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!

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