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“I think I've become a better storyteller over the years," Steven Wilson says, discussing the fullness of feeling and mad passions that run throughout his forthcoming solo album, his third, titled The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories). “There’s an overall theme that runs through the record, which is each piece being a self-contained ghost or supernatural story. But like all great books of short stories, all of them together make a cohesive piece."
Other powerful, recurring elements that inform the album's six epic, bravura tracks are the fear of mortality and end-of-life regret. Wilson admits that such subject matter is rough, dark stuff, but he stresses that the message, along with the sound of the songs, is ultimately reassuring. "We all share these feelings," he says. "Nobody is alone in these thoughts."
Because of the expansive song length that has become a hallmark of much of his work, particularly as the singer, guitarist and frontman of Porcupine Tree, along with his celebrated remasters of albums by King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Wilson has often been called a "progressive" artist – a term he is not entirely comfortable with. Labels aside, he sees himself as having tremendous freedom in not being bound by the conventions of the three-minute song.
“It's incredibly liberating," he says. "At the same time, it’s hard to get it right, because the minute you throw away the rulebook on how you structure a song, you risk falling flat on your face, which I’ve probably done over the years with some of my long pieces. But I think I’ve gotten better at it."
The manner in which Wilson recorded The Raven That Refused To Sing differed dramatically from his previous solo efforts (2008's Insurgentes and 2011's Grace For Drowning) in that he cut tracks live in their entirety with his recent touring band (Marco Minnemann, drums; Nick Beggs, bass; Adam Holzman, keyboards; and Theo Travis, flute, saxes and clarinet; guitarist Guthrie Govan, who played in the studio, is a new recruit).
“It was scary yet fun," Wilson enthuses. "Scary in that I was actually making a record where I couldn’t control every aspect of the performance, but exciting and easy because I had faith in the band. These guys are constantly blowing my mind. The compositions were written for this particular lineup, so I was consciously giving them stuff that I knew they were going to have fun with – including myself.
Wilson produced and mixed the album, but as he was operating as something of a "musical director" for the band, he knew he needed an ace engineer. He got that, but he got something else, too – a legend. "Alan Parsons was was top of my list," Wilson says. "He’s made fantastic records with The Beatles and on his own, and he recorded what is, for many people, the best-sounding record that has ever been made, which is Dark Side Of The Moon. I'm so glad that I was able to do this album with him."
Songs were tracked in three or four takes, and while everything from amps to keyboards to EQs was analog, the final data capture was digital, which Wilson says afforded him enormous liberties for editing. "We didn't cut things up like a lot of people do nowadays," he says. "But I could take elements of one take and put it in another. It could be a solo from one take that was put onto another. That's a great way to work."
As a scrupulously crafted, brilliantly sustained emotional experience, The Raven That Refused To Sing succeeds massively. But the most marvelous and thrilling thing about it (and the most surprising) is how it comes together inside your head once it's over. Repeated listenings reveal new subtleties and meanings. Wilson, ever the southpaw, doesn't deal in easy, straightforward advances; he creeps up on you invisibly, unhurriedly, ultimately invading your soul.
On the following pages, Steven Wilson discusses The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) track-by-track. “The record was made with a lot of passion and commitment, and a great sense of joy, too," he says. "One of the great ironies about this kind of music is that lyrically it’s quite dark; the music is melancholic, very aggressive almost atonal; but it’s a very, very beautiful and uplifting album."
You can pre-order The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) at StevenWilsonHQ.com. The album will be released 25 February.