Monday, March 11, 2013

album review: 'the raven that refused to sing (and other stories)' by steven wilson

I wish hipsters were more sincere.

Now, in a previous review I wrote about hipster music and culture, how most of it is rife with condescension, shallowness, and capricious exclusivity, and how most of their art is praised for the superficial aesthetic rather than deeper meaning. But as hipster culture has been embraced by the mainstream, I will say there is one thing about it I can praise, and that is that there is nothing wrong with liking different things. It's gotten people to check out and try new things they've never seen or experienced before, and I think that's only a good thing, particularly for the artists who have been struggling in the underground and are now getting more attention than just Pitchfork.

That being said, with mainstream acceptance comes rampant cynicism and naked commercial exploitation, and since hipster culture is built on consumption, the effects have been all the more stark. More than once I've caught myself wondering if people are listening to weird material not because they actually like it or appreciate its value, but because it's the 'in thing' to do. They're still following a herd - just one that's a bit more scattered.

But while hipster culture has introduced a plethora of new acts to the spotlight, it's also done something I really despise, and that is to drench everything in 'irony'. This is something I've never liked about hipster culture, because it's disingenuous and more than a little disrespectful to the artists who care about their work. Furthermore, it adds an additional asterisk to questions of what people like - are they liking it because it's something they genuinely enjoy, or because they're being 'ironic' or just running with the crowd? As someone who is deeply sincere about his likes and dislikes, I find quite insulting when people claim to like something 'ironically' because it's not just condescending to their audience, it's condescending to the artist. It's the hipster saying that their artwork is only worth anything as a punchline, not related to any merit or message. And the more time I've spent on Pitchfork, reading their 'style over substance' album reviews, the more I have to wonder whether or not any of their appreciation for the music is sincere in the slightest. 

And thus it's absolutely no surprise Pitchfork has tended to completely ignore the genres of progressive rock and metal, even though one would think both music genres would be right up their ally. Musical complexity, expansive soundscapes, a strong literary and classical tradition, these are all things Pitchfork loves, yet new prog albums, even independent ones, are never reviewed. But it becomes fairly clear when one considers that prog, in nearly all of its forms, is incredibly, achingly sincere music. These are artists pouring a ton of work and depth into their craft and delivering that message completely straight. It's a mindset that allowed Jethro Tull to make Thick As A Brick, an album spoofing the ludicrous excesses of prog rock that later came to be celebrated as one of the greatest prog albums of all time. And I think one of the reasons that album is so well-liked today isn't just because prog is sincere, it also actively demands that its listener be sincere, and thus Jethro Tull's spoof ended up being less of a joke and more of a tribute to the genre - or at least that was how the fans considered it. Perhaps to the genre's detriment, the majority of prog takes itself way too seriously, and it expects the listeners to do the same.

But, you know, most of the time, prog's seriousness and complexity can work well. Yes, the worst of prog rock and prog metal earn the 'pretentious' label right out of the gate, and one of the reasons the genre is considered near-extinct in modern times is because that bloat and pretentiousness got too unwieldy to be tolerated, but the best prog rock is timeless, delving into deep issues with intellect and surprising insight. Thus it shouldn't come as any surprise that prog rock and prog metal are two of my favourite genres of music, even despite my acknowledgement of some of the inherent ridiculousness and pretentiousness. In fact, I'll be the first to admit that often the musical complexity and dynamics are what redeems some of this genre from really not being nearly as interesting as the artists seem to think it is.

And on that note, let's talk about Steven Wilson.

For those of you who don't know (and I'm assuming that's most of you), Steven Wilson is an  extremely talented multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, and the frontman of Porcupine Tree, one of the best progressive rock/metal acts of the past two decades. He's extremely talented and he has a lot to say about philosophy, music, art, and the modern world - but he's also completely up his own ass and believe me, it can come through in the music. A while ago, I named him the 'prog-rock Kanye West', and the more I think about it, the more I find the comparison apt. Both are exceptionally talented producers with a keen eye for interesting sound. Both are incredibly ambitious and have pulled off strings of very solid albums. And both can talk about others and bigger situations, but they always like to reframe the discussion in terms of themselves. Now this isn't a bad thing - plenty of acts have built their style off of self-obsession - but the problem is that Steven Wilson's complete openness and occasional catty bitterness can really make him come off as an ass (again, like Kanye). And if I'm being completely honest, I'll admit I like Porcupine Tree's music much more than I like Steven Wilson's lyrics, mostly because the latter just aren't nearly as compelling as he seems to think they are. Sure, you get the occasionally great conceptual exploration (both the In Absentia and Fear Of A Blank Planet albums were proof of that), but most of the time, it's clear Porcupine Tree great musical performance is making up for deficiencies in the songwriting department.

