Sunday, January 25, 2015

Steven Wilson - Friend or Foe? Hero or Villain? Do You Even Care?

In 2011, as I had over 1000 legal and illegal CDs in my office, I decided to play everything from A to Z and I forced myself to throw away any CD with a download on it that I do not, have not or have no inclination to play. I did the same again, but with a less sentimental hat on during the autumn of last year.

I have maybe 600 CDs in my office now and some of the ones discarded reminded me that I was once a collector - a person who would require to 'full set' otherwise my listening or viewing pleasure would not be as fulfilling. The reason I tell you this is because up to 10 of the CDs I binned were Porcupine Tree bootlegs and CDs with their stuff on it and Steven Wilson, the man behind that band and numerous other projects has a real problem with the illegal download market - despite its existence probably guaranteeing him a quantity of my money he may never have seen.

I should quantify something (again). If I download something, illegally, and I like it, I buy it. If I download something and I think its shit, I bin it, usually before I commit it to disc. Sometimes I'll keep it, if it's good but not that good. As someone with a limited budget this serves my purposes even if it probably infuriates artists, record companies and retailers. Once I become confident about an artist's output I rarely download anything illegal and just pre-order it. The last time I spent good money on something I hadn't heard first was the 2013 Steven Wilson solo - The Raven That Refused to Sing - and frankly that had an enormous influence on my almost year-long personal vendetta against the album and the guy who made it.

Subjectivity probably causes wars; it causes enough arguments, divides opinions and fires up emotions like very few other things and the fact that two strangers can hurl insults and vile bile at each other because of a record one of them likes and the other dislikes possibly says more about the way humans have adopted (to) the Internet than anything else.

I am so categorically guilty of kneejerk subjective anger it is almost a separate entity to me; like a sub-version of the already markedly different Internet version of my real self. Politics tends to be my red flag - I tend to accuse people who are anywhere right of centre of being fascists, Nazis or just wankers, depending on the depths of their lack of humanity and recently my brother suggested that calling people Nazis has almost become a default setting for me now when someone's politics doesn't agree with me and, to be honest, there is something deeply satisfying about calling a defiantly right wing person a Nazi. But... a recent bout of public discussions with a UKIP supporter, where a large percentage of my friends all ganged up on said UKIPper and bombarded him with what essentially was bullying and all because none of us agreed with his beliefs, made me realise that being partisan can also be as bad as being a Nazi.

That's how terrorism starts.

The Internet now has a supremely large percentage of, to varying degrees, trolls - whether the people consciously know it or not and I'm possibly one of the worst because I wear my beliefs on my sleeve, have never shied away from sharing them and ... am prepared to call people Nazis when they disagree with me and my largely socialist beliefs. I'm not shy to come forward and offer an opinion - often negative - about things, especially when I've something invested in it (like money or years of following). In a world that seems to be dictated by the number of people who 'like' what you say. it's almost acceptable now to be abusive to someone who doesn't agree with the norm.

It's always great when people are on your side, but has social media killed the art of debate?

One of my favourite expressions is 'opinions are like arseholes; everyone has one' and that is pretty much as accurate as you're going to get. Some opinions stink, as do some arses.

I've always thought football fans sum it up best of all - not rival fans, but fans of the same team. I see more anger, recrimination and bloody-mindedness between fellow fans of Spurs than I do from rival fans. My football team causes more tensions between its own fans than it does from other, rival, London clubs. It has never ceased to amuse and amaze me at how vicious and nasty two fans of the same team can be because they disagree with each other; but it is within music fandom that the worst offences take place and it tends to be instigated by the Brits and the Yanks. I don't know if that's because we all, conceitedly, think we're better than other, non-English-speaking countries (or Australia because, well... it's Australia...) but I sometimes despair at the depths we all sink because someone has annoyed us.

Why have they annoyed us? Because they don't agree with us. It's as simple as that. It's bad enough when it's someone we know and respect, but if it's 'some twat' we've never met, who we don't know, who is presuming to tell us that we don't know what we're talking about...

I'm a hypocrite - I'm an offender. I offer my opinions - often when I'm dissatisfied - and then take umbrage because people disagree with them. It is a human trait, but one that has been exacerbated by the internet and the necessity to have our opinions heard.

