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Too much Magpie. Not enough Raven.
on 7 March 2013
This is a very difficult album to critique. On one level, it is an immaculately engineered, sonically beautiful piece of work. On another, it is a pastiche (rather than a homage - I'll explain why I think that below) of progressive rock, with a combination of musical near-quotes, and pretty much straight lifts, from various artists of that particular genre.
Personally, I'm torn between appreciating certain aspects of this album, and just being profoundly irritated by certain other aspects. So, to concentrate on the good bits:
The Holy Drinker, and The Raven That Refused To Sing are really good pieces of work, especially the latter. There's an air of tangible melancholy about the vocal (in fact I'd go so far as to say its Wilson's best ever vocal performance)and the orchestration is lush without being overpowering.
The playing, with one or two exceptions, is exemplary. Especially Marco Minneman's drumming, and Theo Travis's reeds. It's refreshing to hear jazzy keyboards in the context of progressive-type music, and for the most part its tastefully done.
Sonically, it's outstanding - both the stereo and the 5.1 mix are sublime.
Which brings me to the bad bits.
Lyrically, I was surprised to see how slight this was. The album had been given an inordinate amount of pre-publicity surrounding its theme of Victorian-eqsue era Ghost stories, so it was really disappointing to find that the songs contained quite sparse lyrics. I appreciate that the super-duper 40 quid limited edition version has the stories, but feel that if you're going to down the road where only a select few, with deeper than average pockets, are the only ones who get to hear the songs "in context", then two things are likely to happen, and both of them involve shrinking your paying market (either people who don't buy the 40 quid set will try and download the bonus material, or they'll take their music buying business elsewhere) Regardless of whether you like the album or not, Rush's "Clockwork Angels" had a similar narrative with adjoining book approach, but the major difference is that the Rush album had sufficient lyrical and narrative content to appreciate the overall story that was being told. And there were no restrictions in buying the book :-)
And, finally, on to the derivative issue. I've been a fan of progressive music (amongst many other genres), for more years than I care to remember. And I've always felt that there's a huge difference between between "influenced and inspired by", and "I like that piece of music - I'll just lift it and plop it here and see if anyone notices". When the "New Wave of Progressive Music" (catchy title) turned up in the early 1980s I thought that a lot of it was guff, but some of the work being done was in the right spirit, even if the musical vocabulary was a little close to that of the original bands (early IQ spring to mind). However, Marillion's Grendel was still, and will forever be for me, a bad Supper's Ready clone, and because of that I can't take it seriously as a piece of work. However, in the context of their career, it's forgiveable, because they were young men in their late teens/early 20's wanting to emulate their influences growing up. Not-so-young men in their late 40's doing the same thing suggests catering to a constituency, or being a little too self-indulgent.
This album has two moments in particular that just really got on my nerves. Unfortunately, one of them is the first track, Luminol, which starts by straightforwardly lifting a key bass/drum part from Yes' Into The Lens, from the Drama album. Might not sound like much, but for me it's really jarring. Not as jarring as the rather large quote from Pink Floyd's Shine On You Crazy Diamond which somehow finds itself in the middle of one of the instrumental sections of The Watchmaker. I suppose my point here is that Wilson (and almost certainly some of his musicians, and Alan Parsons) will have known where these lifts came from - the Drama one isn't that obscure, and you're not telling me no-one involved in this hasn't heard Shine On. It would have been fairly simple to have just changed the arrangements to avoid the "duplication", and then - whilst it would still have been "heavily influenced by", it wouldn't have been "I like that piece of music - I'll just lift it and plop it here and see if anyone notices". Other non-verbatim quotes include (and here's a parlour game for you - see if you can spot them all)
Patrick Moraz - The Story of I (clue - it's a minimoog solo)
Islands - King Crimson
White Hammer - VDGG
Siberian Khatru - Yes
The Musical Box - Genesis
as well as liberal smatterings of Gentle Giant, and the odd bit of Camel.
Which is why I'd describe the album overall as pastiche, rather than homage - the referential stuff is too close for me to be ultimately satisfying.
And finally, for all Guthrie Govan is an alarmingly competent guitarist, I miss the slightly wonky charm of Wilsons lead playing - there's much more character in Wilson's tone and phrasing than Govan's technically proficient but a little too fusiony-for-my-tastes leads.
Overall, then, I'd find it difficult to recommend this too heartily - for me Insurgentes and Grace For Drowning are better written (if not necessarily better played). I'm glad I bought it, as the good just about outweighs the bad, but for me it's not a five star purchase.