It was even more evident that was the case when Steven Wilson started embarking on solo side-projects, and it was here that I not only began to consider Wilson a little shallow, but also more than a little insufferable. His first album Insurgentes was admittedly pretty solid, but it's also an album I will likely never listen to again, mostly because of the soul-crushing bitterness and tedium of the whole endeavour. Inspired by drone and noise rock, the soundscapes that Wilson creates are indeed dynamic and interesting and excellently crafted, but the subpar lyrics (when you can hear them - his production buries the vocals) really don't match the quality of the rest of the music. And I would be completely remiss not to mention that he accompanies Insurgentes with a movie in which he wandered the world hunting for inspiration and smashing iPods in a move of defiance against the mp3 format.

Yeah, remember that Kanye West comparison? The Insurgentes film is a lot like Kanye's Runaway short movie- tedious, pretentious, and really not worth your time. And while I'm not a fan of the mp3 format either - I like FLACs, and I've always been annoyed iPods can't play that format - but it's the kind of move that makes you seem unbelievably pretentious, particularly 

  • when most of the audience won't know the difference
  • none of the songs on the album are about this concept
  • you release your album only in FLAC format so that anyone who wants to listen to your album on iTunes has to convert it all manually!
Unfortunately, Wilson's pretentious side wasn't going anywhere, and the next Porcupine Tree concept album The Incident suffered for it, only being good and a definite step down from Fear Of A Blank Planet. But that was nothing compared to Wilson's solo follow-up Grace For Drowning, which was even more frustrating than Insurgentes. Don't get me wrong, Wilson still had a gift for expansive, powerful soundscapes, but his lyrics were more peripheral than ever. It didn't help matters that he kept throwing in random musical ideas and instruments - which didn't work at all. The nadir of this experiment is the 21 minute frustration of 'Raider II', larger parts of which are dominated by a recorder solo, the recorder being an instrument, I would like to remind everyone, that is nearly impossible to keep on key! Once again, it's not a bad album - Wilson's a great enough producer to make the majority of the instrumentation memorable and powerful - but it's a far cry from the beauty of Lightbulb Sun or the poignancy of In Absentia.

And now Steven Wilson has released his third solo album, titled The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories). I have to be honest, I had a sinking feeling in my gut the second I heard that title. But does the album live up to the sheer pretentiousness of the title?

Well, the good news is that The Raven... is a lot more cohesive than Grace For Drowning, and that many of the sonic ideas that Wilson was experimenting with on his previous album have been polished here into a much more agreeable whole. Generally speaking, I'd have a hard calling any of the tracks on the album bad, at least from an instrumentation perspective. Even the return of that damn recorder is handled gracefully and with some neat production tricks to keep it from becoming grating. 

But now I need to talk about the vocals, and like with Steven Wilson's previous solo efforts, the vocal track is often the least important element in his mix, often buried under thick effects or completely drowned out in the mix. Now to me, this can be irksome because I do pay attention to lyrics, but I also understand Wilson's looking to create a specific atmosphere for his tracks, based more around mood than words. It's something he's done before, and while I can't say I'm the biggest fan of that sort of songwriting, I guess I work with it for now.

So what is The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) about? Well, I'm glad you asked, because in my brief research (ie. Wikipedia), Steven Wilson provided a detailed digression on the thought processes he was looking to encapsulate with each track, along with its story and theme. If I'm being completely honest, I really don't like it when artists do this: it shows a lack of faith in the intellect of the listener and a failure on the artists' part to convey the themes well in the songs. I had the same problem with Metric's Synthetica, but at least that album had the faith that's we'd understand the songs and be able to fit them with the theme!

