Tell Steven Wilson that the album as an art form is dead. I dare you.
For most listeners under the age of 30, it probably doesn’t matter that the greatest contemporary bands – consider Radiohead and the Flaming Lips, Tame Impala and Foxygen – are still crafting full, purposefully sequenced collections of songs meant to be listened to in one sitting, if at all possible. They are still likely to cherry-pick the songs they like and either download them individually or stream them. It’s what they know.
The under-30s who do grasp the concept of the album as musical statement aren’t likely to stumble upon it if they spend their time in the mainstream. They’ll have to work for it.
“The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories),” Wilson’s third solo album (out now), would be a fine place to start for anyone curious about the supposedly antiquated idea of “the album.” It is a throwback to an older, venerated age, when virtuosic musicianship met deeply imaginative compositional conceptions. The album’s seven pieces can be seen as one multisegment composition, but they also can be treated as songs – either method works. This is, quite literally, an album constructed the way the most imaginative artists did it back in the middle 1970s.
That said, “Raven” is no mere nostalgia trip, nor is it solely a record aimed at the hearts of alienated rock music fans who wonder why no one seems up to the task of creating something as majestic as Yes’ “Close to the Edge,” or even Radiohead’s “OK Computer” anymore. It’s a modern-sounding collection, even if it is littered with references to the most grandiloquent masterpieces of progressive music.
Wilson – erstwhile leader of Porcupine Tree, and member at various points of the side-projects Blackfield, Storm Corrosion, No-Man and Bass Communion – has delivered his finest work with “The Raven.” Considering that he already has at least a half-dozen stone-cold classics under his belt, that’s saying something.
With Porcupine Tree on hiatus, Wilson formed a powerhouse new band to tour behind his outstanding “Grace for Drowning” album in 2011. The tour was so well-received, and the experience apparently so personally rewarding, that Wilson almost immediately set about the construction of this new project when the “Grace” tour ended.
It’s abundantly clear that he is inspired by these musicians – only guitarist Guthrie Govan is new to the band, with bassist Nick Beggs, drummer Marco Minnemann, keyboardist Adam Holzman and saxophone/flute player Theo Travis being holdovers from the “Grace” tour. They are scary good as individual players, and simply breathtaking in their ensemble performance, revealing deep experience in the worlds of jazz, rock, progressive music and fusion.
Happily, Wilson, who also plays guitar, bass, mellotron and piano on the album, has given these musicians plenty to chew on. His compositions are wildly ambitious at one turn, achingly ruminative and melodic at the next. The 12-minute opener “Luminol” comes screaming out of the gate with a knotty prog-rock motif led by bassist Beggs, moves through interesting spins of prog-rock tropes – one can easily spot the influence of Gentle Giant, Rush, early Genesis and Return to Forever within the first four minutes – and reveals the dizzying complexity of Wilson’s compositional mind by the time it’s through.
Things then proceed apace, as Wilson moves freely and gracefully between more subdued, acoustic textures, (the aching “Drive Home”), gnarly jazz-fusion motifs (“The Holy Drinker”) and epic, Pink Floyd-like ballads (the album-closing title tune). It all adds up to an embarrassment of riches for listeners who appreciate stellar musicianship and daring songwriting. (If you don’t, steer clear. This is not the sort of music that holds your hand and walks you safely toward the chorus.)
Wilson engaged revered producer Alan Parsons – yes, the guy who worked on the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” as a kid, then went on to produce Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” – to aid him in capturing the majesty of this music on tape. The production here is all but transparent – “The Raven” boasts a live-off-the-floor feel, and is not given to excessive technological frippery. The production seems written into the songs and the arrangements themselves.
All of this would be enough to recommend “Raven” as an inspired work. But there’s more. In his lyrics, Wilson conjures a world where the living and the dead commingle, and it is often difficult to tell them apart. There is an air of the gothic at work, but not the cheesy pseudo-goth of the CW’s “Vampire Diaries” or the “Twilight” series.
In Wilson’s hands, this strain recalls Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia,” in which the lines between ghosts and corporeal beings become blurred, past and present intermingle, and a sense of all-pervading loss is summoned.
Wilson does this without being maudlin, which is no mean feat. During the album-closing title song, he crafts a character haunted by loss, and of the firm belief that his dead sister has been reincarnated as a raven. Not many rock songs deal with the concept of transubstantiation, but this one does, over an elegant, if haunting, piano-led chord progression that builds toward a transcendent coda. It is a stunning conclusion to a brilliant song-cycle.