One thing I've struggled to get my head around, especially in the last few days, are the people who take it as a personal attack on themselves if you criticise something they love. Like these people think because you have slagged something off that it is going to sour it for them and everyone else, so retribution and revenge against you has to be gained.

Or, at very least, attempted.

If someone says something that is wrong, or there is an alternative viewpoint, then directing that person to be able to see the error of their own ways or other, well considered, opinions should always be the first thing we do. Calling someone a cunt because they have dared to suggest that David Cameron does care about some things or because they believe Rita Ora's tits were offensive lessens civilisations slightly. I neither think Cameron cares or Ora's tits were offensive, but, you know, surely there are more important things in life to concentrate your ire on? There is a lot of talk about media manipulation - directing us to focus our energies on inconsequential ephemera rather than important issues - but in the last 15 years there are more people out there who care about celebrity than they do the poor or disenfranchised.

But I digress...

Discussion has gradually been rendered pointless on the internet because some idiot will come along, grab the attention by saying something inflammatory and will lesson the ability to actually have a proper discussion. It does still happen and sometimes people can make an argument so well, or so succinctly that it changes the way others feel. That is discussion at its best. My brother has always been a bit of a Tory, but through careful discussion and allowing him to make his own mind up about certain things, his politics have softened in recent years to the point where he can see that for his children, his grandchildren and his future health, the Tories are probably not going to do him any favours. It wasn't just me, but it was through considered discussion that he changed his mind, not because I kept shouting 'twat' 'wanker' or Nazi' at him.

The major problem with the Internet is its impersonal nature - humour, sarcasm and subtlety are lost in black and white and there are many people out there who will use smiley faces in an extremely cynical way - "You're an utter cunt ;)" doesn't lesson the insult (unless you're talking to me) and it doesn't matter how many emoticons you put after it...

Now, to get back to our theme. Steven Wilson is someone I'd not even heard of in 2004. To me the entire idea of prog rock was dead; a dead horse being flogged by a bunch of people who couldn't move on. I'd been exposed to some of the nu-prog floating around and while it was okay, was it really prog? Then, because of another band I discovered at the same time, I ended up doing something that Steven Wilson would probably have me shot for - I downloaded an album called Recordings by some group I was vaguely aware of called Porcupine Tree. The next day, I downloaded the other illegal torrent which purported to be an album called Recordings II, which turned out to be an unofficial compilation (even worse) of previously unreleased or non-album stuff. It might have been wrong, but the point was I was hooked. How had I managed to go so many years without finding this band, especially as my best friend had seen them live in 1995 and had numerous albums?

Over the next few years, I stuck to my guns and bought my way through as much of the PT back catalogue as I could (some of which are pretty much the rarest records in existence - which is why I have illegal downloads). Everything that was available I parted with good money for it. I was rarely disappointed and the output from the band between 1990 and 2007 was like discovering a whole new world...

I was a huge Genesis fan in the 70s, but by the time the 90s rolled around they were just an old joke gone too far. Every other year during the 1980s they'd release a new album, tell the press it was their best yet, make shedloads of money and leave me feeling slightly cheated. But you couldn't argue with the fact that Abacab outsold Selling England by the Pound by about 10:1 even if the quality of song writing and musicianship was considerably poorer. But, that was just my opinion; someone, somewhere (at any time of the year) would argue that mid-1980s Genesis was just the thing to complete their otherwise dull lives. Opinions you see are very much like arseholes.

In my own mind, there was a subtle irony in that by the time I'd discovered Porcupine Tree they were on the verge of releasing the album that would break them into rock's bigger time and that album is and was, in my probably not so humble opinion, the worst album they'd ever done. Fear of a Blank Planet pushed lots of people's buttons. It was a prog-metal album with Fripp and Lifeson guesting and probably made Wilson and co., more money than the previous dozen albums put together. This alone should explain that its not as crap as I thought it was, but one man's subjectivity means nothing when the general consensus is positive. Plus there are people out there who could have the faeces of Steven Wilson forced up their noses and would still squeal with joy while ejaculating money - fandom can be extremely blinkered and partisan (as well as downright weird).

I wasn't the only person to dislike FoaBP, my mate Roger detested it and even today, when I tell him there are actually a couple of tracks worthy of listening to again, he dismisses this the same way I dismissed the last Steven Wilson solo effort.

