This third album from British singer/songwriter, Steven Wilson is anything but difficult. Following two-plus decades establishing his reputation primarily thru the rise and rise of his Porcupine Tree project, the Hertfordshire-based musician seems to be on a roll: a meeting of minds with Stockholm metal innovator, Mikael Åkerfeldt has prised open a creative seam characterized by an ability to juxtapose pure pop craftsmanship with the sonically-challenging. That they both share a love of ’60s folk rock, avant-garde pop and bedroom troubador melancholy is the key to the astonishing series of albums that they have – individually and collectively – produced since 2009, including Opeth‘s Heritage, Storm Corrosion‘s eponymous debut and Wilson‘s last solo outing, Grace for Drowning. They make dense, multi-layered records that are more accessible than they reasonably ought to be, yet pull no imaginative punches. If you were lucky enough to get hold of one of the 5000 special edition pre-orders, your listening experience will be enhanced by a beautiful 10″ hardback volume including Wilson-penned expositions of the six ghost stories accompanying each song, plus studio demos and assorted multimedia gubbins. His select but dedicated audience eat this stuff up and the £40 I paid for it before Xmas last year seems like a snip for such quality product.
The cast of characters behind the scenes is the latest incarnation of Wilson‘s touring band from the Grace For Drowning dates: keyboardist Adam Holzman, stick-man, Nick Beggs, Marco Minnemann on drums and guitars by Guthrie Govan. Whilst Wilson entered the studio with songs sketched out to a high level of detail, it was always his intention to let the final versions reveal themselves thru live-in-the-studio chemistry between the band members. Their essence is ably-captured by studio veteran Alan Parsons behind the console, the latter invited to the party by Wilson on the strength of his work with Pink Floyd in the ’70s.
The Raven… is definitely closer to Grace… than Insurgentes, as one might expect given the band-driven approach: there’s much more of the long-form symphonic mode of composition showcased within Raider II and Remainder the Black Dog, though whilst the dynamics are as varied as ever, the transitions are smoother and more organic. The more jarring left-hand turns of the first two albums have evolved, for the most part, into mood shifts that feel more intuitive, though no less dramatically-satisfying, and the juxtaposition of conventional rock/pop with heavy, grey, emotionally-dense dronescapes is conspicuous in its absence, along with the Darkwave-influenced feel of much of Insurgentes.
Opening cut, the 11-min Luminol will already be familiar to most Wilson aficianados: a live recording has been in circulation for a while. The urgent, drum and bass-driven intro has rightly been compared to vintage Yes, and it, especially the ‘Tempus Fugit’ harmony vocal does feel a little derivative. Cleverly, though, just when you feel you know where the song is headed, the clanging bass and distorted keyboards give way to a shuffling, slow, jazzy section that, melodically and in mood is the closest Wilson strays to his PT years, In Absentia/Deadwing period specifically. Like the other long-form compositions on this album, it’s full of nuance and dynamism, pulls the listener in from the off and there’s no sense of it outstaying its welcome. The pace picks up again for a climax that recycles and resolves the opening motifs.
The Holy Drinker is a fitting centrepiece for the record, seguing thru multiple movements that showcase the talents of each musician, most especially Holzman: he really owns this song with some seriously dark and dirty keyboard parts. They anchor the song thru its twisty ten-minute journey even as guitar and sax fly off into the ego ether.
Drive Home and the title track embody the kind of rich, aching melancholy that has long been a staple of Wilson‘s ouevre. Both benefit from string arrangements which lift them to a level that his work with PT only hinted at, and whilst the former explodes into a soaring, wheeling guitar work out, the latter develops more gradually, building denser, rounder layers of orchestration, accented by strategically-placed notes on flute and piano. There’s more than a passing resemblance to Radiohead‘s Pyramid Song, a piece that Wilson has in the past described as ‘devastatingly beautiful’. Such approbation is apt here too. The elegiac tone is leavened with a sweetness never so fully realized before in Wilson‘s work: it’s a perfect end to the album. Released as a trailer shortly before the album, it’s accompanied here by an animation by Jess Cope, whose work also accompanied Storm Corrosion‘s Drag Ropes.
In short, this is Wilson‘s best album to date. He has pared back his writing to develop his own strength as a songwriter and composer, whilst simultaneously – in a manner akin to Miles and other jazz-rock greats – thrown open the doors and invited in the cream of contemporary talent to more fully realize the potential of his ideas. If certain of Wilson‘s long-time followers mourn the apparent stagnation of PT, I for one, would be intrigued by the possibility that he might at some point reconvene that band with this new-found sense of artistic freedom. What sets The Raven… apart is his ability to assimilate a multiplicity of creative modes in pursuit of better harnessing and refining his own unique vision. A new PT that similarly unleashed the approaches of – in particular – Edwin and Barbieri would be a fearsome beast indeed. In the meantime I don’t miss that band at all: this one is just too good, and it’s tempting to believe that its potential remains scarcely tapped. It’s a supergroup in all but name, and The Raven… has barely taken off.