Ear. Cannot. Forget.

I’ve been wanting to write this “mini review” almost since my first play of Steven Wilson’s release Hand. Cannot. Erase. but I haven’t for some reason. I don’t really know why, maybe because I knew I’d be writing a gushing piece and I didn’t want to appear to be fawning towards him after my gushing review of Raven.

In all honesty, the news back in late 2014 that he was releasing this album in many ways troubled me – I didn’t want it to arrive. I loved Raven so much, it didn’t seem possible that it could be improved and I didn’t want to be disappointed. I ordered it, of course, in fact I ordered the deluxe edition as I tend to always do these days.

I chose to give it a first listen on my Astell & Kern player with IEMs to try and focus quietly on its content. As I’ve said before, I absorb music, every nuance. And it takes me quite a long time to feel comfortable with a new piece. It took one listen. It was honestly one listen.

I was familiar with the proposed concept from the pre-release material and website, so it made it easier to absorb the storyline as the tracks went past. I’ve now got to the point where I feel I know every piece of the album in intimate detail and I’ve also had the privilege of hearing it played live in Seattle recently.

It is definitely better than Raven in my opinion, for different reasons. The tracks superbly and emotionally convey the story in a way that challenges the listener to hold back their tears, it is a sad story that many will identify with to some degree or other.

Whether that’s with the themes of isolation on a deeply personal level, or just the “always connected” themes of today in Home Invasion, there’s elements for all.

Given the superstar nature of the ensemble, you almost don’t need to comment on the musicianship but it is surely churlish not to. Each of the core musicians contribute substantially to the whole but for me the absolute highlight is the bookend solos by Adam Holzman on Moog and Guthrie Govan on guitar on Regret #9. The percussion of Marco Minnemann and bass/stick of Nick Beggs equally superb throughout.

The story throughout is, to a degree, ambiguous. It’s a matter of record that the inspiration for the album was the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Joyce Carol Vincent that was turned into a documentary Dreams of a Life. However Steven Wilson has gone on record as saying that the album is not a direct telling of that story and a few interviews subsequent to the album’s release have revealed tantalizing glimpses of the meanings. The live show takes that further forward with backing videos providing other visual clues, without telling the actual story.

I’m really not sure about the ending, in terms of the story. Again, Steven Wilson has said in interviews that unlike the Vincent story, his protagonist does not die, but I find it hard to listen to the penultimate track Happy Returns and then the final Ascendant Here On… without a vision of a sad death. With previous references to medicine chests, the line “But I’m feeling kind of drowsy now so I’ll finish this tomorrow” seems to me a possible reference to an overdose. But who am I to challenge the word of the writer.

I’m not a great fan of Steven Wilson’s band work (Porcupine Tree et al), it’s really his solo works that have left an impression on me, and this fourth solo release has shown an artist confidently growing with each new release. I no longer fear another release, in fact I’m intrigued as to the direction he takes next. Whatever direction it is though, nothing will take away the immense beauty and power of 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Shortly after writing the above, Steven Wilson was interviewed at the Montreal Jazz Festival and if you have time to listen to the full 45 minutes, I think it clearly emphasizes what I’d already written. I can identify so clearly with what he says and it only goes to emphasize what I feel, that he is one of today’s preeminent musicians…

Ranting and Raven

It seems that whenever I take to the internet to post something, I’m either ranting about something, or raving about something. Which is fair enough I guess – if you’re somewhere in the middle, chances are you have nothing to say anyway. Well this time I’m raving. Raving about a Raven, specifically one that refused to sing.

Let me start by saying that I’m an audiophile of sorts, not a hundreds of thousands audiophile, but certainly thousands. And I am a music listener, let me be quite specific about this. I really listen to music, I don’t have music on in the background, well not usually anyway. My tastes in music are very broad, but very specific. My music collection although diverse, is limited to hundreds of albums, not thousands. And most of those I know well. And again to be specific, I mean I know every nuance of these albums, every breath, every string scrape – you get the picture. So it takes a rather extraordinary release to capture my attention. In the last decade I’m talking of albums like Moya Brennan’s “Two Horizons”, Kate Bush’s “Aerial”, Foo Fighters’ “Wasting Light” to name a few.

