Friday, March 01, 2013

Fireside stories: Steven Wilson's The Raven That Refused To Sing

Regular readers to these blatherings will be in little doubt as to where my footballing allegiances sit, but for this post, I must proactively declare a personal interest.

I'm sure there is, somewhere, a blogosphere convention on such a thing. However I am compelled to redeclare the fact that I have known Steven Wilson longer than anyone else outside my immediate family, and that it is possible that such a history might colour my objectivity when it comes to his new album The Raven That Refused To Sing.

I'll spare you the complete back story, but you can read it here (Memories from the bottom of the garden). In reconnecting with Steven over the last four years I have immersed myself in much of his back catalogue, particularly work with the band he co-founded, Porcupine Tree, but also his Storm Corrosion project with Opeth's Mikael Akerfeldt, and his Blackfield collaboration with Israeli superstar Aviv Geffen.

Given this sort of workload, plus his Surround Sound remixing work for King Crimson, Jethro Tull and others, it's a wonder he ever found time to launch a solo career alongside his myriad other projects. Which might explain how The Raven... - his third solo album - came to be recorded in a matter of days last September in Los Angeles.

Lyrically themed around short stories of the supernatural penned by Wilson himself, The Raven... exudes a self assuredness that comes from a recording career dating back 30 years to cassette-taped demos as a teenager. That confidence also comes from the fact the album was recorded by the same group of musicians Wilson spent the best part of a year touring to promote his last solo album, Grace For Drowning, a recording that took him further away from the heavier progressive rock elements of Porcupine Tree, and more into a jazz-influenced fusion reminiscent of Genesis before they discovered MTV.

Credit: Naki Kouyioumtzis
He might actually hate that reference point, as I know his record collection is one of the most eclectic I've ever come across. But if you were a fan of the Genesis that made Wind And Wuthering and A Trick Of The Tail, and the Gabriel-era Trespass and Foxtrot, rather than the poptastic Invisible touch, many elements of The Raven... will generate a pleasing sensation of familiarity.

Chief of these is the 12-string guitar-infused opening of The Watchmaker, and its multi-tracked vocal, revealing a range of texture, intrigue and narration through melodic variety. Likewise, Luminol, driven by its bassy opening, and The Pin Drop, with time signature jumps, Mellotron backing and sublime lead guitar work, take me back happily to my own adolescence, and the discovery of music that would engross me totally, rather than induce me to dance or bang my head.

So, yeah, I may have preferred listening to music you take notes to as a teenager, but who really cares now I'm 45? It is, however, an incredible element of our rekindled friendship that I discovered the music Steven found as a child is the same I found, and has so heavily influenced his work as a writer and artist, that I'd be enjoying his music even if we didn't know each other. Perhaps, then, my declaration of personal interest is not so necessary.

The Raven... may have been recorded in days, rather than weeks or months, but it is certainly not a rushed or compromised work. It actually feels like it was recorded live, in real time, as if it arrived in the studio fully-formed. Credit for that goes to Alan Parsons, the former Abbey Road production legend (Dark Side Of The Moon amongst his achievements) who engineered the album, providing Wilson with additional support and wisdom.

But, perhaps, the real key to this album's coherent immediacy is that the seven tracks were recorded by Wilson and the same group of ultra-talented musicians that had recently come off his Grace For Drowning world tour. This is not an album of excess augmentation by session players and guest artists. It's a solo album for Steven but a clear group effort - the prolific Nick Beggs on bass, gifted flautist/saxophonist Theo Travis, Adam Holzman - son of Elektra Records' founder, Jac Holzman - on keys, German-born drummer Marco Minnemann and the stunningly fluid lead guitarist Guthrie Govan.

One of my pet bugbears is that, despite being one of Britain's most productive and plenteous musicians, Wilson lacks recognition by the mainstream media. The Raven... deserves their attention. At its broadest, it is a superb piece of rock, full of adventure and groove in equal measure, building to a title track that I can't wait to hear play live next week in Paris.

Plenty of artists, as they get into their third and fourth decade of performing plateau out. The evidence presented by The Raven That Refused To Sing is that Steven Wilson is still climbing.

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