New Album Review #1: Steven Wilson – The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) (2013)
Porcupine Tree’s prog-prodigy Steven Wilson’s third solo album follows in the same vein of his previous musical work, but not in a literal sense. Staying true to the actual meaning of ‘progressive’, his approach to music and production remains to be in a perpetual, ever-changing state, so that each of his produced albums feature a slightly different and somewhat more matured sound.
As you can probably guess by now, I am a big fan of his work and his overall sound-ideas. But nevertheless, higher expectations might make it tougher for him to impress me. In his previous albums Insurgentes and Grace for Drowning Wilson managed to create sonically surprising and incredibly dynamic pieces of music that I have never heard or could even think of before. But, can he do it again?–
The opening track Luminol clocking in at over 12 minutes draws the listener in right off the bat with its driving rhythm, at first only comprised of drums and bass guitar before a brief and unusually ring-modulated keyboard solo comes in. Seemingly improvisational sections alternate with a crescending guitar riff, unisono melodies and one instance of a haunting line of stacked, multi-tracked vocals. After almost five minutes of hard-hitting retro-prog delight, the song slows down and descends into a mellow ballad-esque groove with a dark but jazz-y vibe.
After about 8 minutes the instruments swell up in almost ethereal and other-worldly chord changes until the tension is released for the moment with a quick and quiet piano, bass, organ and synth interlude, until they’re picking up the original pace again and revisiting the initial riffs from the beginning. But somehow, maybe by the piano line carrying on from the interlude, the riff has a different feel to it, as if we now see it in a different light, probably caused by the mellow middle part. The song has an incredible force that keeps you already hooked from the beginning, making it a perfect opener. But beside that, the overarching structure – with its contrasts of improvisational parts and recurring themes and sequences – makes this song a coherent, listenable and entertaining long-track. (9/10)
Whoa, I got a bit carried away here with this song, I’ll try to keep it shorter with the other songs.
The second track Drive Home maintains a rather mellow tone throughout its entirety. If you are familiar with Wilson’s other project Blackfield (with Aviv Geffen) you can here some similarities in the melodies, harmonies and overall arrangement here, especially in the use of strings in the chorus. The second half gradually rises in intensity with a guitar solo on top very reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb end solo section. Compared to the opening track this song ultimately falls a little flat in its creativity, but it is still an enjoyable piece of music. (6/10)
The Holy Drinker starts off with a lot of nice dissonances and improvised solos, somewhere between Opeth, free jazz and 70s progrock. The Wilson-typical non-conform, big-sounding, dissonant chord changes alternate with a surprisingly rocking riff and improvisations throughout the song. The arrangement is so full of luscious old-school prog sounds, it’s a sheer delight. (7/10)
Despite being the shortest track on the album, The Pin Drop is packed with interesting different sections. From a rather Floydian/Dogs-like high-pitched melody over the now usual sax solo to an intense and full chorus. It’s almost refreshing to a ‘short’ track that still is packed with great sections and melodies. (8/10)
We’re back in long-track terrain with The Watchmaker. I really like the acoustic guitar arrangement and the almost medieval sounding beginning minutes. The emphasis has been placed on the vocals and lyrics here, telling the story of the titular watchmaker. Afterwards it’s back to another long improvisational section before calming down with a piano and vocals interlude that gradually grows in orchestration and eventually explores some unexpected harmonies in the songs otherwise more as pleasant-sounding established musical content. (7/10)
The final song and title track of the album The Raven That Refused to Sing draws the listener in with its foreboding piano chords and vocal melodies. I never expected Mr Wilson to use autotune in his entire career but in this song it used perfectly as the ‘voice’ of the Raven, you have to check that out! Emotionally, for me, this is the most beautiful song of the album, just by way the piano, strings, melody, harmony and lyrics form a coherent story without being too pathetic or generic. To some it might sound cheesy if you listen to it out of context, but as a finisher to that particular album it is perfect. It sounds like you arrive at a destination that has been ‘talked’ about before throughout the songs, like you have been waiting to finally get there, or maybe just like arriving home. It feels like the end of a long and intense movie or of a long journey, or maybe even the end of your own life. But that might be just me. (9/10)
Sound & Production
Now, we all know that Steven Wilson likes 70s progrock. Throughout his musical career he has shown this influence time and time again and in this album it is the most obvious, especially with the arrangement and selection of instruments like the Mellotron and the Hammond organ to flutes and saxes reminiscent of bands like King Crimson and Jethro Tull. But it never feels like an imitation or a superficial rip-off of that era, more like an hommage or even an advancement.
The sound quality is superb. Not only does it sport a very high dynamic range and crisp sound, but the coherence, how the instruments complement each other, is perfect and seemingly effortless. It is easy to forget that you’re listening to a record that has been painstakingly produced and processed and experience the music without thinking about sound production. You can hear that, in contrast to Wilson’s previous solo albums, this one has a whole band playing together and reacting to each other resulting in a very organic sound, subliminally reminding me of the 70s and times before overdubs were common. (9/10)
The Final Judgement
Steven Wilson’s third solo album is a sonic feast and a musical journey worth taking, not only for the retro-prog listener, but also for anybody willing to think outside of the (musical) box.
–Further listening: Heritage by Opeth, Blackfield by Blackfield, Grace for Drowning and Insurgentes by Steven Wilson BTW This is my first written review. Tell me what you think or what can be better. Official Website: http://stevenwilsonhq.com/ Music Video The Raven… : http://youtu.be/n8sLcvWG1M4 Ghost Story Music Video: http://youtu.be/meopl_-AHa8