Steven Wilson is not one for rest. Between his extensive touring schedule, his work as front-man for the acclaimed Porcupine Tree and his burgeoning solo career, Wilson has still somehow found time to remaster King Crimson’s early discography. Beyond the iconic In the Court of the Crimson King much of King Crimson’s early discography has received far less attention than it deserves. In large part, this is due to the release of some rather poor remasters between the 1980s and 2000s. However, Wilson’s new remasters (in most cases, mastered from the original eight and sixteen track tapes) have giving new life to these benchmark records, hopefully allowing them to become inspiration for future waves of musicians. The first wave, not surprisingly, arrives from Steven Wilson himself, whose latest album The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) merges passages of jazzy prog rock in the vein of early King Crimson with his own signature style of prog rock ballads.
The fingerprints of King Crimson are all over this record. It’s loaded with acidic solos on saxophone, mellotron, flute, guitar and organ that nod to King Crimson’s most jazz-infused records, Lizard and Islands. But make no mistake about it: in King Crimson Wilson finds a source of inspiration, not a mere idol to mimic. King Crimson’s jazzy brand of prog rock is blended with Wilson’s emphasis on personable and relatable stories. Despite all the virtuosic musicianship on this record, The Raven that Refused to Sing is very much a narrative-driven record.
Steve Wilson’s “Luminol”
The lyrical themes—loss of love, aging, death—are communicated in a manner that is easy to connect to. Wilson avoids the grandiose and instead opts to tell powerful stories about regular people: watchmakers, part time musicians, alcoholics. The level compositional complexity is always harmonized to that of the lyrical narrative. The songs with straight-forward lyrical content (i.e. “Drive Home” and the title-track) are structurally simple, while the songs with more nuanced stories (i.e. “The Watchmaker” and “The Holy Drinker”) have more dynamic song structures.
The album’s highlight is “Luminol,” which works as a sampler of everything Wilson has to offer. During the opening four minutes Wilson throws down the gauntlet, offering an array of solos on flute, sax, guitar and mellotron over a series of heavy, driving bass lines. The surging showcase is briefly interrupted by the a capella declaration: “Here we all are/ Born into a struggle/ to come so far/ but end up returning to dust.” The lines color the entire passage a sense of strife; even the most glorious displays of talent are conditioned by mortality and will eventually fade into the ether. The second half of the song is a stark contrast, both musically and lyrically. A mellifluous interplay of flute, guitar and piano accompany Wilson’s story of a man who plays guitar in his spare time as an escape from the toils and monotony of his daily life. The opposition between the frantic fatalism of opening passage and the dreamy, contemplative second passage is ripe with philosophical suggestions, but the lyrics are sparse enough that the listener can derive a variety of meanings from the song.
Wilson shows such craft throughout The Raven that Refused to Sing, making rather complex compositions appear quite easy. For an album with such an insane amount of solos, some unconventional song structures and some really intricate passages, The Raven that Refused to Sing is a really easy to get into. It’s full of great hooks, silky vocals and captivating stories. For fans of Steven Wilson, this will not come as a surprise, but those who haven’t explored Porcupine Tree or Wilson’s solo projects are encouraged to give this a listen. Even if prog rock is usually too rich for your taste, there’s a good chance the personable stories and delectable melodies of The Raven that Refused to Sing will win you over.
Written by Jael Reboh
OurVinyl | Contributor