Steven Wilson: “The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)”
“Here we all are born into a struggle/To come so far but end up returning to dust.”
Those lines serve as the prelude to an extraordinary album, inviting listeners to perk up their ears and listen closely. Coming in the middle of a furious, bass-heavy workout, which itself forms only one part of the sprawling “Luminol,” the lines indicate the gravity of the record.
Steven Wilson has never been afraid to be seen taking himself and his music seriously, and this carries over into all six of the songs on his third solo album “The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories).” Throughout his career he has summoned influences from Joy Division to Metallica to The Beach Boys but mostly draws on the heady heyday of British progressive rock from the early 1970s.
Wilson, coming off of extensive touring for his second album “Grace for Drowning,” developed “Raven” in tandem with a new band that features expert musicians like Theo Travis (woodwinds), Guthrie Govan (guitar), Nick Beggs (bass and Chapman Stick), and Marco Minnemann (drums).
Their expertise invests the songs with a sense of play and real chemistry, which was no doubt aided by the spontaneity of the recording process. Putting together the whole record in about a week, plus time for adding strings and some Mellotron synthesizer overdubs. Contributing beautifully whether in more structured sessions or the many improvised solos, each of the musicians is Wilson at the lead, lending his unique voice to the songs.
Of the six songs included on the album, three stretch longer than ten minutes. To say they stretch is to slight the craft of each piece, though, since each song emerges organically over time, containing many twists and turns while remaining rooted in distinct moods and narratives. All six of the songs, while not unified by a single concept, are based on short stories written by Wilson and artist Hajo Mueller, who also designed Raven’s striking cover art.
Touching mostly on tragedy and the supernatural, the finest of these stories is told by the title track. Accompanied by an intensely atmospheric music video, “The Raven that Refused to Sing” tells the story of a man who has mourned the childhood death of his sister for many years. He tells a raven to sing to him, which brings forth his sister’s ghost. Sung over spare piano that eventually builds into dramatic, string-accented climaxes, the song is one of the most piercing in Wilson’s extensive career.
Production duties for this album fell to none other than Alan Parsons, the technical mastermind behind Pink Floyd’s (now 40-year-old) masterpiece and campus poster cliche “Dark Side of the Moon.” Coming out of retirement to work the boards again, he lends each song a cohesion that might otherwise be lost in the multi-layered complexity of the music. The end result sounds polished and sometimes even pretty, though with plenty of the prog-rock extravagance and knottiness still left intact.
Steven Wilson has described his career to interviewers as a “war of attrition,” where he has always refused any label interference in his music. Between grassroots touring efforts and momentous studious releases like this, his efforts at building a loyal fanbase have produced fantastic results. While each of its songs might not stand as well on its own, “The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)” demonstrates that Wilson is capable of taking old progressive rock templates and shedding fresh light on them.