An Exploration of the Dark Side of the Human Psyche and Ravens that Refuse to Sing
As a listener, I try to find the value and merit of all music. Be it classical, jazz, folk songs, or modern avant-garde, I can find something to appreciate about all music. However, it is in Progressive or Art Rock that my heart truly lies – the creative explosion of jazz and classical musicians in the early 1970’s, who wanted more from their rock music. I consider artists like King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, and Frank Zappa to be the best that ‘rock’ music has to offer. With their extended songs, intricate compositions, stunning musicality, and overarching concept albums, the musicians of the progressive rock era continue to capture my heart, mind, and soul.
Steven Wilson is one of the many modern artists to operate in the same idiom as the prog rock masters. As a child, his earliest musical discoveries were Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby from his father and his mother’s record collection, respectively. For over 20 years, he has treaded across many genres and crafted grandiose concept albums under the guise of his band, Porcupine Tree, as well as his countless other side projects and collaborations, including Blackfield, No-Man, Storm Corrosion, and Bass Communion. In 2008, he released his first solo album, Insurgentes, in which he attempted to combine all of his musical influences under one record.
As a consummate audiophile, Steven Wilson has spent much of his time remixing classic albums in 5.1 surround sound and has and learned a few valuable lessons about the way albums used to be made. In 2011, he released his sophomore solo effort, Grace for Drowning, an sprawling double album which paid tribute to his progressive rock roots – specifically King Crimson’s controversial Lizard album from 1970. To tour the record, he enlisted a crack team of jazz musicians to imbue his compositions with a sense of spontaneity and improvisation. In 2012, he took the band – comprised of Guthrie Govan (guitar), Marco Minnemann (drums), Nick Beggs (bass, chapman stick), Adam Holzman (keyboards), Theo Travis (flute, saxophones, and clarinet), with Wilson handling some keyboards, guitar, and bass into the studio to record a followup, with the legendary producer Alan Parsons (The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Alan Parsons Project) behind the mixing board. In early 2013, The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) was released, an expertly produced and performed record, centered around the concept of the human side of classic ghost stories.
Since the release of his DVD Get All You Deserve, I’ve wanted to see his crack team of musicians in action. When I first read that the band were to perform in Pittsburgh, I immediately ordered tickets. The venue was an old converted church called Mr. Smalls – a tiny, intimate environment with standing room only. We arrived early enough to get an excellent view – second row, stage left – right in front of windsman Theo Travis and the sensational Guthrie Govan on guitar. Before the show, I ran into a few folks that I’ve met at other shows and festivals and chatted music; what most people don’t realize is that progressive rock is a very community-oriented genre and we sometimes meet and continue to meet at different events and can keep in contact due to social networking.
At 7:30, the projector began to roll and we saw images of a cloudy sky and a sinister moon. Dark, minimalistic music began to play through the PA system in stunning surround sound as we saw the moon begin to morph into the record’s jacket art. At 5 till 8, a cool mist began to permeate the room from dry ice offstage, bringing an ominous, eerie chill over the audience. At 8 PM sharp, the band began to take the tiny stage and with no announcement Steven Wilson took center stage barefoot, a Gibson Goldtop guitar hung around his neck. With arms outstretched, he conducted the opening, staccato-based riff on drums and bass that kicks off the album, followed by a funky bass groove, augmented by dissonant Fender Rhodes Lines and jazzy flute solos by. With excellent command and stage presence, he walked to the edge of the stage, looked me directly in the eye, and hit the first guitar chords of the show. The band stopped on a dime to deliver the opening lines about mortality, complete with vocal harmonies: “Here we all are / Born into a struggle / To come so far / But end up returning to dust“, before the band kicked in once more, highlighting the piece with exemplary band interplay and solos. The chaos was brought to an increasing speed and Wilson brought the band down to quiet, gentle guitar strums before delivering lines about a busker who falls dead and continues to perform even after death. The piece, entitled “Luminol”, came to a thrilling conclusion at about the 12 minute mark, leaving the audience breathless and wanting more.
Wilson, in a soft English accent, thanked the audience for attending, before arming himself with an acoustic guitar and calling off the next tune, a gentle ballad entitled “Drive Home”, which tells the story of a man who can’t face the reality of his wife’s death by car accident. As I looked around at my fellow concert goers, I could see synchronized lips tracing the chorus, “You need to clear away all the jetsam in your brain / And face the truth / Well love can make amends / While the darkness always ends / You’re still alone / So drive home.” At song’s halfway point, guitarist Guthrie Govan, erupted into a masterful improvised solo, which dripped with raw human emotion and was crafted by the pain of loss. Powerful stuff.
