[10 January 2014]
“I don’t really do short,” Steven Wilson confessed to the audience of his packed Royal Albert Hall show at the end of October 2013. He also notes the irony of the Drive Home EP, which both stands in as The Raven that Refused to Sing/’s “single” release and contains over an hour of music. The audience responded to Wilson’s quips with hearty laughter; undoubtedly, these fans have run through their own playbooks of jokes about the lengthiness of the progressive rock albums cluttering their shelves and iTunes libraries. Excepting the music of Blackfield and No-Man, two of Steven Wilson’s more popular projects, one is most likely to hear Wilson indulging his passion for expansive, complex songwriting, be it the layered drones of Bass Communion or the progressive rock stylings of his solo career and his tenure as the frontman of Porcupine Tree, arguably the most important prog band of the past decade.
Drive Home admirably showcases Wilson’s preference to let songs go on for as long as they need to, burning through the shortest material speedily. The title cut is truncated from its eight-minute studio cut to a radio-friendly four-and-a-half minutes; it’s still not likely to occupy the top 40 by any stretch of the imagination, but its vocal harmonies and legato guitar make a much stronger impression in their concise runtime. To many prog fans, the notion of an “edited” version comes across as a death sentence, which may perhaps be the case for some of the songs Wilson has shortened in the past (particularly “Raider II” from Grace for Drowning, though admittedly he shortened it from 24 to a still-formidable 15 minutes), but “Drive Home” actually needs such subtraction. Along with “The Pin Drop”, the other of Raven‘s two weak tracks, “Drive Home” is a pop song at its core, unlike the jazz fusion noodling that makes up a majority of the LP. It’s unsurprising, then, that it fares better as a four-minute pop song than the eight-minute art-rock ballad it is on Raven. This fidelity to the true quality of a track is also what makes the orchestral version of Raven‘s title cut so compelling here: just as Wilson brings out the real pop song in the embellished eight minutes of “Drive Home,” he strips away the band instrumentation from “The Raven that Refused to Sing” and reveals it as the gorgeous, melancholic, frail lamentation that it is. It’s no surprise that it was recently used in the trailer for a CGI-heavy action film; just as the haunting-if-overused “Mad World” works so well against jarringly violent footage, the delicate “The Raven that Refused to Sing” makes the fragile resound with grandeur.
The other new song featured on the EP is “The Birthday Party”, a kinetic jam that was wisely excluded from the final version of Raven, though it’s a shame it had to be that way. In their fantastic Tiny Desk concert for NPR, the young American fusion jazz outfit Father Figures demonstrated the value of reining in jazz jams to shorter lengths, which compresses and highlights the hooks and riffs of the songs in a punchy way. “The Birthday Party” follows such a principle, and in so doing becomes one of the most memorable products of the Raven sessions. The track’s interplay of staccato blasts amidst frequently shifting time signatures signals Wilson’s continued push into continually more knotty songwriting. Wilson has in the past distanced himself from the “guitar hero” label that many of prog’s leading guitarists—John Petrucci of Dream Theater, particularly—have worn with a degree of pride; “I feel like a fake because I’m not a great guitarist,” he told Anil Prasad. If “The Birthday Party” is any indication, he’s getting nearer to that status with each successive record.
The bulk of Drive Home, however, is not its new studio material but rather its live cuts. Almost all of Raven is represented live on this EP, and impressively so. “Every time one of us steps up to take a solo,” Wilson says of the live experience to me earlier this year in my PopMatters interview with him, “It’s a new conversation. All of that makes the delight of the performance side unpredictable, exciting, exhilarating, and a lot more inspiring for me than other performances have been for me in many years.” Songs like “The Holy Drinker” and “The Watchmaker” are built for embellishment, and Wilson’s carefully selected band gives them the instrumental love they need, providing both atmosphere and complexity in spades. No one looking for a dizzying interplay of notes on a staff will leave empty-handed or unsatisfied.
“This feels like a beginning,” Wilson told the Royal Albert Hall crowd. If Drive Home is any indication, what’s to come is more of the uncompromising songwriting that he’s been come to be known for.