Steven Wilson: The Raven That Refused to Sing (and other stories)
In taking the '70s prog influences that were present on Grace for Drowning and blowing them up, Steven Wilson has made what is easily the most "prog" release of his storied career.
When Steven Wilson released his first "official" solo album, Insurgentes, in 2008, it felt like a massive breath of fresh air. Wilson, whose multi-project career ranges from the ambient/drone of Bass Communion to the prog pop/rock of Blackfield, has long been pigeonholed as a "prog" musician, due in large part to the global popularity of his most well known band, Porcupine Tree. But while progressive rock has always been a part of his musical vocabulary, stylistically he has never been exclusively tied to the genre. His first musical outlet, the art-rock duo No-Man, isn't the type of affair to elicit comparisons to Pink Floyd or any other classic prog band—though this, of course, didn't stop him from calling in Robert Fripp to provide some of his famed "Frippertronics" on their 1994 breakthrough Flowermouth. Yet the constant adoration of Wilson as a prog god has led to some reductive views of his career; many of his diehard fans have undoubtedly picked up a No-Man or Bass Communion album at a record store merely because it was shelved with all the other Porcupine Tree albums. In coming off of Porcupine Tree's most prog-sounding (and best) album, Fear of a Blank Planet, Wilson clearly felt the need to explore musical styles beyond the prog he was (and still is) always expected to play.
Insurgentes, to this day the best of Wilson's solo work, is heavily influenced by post-punk and shoegaze, with elements of noise, drone, and singer/songwriter piano balladry thrown in for good measure. It wasn't devoid of prog—the crazed "No Twilight in the Courts of the Sun" is as King Crimson-remniscient as anything he's ever written—but it sounded like he was finally saying what he wanted to say, without being encumbered by the expectations of fans or the input of other band members. On his sophomore record Grace for Drowning, he reined in some of the harsh elements of Insurgentes—meaning away with the guitar drones and bursts of noise—and rewound things back a decade to the '70s, where the stylings of Floyd, Crimson, and Yes abound. Wilson's penchant for dark, Lynchian murkiness (especially evident in the video for "Remainder the Black Dog") kept things from veering too far into prog nirvana, but what Grace for Drowning made clear was that despite what Insurgentes may have led some to believe in 2008, prog is still a major part of his compositional DNA.
With The Raven That Refused to Sing (and other stories), his third solo outing, it's now clear that prog is not only still around; it may just be the dominant trait. With three of the six songs here clocking in at over ten minutes, The Raven That Refused to Sing is structured like a classic progressive rock album, with an even balance of long and short tracks. "Luminol", the bass-heavy jazz fusion opener, starts the record off with a long jam, and the gloomy title cut concludes things with a Poe-like love for the macabre. Like many of prog's essential recordings, there's also a concept behind all this; Wilson cites the ghost stories of the early 19th century as literary influences to the ghost stories that make up the lyrical matter of each of the six tracks. There's a nice cohesion provided by this narrative arc, though the individual songs are not themselves related in terms of story.
These traits—long-form composition, concept albums, an overall morose demeanor—are nothing new to Wilson's career. Where he really makes a significant stride forward is the band effort present here. In the end, The Raven That Refused to Sing isn't really a solo record in the strict sense, especially considering that he specifically tailored the music to the backing musicians that play here. "Luminol" was first played live on the tour for Grace for Drowning, and while it was received warmly, it differed considerably from the material from his first two solo albums. Its jam-heavy composition made it almost like a long interlude from the main show, and what was most impressive about the track wasn't Wilson, but rather the musicians surrounding him. As a frontman he remained energetic on stage, but suddenly the spotlight—something he admittedly never was keen on in the first place—was shining on a group of people, not one man. This is very much still present on The Raven That Refused to Sing; each track plays like a collaboration, despite Wilson's name being the only one under the "written by" credits. While he has always been shaped by who he is collaborating with at a particular time—Tim Bowness of No-Man leads him down rabbit-trails that Aviv Geffen of Blackfield never would—but here the gears in his mind appear to be set toward a communal mindset that's uniquely different from anything else he's done before. Watching Wilson grow into this communitarian way of writing music has been marvelous to watch; as a producer and as a guitar player he's improved by leagues since the days of On the Sunday of Life..., Porcupine Tree's tongue-in-cheek 1991 debut.
