It’s always a treat to attend a Steven Wilson listening session. You’re in a professional studio with a killer 5.1 surround system — it’s been Avatar Studios in NYC the last two times, most recently this past Tuesday, January 15th– and get immersed in the full listening experience. Wilson is someone who still believes in the power of the album. He records songs that fit together as a whole while still being easily digestible individually. He offers regular stereo and souped up surround sound versions of his albums, and his recent live Blu-ray release Get All You Deserve was recorded to the best possible standards.
His third solo album The Raven That Refused To Sing (and other stories) follows along the dark and moody path he has trod before but with a newer approach. Insurgentes was influenced by post-punk and shoegazer sounds, while his last album, the Grammy-nominated Grace For Drowning, was an epic, genre-defying, often King Crimson-inspired album with ambient, noise and experimental sounds playing a big role amid the hard rock, psychedelic and prog template invoked in previous projects, including those by his beloved Porcupine Tree. Due out February 25th, The Raven… imbues similarly moody soundscapes with gritty rock and jazz energy in many places. It makes sense given that this is the first album that Wilson has fully recorded live, utilizing the players from his last solo tour: guitarist Guthrie Govan, bassist/Chapman Stick player Nick Beggs, keyboardist Adam Holzman, flautist/saxophonist/clarinetist Theo Travis and drummer Marco Minnemann.
Like Wilson’s other work, this album is influenced by classic progressive and electronic music but enlivened with fresh ideas. Of note, Alan Parsons engineered the album at East West Studios, where the Beach Boys recorded Pet Sounds, and the original mellotron from In The Court Of The Crimson King was used. These new solo songs comprise many different sections, but they are often based upon simple motifs that are fleshed out through the embellishments and performances of all the band members, who add their own personal touches to each section. That’s not to say there’s a lot of overindulgence here. In fact, the playing is tasteful and expansive without making the tunes feel like extended jams. Steven Wilson has always been thoughtful about song structure, and there’s still plenty of sophistication here.
Those are my initial impressions after only one listen; there will be way more to discuss on subsequent listens. I asked some of the attendees to also offer their initial thoughts, and here they are.
Jordan Rudess, keyboardist for Dream Theater and solo artist: “I was telling Steven that coming to his album release parties is probably the highlight of my audio year. It’s always such an adventure, and this album is surprising with some of the directions he went in. He has some amazing players who all have a chance to really breath and do their magic stuff. To me, it’s got the perfect Crosby, Stills & Nash/Jethro Tull/King Crimson mix, and other stuff too. I leave here completely happy, my ears are content and I look forward to getting a copy.”
Mike Mettler, editor-in-chief for Sound+Vision: “I think the fact that the band played live in the studio comes across really well. The intuitive interplay that musicians of this caliber have…they basically cultivated it on tour for Steven’s previous record. You could actually see them meshing together in ways that even when Steven was onstage, he would stop what he was doing to watch them because clearly he had never seen it. You could really tell this was a special group, and for him to record this live was monumental for him because he’s never done it before. You can hear the way that these guys work together, and in a 5.1 [surround sound] setting, there’s no listening to this record in stereo. You wouldn’t want to. You would miss half of the experience.”
James Rotondi, musician and journalist: “It is not a little album. It is a really ambitious, big picture album with a lot of epic arrangements and pretty stunning musicianship. I think taken as a whole with the artwork and the spooky, supernatural short stories, it has a powerful effect.”