Issue 2013-013: Steven Wilson - The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)- Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: Luminol (12:10), Drive Home (7:37), The Holy Drinker (10:13), The Pin Drop (5:03), The Watchmaker (11:43), The Raven That Refused To Sing (7:57)
Roger Trenwith's Review
From the opening rat-a-tat bass and drum attack Luminol blasts off like a shooting star across the sky. This is an opening starring role for Nick Beggs, a man who seems to be just about everywhere these days, and for his co-conspirator in the Steven Wilson rhythmic hit squad, the very fine skin basher that is Marco Minnemann. Nick has been a very busy man of late and I reckon he loves playing with this band as it allows him to indulge in an edgier approach than with the bands and musicians he is normally associated with. Watching him on the last SW tour throwing his rock-god poses with a big grin on his face was a joy to behold!
The understated keyboard genius that is Adam Holzman fills in with his usual effortless classical and jazz inflected runs, complimented as ever by the redoubtable Theo Travis on reeds, and "new" guitarist Guthrie Govan completes the band, possibly as a result of his recent teaming up with Marco in fusion trio The Aristocrats. There's no doubt that he is supremely technically gifted, but I'll admit that I've never been a fan of Govan's style of choice, the ultra slick fret-tapping speed fest and squalling shredding that to these ears sounds a bit soulless and generic. In that respect Guthrie is completely different to any guitarist Steven has used in the past, all of whom had what one might say were "rougher" edges, and one of the things I was looking forward to with some wariness was hearing how Guthrie's style would alter Steven's sonic template.
However, I'm pleased to say that Guthrie is a great team player whose style fits in remarkably well. Mostly his solos are short and to the point, the only time he gets to really stretch out is at the end of Drive Home, which starts off quite beautifully, before building and pulling up just short of histrionics, which suits me fine.
Back to Luminol then; about half way through the song skids to a halt and morphs into a trademark Wilson ballad, at one point becoming almost symphonic, before leading back into the opening theme. A nice start, and an early indication that this album is much less jazz-rock orientated than its predecessor, and seems to be heading into far more traditional prog territory, even to the point of famously using the vintage mellotron as played on In The Court Of The Crimson King. Personally that is a bit of a disappointment as I was hoping Steven would run with the jazz vibe a bit further, as I would have liked to have seen where this exemplary bunch of musicians could have taken it.
The album title and the use of the indefinite article before all but the first two tracks lends the whole thing a bookish air, as if we are hearing chapters from a musical story, as indeed we are. The theme behind the record is the supernatural, with tales of ghosts of dead girlfriends, folk who are "ghosts" while alive, and Faustian pacts with the Devil, amongst other themes of the soul cast adrift. The mournfully sad title track (see above) relates the story of a dying old man who is visited by a raven, that is, as Steven says:
One of these days, Steven will make a ribald rock comedy album in the manner of Frank Zappa under the title Don't Use The Yellow Snow To Make A Cup Of Tea...or possibly not!
The Holy Drinker would fit in very well on Grace For Drowning and retains the heavy jazz-prog vibe of that record. Theo blows his sax and flute to his heart's content before the tune turns around for the vocal on a funky synth riff from Adam. Unlike Richard Barbieri's work for Porcupine Tree, Adam's keyboards often lead the melody rather than paint impressionistic sounds behind it, and his electric piano and later a Hammond organ sound are well to the fore.
The tune reflects the dichotomy of a holy man who secretly lives a debauched life, his soul sinking way beyond redemption. The tune pulls apart and reconvenes as conscience and ego fight with one another in the lyric. Theo puts in his best shift on the album, aided by some nice jazzy electric piano from Adam. A huge and monstrous riff rears its ugly head at around the 9 minute mark, stomping through the hinterland of menace, and a lovely dark thing it is too. You might well guess, correctly, that so far this is my favourite track on the record. There are as many good ideas in this one song than most bands manage on entire albums.
Theo continues his sterling work on The Pin Drop, a song that in any other setting could be described as joyous, as it righteously ascends the heights on the back of the crackling rhythm section. Guthrie gets to add his best solo of the day near the end of the song, showing that short 'n' sweet is often the preferable way to go.
Near the end of The Watchmaker, which starts out as a contemplative prog ballad in the manner of early Genesis with a lovely and simple guitar motif leading the way, a reprise of an old Porcupine Tree affectation, the prog-metal riff, makes a very short and almost knowing appearance. The song builds up in a Floyd-like manner, slowly layering the dramatic intent, flute and guitar trading licks. The tension is lessened for the final vocal from Steven, under which Adam's classical piano tinkles away in accompaniment. Nick gets to play a good Chris Squire-like bass section, when suddenly at 9:45, there it is. Lasting a mere 5 seconds, you can all but imagine this strangely understated prog-metal riff winking at you as it slips by barely noticed. With my idle speculation hat on, I wonder if this a final goodbye to the world of Porcupine Tree?
