Saturday 2 March 2013

After the headphone dust has settled...

Their is a major problem with being a fan of a particular band or artist and attempting to write a review of a new album by said artist, to a strict deadline, in order that the review is posted on or before the official release date. That problem is objectivity, or lack of it. Fuelled by the adrenaline of anticipation, the fanboy's (or girl's) immediate reaction, unless the record is truly awful, is a spewing forth of hyperbole, a gushing sycophancy, accompanied by a general star-struck demeanour.

In my case that artist is Steven Wilson and the album was The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories). I submitted my review to DPRP and have since realised with hindsight that it could be construed as somewhat fawning, although it is odd that the two most gushing reviews came from colleagues who are SW newbies. My review was tempered with mild criticism, but after reading my mate Phill's acerbic take on it, I promised myself to revisit the album after the sturm und drang had subsided. The "sturm" of course includes the live concert on Monday, but, impetuous chappy that I am I ain't gonna wait that long!

The only way I could do this properly was to sit down and listen to all 3 of Steven's solo albums to date, back to back, so that I could glean a semblance of context, progression, call it what you will. My listening is restricted to the albums proper, so any gems hidden in the bonus tracks are discounted. Sitting through this lot was a task that was hardly taxing, I must admit!

In order to put my Raven DPRP review in context I am going to have to bite the bullet and continue with the dreaded, and in my opinion, unnecessary, marking system. Album grading is carried out in these contexts:

1. I regard Porcupine Tree's peak as being The Sky Moves Sideways and Signify albums. The former is a modern take on Floyd space rock, the latter is a more slick and polished version of that, and, if there was any justice, Signify should have been their breakthrough album, not the dogs' dinner faux-metal of Fear Of A Blank Planet.
2. In the world of prog if, say, Close To the Edge is a 10/10 and Going For The One a 9/10, then those two PT albums above are a 9 and an 8.5 in my opinion. When giving something high marks one has to remember that in ten years' time are you going to be playing Raven or whatever as often as the real classics? If you're being honest, probably not, eh?

The solo debut has the feel of a true solo album, a real "one man show with guests" if you will. Part Porcupine Tree leftovers, part weird experimentation, this was made with the influence of late 70s and early 80s UK indie, the sounds the then teenage Wilson grew up with.

Standout tracks:  
No Twilight Within The Courts Of The Sun - a wildly adventurous mash up of The Cure and spiky prog metal, including a classical piano break, and bloody marvellous it is too!
Significant Other - Steven goes shoegaze...OK, some of you think he's spent his entire career "gazing at his plimsoles", but this is a lost shoegaze classic.

Phill bemoans the lack of tunes on Raven, but there are no more "tunes" on Insurgentes to be honest. And, in my opinion, tunes are not the be all and end all anyway. Moody, broody and very dark, Insurgentes is SW at his most inward-looking.

Conclusion - for fans only: 6/10
What? Only 6? Look at it another way - if you got 60% in an exam, you wouldn't be disappointed, would you?

Grace For Drowning
In which "the band that isn't a band" was first tentatively assembled, which makes it all hang together so much better than Insurgentes. Grace For Drowning is a sprawling beast of a double album that translated so well into the live setting on the last tour.

Standout tracks:
Sectarian - Jazz-prog done properly, right up my particular avenue!
Deform To Form A Star - Stands out because it sounds like an old-fashioned (pre prog-metal) PT song, and doesn't really fit here. Nice tune though.
Belle De Jour - The calm before the storm, an utterly lovely but brief slice of instrumental melancholia built around Steven's simple but effective acoustic guitar figure.
Raider II - That oh so unusual thing - a modern prog track of epic length that isn't either; a) a mess (Anesthetise come on down), or b) instantly forgettable. I'll even forgive the Crimson and VDGG references writ large. More jazz-prog for astronauts!

Conclusion - 7.5/10
Maybe in need of a bit of editing, as there is a 9/10 60-minute album here, but full marks for taking risks.

The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)

Luckily for you, I'm not going to review it again, just attempt to contextualise it, so bear with me.

GFD was a promising departure into a freer and more jazz-based territory that was not followed through fully on Raven, an opinion that holds from my original scribbling, and Steven seems to largely have put on hold his knack for penning a compact tune in favour of a more open ended but still structured approach. However one has to remember that Insurgentes is not all soaring shoegazey pop songs, as the likes of Salvaging and Abandoner confirm, but when you compare TRTRTS to Insurgentes it is safe to say that both are rooted firmly in the past, albeit with both eyes on the "now" unlike many other regressive rock bands of today.

TRTRTS looks back to the classic prog era while Insurgentes looks to the bleakest of Cure influenced indie and shoegaze for its inspiration, and both are equally valid sources. Insurgentes feels like it's telling you "I'm going out. I may be some time", leaving the listener wondering what will be brought back from the unknown, and GFD seems to be scrabbling around in the hinterland of left-field prog and assembling all sorts of scary delights, whereas TRTRTS has brought back the shopping and is laying on a feast that is maybe just a bit too perfect.

