Over the last several years, the world of progressive rock has been dominated by the sound and vision of Steven Wilson. Not only has he created some of the most compelling progressive music over the last decade, but he has also been one of the genre’s most prolific artists, churning out four studio albums, two live albums, and three EPs over the last seven years – and that’s not counting all the material Wilson has mixed, produced, or worked with outside the confines of his solo band. 4 1/2, the latest Steven Wilson release, is an album-length EP that is meant to be a bridge between the project’s fourth and fifth albums, while reaching for material from his third and fourth albums.
Unlike prior Steven Wilson EP’s, 4 1/2 is mostly comprised of music that has not been heard before. This is in contrast to the last EP, Drive Home, which felt more like a single enriched by a b-side and a generous supply of live recordings. 4 1/2 also features music recorded both before and after the Hand. Cannot. Erase. session, with one song being a “The Raven That Refused to Sing” leftover, and others being newer compositions that feature members of Wilson’s current touring band on record for the first time.
The EP will certainly be enjoyable for Wilson’s most ardent fans, as the majority of these compositions would have been nice contributions to their corresponding albums. The EP’s first song, “My Book of Regrets” is a poppy-yet-proggy near-epic detailing the lonely observations of someone living in the city, and harkens back to the thematic subject matter of Hand. Cannot. Erase. in more ways than one. The third song, “Happiness III”, is another song recorded during the Hand. Cannot. Erase. sessions, though it denied my early expectations that it would be a work similar to that album’s “Happy Returns”. Instead, “Happiness III” almost sounds like Porcupine Tree – it’s the type of simple and catchy alt-rock flavored short song that wouldn’t be out of place on Lightbulb Sun.
If there’s a shortcoming, it’s that this EP is really more of a collection of leftovers than a cohesive work in its own right, and being such, some of the instrumental tracks lack the sort of context that may have made them more enjoyable. For example, “Year of the Plague” is a gorgeous throwback to the haunting, jazz-inspired themes of Raven, but standing on its own, between lighter H.C.E. tracks, I can’t help but feeling like it loses some impact. The same is true for the other instrumentals which, while nice, still feel like out-of-place atmosphere-setters that didn’t make the cut on their home albums.
That leaves us with “Don’t Hate Me”, a rerecording of a Porcupine Tree song based on a live version recently played by Wilson’s solo band. It’s a nice… interpretive cover… but again, the type of thing that is nice to have for documentation’s sake, while remaining somewhat inessential, since I do not think many listeners will prefer this new version of the song to the original.
After several EPs and iterative releases over the years, we’ve rarely seen Wilson make a focused effort at creating a cohesive and enjoyable short work, rather than just a collection of leftover songs and oddities. It’s a good release that many fans will be thrilled to hear, but a little bit more glue might have turned this EP of unrelated works into cohesive whole.