Wow!...Sorry, but I did tell you I am fanboy. It needs saying that Steven has surrounded himself with some very high calibre players to assemble what is fast becoming a band in its own right, and long may it continue.
Engineered by one of Steven's prog heroes, Alan Parsons, the sound is as clear as one would wish, and I'm listening on download, Heaven forefend! I can't wait to get my hi-fi round the 5:1 mix at neighbour-destroying volume. As ever there are numerous versions of the album available, as this lift from K-scope's website reveals:
Enough for even the hardiest Steven Wilson obsessive there, methinks!
Indeed, the now arrived CD/DVD package is full of very nice artwork, and a few words about the extras are needed:
The 5:1 mix reveals more detail than it would be wise to go into outside of a hi-fi magazine. Alan Parsons' production is brought into the audio spotlight and it performs magnificently. Suffice to say it is simply awesome!
The real treat however is the studio documentary DVD which gives us mere mortals a glimpse of how these things pan out in a studio session. I feel sorry for Theo, shut off from the others in a booth. Must be bit odd not having eye contact with the other players. Steven, is of course, shoeless, and seems to lead by instinct and lets the others who are all top notch musos take things on from his original template. Class clown is Nick, who adds needed levity to the inevitable studious atmosphere, more than once fooling the cameraman. "What if I fell over?" indeed - ha ha!
Seeing the string section as arranged by Dave Stewart at work is nice, and a real goose-bump inducing moment is watching Steven laying down the mellotron overdub, playing King Crimson's original instrument from the In The Court Of... sessions, which suitably enough ends the film.
The CD/DVD is a must-have for any self-respecting prog fan, no question.
Steven Wilson occupies a unique place in the prog spectrum, appealing as he does both to those of us who tend towards the more experimental, and, dare I say it, progressive end of that particular rainbow; and to those of you who prefer a more traditional rock-based groove. With this album he should once again garner kudos from both camps, particularly from fans of what I like to call "trad-prog", and I look forward eagerly to 4th March at the Royal Festival Hall in London, where it is rumoured a rare meeting of Team DPRP may take place. Bring it on!
And now for the marking; I'll admit I'm not a fan of marking anything out of 10 or whatever, particularly as there is a "DPRP Recommended" floor of 8 marks. Having tried to be as objective as possible in the review, difficult as it is in this particular circumstance, fan that I am, one then has to spoil it all by giving the album a rating, and one has to consider, is it worth recommending or not? Anyway, keeping the fanboy in me at arms length for a moment here goes:
From a personal perspective I initially felt a bit let down that the heavy jazz-rock vibe was not pursued more on this album, but having had the time to listen properly I can now say that ...Raven... is a truly wonderful piece of work, crammed as it is with all sorts of classic prog references. It is good to see that Steven is not standing still here. Not for him a comfortable niche within a style, but a desire to change, and more power to him for that, although I do not think this album "progresses" much from the territory occupied by Grace For Drowning. ...Raven... is more of a step sideways, but a spectacular one, nonetheless! As the man has said in interviews many times, he is an artist not an entertainer, and if his moves confound his audience, then so be it, and far be it from me to tell a musician of his stature what to do.
So, from an entirely subjective point of view, if Insurgentes was an 8, and Grace For Drowning an 8.5, then this is probably a 9. Come back in a month and it might be a 10 or a 7, admittedly both somewhat unlikely, but who can tell?
Where it gets interesting, and this will end up being the mark at the bottom of this scribbling, is where a mark for the uninitiated is concerned. Whereas we are almost certainly preaching to the converted on this site, if fifty-something year old Prog Roger's twenty-one year old Killers fan nephew Iain happened upon this review and is still reading here at the end, would I recommend it to him? The answer is an unreserved yes, as it is probably the safest place to start where Wilson's solo albums are concerned, lacking as it does the out-and-out experimentation of parts of Grace For Drowning or the wilful modernist miserablism, brilliant though it was, of Insurgentes. So, just for Iain...8.5 out of 10.
Basil Francis's Review
Dammit Steve, you're too good! On top of appearing in and even fronting projects such as Storm Corrosion and Steve Hackett's Genesis Revisited, as well as remixing some of the most prestigious prog albums of days gone by, how the man has time to write such consistently good music I do not know.
