Ambitious, connective and simply unforgettable, The Raven is not just Steven Wilson’s best solo album to date, it rivals his career-making work on Porcupine Tree’s 2002 triumph In Absentia, while keeping much of the experimental verve that made 2007’s Fear of a Blank Planet so intriguing.
All of it is held together, now perhaps more than ever, by Wilson’s passion for prog’s storied past. The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories), even has it stuns and delights, unfolds like a road map through his influences.
Across a six-song suite, Wilson references, by turns, the sweeping narratives of Yes’ signature projects (“The Watchmaker”), the spacey nihilism of Pink Floyd in all of its pre-Wall splendor (“Drive Home”), the boisterous musculature of classic Billy Cobham and Weather Report (“Luminol”), the nervy musical intellect of King Crimson (“The Holy Drinker”), and the literary aspirations of the Alan Parsons Project (on his title track).
Yet, The Raven — due February 25, 2013 from Kscope — never sounds second-hand or pasted together.
That’s thanks in part to spirited performances from a tour-tightened group that includes Nick Beggs (bass, Chapman Stick), Guthrie Govan (guitar), Adam Holzman (keyboards), Marco Minneman (drums), and Theo Travis (flute and saxophone), but also to the way Wilson has connected with his musical heroes in a very real way.
He’s begun working as a key figure in reissues for some of Crimson’s best-known albums, and that’s only helped Wilson more completely absorb that group’s amazing ability to meld the avant garde with smart pop music. He’s also brought in as a producer Alan Parsons himself, a mixing-board legend who worked on both the Beatles’ Abbey Road and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon before starting his own respected group.
Together, they have created a production so translucent that it’s like being in the same room with the band. The Raven is warm, roomy, deeply immersive — and that’s before Wilson really gets going on his period-piece MKII Mellotron, before he’s ever quietly conferred another of his impossibly fragile lyrical turns.
Once he does, the album moves from mournful laments to cacophonous rumbles, from desperate longing to white-knuckle tension and from great mystery to startling clarity with an ease that belies not just their very contradictions but also the difficulty of such aspirations. For Wilson, this has always been a creative mission, but he’s perhaps never found a more perfect balance.
By the time The Raven concludes, Wilson’s influences have become part and parcel of his vision. Where other bands simply ape our musical heroes, Wilson has internalized their best work, and then done something truly amazing with it: He’s made something brand new.
Better still, in dedicating himself so fully not just to his craft but also to understanding his antecedents, Wilson has made us part of his own journey of discovery and rediscovery. With The Raven, we find things both very old and at the same time fresh and exciting.
Ultimately, The Raven might be praised most for establishing a continuity across the generations. The tradition, after all, is what makes new things possible. And in Wilson’s case, these new things are some of his very best things.