Steven Wilson is an artist who wears many hats. As the creative mastermind behind revered outfit Porcupine Tree, he’s played an immeasurable roll in the current generation of progressive rock/metal. As an in-demand partner, he’s contributed to some of the genre’s most adored duos, including Blackfield, no-man, and Storm Corrosion. Finally, he’s found plenty of work as an admired producer, helping acts like Opeth and Anathema get even more beauty and nuance out of their art. Taking all of this into consideration, it’s easy to see that Wilson is a very prolific and important figure in today’s music industry; however, even with all of this under his cap, there is yet another outlet that deserves as much acclaim and attention as any other—his solo career.
With his first official release, 2008’s ‘Insurgentes,’ Wilson established a very experimental voice that took many by surprise. Although it featured a fair amount of appealing melodies and approachable structures, the work also explored rather uncharacteristic avant-garde foundations, textures, and timbres that recalled some of the post-punk and new wave of the 80s. On 2011’s double disc follow-up, ‘Grace for Drowning,’ he focused more on traditional 70s progressive rock and more accessible and personal songwriting. After its release, many wondered where Wilson would go next, as well as if he could ever surpass the brilliance he displayed on ‘Grace for Drowning.’ Having spent the last few weeks digesting his newest work, ‘The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories),’ I can attest that he has outdone himself tenfold. Full of mind-blowing jazz fusion arrangements, expertly crafted dynamics, fearless instrumental trickery, and of course, more heartbreaking confessions, the album is an absolute masterpiece from beginning to end.
Using many of the same musicians as he did on ‘Grace for Drowning’ (and its subsequent tour), ‘Raven’ features an incredible line-up, including Nick Beggs (bass, backing vocals), Guthrie Govan (lead guitar), Adam Holzman (keys), Marco Minnemann (percussion), and renowned jazz artist and previous collaborator, Theo Travis (flutes, sax, and clarinet). In addition, the album was co-produced by Alan Parsons. Whereas ‘Grace for Drowning’ saw Wilson simply hiring musicians to play his ideas, ‘Raven’ was written with the musicians in mind; he wanted it to feel like a cohesive band effort. In our recent interview, he explained that his sophomore effort “was made like ‘Insurgentes’ in that it was a true solo record in the sense that I didn’t have a band; I found musicians to play on the tracks…This time around, I wanted to basically take what had started with ‘Grace for Drowning’ and put it on the road with the band and then take that band into the studio to make sort of a sequel to that record.”
Also, he notes that ‘Raven’ was written to push himself further as a musician, adding,
These compositions are at a higher level in terms of the ability that you need to play them compared to the compositions on ‘Grace for Drowning.’ The reason for that is that I know—having toured with these guys—what they’re capable of, so I actually pushed myself to write music that I myself would have no hope in hell of actually performing…one of the things that drives me is the constant need to feel like I’m evolving and trying new challenges, so here was a challenge to write new music for people who are on a higher playing level musically and technically than I am.
As for the inspiration, it’s no secret to devotees that Wilson is fascinated by ghosts, sorrow, regret, and the macabre. With ‘Raven,’ he wanted to craft six tales that revolved around these interests. He says,
I was reading a lot of—not what you’d think of as modern supernatural and horror, but in the classical sense like with Edgar Allen Poe…there is more of a sense of brooding dread… I’m also fascinated by the fact of our own mortality and how to make sense of the fact that we are basically a blip…we have 70, 80, or 90 years if we’re lucky to try to make sense of what the point of life is. If you think along those kinds of lines, this whole issue of mortality becomes key…I think that even from a very young age, there is a sense of a kind of attraction to the idea of death and mortality. I think that as you get older that sort of changes and morphs, and for me it’s become an interest in the idea of—not necessarily the literal idea of the ghost, but the idea of the ghost as a representation of what you leave behind.
Beyond being his best solo effort yet, ‘The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)’ is easily one of the greatest records Wilson’s ever been involved in.
Unlike just about everything else he’d released, ‘Raven’ feels less about individual songs and more about movements; although there are only six tracks, there are dozens of sections, as each piece contains several. Essentially, ‘Raven’ finds Wilson channeling his own trademarks within the influence of jazz fusion pioneers like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Van Der Graaf Generator, King Crimson, Return to Forever, and Weather Report. While these traits have definitely appeared previously in his catalogue (most noticeably in this album’s predecessor), ‘Raven’ finds Wilson fully embracing these roots, creating a tour-de-force that’s damn near unmatched not only by himself, but by any of his peers.
To start with, album opener “Luminol” is without a doubt the most complex, eccentric, and mesmerizing [mostly] instrumental Wilson has ever created. Beggs and Minnemann start things off with some very bold and fancy rhythms. Soon after, flutes, keys, and guitar riffs add wonderful color before the group chimes in with a harmonic vocal line that evokes Yes’ similar break in the beginning of “Close to the Edge.” Afterward, Wilson and crew continue to modulate around time signatures and chord progressions, never sitting still for more than a few measures. The sheer amount of countermelodies here is impressive, as are the dynamical shifts. Eventually, Wilson interrupts the jam to sing a subtle melody, which is complemented well by falsetto harmonies and a touch of elegant piano work. Afterward, the instrumental frenzy resumes, and Holzman steals the spotlight with a very affective arpeggio. By the end, sections are reprised underneath new innovations, which include an awesome recurring riff by Govan. “Luminol” is as exhausting as it is amazing and addicting; it will make your jaw drop.
