Review Summary: Steven Wilson takes a stab at nostalgia, but The Raven That Refused to Sing ends up sounding more like a cheap knock-off than a respectful homage
Steven Wilson is a bit of a dick, and you all know it.
Of course, it would be unfair to let one's personal opinion of a musician cloud their judgement of his music, and for many years I can comfortably state that I have not let my disliking of Wilson's attitude affect my opinion of his music. In fact, his discography has been a staple of my personal palette ever since I discovered him some time ago; unusually, it never really bugged me much at all that the guy creating the music I so dearly loved was a bit of a knob. Because to be quite honest, his creations were brilliant regardless. There was something so honest and up-front and emotional about his work, both inside and outside of Porcupine Tree, that the listener just simply forgot. It just didn't matter. Of course it could be pretentious and indulgent and tiresome at times, but right up through the release of Grace for Drowning
, (Wilson's most pretentious and indulgent and tiresome release at the time) there was a soul and passion and honesty throughout the proggiest and the poppiest of his spectrum that just made the songs shine. I may question the stupid drivel that Wilson spews when speaking in interviews, but I never questioned his musical decisions for a moment, because I knew it all had to make sense to him. He was following his heart, and his listeners were following too.
The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories)
, however, I cannot bring myself to understand. I said I didn't let Wilson's personality cloud my judgement of his music and this was true, and perhaps in part because Wilson greatly left his own idiocy out of his songs. That is not the case here. Raven... is a straight-up 'prog' album; only one cut ventures below the 7-minute marker, and most of the longer cuts are typical winding prog epics, segment after segment of technicality and instrumental wankery. What I'm trying to say is, Raven...
is King Crimson without the King Crimson. King Crimson were fresh and exciting – this feels old and stale. Not only have we heard it before from the countless prog bands this album not only pays homage to but flat-out imitates, but, damnit, we've heard it from Wilson himself before too. Raven...
feels like little more than Grace for Drowning Part II
. This wouldn't be such a bad thing if the former was nearly as fresh or soulful or inspired as the latter, but it quite frankly isn't. We've heard this before, and we've heard it better.
It's also difficult not to question some of Wilson's musical decisions here. On one of his many rambling, pretentious rants, the star of our show claimed that he didn't like overlong 'prog' music that wound through endless, directionless segments and pieces. Yes, that's right, Steven Wilson said he didn't like
long prog songs. In a way, at the time, I bought this, because there's always been a unique pop sensibility to Wilson's discography that has really made his music all the more alluring. What would In Absentia
have been without 'Trains' or 'Blackest Eyes?' What would The Sky Moves Sideways
have been without glorious melodies like those in 'Stars Die' or 'The Moon Touches Your Shoulder?' With this in mind, I thought yes, I can believe you here Steven, against the odds. So why on earth, then, is Raven...
seemingly a complete homage to everything we just quoted Wilson supposedly hating? Opener 'Luminol' trudges through segment after segment of proggy indulgence exactly as previously described. It's not a bad track; technically it's all very nifty and there's some neat melodies too, but it just doesn't make any sense. Regardless, it's not exactly an outstanding track either; it's a prog track. We've heard it before, we've heard it better, and we'll hear it again.
And the album never lifts off from here either. It's overflowing with nifty but totally soulless musical wankery; songs like 'The Holy Drinker' and 'The Watchmaker' just drag on and on and on, wavering closer to cheap rip-off than nostalgic homage to their influences. It's disappointing to say the least from an artist who's been twice as engaging at twice the track length. Wilson tries to play his other strengths too, but somehow just falls flat on his face; 'Drive Home' and 'The Raven That Refused to Sing' just seem to lack the heart and soul that would make them the emotional and atmospheric adventures they should have been, and while 'The Pin Drop' should be utilizing Wilson's ability to whip up catchy, summery guitar lines as a stark juxtaposition to the dark nature of the record and indeed other parts of the song, it's just ripping off an old Porcupine Tree B-side and tacking some new melodies on it.
Too much instrumental wankery, a lack of emotion and an overriding sense of 'this has been done before' certainly don't make for a bad album, but they do make for the first truly uninteresting thing Wilson has ever recorded. It's confusing and frustrating, especially when the flaws of the album seem to be caused by Wilson backtracking on everything he's so passionately stood up for before, but, looking back, I suppose this is to be expected. This isn't the first time Wilson's contradicted himself. From a man who supposedly despises the commercialization of the music industry and artists who are “just in it for the money,” one has to question the motivation behind him releasing jaw-droppingly expensive limited editions of every scrap he sends to his record label? And why else would a man who isn't at all swayed by modern fads and styles show up to a concert wearing a crop top (yes, a crop top) if he wasn't trying to start or follow some sort of trend?
What I'm getting at is that maybe Wilson is loosing touch with his own morals and musical decisions, and maybe this confusion is the cause of this strange little hiccup in Wilson's repertoire. Why is a man so confident in his own sound trying so hard to sound like someone else? Why drop everything that made his own music his own in some strange attempt to replicate the magic of other bands? It's just...weird. We can only hope that Raven...
is a simple fluke, and that Steven will be able to re-capture his musical brilliance in the next installment in a series that surely cannot be over just yet.