Review: The Raven That Refused to Sing and other stories – Steven Wilson
I’ll start off by saying that if you already are a Steven Wilson or Porcupine Tree fan, then this is a must-have album, with whatever format you choose to listen. I was lucky enough to grab one of the Book/CD/DVD/BluRay packages before they were gone and I will be reviewing this “little” paperweight. If you are not a rabid fan like me, or if you haven’t heard Wilson’s work before, then I also hope I will give enough info to spur on some exploration.
I’ll set the stage with who is playing on this album. Steven Wilson sings and plays guitars, keyboards, bass, and the original King Crimson mellotron (imagine!). Nick Beggs (Lifesigns) is on bass and Chapman stick and backing vocals, Guthrie Govan (The Aristocrats) on lead guitar, Adam Holzman on keyboards, Marco Minnemann (Aristocrats, UK, Eddie Jobson) on drums and Theo Travis (Robert Fripp) on flutes, saxes and clarinet. Additional musicians are Jakko Jakszyk (Robert Fripp, Schizoid Band) on vocals and Alan Parsons on guitar. Yes, THAT Alan Parsons (Dark Side of the Moon), who Steven had engineer the album! If you’ve watched and listened to the Get All You Deserve concert film, then you know how amazing these musicians are. Leave it to say that this band (also Wilson’s touring band still) is one of the finest collections of musicians since, well, since maybe the double trio Crimson of Thrak.
Since I mentioned Alan Parsons, I’ll talk about the audio now. The CD sound is wonderful, with Parsons engineering and Wilson mixing, how could it be otherwise? The depth of the music, the subtleties, the dynamic range, are captured in warm analogue tones – it is a pleasure to listen to. The BluRay and DVD versions are of course mixed in brilliant 5.1 by Wilson, and “authored” by Ray Shulman (Gentle Giant). To be honest, I am not sure what that means exactly, but it is an expert job and you won’t be disappointed in whatever system you have. See more below.
The book, a massive tome, features short stories by Wilson and illustrated by Hajo Mueller. The Raven that Refused to Sing is co-authored by them both. The music complements the stories perfectly (or is it the other way round?) but in any case, it is interesting reading. In my opinion, these are well-written pieces although they lack some originality and held no surprises for me. The prominent recurring theme is death, spirits and haunting and the haunted, not exactly cheery subjects, and the music reflects this in no uncertain terms. In other words, the deep and sad parts of Porcupine Tree’s The Incident are carried on here.
So for the music: I think if you are a long time listener of the Steven Wilson family (solo, Porcupine Tree, No-Man and Blackfield) then this will fit snugly into your expectations. The sound and tone of the album is not new, so don’t expect a sudden freak out with Donna Summer (one of Steven Wilson’s big influences – believe it or not) or a right turn into Country Music – this is pure Wilson borrowing from his library and sprinkling the compositions with some Canterbury (National Health, Caravan) and a brief moment of Opeth metal. But let me say that the songs here are new and fresh sounding and take you to a place that is quite deep and spiritual. You might think that with the powerhouse musicians playing that it could be some techno fest, but it is not. There is wonderful soloing to be sure but it is in keeping with the pieces, not overshadowing them. This is about theme, song, words, and orchestration too (Dave Stewart of Egg, Hatfield and the North and National Health did the string arrangements).
There are 6 songs that, together, total 55 minutes, keeping with Steven Wilson’s belief that shorter is better (at least 55 minutes in the Proggy world is short!).
“Lumninol” is over 12 minutes and begins as a driving piece of jazzy, funky up-tempo Canterbury to start, then develops into soft, Crosby Stills and Nash-like vocal and answering harmonies with Govan’s jazz guitar lightly playing along. Holzman’s piano takes a turn next, with beautiful, subtle runs that are breathtaking. Like in most if not all of Wilson’s work, he knows how to hook you with melodic lifts that cause an addiction of sorts. The music then becomes a sonic wall of beautiful mellotron and brings back the days of Court of the Crimson King, intentionally no doubt. This sweeps you away and the piece comes to a pulsing close as it started with guitars and keyboards counter playing until the end.
“Drive Home” at over 7 minutes takes a quiet turn with guitar and piano in a simple melody that has a Porcupine Tree sound without a doubt. Nick Beggs’ walking bass here really comes through the mix. It has almost a Celtic feel to it, or perhaps Nordic folk. Just a presence of something out there that is hard to quantify but sounding somewhat ancient to me. The music builds until it reaches a climax of sorts with Bevan showing that he is not just flash but capable of real emotional playing. Think “Comfortably Numb” here.
“The Holy Drinker”, at just over 10 minutes, begins in a jazz-rock fusion vein and reminds me a lot of Return to Forever. Then it develops into a hard rockin’ song that could have been on Fear of a Blank Planet. It changes time more than once and features heavy Hammond organ with Deep Purple vibes. Again, that National Health reference is here, with piano and flute exchanging leads. This is the most jazz that Wilson has incorporated into a whole album thus far. I think too that this song really creates the dividing line between his PT stuff and his solo recordings. The song ends with eerie tones and his haunting voice floating away.
“The Pin Drop”, at 5 minutes, has a real Radiohead vibe to it. Harmony vocals blend with Travis’ blazing sax until gentle guitar playing background to vocals and an interesting pulsing. I also think that early Ambrosia is in there too, especially from “Somewhere I’ve Never Travelled”.
“The Watchmaker” at almost 12 minutes is a beautiful suite. It begins with dreamy folk music guitar. And then for me, it moves along in a Genesis way, slowly adding layers of melody, Yes-like bass and finally becoming a bit metal sounding for the last couple of minutes with grinding guitar and explosive drumming to finish; Endos might be a reference point too.
“The Raven that Refused to Sing”, at nearly 8 minutes, is a soft lament compared to the other pieces before it. It is the longest of the stories in the book. With quiet piano and gentle guitars it is quite mournful and emotional. There is something very personal going on here, beyond the fact that it is a solo record. As I listened to the album a second time, I couldn’t help but wonder if Steven Wilson was letting us in to some of his deepest emotional places. And that, in the end, makes this the most special record of his career to these ears.
The set comes with a second disc, labeled Demos, which is an alternate take on the album with an additional unused song. Wilson does most of the guitar work himself here, and this “rehearsal” disc could stand as the main release too. Not as rich in instrumentation, my overall feeling was that the drumming was a bit more aggressive and the overall playing a little looser. My point here is that it is not a throwaway extra but a great album too.
The BluRay and DVD are identical, except for one thing. On the BluRay, there is an additional choice for Master Audio in 5.1. This particular choice is better than any other 5.1 mix offered in this package, though all the 5.1 versions are amazing. The breakdown of each instrument is clear and precise and the sound moves around you as good as any surround I’ve heard. Steven Wilson has made his name by being the 5.1 guru these days and this is no exception. Besides the album, there are also two picture galleries, one of the book artwork and another featuring stills during the recording process. Then there is a “making of” documentary, filmed by long-time collaborator Lasse Hoile. The album was recorded in one week, by the way. Not surprising with the brilliant artists associated with this project.
So there you have it. Whichever way you decide to listen to this album, you will not be disappointed. The Raven that Refused to Sing and other stories is a masterwork in song, musicianship and just plain craft. It is a journey worth taking and is worth many repeated listens.
Here is the link to Steven Wilson’s site. And I would recommend that you watch the illustrated video of the title track while you listen to beautiful music that, needless to say from my perspective, is pretty hard to beat these days.
Release Date: February 26, 2013