothic (in the true sense), grandiose when it wants to be, gentle because it's so robust it has nothing to prove. Like its centrepiece (well, one of them) Impossible Tightrope, it's a high-wire act that few artists could pull off. 

That 10-minute construction itself shifts from a string overture to a metal-adjacent rush to a whispering piano to what might be Yes playing Chairmen Of The Board's Skin I'm In. Economies Of Scale is like hearing Radiohead reclining luxuriously in an infinity pool, whereas the title track poses as elegant minimalism of the Sakamoto/ Vangelis school, until you realise it's got your emotions all in a proper tizzy. It would be an obtuse listener who didn't grasp how splendid this record is.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.