Were you ever the class swot? Maybe you were proud of something that you could do so much better than your fellow classmates, so you did it as much as you could. You weren't afraid to show the world just how good you are at it. For myself, it was maths, but for Steven Wilson, it's progressive rock. However, he's far more than just a nerd; by comparison, Tangent-leader Andy Tillison is the definition of a prog-nerd, having a vast knowledge of '70s prog, but not really able to do anything with that knowledge besides emulating it. No, Wilson is a true swot, the Euler or the Gauss of prog, to use a mathematical analogy. He is able to see past copying other bands, and is able to find a new, exciting original direction in his music. Moreover, he seems to do this on a song-to-song basis.
So, this year's album is called The Raven that Refused to Sing, and while I hate to arse-lick such a respected musician, I have to say that he's done it again. While Grace for Drowning was a magnificent album, there were definitely a couple of weak tracks in its double-disc entirety. By contrast, this single-disc endeavour is far more consistent, and I could have any track on repeat and still enjoy it each time.
If you clicked on the Storm Corrosion link above, you might have gathered that I wasn't such a fan. It's a tense album, but the tension leads nowhere. I was worried that Wilson may have carried some of that feeling over to Raven..., but fortunately the two entities are very separate. Musically, this is a lot like Grace for Drowning, just a little more concise. Three of the songs are over ten minutes, the other three are under, and they are equally spaced in an aesthetic fashion, allowing the listener to relax after each long track.
The influences of jazz and progressive metal also return, and in particular, the opening track Luminol shows off the band's collective talents. Apart from a smattering of words near the beginning, the breakneck instrumental intro lasts for a full five minutes, so you don't have to think about lyrics until you're properly into the song. Simultaneously, the swot recalls classic prog themes, such as the rising Mellotron at 6:26 which sounds too similar to Wakeman's own 'tron near the end of Heart of the Sunrise.
However, the cleverest thing about Wilson's music is his ability to blend the symphonic nature of progressive rock with the melodic tendencies of pop, and 'shorter' (they're still over seven minutes) tracks such as Drive Home and the title track, really emphasise this aspect. And what songs they are! I'm a particular fan of the former track, with its long sweeping guitar solo and beautiful chorus. I was startled when I was alerted to the title track on YouTube by a confessed non-progger. If there's hope for bringing progressive rock to a younger generation, it lies with him.
I won't go on, partly because I cannot stand gushing, but mostly because I know that there's enough on this page to read about already without my meandering mush. Needless to say that Steven Wilson is a very remarkable musician, and this album shows him once again at the head of the progressive pack. I've absolutely no doubt that any progressive fan will find something to like on this album.
Guille Palladino's Review
After two years the wait is finally over; in 2011 Steven Wilson released the incredible Grace For Drowning as his second real solo effort with a subsequent tour. Last April Wilson and his band landed in Caracas, Venezuela and gave us an advance of his forthcoming album when he played Luminol. For me Steven Wilson has become one of the most complete and versatile artists in the British Progressive Rock scene during the last two decades and has also established himself as a skilled producer with a very high standard of sound engineering, and this new record is another example of that.
With this release the personnel are the same as the Grace For Drowning touring band with the addition of Guthrie Govan, better known for his work with The Aristocrats and Asia and considered one of the world's best contemporary electric guitar players. Alan Parsons, well known in part for his involvement in Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon, was responsible for engineering the album.
I'll review this album as an overview rather than analyze it song by song, and I'll try to complement the reviews from my partners in this RTR. This is a more dynamic album compared with its predecessor, Grace For Drowning, not as dense as it ebbs and flows in a very harmonious way preserving the musical style that Mr. Wilson has been developing during recent years; very harmonic, spacey and psychedelic. The way the band assumes their roles throughout the record is incredible. I felt them very coupled and, of course, every member has the opportunity to demonstrate their talents in the right moment. Teaming up with Mr. Alan Parsons has given this album some '70s sounding ambience but with that contemporary touch that Wilson gives to all the projects he develops with tremendous soundscapes, melodic crescendos and many mellotron solos.
Recently Mr. Wilson said:
I felt this album to be more intimate, more close, probably due to the emotional background that Mr. Wilson talks about, and the reason why he fully dedicates himself to this project. There are many ways in which Mr. Wilson focuses death in this "collection of ghostly songs"; in Luminol it is assumed together with the differences that people can make in their lives leading to them being remembered. Or the fear that you experience when you face death as a part of a guilty feeling, as happens on Drive Home.
The title track of The Raven That Refused to Sing is, for me, the highlight of the album and an excellent closing theme, the perfect crescendo song, it tells the story of a man who is waiting to die and goes back in time to remember his childhood and his sister's death when they were both young. His sister comes back from death in the from of a raven who will sing for him when he feels afraid and afterwards she will take him with her to the next life. For me this is a great metaphorical story and perhaps the only one on the record with a happy ending, because sometimes we all have the need to stay with our beloved ones and for one reason or another this is not possible, but in this case, death is the solution.