News therefore of a new Steven Wilson album was welcome. Legendary for his attention to detail, I knew that it would be something worthy of a listen at the very least.

The first listen was extraordinary, I’m about fifteen listens in now and it just gets better. I am not going to review each track, though I will straight away note the guitar solo at the end of Drive Home and of course, the haunting title track “The Raven That Refused To Sing”, more about that later.

Instead, let me try and be a little more specific about quite why this particular album has caused me to put finger to keyboard (put pen to paper in old money).

You see, I’ve been taken on a journey to my wonderful past, my 70s and 80s past. I remember, almost achingly, new releases coming out from my favourite artists like Mike Oldfield, Rick Wakeman, YES, Pink Floyd – and the pure joy of the smell of the vinyl, the first pristine listen without scratches (hopefully) of some of those masterpieces. And the months to follow, learning the intricacies of these pieces. I’d often end up buying a second copy, the learning process having literally worn out the grooves. In recent years I’d also re-buy titles on CD and then SACD or DVD-A where available and spend hours discovering nuances that I didn’t even know existed in the originals!

Listening to “Raven” was like being taken back to those golden days, the only difference was being transported back in time with equipment that I could not have even dreamed of back then.

Again, I’m not going to make this a debate between CD and 24 bit audio files, but I listened to this album from the 24 bit Blu-ray version, though my Ray Samuels Audio headphone amp and superb Sennheiser headphones. Just breathtaking quality. No scratches here, though to be fair, no smell of vinyl either.

But here’s the main reason I was transported back to then and it’s a little bit of a rant after all – sorry. I love old school production. One of my benchmarks has always been Rick Wakeman’s “No Earthly Connection”. You can hear each and every instrument completely distinctly, it’s all so precise and clear. I swear if a blonde hair fell out of Rick’s head onto the studio floor you’d have heard it. And I mean just that. So many modern recordings are just overly compressed trash, a mush of sounds all competing with each other for the attention of the speakers.

But “The Raven That Refused To Sing” has that distinct quality. Engineered by the legendary Alan Parsons, all I can say is that whatever he charges these days, is worth each and every penny.

There are some extraordinary musical performances from the ensemble and I really don’t want to single any one out in particular, but if you twist my arm, it would be Nick Beggs, but I am a particular fan of his bass and stick playing anyway (check out Stick Insect and The Maverick Helmsman to see why!)

And at this point, I would have been quite content with my purchase, and in spending the next several weeks learning this collection of six exquisite compositions. But then by some chance, my house emptied of children for a couple of hours and I decided to venture into the room with the surround sound, sadly only used these days for Harry Potter movies. And of course, I played the 5.1 surround sound version, again from Blu-ray. Oh my word.

I know I’m not the first person to say this on the internet, but I’m just going to add my vote, that this mix sets a new standard for 5.1 production. You are immersed inside the studio with these musicians. In fact Steven Wilson’s website has some videos showing the recording of the album – very old school with the ensemble sitting together playing as one. And this 5.1 mix gives you a ticket to a seat right in the midst of these performances. Sadly this will have to remain a treat for quiet days at home, but what a treat to look forward to.

I will finish with the title track. Again, a little old fashioned I may be, well OK I am, but I like albums to have a decent closing track. This ticks all the boxes. It’s emotional, it’s beautiful, it’s haunting, it’s mesmerizing and it builds to a gigantic climax and drifts off with a simply pianoforte theme. And please check out the beautiful Jess Stone stop frame animation to accompany it.

So thank you Steven Wilson for this masterpiece and thanks also to the band and Alan Parsons. Thank you for uniting the 70s with today. Thank you for caring about production. I cannot wait to hear what comes next!