Review: Steven Wilson Will Polarize Fans with “The Future Bites”
A great-sounding album that won't sound great to all of Wilson's fans.
After a lengthy delay, Steven Wilson’s sixth full-length solo album, The Future Bites, was finally released last Friday, Jan. 29. It was originally scheduled to come out in June of 2020 but then the pandemic hit and the world kind of stopped, especially in the music business.
Wilson released a track here and there to whet people’s appetites but if the internet is any judge, it just built up a lot of animosity between those who said they liked the songs and those who disparaged them. The album that houses those individual tracks has been no different in the few days since its release. It’s an album that is going to infuriate half of Wilson’s existing audience while making the other half extremely happy. And it might just make him a whole lot of new fans.
So, how is The Future Bites, really?
Well, it’s brief, for starters. The nine songs total only 42 minutes. It’s a perfectly reasonable album length, which is a fact that many people have forgotten. Wilson’s prog-leaning fans will note there is only one song of any notable length — “Personal Shopper,” which clocks in at a smidge under 10 minutes. And that was chosen as the first single.
Sonically brilliant, the album continues Wilson’s obsession with making albums that sound great, whether you like the musical contents or not. Stylistically, it’s largely comprised of 70s styles that have been repackaged in a slick, electronic wrapper. You’ll hear some funk, disco, and even a few nods to Pink Floyd’s iconic work inside the production of Wilson and David Kosten.
Wilson explores the themes of technology, identity, and modern consumerism. It’s actually the perfect subject matter to explore during a pandemic that has everyone glued to their devices while isolated from friends, co-workers, and family.
“Unself” kicks off the album but it’s little more than an introductory piece — an ambient mood bisected with an acoustic guitar and a few short lines of lyrics sung in a Wilson falsetto that runs through much of the album. The piece does little more than set up the second track, “Self.” It’s a bit of an electronic, neo-disco indictment of how social media has turned our computers, phones, and tablets into our own personal reflecting pools. The two tracks combined repeat the idea that the self is in love with itself, which is largely how people consume social media these days.
How is the world receiving the post you just made or the video you just posted? How many people liked or shared it? Is your joke any good if you found it funny but nobody clicked the thumbs-up or heart icon? What are people saying about that selfie? How many followers have you added this week? The prism of people seeing themselves through the reactions of others is a fascinating one and it was obviously on Wilson’s mind during the writing of The Future Bites.
“King Ghost” is supported on Nick Begg’s bass work and drums/electronic percussion by Michael Spearman. An ethereal recurring falsetto vocal recurs throughout with Wilson’s vocals for the verse getting some distortion, while a happy electronic keyboard bit repeatedly weaves its way through. It’s not catchy at first, but it does grow on the listener upon repeated listens.
My favorite track, and the one that will be most recognizable (stylistically) to longtime Wilson fans is “12 Things I Forgot.” This doesn’t stray terribly far from some previous Wilson works, whether solo or the last few Blackfield albums. A bit of a different instrumental arrangement and it could even be a Porcupine Tree song. It’s a bouncy song that’s a bit reminiscent of Keane’s Hopes and Fears album. Keyboards and acoustic guitar steer the song, while the harmony vocals — with Wilson finally avoiding falsetto on the lead line — and layered background voices make this track sublimely listenable.
Whether intended or not, the lyrics speak to me about complacency setting in and putting aside all of one’s goals and ambitions — settling — and how that affects the people in one’s life.
“Eminent Sleaze” puts 1970s funk, disco, Pink Floyd-ish/Alan Parsons-ish/Steely Dan-ish keyboard notes, and even perhaps some Black Keys into a blender and mixes it all up with more falsetto vocals and dissonant guitar stabs, covering the entire thing with an electronic sheen. I hated this song on first listen and now I can’t get enough of it. Lyrically it speaks on the topic of slick, conniving predators.
“Man of the People” feels like a lyrical inversion of “Eminent Sleaze” — perhaps from the perspective of the one being played by the player. While the packaging is different, the atmospheric mood will feel familiar to Porcupine Tree/Wilson fans. Headphones are recommended for this one, as there are layers to explore. This song is getting a lot of love online from what I’ve seen and it’s worthy of it.
