The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)

Steven Wilson

Kscope, 2013

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


At some point I think I convinced myself that in order to be a fan of modern progressive rock, I simply had to love Steven Wilson. 

After all, he’s made several magnificent albums with his former band Porcupine Tree, and this particular Wilson solo album was praised up, down and sideways by pretty much every respectable prog fan I know. And yet, the first two times I listened to it, I was completely indifferent to it; the music felt cold and alien and I simply could not engage with it. It’s taken me a very long time to (a) engage with it, which I finally have, and (b) understand why it is that I’ve had so much trouble getting into something that so many fellow prog fans think is fantastic.

The answer could be summed up as: it’s not you—it’s me. (Commence eye-rolling.)

My gateway drug into prog music was Yes. That seminal group’s brand of energetic, virtuosic, yet fundamentally warm and upbeat music became my aesthetic point of reference for prog music forever after. At its best, Yes delivers all of the above plus an indefinable element of transcendence; it’s music that amazes and delights. And—argue if you must, go ahead—for this listener, the heart of Yes, the source of the warmth and positivity that emanates from their best work, is Jon Anderson.

Steven Wilson is the reigning high king of modern prog, a universally-admired singer-songwriter-guitarist-producer with tremendous chops and a seemingly bottomless fount of ideas. And he is in many ways the anti-Jon Anderson.

While the two share an abiding passion for the progressive genre, Wilson is Anderson’s diametric opposite in most other ways. Where Wilson’s musical persona is heavy, angry, isolated, claustrophobic and wallowing in despair, Anderson’s is airy, gentle, engaging, open and brimming with hope. Jon Anderson signs messages to fans “love and light”; one could easily imagine Wilson signing his “anxiously brooding alone in the dark.” (In the sunnier climes of modern proggers Big Big Train’s lively Facebook group, this musical persona has earned Wilson the truly brilliant, and unmistakably British, nickname of “Mr. Chuckletrousers.”)

Wilson’s work, by his own declaration, descends directly from the Pink Floyd darkness-and-alienation strain of progressive rock, juiced with a bit of Dream Theater prog-metal bombast and a vigorous avant-garde streak. There are moments, to be sure, when this shadowy, intense approach fits my mood perfectly. But while the music Wilson makes is easy to respect for its craft and polish and rippling energy, it’s hard music for a listener like me to love.

Oh – hang on. You came for an album review, didn’t you? Well, then.

The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories), Wilson’s third proper solo album, found him assembling a stellar band of players that includes Guthrie Govan on guitar, Nick Beggs on bass and Chapman stick, Adam Holzman on keys, Theo Travis on flute, sax and clarinet, and the irrepressible Marco Minnemann on drums. The resulting album was rapturously received by the progressive rock press and won the "Album of the Year" category at the 2013 Progressive Music Awards. While not strictly a concept album, there is a common thread running through these six tracks; it’s an album of ghost stories, centered on characters who are not just figuratively but literally haunted. Wilson’s adoption of a raven as the central image here feels not at all coincidental; for this album, he’s adopted the creative guise of Edgar Allen Poe wielding a Mellotron.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Kickoff cut “Luminol” is a clear highlight, a dynamic 12-minute suite full of tasty bits. The opening four and a half minutes feature a sinewy bass-drums-guitar workout with flute on top, quickly building momentum while grasping at times for a sort of Fragile-meets-Aqualung nexus of classic prog crunch, with Hammond and Mellotron accents only reinforcing this impression. Around the five-minute mark, the main vocal section of the suite begins with Wilson singing solo over gently strummed guitar, with background vocals and flute; it’s an uncharacteristically light touch that works well here and leads into a dreamy middle section featuring piano and more flute. The Mellotron returns in force for the closing segment, an ominous, booming bit that finally leads into a driving restatement of the opening theme, feeling by now like a mélange of Relayer-era Yes and early King Crimson.

The classic prog influence would be obvious regardless, but a couple of touches lend the exercise additional authenticity; Raven is associate produced and engineered by Dark Side Of The Moon engineer Alan Parsons, and the sessions for it utilized one of the original King Crimson Mellotrons. You can’t get much more authentic than that…

Sophomore cut “Drive Home” opens with Pensive Steven in full sway, one of the several personas you get to know on any Wilson production, another character he plays. This track about living with the guilt of causing a loved one’s death (uplifting stuff, no?) again features the Mellotron, with Thayer’s clarinet providing an elegant accent before Wilson and/or Govan delivers a big, emotive, Gilmour-esque guitar solo to close it out.

The heaviness returns with “The Holy Drinker,” opening with an ominous guitar-bass-drums overture, with synth and sax jumping onboard as the song see-saws towards its eventual, apocalyptic crescendo (“The Holy Drinker is going straight in to hell”). Around 8:40 they move into full-on doom-metal the-world-is-ending mode, with Parsons contributing some familiar “haw-haw” guitar.

The next two tracks make less of an impression. “The Pin Drop” has a certain pleasant intensity, but feels more familiar than distinct, just another Wilson song. The overlong “The Watchmaker” zooms in on another odd, lonely, alienated character, meandering through a series of moods and moments highlighted by the pretty acoustic guitar early on and an intense little rhythm-section-focused segue beginning at 8:55 that sets the stage for some of Minnemann’s most explosive drumming.

Whatever flaws the tracks immediately preceding it manifest, the closing title track redeems. And let’s be clear: “The Raven That Refused To Sing” is genuinely haunting because Wilson finally lets his guard down enough to sound vulnerable; you can hear the emotion in his performance, and it’s immediately compelling.

Opening over solo piano, Wilson sketches the scenario of a lonely man haunted by the memory of his dead sister, whom he personifies in the form of a raven, convinced that if the raven sings this will confirm that it is his sister, reincarnated. The tune begins to build around 3:00, with the rhythm section and swirling Mellotron asserting themselves before the guitar comes in and pushes them all up into the sky. After a big, satisfying crescendo, it falls back to just the piano repeating the opening melody. It’s a beautifully constructed, superbly played, and expertly produced song that’s without a doubt among Wilson’s finest work.

I’m glad I stuck with this album; while I doubt I’ll return to it often, it’s a quality piece of work with at least two tracks—“Luminol” and the title cut—that are truly outstanding. The world can be a pretty dark place sometimes, and creators like Steven Wilson—the Stephen King of his genre, if you will—can help us navigate that darkness; I’m just not built to want to wallow in it for sixty minutes at a time.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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