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Steven Wilson - The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) CD (album) cover


Steven Wilson


Crossover Prog

4.30 | 1875 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
3 stars 8.5/15P. This album leaves me helpless. So many decent ideas and so much talent here, but why does it all need to be so straight and perfectionist that even during the concerts the video clips are perfectly synced to the music?

I still remember clearly most of the moments which defined and shaped my life. And I'm grateful that I don't only remember them, but that I'm also aware that these situations had a distinct impact on the course of my life. These situations include social ones, experiences connotated with different places, and - which is why I am here - confrontations with music I didn't know before, or music whose qualities I didn't know until a variable number of listens. For instance I attended a multimedial show in a planetarium when I was a child, a show in which they played back Pink Floyd music while presenting films made in space. The effect which this little show made on me is invaluable in retrospect. Many years later, in 2011, I first listened to the debut album by Caravan, and the massive organ carpets suddenly catapulted me into a higher dimension - or, to put it more factually, into a different understanding of music. At a different time I - having bought and decently enjoyed a lot of albums of that genre before - listened to Steeleye Span's Lowlands of Holland on one summer evening somewhere in the fields. I had listened to this piece many times before, but on this occasion it opened the whole world of folk music for me, converting the unknowing enjoyment into a kind of spiritual connection to these sounds. Just as if I had been walking up a mountain in misty weather a thousand times, wondering why the people make such a fuss about mountaineering, then until one clear day when I finally see mountains at a distance of more than 200km. I also had a similar experience in February 2013 when Junip released their single Line of Fire, which kept me confident that transcendental music did not die in 1977, but rather transformed itself into a different style along with the huge changes in society which occurred since then.

Just looking at the credits and the artwork of Steven Wilson's Grace For Drowning in 2011 I knew that this album could be a huge cornucopia of good ideas. Still, after a lot of listens, I cannot really manage to view and estimate that album as a whole; but especially the electronic parts, which remind me of Steven Wilson's early trip-hop excursions, and the ambient parts with Wilson's restrained multi-instrumental works (dulcimer, autoharp, harmonium etc) always keep me motivated to listen to this album again and again, each time hoping to find something new.

I was pretty excited about The Raven That Refused To Sing when I pre-ordered it in vinyl at Burning Shed. Get All You Deserve, and especially Holzman's inspiring keyboard madness in Luminol, maybe didn't appear to me as a genuine musical masterpiece, but definitely as a step in the right direction - in a musical genre in which most of the time every step you make is a step into the past, a step closer to artistic insularity and musical fundamentalism.


Let's start with the positive aspects of this albums - and there are quite a lot of them. Again, the maniac electric piano work by former Miles Davis collaborator Adam Holzman, stands out on Luminol. The electric piano is fed through distortion devices and a ring modulator, and in the end the intensity of this stuff equals Dave MacRae's (Matching Mole) and Steven Miller's (Miller/Coxhill) more furious solos. The bass work by Nick Beggs is similarly convincing - especially the tritone-laden solo riff is quite a treat. Okay, the 'key chords' of the song are slightly derivative of Soft Machine's Pig, but I don't really mind this. At the latest, the Porcupine-Tree-ish mid-90s breakdown with the strummed electric guitar and Govan's jazzy lead guitar is able to put the same kind of big smile on my face as The Moon Touches Your Shoulder once did.

Govan's lead guitar in general is pretty good; he orients himself a lot towards Steve Hackett in terms of technique, but he might be the man in the band who puts the biggest emotion in his playing. He helps making the ballad Drive Home, which wouldn't be out of place on Porcupine Tree's The Incident, being a perfectly good listen at least over the first 6 minutes - afterwards it tends to become a bit overlong. Many critics highlight this track as the least convincing track of this album, but it grabs me as a pretty great piece of wistful alternative rock - the genre Wilson (until now) had the greatest artistic success in. The second half of The Watchmaker heads into a similar direction and is similarly successful. In retrospect, The Incident was a pretty good album after all!

