- Subversive to self in an AWESOME way
Throughout his career Steven Wilson has always had something to say about prog, for better or for worse. Many of us are aware of how for years he practically refused the label prog rock and more or less spat at the notion of current bands with overt 70’s influences. As the music climate has become friendlier to prog in recent years, Wilson has come more fully out of the closet regarding his prog associations despite the fact that he continues his disavowal to a certain extent with recent statements like “I hope [TRTRTS] doesn’t sound like a retro album… because I’m not really into doing musical retro stuff.” Pair that with the old days when he stated that “most of the music” that he hears referred to as prog nowadays seems “formulaic, regressive, and poorly executed.” It seems that not much has changed (in terms of attitude) despite his rising fame in prog circles.
But, one big thing has changed, beginning with Grace for Drowning and fully revealing itself with The Raven that Refused to Sing; while Steven once set himself apart from the current “regressive” acts by writing music that was distinctively more modern, The Raven that Refused to Sing finds Wilson joining the ranks of other so called “regressive” music in that it delivers tangible 70’s influences at full force. While he still may not think that it’s an old school sounding album or that it is in someway distinctively modern where other proggers may have failed to do so, all of us are sitting back, grinning, saying to ourselves “I knew that someday he’d come around.” The Raven that Refused to Sing manages to be gloriously subversive to Steven’s history, delivering all the nostalgia we could ask for, both in instrumentation and in song structure. While he may not realize it, I think most of us get it, and whether he gets it in the future or not, we won’t care as long as he keeps delivering great albums like this one.
The album kicks it off with “Luminol,” a track that many of us are already deeply familiar with since the release of his Get All You Deserve concert film. The groovy rhythms, Theo’s flute, and the early appearance of the Mellotron throw us immediately into a fantastic retro-ride. This piece really takes off about halfway through when the main vocal part first comes in. The piece suddenly calms down and draws out a deep sense of meloncholy which is augmented by a quick tron flute break and enhanced with a gorgeous and lightly jazzy piano interlude. As the piece moves towards the end before repeating some of the opening riffs, Steven delivers a massive explosion of Mellotron that firmly roots this album in the early symphonic days of Crimson. So much for TRTRTS keeping “both eyes on the ‘now’ unlike many other regressive rock bands of today.” For this piece I think there’s about 1.95 eyeballs on the past, but it’s not like I’m counting. This is a fantastic piece of music that is greatly enhanced by the wise decision to bring in the old school feel.
That’s not to say that all of the songs sound like they came out of the 70’s. While Wilson’s idea of two eyes on the present is obviously egotistical, I think he employs a good strategy of one eye on the past and one on the present. This can be witnessed in the way that he structures his delivery of songs on the album, with odd number tracks set in the 70’s and even tracks in the 2000’s. The second track, “Drive Home,” for example, is a piece that sounds much more modern, perhaps a bit more Porcupine Tree-ish. This is really a singer-songwriter type piece that is big on catchy melodies, very much in the present but with a nice touch of the past through the instrumentation, much like what a number of indie bands are doing today. Then there’s “The Pin Drop” in which you can hear more of that modern alternative prog with its waves of atmosphere and tremolo guitars. The key to this song is in the details such as the little bells, all sorts of lightly doubled parts and a healthy dose of reverb. It’s also great to see a bit of instrumental wankery with Theo totally ripping on this one and then Guthrie closing it off with a stunning solo that walks a nice balance between going overboard and reigning it it. Skipping ahead to the title track, fans will see something familiar in terms of strong atmospheric and emotional pull. Full of slow piano, fluffy vocals, and a tendency towards gradually building the dynamic, “The Raven that Refused to Sing” is a fitting close to the album. Even though I think its a bit drawn out when listened to by itself (essentially 8 minutes of repetitive minimalism) it actually works quite fantastically in the context of the album after the brutal prog assault that is “The Watchmaker.” If anyone was skeptical or bored when they watched the music video before the album release, let your fears be calmed. For me this is a great piece that’s meant to be viewed as a part of a larger whole and, as such, it offers itself up as a powerful finale to a splendid album.
Let’s get on to the odd number tracks, representing Steven’s regressive complex. Personally, these tracks contain what I consider to be the most powerful moments on the album. Since we’ve already discussed “Luminol” a bit we’ll move on to “The Holy Drinker,” a piece that kicks it off with wild panning effects and a string of wonderful improvised solos by Steven’s oh so talented band (Theo really making me think of his work with The Tangent on this track), all to the backdrop of Marco’s wild drumming that I adore so much. When the vocals come in it becomes very vintage/retro rock in both tonality and feel interspersed with a wonderful tron choir motif that we see scattered throughout the song. From there we basically get loads of solos and mounds of Holzman’s vintage keyboard assault carrying us right to the final section where band melts our faces off with some seriously thick distortion playing off a menacing chord progression.
For me, the crowning jem of this album is “The Watchmaker,” a track that starts off simple with acoustic and folk arrangements that really draw you in. Furthermore, the lyrical approach here is devastatingly captivating and really draws you into this particular ghost story full of tragedy. Little by little the composition masterfully lures us in with light flute and Mellotron before launching all of its prog glory at about the four minute mark when the drums and 3 violins really kick in to support some tasteful (and shredding) improvisation by Theo and Guthrie. A quick Hammond fade brings us into what I would consider the third movement of the piece which consists of another vocal part, this time displaying some nice piano from Adam and leading us into a gorgeous array of vocal harmonies which sound very distinctively British to me (in a good way). A short break into an extremely catchy 7/8 followed by a few bass slaps launch us into what will probably end up being my awesome musical moment of the year. Watch out proggers, you are about to hear the most brutal and glorious moment of the year when a sinister Mellotron melody doubles haunting vocals while grinding effects swirl all around. As it gets heavy and Marco picks up the rhythm I am left speechless at the grandeur of this closing. It doesn’t get much better than this, folks.
For all my mockery of Steven Wilson on the front end of this article (did I mention that Steven had to include in his liner notes that he used the original King Crimson Mark II Mellotron?), in reality Mr. Wilson and his mind-blowing collaborators have delivered a fine album, among the finest of Steven’s career, and that is saying a lot, especially considering recent monumental achievements like Grace for Drowning. The Raven that Refused to Sing really has all that us prog geeks could ask for, from classic instrumentation to delightful composition, from technical virtuosity to downright good songs and epic journeys. Whether or not he’s ready to admit it, I think the man has really figured out how a ‘regressive’ album can be a first class ‘progressive’ album.
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