Another highlight for me was the fifth song of the set, “The Holy Drinker”, perhaps my favorite track from the new record, which tells the story of an evangelist who engages the devil in a drinking game. The piece, like the lyric content, is heavy – opening with panning Fender Rhodes courtesy of Adam Holzman, the music takes you through a journey of jazzy twists and turns, with dueling soprano saxophone, guitar, and Mini Moog solos. At around the 2 minute mark, the piece turns into a very 70’s-influenced groove on organ and bass and hard rock guitar riffs. The piece comes to a break neck conclusion before erupting into dissonant tritones and wailing sax solos, describing in music being literally ‘dragged down to Hell’, complete with orange lights behind the band. Steven, once again, donned an acoustic guitar and contrasted this piece with a ballad track from the Grace for Drowning album entitled “Deform to Form a Star”, which opened with an extended piano introduction that pulled from both the classical and jazz genres equally and supplemented by tender clarinet lines. The ballad, which lasted around 7 minutes, seemed to pull heavily from Pink Floyd with slightly psychedelic tinged lyrics: “Crawl into your arms / Become the night forever / Coiled and close, the moment froze / Deform to form a star / Here on earth together / I got time to share and a well used stare“.
At the conclusion of the piece, a curtain fell down in front of the band, startling several audience members, and sounds of clocks began to swirl around the room as video of a man’s dark eyes was projected onto the curtain. At the conclusion of the film, Wilson strummed the first few chords of another epic piece from the new album entitled “The Watchmaker”, the story of a man who lives for 50 years with a woman he doesn’t love, driving him to murder her and bury her under the floor in true Edgar Allan Poe fashion. However, for the rest of his life, he is haunted by his wife’s shadow on the staircase. The piece transitions through several different movements over its 12 minute runtime, including guitar and flute solos that build to a dramatic conclusion with Wilson on bass, dissonant guitar growls, and frantic drum rolls. At the conclusion, Wilson spoke through a kind of voice modulator that lowered his voice several octaves, bidding us welcome and telling us the story of the Watchmaker, before moving onto the next character in his sideshow, The Collector. The Collector is a man who can only relate to people as objects and is detailed in a song from the Grace for Drowning record entitled “Index”, a bleak, industrial inspired piece with minimalist drum rolls and chapman stick with the cold refrain: “Hoard. Collect. File. Index. Catalog. Preserve. Amass. Index.” Accompanied by images of mannequins and preserved insects from the video, the piece took on an entirely new life from the album version, with a thrilling conclusion and an excellent, culminating flute solo and orchestral swells from the keyboards.
This transitioned into another song from Grace for Drowning entitled “Sectarian”, an instrumental with rhythmic similarities to King Crimson’s “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part 2” and in turn, not entirely dissimilar to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. After some jazzy solos in the middle, at the refrain of the piece’s melody line, the curtain fell with a cheer from the audience and the band was no longer cut off from us. Following this, the band played two tracks from his debut solo effort Insurgentes, including his tribute to director Harmony Korine, before returning to Grace for Drowning material with “Raider II”, an epic piece with a stunning runtime of 20 minutes. Opening ominously with murky piano notes and lyrics about the twisted mind of a serial killer, the piece is a powerhouse of progressive jazz fusion, complete with Steven teasing band members around with a vinyl copy of the abysmal Love Beach record by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The piece had a big finish with epic chords and wild solos, the audience erupting in applause of appreciation.
After “Raider II”, Steven once again played a ballad, this time the album’s title track, “The Raven that Refused to Sing”, a piece about a man who lost his best friend – his sister – at a very young age. As children, she would sing to him and as he sees a raven come into his garden, he feels as though the raven is his lost sister and if he can get it to sing, his beloved sister will return. The piece, which is essentially a single melody, develops and builds into a thrilling conclusion at the end. Accompanied by an animated film, Steven sang his heart out in perhaps the most soulful fashion I’ve ever heard from him. It was hard not to feel a little uplifted as the band walked off stage one by one, leaving Adam Holzman to play the simple melody one last time, before the stage went completely dark.
After cheers of encore, the band predictably took the stage once more and played about 2 minutes of “Luminol” again, this time as a parody of the 60’s group The Shaggs, and the results were messy and hilarious. With a smile, Wilson cut off the band, before playing the real encore, a piece entitled “Remainder the Black Dog”, which segued into “No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun”, from Grace for Drowning and Insurgentes, respectively. The former, being my favorite song of his, was a thrill and surprise to see live, while the later was expertly placed to finish off the concert on a strong note.
At the end of the show, my head reeling from the amazing experience I just had, I met the rhythm section (drummer Marco Minneman and bassist Nick Beggs), but I was simply unable to put into words how much the concert really reached me. However much of a Steven Wilson fan I was before hand, I am much more of one now. After having heard the new album in its entirety and most of Grace for Drowning, I left with a whole new appreciation for both albums. I believe every music fan should experience a live gig close at least once in their lives. Aside from being extremely loud, it is the mutual connection between artist and fan that can only be found in this situation. For instance, during Govan’s expertly crafted solo in “Drive Home”, I could feel him feeding off of the energy of the crowd from the first couple of rows. It was communication purely through music and truly an experience I’ll never forget.
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