But, to be fair to the man, some of the songs do indeed do a good job encapsulating his themes. 'Drive Home' is a haunting, dreary melody about a husband trying to get over the loss of his wife in a car crash, and while Ayreon already explored analogous elements in The Human Equation over a decade ago, 'Drive Home' does enough right to distinguish itself. And the title track does an excellent job nailing that wistful, sorrowful melancholy of the old man ready to die trying to get the raven (who he believes represents his long-dead sister) to sing and provide the final consolation to ease his passing. Both are solid tunes, and definitely the highlights of the album.

However, the other four songs don't quite perform as well, for two main reasons. Firstly, a few of the tracks ('Luminol' and 'The Holy Drinker') seem rather underwritten, with the lyrics not nearly as substantial as they need to be to support the song's ideas. They're solidly interesting concepts, to be certain - the busker's invisibility in public, and a pious firebrand alcoholic losing in a drinking match with Satan - but the poetry is too minimalist to really make all the concepts materialize, and that's really a shame. But even if I wanted to hear the words and the admittedly solid poetry of the lyrics, I often can't because the mix completely drowns out large tracts of the vocals!

The other few problems are matters of tone, theme, and Wilson's ego. 'Luminol' is the biggest example of the first - you'd expect a track like that to feel sorrowful or bitter and evoke those emotions by being understated and quiet, but as much as the song is underwritten lyrically, it's overwritten musically. The song can't maintain a consistent tone, and the mood evoked by the track is much more angry than depressed, which fits the frustration in the lyrics a bit better but doesn't correlate well with Wilson's explanation. 

It doesn't help matters that Wilson doesn't really take any distance from the subject in his tales, which becomes the big issue in 'The Pin Drop' and 'The Watchmaker', songs with very similar themes and merely good execution. Both are solid songs, but Wilson chooses to insert himself as the protagonist in both songs, in the latter case breaking the established third-person perspective twice to speak as both the watchmaker and his deceased wife. And while you could argue that might add additional weight to certain lyrics, I can't quite buy the verisimilitude of the changes, particularly in 'The Pin Drop', where Wilson chooses to speak for a wife slain by her husband and thrown in the river after their unhappy marriage went wrong. When you can hear his vocals, the lyrics come across as shrill and grating, lacking any poignancy behind the roar of guitars and production (which also doesn't quite nail the tone, I'd argue). It works a bit better in 'The Watchmaker', but that's because that track takes its time to establish the setting.

Finally, we come down to the album's theme and message - and at this point, I'm having a hard time nailing that down. It's a symptom of how underwritten and mood-based The Raven... that I'm having this difficulty, but if I were to extrapolate from the lyrics and Wilson's explanations, I'd put forward this album discusses helplessness in the face of forces beyond our control, and how one can deal with it. In every case, at the end of every story, the protagonist is dealing with something he or she cannot change: the busker locked in dreary routine; the driver unable to move away from his grief; the evangelist languishing in hell; the dead wife floating down the river; the watchmaker confronting the ghost of his wife; and the old man seeing his sister in the raven. Ultimately, every case symbolizes some form of death, either literal or metaphorical (the paralysis of routine and grief), and various ways of 'coping' with it - all right, that's a solid theme for an album. 

But my issue comes down to execution. Don't get me wrong, there are places where the execution feels sincere and workable, but Wilson's insistence of inserting himself into the stories undermines some of the songs, adds that hairline crack to the immersion that becomes all the more visible when you look beyond the beautiful instrumentation and atmospherics. Let me make it clear that I don't dislike this album - the instrumentation makes up for it well, almost suspiciously so. It's almost as Wilson realized that he couldn't quite rely on his lyrics to carry the album, so he drowned them out in his mix and relied much more heavily on instrumentation - and then when he realized most people wouldn't get what he was talking about, he made explanations later, almost as an afterthought.

But really, I'll admit I'm nitpicking here. The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) is a good album that's musically complex and engaging, with instrumentation that's pretty damn excellent. But it's a good album, not a great one, and those who are looking for lyrical intricacy or tonal consistency will likely leave a bit disappointed. And yeah, while I will recommend this album, I can't say I'm not disappointed either. To be honest, I think my problem with Steven Wilson is that he has a lot of good ideas, but that he's not willing to separate himself from those ideas to allow them to become fully realized and executed properly.

Which, if you think about it, is exactly like Kanye West.

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