Issue 2012-019: Storm Corrosion - Storm Corrosion - Round Table Review
Tracklist: Drag Ropes (9:52), Storm Corrosion (10:12), Hag (6:28), Happy (4:53), Lock Howl (6:09), Ljudet Innan (10:20)
Jez Rowden's Review
Seeping out of the speakers on a spookily evocative string section, the long awaited collaboration between Steven Wilson and Mikael Åkerfeldt has finally arrived. When first mooted the project, which was originally intended to include Mike Portnoy, promised a thrilling combination of technical and modern sounding prog metal but the finished item is much closer to the duos most recent releases; SW’s second solo album, Grace For Drowning, and Opeth’s Heritage. As Wilson has said, Storm Corrosion is “the final part in the odd trilogy of records”.
The promise of power is almost completely replaced by atmosphere and theatrics and opener Drag Ropes is a wonderful way to start. It evolves through a number of movements that ramp up the tension and build on Dave Stewart’s sublime orchestration. As with his recent work with Anathema Stewart’s contribution does not overpower the music and push it into soundtrack territory but instead accentuates the nuances within and gives it room to breath. There is a feeling of bleak darkness from the start, a mix of gothic Scandinavian prog and Film Noir in fact. Åkerfeldt’s voice is low-key at first but builds to mix in with Wilson’s to create a fugue effect. The instrumentation is mainly acoustic with subtle percussion from Gavin Harrison and some cool use of Mellotron sounds. While Wilson’s contribution focuses on keyboards Åkerfeldt concentrates on guitar providing brief electric solos here and there, some of his passages having a flavour of Heritage, but this album is more about feel and atmosphere than excitement per sé. Over successive listens it opens out into a quite breathtaking work that rewards in unexpected ways; a classic example of an obtuse and experimental recording that takes the listener in unexpected directions but with many riches to be had along the way.
The title track is just beautiful featuring delightful acoustic guitar with Wilson’s fragile vocal. The orchestration, occasional changes of direction and increase in tension brings some of Roy Harper’s work to mind but after around 6 minutes this changes to a bleak drone which is originally jarring but in time comes to make some sense. It is still pleasing that the vocal returns as the drone builds to a crescendo before stuttering and cutting out, Heritage again casting a long shadow.
The orchestration again permeates through the extended opening of Hag like an oil slick on a calm sea. There is a distant, echoey feel that suits the material; guitar and piano intertwine with Wilson’s vocal before the most upbeat section on the album where Harrison is called upon to unleash his full power but the weird otherworldliness is maintained by positioning it in the middle distance as if muffled by fog and a heavy sky. Lyrically the album is also desolate, sparse and stripped back. In fact it takes no time at all to read through the entire lyric sheet and as for meaning, your guess is as good as mine other than it reeks of sinister and surreal melancholy.
Happy is particularly misnamed as this is the last emotion that could be used to describe it. A laugh riot it is certainly not but the piece opens out into a folky acoustic number and the main theme reminds me of John Renbourn. The gothic darkness is never far away but another understated electric guitar solo changes the mood slightly.
Lock Howl is a more insistent beast that hints at one of the reasons why, for me, this album does not subside into atmospheric gloop. There is a propulsive element to the percussion and guitar which belies the acoustic nature of the music. It isn’t driving but it has momentum and as such is like a winding road through a forest where the scenery may be similar but new views emerge around every bend. Percussion is well used to accentuate the beats and rhythms and there is also a bizarre Cha Cha section that slaps you sideways for a brief period. The finale of the piece is one of the highpoints on the album with driving guitar and percussion, glockenspiel locked in with piano and string accompaniment. An Opeth/Porcupine Tree meltdown this album is not.
The album’s longest and most atmospheric track, Ljudet Innan, is the closer. Swedish for “the sound before” as in ancient music it is well named as there is depth and history to this piece. Åkerfeldt’s initial vocal drips with beauty before a slowly swirling string section punctuated by sweeping, distant guitar like a chill out at a funeral. The percussion is reminiscent of Talk Talk with a delicately picked out guitar solo and a sedate pace that continues with Wilson’s yearning vocal section opening up for a wonderfully orchestral close.