The title track, a sparsely instrumentated neo-classical piece with grand piano and dense string arrangements, subtly builds on the cold atmosphere which was already conveyed on Grace For Drowning. The accompanying music video, an unusually sinister and insightful cartoon, is able to add a new dimension to the story which depicts a topic which the whole album actually reflects: aged people looking back on a life of losses, lost chances or wasted time. Former Hatfield & The North keyboarder Dave Stewart is again aboard as the arranger, and although his work is harmless and quiet compared with his eccentric Northettes choir arrangements, the orchestral work is tasteful and well-conducted. In the finale of the track, performed by the whole band, the strings really cumulate and rise and create something like an uplifting coda of a mainly cold album.

Alan Parsons' production is warm and absolutely good, but it ain't exactly imaginative. It's subject to the compositions - like quite a lot of aspects of this album. Although I enjoy Stewart's arrangements quite much, they mostly have the quality of film music. Don't get the album for Dave Stewart's participation, however, if you expect something like Mumps - he's more or less a studio musician here; no keyboards performed by him, of course.


In spite of these good (and sometimes great) moments, the first listens of the The Raven That Refused To Sing album, both in the studio version and in Wilson's Cologne live concert, however, were a bit disappointing. It's neither that I would call this album boring - boredom occurs when a musician has a lack of ideas, and this ain't the case here. Nor am I annoyed by the neo-prog plagiarism phenomenon - there are some moments which fit into this category, but Wilson has too much knowledge of progressive rock and craves too much for creating something of his own to simply copy an idea by a different musician.

The problem rather is that I feel too comfortable in the consistently safe fairway of this album. When you listen to the tense Gilmourish introduction to The Pin Drop you know that some verses into the song Wilson is going to break into another tritone-filled dissonance, most possibly with fat guitars, mellotron or backing vocals. And, voila: at 1:14 the surmise proves true. I maybe would have expected this part to be mixed more differentiatedly (it's a bit of a mayhem), but whatever - it was pretty clear that something like this would come.

The same case in The Holy Drinker. When I saw that the song turned to quietness about two minutes before the end of the song, I knew that it was time for the big finale with metal guitars, dissonant counterpoints and busy drums. Go to 8:32 and listen to what happens. It's a biological fact that an immediate loud keyboard chord after a period of silence is a surprising moment, but too often it's hardly more than an effect here. Genesis' The Musical Box, for example, had a mighty finale which acted as the end of a big arc of suspense. I don't find this suspense on The Raven That Refused To Sing - here it's more a kind of 'arc of structure' or (expressed a bit unfairly) 'arc of predictability' which keeps the pieces together.

You might wonder why I have never mentioned Theo Travis in this review until now. Well, that's because he rarely attracts a great deal of my attention during the album. Not because he ain't able to do this - in fact, his tiny little flute lick in The Sky Moves Sideways, Phase Two is frequently swirling through my head. As a part of the Steven Wilson Band Theo Travis is a part of the arrangement, subject to the songs and their structure. The same issue with Adam Holzman: a passionate jazz pianist with his rare glittering outbursts on electric piano and Moog - not only in Luminol, but also in The Holy Drinker (0:28 onward, great) - but most of the time playing block chords and the occasional Hammond organ, the latter (sadly quite often) sounding like it always does on retro prog albums.

I cannot count out that my way of listening to music is too arrogating - maybe Wilson's music isn't addressed to fools like me who raise foolish predictions how the next part of the respective song could sound. And I firmly believe that real musical progress is always bound to technical progress - this is how rock music came into being. At the moment, there's no current invention like the first synthesizer or the first electric guitar. Hence it definitely would be arrogating to say that only revolutionary music is good music. And definitely this ain't how I perceive the nature music either.

Those of you who have read some of my reviews may have noticed how much I like (mostly British and Celtic-based) folk music, which is arguably the most minimalist music ever in terms of composition. There might be songs which are sung a capella, and they might be absolutely striking and beautiful - without complex chords, without instruments, without any arrangements. With just a voice and a melody sung to the endogenous metre of the lyrics. What brings sparse (and often ancient) pieces like these to live is first and foremost the delivery, the performance.

