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Music Review: Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)

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Steven Wilson’s third – and best – solo album since putting his much better known band Porcupine Tree on indefinite hiatus, is also his most ambitious to date.

Although there are only six new songs on the album, three of them clock in at over 10 minutes, and each are based on original paranormal stories written either by Wilson himself, or with help from Hajo Mueller (who co-wrote the novella length “title” story “The Raven That Refused To Sing”). On the deluxe edition of the CD package, there is even a 128 page hardbound book containing all of the complete, accompanying stories, as well as original drawings by Mueller, in addition to the four discs housed inside.

The good news for any doubters, fearful that Wilson might have gone a reach too far this time, is that The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) is an album that works on numerous levels in spite of itself.

Much of the credit for this has to go to legendary producer Alan Parsons, who was apparently coaxed out of semi-retirement to serve as co-producer (along with Wilson) and engineer for this album.

Parsons unique trademark of recording densely layered music in such a way that you still hear everything from the deepest bass tones to the lightest, most subtle nuance has rarely been better served than it is on this recording. The sound here is absolutely pristine, making for a worthy companion piece to Parsons work on classics like Abbey Road and The Dark Side Of The Moon.

But while Alan Parsons production work compliments Wilson’s songs quite nicely, it never overshadows it. Perhaps the biggest reason that The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) is such a great record, is Wilson’s renewed focus on songwriting.

While both 2009’s Insurgentes and particularly 2011’s Grace For Drowning certainly had their moments, each also had an uneven feel to them – sometimes wildly so. Where the virtuoso-level playing heard on those albums was occasionally dazzling, it just as often fell into the jazz-rock/fusion trap of musicians sounding too much like they are just trying to out-impress one another with their chops.

The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) isn’t completely immune from this either. The intros to both “Luminol” and “The Holy Drinker” sometimes veer a little too close for comfort into Spinal Tap “Jazz Odyssey” territory. The good news is the songs themselves are so strong that such blinding displays of musical technique never threaten to completely overwhelm them.

The other thing that makes this album such a rewarding listen – especially for fans of old-school prog-rock – is the way that Wilson himself wears his own prog influences so proudly on his sleeve.

It’s hard not to hear a song like “Drive Home” for example, without being reminded of the majestic sounding sweep of Steve Hackett’s Voyage Of The Acolyte. Like the best songs from that album, “Drive Home” slowly builds tension as Wilson sings lines like “you need to clear away, all the jetsam in your brain” (love that line!), before hitting its crashing crescendo of soaring guitars and deep, thudding drums. Parsons crystal clear recording is particularly shiny sounding here.

On “The Holy Drinker,” an evil-sounding fusion intro eventually gives way to a grand swell of full blown, mellotron choir vocals that will take prog-rockers through a time warp right back to those old Genesis and King Crimson records. On the liner notes, Wilson goes so far as to proudly confirm that the mellotron heard is the same one used by King Crimson themselves.

If the “stories” on The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) represent a welcome move back towards more traditional songwriting for Wilson, it comes across as more of a natural progression than a radical shift. The music is subtle, dramatic and powerful, sometimes all at once.

Mostly though, the music on this album complements the accompanying stories perfectly. These six songs do exactly what great songs are supposed to do. And the title track may be just about the saddest, most beautifully melancholic song I’ve ever heard…

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • WilsonsVeryCoolHair

    First, you contradict yourself by criticizing Steven Wilson’s previous solo album, which you heavily praised on this site, then you crib a Spinal Tap reference from Tom Johnson — also from elsewhere on this site (yeah, I looked; it sounded too familiar) — then you contradict yourself yet again by praising a subsequent song intro that is in entirely the same vein as the ones you’d previously criticized with the stolen Spinal Tap reference.

    I would say this review is pitifully, shockingly lazy, but it must have taken some work to both forget everything you yourself had previously stated about Steven Wilson, even while plagiarizing one of your fellow writers.

  • kajagoogoo

    Jazz Odyssey was a Spinal Tap song

  • http://neilyoungfaq.wordpress.com/ Glen Boyd

    Normally I wouldn’t respond to a “review” of my own review from someone who chooses to hide behind a pseudonym, but I couldn’t let this one pass by without comment.

