(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Recording review - Steven Wilson, The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) (2013)

Prog polymath delivers a stunning solo album

It’s so tempting to be jealous of prog-nerd Steven Wilson. As the post-rock Golden Child, he seems to have it all. It was one thing when he built Porcupine Tree from a one-man, psychedelic in-joke to one of the most significant progressive rock bands, extending his own multi-instrumental skills to collaborate with brilliant players. Then he parlayed his recording experience into producing other bands like Opeth and Anathema, developing a reputation as an engineering iconoclast. When Robert Fripp entrusted him to remix the King Crimson back catalog, it led to additional work with Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. So, while his band and solo work has been defining the new directions of prog music, he’s also been quietly weaving himself into its history.

His latest solo album, The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories), bridges the past and the present, featuring the engineering talent of famed producer, Alan Parsons. Parsons is well known for his role in creating the tonal magic of the early to mid-1970s with Pink Floyd and others. Speaking to Anil Prasad’s Innerviews, Wilson casually talked about contacting Parsons for the project: “Luckily, he knew who I was and was already familiar with some of my surround work.” With all of his unshakeable confidence and stature, Wilson ought to be insufferable, but his overarching focus on the music and his finely tuned ear mark him as a savant rather than a show-off.

On The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories), he turns that ear towards the classic prog sounds of King Crimson, Genesis and Yes. There was a sublime alchemy in that era, where the albums blended a sense of exploration with musical virtuosity. Later, the scene became bloated and self-indulgent, but, like his inspirations, Wilson’s arrangements are tight and directed. The six songs alternate long voyages with shorter, more thoughtful pieces, creating a structural dynamic that matches the sonic range of the album. The pieces are based on a set of ghost stories written by Wilson and illustrator Hajo Mueller. A book containing these stories is included in the deluxe version of the album, along with a four disc set (CD, demo CD, 5.1 Surround sound mix DVD-V/Blu-Ray and instrumental Blu-Ray). Even without the stories, though, the moody surrealism comes through in the music.

The album starts with “Luminol,” a long track that breaks down into a set of vignettes. Opening with a confrontational punch, Nick Beggs’ bass propels the tune forward like a relentless pack of wolves. Splashes of guitar launch the song into a Jeff Beck style jazz fusion jam, complete with a wicked flute solo fluttering by at a breakneck pace. The driving beat locks up momentarily for a freeze-frame, harmonized Yes vocal phrase:
Here we all are
Born into a struggle
To come so far
But end up returning to dust
The song evolves away from the headlong rush into some rhythmically interesting developments before returning the theme. A choppy riff resolves and fades down, setting up a major transition into a looser progressive section that evokes Crosby, Stills and Nash, with sweet harmonies and a floating Stephen Stills guitar lead. The diffuse feel is a relaxing contrast to the pressure of the beginning, but it gives way to an art rock procession reminiscent of early King Crimson. Eventually, Guthrie Govan’s shredding lead guitar pushes the song to resurrect its opening drive. “Luminol” demonstrates Wilson’s vision: it’s full of allusions to the past, but features a crisp, modern edge.

The longer pieces use their larger scope to develop evocative soundscapes. “The Watchmaker” evolves a mellow, acoustic groove into a crystalline fusion before resolving into art rock experimentalism. But “The Holy Drinker” proves more interesting, giving all the players room to shine. Trippy space rock is accented with an angular, spiky lead line. Adam Holzman’s keyboards lay down support for Theo Travis’ free jazz leads and Marco Minnemann’s percussion is phenomenal. After the vocal section, the song runs through a tight, harmonized set of riffs followed by jazz flute before collapsing into an unbalanced, ambient interlude. Despite the lull, the mutated fills suggest hidden threats and dangerous currents, which are revealed with a grinding attack of doom.

The shorter pieces are more tethered, with “Drive Home” and “The Pin Drop” coming closest to Wilson’s earlier work. They feature Porcupine Tree’s lush orchestration and his typical vocal detachment. But the title track that closes the album is my favorite of these three. A tentative piano line provides a Radiohead texture supporting Wilson’s raw vocal. Parson’s engineering is beautiful, preserving sonic detail as layers slowly accrue. The track breathes, slowly blooming into life, even as the lyrics crack with pain and loss. Minnemann’s contribution is subtle until the drums kick in at the five minute mark, when the song fully opens into acceptance. It’s a strong resolution made sweeter by the solo piano reprise of the theme after the fade.

The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) is an amazing album. Emotional without being maudlin and technical without being cold, Wilson’s ghost stories offer a multi-faceted view of mortality and meaning. Whether you surrender to the flow or engage with the twisting musical dimensions, it’s a wild, surprising journey. Why be jealous of talent? Just respect the gift.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

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