Sound — 7
Steven Wilson is probably the closest thing that the prog-rock scene has to a current household name. Between his former main band Porcupine Tree (whose future is still unclear), his numerous side projects (including Bass Communion, Tim Bowness collaboration No Man, Incredible Expanding Mindfuck, among others), his burgeoning solo project (which is also going to see an album release this year), as a record producer working with bands like Opeth and Anathema along with remastering classic LPs by King Crimson and Jethro Tull, and of course, Blackfield, his presence is damn near everywhere in the prog-rock world. Steven had announced in 2014 his intention to leave Blackfield, to focus more intensely on his solo albums, but it appears he stuck with the band through 2015 and 2016, and confirmed he would be working with the band on their fifth album. Beyond that, his role on previous Blackfield albums, "Welcome to My DNA" and "IV," was incredibly minimal compared to the band's first two records, but here on "V," the two collaborated much more evenly, leading to more of a half-and-half writing ratio.
Sadly, it does kind of mean that the writing style of Aviv Geffen, the vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist that makes up the other half of this collaborative effort, does kind of get buried in the much more distinctive signature of Wilson's writing style. Much of the album sounds like it could have been released on Wilson's most recent efforts, "Hand. Cannot. Erase." and "4 1/2," without sounding out of place at all. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, because a lot of the songs that have Wilson's sound are well-written and expertly executed, as one would expect, and really show his penchant for melancholic, melodic songcraft. There are some tracks that are a little different, such as the more upbeat, poppy "Lately," which is almost anthemic and uplifting, considering the rest of the album. Shades of prog-rock instrumental wizardry come through more in the rhythmic features of the songs rather than through intense musicianship and incredible solos.
"We'll Never Be Apart" is practically a pop-rock tune in 7/8 time, and there are shifts in time signature throughout the album, but never anything on the level of a band like Dream Theater. Keyboards and acoustic guitars still dominate the mix, with pianos all over tracks like "October," and there are also extensive string arrangements, courtesy of the London Sessions Orchestra, throughout the album. "October" is a bit of a highlight of the album, featuring only Wilson's vocal, a piano, and strings, and it feels about as intimate as anything Wilson has ever sung on, as one of my big criticisms with Wilson's style is that it often tends to sound more like a facsimile of prog than something genuinely original, but this track was one of the most chilling tracks I've heard from him in ages, and you can really feel the emotion in it. Geffen gets fewer vocal showcases on this album, but there are still some great tracks featuring his vocals, such as "We'll Never Be Apart" and the very Pink Floyd-esque "The Jackal" (I wonder if Steven has gotten over being compared to Pink Floyd yet?), which leads into the instrumental "Salt Water." Female vocals are also present at points on the album, such as the lovely "Undercover Heart" and "Lately." Electronic textures are present on "Lonely Soul," and the album ends on a particularly Wilson-led note with "From 44 to 48."
It'd be easy to make this album all about Aviv Geffen and Steven Wilson (and definitely more so Wilson this time around), but the contributions of drummer Tomer Z, keyboardist Eran Mitelman, and bassist Seffy Efrati are invaluable to the sound of the record, never overplaying, but always contributing to the atmosphere. Production is handled by Geffen and Wilson, with help from production legend and fellow prog-head Alan Parsons on three tracks (which three, I'm unsure of). The production is as dynamic and modern as you'd expect from Wilson's recent projects, though it does have the effect of making some of the vintage-styled instrumentation such as electric piano and what sounds like Mellotron strings at times sound a little "faux."
