Steven Wilson has solidified his position as modern progressive rock’s resident pop star with his newest offering The Future Bites. This album manages to somehow be both unexpected, and familiar. While it is definitely Steven’s most commercially viable record to date, and is certainly a major departure from much of his recent work (Especially Hand.Cannot.Erase and The Raven That Refused To Sing), it also contains elements that will feel familiar to fans of Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, and his solo records.
At its heart, The Future Bites is undeniably a rock album, just like everything Steven’s ever done. The thundering drums and bass guitar featured on nearly every track make that fact certain. However, noticeably absent are the loud electric guitars that have been present on just about every record he’s ever released. Interestingly, it’s the very lack of these guitars that seems to have opened up the sound space, allowing Steven to explore new sonic possibilities. Sequencers, percussive loops, ambient droning synthesizers, mellotrons, and stacks upon stacks of backing vocals define the soundscape of The Future Bites. The result is a beautifully crafted, new age electro-prog-rock album.
After “Self” provides a beautiful ambient intro, we hear “Unself”, perhaps the catchiest song on the record. Its accompanying music video is equal parts entertaining and disturbing. “King Ghost” is Steven doing what Steven’s best at. Dreamy soundscapes, filled with lush sequencers and vocal effects, broken in just the right places by vivid, unaffected vocal hooks.
The 4th track, “12 Things I Forgot”, is the only guitar driven song on the record. This track is very reminiscent of Stupid Dream era Porcupine Tree. It’s a good song, but feels a little out of place in the context of the rest of the record. In leading single “Eminent Sleaze”, Wilson sings at the very top of his vocal range for this track. This style of singing feels a bit strained and unnatural at times, but that does fit with the theme of the track. The band sits on the same groove for the entirety of the tracks nearly 4:00 run time. This song is a prime example of production carrying an otherwise mediocre song.
Next track, “Man of the People”, is a beautiful lullaby-ish track that sounds like it would have fit well on In Absentia, though I can’t help but feel like, if it were written 15 years earlier, this track would have certainly been several minutes longer, and would have worked its way to a much more interesting and intense place. “Personal Shopper” is another undeniably catchy pop-prog track, featuring Sir Elton John in what has to be the most unexpected vocal feature I’ve ever heard. This track also has one of the more bizarre – and at times painful to watch – music videos I’ve ever seen.
In “Follower”, the drum and bass groove on this song feels VERY Up the Downstair. Initially this song didn’t really catch my attention, but in more recent listens it’s become one of my favorites on the album. Final track, “Count of Unease”, is very uninteresting on a car stereo – as much of the sound gets drowned out by road noise. I feel like this is Stevens way of saying “WHY THE HELL WOULD YOU LISTEN TO THIS MASTERPIECE ON THE AWFUL STOCK SOUND SYSTEM OF YOUR 1997 DODGE STRATUS???” My recommendation: Turn the car off, walk into your house, turn your stereo on, sit on the floor (positioned perfectly between the speakers) and prepare to be blown away by one of the most beautiful things SW has ever done.
The production is on par with any big budget modern pop release, which makes for an incredible experience when listening in good headphones or a nice home theater system. The lyrical content is in line with what we’ve all come to expect (What’s that? Steven Wilson prophesying the downfall of society to corporate greed and a general public complacency? BIG surprise there). The songs themselves are a mixed bag in my opinion. There are certainly a few weak points on this record. However, several of the tracks can hold their own with some of the best he’s ever released. “King Ghost”, in particular, is an absolutely gorgeous synth driven dreamscape that evokes emotions as strong as any on In Absentia or The Raven That Refused To Sing.
If this album has one major downfall, it seems to be its heavy reliance on production to carry the songs rather than songwriting. A few of the tracks feel not-fully-thought-out. While they’re enjoyable to listen to, one can’t help but feel that the song really “wanted” to go somewhere bigger, but never quite got there. Perhaps this was done on purpose. The unfulfilled feeling you’re left with at the end of these songs does seem to pair perfectly with the images portrayed by the albums lyrics: a world of blind consumerism, outward excess and internal emptiness.
So much can be said about The Future Bites. So many strong opinions have already been shared in reviews, magazines, blogs, Facebook posts and elsewhere. It seems redundant now to argue any strong opinion for or against this album. All I will say is that for my part, I very much enjoyed The Future Bites, and I very much look forward to seeing what direction Steven goes next. One effect of all this recent press is that the entire music world has its eye on him. We’re all waiting to see what comes next. Your move, Mr. Wilson.
THE FUTURE BITES, was released through Caroline International on January 29, 2021. Buy it here.