There are always a few things that can be expected with every Steven Wilson release. You can expect some intense progressive rock jams, some softer moments and ballads, his strong singing voice, at least one song about a murderer and a ridiculously somber tone throughout. The third addition to his solo canon, this year’s “The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories),” delivers on every one of these, while also developing the new fascination with jazz-fusion he has shown in his most recent work.
The album begins on an exciting groove bursting with momentum. It then proceeds to run through the distinct styles Wilson hones with every one of his records, always maintaining that slightly creepy atmosphere that he seems to love so much.
Aside from giving us the standard staples of a Wilson release, “The Raven” also goes in a few odd stylistic directions that both help and hurt the record.
For one, Gavin Harrison, Wilson’s longtime go-to drummer, has been replaced with Marco Minnemann, who played drums for Wilson during the 2012 tour for his last solo album, “Grace for Drowning” (2011), although it’s Harrison on the album.
I was bummed at first when I saw that Harrison, drummer for Porcupine Tree and Wilson’s previous two solo albums, was missing behind the kit on Wilson’s last tour. He is so technically skilled and so central to the sound of all of my favorite Wilson and Porcupine Tree albums that I feared he was irreplaceable.
But I should have trusted Wilson’s judgment. Minnemann has a driving and bombastic style compared with Harrison’s more subtle and intricate drumming. It gels well with Wilson’s style choice in “The Raven,” so I’m perfectly happy with that change-up.
But there’s another style choice that bugs me.
Each of the record’s six songs is an intricate story with characters and a detailed plot. And this is Wilson we’re talking about, so of course they’re all ghost stories and most involve murder.
I’m fine with the big, dramatic stories and themes typical in progressive rock music, but the quality of Wilson’s lyrics tend to suffer when he thinks too hard about them; they start sounding just a little cheesy and forced. He revealed this with Porcupine Tree’s preachy concept album, “Fear of a Blank Planet” (2007), and it comes through again with “The Raven.”
Wilson’s lyrics are much better when you can tell he’s not thinking too hard about them. The lyrics in “Grace for Drowning” weren’t constrained by detailed plot points and grand artistic statements, and so they had a noticeable freedom when compared to Wilson’s latest offering.
Aside from being slightly set back by overwrought lyrics, this album is full of truly remarkable, eerie music that is expertly composed and executed. “The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)” showcases all of Wilson’s musical strong suits – heaviness, mellowness, grooviness and now jazz-fusion – so musically, it absolutely met the quality I’ve come to expect with Wilson’s work.
Just next time, hold the cheese.