Lyrics — 7
Though the band describes "V" as a loose concept album themed around the ocean and the cycle of life (Wikipedia's words, not mine), I have a hard time really finding too many big conceptual links between the lyrics of this album. Many of the lyrics, as expected of anything involving Steven Wilson, are not of the "happy" variety, and generally feature very melancholic passages, many of which almost seem a little juvenile coming from someone who can write such chilling lyrics as those featured in songs like "Routine" or "The Raven That Refused to Sing" (disclaimer: I'm not actually certain which lyrics on the album are written by Wilson and which by Geffen, but it's safe to assume the two collaborated somewhat). This lyric from "Family Man" (which, sadly, is not a cover of the Mike Oldfield classic), kind of sums that point up: "Breathe in/Breath out/You had your shot you blew it all/Right now/Dead end/Your rescue team is miles away/People talk behind your back/In idle news become a clown/For those you despise, those you never count/They cheered you while you crashed."
Not really particularly deep or profound, and sad but not even really in a deeply affecting way. Part of it might be that the lyrics often kind of match with the music in a particularly weird way, where the melancholy of the music isn't the same as the melancholy of the lyrics (it's a kind of intangible thing to try and explain), but the one instance where it really seems to work is in the song "October," where Wilson sings "So when you see me running/Don't assume I'm running somewhere I belong/And when you see me crying/Don't feel sorry for me/So when I die and October comes/And the leaves start falling down upon the ground/And when the rain will stop you can be sure/I've found my happiness" to a sparse, beautiful piano and string arrangement, and despite the lyrics being kind of emotional in the same way you'd expect of any early-'00s emo band, it actually kind of feels very emotional and tense in a way that can be rather affecting.
Of course, the album is anchored by the vocal performances of Wilson and collaborator Aviv Geffen, and it feels like compared to past efforts, there's a lot less of Geffen on this album. Granted, this album was the first in several years to feature Steven Wilson actually contributing to the album's writing rather than just a performer, but one of the disappointments I have in this album is just how pervasive Wilson's voice is throughout the album. Even on many of the songs where Geffen gets a vocal part, he still ends up having to share half of the song with Wilson. It's a shame because even though the two singers have somewhat similar styles, there's a distinction between the two of them that makes a lovely bit of contrast.
Overall Impression — 7
As far as pop-rock influenced prog-rock (or prog-rock influenced pop-rock) goes, Blackfield have been one of the most prominent names out there, and definitely in part thanks to the involvement of Steven Wilson, a man who probably receives a royalty check for any time someone even mentions being prog-rock these days. And in the lead-up to the release of Steven Wilson's upcoming solo album, the new Blackfield album is a great way to whet your appetite if you're a fan of his music, because it features many of the hallmarks of his style, and at many moments (perhaps too many), sounds much like the work Steven Wilson fans have come to expect from his solo albums and albums with Porcupine Tree.
But that leads me to criticize the album a bit for being a bit too much Wilson, and not enough Aviv Geffen. Geffen takes very few vocal spots, and while the two may have very similar writing styles (after all, Wilson rarely seems to collaborate with anyone that's *too* vastly different from him), it does feel a bit like there's very little about this album that's distinctly *un-Wilsonesque*. You could play literally any of these tracks, especially ones like "We'll Never Be Apart" (strangely, one of the tracks featuring Geffen on lead vocals) and "From 44 to 48," next to any song from "Hand. Cannot. Erase." and the shift in style would not be jarring at all. Now, I like the style Steven Wilson has employed on his recent solo output, so this does not present a problem to me at all, but it may disappoint fans who are expecting something vastly different from Wilson's other projects, or expecting to hear a lot of Aviv Geffen's style a little more independently of Wilson (check out the band's last two albums for a better example of that). But it is a bit disappointing that one of the band's two main collaborators seems to almost be relegated to a background character here.
There are also moments on this record reminiscent of some other modern bands that have taken the progressive world and mixed it with a more melancholic pop element, such as Radiohead, and a few moments recalling of some of the band's possible classic influences like The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Electric Light Orchestra, so it seems that Steven Wilson's tendency to wear his influences on his sleeve is in full bloom here as well. Again, take that as you will, but I personally enjoy that.
Whether you're a big fan of Blackfield or not, if you're into Steven Wilson's solo works, this is a pretty decent album to check out.