    As someone who seems to be very familiar with both my work and those of other writers on this site (and apparently going back a few years, too), then you have to also be aware that Tom Johnson has not written for BC for some time now.

    So, even if I had read TJ’s review (a writer I both like and respect) at some point in time (which I do not recall doing, and following your link didn’t jar the memory banks either), the idea that I would comb through his work dating back to 2007 just to lift an obscure reference to Spinal Tap’s “Jazz Odyssey” is preposterous.

    In fact, I wouldn’t even call it a coincidence. The reference just came to me as I was writing the review, to illustrate the way I feel about a lot of the jazz/rock fusion I hear. When it is done well (Jeff Beck, Return To Forever, etc), it can be great. But when it is used within the context of an otherwise great piece of songwriting (as the songs on Wilson’s Raven pretty much all are), it can also be a distraction to an otherwise great song.

    But speaking of taking things out of context, I don’t recall myself “praising” the intro to “Holy Drinker” at all.

    Rather, what I did was describe it (the intro, not the song) as “evil sounding” (which it certainly is). This was done before going on to talk about all those choir mellotron fireworks which (to me, at least) are what make the song really stand out.

    You also single out my previous review of Wilson’s Grace For Drowning, which I liked quite a bit on the initial listens I based the review on. But, you conveniently (since you seem to have researched my work fairly heavily just to write a dismissive comment) leave out my subsequent review of his concert on the same tour, where I was not nearly as complimentary.

    I still like both of SW’s previous solo albums, by the way (never said I didn’t). But yes I do find them somewhat uneven in places. Particularly compared to this one (which I had about a month to absorb before writing about it, as opposed to a few days before release with both of the previous two).

    But since you seem to have spent even more time pouring over my past work, then the actual guy who wrote it, I’ll offer this simple thank you for caring enough about to do so. Maybe next time you decide to “review” my work, you might want to exercise the simple courtesy (not to mention the balls), to leave your actual byline.

    That’s common practice for those of us who write such “reviews.”

    -Glen

  • http://cinemasentries El Bicho

    Using a pop-culture reference someone else used five years previous is not plagiarizing, and if it was, you’d have to make the same charge against Tom, unless we are to believe you are so pitifully, shockingly ignorant that you think it took 24 years for someone to ever refer to Spinal Tap’s “Jazz Odyssey”.

  • http://neilyoungfaq.wordpress.com/ Glen Boyd

    Spoken for truth.

  • WilsonsVeryCoolHair

    Thanks for your reply, though I am moved to place a couple of follow-up questions on the table:

    1. So it’s cool when your buddies — namely, Mr. El Bicho, here — uses the utterly common-place device of an internet handle, but not me?

    2. You make it somehow sound unsavory that I’m a regular reader of this web site. Were you not expecting people to actually read what you write?

  • http://neilyoungfaq.wordpress.com/ Glen Boyd

    1. When Bicho chooses to comment – including when he offers criticism as he occasionally does – at least I know who am I talking to (or who is throwing the bombs). It also shows he is willing to stand behind his comments (not to mention showing common courtesy).

    2. I see nothing in my comments that indicate reading this site as something “unsavory”. I do however, find it interesting that you would go back several years to find an article written by someone who no longer even writes for the site, just to make a ludicrous charge of plagiarism.

    Like Bicho pointed out, TJ wasn’t the first writer to use the Spinal Tap reference, nor will I be the last.

    -Glen

  • WilsonsVeryCoolHair

    I didn’t “go back several years.” I thought I remembered it from an earlier review on a site I frequent (this one), and I did a Google search. As with my usage of an online pseudonym, I’m not exactly breaking new ground here.

    To your first point about El Bicho … “it also shows he is willing to stand by his comments” … when he uses an online pseudonym? You’re talking circles.

    Also, out of both sides of your mouth. Here’s you, responding to an anonymous commenter without asking for their real name.

    The only difference is … they’re praising you. I guess your new rule for online commenting only applies when someone dares bring up an inconsistency in your review.

  • Sam

    I just bought this record today. Wow, this is Wilson’s masterpiece! Brilliant from “Luminol” all the way to “The Raven That Refused To Sing,” with “Drive Home” being my early favorite.

    I also found a couple of interesting interviews Wilson gave where he talks about the new album. Check them out!

    With UltimateGuitar.com

    With Nick Deriso (Something Else Reviews)