Steven Wilson’s journey as a solo artist from debut Insurgentes to his new release The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) has been a fascinating one. That first album has dark introspection and desolate beauty in equal measure. Follow-up Grace For Drowning is a different beast, with more shades of light and dark to it and with a more expansive and organic feel. Raven puts that work into context as a transitional piece, for here Wilson’s vision seems, at last, to be fully realised.
The influences that shaped Grace – the improvisational aspects of jazz, and Wilson’s involvement in remixing King Crimson’s early work – are once again evident, but this release can boast greater coherence than Grace, due in part to its unifying ‘ghost stories’ theme. It also benefits from a rather different approach to production. Wilson is settled and comfortable enough with this group of musicians to gamble on live recording in preference to meticulous overdubbing, emulating the methods used on those 1970s prog masterpieces that he has been remixing so successfully. The gamble has paid off and the music frequently builds to a thrilling intensity as the players feed off of each other. Having the legendary Alan Parsons at the controls is the icing on the cake, guaranteeing a recording of superb quality.
Luminol kicks off proceedings in a suitably explosive manner, with frenetic bass and percussion plus vocal harmonies that call to mind Tempus Fugit from the 1980 Yes album Drama. The pace and energy are high in the early and closing stages of this twelve-minute piece, with all players getting the chance to show what they can do, but it is perhaps Adam Holzman’s piano during the quieter middle section that impresses most.
The album really pivots around the twin epics of The Holy Drinker and The Watchmaker. Both are as good as anything Wilson has ever done. Drinker is moody, powerful and intense, the perfect showcase for the staggering virtuosity of the musicians that he has assembled as his band. Theo Travis particularly shines here. Watchmaker is more delicate in tone and really quite beautiful for the opening four minutes before opening out into some spectacular interplay between Guthrie Govan’s guitar and Travis’ saxophone. Piano, vocals and bass all take their turn at the front of the sound stage before a closing section laden with heavy power chords.
There are nods to Wilson’s other projects. Drive Home feels almost like a Porcupine Tree song before it expands into a closing section with a stunning Guthrie Govan guitar solo that quite simply takes the breath away. The title track is sparse, mysterious and moving; it probably wouldn’t look out of place on Wilson’s recent Storm Corrosion collaboration with Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt.
Verdict? Steven Wilson’s best work to date.