Steven Wilson: The Future Bites in Atmos Review
Patrick Cleasby gets totally surrounded by the Dolby Atmos version of this important new rock release…
This is not going to be an objective take on Steven Wilson’s new The Future Bites album in Dolby Atmos, as I can’t pretend to be neutral. I have been a fan of his for nearly thirty years, since the early days of no-man – and much like Fish, I profess myself more a lover of loops and beats Steven than full-on prog Steven. So I regularly go to see him live on tour. No-man’s Love You to Bits was my favourite album of 2019, so it stood to reason that The Future Bites would be my most treasured of 2020. Despite just being released this year, it’s been in the can so long that even its progenitor wants it out before he’s sick of it…
It’s a brilliant piece of work, period. There, I’ve said it, but there is still a lot of information to be relayed about how it came into shape, both culturally and technically. If you have been paying close attention, a lot of this has surfaced during the last two years of its genesis, but it still bears repeating and contextualising.
It’s ironic that my perspective on this comes largely from the kind of echo chamber of contemporary social media and internet (mis)behaviour that SW – let’s call him that – is slyly poking fun at. I joined his primary Facebook fan forum with the solitary aim of tracking gig announcements – we all know how that has turned out this past year – but the ire displayed there concerning the nature of the new material has been something to behold.
As Wilson almost accidentally alluded to in The Mix Show (episode 8) podcast, the problem with his career is that he is musically tugging in the opposite direction to that in which a lot of his erstwhile fanbase wish him to go – and they really like to howl about it out there on the internet. As we shall see, it has not been an easy year…
The evolution of The Future Bites (let’s call it TFB) has become a lockdown-long bitchfest on social media. Just as the preview track from previous album To The Bone – Permanating – was reviled by his prog-rock loving fanbase on release, the singles from this one have not been well received in the main.
For me, watching out for artefacts from an album that was fully realised pre-lockdown, became the central theme of lockdown. First single Personal Shopper used to soundtrack both legs of my weird trips to town to queue up outside a supermarket, and like many, I struggled to snag a listenable copy of the cancelled – not quite soon enough – second single King Ghost. Those two tracks are really the tentpoles of the album, but since then we have had two actual old-school type twelve inchers for Eminent Sleaze and 12 Things I Forgot, their B sides already anthologised in a 24/96 stereo B sides EP available from Qobuz.
Three days before its release, Wilson also put out Man Of the People digitally. Who needs whole albums any more? From an Atmos point of view, they have progressively become available in the Tidal compressed version of the format. The overall bitrate is around 750mbps, so is very much the immersive equivalent of MP3 you’re dealing with here.
We should have had The Future Bites six months ago, then. The lockdown delays actually allowed SW to reconfigure its running order, reversing the positions of Man Of The People and Personal Shopper and swapping out original closer Anyone But Me for the sublime Count of Unease. As my video interview shows (above), we need to liberate the Blu-ray disc version of that one, although it will presumably also be a Tidal Atmos single in the future?
In a similar way, an album that was initially conceived as the usual SW 5.1 product has become an Atmos product, due to Wilson’s introduction to Dolby via an Abbey Road playback. As usual, the Blu-ray will be part of one of those Deluxe Edition Box Sets that SW and his intoned-vocal partner Elton John lampoon on Personal Shopper, but is also available as a standalone Blu-ray at an altogether more affordable price. There won’t be any copies of the boxset left by mid-February…
Why am I re-engaging with surround? In truth, it’s been a couple of years since my old floorstanding reference setup – comprising four Monitor Audio GR20s with a matching GR centre – has come out of storage. In that time I have been trying to get the best possible sound from servers via Roon. The irony of the Atmos route is it is about the only non-ripable hi-res audio format and is definitely not currently supported by any Roon capability – you can extract the 7.1 TrueHD, but you lose the vital Atmos metadata which brings you the .4 part. These metadata define the coordinates in three-dimensional space of an audio object and its diffusion.
For a while I have been buying rare box set editions that contain Atmos surround discs, while graduating from an ageing Marantz SR7012 AV receiver to a similar AV8805/MM8077 pre/power setup. I finally got into 7.1 by adding two close match Monitor Audio GS10s as side speakers, even in a matching colour. This left space to add an additional MM7055 amp which handles those vital four ceiling channels. Inter-amp connections are balanced XLR, naturally.
The real spur was Steven Wilson’s October webchat with Rob Skarin, webmaster to the prog stars, in which he revealed that the channel layout he was mixing to was indeed 7.1.4. So the logic went, “in 2004 we launched Porcupine Tree’s In Absentia DVD-Audio with a big review and interview, so let’s do it all over again now!”
More fool me. A quick chat with Dolby and the disc was in my hands, but it’s been difficult to get a technician in due to lockdowns. I had to figure out what ceiling speakers to buy and where to make the holes. Some reminders of forty-year-old schoolboy mathematics, some digital endoscopy and some bloodied limbs later – don’t fall off your stepladders with a live drill folks! – and I had four beautiful Monitor Audio C265-IDCs (Dolby’s ceiling speaker recommendation of choice) in the correct-to-spec places. I am gifted with an optimal sized and shaped room, and a plasterboard ceiling with enough of a void to take it. Advice to those silly enough to attempt all this on request? Don’t…
The white label disc I was supplied with should be the same as both variants available commercially, and contains the v2.0 running order in Atmos and 5.1 (DTS or PCM), an instrumental version of the same in 24/96 stereo high-resolution, and all three excellent videos for the first three singles produced during and in between UK lockdowns.
