How does he do it? How does Steven Wilson continue to create original, envelope-pushing, mind-blowing, mind-expanding music for the surround sound arena? After numerous spins, I can unequivocally say that the 96/24 LPCM Blu-ray mix of The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) (5 stars; kscope; release date: February 26) has wiped the surround slate clean and set the benchmark anew. (Sure, you can select the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 option if you wish, but 96/24 is the way to go.)
It’s that bloody good.
One of the reasons that Raven's 54 minutes and 43 seconds cuts such a wide new swath is that the man and his associate producer and recording engineer, Alan Parsons, captured the core of Wilson’s Grace for Drowning touring band performing live off the floor at East West Studios in Los Angeles last September. (You can watch the band at work in the “Studio Documentary” that was shot by longtime Wilson visual collaborator Lasse Hoile in the Blu-ray’s Bonus section.) The intuitive muscle of that band, buttressed by the addition of lead guitarist Guthrie Govan, comes through in the improvs and overall natural mastery of A-level material.
Raven commences with the 12-minute hard-charger “Luminol,” with a Nick Beggs-driven bass line leading the way while Govan’s guitar swatches ping-pong in the fronts and Theo Travis’s flute lines swirl around your head until the instrumentation halts and a massive, layered vocal bed swoops down on you. And then Wilson deploys the King Crimson MKII mellotron as Beggs’s bass returns to the center stage (and the sub channel) before giving way to keyboard wiz Adam Holzman. The second movement begins with an almost buried “Planet Caravan”-like guitar line setting the stage for the verses. Drummer Marco Minnemann deftly Bruford-izes a Yes-like passage that’s anchored in the rear channels, and there’s an elegiac vocal harmony section that would make Crosby, Stills and Nash proud.
The tone downshifts a bit with Track 2, “Drive Home.” On the verses, Wilson’s near-falsetto vocal warble weaves around his acoustic guitar figures, while the track opens up wide on the choruses thanks to the all-channel reach of the London Symphony Orchestra string section, conducted by Dave Stewart (as in Hatfield and the North/National Health Dave, not Eurythmics Dave).
Track 3, “The Holy Drinker,” opens with shimmery, Twin Peaks-ian keyboard riffage that leads into snarling guitar, a left-turn cool down, and an eventual full-channel pummeling that’s a twisted cousin to the sinister undertones of Drowning’s “Index.” (And, uh, those outro, rear-channel howls? Chilling.)
“The Pin Drop,” Track 4, is another tone break, commencing with a dreamy, clockwise, Gilmour-ian guitar line as Wilson vocalizes high notes in the center channel before a full-band, full-channel assault hits you at 1:15, with drummer Minnemann just tearing it up in the rears and Travis’s lofty sax solo teeming all around you.
The epic Track 5, “The Watchmaker,” begins plaintively, Wilson’s guitar delayed front to back as he starts singing the verses, his doubled vocal lines emphasized in the rears. The KC mellotron makes a welcome return to echo the vocal lilt before the middle movement commences and picks up the pace, Minnemman’s cymbal work sharp in the rears with Travis’s flute and Holzman’s organ setting the stage for Govan’s overdriven, down-the-middle solo. Another dialed-back movement commences with lush, overlapping harmonies until the mellotron and the band envelop and then simply crush you with their abject power until fadeout.
Raven’s titular last call, Track 6, balances yearning piano, vocal pleading, wistful clarinet and sax, and the rise, fall, and rise of the strings. It’s Wilson’s most heartfelt, raw-emotion-invoking song since Porcupine Tree’s Stupid Dream closer, “Stop Swimming.”
The breadth and scope of Raven represent Steven Wilson at the height of his creative powers, where surround sound music and mixing has reached a heretofore unheard aural apex. Our ever-searching ears are lucky to be consistently challenged and rewarded by this man’s muse.
Naturally, the upcoming tour — presented in live quad, as was the groundbreaking Grace for Drowning tour — must be seen and heard. Dates and further info can be found at http://stevenwilsonhq.com/sw/tour-dates/.
Mike Mettler has been Editor-In-Chief of Sound + Vision since January 2006, and has been on staff since (gulp) 1989. An unrepentant audiophile, he spends many a sleepless night trying to reconcile his undying love for vinyl records with his iPod and iPad obsessions. Someday, he hopes to own a turquoise 1967 Mustang fastback.