Sound — 8
"4 ½" is somewhat of an interesting foray for venerable prog legend Steven Wilson. Being the 5th in a line of solo albums since the hiatus of his main work Porcupine Tree, his solo career has seen him go into much more varied, concept driven territory.
The previous release "Hand. Cannot. Erase." was a very interesting concept album based around the original narrative of a woman living in a city and ends up being isolated and forgotten about for 3 years. Although it divided a small sampling of fans, the foray into electronic production elements added a certain refreshment to Wilson's well established writing style while also making the album it's own little unique monument in the genre.
But as with the transition from "The Raven That Refused to Sing" to "Hand. Cannot. Erase.," "4 ½" steps further away from it's predecessor and in general, it feels like a conglomeration of all of Wilson's solo albums compiled into one very short release.
This is, of course, short by prog standards: the fact that it's still nearly 10 minutes longer than "Reign in Blood" kind of makes the term "mini album" feel a bit weightless.
But moving on. The overall tone of this album could be summed as "soft prog." From The Beatles-esque opening "My Book of Regrets," the upbeat and bouncy "Happiness III" (also featuring a less-whacky-than-usual Guthrie Govan) to the depressed and spooky jazz sound of "Sunday Rain Sets In," there's no lack of the beautifully written prog that is expected of a Steven Wilson release.
"Year of the Plague" is perhaps one of the most intriguing and whimsical song that Wilson has penned. An evolving, layered instrumental that feels like it could be it's own focal point for an entirely different album, it brings out images of blue skies and sunlight breaking through tree branches.
That may just be that it presses all the same emotive buttons that Japanese composers (such as Hitoshi Sakimoto) like to indulge in but it's still a fantastic piece.
The thing is, although it's still a very strong Steven Wilson record, its purpose as a bridge between albums feels a little bit weak.
"How does that work out?" you might ask.
Well, these songs are unfortunately not a cohesive set written at the same time and this leads to a mild disconnect between the feel of each individual piece. For instance, while the (unabashedly addictive and groovy) "Vermillioncore" was written in 2013, "Don't Hate Me" is almost 20 years old (originally from the "Stupid Dream" album) and "Year of the Plague" is essentially an uncredited extra from "The Raven..." The jarring nature between "Happiness III" and "Sunday Rain..." is a strange turning point for the album as it almost threatens to split into two separate entities. This could be wholly off-putting to the sorts who listen to entire albums in one go and the overall tonal disconnect between this and "Hand..." is again, jarring.
That said, it's still more Steven Wilson, it's still got the detailed, exploratory, varied and dense compositions he is known for, just in a less overwhelming, bit sized chunk.
Lyrics — 8
If there's one thing that there's never a need for doubt for, it's Wilson's vocal ability. His honest and narrator-like approach is still on top form and gives a significant drive to the album despite it being mostly instrumental in nature.
Although there is still the usual slew of guest musicians, there are few guest vocalists on this album, the most prominent being Israeli singer Ninet Tayab on "Don't Hate Me." Her inclusion does differentiate the track from its original version, even if it is still the odd one out of bunch.
Lyrically, "4 ½" certainly seems, on the face of things, to tie into the concept laid out in "Hand. Cannot. Erase." This is where the inclusion of "Don't Hate Me" seems most logical, as its lyrical theme has been re-appropriated for the album.
"My Book of Regrets" bears the more striking connection. Its expertly evocative phrasing adds more depth to the hopelessness-fueld storyline developed in "Hand..." even if the harmonic nature of the music is much more joyful sounding. A lyrical example:
"In the back of a taxi cab in London town
All passed out and dreaming on the underground
Yes, I'm someone but I'm no-one all the same."
Overall Impression — 8
Even though it's not a full album and it has the odd foible to it's cohesiveness as a whole, "4 ½" is still a strong release that offers some of the best and most varied examples of Steven Wilson's solo work.
Despite appearing to be only a bridge between albums (or "filler of space" if we're being needlessly cynical), the fact that the lyrical theme appears to have crossed over from album to album may give an indication to what the next album might be, but who knows, it's all up in the air at this point.
Songs to look out for: it's short enough for a "the whole damn thing" recommendation but personal favourites are "Year of the Plague," "Sunday Rain Sets In" and "My Book of Regrets."