As a whole and after a good few listens this album emerges as a truly wonderful listening experience and a mightily impressive achievement by those involved that confounds expectations while delivering something new. Like Heritage in particular it is likely to disappoint a good number of listeners wanting a powerful and exhilarating electric set but for me Storm Corrosion delivers on all levels and provides an experience much different to that which I expected despite having thoroughly enjoyed both Heritage and Grace For Drowning. Where this project, or indeed the parent entities of the participants, goes from here is anybody’s guess but with Porcupine Tree seemingly on hiatus and Opeth’s recent change of direction dividing opinions this could be the vehicle for Wilson and Åkerfeldt to use as an outlet for their more experimental urges. Could anyone other than these two have got away with this change of style? Probably not but they have stuck to their guns, persevered with their own inclinations and produced a fine result. I am so glad that Portnoy was not involved here as his personality and style would have driven it to a far less interesting place but I’m sure that there is scope for a collaboration with him in the future.
Stick with it and don’t make the mistake of disregarding Storm Corrosion after a single listen.
Roger Trenwith's Review
No-one can say with any surety what they expected from this much-anticipated collaboration between long-time buddies The Hardest Working Man In Showbiz aka Steven Wilson and Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt, and the few minutes of the YouTubed album taster and opening track Drag Ropes (see link HERE) was intriguing to say the least.
It soon becomes apparent that this is an album that creates as much atmosphere by not filling gaps as it does with the sonic palate on offer. The songs give the impression as having evolved from improvisations, but some sections feel more “written”, the second song and title track being a case in point with some lovely understated electric/acoustic guitar interplay hinting at a preconceived structure. Unfortunately the standard CD version is as minimalistic in its sleeve notes as it is musically, and Steven and Mikael are simply credited with “performing” the album so I cannot tell you who contributes the lovely acoustic picking on this song, or indeed throughout the album. Storm Corrosion the song has the same kind of ghostly fragility as produced by Nick Drake at his best, but in case you were getting too comfortable it ends with a slowly dominating eerie soundscape that Univers Zéro might have come up with at their diabolic height. These sonic rumblings are jaggedly cut off by the reprise of the main song, sung by Steven, aided by Ben Castle’s woodwinds.
Unlike Grace For Drowning, this record is not “heavy” per sé, even in the sense that the heaviness on that album was created from a jazz rather than rock base; but it is certainly dark and mysterious, like a recondite northern Swedish December night. As is their wont Steven and Mikael exorcise their inner demons through the music and the impressionistic lyrics, but hey, you did not really expect anything else on that front surely? Strangitude is compounded on Drag Ropes by intermittently having the guitar and other sounds slightly slowed down and then sped up again. In the old days this would have been achieved by someone resting and then releasing a finger on a tape spool, an image that fits well with Mr Wilson, who often has about him a studious air.
The only time things take on the sort of rock based sound you’d imagine coming from these two is part way through Hag but normal service is soon restored, glacial electronic ambience and treated sounds forming the backdrop to acoustic or low level electric guitars, and Happy (no, really) has some cool West Coast styled harmonies thrown briefly into the mix for good measure and is probably the most ethereal song on the record. I can hear Robert Wyatt in this one too. Lock Howl features Dave Stewart’s subtle but angular orchestrations with the London Session Orchestra, adding a bit more depth and colour to what up to now has been a mostly pastoral and washed-out sonic vista. The added colour is still a hue of black however, as the song morphs into an imagined cinematic horror movie soundtrack.
The album ends with the beautiful paen to loss that is Ljudet Innan (The Sound Before). With a beat of exactly that of a clock’s second hand the song makes its stately and effortless progress to Mikael’s vocals and sounds like something Talk Talk might have recorded around the time of Spirit Of Eden. A lovely piece of music indeed.
Steven and Mikael have taken a risk with their respective audiences with this album, for it is a departure even from the shock that Heritage and Grace For Drowning may have been to some Opeth and Porcupine Tree fans, but I like to think that lovers of those bands are open-minded enough to accept a work that is introspective, quiet, beautiful, strange, open, fragile haunting and odd. This is not one of those albums that will make an instant impression, it needs to be nurtured and repeated plays, especially on a decent hi-fi or through headphones will reveal all manner of delicate nuances.
So, there we have it. With Storm Corrosion the trilogy, if indeed there ever was one, of Heritage and Grace For Drowning is complete. It will be more than interesting to see what Steven and Mikael come up with next for their respective bands, and I for one am already queuing up.
Alison Henderson's Review
The only reason I have asked to be part of this RTR is because I must be one of the very few still to be seduced by the virtues of Opeth or fully appreciate the God-like status now installed upon on Steven Wilson. Neither Heritage nor Grace For Drowning appeared high up on my best of 2011 albums as a result. So this is me playing Devil’s advocate, an open invitation for this pooling of prog awesomeness to impress a non-believer.
