Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Steven Wilson's Raven and the Blackest Maw

There is no way to describe the absolute blackness that surrounds the front of a ship at sea during a moonless midnight. The captain and crew might be comfortable getting their bearings from the ship’s instruments in this environment, but a lone landlubber like me feels enveloped in an overwhelming maw. Additionally, winds at sea blow unhindered by obstructions, both natural and man-made. They seem as if they could whisk the largest of men out into the inky void.

I had purposefully held off on listening to The Raven that Refused to Sing until spring break, when I had the good fortune to go on a Disney cruise with the extended family. I hoped to harness it as the private soundtrack for my first-ever sea voyage, but traveling with the Little One afforded me very little time to wander about with headphones on. I did have the opportunity to sneak off late one night, however, and I meandered around the upper decks until I found myself in this oppressive nothingness at the ship’s fore. Even with the album as a shield, the experience was overpowering. I did not have the constitution to linger there for long, but while I was there I connected with the amazing guitar solo in the tune Drive Home (starting at around 5:09 here).

As I became more familiar with the album, I found that all of the musicianship was equally virtuosic. On The Raven That Refused to Sing, Steven Wilson gathered a supergroup of prog illuminati. They are perhaps not the most visible players or ones from well-established groups, but they are the musicians that move behind the scenes, quietly pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the liner notes of amazing albums.

Although it is clearly Wilson’s project, The Raven That Refused to Sing is indelibly stamped by the idiosyncrasies of the musicians involved. Marco Minneman’s drumming is, as always, incredible, but in particular, Guthrie Govan shines brightly. In recent years, Wilson has downplayed his lead guitar voice, and although I miss his melodic soloing, Govan’s fluid and emotive style makes him a stunning stand-in. His masterful playing made me believe in the power of the guitar solo again.

As incredible as the musicianship is on the album’s surface, the conceptual undercurrents on The Raven that Refused to Sing also play toward Wilson’s deeper strengths. His distinctive brand of breathy, insular melancholy permeates the album’s examination of loss, loneliness, and isolation, and his lyrics are impressionistic enough to be multiply interpreted.

It’s interesting how having a child will change your perspective. Things that I once would have found emotionally interesting can now force me to pull the car over and weep. For example, this title track to The Raven That Refused to Sing relates a sense of sustained, unendurable loss, and I initially interpreted it to mean that the narrator had lost a child. I found myself thinking about how I would feel if I lost the Little One, and the effect of that burden as I grew old. It was unbearable – an emotional, conceptual maw that was no less oppressive than falling out into the inky black of a starless night at sea.  That Wilson can capture this is darkly magical.

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