STEVEN WILSON: The Raven That Refused to Sing and other stories (KScope, 2013)
PERSONNEL: Steven Wilson (vocals, Mellotron, Guitars, Bass Guitar on “The Holy Drinker”); Nick Beggs (Bass, Chapman Stick, Backing Vocals); Guthrie Govan (Lead Guitar); Adam Holzman (Keyboards); Marco Minnemann (Drums, Percussion); Theo Travis (Saxophones, Flute, Clarinet)
- Drive Home
- The Holy Drinker
- The Pin Drop
- The Watchmaker
- The Raven That Refused to Sing
Steven Wilson is a genius.
I felt it important to get that out of my system up front. So should the question be asked, the answer is YES, I am a HUGE Steven Wilson fan. His impact on music (particularly in the progressive rock realm) cannot be underestimated. Few are capable of creating and producing on his level. That being said, some of those creations stand out a bit more than others.
I first became aware of Wilson in the mid-2000s, though he had been on the scene for quite some time before then. I had taken the plunge and invested in Deadwing, an album from his band Porcupine Tree. Ironically, the purchase had nothing to do with Wilson or his band. My personal music idol, Adrian Belew, made a couple of guest appearances (playing guitar solos) on the album. I was eager to hear what he had contributed.
What Adrian did was awesome, of course. But before long, I found myself hooked into what the rest of Porcupine Tree was playing. These guys were incredible! Adrian’s guitar moments were nearly rendered irrelevant. What was the deal with this Wilson character? Where did he come from? What else had he done? And just like that, an obsession was born.
Like most fans, I was primarily interested in what Wilson was doing with Porcupine Tree. His output with acts like Blackfield and No-Man were great, and his first two solo albums — Insurgentes and Grace for Drowning — were very good indeed. But I always wanted Wilson to come back home to Porcupine Tree. Deadwing was followed up by Fear of a Blank Planet (brilliant) and The Incident (not quite as brilliant, but solid). And then Porcupine Tree ground to what felt like an abrupt halt. Frankly speaking, the band seemed to go out on more of a whimper than a bang.
But the best, it would seem, was truly yet to come.
Wilson released Grace for Drowning in 2011, followed by a live CD/DVD called Get All that You Deserve. This was the turning point for Wilson’s solo career. All but one of the musicians in this touring band (guitarist Nikolas Tsonev was replaced by Guthrie Govan) would head into the studio to record Wilson’s next album, called The Raven That Refused to Sing, and other stories. In his prior solo efforts, Wilson used a revolving door of musicians, who did a spectacular job bringing his vision to life. Now the leader was able to write an album for and around a specific band. It was released in 2013.
I remember being extremely enthusiastic when I brought the album home from my record store. I was fairly well versed in the brilliance that was Steven Wilson. But no amount of prior knowledge could truly prepare me for what happened after I pressed “play.” What happened next could be described as an “out of body” musical experience. I’m not one for hyperbole, yet I distinctly remember thinking this may very well be one of the best albums I have ever heard. I still believe that to this day.
I began to understand why Wilson was pulling away from Porcupine Tree. As remarkable as that band was, the instrumentation was ultimately limiting for Wilson as a composer. At its core, Porcupine Tree was a rock band, leaving little room for expansion. With this new group, Wilson could stretch into other realms, like jazz, even if it didn’t sound like he was. Keyboardist Adam Holzman played with Miles Davis, and served as Davis’s musical director. Combined with the woodwind efforts of Theo Travis, Wilson’s music could take on a fusion flavor. It could also bring forth the sounds of classic Prog a la King Crimson, Yes and Genesis, and back away from PT’s metal tendencies.
The evidence presents itself in “Luminol,” The Raven’s opening number. The band had already been playing it on the road (as seen in the concert DVD), so it was razor sharp by the time they recorded it. The driving force in this song comes from bassist Nick Beggs, who brings forth a funky, stuttering, stop-and-start riff that the band can’t help but groove around. Even as the piece veers into more esoteric realms (and brings back a riff that is pure Peter Gabriel-era Genesis), it all comes back to that bass groove in the end. First impressions are everything, and this may be one of the ultimate.
One should rarely come to Steven Wilson’s musical world looking for upbeat and cheery melodies and lyrics. He’s just not programmed that way. “Drive Home” makes that perfectly clear, being one of two absolutely heartbreaking songs on this album. In case there was any ambiguity amongst the listeners, the video for the song more than adequately eliminates all doubt. It is a song better heard and seen than described.
“The Holy Drinker” is hardly a song full or mirth, either. No matter. It is a top-flight piece of music. Holzman’s keyboards have a distinct mid-70s flavor, while Beggs makes the most of his Chapman Stick groove and Wilson shifts to bass. This version of the band would have fit in nicely with Yes and Genesis on a live triple-bill. There is absolutely nothing wrong with “The Pin Drop,” so it truly speaks to the strength of this album’s other songs when I call this tune The Raven‘s weak link. That being said, the song is quite brilliant.
“The Pin Drop” has the feel of being the set-up for “The Watchmaker,” another Wilson tune that goes through multiple phases before reaching its climax. Everything seems to be cruising along quite tenderly until around 4:20, when the bottom drops out and the band takes things up a notch. The combination of Travis’s flute and Govan’s guitar send the music soaring to heights few others have (or will) attain. It is a true prog-rock classic, and even better when performed live.
Lest one think Steven Wilson is looking to end things on the sunny side of the street, the album’s title track, and closer, takes the piss right out of that notion. “The Raven That Refused to Sing” is equally breathtaking and soul-crushing (I mean that in a good way). It has a tender melody that requires the rest of the band to get out of the way as much as it does to play. By song’s end, there is rarely a dry eye to be found. I’m sure this is the song that spawned a meme I saw online, featuring a crowd of teary-eyed middle-aged women in farm dresses and scarves. The tagline was “Steven Wilson mosh pit.” It was funny because it felt completely true. Still, the by the time the last few notes from Holzman’s piano fade into the ether, you know something truly remarkable has happened.
Even now, some Steven Wilson fans clamor for the return of Porcupine Tree. The Raven That Refused to Sing helped me let the band go. Wilson’s musical ambitions are quite limitless, and he can only get there by freeing himself of the past. I understood what he was trying to do, and what it would take to get him there. To be certain, Wilson’s latest solo effort, To the Bone, sounds almost nothing like The Raven. It has a distinct pop sheen to it, while remaining inherently Prog at its core. But Wilson loves pop music, citing ABBA among others as one of his all-time favorites. One cannot get easily to ABBA by way of Porcupine Tree. That’s just the way it goes. One can only imagine where he will go from here.
A sure-fire sign I like an album is that I will play it more than once the same day. This is a very rare occurrence. So what does it say when I played The Raven three times the first day I had it? I’m sure more than a couple of my friends were eager for me to shut up already about the album, as it was all I could talk about for months. What can I say? It struck at the very heart of why I love music. It hit all the right chords, and provided all the right emotional outbursts. It was far and away my favorite album of 2013, and tops my three favorite albums of the last ten years.
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