A self-admitting workaholic, Steven Wilson shows no signs of breaking his addiction to creating art. Whether it’s the surprise reconstitution of the band Porcupine Tree in 2022 – whose release Closure/Continuation also included a tour, the release of his autobiography, Limited Edition of One, or – going back in time a bit – his foray into pop with The Future Bites (2021), it’s clear the pandemic has been a boon to his output. Add to that impressive release schedule his seventh solo album, The Harmony Codex.
Taken from a short story published in his memoir, the story is a dystopian science fiction tale that takes as its theme the never-ending staircase. As Wilson said in an interview in Under The Radar, the never-ending staircase is about moments in one’s life. Sometimes, it’s about “the really special things that happen to you in your life [that] kind of happen when you’re not looking.” Other times, it’s the pressure to provide for your family or move up in your career, general anxiety about the world, or competing with others. It can all feel so overwhelming at times, but, perhaps, Wilson (who often goes to dark places in his art) is also saying that, yes, living in the age that we do is rife with forces we cannot control, but there are spaces or moments when something truly wonderful happens to people; moments we shouldn’t minimize because, well, the drudgery of the never-ending staircase (an illusion to M.C. Esher’s “Relativity”) threatens to drag us into nihilism – or a loss of individuality.
Heady stuff! But that’s what makes Wilson an important part of the progressive rock tradition. He’s not afraid to tackle weighty topics or delve deep into the state of the world with music that often echoes the complexity of the world. While his love of pop music is evident in projects like No Man – originally called No Man Is an Island (Except the Isle of Man) – with his friend and sometimes podcast co-host Tim Bowness, The Harmony Codex is bursting with really innovative and daring music. Because Wilson often works on his projects alone, sometimes his music suffers from sounding a bit too sterile. And that does happen at times on The Harmony Codex. Perhaps that’s by design, but from the opening track, “Inclination,” Wilson infuses a Middle Eastern flavor before launching into a kind of staccato-mechanical drum rhythm that fuses with the initial musical styling. Clearly, Wilson is not bothering with rock music on this track. But Wilson does pull a kind of neat trick after about three minutes by fading the song out for a few seconds – but it’s not over. Instead, the mechanical drums return after Wilson sings the opening line acapella: “Come see the fool/He’ll swindle you out of the game.” At 7:12, “Inclination” is quite the album opener in a musical sense. It’s entirely clear what’s going on lyrically in this song, but we, the listeners, seem to have happened upon a relationship that’s volatile and bellicose.
If there’s a theme to be discerned in The Harmony Codex, it is to be found in the image of the never-ending staircase. Oddly enough, Wilson stated this record is the first one where he really didn’t have a concept going into the project. Rather, he composed a collection of songs without any central purpose. Perhaps it was only upon completion that a concept came to light. Not quite the Completion Backwards Principle, but more like, “Oh, I suppose there is an overarching theme.” Remember, these songs are about moments in time. It’s not an elegant journey. Indeed, lyrically, Wilson is more fragmented than discursive for most of the record. Given all that, what are these moments about? Well, that’s up to the listener – which may frustrate some looking for an easy, TikTok-like answer to the complexities of life. On songs like “Economies of Scale,” there’s a mood that Wilson is going for rather than grand storytelling. The use of a programmed synth that pulses out modal bleeps has a real futuristic quality, but when the next track “Impossible Tightrope” starts, the vibe of the record shifts from dreamlike and introspective, into an epic progressive rock tour de force with some manic jazz flourishes on the saxophone. “Impossible Tightrope” (indeed the entire album) seems made for headphones, but much of that is due to Wilson’s studio perfectionism and skill at mixing. For those who want to have a prog geek-out, “Impossible Tightrope” is likely a strong contender for “La Villa Strangiato” of 2023. Both as an exercise in self-indulgence, and a stellar example of Wilson showing a real progression in his musical ideas; ideas undoubtedly borne out of his massive record collection that includes an impressive number of jazz titles.
On “Rock Bottom,” Wilson comes down from the stratosphere of the previous track and humanizes it right away with the effective vocals of Ninet Tayeb. Tayeb has collaborated with Wilson a few times and her voice works so well in counterpoint to his. Tayeb has such a powerful voice with a subtle scratchiness that works to great effect. Since an allusion to Rush was already made, might as well continue analogies by pointing out that Wilson and Tayeb work as effectively on “Rock Bottom” as Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush did on “Don’t Give Up.”
What’s both attractive and maddening about this record is that it’s not immediately accessible. Indeed, the sterile-sounding moments that occur in parts seem almost a deliberate about-face to the pop music sensibilities of The Future Bites – an album, by the way, that wasn’t as pop as Wilson contends). The Harmony Codex is a record that takes time (which means repeated plays) for its ingenuity to reveal itself. The album is not by far Wilson’s best work (mostly because of the spare nature of the lyrics), but musically it’s one of his more adventurous explorations. So, put in those earbuds, and enjoy ten songs that – like a short story collection – may not satisfy a desire for a grand narrative, but nevertheless are adept at parachuting down – or ascending – to moments of life in all its messiness.