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British musician Steven Wilson is gaining a growing reputation in the industry, particularly at the Progressive Rock end of things, not just for his own work but also his massive abilities in surround mixes (he's just been working on the King Crimson back catalogue and the recent reissue of Jethro Tulls Thick as a Brick and the new TAAB 2), his talent as a producer, and his all-round omnipresence in Prog magazine (he won Idol of the year again, as well as tour of the year). His 'main' band Porcupine Tree are on a prolonged break, and apart from a bit of dabbling on Blackfield's new album (another long-standing collaboration) and making some more Bass Communion compositions (his own experimental ambient noise project), he's mainly been concentrating on his actual solo project. The Raven That Refused to Sing is the third and most recent album, released on the 25th of February 2013. Significant to me as it was my birthday!
Is it wrong for an album about murders, deaths and hauntings to be uplifting? This is something I've been struggling with (well, only a little bit) since I first set ears on this album. I've been a fan of Wilson's various projects for a few years now, and this sort of subject area is his pet theme, so it's not a surprise apart from the absence of references to serial killers.... But where the music is concerned there is a barely concealed joy going on that runs completely against the words. I have a feeling that the reason for this has a lot to do with his band, as this album is the first that he has written specifically for musicians that he considers to be far more skilled than he is. That sounds a strange thing to say, but he has up to now apparently always written material that he is capable of playing himself. This new move has been born out of the touring process, with the musicians that he has been able to gather around him inspiring him to greater creative heights.
This may be a good place to introduce the artists and their instruments:
Steven Wilson on lead vocals, mellotron, keyboards and guitars, plus bass on Holy Drinker
Marco Minneman on drums and percussion
Guthrie Govan on lead guitar
Nick Beggs on bass, Chapman Stick and backing vocals
Theo Travis on saxophones, flutes and clarinet
Adam Holzman on Fender Rhodes, Hammond organ, piano, Minimoog
The album only has six tracks. Do not be deceived though as the whole album is fifty four and a half minutes long (that's just over eighteen three minute pop songs). Each song has a story behind it, penned by Wilson and featured in the deluxe version of the album. I don't have this so I've had to rely on an interview and explanation in the January issue of Prog magazine, and the lyrics which are printed in the booklet of the album. One track, Luminol, as far as I can remember was pretty much written on tour, as it was premiered during the live shows for the previous album Grace For Drowning. The others were written by him and emailed off to the rest of the band for them to add their contributions, a process that seems to growing more common these days, with the immediacy of the internet allowing freer collaboration between international artists. The album itself was basically recorded in a week at East West Studios in Los Angeles, again for the first time for Wilson as a live band in the studio. It was engineered by the legendary Alan Parsons who was (by all accounts quite happily) persuaded to come out of engineers' retirement for this project, also adding some guitar to The Holy Drinker. Wilson then took it all home to polish it, and to add some strings courtesy of the London Session Orchestra.
The album kicks off quite literally with a storming percussion and bass (drum and bass would give completely the wrong impression!) introduction to the largely instrumental first track. The other instruments soon come in, guitar, flute and keyboards, driving a tumult of rhythm, sound and key changes, until the bridge about half way through when the whole thing slows down for some lounge-tinged melodic vocals and piano. This picks up again after a while, almost dragging itself back to the driving rhythm that speeds itself to the end of the song. The lyric's meaning isn't obvious, but the song refers to a persistent busker, who Wilson suspects that even if he dropped dead would still be back at his post the next day. Maybe the heavy, dragging section between the slower bridge and the return to the speeding rhythm are referring to this? Whether this is the case or not, I love the energy in this piece, and it makes a great opening track to the album.
DRIVE HOME (7:57)
The pace changes completely for this reflective song, which has a more traditional structure of verses and chorus. It is very obviously about bereavement and coming to terms with the loss of a loved one. The explanation is that it is based on a ghost story, where a man is driving along with his wife, looks and finds that she is gone. She died some time before in a road accident and he has never been able to come to terms with it. In this case, although the background is interesting, it's almost redundant as the song is a beautiful encouragement to 'come back to life' for anyone who is grieving, and quite possibly one of the most tender lyrics that Wilson has ever written. The guitar solo by Guthrie Govan that closes the song is an exquisite, soaring masterpiece.
THE HOLY DRINKER (10:13)
We're instantly into more sinister territory with the opening chords of this one, the tense atmosphere building with layers of instruments, bass, bass sax, drums, overlaid with clarinets, guitars and keyboards, until the vocals come in with a temporarily more traditional heavy rock feel. Between verses you're taken off to early 70's jazz prog chord sequences, one glorious chord descent which I love and still can't place (Wilson is a great musical magpie). The story here is of a man who takes on a drinking contest with the devil. Foolish guy, of course he loses...his final demise is a very quiet passage, with the final triumph being a filthy noise from the synths into a long heavy riff to the end. This was most excellent live!
