Sunday, June 3, 2012

Review: Storm Corrosion - Storm Corrosion

Storm Corrosion - Storm Corrosion (Roadrunner Records, 2012)
To say that Storm Corrosion was highly anticipated by the musical community for which it was intended, is a bit like saying the internet only mildly revolutionised modern technology. 

Steven Wilson
and Mikael Åkerfeldt are two men whose names have not only become synonyms for the most revered kind of distinctive, creative art in their field (progressive rock and metal music for those playing at home); but also two names that had been paired together in fevered anticipation ever since Wilson produced Opeth’s Blackwater Park in 2001.

Even with full disclosure from the pair that their much sough-after collaboration would deliberately fly in the face of the prog-metal supergroup tag they'd been saddled with; the results of their creative partnership are still a surprising listen.

Perhaps in an attempt to circumvent the ridiculous hype that surrounded their music (which swelled at one point to include drum virtuoso Mike Portnoy), Storm Corrosion feels specifically designed to confound the idea that the sum of its two famous musical parts would equate to the greatest record known to prog-metal-man.

Fans predicted the mixed ingredients would draw from Åkerfeldt’s diverse work with Opeth amd Wilson’s Porcupine Tree genetics. Storm Corrosion is a far less mathematical exercise, but a no-less fascinating equation.

Between Wilson and Åkerfeldt’s descriptions of their early sessions, calling them “mellow, strange and disturbing” as well as “frightening, exhausting, profound and rather intense;” they nearly hit the nail on the head.

Nearly, because they also forgot symphonic, enchanting, amorphous, and even vaguely frustrating.

Storm Corrosion’s six measured tracks pay more tribute to the band’s exhaustive, eclectic vinyl collections than it does their own back catalogues. Citing the experimental ensemble work of late Talk Talk, the macabre spectre of Scott Walker’s The Drift; as well as nods to mottled psychedelia and extra-musical minimalism. Still, there are references to be found.

In Åkerfeldt, we have the deliciously tasteful guitar solos with the kind of restrained, melodic phrasing he so relished on Opeth’s metal-free Damnation of 2003 (an album produced by, you guessed it, Steven Wilson). 

From Wilson’s half of the coin, much of the record could be considered as Åkerfeldt’s skewed additions to the quieter, lingering moments of Wilson’s latest solo record, Grace For Drowning. It’s not difficult to imagine the crawling tension of “Hag” or the eerie “Happy” as refugees from that record’s material.

It’s a mild disappointment too, that it is Wilson who voices the lion’s share of the tracklist. Disappointing not because Wilson is a poor vocalist or lyricist (his keen production ear had always propped up any shortcomings splendidly), but because it means that the two never share vocal duties much.

The one time they do – on the moody “Drag Ropes”, the album’s ten-minute opening – it’s stunning. Akerfeldt's voice cooing like folded silk, before Wilson’s cascading harmonies enter, coiling like dry bark through his phrasing until the two intertwine into a gothic, multi-tracked hydra.

Besides that, Åkerfeldt contributes one more lead vocal that book-ends the album, on the exquisitely beautiful “Ljudet Innan” (which literally translates to ‘the sound before’); and then, only for a brief but no-less exemplary turn that sees him singing in a honeyed falsetto that's pure sultry, shimmering R&B.

Shocking? For fans of the Opeth frontman’s death howls, absolutetly. But it’s partisan to the kind of devil-may-care attitude in the record’s more experimental moments. Entertaining a grab-bag of sonic tricks (canned laughter on “Hag”, subtle drum-machines on “Lock Howl”) that are almost surprisingly simple in their application, but willingly avant-garde in their approach.

The folk-sparring title track in particular is almost subversive in its textural shifts. Beginning with a solemn woodwind playing against a literal storm before the elegant plucking of an acoustic enters, later ushering in a tasteful mesh of verdant strings and melodic interplay. Then drifting into a sea of building dissonance that bloats like an ink stain before it’s cut off, dying like a machine whose plug has been pulled, against the returning guitar pattern.

It’s a moment so self-consciously abrupt, that it makes the famously fucked up breakdown of "Karma Police" sound like an entry into Eurovision.

In some ways, it’s a moment that’s indicative of Storm Corrosion as a whole - it’s at once entirely expected and unexpected. Shocking to the ear? Most certainly the first time, but multiple listens reveal something less sensationalist.

Supposedly recorded over a series of drunken dinner catch-ups in Wilson's lounge. The record does possess a rare combination of raw immediacy with the kind of sonic detail that both parties are famous for. Containing both the rasping fluidity of such a process, but also the meticulous design required by two aural craftsman to bring them to life.

For instance, it’s not difficult to swallow that the pair wrote the skeleton of the winding gothic mini-sonata that is “Drag Ropes” in one boozed evening, but far more difficult to conceive they envisioned it’s vivid arrangement in the same time.

Particularly because the opening number teases familiar musical expectations without ever falling into them. You anticipate some of Porcupine Tree's groove-locked riffs or Opeth’s metal licks to emerge from its mid-section, but the pair never conform to such expectations. Not only here, but throughout its fifty minute running time.

The closest they come to indulging fan service is on the instrumental “Lock Howl”, as a persistent syncopated figure acts as the engine humming beneath reedy organs and winding, complex phrases. Or the punctuated mid-section of “Hag” that allows drum fills from [Porcupine Tree’s] Gavin Harrison; but only in a cloud of muddy distortion.

For completists, Storm Corrosion opens up yet another fascinating dimension for two artists whose own prolific catalogues already champion diversity; but it also occasionally, and frustratingly, denies their strengths.

An entry-point into either musician’s oeuvre, this is not. But even as it dares to risk their recognisable appeal, there is indeed no record quite like it. A high achievement in exploring the furthest reaches of the musically uncharted.

Here’s hoping it’s not the last excursion under the Storm Corrosion banner. There’s plenty more left to explore.

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