I have no doubt that this album is a masterpiece for me, because I felt very connected with the music and it is very emotional, very evocative. Perhaps it is too early to say it, but I feel that this is one of the most important releases of this year; I like it a lot.
There will be a deluxe 4 disc edition of the album, which will be "a 128 page hardback book containing lyrics and ghost stories, illustrated by Hajo Mueller". In addition to this, the album will also be available in standalone double-vinyl, CD and blu-ray editions. So, go quickly and buy your copy, I recommend widely this album to our readers, and I'll give it a proud 9.5 out of 10!
Alison Henderson's Review
As DPRP's resident Wilsonsceptic, the thought of having to plough through another hour of Prog's Boy Wonder staring at his shoes, then singing and playing about it in his own inimitable way filled me with a considerable amount of dread.
Here we go again, I thought: me swimming against the tide of collective adulation for an artist who seems to be the Marmite man of prog as there are still a fair few out there who also remain to be convinced by this manifestation of the Second Coming. This is despite his extensive back catalogue, notably with Porcupine Tree who seemed to change tack musically on a regular basis.
Latterly, Grace For Drowning was one of those albums which had a few flashes of brilliance interspersed with a great deal of dark matter, its murky depths of which I could never get to the bottom. And then along came Storm Corrosion, which sounded to all intents and purposes like a walk through a creepy wood. But he was making a lot of people happy with his introspective mutterings so let him/them get on with it, I thought.
Then, when a certain magazine catering for this particular segment of the music market devoted about 16 pages to SW and this album, my inner naysayer started screaming "Please! No more!".
So the odds were pretty comprehensively stacked against the final breakthrough being made, ipso facto, yours truly finally succumbing to the elusive musical charms of SW. This was further compounded by a friend of mine, an SW fanboy of the first order, calling me and going into rapturous spasms about Raven... while I was getting my laptop fixed in PC World. Yeah, yeah, yeah! But I bought the album anyway.
So this morning, I got into what I thought was a receptive mood by drawing the curtains and affecting a comatose position, ready to receive the latest instalment of Wilson navel gazing.
But wait one minute, what gives here?
Luminol I had seen and heard on a YouTube clip and was rather taken with its ebbing and flowing of jazzy japes, with each member of Wilson's stellar ensemble taking a prominent part in its delivery. Here on CD, it continues to dazzle and delight with its full-on atmospherics and shape-shifting properties. This could be a contender for song of the year because it catches you off guard time after time with its light and shade instrumental passages and lush vocal harmonies. And it has so much of the King Crimson vibe going on in there too. Funny that.
Drive Home comes in at a more sedate pace but it has some seriously hypnotic properties within it. What's the story behind a song which combines lush strings with some seriously haunting guitar from Guthrie Govan? This is musicianship which breaks new boundaries because no-one has ever made the humble guitar sing the way he does here. Tear up the guitar rulebook because his solo here has rewritten it.
It is then back to the jazz vibe with The Holy Drinker, punctuated again by kick-ass Govan guitar, along with some shimmering keyboards and Theo Travis's hyper clarinet. Even Wilson's voice, which for so long has sounded reedy and therefore the missing link returns here well rounded and rich. This is the track on which Marco Minnemann comes into his own, his percussive and expressive playing style rolling along, underpinning the swathes of sound more prominent in the mix.
The Pin Drop, the compelling pivotal middle track, does not really fall into any one camp musically. It swirls around, never really giving much away apart from when Travis and Govan both let rip again with their signature solos.
And so to the world of The Watchmaker, a song which hangs together so well, both as a composition and a story, beginning as an acoustic guitar/voice narrative which keeps shifting up numerous gears to embrace a strong melody, punctuated by Travis's flute work and Govan's gutsy guitar. But taking centre stage here is a masterful bass kick from Nick Beggs whose extraordinary performance levels hit new heights throughout the album. Here is a player on top of his game in so many ways.
So finally to the title track, which evokes echoes of Storm Corrosion's disturbing Drag Ropes through its doom-laden little storyline and accompanying animated video. It is a beautifully constructed song with an overriding sense of foreboding, pared down to the simplest form to allow the story telling to be the dominant force.
With a mention for Adam Holzman who also appears on a selection of keyboards, the reason why this album works is because Wilson has found a cast of exceptional musicians who share his vision that he keeps under wraps inside his soul.
No longer does Wilson stare solely at his shoes here: he has a more far-reaching perspective which means he finally connects with those of us out here that have not yet been pulled in by his proverbial Prog God tentacles.
This is a landmark album because it finally says to me and perhaps others of a similar view that Wilson has stopped polishing his plimsolls, and now appreciates the powers he has at his disposal that can cross so many musical boundaries. While not reaching me at emotional levels that other albums released this year have already done, Raven... is simply a revelation for this sceptic.