Things have been quiet in No-Man land for the last few years. 2009’s “Mixtaped” live DVD and CD felt like a retrospective swan song for the duo of Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson as the latter’s many projects and successful solo career became his focus. His partner has not been idle in that time though. Bowness’ Burning Shed business is a major dealer to the prog-addicted masses with an impressive roster of artists, new and old. On the recording front he formed Memories of Machines with Nosound’s Giancarlo Erra, is part of the instrumental outfit, Henry Fool, and has provided vocals for other artists. Does this, his second solo album, and first in a decade, match the quality of his collaborative projects?
‘The Warm-Up Man Forever’ is a promising opener. What began life as a No-Man demo (from 2008’s “Schoolyard Ghosts” sessions) will immediately place acolytes in familiar territory. Its tribal percussion recalls ‘Pigeon Drummer’ but is influenced by The Dreaming-era Kate Bush and Phil Collins’ sans-cymbals contributions to Peter Gabriel’s early 80s records. That distinctive croon introduces the overarching theme of failed celebrity, past glories and also-rans amid the ghostly architecture of once-magnificent, now-neglected entertainment halls.
History and nostalgia are evoked throughout by Andrew Keeling’s wistfully plaintive string arrangements. An assortment of prog luminaries (Pat Mastelotto, Colin Edwin, Anna Phoebe) ensures that every song has its own sound world while Wilson helps out on guitar and mixing duties. His influence can be felt most prominently in the epic mid-section of ‘Smiler At 50’. There is no mistaking the leader’s stamp though which ensures a cohesive feel amid some unusual instrumentation and arrangements.
The varied talents coalesce on the stand-out track, ‘I Fought Against The South’. Keeling’s sumptuous strings and Phoebe’s electric violin dominate its first half but are augmented by a late surge of power from the rhythm section and vintage keyboard washes which drive home the emotional content.
It’s easy to consider the subject matter to be autobiographical – the lyricist playing the perpetual warm-up man for Wilson’s rising star. If such an artistic inferiority complex were the catalyst for an album of this quality then its creator will need to find inspiration from a very different subject for his next work. This is a superb, varied, haunting and haunted album for which Bowness deserves to step out of the wings and have his turn in the spotlight.