Porcupine Tree singer and multi-instrumentalist Steven Wilson has announced his new solo album, ‘The Harmony Codex’. Check out new single ‘Economies Of Scale’ below, along with our interview with the artist.
Released on September 29, a deluxe three-disc edition of ‘The Harmony Codex’ will includs remixes of its songs by the likes of Manic Street Preachers, Interpol, Roland Orzabal of Tears For Fears, Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt and electronica pioneers Radiophonic Workshop.
‘The Harmony Codex’ has been previewed with listening sessions for fans in cities including London, New York, Berlin, LA and Amsterdam. “So much of this album was conceived in terms of how it’d feel in a completely immersive context,” explained Wilson. “I wanted as many immersive previews as possible of ‘The Harmony Codex,’ because people rarely get to site down and listen to an album in the dark without any distractions. They’ve really enjoyed that feeling of: ‘Oh yeah, this is how we used to listen to music!’”
The first single, ‘Economies Of Scale’, is out now along with a video by Charlie Di Patino, who has directed for Jungle and Everything But The Girl.
‘The Harmony Codex’ follows Porcupine Tree’s first album for 12 years, ‘Closure/Continuation’, which reached Number 2 in the UK in 2022 – only kept from the top spot by Harry Styles’ ‘Harry’s House’. The trio, also comprising Richard Barbieri and Gavin Harrison, headlined Wembley Arena on the album’s tour, which finished on August 5 at German festival Rock Im Park.
Wilson’s eighth solo album, ‘The Harmony Codex’ follows 2021’s ‘The Future Bites’, which featured Elton John, Mystery Jets, Enter Shikari and The Cure drummer Jason Cooper, and reached reached Number 4 in the UK.
Other guests on ‘The Harmony Codex’ include Interpol drummer Sam Fogarino, Jack Dangers of dance/hip-hop veterans Meat Beat Manifesto, Kneebody drummer Nate Wood plus longtime Wilson associates Ninet Tayeb, Craig Blundell and Adam Holzman.
Alongside his own music, Wilson has become known for his spatial audio mixes for other artists’ classic albums, including for Roxy Music, Suede, Chic, ABC and Guns N’ Roses. “As someone who’s known as part of that scene, I felt I should try to make an album of my own that would raise the bar for what’s possible in spatial audio,” Wilson told NME.
Live shows have yet to be announced, with Wilson planning a series of residencies in intimate venues, rather than a traditional tour. “I’d like to take the immersive aspect into the live situation and play smaller rooms, maybe 600-capacity,” said Wilson. “I’d install an amazing spatial audio system, then somehow have the audience be inside the band, with light installations and projections. I’d like to create an environment for a performance to take place in.”
To launch the new album, Wilson also told NME of his amazement at persuading Manic Street Preachers to do a remix, why he’s finally comfortable at doing what he wants and whether Porcupine Tree still have a future…
NME: Hi, Steven. What was the starting point for your new album?
Wilson: “I had a book out last year, ‘Limited Edition Of One’. Some chapters were about my relationship with fans, some were just lists of books, movies and songs that inspired me. I finished the book with a short story, The Harmony Codex. It was dystopian sci-fi and, like a lot of my music, it had a very dreamlike quality.
“As I was writing the story, I was beginning to develop the initial ideas for this record. It felt logical to have a narrative feel to the songs, to match the cinematic quality of the music. It made sense to write an imaginary soundtrack for that short story, writing music based on its characters and ideas.”
‘The Harmony Codex’ is very eclectic, with acoustic songs like ‘Time Is Running Out’ alongside the lengthy and largely instrumental title track. Was that variety intended from the outset?
“I didn’t want any sense of agenda for the album. I didn’t want it sound like any particular type of record. I wanted to go with what felt right. The title track being a 10 minute ambient piece in the middle of the album, on previous records I’d probably have said to myself: ‘You can’t do that. People aren’t going to go with it.’
“Maybe due to lockdown’s enforced isolation, I had a very different mindset on this record. I wanted a record that would wrongfoot you, almost confuse you by keeping you guessing. I hope it keeps people surprised.”
It must help that your fanbase are probably used to you surprising them by now…
“Absolutely. Part of this record is confidence from having done this for a long time now, which means I can think: ‘No, fuck it, I can put a 10-minute ambient piece on the same record as an acoustic song and an electronic pop song.’ It’s good to embrace that.
