Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Raven that Refused to Sing

and other stories

Prolificacy's name is Steven Wilson, as you might agree when you've seen the man's 500-page discog here.

Each new Steven Wilson album release is a bigger, fuller, more satisfying art-event than its predecessor. I'm talking of course about the limited deluxe editions. Nothing else is worth having, if you can have instead one of these wondrous objects, while nothing else - no mere collection of tunes and songs - is in our time, worth our time reviewing. Obviously then, it's especially edifying when - reportedly to beat an internet leak - your preorder arrives, entirely unexpectedly, four days early.

Rivaling the dimensions and heft of some paving slabs, well the 10" ones anyway, these special editions seem to have evolved by a process of continuous improvement into a format which by now should make the fan relax immediately into the familiar luxurious form, simultaneously with the unfailingly new and truly multimedia content. It's like a lottery win of the senses. For consider:

First, it looks and feels great - a solidly substantial objet d'art, with its great 5mm thick hardbound book cover enveloping 128 heavy and glossy illustrated pages full of impressions, stories, lyrics, sleeve notes, mysteries. Next, you get the smell of it, obviously the high aromas of a newly printed, full gloss inky tome. Only at the end of these sensory introductions, and as a final formality, will you eventually get to hear it. Before then, this beautiful thing has already carved its little square snug into your world, and as you begin your first consumption of these sounds (2 CDs) and visions (a DVD and a Blu-Ray), you reflect that Steven could easily have achieved a full sweep of all five senses, by the simple expedient of including a stick of chewing gum. Maybe next time.

The Musicians

Every work of this standard of quality, and each major aspect of such a work, is essentially in itself a collaboration. The original and most vital aspect here being of course the music, that collaboration comprises primarily Steven himself, singing and playing various keyboards (including King Crimson's original mellotron, borrowed from his friend Robert Fripp) and guitars, as befits a solo album. Thence in the astonishing ensemble of legends that is his touring band, alphabetically we have Nick Beggs on bass, Chapman Stick and vocals; Guthrie Govan on lead guitar, and Adam Holzman on keyboards; while Marco Minnemann* hits stuff, and Theo Travis blows into things.

Oh, and Steven's choice of associate producer / recording engineer? Only bloody Alan Parsons.

The Music

The album comprises six pieces, with three of these - satisfyingly enough, for those with an adult's attention span - each being over 10 minutes long. It opens with a song previously released on Steven's earlier live document, the quite recent Get All You Deserve 2CD / DVD / Blu-Ray.

1. Luminol: an uptempo percussive 4-to-the-floor with driving bass, signals the initial intent. Transitioned by Theo's flute and harmony vox / mellotron, it falls and fragments into a typically prog clipped and snipped timesig, before slowing and softening into the story of the busker (one of Steven's ghost stories), with yet more lush harmonies. There are hints of and nods to a shared progressive jazz heritage throughout, culminating in a typically strong KC and mellotron restart and return to quick tempo for the finish. From Wikipedia:
"Luminol", which was first performed by Steven Wilson and his band on the second half of his Grace for Drowning tour, takes its inspiration from a busker, who, according to Wilson, is "there every single day. It doesn’t matter what the weather is like; he’s always there, playing his acoustic guitar and singing these songs. Snow, rain, gale force wind – nothing will stop him from being in his spot. ... He’s the kind of guy who is so set in his routine that even death wouldn’t stop him." Wilson considers the notion "that somebody could be a ghost in life, as well as a ghost in death, somebody who’s completely ignored even in their lifetime – it hardly makes a difference; and death doesn’t make a difference, either; it doesn’t break the routine." [1]
2. Drive Home is soft and gently acoustic, showcasing Steven's famous talent for hook laden tune smithery. You need to clear away all the jetsam in your brain and face the truth. Even this gentility itself takes a percussion break, a breather wherein for example a delicate guitar part ambles alone for a few bars. Builds to a mixed (both climactic and anticlimactic) finish.
"Drive Home" is based on a suggestion from illustrator Hajo Mueller. It is "about a couple driving along in a car at night, very much in love; the guy is driving, and his partner – his wife or girlfriend or whoever she is – is in the passenger seat, and the next minute she’s gone." The ghost of the man's partner eventually returns, "saying, ‘I’m going to remind you now what happened that night.’ There was a terrible car accident, and she died, etcetera, etcetera – again, the idea of trauma leading to a missing part of this guy’s life. He can’t deal with the reality of what happened, so he blocks it out – like taking a piece of tape and editing a big chunk out of it." [2]
3. The Holy Drinker indulges a sequence of guitar / keyboard / clarinet solos as well as some welcome overdrumming in its satisfyingly extended (2½ minute) 4/4 introduction, prior to leading into another SW ballad, whose verses are similarly separated by inventive instrumental fills. The middle duet between Fender Rhodes and flute, leading into some big Keith Emerson chops, is particularly worth the ticket price. When the story continues in a lente pianissimo section, its dramatic and mathematical conclusion can be sensed from afar.
According to Wilson, "The Holy Drinker" concerns "a guy who’s very pious, very religious, preachy and self-righteous. I’m thinking of TV evangelist-types – guys who are prepared to tell people that they’re living their lives wrong and that they’re missing something because they don’t believe in God or whatever it is." The man, who, despite criticising other people's lifestyles, is himself an alcoholic, unwittingly challenges the Devil to a drinking competition, with disastrous consequences: "Of course, you can’t beat the Devil at a drinking competition – you can’t beat the Devil at anything – and so he loses. ... He gets dragged to Hell." [3]
4. Vocally, The Pin Drop starts unpromisingly. But instrumentally, this is a consistently strong and driving track, with particularly tortured sax.
"The Pin Drop" addresses "the concept that you can be with someone because it’s comfortable and convenient, not because there’s any love or empathy." Wilson explains that "The song is basically sung by the wife. She’s dead, she’s been thrown in the river by the husband, and she’s floating down in the river while singing this song – from beyond death, beyond the grave, as it were." The song considers "The idea... that sometimes in a relationship there can be so much tension, so much unspoken resentment and hatred, that the tiniest thing can set off a violent episode, and in this case, one that ends in tragedy. The sound of a pin dropping on a floor can be the thing that instigates the fury." [4]
5. Back now in time and context to Foxtrot era Genesis, for the introduction to the little proggy masterpiece that is The Watchmaker. Not a love song, but a tale of touching companionship and failure, human existence, inevitability and frailty. Its second act warms and beats to the musical imagery of clockwork, accelerating subjectively through a spectacular clarinet and guitar duet, before a braking return to the piano-backed, heart-rendingly honest narrative. The endgame, by turns instrumental and vocal, is a particularly pleasing and quirky workout.
The fifth track on the album explores "the story of the watchmaker, the guy who is meticulous about his craft, but he never has any kind of emotional outburst, nor does he express violence or any extreme emotions whatsoever." It concerns "a couple who have been together for 50 years or more, purely because it was convenient and comfortable." Wilson explains that "The watchmaker ends up killing his wife and burying her under the floorboards of his workshop. But, of course, she comes back, because she’s been with him for 50 years; she’s not going to leave him now." The song concludes when "the wife comes back to take him with her, which", Wilson suggests, "is another classic ghost story, in a way." [5]
6. As for the closing, title track: The Raven that Refused to Sing is perhaps the most chillingly haunting ballad on this quite haunty album.
The title track explores the story of "an old man at the end of his life who is waiting to die. He thinks back to a time in his childhood when he was incredibly close to his older sister. She was everything to him, and he was everything to her. Unfortunately, she died when they were both very young." The man becomes convinced that a raven, who visits the man's garden, is something of "a symbol or a manifestation of his sister. The thing is, his sister would sing to him whenever he was afraid or insecure, and it was a calming influence on him. In his ignorance, he decides that if he can get the raven to sing to him, it will be the final proof that this is, in fact, his sister who has come back to take him with her to the next life." [6]
See and hear for yourself:

The six indented comments above, quoted from Wikipedia, are in fact primarily sourced from a particularly illuminating interview with Steven (appearing two weeks ago in musicradar) in which he talks about the initial development of the project, and discusses the background to each song in turn and in generous detail.

The Bonuses

The second CD contains different versions of all of the main songs, curiously labelled "(demo)" - who on earth would demand a demo from an effective supergroup** like this? - together with one "unused idea", Clock Song. Were the pendulum percussion and the musical chimes regarded as too obvious, too Mellotron Scratch? Maybe it just couldn't be bent to inhabit the overarching and otherwise cohesive supernatural / ghost story / fear of mortality / end-of-life regret concept circle of the piece. Whatever the reason, it is indeed little more than a not-fully-developed idea, inessential, though not unpleasant.

The documentary DVD and Blu-Ray (see below) also contain between them:
  • a 96/24 Stereo LPCM of the album;
  • one bonus track - Drive Home - lounge version, also 96/24 Stereo LPCM;
  • instrumental versions of all the album tracks (96/24 Stereo LPCM);
and as you would expect from the progressive world's most prolific 5.1 remastereer, the following 5.1 mixes:
  • DTS 96/24 5.1 surround
  • Dolby AC3 5.1 surround
  • 96/24 5.1 LPCM
  • DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

One reviewer, while describing this new album as painful, moving, desperate, melancholic and superbly beautiful and exhorting us to Buy it, also advises, It’s pretty much a progressive affair. As simple as that. There is nothing here that manages to stretch itself out of the canons of such a well-defined genre. And he may be right; but many long-time fans of Steven Wilson (and of Porcupine Tree in particular) are impressed by the jazz sensibility and free-form styling that have infected his recent work - perhaps inevitably, given the creative cadre of influences here, and his own experiences in remastering those King Crimson, Jethro Tull et al masterpieces for surround audio. To those fans, this kind of prog is new and fresh today, forever heading off in unexpected directions.

The Stories and their Art - Hajo Mueller

While Steven himself provides the quite literally haunting stories for Luminol and The Birthday Party, collaborator Hajo Mueller supplies the concept and illustrations throughout the book, as well as the original idea for the title story which he then reworked with Steven. Both the DVD and the Blu-Ray include his art gallery.

Photography & Documentary - Lasse Hoile

It wouldn't be a new Steven Wilson opus without that final contribution from his long and fruitful collaboration with Lasse Hoile, who here provides for both the DVD and the Blu-Ray, the photographs used in the photo gallery, as well as filming and editing the indispensable studio documentary.

The Gig

Fellow Weegies, let's all catch the touring band at Glasgow's ABC this March 2ndUpdate: Oh wait...
* Zappa alumnus supreme Chad Wackerman (Best Drummer Name Ever!) stands in for Marco Minnemann on the North and South American legs of the current tour.
** Actually, each member leads his own band. Hypergroup, then?

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