THE PIN DROP (5:05)
Shakespeare's Ophelia (from Hamlet) is a theme behind this one, although here a woman has been left for dead by her husband. As she drifts, dying, downstream on the river, she mourns the life that she will never fulfil. The main musical theme, conversely, is hugely uplifting, and in another context could be an anthemic, feel-good pop-rock song. After the heavy ending of the previous song, the gentle, almost playful guitar and gentle cymbals beneath the plaintive vocals are light relief, and the powerful upbeat chorus adds to the overall positive sound. Lyrically though, the more that I think over the words, the more impact they seem to have - in imagining her thoughts, he has created a picture of someone who is probably delirious, deeply sad, but not angry. The final "I did not hear my heart" almost sounds as if she blames herself for not seeing it coming. It's really quite an affecting song if you let it get under your skin.....
THE WATCHMAKER (11:42)
A tale of murder, a body under the floorboards, and revenge from beyond the grave. It all starts very innocently, pretty guitars, vocals gently recounting the ageing watchmaker's thoughts and circumstances. Musically the song's mood gradually ebbs and flows, referencing Pink Floyd's Shine On You Crazy Diamond at one point. We have beautiful vocal harmonies, and some lovely melodic piano passages. At various points we pause for more of the story, discovering that 50 years marriage was more convenience for him than love, and that "Eliza dear" was only meant to be temporary while he waited for gold. Eventually a Rush-flavoured build-up explodes into a deep, grungy denouement - Eliza dear has returned from the dead to 'keep him company': "Cogs and levers mesh, we are bound in death. Melt the silver down, I'm still inside you!"
THE RAVEN THAT REFUSED TO SING (7:57)
The tragically beautiful title track closes the album. The pace slows right down for the tale of an old man who never got over the death, as a child, of his big sister. I believe the full story tells of him being someone who lives alone on the edge of the village, and is teased and tormented by the local children. The raven is a bird that the man believes sang and made his sister appear, so he captures it and tries to make it sing again. The lyrics themselves tell part of the story, perhaps the most obviously on the album, and are profoundly sad and desperate There's a great deal of vulnerability in Wilson's voice as he sings. He pulls out some of his best and most profound melodic chord changes here, and this is one of the tracks that features the orchestra, who are used to great effect. There is also a solo violinist (Perry Montague-Mason) featured alongside the rest of the band.
This album has been lauded pretty universally by Wilson's fans, many of whom say it's his best work to date, and that it out-does anything he ever produced with Porcupine Tree. For me this is beginning to get a little tired now as there are still many PT songs that I love! This is, however, in my opinion, a masterpiece of an album that is going to be very hard to top. Wilson is not known for singing with a lot of emotion in his voice, but here there is expression of both anger and sadness that is hard to miss. You very much get the impression from his massive workload that music is his life, pride and joy, so it's good to hear some feeling coming through, as well as the technical fruit of a lifetime's obsession and musical sound assimilation!
The musicianship is excellent, and in my opinion, as I said above, it has a joy of creativity and almost playfulness about it that stops the right side of showboating. It would be easy for such skill to degenerate into out-soloing each other, but I think that Wilson's overall creative control, and his colleagues' respect for each other and him, prevents this from happening. Which is a very good thing! We were lucky enough to be able to see the first show of the live tour, a week after the album's release, in Manchester - it was a quite mind-blowing experience and one which we hope very much to be able to experience in October this year. If you like the idea of delving into a new genre, experimental progressive industrial jazz (EPIJ for short, and no idea who first came up with this, but it fits), do have a listen, and it will reward your ears with many, many hours of listening pleasure.
"This 2 disc edition is packaged in a deluxe rigid digibook" (quoth Burning Shed) with 20 pages of illustrations, lyrics and credits.
Disc 1 is the standard CD release, disc 2 contains a short documentary chronicling the recording of the album in LA, and three audio mixes of the album: a high resolution stereo mix which is excellent, and two surround mixes which unfortunately I can't test yet, but I very much look forward to hearing one day when we can afford a surround system! This disc plays in both conventional DVD and Bluray players. Certainly during the playback of the stereo version you get visuals running of some of the art work, edited so that they appear in the moon, with clouds constantly blowing across, it's quite hypnotic. I'm guessing that the surround mixes also feature this. There is a photo gallery from their time at East West studio, and also a gallery of Hajo Mueller's illustrations. I bought my copy direct from Burning Shed, the independent online specialist distributor used by the Kscope label, for £12.99. It's also probably available elsewhere, but this version is a limited release. The standard single CD version is widely available.