The results of this shift are at times invigorating. "The Holy Drinker", a sort of spiritual successor to "No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun", is one of the most challenging things Wilson has ever written, and it hits it out of the ballpark as far as nailing the MO of The Raven That Refused to Sing is concerned. There's liberal usage of electron organ, mellotron, and noodling guitar; fortunately, this doesn't amount to a complete masturbatory excess, a thing that could easily be said for parts of Wilson's oeuvre. (There is a moment where the guitar sounds uncomfortably close to Dream Theater, but fortunately it's a brief one.) Each musician here plays at maximum energy, producing what is undoubtedly going to be a tour de force live performance. Its comparatively mellow counterpoint, the Jethro Tull-esque "The Watchmaker", spins a very Poe-like tale of a meticulous watchmaker who murders his wife. That track is a perfect, nuanced case of a tranquil/heavy balance; its first four minutes are the album at its most beautiful—in, of course, a very dark way. "Luminol", the first of the three long pieces, is full-on jazz fusion, like a madcap mixture of Al Di Meola and Yes.
Yet as strong as these three long tracks are, they aren't enough to compensate for the middling shorter songs sandwiched in between them. "The Raven That Refused to Sing" is a solid closing tome; Wilson has always excelled at piano ballads, and the grey-tinged melancholy of the title cut it as good an example as any of his ability to channel inner despair into an utterly beautiful result. "Drive Home" and "The Pin Drop", however, are less successful; the chorus of the former harkens to the Robbie Williams sappiness of Porcupine Tree's superior "Lazarus", and the latter sounds like a reworked Blackfield B-side. "The Pin Drop" is also another example of Wilson's love for (read: over-reliance on) the Dsus2 chord on the guitar, a chord which his guitar-playing fans—there are many, based on the growing Ultimate-Guitar tab page devoted to Porcupine Tree—have likely noticed to be a recurring theme in his music. Save for "The Raven That Refused to Sing", the shorter songs on the album sap momentum from the propulsive jams that make up the core of the record.
The Raven That Refused to Sing (and other stories) is, then, one step forward and another back for Wilson as a solo artist. Whereas Insurgentes and to a slightly lesser extent Grace for Drowning were cases of him incorporating all the myriad elements of his musical persona into one cohesive—albeit jarring—sonic tapestry, The Raven That Refused to Sing finds this British polymath fully immersing himself in one genre, ironically enough the very genre Insurgentes seemed bent on disassociating himself from. Of course, the key distinction at play here is the difference between being "progressive" and being "prog"; for much of his career, Wilson has been both, but with this record he's edging strongly toward the former, more than he ever has with Porcupine Tree. He hasn't bucked his love for song-oriented material, as "Drive Home" and "The Pin Drop" can attest, but here that's precisely the problem. Rather than seamlessly incorporating styles and genres into one, he opts for basic juxtapositions: long/short, tranquil/frenetic, simple/complex.
In this way The Raven That Refused to Sing presents two corresponding visions of Wilson: one where he is the loose-goosey jam musician, and the other where he is the technically proficient prog balladeer. Both of these things have long been known about him; thus, there needs to be more than restatement of these things. Since this is prog release, some pretentious philosophizing is helpful in elucidating the plight of this otherwise great record; to borrow Hegelian language, Wilson needs to move beyond thesis and antithesis into the realm of synthesis. He's wowed us with it before, and for all the steps forward made by The Raven That Refused to Sing, there are some things that aren't better left behind.