Pity the poor musical genre known as prog. Full of symphonic intent, narrative bravado, and long instrumental passages loaded with tricky shifts in tempo and temperament, it catapulted bands like Yes, Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake & Palmer to stardom in the early ‘70s while fortifying the comparatively underground followings of King Crimson, Caravan and Soft Machine.
Of course, when it fell out of commercial favor later in the decade thanks to the punk revolt, prog was viewed for what it often was – bloated, self-important pop pageantry. Today, in an age when just about any pop genre with a retro slant has an audience, prog was reinvented by bands like Porcupine Tree with a harder, more guitar-centric feel. It was taken to even more metal-esque extremes by trendier acts like the now-defunct Mars Volta.
But The Raven That Refused to Sing, the third solo album by Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson, returns to the heart of prog’s orchestral heyday and makes some intriguing updates.
First off, the album’s six compositions – split evenly between longer suites and more concise pop reflections – operate with a musical vocabulary that extends far beyond the work of Wilson’s contemporaries. Some of the sounds are unapologetically retro. For instance, the Fender Rhodes electric piano colors of Adam Holzman strike like Big Ben against his Jan Hammer-like mini Moog sprints at the onset of The Holy Drinker while the layers of string-like sounds Wilson summons from the very mellotron used by King Crimson on its 1969 debut album underscore Luminol.
The guitar work, primarily by Guthrie Govan and Wilson, broaden the sound. They counter the album’s somewhat weighty storylines with lighter, warmer, pop-inspired melodies on Drive Home that recall the solo recordings of ex-Genesis guitarists Steve Hackett and Anthony Phillips. But the team also roars to life regularly with warp-speed, jazz fusion-style runs and generally beefier orchestration that, despite the might, doesn’t paint the music into a stylistic corner in the tradition of many modern prog units, even Porcupine Tree.
Further fleshing out The Raven That Refused to Sing’s longer passages is the flute and saxophone contributions of Theo Travis (a frequent collaborator of King Crimson chieftain Robert Fripp) and the string arrangements of Hatfield and the North/National Health alumnus Dave Stewart. Topping its all is The Raven’s extraordinarily crisp sound. For that, thank engineer and prog-pop everyman Alan Parsons.
Wilson himself operates as ringmaster. Even his lyrics and vocals are downplayed as lead devices in favor of a huge, luscious sound that summons prog’s past from its undignified demise and refashions it to give The Raven That Refused to Sing an altogether fetching voice.