A Preview Of Steven Wilson’s “The Raven That Refused To Sing (and other stories)”

Steven Wilson (at right) gets a visit from an old friend,
Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess.
(Photo ©2013 by Bryan Reesman.)

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.

Long-time Steven Wilson supporter Mike Mettler wants you to read Sound+Vision. Now.
(Photo ©2013 by Bryan Reesman.)

The Raven That Refused To Sing (and other stories) is comprised of six songs ranging from 5 to 12 minutes. The opening track “Luminol” launches into insistent rhythms and flute playing that made me think of Ozric Tentacles, who were inspired by ’70s space rockers Gong. In fact, this track has a ’70s fusion vibe throughout part of it, and other than a simultaneously heavy and heavenly chorus singing two lines near the beginning, there are no lyrics until halfway through the 10-minute track. Conversely, the dreamy, slow-moving “Drive Home” features delicate acoustic guitar, quiet bass and gently sweeping synth strings that complement the somber singing. “The Holy Drinker” serves up an ominous, psychedelic opening with sax soloing, funky verses with big rock chords and a dark, distorted coda that sounds like Black Sabbath by way of Robert Fripp. “The Pin Drop” is an ethereal yet driving piece which features fast, light guitar riffing and ghostly vocals. “The Watchmaker” starts with acoustic guitar and singing and gently insinuates other instruments into the mix. The drums work their way in as a crescendo builds to the point where the whole band kicks the song into the next gear. Near the end, it delves into dark, Crimson-ish territory with some underlying metallic aggression, perhaps a but of aural residue left over from Wilson’s past producing efforts for Opeth. The gentle title track closes out the album with vocals, piano and quiet axework and drumming that eventually swells to a big finish. While the album as a whole has the trademark Steven Wilson melancholia — the wounded characters in the supernatural-themed songs are dealing with different dilemmas and emotional crises — the final song is both solemn and hopeful.

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.

MusicPlayers.com editor Scott Kahn (left) and musician and journalist James Rotondi show you how they feel about the new Steven Wilson album.
(Photo ©2013 by Bryan Reesman.)

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.”

A relaxed vibe after the sneak preview.
(Photo ©2013 by Bryan Reesman.)

One Response

  1. Maria Reesman

    It’s amazing the amount of Genre that you cover..now adding great photos for rounding the experience of reading your articles! Visuals are essential for total understanding and appreciation!


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