And the verdict is that they can claim another convert as Storm Corrosion is one of the most unnervingly original and striking albums heard for many a year. In simple terms, it is the musical equivalent of the walk in the woods you would never want to undertake in physical form because of the perpetual fear of there being something sinister lurking behind every tree.
As the opening doom-laden chords of Drag Ropes offer an early overwhelming feeling of foreboding, you immediately realise there are not to be too many laughs along the pathway. The whole song sung brilliantly by Mikael Åkerfeldt is the embodiment of a Scandinavian Gothic nightmare and that deeply unsettling cartoon video commissioned to go with it only adds to its overall queasiness. However, it is the perfect start to the album and the multi-tracked vocal section which forms its centre is absolutely stunning.
The title track is equally extraordinary with Bev Castle’s flute chords giving way to gentle acoustic and electric guitar lilting melodies, strings and the harmonising voices sounds strangely like Simon and Garfunkel confronting their inner demons. The corrosive disjointed soundscapes invoke the image of some strange factory out there in the undergrowth of the woods with its metallic grindings and huge underpinning currents.
Sparser still is Hag, just held together by a singular discordant line from voice, piano and guitar which then erupts into a huge rock frenzy full of Gavin Harrison’s pumping drum lines. Happy is a bit of a misnomer with more plaintive acoustic guitars and ethereal Simon and Garfunkel harmonies interspersed with occasional keyboard rumblings and spooky sound effects.
Straight then into the instrumental Lock Howl which starts with jangling acoustic guitars opening up into a vast swathe of mellotronic magic. This is the least jarring part of the journey that shifts gears several times. It is rather like wandering through a complex of caves with each individual cavern having its own distinct character described through a series of interlocking music passages - and ends all too abruptly.
And finally, we come to Ljudet Innan (Swedish for “ancient music”) which starts with searing vocals that melt into a huge mellotron wave studded with elemental sound effects raising the ghosts of Tangerine Dream past that then opens up into a sparse but effective guitar solo and echoey vocals that then drift into a meditative passage and then… nothing.
By its strangeness and edgy beauty, this is a “must have” album for every prog aficionado. About ten plays in, I have not even scratched the surface of what Storm Corrosion is all about and what it represents. Millions of words could eventually be written about it, but it will always remain an enigma and in prog, that is always the mark of a great album.
Basil Francis' Review
Storm Corrosion is the new prog rock collaboration between veteran proggers Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree), and Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth). The anticipation of this band over the web has been tremendous, but do they live up to the hype?
The band's website describes the album as the logical follow up to Grace For Drowning and Heritage. This would lead one to expect heavy complex riffs from both sides, but this is not the case insofar as there is a very limited use of the drums on the album.
Rather like he did in this video, Wilson dominates the scene. If Åkerfeldt's name weren't on this disc, I could have easily believed it was another solo endeavour. The long, atmospheric tracks are very reminiscent of an early Porcupine Tree sound, while also reflecting some of the tracks off Grace For Drowning.
But as I said earlier, there is almost nothing about this album that could be described as heavy. At many points on the album, it seems like the drums and the guitars are about to smash through and cause havoc, but this latent potential is kept... well, latent. Halfway through the album, the track Hag brings us closest to the breaking point, when a heavy instrumental theme is played, as if through a wall. The lo-fi drums crash and roll, but we can't hear them properly. It's all wonderfully tantalising.
At other points, the music is incredibly soothing and relaxing. This can be perfect background music if you just want to work, clean the room, or just switch off. Wilson's vocalisations over the plucking of a guitar will put your mind at ease. The constant potential for havoc in the album however will stop you from switching off.
What Messrs Wilson and Åkerfeldt have achieved on this album is quite unique: an oxymoronic balance between relaxing calm and tension causing you to hang on the edge of your seat. After the first listen, I was amazed that there was nothing heavy, and I had to listen again to make sure. After that listen I was still surprised. Astonishingly, this blend results in some rather satisfying music, although when it comes to these notable musicians, I feel like satisfying isn't quite enough. They've done more than enough to whet our appetites for furious composition, so I hope that they will begin to deliver on the next album.
Ian Butler's Review
Once you hear Storm Corrosion, it's probably not what you might have expected from a collaboration between the frontmen of Opeth and Porcupine Tree. Mikael Åkerfeldt (MA) and Steven Wilson (SW) have been working together at least since Opeth's classic Blackwater Park album, so a collaboration seems logical. Storm Corrosion is a successor to Opeth's recent album Heritage and Steven Wilson's Grace For Drowning, both of which focus on the music content being creative, challenging and sometimes heavy without using overly distorted electric guitars to achieve this effect. It's like they prepared us for Storm Corrosion!