“I don’t underestimate how lucky and privileged I am to be able to do this, basically doing what the fuck I want. I don’t think many musicians can say that these days. I still confront the expectations of my audience. I rarely give them what they want or expect, yet somehow I take a lot of them with me. I’m grateful that it’s how my career has panned out.”
Why was the spatial audio aspect of the album important for you?
“Dolby Atmos has become significant in the industry in the last three years, since Apple and Amazon adopted it. That aspect was how I approached recording and mixing, not the writing of the record. I think I’m pretty good at not getting caught up in the technical issues of spatial audio: I still have a very visceral emotional approach to the music I’m making.”
That emotional aspect is especially present in the impassioned ‘Beautiful Scarecrow’. What inspired it?
“One of the album’s main metaphors is of MC Esher’s never-ending staircase. I love that image as a metaphor for existence.
“As you get older, you understand that life is about the journey, not the destination. It’s about savouring those unplanned moments that aren’t part of your strategy. As a teenager, you have dreams, but they very rarely manifest themselves how you’d imagine. ‘Beautiful Scarecrow’ is about finding the beauty in the negative, in misfortune and fate.”
How did you persuade Manic Street Preachers to remix the first single, ‘Economies Of Scale’?
“Even though I’m far from a household name and I think I’m very much under the radar, I think most musicians have a respect for me. When I approached Elton John on ‘The Future Bites’, I was absolutely stunned that he’s a fan of mine. I’ve since found out Elton owns basically every record ever made, but still, that’s amazing.”
“The Manics took my lead vocal and created a whole different piece of music to go under it. It was like nothing I’d expected and it blew me away. I’ve just done a remix for them in return. I wanted to do away with the notion of remixes. I approached people like Roland Orzabal who aren’t known for doing remixes, to say instead: ‘Reimagine the song how you want’.”
What was it like touring with Porcupine Tree after over a decade apart?
“I really enjoyed it. It was fun and joyous to get back with the guys without the pressure of feeling like it was my day-job. ‘The Harmony Codex’ was already in the can and I knew this was my main focus going forward.
“I didn’t want to just go out and play old material, so one condition of the tour was that we finished ‘Closure/Continuation,’ which we’d largely made a decade earlier. At the same time, I was allowing myself to do something nostalgic for the first time in my life. I normally have an aversion to that, but I went with it and I really enjoyed it. It was a one-off, which allowed us all to enjoy it. Maybe never again, but it was fun.”
Have you ever tried to play the industry game?
“I’ve tried, but I just can’t do it. Early on in Porcupine Tree, we were signed to Atlantic in America. We were pressured to try to write a grunge radio anthem. I did it, but I felt so dirty. The audience saw through it too.
“It’s one thing to be able to do it, it’s another to convince your audience. I’ve never gone back there, but I’m happy to do whatever I need to promote an album: talk about it, do in-stores, edit songs down for radio.
“I’m in the enviable position of having a fanbase who almost expect me to do the unexpected. If they feel I’m trying to make concessions to the music industry, they spot it a mile off and rightly pick me up on it.”
With this album’s cinematic feel, would you be up for doing a film soundtrack?
“People keep calling my music ‘cinematic’, but so far I’ve not been invited to do a film soundtrack. That’s something on my bucket list…”
‘The Harmony Codex’ is released on September 29 via Virgin. The tracklist is:
‘What Life Brings’
‘Economies Of Scale’
‘The Harmony Codex’
‘Time Is Running Out’
‘Actual Brutal Facts’
The tracklist of bonus disc ‘Harmonic Distortion’ is
‘Codex Theme #7’
‘Economies Of Scale (Manic Street Preachers Remix)’
‘Codex Theme #9’
‘Inclination (Faultline Remix)’
‘Impossible Tightrope (Alternate Version)’
‘Codex Theme #6’
‘Beautiful Scarecrow (Meat Beat Manifesto Excursion 1)’
‘Codex Theme #8’
‘Time Is Running Out (Mikael Akerfeldt Version)’
‘Staircase (Interpol Remix)’
‘Codex Theme #3’
‘What Life Brings (Aug 22 Mix By Roland Orzabal)’
‘The Harmony Codex (Long Take)’
‘Staircase (Radiophonic Workshop Remix)’