Thursday, February 21, 2013

The dark wings of the raven deliver Steven Wilson's finest solo album

Those who aren't familiar with this prog rock mastermind best stick their nose in a book and read up on Steven Wilson. Best known as the brains behind prog rock heroes Porcupine Tree, Wilson delivers for our pleasure his third solo album, The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories). 

Those who don't know better might confuse it for a book title, but those who do know the two mediums have their similarities. For Raven, Wilson has designed each song to tell a standalone story, much like chapters in a book, and each story focuses on some type of supernatural or occult element. There are tales of murder, death, regret, longing, and detailed character sketches to top it all off.

And it's not just the lyrics that are supernatural; the skill involved in the musicianship is pretty otherworldly itself. One of the biggest upgrades between this album and his two previous solo albums is that he now has the most talented backing band behind him he's ever had. Famed English axeman Guthrie Govan handles guitar duties, and provides a level of skill and technicality rarely seen in any of Wilson's works. Adding to that confection is esteemed German drummer Marco Minneman, but Theo Travis's contributions are also integral. Travis plays a variety of instruments, including flutes, clarinets, and saxophones, which helps give Raven its signature sound.

Wilson's compositions haven't been very technical compared to most progressive rock band, but as Wilson explained to Anil Prasad on, this album marks the first time he's written instrumental material that is beyond his own skill level. The result couldn't have been more sublime. Orgasmic guitar solos dripping with pomp and splendor, fluid basslines, exotic flute, horn, and saxophone solos, elements of jazz fusion -- it's all there, and Wilson has arranged it like a master craftsman.

Much of the buzz has centered around opening track "Luminol," and for good reason. The song's backbone is its flowing and effusive bassline, which has been a typical theme in many of his works with Porcupine Tree, but it's been awhile since he's written one this effective. The character sketch is pretty detailed; Wilson describes the central character as an aged and wizened old man, strumming a guitar, playing songs he knew from long ago from dusty scratched LPs, but not scoring many style points while doing it.  Although the track includes a litany of solos from various instruments, its keynote characteristic is Govan's majestic and flowing solo on the guitar. The technical virtuosity in his playing is obvious and undeniable, but never feels gaudy or overblown.

Many of Wilson's previous works, including Grace for Drowning, are heavily influenced by the 70s prog tradition, and Raven is no exception. Raven is not as depressingly dreary or murky as Grace for Drowning, but its influences often lead to many tracks possessing a sweeping and grandiose feel. "Luminol" is no exception. But even more bombastic is "The Holy Drinker," the busiest, most dynamic, and most intricate of Raven's compositions. The army of keyboards and Hammond organs get a major workout here, while the story focuses on a man whose indulgences bring about his ruin. At least he's got an awesome soundtrack to do it to. The coda features a series of menacing King Crimson influenced scales, while Marco Minneman goes nuts with his pedal and crash cymbal. This passage will most certainly have you cranking up your volume knob.

"Drive Home," meanwhile, is much more subdued and serene, the perfect soundtrack to gazing into the starry night sky. Its atmospheric sweeps and cool washes calm the mind after the opening blast of "Luminol," and generates a sense of spaciness often associated with Pink Floyd. "The Pin Drop" is the least notable of Raven's tracks, but is also one of the most frenetic. It delivers the furor of a driving rainstorm, while also being the most jazz influenced with its volley of erratic horn and trumpet solos.

In terms of storytelling, however, "The Watchmaker" is one of Wilson's most haunting tracks. With its focus on gentle acoustic guitar and lonely, forlorn flute solos, it truly feels like a storybook come to life. Thematically, this is the album's most disturbing and brooding track, which focuses on an elderly couple who meet a grisly end. But it becomes downright eerie thanks to the detailed description Wilson gives of the watchmaker's anguish at having led a wasted life.

Finally, the title suite closes out the album on a haunting note. On the surface it's a sparse piano ballad, but Wilson gives it layers of depth with heartfelt lyrics and minor soul overtones,  The soul influence was something he and Mikael Akerfeldt began playing around with on "Ljudet Innan" from last year's Storm Corrosion album, but he uses it much more effectively here. It all adds up to a sensitive,  touching, and emotionally poignant finale that expresses a profound sense of loss and longing.

His two previous projects, 2011's Grace for Drowning and 2012's Storm Corrosion were brilliant but flawed efforts, which showcased Wilson's intellect while feeling self indulgent. Raven tops those efforts and is at least as impressive as the last couple of Porcupine Tree albums. His stunning composition skills are matched by phenomenal instrumentation, and his method of structuring the album around individual stories makes each song fresh and unique. While it's still early, Raven is easily the best album of 2013 so far, and a work well deserving of serious study.

Score: 94/100

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