Most people would probably instantly dismiss the music on Storm Corrosion as 'plainly depressing'. In my opinion it's fantastically melancholic, unpredictable, morose, doomy, complicated, uplifting in it's solitude and possibly the most modern symphonic prog cinematic music. Check out their record label Roadrunner's website for an interview titled 'Song Structure'. SW talks about films that can move through a multitude of passages and emotions, just like longer prog songs. For him, the fact that you never know where the song will end up is of great intrigue and interest. The benefit to this is that there is no real structure to follow so the listener can be taken on a musical journey. Storm Corrosion is indeed that.
The first track Drag Ropes was released with a video which is available on YouTube. From the start we hear a string arrangement with MA singing creating an atmosphere of suspense, which evolves into dark guitar arpeggio, flutes and disturbing lyrics like 'gallows for you' where SW joins with some vocal harmonies. The track continues with this dark passage leading into a vocal harmony. The vocal harmony is nearly like a sadistic Gentle Giant Knots-eseque with MA providing the low notes and SW adding the midrange, backed by mellotron! This passage then builds again into another one with solo guitar. The first track is full of changing musical passages and varying tensions with multi layered vocals and recurring themes. There are recognisable shades of Opeth and Porcupine Tree all the way through, from a signature clean guitar tone 'Åkerfeldt' bends' to Wilson's multi layering of vocals. The dark guitar arpeggio theme from near the beginning closes the first track. My first reaction to hearing this was, 'wow, this is a different album'.
The second and title track Storm Corrosion begins with the sound of distant rain/stormy weather, flutes and a subdued acoustic guitar arpeggio. It's not far from a kind of Nick Drake simplicity and sentimentality, with SW vocals. A second guitar, vocals and percussion give the track some momentum with some clean solo lead guitar over the top. We also hear SW's folky (excuse the description) 'do doo ... dei dei' sung phrases that are found through much Porcupine Tree music (Trains and Lip Of Ashes come to mind, but not as jolly as those!). The track changes again with eery noises and stringed instruments, creating tension, fading in and out a crescending noise, which reminds me like something The Beatles did, but I where precisely evades my mind at the moment. The scary noise is changing the mood like in a thriller movie where someone is about to attack someone in the shower with a knife! The violins return to end the track.
I was not prepared for the third track Hag. My jaw dropped. The start of this track for me is pure Landberk, something approaching this style I haven't heard in a while. All the simplicity and hauntingness of two piano notes, one guitar note and mellotron. The dark creaking noise of 'something' in the background and the hiss of amplifiers create a scary atmosphere. Make sure it's 2am and quiet, turn the lights off and turn up the stereo. Check out Landberk's underrated melancholic masterpiece One Man Tells Another album, and more recently Paatos' Timeloss for tracks like Hypnotique and Tea. The following piano break takes the song into a different direction, back into more familiar SW territory. Reintroducing the plodding bass and mellotron then a frantic drum piece. I think the drums are purposefully mixed into the back of the music, providing a sort of undefined confusion and chaos. I think it's a chaotic part of a possible film (in my head) where we don't know precisely what's going on. I had to listen to this track at least 6 times in a row I enjoyed it so much!
Here I importantly digress. If Storm Corrosion is 'film/cinematic music' and it sounds like dark Scandinavian prog, then we must bring the 1998 album Symphonic Holocaust by Morte Macabre into the discussion for interest. Comprised of members of Landberk and Anekdoten the album is cinematic music take from films, sometimes horror films. It's less technically complicated than Storm Corrosion, but more spine chilling with real mellotrons too :-). So Storm Corrosion perhaps builds on an existing tradition of melancholic prog in cinematic films, where bands like Goblin and Celeste (according to the album notes) were making 'dark prog'. Don't get me wrong, there is no real plagiarism here. Storm Corrosion has sonic traits and songwriting of SW/MA all over it, that's what makes it superb, complex and highly relevant today. It's also interesting to revisit Opeth's Blackwater Park album credits where Landberk (RIP) are thanked, where SW did some playing and mixing. It's all very incestuous in Scandinavian prog it seems to me, of which I would like to know more.
