In 1976 a genre-defining concept album was released. “Tales of Mystery and Imagination” is the debut album by The Alan Parsons Project. Based on the horror fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, it was the brainchild of the legendary The Beatles and Pink Floyd engineer. Almost four decades on, Parsons is the engineer behind the new Steven Wilson opus – another collection of songs based on supernatural tales with a distinct Poe ambiance.
The extraordinary session musicians which Wilson assembled for the “Grace For Drowning” tour became a bona fide band during that time and this chemistry shows on “The Raven That Refused To Sing”. Less sprawling than its predecessor, the six songs are more tightly focused and all the better for it, each one an eerie vignette depicting concerns of mortality and what may come afterwards, in that undiscovered country.
“Luminol” was premiered on the second leg of the Grace For Drowning tour where it was extremely well received for a 12 minute slice of unknown material. Wilson’s Yes influence comes to the fore. Bassist Nick Beggs does his best Chris Squire impression and his interaction with drummer Marco Minnemann recalls the classic rhythm section which recorded the likes of “Heart of the Sunrise” and “Yours Is No Disgrace”. The vocal harmonies complete the Yes-shaped jigsaw, sounding like previously unreleased takes from the “Drama” album. The flow and forward momentum of this opening track are more insistent and persuasive than anything Wilson has produced so far in his solo career.
Ex-Asia guitarist Guthrie Govan delivers some stellar playing throughout the album but his extended solo on the gorgeous “Drive Home” stands out. The song itself, with its string section and lush mellotron chords, is very reminiscent of Porcupine Tree ballads (‘Lazarus’,’ I Drive the Hearse’) but Govan’s solo is quite simply astonishing in its raw lyricism and poignancy.
The jazzy inflections contributed by keyboardist Adam Holzman and Theo Travis on woodwind lend a swing and a swagger. On “Grace For Drowning” the horns and flutes seemed too conspicuous, grafted on, too self-consciously King Crimson. Here they are more integrated into the group dynamic while ex-Miles Davis sideman Holzman’s keys are gritty and earthbound, infusing the unearthly tales with a sense of worldly horror in the same way that Goblin’s synth-dominated soundtracks added foreboding to Dario Argento’s and George Romero‘s movies.
While these tales are not directly linked to Poe’s short stories, his spectre looms large. Compare and contrast ‘The Pin Drop’s’ “I did not hear the pin drop down/I did not hear my heart” with the macabre pounding that drives the protagonist of “The Tell-Tale Heart” mad. The connection to “The Raven” is self-evident and there is a general atmosphere of Gothic horror. The lyricist has never sounded more inspired, as if using another wordsmith as a springboard has seen him reach new creative heights. Vocally too, he seems to have found new confidence, perhaps allowing this band to take more control while Parsons engineers has eased the pressure and allowed him to flourish. ‘The Pin Drop’ sees him give his most demanding but best vocal performance yet while the title track sees him evoke emotions which grow from fragile tragedy to painful isolation to plaintive orison.
As a long-time follower of Steven Wilson’s work I believe this may be his best, most complete work to date in any incarnation. It would be impishly perverse of me to bury Porcupine Tree prematurely but “The Raven That Refused To Sing” seems to usher in a new chapter in his career. Quoth the raven, ‘Fucking essential.’