A Different Staircase: Steven Wilson’s Harmony Codex bonus disc, reviewed

‘Harmonic Distortion’ reviewed

Steven Wilson / Harmonic Distortion reviewed
Photo by Hajo Mueller

The irony of reviewing Harmonic Distortion, the second disc from the deluxe edition of Steven Wilson’s The Harmony Codex, is that unless you pre-ordered it, you won’t be able to hear it (at least, not yet). This edition has sold out, apparently more quickly than usual, presumably for the collections of Steven’s already (mostly) adoring fans. It’s a shame, as this alternate re-imagining of the main album is even richer than SW’s usual bonus fare.

Having spoken to Wilson a few times this year, not only was he keen to impress that the album was conceived as an Atmos record from the ground up, but also that he took care to track everything in 24/96 –  meaning, coupled with his usual exemplary ‘non-mastering’ mastering technique, the source album is an audiophile treat whether listened to in Dolby Atmos, a stereo mix on vinyl, or as a CD, particularly using headphones. I have subsequently heard the album at as many Atmos playbacks as possible and have lived with the hi-res stereo for a few months, which makes listening to this second disc a whole new adventure, even a disturbing one when put up against my familiarity with disc one.

Where disc two outstrips the extra tracks associated with the even more lockdown-impacted The Future Bites project is in the third-party reworkings, which are more effective. This disc’s configuration is a reshuffling of the original track sequence with a couple of omissions, most notably the Ninet Tayeb-penned ‘Rock Bottom’, (other than a delightful, almost hidden reprise). Some duplicates occur, and cunning interstitial ‘Moods’ air some of the main themes from the tracks with diverse instrumental breaks newly taking the lead (Theo Travis’s Duduk from ‘Beautiful Scarecrow’) or un-layered vocals being given new focus or clarity, starting with Rotem Wilson’s intoned lines on the opening theme. ‘Actual Brutal Facts’ features nowhere.

Harmonic Distortion is disc two of the three-disc deluxe edition of The Harmony Codex

In the clutch of the ‘redone by others’ tracks, we get the Manic Street Preachers lending a muscular rock backdrop to the originally synthesised and delicate ‘Economies of Scale’ and it almost works – at least it does so better than Biffy Clyro’s similar effort on the previous album. This is less of a remix than a replacement of the old instrumental under SW’s beautifully produced vocal parts. Remarkably, Mikael Åkerfeldt’s straight up (no vocal treatments) cover rendition of ‘Time Is Running Out’ is genuinely affecting. Tears For Fears‘ (Roland Orzabal’s) remix of ‘What Life Brings’ is another partially successful re-imagining, once again substantially replacing the instrumentation in a relatively conventional and predictable style.

More traditionally, electronic collaborators old and new bring their remix versions of the source tracks. Producer David Kosten’s Faultline Remix of the crushing album opener ‘Inclination’ introduces a genuine sense of foreboding, and a similar angle is pursued by others, including Meat Beat Manifesto and Interpol, who drop the first version on this disc of pivotal track ‘Staircase’. Jack Dangers’s version of ‘Beautiful Scarecrow’ ups the trip-hop factor with no little success.

On the bonus disc, the ambient joys of the title track are extended to an overtly-hypnotic and ambient 17 minutes, and the other alternates offered by ‘the man himself’ include an ‘Impossible Tightrope’ which gives much more prominence to big slices of Ben Coleman’s violin performance, and replaces SW’s for once subtle and subdued bass playing with a much more filigree Nate Navarro interpretation of the same part.

In many ways, the best is saved for last, when The Radiophonic Workshop’s Mark Ayres (progenitor of the exemplary SDE Surround Series Orbital Atmos mix from last year) lends a suitably Who-vian air of spacey and spectral menace to his version of ‘Staircase’, delaying the introduction of most of the ‘song’ elements massively and enterprisingly dropping a soupçon of Ninet’s ‘Rock Bottom’ vocal into the final closing of the piece – originally achieved by vocal extraction but as it was an effect SW enjoyed greatly he supplied Mark with the clean vocal to ensure the final polish.

It is to be hoped that as per the deluxe editions of some of Steven’s prior projects, we will see a hi-res streaming edition of this particular deluxe in the fullness of time. These alternate treasures should not locked be in this limited box at CD resolution, they’re too good for that.

The Harmonic Distortion disc was reviewed by Patrick Cleasby for SDE. The Harmony Codex is out now.


Steven Wilson / New album The Harmony Codex

The Harmony Codex Steven Wilson /

    • CD 1
      1. Inclination (7.15)
      2. What Life Brings (3.40)
      3. Economies of Scale (4.17)
      4. Impossible Tightrope (10.42)
      5. Rock Bottom (4.25)
      6. Beautiful Scarecrow (5.21)
      7. The Harmony Codex (9.50)
      8. Time is Running Out (3.57)
      9. Actual Brutal Facts (5.05)
      10. Staircase (9.26)
    • CD 2: Harmonic Distortion
      1. Codex Theme #7
      2. Economies of Scale – Manic Street Preachers remix
      3. Codex Theme #9
      4. Inclination – Faultline remix
      5. Impossible Tightrope – alternate version
      6. Codex Theme #6 4
      7. Beautiful Scarecrow – Meat Beat Manifesto Excursion 1
      8. Codex Theme #8
      9. Time is Running Out – Mikael Åkerfeldt version
      10. Staircase – Interpol Remix
      11. Codex Theme #3
      12. What Life Brings – Aug 22 mix by Roland Orzabal
      13. The Harmony Codex – long take
      14. Staircase – Radiophonic Workshop rem
    • Blu-ray
      1. High Resolution Stereo (96/24)
      2. 5.1 Mix (96/24)
      3. Atmos (48/24)
      4. Stereo Instrumentals (96/24) *
      5. 5.1 Instrumentals (96/24) *
      6. Atmos Instrumentals (48/24) *
      7. ECONOMIES OF SCALE video (Directed by Charlie Di Placido)
      8. THE HARMONY CODEX video (Directed by Crystal Spotlight/Miles Skarin)
      * exclusive to this edition

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