While nowhere near as bad as Phill's review/attack would have you believe, neither is TRTRTS the canine's testicles as occasionally my review might lead you to think. Good as the album is, it just does not seem to be pushing any envelopes, and is only the second time I consider an album associated with Mr Wilson can be said to have a "safe" feel to it, the first being The Incident after which, coincidentally or not, Porcupine Tree where put on hold. In defence of my DPRP review there were a few instances of doubt expressed there which the benefit of hindsight has only served to confirm, I'm afraid. Having said all that, TRTRTS is still damned good and will almost certainly feature somewhere in my top 10 of 2013.

Standout tracks:
The Holy Drinker - One track that does keep the jazz groove alive. Come on down, Theo Travis!
The Watchmaker - A great song and a story that tugs at the heartstrings, even if the music is a bit on the reverential side.

Conclusion - 8/10
Without question the most cohesive of his solo albums to date; I thought I was going to have to reappraise this downwards, but, in the context of the previous two albums it is definitely "better", in terms of songwriting (tell me The Pin Drop is not one of his best post-PT efforts, if you can), arrangements, production, you name it.

My only caveat is that has Steven's muse become a bit too reliant on past glories from the golden age of prog for inspiration? Knowing him though, it's probably all intended that way anyway, and the next album will hopefully take another turn. This leads me to wonder where Steven will go now, and I only hope he takes a long break, which in his world is probably all of 3 days, before he begins to rouse the muse again. We wouldn't want him to burn out after all.

There are prog fans who seem resentful of Wilson's "Prog God" status, but who else in the UK could release an out-and-out prog album that gets in the charts, top 20 no less. That's the real charts, not "Biggest selling CD in Yorkshire" by the way. Without SW it is doubtful that a magazine like Classic Rock Society Presents Prog would sell enough to survive, particularly given its ridiculous cover price, and a major outlet of news for the less commercially viable acts would be lost. I might not agree with that mag's stance, but it's the only one we've got, so more power to them.

If Steven Wilson carries on this upward trajectory then it's only a matter of time before Jools bleedin' Holland acknowledges the existence of a music outside of his safe indie and R&B remit, and invites SW and the lads on to Later. Can't imagine that there is any other UK prog act capable of that, can you?

Finally, a word or several about SW's sanctimonious drivel on his Facebook page recently. You've probably all seen him there, sitting at the head of a dining table laid with empty plates, the text bemoaning the fact that because a review copy was illicitly shared prior to release he will be made homeless. Well, not quite, but you get my drift.

Firstly I would bet that 90% or more of the folk who found this and downloaded it are fans who had either already pre-ordered the thing or subsequently bought it. The other 10% happened on it by chance not knowing who he is - unlikely given that I couldn't find the file share when he publicised it anyway - and if only 1 person in that 10% buys it or goes to a gig, he's actually profited from it. In other words; has he lost sales? Answer: almost certainly not.

Had I not had a review copy (and no, it wasn't me who uploaded it) and I had found it, would I have downloaded it? Of course I bloody well would, I'm a fan, I want to hear it asap! But, as with most SW fans, I want the hi-spec audio that goes with the territory, which is why I had pre-ordered it weeks ago. The reason SW releases all his work in every high-end audio format is precisely because he knows that's what his fans want.

The only type of "musicians", and I use the word advisedly, who really lose out big time in the download wars are the Britneys and Justins of this world, whose fans are not the slightest bit concerned with 5:1 mixes or fancy booklet artwork. They are more than happy with crappy mp3, and, they probably have far less disposable income to spend on their idol of choice's wares anyway. If Tiffany comes across an illegal torrent of Britney's new waxing (yeucch - what a thought), that'll do nicely thank you very much.

And another thing, while he's probably not what might be termed "rich" SW is probably more comfortably off than most of his fans. So, Steven, get off your high horse, loosen up a bit and enjoy yourself!


  1. How do you know he's rich?

    If an album makes 1 million pounds and costs 1.2 million to promote he's still in debt!

    Many of my mates have had top ten albums and still owe the label money and are skint. I appreciate it's easy to believe the hype that musicians are "more comfortably off than most of his fans" but this isn't true. Don't assume.

  2. Well, actually I said he wasn't "rich" (whatever that is), just better off than most of us, qualified by the word "probably". Yes, it's an assumption, but a qualified one.
    The point is his reaction to a fileshare of something the vast majority of folk who got hold of it probably (that word again!) bought anyway was a bit OTT.
    Just my opinion...

  3. Possibly but it is a bit scary that a lot of people don't realise how small the margins are for musicians.

    I know a lot of people playing the same size venues as SW who are really struggling.

    At the end of the day we can only try and educate people and hope eventually they understand.

    I do agree thou that downloads do help music discovery as Neil Young said "torrenting is the new radio". Fans now have a choice, let hope they continue to pay for their music :)

  4. Yes, at the end of the day, if you like something enough you should buy the CD or go to a gig, completely agree.


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