When I used to review DVD-Audios back in its early days, we used to itemise the formats available on the disc and highlight quality differentials, missed opportunities, et cetera. To all intents and purposes this disc represents the acme of the new model hi-res surround discs, with SW surround mixes that the likes of Panegyric have been producing for years now, representing most available format options and providing bountiful extra content. There are variants of The Future Bites-themed screens that accompany playback, a single TFB artefact per track for the Atmos, and a collage of gnomic TFB pronouncements for the stereo and instrumentals.
Pleasingly, the videos – Personal Shopper, King Ghost and Eminent Sleaze – all have the option of playback with uncompressed 5.1 PCM. This is where I first saw the impressively loopy Personal Shopper video and this was a fantastic way to do it. Both the visuals and the surround are top-notch.
However, there's one factor which is debatable and may only be resolved in the fullness of time. As a new format (and in this case initially prompted by a hookup with Dolby Labs) while the stereo and the 5.1 surround are the full 24-bit 96kHz resolution, the Dolby Atmos is forcibly presented at 24/48 as this is what the format tops out at. While less exciting, the 5.1 mix is that notch more refined in terms of out-and-out high fidelity.
It’s as if we’re back to twenty years ago where a DTS-based product could deliver a more complete representation of the high-resolution surround format. A hi-fi setup that can play Dolby Atmos is almost definitely equally capable of playing back DTS:X – the DTS object audio equivalent of Dolby Atmos. A cursory look at the DTS:X encoder manual reveals 7.1.4 encoded at 24/96 should be possible. I could be wrong, and current authoring tools could scupper the idea.
Still, all this is all insufficient impediment to getting hold of this excellent disc; just don’t bet against a DTS:X 24/96 special edition in a decade’s time! The Blu-ray product is after all primarily intended for audiophile enthusiasts, whereas Tidal Atmos can serve the soundbar crowd.
THE ATMOS EXPERIENCE
If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then doing it about Atmos is doubly so. In the olden days of 5.1 we might be inclined to specify exactly which speaker or stereo pair was being used for a given audio event, but here all bets are off.
It’s an aptly named format – done right you feel the overall ambience, or a deep robo-voice spookily exactly where you’re sitting then sequentially from each corner of the room. Dolby in-house Atmos engineer Jake Fields ably assisted on both this disc and Yello’s marvellously fun Point Atmos offering, and the two experiences are very different. I asked Jake how he found working with a surround mixer who had very much already done his ten thousand hours in the discipline…
“I can’t speak directly to what Steven was going for”, he told me, “but my impression was that it was an album that sits with you and is very detailed. Those repeat listens really allow you to hear all the details in the track. Due to Steven’s extensive 5.1 experience, he came into the studio with a great 5.1 mix created in Logic Pro that we used as the basis of the Atmos mix, translating his 5.1 ideas and introducing some new ones!”
As my video interview will attest, Wilson is now full steam ahead in his own studio and we expect to see numerous new Atmos projects emerging, particularly as lockdown has left him more free to work on third-party remix stuff than he expected to be. This is great news for surround enthusiasts.
For me, Atmos highlights of the album include the delicate album intro, and storming and sweary guitar workout pairing Unself/Self, the synthetic voices and arpeggiated analogue synths of King Ghost swirling all around, and the gorgeous David Sylvianesque textures of Count Of Unease calmly sounding out all over the room.
Throughout it all, Steven Wilson seems altogether more comfortable with using his falsetto voice than he was on the preceding To The Bone album, and the few guitar flurries he does release move around the front and rear of the room in thrilling assaults. It is the massed female harmonies that really cocoon you around the sofa, with the Atmos effect adding size and height to the gorgeous “blocks of harmony” as SW calls them. The real masterstroke is the entirety of Personal Shopper, but more specifically the breakdown and finale which demonstrate the enterprising vocal placement use of “Two Elton Johns” that SW corrects me about in the video interview. I can’t get enough of this one.
In conclusion, if you have any interest at all in Steven Wilson in Dolby 5.1 or Atmos, then you should run – not walk – to order the standalone The Future Bites Blu-ray. Not only is this among the most masterful surround works of art ever, but it’s a deeply musical record that you can simply sit down and enjoy in whatever format you chose. Just leave your prog-rock preconceptions at the door…
As far as the 7.1.4 experience is concerned, the Blu-ray-based Atmos-mixed albums that currently exist are almost as enjoyable as this one, and all of my Atmos, 7.1 Dolby True HD, and DTS:X film and television discs that were once under-serviced are now also rendered to their utmost capabilities. That magically funky Wendy & Lisa theme tune to Nurse Jackie is as fat as anything from the 7.1 Blu-rays, and Dolby Surround or DTS Neural X processing from the AV processor creates the height information to make your ceiling speakers join the game algorithmically.
Wilson tells me that he’s now engaged in at least five or six other Atmos projects, so if you get into 7.1.4 as a music lover, there is plenty coming down the tracks to keep you entertained. I heartily recommend the experience.
Lifelong music collector and technology addict Patrick Cleasby worked in music mastering during the nineties and noughties – and has written on the subject at length ever since, tracing the rise of hi-res digital. He also spent over a decade at the BBC in a senior archiving role, where he was a behind-the-scenes tech boffin.