Happy is one of the shorter tracks on the album. Commences with a 'non cheery' acoustic guitar and SW vocals, another set of vocals add to the depth of the piece scary bits. It then changes mood with an eerie bass sound leading to a folky Nick Drake acoustic guitar with more SW folky vocal lines 'Lei lei .. La la ..'. So far, no heavy distorted guitars or familiar metal/prog riffing.
What about the sound quality? Unfortunately I could only listen on my Mac with very good earphones so it's not a really good indicator, but it sounds good, as does everything that SW touches (apart from the strangely flat The Incident IMHO). I am trying to order the LP version, so we'll see what that is like.
Whilst listening through the album I was trying to guess who wrote which parts? I think that it would be interesting to know. SW does seems to vocally dominate more than MA throughout the album.
Track 5 - Lock Howl is the only track with some familiar territory using more of a 'metal style' muted acoustic guitar riff. It's then backed by mellotron and a shaker probably played by Gavin Harisson. I think this track could could sit on a Porcupine Tree or Opeth record quite happily. It flows nicely and again I wonder what kind of movie I am watching. Towards the mid-end there is a hand clapping part with woodwind and mellotron allowing to a xylophone and guitar doubling a melody with voicing. The melody and timing of the xylophone is well technically executed, intelligent and creative all at the same time. Entertaining stuff indeed.
Track 6 - Lludjet Innan is the longest song on the album. MA starts the vocals "See you a cryin'" backed by a dreamy keyboard (Rhodes?) piano accompanying for the first minute or so, only for washes of mellotrons to fade in, something perhaps like Tangerine Dream or Pink Floyd might have done creating a massive ethereal space of nothingness! To this part of the music I can imagine shots of the moon, or extended shots of the cosmos. For me this is spacey, classic and quite epic! Next a repeating solo note joins to start the rhtymn & flow of the piece. Light drum percussion combined with classic PT stroked guitar chords ring out, with what I guess to be a MA clean guitar solo with lots of reverb, a la Opeth's Damnation album. This single note runs virtually the whole way through afterwards to keep the timing and tension. The song is beautiful in it's entirety. If the mood in the room was right after this track finishes, you won't have an idea of what to follow it with. Not much similar can follow it, only something totally different.
Conclusion: Some of the two biggest modern protagonists of prog/metal have delivered an album that probably no one expected. It doesn't compromise on any level. At it's essence, it is dark melancholic prog with a new twist, combining the talents of SW and MA. I am very surprised, but grateful that this kind of record has been released in today's overly commercial world. Were it not written by Messer's Wilson & Åkerfeldt would it have happened? Even the respective bands fans may be confused. It may be perhaps more comprehendible for traditionally prog orientated Porcupine Tree fans rather than Opeth's traditional metal fanbase, but the fan base of both bands has expanded I believe. Go back into the Opeth back catalogue and you will find 'prog/folk/metal' with acoustic guitars.
I think the theme/idea of the record owes more than a nod to previous symphonic rock and especially Scandinavian prog bands and the use of the mellotron and strings to create that 'dark feel'. Elongated songs may well have come from many early prog bands (many from the UK, Genesis, Van Der Graaf, Yes etc), but I personally identify the real melancholic sound which conjures up dark forests, cold bitter winds in a wooden hut in the back of nowhere to the Scandinavian bands. Actually, the mid 1970's King Crimson incarnation delivered some dark and tense atmospheres by improvisations with Bill Bruford's percussion and David Cross's violins. Check out their The Great Deceiver box set.
Storm Corrosion is something very different in these prog times. It's creative, spooky and challenging to even 'mainstream' prog music, that's why you will love it. :-) You might not hear anything like this again for a while and if you want an album to find something new to discover on every listen, it delivers on that front. It combines SW and MA's creativity, aspects of folk and dark melody/tension, timing with simplicity and complexity together. I love the music's minimalism leaving the imagination to fill the rest in, like it would in a film. I wonder when the film score comes out!
Storm Corrosion might not even be a big seller even within their respective bands fanbase, but I am so glad they had the imagination and the guts to make an album like this, which doesn't compromise. I wonder what Roadrunner Records first thought of this?!!!!
I would definitely recommend this to Scandinavian prog fans used to the palate of Paatos, Landberk, Anekdoten, The Third and the Mortal and Anglagard fans like myself. If you liked Opeth's recent Heritage and Damnation, then give it a go. If you like more upbeat prog, then it's not exactly for you, but it's quality which should always be listened to. First of all I would check out the Drag Ropes video on YouTube. If I can quote from Symphonic Holocaust, it's "music to make a dead man's feet wiggle."