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Photo by Frank White
Steven Wilson likes creepy stuff—he must. There’s no other explanation for the Porcupine Tree frontman’s new solo album, The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)—a prog-rock opus featuring six supernatural tales in the vein of M.R. James and Edgar Allan Poe, and eerie artwork by German illustrator Hajo Mueller. It certainly explains a lot of his other activities, including producing Opeth’s 2001 death-metal masterpiece Blackwater Park and collaborating with Opeth frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt on the decidedly macabre, Grammy-nominated Storm Corrosion project.
As with his compatriots in Porcupine Tree, Wilson seems to gravitate toward monster musicians, too. After touring with Aristocrats drummer Marco Minnemann and keyboardist Adam Holzman in support of his previous solo effort, 2011’s Grace for Drowning, Wilson also brought terrifyingly talented Aristocrats guitarist Guthrie Govan into the fold. Govan’s incredible legato technique and stunning phrasing lend The Raven a tastefully virtuosic guitar element that brings new dimensions to Wilson’s majestic vocabulary, and it was perhaps Govan’s presence in an already fire-breathing band that gave Wilson the courage to track the album almost completely live—a feat he never felt confident enough to attempt before. Of course, it helped that Wilson tapped one of the giants of studio engineering—Alan Parsons, renowned both for his work on Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and his many hits with the Alan Parsons Project—to oversee the sessions at L.A.’s equally legendary East West Studios.
With a lush guitar tone courtesy of a PRS Custom 22 plugged into Vox AC30 and Marshall amps, Wilson pumps out chiming, expansive rhythm parts that form a locus around which Minnemann, Govan, and Holzman—as well as bassist Nick Beggs and flute, sax and clarinet player Theo Travis—rally their estimable talents on tracks that evoke classic Yes, King Crimson, U.K., Genesis, and even Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. “Luminol” features Steve Howe-inspired staccato licks and a massive, half-time Mellotron coda, while “Drive Home” has a lush shuffle buoyed by EBow’d guitars and a wriggling Govan solo, and the 3/4-time acoustic epic “The Watchmaker” boasts the album’s most memorable vocal and lyrical touches—and they’re possibly the heaviest, darkest harmonies Wilson has ever composed.
The Raven is the first time you’ve recorded a live band—what prompted that?
For me, that’s quite an unusual way to work. I’ve simply never felt confident enough with the whole team to do that. But with this band and this engineer, I thought it was time to try it—and it came out great. We recorded the entire album live, in seven days, with the exception of vocals and a few other things I did later. There were seven songs originally, but one didn’t make the final record. Every day when we showed up, we’d pick a song and run through it a few times while Alan would be in the control room tweaking the sounds, and then it was, “Okay, let’s go for a few takes.” We’d do a few takes, then go into the control room to listen back, pick our favorite one, add some keyboard or guitar overdubs, and that was it—finished. Next song, next day. I’m a convert to that approach now. And the results speak for themselves. In some of the solos, for instance, you can really hear Marco responding to the way Guthrie is phrasing, and those types of moments become cumulative over a whole record. They absolutely give the record a more organic and warm feeling.
What was it like capturing such big,
pristine sounds with a legendary engineer
like Alan Parsons?
He did a fantastic job. It’s funny, but my only concern with Alan was, “Will this guy, who is really a producer, be okay with taking on the engineer role again?” And he was great—very happy to defer to me on production. We had a great connection in the studio.
So you weren’t interested in having him
act in more of a production role?
Alan had a number of good ideas in that respect, and he is credited as associate producer on the album, but I’m afraid I can never be really produced. I’m too much of a control person. No, I couldn’t do it—but I do understand the philosophy. It’s interesting to put yourself in the hands of someone who perhaps doesn’t have the same ideas that you do, but I just don’t know if I could do that. If I’ve written songs, I know how I want them to be born, y’know what I mean? But having someone come in with cool ideas about how to record things? That’s fabulous—that’s just what I wanted. “Let’s try this mic” or “Let’s try putting that instrument through a Leslie cabinet” … great! But the sort of producer mentality of “Can we shorn this bit?” or “Can we make this bit longer?”—no, that’s not for me. Forget it, mate!