Steven Wilson has long been one of the most distinguished and adventurous, yet heavily scrutinized, artists in modern art/progressive rock. Be it the harsher trajectory of Porcupine Tree's 2000s output, the avant-garde nature of 2012's Storm Corrosion, or the unpredictability of past few solo LPs, each new release sees fans sanctimoniously declaring how much or how little it fits into what they want Wilson to do. Ironically, though, it's precisely Wilson's hunger and willingness for challenging reinvention that makes him a "progressive" musician, and The Future Bites is no different.
Specifically, it sees him embracing his well-documented affection for 1980s synthpop and electronic music more than ever before. Even so—and as always—that doesn't mean that the record is an anomaly within his catalog. Instead, everything Wilson does on The Future Bites feels like a refreshing yet logical follow-up to 2017's To the Bone. (Devotes, in particular, should recognize that he's been hinting at these stylistic choices since he recorded On the Sunday of Life and Up the Downstair in his bedroom studio roughly 30 years ago.)
Along the way, several familiar names join him, including bassist Nick Beggs, keyboardists Adam Holzman and Richard Barbieri, EDM maestro David Kosten (aka Faultline), drummer Michael Spearman, vocalists Wendy Harriot, Bobbie Gordon, and Crystal Williams, and even Sir Elton John. Admittedly—and also ironically—the album's continuation of social commentaries regarding technology, consumerism, social media, and the like do come across as a tad well-worn by now. Plus, its occasionally on-the-nose lyricism and purposely cold/empty arrangements make The Future Bites somewhat vapid and unsubstantial compared to his previous solo work. Nevertheless, it's a generally bold, captivating, and fulfilling statement as only Wilson could create, resulting in another testament to his singular and invaluable brilliance.
As usual, Wilson delivers timeless singer/songwriter odes that are instantly engaging and resonant. For instance, the one-minute prelude—"Unself"—is a claustrophobic dive into remoteness, sorrow, and introspection. Its foundational soliloquy, matched with its robotic and atmospheric coating, allows it to be simultaneously startling and identifiable, as it really wouldn't be out of place on something like Signify, Stupid Dream, or Insurgentes. Likewise, "12 Things I Forgot" harkens back to his many acoustic guitar treks concerning nostalgia, self-actualization, and similar subject matter. Closer "Count of Unease" is a poignantly arresting and understated confession that's right in line with past Wilson finales. It doesn't reach the remarkable heights of, say, "Collapse the Light Into Earth", "The Raven That Refused to Sing", "Happy Returns", or "I Drive the Hearse", but it accomplishes a similarly haunting aftermath while achieving its own identity.
Elsewhere, the glitzier, sharper, and more rhythmic stuff still clearly carries Wilson's DNA. "Self" is kind of like a more danceable sibling to past tracks such as "Detonation" and "People Who Eat Darkness", whereas the abundantly programmed "King Ghost" is a more surreal and unsettling offshoot of "To the Bone" and "Transience". Granted, a couple of other tunes ("Eminent Sleaze" and "Follower") are too abrasively committed to overt sentiments and styles to be wholly enjoyable—lacking sufficient lyrical nuance and melodic intrigue—but they nonetheless radiant a unique vision regardless. As for the flamboyant "Personal Shopper", it'll delight or dismay depending on how much the listener likes To the Bone's highly polarizing "Permanating". The flaws mentioned above are here as well, but its angelic chorus is downright irresistible, and Elton John's narration is an automatically cool touch.
The Future Bites sees Wilson doing what he's always done: amend—rather than abandon—who he is as a one-of-a-kind musician and keen sociopolitical observer. His primary goal has always been to test and satisfy himself as an artist, which inherently means that he may gain and lose fans with each subsequent statement. (The alternative would be for him to repeat himself safely, and that's no fun for anyone.) For many admirers—myself included—it'll be his weakest solo record, but that's only because the rest are so terrific. Honestly, The Future Bites objectively deserves applause for perpetuating Wilson's integrity and creativity, even if it's a markedly—and perhaps intentionally—divisive collection, too.