• Thu, Apr 18, 2024

Why I Think Storm Corrosion Deserves More Praise

features Jul 01, 03:54pm

Steven Wilson and Mikael Akerfeldt’s 2012 collaborative album is arguably more important than anything else either artist has ever done  
 Photo Courtesy: ultimateguitar.com, Storm Corrosion
Wilson and Akerfeldt are both modern-day prog lynchpins that need no introduction; as frontmen and principal songwriters of Porcupine Tree, Opeth (and multiple solo efforts in the case of Wilson), they have largely defined the sound of 2000s progressive music; lush compositions and productions that combine moments of brutal heaviness with heartbreaking, lonely quiet passages that make us experience a zillion emotions over the course of their long-winded opuses. Most prog-bred 90s kids will tell you that the first time they heard Porcupine Tree’s heady, majestic ‘Arriving Somewhere But Not Here’ or Opeth’s dark masterpiece ‘Deliverance’, they felt multiple musical doors opening; a refuge from the god-awful bubblegum mess that was mid-2000s pop, a way to transition into niche genres like jazz or black metal (that both bands often used for flavour) and of course, the inherent beauty and emotional complexity of the two artists’ music. Even though they are considered two sides of the prog coin; Opeth’s music was (until 2011) far more heavy and metal-influenced while Porcupine Tree fell on the more experimental and jazzy side of the spectrum, Wilson and Akerfeldt share sensibilities to a large extent. Both of them are connoisseurs of 70s and 80s music, both share an almost fanatical obsession with melancholy and the darker side of the human psyche, and both compose in a similar way; undulating and often long compositions with layered production and densely packed instrumentation to fill the listener’s ears. But it 2011, something changed that splits both their audiences even today.
Actually, two things happened. In September 2011, Wilson released ‘Grace For Drowning’ (his second solo album, following 2008’s ‘Insurgentes’) , and Opeth released ‘Heritage’ (Wilson handled the mixing), their follow-up to 2008’s ‘Watershed’. That these two albums were released within two weeks of one another is no coincidence. In spite of being different and unique bodies of work, they were very similar that they were complete stylistic and compositional U-turns for both artists. The production was more open, warm and sparse; a far cry from the dense and compressed sound of their previous work. It was also a lot less heavy. Highly distorted guitars and crunchy drums were swapped out for much lighter tones and the usage of flutes and strings to give the songs body. But all this would have been accepted by their fanbases without question. What really alienated many was the songwriting and composition. ‘Heritage’ was the first Opeth album without Akerfeldt’s signature death metal growls (besides 2003’s Damnation, but that was one part of a two-part album and had the same old Opeth sound), and most importantly, both albums were hugely inspired by old-school prog and jazz fusion. Gone was most of the dynamism and volume that characterized both artists’ prior releases. Grace For Drowning was predominantly piano and saxophone-based; there were industrial music-inspired songs (Track One) and a 23-minute long dissonant, slow-build epic (Raider II) that gave itself a lot of time to breathe and seemed to want to unsettle the listener more than give them catharsis. ‘Heritage’ opened with one of the best piano solo pieces you’ll ever hear (the title track), had songs that sounded more like Uriah Heep and old Deep Purple (The Devil’s Orchard), had a tribute to Ronnie James Dio (Slither) and had weird, quiet passages that can only be described as morbidly Nordic (listen to Nepenthe or Haxprocess). Of course, both these albums still retained the soul of their artists (Folklore from Heritage and Deform To For A Star from Grace are quintessential Opeth and Wilson songs in spirit) but the change in pace from albums past was almost jarring. Fans’ response to this was polarizing almost to the point of comedy; some loved the new direction while others really, really hated it. But the real surprise was yet to come.
Storm Corrosion’ came out in May 2012. Beleaguered fans hope for this to be the album to restore their faith in their prog heroes; the perfect marriage of melancholy, heaviness and beauty. What they got was the polar opposite. Rather than a consolidated effort, ‘Storm Corrosion’ is almost completely subtractive; it is by far the most minimal, skeletal and stripped down project either musician has been a part of. There’s no obvious structure, energetic choruses or barn-burning musical freakouts. Its six songs instead focus on one or two extremely simple ideas, supplemented and often interrupted by noise, static and moments of almost frustrating dissonances. This is not an album that you can listen to once and love. It really does try its best to bother you, make you squirm. But once you do get it, man, oh man, is it delightful.
It is because of the lack of a fixed style, expectation or general musical goal that Corrosion really shows where Wilson and Akerfeldt shine. This is not a prog album, or a jazz fusion album, or anything. It is just two supremely talented and experienced musicians sitting down and writing whatever comes to their head. There are so many things that are wonderful about this album, but to begin, let us appreciate Mikael Akerfeldt as a guitar player. One: there is nothing inherently heavy sonically, and man, does it show. Akerfeldt plays only in service to the soundscapes; nimble acoustic guitar lines, buttery little solo parts that come in and out of the music so smoothly you barely even focus on them, and that last part of album closerLjudet Innan, which is so impossibly beautiful that I defy you to not feel all sorts of amazing things every time you get to it. He has a certain scandinavian darkness to his sound; there is a combination of extreme dissonance with moments of such beauty and resolution you can scarcely believe such things can happen on such a sparse album. Two: Steven Wilson as a producer. The mixing on this album is immaculate. There are little flute and synth parts that come in at the perfect moments. His reedy, nasal voice with bags of reverb serve as a perfect counterpoint to the guitars and the very quiet background atmospheres that run throughout the album. The soundscapes are scary and evocative, and he does not allow any one element to stand out, instead letting everything live in the overall context of the compositions as flavours in a whole. Don’t come to this album expecting some vocal or instrumental section to stick in your head. It will not let that happen. And oh, did I talk about the songs?
Storm Corrosion’ is dark. It is not sad, lonely or despondent. It’s just dark. This album wants to you to come out of it feeling as trash as possible. Take ‘Happy’. The one moment of beauty (a beautiful guitar line with Wilson harmonizing on vocals) is rudely taken over by static, noises and thouroughly disagreeable synth rumbles. When there are swelling, emotive strings, the guitars themselves are uncomfortable and irksome, like the instrumental track ‘Lock Howl’, which has hands down the freakiest moment on the entire tracklist; ghostly and nightmarish keyboards and mellotron supported by a handclap that would sound cheerful in literally any other context. The title track is equal parts haunting and creepy, and just to rub it in, it ends with distorted static that is introduced as if somebody is turning off the music slowly as they strangle you with the cord of your headphones. The only truly positive moment of the album is the last track, ‘Ljudet Innan’, that evokes a feeling of pure joy and relief that simply cannnot be put into words.
All this results in an album that showcases a side to Wilson and Akerfeldt that one does not see anywhere else; their ability to tear you to shreds and pick you back up at their will. ‘Storm Corrosion’ will not let you truly rest and appreciate it; it will make you contemplate the futility of your life while slipping multiple daggers quietly into your back. As soon as it draws you in with moments of pure musical joy, it throws you down again with moments of pure doom. You can listen to it as many times as you want, but at the end you will just be sitting there bruised and battered but ready to go through the whole damn thing again. And that is what is most important about it. It is one of those rare bodies of work that reaches that part of your brain where the actual emotion you experience is completely irrelevant. It makes you feel things so deeply and so completely that you almost stop caring whether you are happy, ambivalent or sad. You just sit there and let them take you wherever they want to.


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