(Image from Artswrap)
I don’t know Steven Wilson all that well. I have listened to a Porcupine Tree album or two (I remember distinctly enjoying “The Sleep of No Dreaming”), but never got very in-depth with what is considered to be one of the cornerstones of modern prog. As a prog fan, I’m beginning my penance by listening to Steven Wilson’s 2013 offering, which grabbed me with its name as much as anything else. Who doesn’t love a good story?
Right off the bat, “Luminol” seemed to confirm my worst fears. It’s the longest track on the album, at 12 minute and 10 seconds (doesn’t mean it’s bad, but modern prog musicians seem to have a ridiculous obsession with song length, which I frankly don’t share), and is an inconsistent mishmash of aggressive drumming with a jazz-like structure of each instrument taking a solo in turn. The only vocals that appear in the first half are leaning far forward, seemingly as if they can’t wait to get out of there and back to more instrumental passages. The mood changes several times throughout the song, and none of them seem to match that of the lyrics describing a young boy learning the licks of his guitar idols. The track wasn’t horrible, but just struck me as “typical” modern prog, where the emphasis is on musicianship and noise rather than any melodic content – the guitar solo in it is quite nimble, however. It’s not the histrionics that I mind – indeed, they’re peppered throughout the album to great effect (in particular, the sax stylings of Theo Travis on “The Holy Drinker” and “The Pin Drop”). It’s the virtuosic and rapid playing that comes in at the expense of the mood of the piece.
Luckily for me, “Luminol” is the exception. The rest of the album creates great moods/soundscapes, thanks in no small part to Wilson’s piano playing. The subtle runs create a great foundation on which to pile bass, guitars, flutes, saxes, mellotrons, drums and the rest of the considerable arsenal at his disposal. The best part of “Luminol” occurs when the intro to the song returns and is underpinned with a simple, deft piano line that provides a nice soft counter to the earlier assault. On the rest of the album, these lines lead the mood with frequent restraint, the freakout sections being doled out in short bursts between. The guitar work is where the leash is let out, but the skeleton provided by the piano playing left a much bigger impact on me.
The mellotron used here is almost used as an instrument secondarily. There’s no doubt that that those sweeping four-and-five-finger chords lend an air of grandeur to the proceedings, but the use of the instrument seems to work chiefly as a reference/homage to the prog classics of old (chiefly, In the Court of the Crimson King) – it’s a quick way of adding that sort of ‘classic’ flavour, though much of the texture here, songwriting-wise, seems to be influenced by conjuring that era specifically. Many of the intricate guitarpicking waves that occur throughout evoke that sort of ponderous, thoughtful bedrock that underpinned many of the classic late 60/early 70s records.
This is not a cohesive album in terms of sound. There are general themes and styles that occur multiple times across the different tracks, but, as the title suggests, the albums is a collection of stories, each of which exists in its own world and soundscape, and Wilson is very good at employing a different, thoughtful style for each one. For a look at what prog still has to offer in this day and age, The Raven That Refused to Sing is a great glimpse into what one of the big names can produce with a considered but flexible band and at his disposal.