Things become more direct and familiar with “Drive Home.” A fairly straightforward tale, Wilson’s reflective voice is aided by lush orchestration and reserved playing. Honestly, the track almost feels like a lost Blackfield selection; it’s poppy, forlorn, and oh so pristine. Of special note is Travis’ clarinet, which adds a lovely shade. Near the middle mark, listeners are treated to the first of many exquisite guitar arpeggios, which evolves into a sentimental jam by the end. Although it’s still full of delicate layers and careful transitions, it’s by far the simplest, most radio-friendly track on ‘Raven,” which is quite alright.
Next up is “The Holy Drinker,” which begins with an ominous intent similar to Opeth’s most recent work. Dark keyboard echoes cover fiery lead guitar while panicked percussion meets hectic horns. Here Wilson’s melody is damn near menacing, but it fits perfectly for the subject matter. Of course, Beggs’ bass dances around everything with style. The second half of the song ventures off into more irresistible musicianship, and it recalls elements in the same fashion as “Luminol.” Simply put, it kicks serious butt.
“The Pin Drop” is wild and urgent; Wilson’s voice is agonized during the verses and a resolute during the chorus (which is enhanced by more harmonies). The song almost feels like a lullaby due to its psychedelic tones, and the way it constantly switches between calm and chaos is masterful. Travis is especially effective near the end, as his timbres explode with color. In an interview with MusicRadar earlier this month, Wilson explained that the story “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…” Even without reading its meaning, one can tell that something malevolent and irredeemable is occurring within the song’s framework.
With its majestic transformations, sorrowful and fragile tone, lovely arrangements, and grand scale, “The Watchmaker” is possibly the best piece on ‘The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories).’ It begins with Wilson’s character lamenting his wasted life (which includes an initially loveless marriage) as a superbly sad guitar arpeggio provides the perfect musical painting. He sings softly, allowing each sentiment to linger. Soon the guitar lines change as flutes, keys, and more falsetto cries increase the emotion. Later, the music swells as the second movement comes in—Travis’ flute cascades over swirling organ, biting guitar licks, and focused drumming. It fades away as the third movement introduces another striking piano melody, as well as the Watchmaker’s most direct message to his wife: “You were just meant to be temporary while I waited for gold. We filled up the years and I found that I like having someone to hold.” Wilson’s interest with the life unfulfilled is expressed brilliantly here. Finally, the fourth section sees the band branching out into more spacey territory as the character utters his final remarks with chilling gothic grace. “The Watchmaker” alone makes ‘Raven’ a magnum opus.
The album concludes with its title track, which Wilson considers one of the best songs he’s ever written. Once you fully appreciate its subtle but overwhelming grief and poignancy, it’s hard to disagree. The song begins with a slow melody and piano chord progression, as the protagonist sings softly about his distress. As Wilson explains in the aforementioned interview,
It’s about 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 guy is now at the end of his life, and he’s never been able to form any other kind of relationships. He’s spent his entire life alone, unable to relate to any other human beings. A raven begins to visit this man’s garden, and the raven begins to represent 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.
After trying to reason with the raven, the old man seemingly gives up; one can imagine him curled in a ball, weeping as he begs, “Sing to me, raven. I miss her so much. Sing to me, Lily. I miss you so much.” These lyrics, coupled with its melody and the accompanying music (which encompasses with intensity and refinement), make the work utterly heartbreaking; in fact, it’s Wilson’s most painfully beautiful composition since “Heartattack in a Layby.” Don’t be surprised if you shed a tear while listening.
‘The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)’ is a work of genius, plain and simple. Wilson has a track record for dazzling duality; he’s crafted some of the best songwriting and music of his generation, and this legacy is maintained flawlessly on his newest album. His vision, dedication, determination, and exploration as an artist are remarkable, as is his ability to channel his vast influences into a sound that’s always unique and daring. ‘The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)’ is one of the most exhilarating, meaningful, and individualistic albums he’s ever made. While there may not anything here as immediately enjoyable as, say, “Insurgentes,” “Deform to Form a Star,” or “Postcard,” the pieces on ‘Raven’ are more evolved, intricate, and brave than those on his first two solo albums. In fact, as fantastic as they are, his previous two LPs feel like mere glimpses of the potential realized on “Raven.’ It’s arguably his most complex, cohesive, and consistent album yet (solo or otherwise), and it’ll be remembered as a benchmark in his career. Regardless of what other projects he ends, begins, or continues after this, ‘Raven’ proves that Wilson’s solo persona may just be his best.
For more on Wilson's work, check out my recent interview with him, as well as my interview with Porcupine Tree bassist Colin Edwin, below.