Wilson’s sprawling ode to the duality of retail therapy, “Personal Shopper,” follows. Sir Elton John offers spoken word to a middle section, reciting a list of things we’ve got to have, even if we don’t need them. Lyrically, Wilson is telling you that you don’t need this album you’ve just bought, which is wry and true and cynical and hilarious, all at once.
Consumer of life, hold my hand, extend your rights
It's the power to purchase to excess
That sets you apart and can give you the ultimate high
Abuser of our time, if there's something that you want
You don't need it, but have to concede it's making you happy
And that's all that matters to you.
It’s perhaps abusing irony when he mentions deluxe edition box sets on a song that itself is contained in one such deluxe edition boxed set. That line hit home for me as well, because I spent the first few months of the pandemic buying such sets by Marillion and Porcupine Tree.
The chorus vocals by the backing singers and a phenomenal bass line make this song highly enjoyable, even if it does go on a bit in the middle. It’s a brilliant wink from Wilson that the word “self-indulgence” appears several times in a track that’s more than nine minutes long.
“Follower” picks up the pace after the outro of “Personal Shopper” finally dissipates. The rhythm drives this one while distorted guitars punctuate it. Without spoiling things too much, there’s a short section in the middle of this song that could have come off of Yes’ Drama album if not for the modern production.
The album closer, “Count of Unease” drags the pace back down but not in a negative way. This atmospheric song could be a mash-up of something from the writing sessions of Wilson’s own The Raven that Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) and those from Peter Gabriel’s Up album.
There are hooks on this record. The Future Bites is an album that has tremendously danceable moments — or, if you’re an old progger like me, at least makes you bob your head rhythmically. And, as mentioned above, it sounds spectacular. The musical content won’t be for every Wilson fan, which is something the artist is aware of and is willing to live with. But there is no progressive rock without progress. Wilson clearly doesn’t want to make another Hand. Cannot. Erase. any more than he wants to make the next Stupid Dream or In Absentia from his Porcupine Tree catalog.
I urge progressive rock fans to listen to it a couple more times, even if they hate it on first listen, and to listen attentively rather than have it on while doing something else. It’s only then that it reveals itself fully. For best results, listen to it loudly with a good set of headphones or on a great stereo. You’re bound to like some of the songs, even if you hate others. And, if you find at the end of the day that this effort from Wilson isn’t for you, just wait. The next one might be.
New Song Recommendations
Who says catchy rock music is dead? The band Wildstreet is set to release a new single on Golden Robot Records called “Set it Off” on Feb. 15 and I think a lot of you will like it. I generally cringe at descriptions such as “This is a must listen for fans of Queen, Jane’s Addiction, Imagine Dragons and AWOLNATION.” But in this case, there is a bit of each hidden inside “Set it Off” and I can’t wait for you to hear it on Feb. 15 and let me know what you think. You can use this link to pre-save it on its release date on Spotify or Apple Music to hear it or you can go ahead and take a chance on my recommendation and pre-order it on iTunes.
Speaking of Golden Robot Records, a new single and video release from Cousin Betty called “Tape Hiss” came to my notice recently and I felt it worthy of passing along. The song is essentially a love letter to compilation tapes from the golden age of Mtv. I mean, how many songs these days name check Nik Kershaw, Aztec Camera, and Cyndi Lauper? The band in the video-within-a-video even looks like an amalgamation of everything that was on Mtv in the 1980s. You’ve got your keytar, your Flying V guitar, colored hair, and makeup-wearing front man. Cousin Betty is a project by guitarist/songwriter Damien Stofka and it’s worth checking out this song, which you can do here.
Check Out Our Friends at Album Daily
Discover and rediscover music one album at a time. Album Daily exists to be the antithesis to algorithmic music discovery. We're growing weary of the programmatic rigidity that exists in the music industry; music only released on Fridays, only what Spotify wants you to hear and only what the labels will publish. We created Album Daily to fight back. We've built a community of fellow music lovers and we curate and share music the way it was meant to be listened to - as a complete project. If you decide to subscribe to one of our two newsletters, distributed daily or weekly, you will be introduced to many different genres and artists. Be the friend that recommends good music. Happy listening!