And this is the last aspect I'd like to point out about this album and my opinion of it - perhaps it's just a folly of my thoughts, but perhaps it's also a hint for some to listen to this record in a different way. A possible, and in my opinion plausible, explanation for my ambivalence towards Wilson's work is that he himself is an ambivalent musician. An emotional composer on the one hand, a cool performer on the other hand. The melodies and chord progressions themselves are absolutely inspired and filled with true sadness, anger and an occasional bit of hope. But, especially seeing Steven Wilson live as a performer, it seems he excludes the emotions as much as possible from his playing and singing - at least when these feelings threaten to disturb the structure of his work. I've already pointed out which aspects I complain about the music itself - but when played live the music is played in exactly the same way as in the studio (apart from some parts of the solos), perfectly synced with the music videos which are played in the background.

The guitar playing on certain bits and pieces, for instance, slightly resembles Anthony Phillips' guitar work - arpeggiated 12-string-guitar chords, most clearly to be heard on The Watchmaker. I don't really hear a clear hint at the Trespass material, but more likely an appreciation of his solo work (Private, Parts & Pieces etc). But, again, I don't really care about this - the guitar playing is just fine. But the playing defines a certain mood, that special Victorian sound which Genesis later combined with the dark British horror stories. Wilson also has a horror story to fuse with this song, a story of an old man who kills his woman after many years of marriage. But when Steven Wilson's really smooth and clean voice sings lines like "though all the cogs connected with such poetic grace, time has left its curse upon this place", it feels too smooth and pathetic - especially when Nick Beggs' similarly clean voice provides the harmonies.


My simple understanding of the development of Wilson's compositions is the following: Wilson's lyrics are stories of human imperfection. Stories which are later set to music and stylistic devices deducted from the (originally alternative and radical) progressive rock genre. The resulting music is then performed flawlessly, technically perfect and strictly according to Wilson's demos. Maybe the songs already determine how the finished album is going to sound before the members of Wilson's band have even gotten to know them.

The first two steps are authentic - everything's alright until here.

But this last step, the way of performing the music, clearly is the major inconsistency between Wilson's approach to music and my personal expectations. As I was standing there during Wilson's Cologne concert, in some moments I waited for some kind of variety, maybe even for some kind of revolution. I asked myself why Wilson doesn't do what all of his heroes did at some time - simply jamming and improvising around occasionally. His whole band would be able to do that. Many Canterbury Scene concerts of the 1970s seemed to be totally spontaneous (especially when Richard Sinclair was involved), with lots of lengthy improvised parts and unexpected guests. King Crimson used to mix up a setlist of strictly composed pieces (such as Fracture) with different jams - some of which ended up in a mess, and some of which proved successful later on. Moments in which one band member just turns around, briefly stops playing and smiles because he's so moved by what another band member plays.

But Wilson's band? It's in top form everyday, doing always the same (carefully set-up) setlist, the same encores, the tracks always in the same length, always professional, always tight, perfect timing. But seldom a moment of intense joy in any musician's face, rarely a cathartic moment, never a song in which the musicians subject themselves to their current feeling, to the feedback of the audience, to the state of mind which the musicians and the listeners share when they decide to spend an evening together in concert.

I don't want to claim that Steven Wilson is an all-dominant band leader. Everyone who has seen Wilson working in the studio with the band or with Akerfeldt finds that he is a pretty cool guy during the sessions. But he is a perfectionist, and the musicians who surround him are more than sufficiently versed in terms of playing abilities to cope with his ideas.

But maybe I still haven't found the key to this kind of music, just like it was the case with Steeleye Span - who I also would have rated 'good, but non-essential' a few years ago. Irrespective of how good this album is, it's quite unlike everything Wilson has conceived before. Instead, it gets closer to The Flower Kings, The Tangent and all the other bands from the retro prog realms. I'll surely give this album (and, of course, the more eccentric Grace for Drowning) more than just a few more spins, but I doubt that The Raven That Refused To Sing will ever enter the top40 of my personal favorite albums - contrary to the top40 of the ProgArchives which it has already entered by now (03.2013), just two mere weeks after its release.

Einsetumadur | 3/5 |


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