Review Summary: In short, Steven Wilson’s “jazz” album, where he lays back the producer and composer flags a bit to showcase the power of his tastefully chosen new band.
It’s hard to tell whether Steven Wilson is a more of a musician or of an audiophile. What’s certain is that in recent times he has gathered the most impressive following of both prog rockers who might still be crying over the demise of The Mars Volta and other audiophiles who admire his skill to compose rock-solid water-fluid songs, or rip off Pink Floyd and still make it somewhat amazing, or his wide range of influences and projects--not to mention his actual genius as a producer (whatever he’s doing, he’s always winning the loudness war).
It’s important to note, however, that in all his projects he’s always the one getting the most recognition--and this is precisely his most admirable quality: love him or hate him, Wilson has managed to always remain completely faithful to his visions (and likely his ego) and transform his will into a tangible reality, earning the most intense fans along the way. His expertise in music and audio could conceivably someday turn a great movie into a masterpiece, yet you’ll never see his music in a film unless it’s his own film
(which he has
written and pseudoscored with Deadwing
). The vibe of a solitary soul isn’t a coincidence: his career has always given an aura of eyes locked into his own path.
It’s ironic how it seems, then, that it is in his solo project--the first one with his own name after three pseudonyms--that Wilson finds (again) the joys of playing in a band. Even The Raven that Refused To Sing (and Other Stories)
’s promotional material is pretty much videos in youtube of Wilson and his bandmates chilling out, and having fun in the studio.
Wilson seems pretty enticed with the musicians he’s chosen for his solo band. But however excited he is, it’s hardly enough: the man’s excellent taste for music comes through even stronger in the people he’s chosen (I know a few who call Gavin Harrison the best drummer right now; they’ll be happy to know that Marco Minnemann has no trouble measuring up to him) and these talented bunch have no problems delivering their chops with perfect execution--in fact it often seems that it is these very chops that are guiding the music. It’s not far-fetched to assume that the revelation of the capabilities of his new band is the motive for this quickly arrived follow-up to the super promoted Grace for Drowning
The album wastes no time in showcasing this and opens up with Luminol
, a massive opening statement. Luminol
is every prog fan dream come true: it opens up with the instruments following the drums in short outbursts before exploding into Rush-esque display of musicianship with just a quick Yes-like interlude of the voice before quieting down into a simpler piece containing the bulk of lyrics, which builds into a very much Steven Wilson wall of sound, which finally builds again into the first segment for some more virtuoso showing to close it all up. The song’s amazing; it has no fear of throwing all its riff and quirks violently at you, all the while keeping a perfect sense of flow seldom seen in songs over twelve minutes long.
gets the listener’s hopes just too high. The album is structured so that a shorter song follows each longer one, as if to give a breather and glue the behemoths together, which might remind the listener a bit of Mono. Sadly, in this case it isn’t as effective. Drive Home
comes to a heartfelt emotional climax but it’s mostly Wilson clichés in their least interesting; The Pin Drop
is easily the least good (“worst”) song in the album, and feels a lot like filler, though thankfully it’s also the shortest song.
Then again it doesn’t help them that the album co-centerpiece sits between them. The Holy Drinker
is another grandiose prog piece, and it deals with almost everything that Luminol
didn’t cover before. A vaguely ominous yet catchy opening with eastern soloing accentuations will make metal heads headbang and general audiophiles dance in their seat before thinking "definitely Opeth". After this poignant intro the song eases up into a more subdued verse with keyboards playing reminiscent of Led Zeppelin and a vocal chorus accentuated by an also Akerfeldt-influenced start-and-stop riff. In the end, after more instrumental athletics and the obligatory unsettling quiet interlude, this same powerful riff will return to a coda coupled with rising sound that envelops one deep into a sense of evil and power, where the image of a wicked deity rising wouldn’t be far off. It’s glorious, to say the least.
It should be clear by now that, unlike his solo debut, Steven Wilson is playing his gambles to one main genre here, but prog and a little jazz apart, other influences and hints of his other endeavors, such as his Cover Versions
) become visible once in awhile. This is particularly noticeable in the closing third, where once again Wilson’s love of melancholy and nostalgia makes itself evident. The title track wraps a very fast-paced album with Wilson singing wistfully “Sing to me… sing to me…”
over piano. It continues into threaded territory, “I’m afraid to love”
, but a glimmer of will is soon added “but just because I’m weak you can steal my dream”
. The song finally climaxes on a sweet longing “Sing to me raven, I miss you so much”
imbedding a final sense of the beauty of longing, and how everything will be alright in the end (because "if it isn’t alright, it isn’t the end").
However, despite being a fitting end, it doesn’t dispel one of the main points of controversy in this artist’s career: his lyrics. Though the “(Other Stories)” in the title gives a sense of wonder and the possibility of poignant imagery, the emotions and images here still come the clearest by works of the instrumentals. Hell, even the mires and obvious show-offs have more conjuring power that most of the lyrics, even when they come just
at the tip of becoming predictable and a bit boring (especially the otherwise mental keyboard/flute tradeoffs). Steven Wilson’s words still don’t measure up to the grandeur of his ideas and compositional ambitions, and his voice usually backs the emotion of the music best with his by now well-known "duruduru duridairai"s. If detractors and old-school prog fans keep playing the King Crimson Copy card, I can only keep remembering everyone the pivotal importance of Peter Sinfield in said band's first era.
And deep down, it might just be because Steven Wilson has no other stories
to tell, apart from the one: his story of love for music
. Much like Quentin Tarantino, Wilson makes great music not because he harbors something deep inside him that he must channel, but because he really, really loves music. Both artists’ works are the most gorgeous collages of clichés and apocryphal moments, with at heart the warm love of a devotee of the medium. Except in The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)
the playing betrays a slightly different love that the love of music: the love for playing itself.
This is Steven Wilson’s jazz album: that one jazz album that you buy after being blown away by the performance of the band only to find disappointingly that the studio counterparts have a little something missing from them. I said at the beginning that the one area where Wilson’s undeniably a genius is in producing. The jazz album analogy fits even here: while still quite above average in its production--and it would be a sin for it not to be, seeing as Alan Parsons of Pink Floyd fame was involved--the walls of sound on Drive Home
and The Pin Drop
are definitely not as impressive as Significant Other
, and all thorough the record the center of gravity is the playing, as opposed to the composition or the production. To wit: as great as Luminol
is, it still falls short of the incarnation that was played here in Mexico City (available here for your listening pleasure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3MpGBwGdVk ) almost a year before. The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)
is very much a good record: it just happens that it is a record made to tour
There was a promise in the best moments of Insurgentes
, underneath each deliciously crafted texture and each marksman-precision guitar strum. A promise to create an ultimate work of integration from the thousand faces of Steven Wilson's output into a single identity, from No-man's sunday evening melancholy to the experimental crunch of Unreleased Electronic Music
. This isn't that promise: it's just a collection of fantastic songs.