When you discover a musical polymath like Wilson, with a back catalogue that can keep you busy for years, it is a great thing. It's a little like finding a cellar full of unreleased Dickens novels or a secret Beatles album they created and then buried under a mountain for the future to find. And because there was so much of it, it didn't matter what I thought of Wilson's 'side' projects: No-Man not to my tastes, Blackfield - a great pop band. That I could take or leave Bass Communion and that IEM were good and bad in equal measures, there was so much out there it didn't matter if some of it wasn't to my tastes.

I was especially drawn to some of Wilson's 'solo' stuff and when his first solo album was announced I felt a frisson of anticipation that I was surprised hadn't been killed off by the underwhelming feelings I had for the FoaBP album.

Now, as we're discussing this in a good and civilised way; let me be honest about this. Insurgents was the best Porcupine Tree album for years. It was full of everything we'd grown to expect from a great PT album, in all but name. The next and probably final Porcupine Tree album - The Incident was the best thing they'd done - collectively - for a decade. Wilson's second solo album - Grace For Drowning was almost as good as Insurgents and as a music fan this was a purple patch par excellence. If you were new to this then you were in for a treat.

Now, don't get me wrong, my change of attitude towards Wilson didn't just happen with The Raven Who Refused to Sing, I'd grown a little tired of his whining and bleating about ipods, illegal downloads, taking pictures at his gigs, and his general aversion to the modern technology that most young people take for granted. The irony is that FoaPB was about this very thing (except a man in his 40s shouldn't be trying to do a hip and trendy 'message' album when the audience he was targeting wouldn't give him a second look). I was seeing or hearing too much of Steven Wilson's 'politics' and slowly I was finding that he just sounded like he was moaning all the time and seemingly at his fans.

You'd hear about his being pissed off with people in the audience but never how pleased he was that his audiences were now in their thousands and not in their 10s. Or how he didn't like people having illegal copies of his music, but if he made this music readily available, rather than perpetuate a ebay revelation, rather than pumping out another live CD or DVD, then maybe he wouldn't get pissed off about people having illegal copies of Staircase Infinities.

I started to think - based on his presence in the media - that Wilson was growing increasingly more egocentric and seemed to have as much desire to alienate people as attract them. I think Bryan Ferry is a complete and utter twat, but some of his music is good and Wilson was starting to fall into that category. Musically he was producing some of the best of his career, while simultaneously sounding more and more like a cock.

Then The Raven Who Refused to Sing came out and I'd long before pre-ordered it. The first two SW solos had been superb, what could possibly go wrong?

How about it being a load of shit? Sorry, that's me being subjective and opinionated, but that's what reviews are all about, isn't it? So I wrote a review on Amazon - as I'd bought it through them - and I thought I was fair and even-handed in the review. Boy, was I going to come in for pages and pages of abuse. Very few people who bothered to comment actually had much to say about the review, most of them wanted to belittle me, someone they didn't know, because I'd been critical of an artist they all admired and they didn't agree with me. Well, I admired him as well, but if he does something I don't like I'm just as entitled to shout about it as I would have done had I liked it. Or is that somehow a warped concept or way of thinking now?

The Raven album had the last time I bothered to look, something like 40 reviews on Amazon. There are two reviews that slag the album off and these two reviews have 100+ comments each, while the other 38 reviews have less than a handful of comments between them. People are more inclined to comment if they disagree than if they agree - it's why letters pages for magazines and newspaper struggled to find positive letters because negative letters outweighed them by 10:1. People don't feel they have to defend something they like if everyone else likes it - which makes perfect sense in a simplistic context. Because music is a personal thing, it should technically be impervious of criticism on a personal level.

I have seen people get so wound up by my criticism of the last Steven Wilson album they have dispensed with civility and general thought and just directed a hail of abuse at me. I even tried to point out to someone who was very personally offensive that they had no idea who I was or what I was like so making countless allegations about my sexuality, my brain's ability and the people I love was not called for. I just got more abuse.

The sad thing about this is that until you have a kind of epiphany and realise that it's pointless and counter-productive, it makes you want to sink to that level. Calling someone a cunt because they don't agree with you has an instant gratification; the problem is people remember that and when you want to put a point across and are called a cunt yourself ...

That's how wars start.

