Since the esteemed prog rock group Porcupine Tree, led by English musician Steven Wilson, embarked on an unspecified hiatus following the release of their 10th studio album, 2010’s The Incident, Wilson has wholeheartedly committed to a solo career with his wilfully experimental, diverse and daring take on progressive rock and fusion based composition.
His previous solo album Grace For Drowning saw Wilson indulging himself in classically tinged jazzy rock. The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories), his third solo album, is similarly experimentally minded but here the sonic experiments are aligned to far weightier lyrical themes.
Wilson’s music, whether it is on his own or with Porcupine Tree, is rooted in precise, incredibly advanced musicianship. The band he has formed for this album, originally brought together to tour the last album, are finely tuned and honed to perfection. Each members input is of the highest level, be it the intricate guitar of Guthrie Govan or the lovely flute and saxophone sounds of Theo Travis. The Raven… frequently sounds deeply impressive.
There is a thematic link running through the six very long songs that make up this collection. Wilson stresses though that the album is very much not a concept record in that hoary old tradition. You get the distinct sense though that he may be protesting a bit too much. Each song is based on the supernatural and spiritual occurrences, Wilson’s songs are all epic, shape-shifting collages of sound in keeping with the overarching theme of the album.
Much this album is almost impossible to follow; it is very much an exhausting listen. Opening track Luminol is a case in point. Essentially three songs in one, it begins with a beefed up, weirded out take on Red Hot Chili Peppers style metallic funk before more abstract guitar textures drift in for a dreamy mid-section adorned by copious flutes, organs, vocal harmonies and twinkling piano. The crescendo floats off into symphonic prog grandeur and a twisting guitar solo. The ultimate effect is very Pink Floyd-like. Fittingly, sound engineer Alan Parsons, who worked on Floyd’s magnum opus Dark Side Of The Moon, is responsible for the sound. He and Wilson appear to be musically kindred spirits.
This is a record that is dominated by three monolithic pieces of abstruse and abstract sonic composition. These three songs dominate to such an extent that Drive Home and The Pin Drop, two rather less monumental tracks pale in comparison, their less overtly thrilling dynamics end up sounding a little earnest and overwrought. The danger of slipping into overblown and meandering indulgence is always present but it is to Wilson’s credit that he just about manages to always retain your attention.
The Holy Drinker, is perhaps the albums best expression of its portentous and mysterious themes. Here, a deeply sanctimonious preacher meets a grisly end as he is challenged by the devil over his alcoholic tendencies. As Wilson sings: “The holy drinker is going straight to hell.”
The Watchmaker is another engaging piece of storytelling, this time accompanied by the albums loveliest and most sedate moment in which pastoral flute gives a wonderfully bucolic vibe, it’s a shame that the song ends up tainted by a few too many guitar solo’s but in the main it is an enveloping piece of sound.
The album’s final song brings to an end its tales of the occult and the strange power of the supernatural. Overtly referencing death, mortality and the afterlife, it sees Wilson taking on the character of an old man addressing his sister who has been dead for years. It’s rather a maudlin way to finish but the song’s sweeping majesty provides a stirring climax.
The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) is certainly an intense listen, but it is ultimately a rewarding one, despite its ability to frustrate or confound. At its best is a dizzying concoction of sounds on a par with Wilson’s best work.