Tag Archives: steven wilson

A “Supergroup” Belies Its Contents: Blackfield’s IV

The main new sound that I’ve had in my ears this week has been an album I’ve been looking askance at in the store for awhile, but only recently purchased: Blackfield’s Blackfield IV. The main reason I had such an interest in it was that it was being promoted in-store (insofar as it was available to listen to at one of the listening stations), yet the line-up, as advertised on the front, seemed to be made up entirely of modern prog rock musicians (including the prog world’s Jack White, Steven Wilson). The juxtaposition had me curious, so I wanted to investigate.

What had happened is that I fell into the Asia trap. Asia is a band that could probably be considered a prog supergroup – Steve Howe from Yes on guitar, John Wetton from King Crimson on bass and vocals, Carl Palmer from ELP on drums and Geoff Downes from The Buggles and Yes on keyboards. There’s a lot of musical musculature there, and the assumption based on the line-up would be crazy ten-minute solos and key and time signature changes to make your head spin. But no. They made “Heat of the Moment”. Produced like crazy, harmonized arena rock fist-pumpers instead of seven-movement suites. And what’s wrong with that?

Looking at the pedigree in a supergroup, you can only understand what’s it’s going to be like in terms of each member’s previous bands sort of pasted together and shaken up. Really, though, the group could have been formed for any number of reasons, under any number of auspices. It may be an attempt for the members to go madly off in a different direction (see David Byrne & St. Vincent’s Love This Giant, which made ample use of horns for which neither musician was famous). By the 1980s, most of the prog rock bands were sick of the longwinded noodling they were famous for, and wanted to shorten things up to see if they could hang with the next generation of bands coming in. It could be that the members just interact musically in a way they hadn’t foreseen and they just decided to go with it (Elvis Costello and the Roots recently put out Wise Up, Ghost, which seemed to come out of almost nothing as Questlove approached Costello after he performed on Jimmy Fallon one night). It could just be that they wanted to play some less serious music and just have a blast in their comfort zone and gettin’ mad radio hits. There’s no way in hell that “Heat of the Moment” is not fun as hell to play (and, quite honestly, it ain’t a simple walk in the park to do so either – it’s just not at the apex of difficulty like prog was in the 70s, which was often to the detriment rather than benefit of the songs)!

With all this in mind, I feel sort of silly for looking down on Blackfield IV for not being the electrifying prog record I was hoping that it would be (at the same time, however, that was foolishly why I bought it). What it does sound like is orchestrated pop (none of which I’ve any problem with, mind you – Panic at the Disco’s Pretty. Odd. and The Dear Hunter’s Violet EP come to mind), with a lot of jangly guitar picking thrown in and some pensive vocals, though it’s the meticulous production that is mainly what makes it sound flat to me. Though it didn’t necessarily need any ‘showy’ bits, it sort of failed to capture my attention vs. my expectations. I should not have been surprised, however, as the whole prog rock ethos is based around the integration of more ‘grown-up’ genres into rock, with classical music being a big part of that (Yes, ELP), as well as keen studio tweaking.

Even so, I find that with repeated listens, such an album improves vastly, as you can kind of shake away what you thought the album might have been, and concentrate on what’s there. Sooner or later, you’ll find yourself humming something that you heard without knowing it, and you’re in.

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#13: Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)

(Kscope, 2013)

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(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.

8/10

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