My horror - because that is what it was - at the Raven was reflected in my review. I made the suggestion that I'd been cheated out of my £15 and this seemed to be a real issue with some people, especially when I suggested that others should feel cheated too. To say it was an album I detested would be accurate. After several plays, I grew to dislike it more each play. As far as I was concerned he was no longer doing his own brand of prog rock, he was now trying to emulate and copy his heroes - specifically King Crimson (arguably a very acquired taste in prog circles, especially during their latter periods) and elements of the Canterbury Scene - in retrospect I probably couldn't have been more wrong.

And I have beaten the same drum ever since. I said in March 2014, that I would never play The Raven ever again, so angry was I that this hadn't lived up to my expectations, like I'd commissioned Wilson to do it and it had not been to my liking... And in January 2015 when Wilson announced his latest offering, there was I slagging that off before I'd even heard it.

And there is the psychological reason behind this kind - we buy something, it becomes ours - we now own it or part of it - and therefore if it doesn't live up to our expectations, we feel we have a right - which we do if it's civilised - to express that dissatisfaction publicly. What causes the confrontations is, even if people put those IMHOs in front, is that even if you personally don't like something, if someone does like it, they will want to, primarily, argue, then abuse you for not agreeing with them. Some might want to examine why there is such a disparity between two fans' opinions, but in general, if I told you your music taste was crap - albeit about as indirectly as physically possible - you are going to kick out against it.

It isn't just abuse; sometimes you get incredibly intelligent trolls; people with a deep rooted sense of personal injustice, who understand that there is a certain 'ir-rationale' about airing beliefs on the internet in an abusive or aggressive nature, so they employ a form of what I've been doing here - reasoned analysis with a 'fuck you' caveat (except, this time, there's not going to be a caveat).

I have been playing The Raven That Refused to Sing all day - on and off - and it doesn't seem half as bad as I remember it and the second track - Drive Home - which according to Roger could easily be a PT song (that isn't difficult, considering) didn't make me rush to vomit uncontrollably because of an unfair comparison. I'm not going to immediately do an about face and say how I now think this album is superb, but I'm beginning to wonder what happened to make me so vehemently anti it when it was released?

It is different to the previous two solo albums, which, at times, could easily have been PT albums and that could be the reason why some die-hard Wilson fans have a problem with it; or maybe that's the problem, because it is yet another reason why the old four-piece of PT is maybe no longer needed. Plus, Wilson has produced an awful lot of unlistenable, impenetrable shite in the past, was my ire purely down to having spent money on The Raven?

He's moved on and is doing things that float his boat; what right have I got to lambaste him for doing what he wants?

Back in the late 1980s, a comic creator called Bill Willingham wrote in a foreword of his then comic that while he liked people taking an interest in his characters, would they please stop making story suggestions or asking for this to happen because, quite simply, it's his idea and that's the story he's going to tell. I really respected Willingham for taking that stand, especially in a medium where Stan Lee had made everyone think they had a say in how stuff worked. If I admired Willingham for that surely the same ethos belongs to Steven Wilson?

The internet allows us to lance the festering boils of discontent, and we then spray the pus of our indignation in the directions of anyone who doesn't think of us as prophets of truth.

Why I'm disappointed there's no future Porcupine Tree stuff planned is also something of a puzzle. The band's quality output in the last decade hasn't been anything like the previous ten years; while Wilson's solo stuff, until I pilloried The Raven, had been batting well above average. It is like I have no rational explanation for the way I've almost forced myself to dislike Wilson - although, to be fair, there are enough anecdotal and physically evidenced things he's said or instigated in the last ten years that makes him a little nerdy, needy and therefore probably dislikeable.

Maybe I just don't like change? Maybe the idea of a 'prog' band employing Nick Beggs (of Kajagoogoo fame) just sits wrong with me. Perhaps it's because I feel he's doing things with new people that he could have been doing with the other three? The thing is I don't own Steven Wilson; I can be disappointed with his albums and I'm entitled to a public opinion and protection against internet loons who take my personal dislike of something they also usually like as an excuse to be far more offensive. Surely the most civilised way of dealing with a negative opinion is either to ask what the basis for that opinion is or just ignoring it. How often does condemning someone for their beliefs end well?

As for Wilson. He's not a musical genius like many suggest he is, but over all he's supplied me with a lot more enjoyment than upset and if I was to review The Raven That Refused to Sing now, I'd probably give it 7/10 and have some reservations about the general direction he was going.

Now, if only the rest of the arseholes with opinions out there can have the same epiphany...

No comments:

Post a Comment