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Ghosts in the Machine

Classic horror stories inspired Steven Wilson’s new solo album

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Brit prog rocker Steven Wilson thanks his parents for introducing him to the idea that all songs don't have to be three-minute pop gems. While Wilson was growing up, his father brought home albums like Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

"No one called it progressive rock at the time; it was just underground rock or art rock," he says.

Meanwhile, his mother was listening to classic disco albums such as Donna Summer's Love to Love You (the song's title track took up the whole first side).

"It was this disco symphony," Wilson explains. "I got turned on to the idea that you could use the album in the same way that a filmmaker would use a film or a writer would use a novel. You could do the long form movie or long form story or long form album. Ultimately, I fell in love with the idea of being a producer or musical director rather than a musician per se."

Most famous as the founder of Porcupine Tree, the underground progressive rock act that he launched in 1987, Wilson has recently turned his attention to his solo career. With Porcupine Tree on hiatus, he has issued three albums, the latest of which is the ambitious The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories).

"When you're in a band that's a democratic unit, you don't want to be forcing through ideas that your band mates don't enjoy," he says when asked about the differences between Porcupine Tree and his solo endeavors. "When you're in a band and you do all have a say, you look for common ground and that becomes a fairly narrow range. I don't have that restriction with the work I do under my own name. Effectively, I'm hiring the other guys and they don't' have a say in the musical direction. That's not to say they don't enjoy the music, because they do. But there's a sense that with my solo project, there's a wider range of what I can do with the band."

That "wide range" is certainly reflected on Raven, which opens with "Luminol," an aggressive number that sounds a bit like '70s jazz fusion; the album then veers into Pink Floyd territory with the dreamy "Drive Home" before closing with the Radiohead-like title track. Alan Parsons, the engineer who turned the knobs on Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, also engineered The Raven. Because he planned to record live in the studio and didn't want to also engineer the album himself, Wilson sought out the esteemed studio guru.

"I realized if I was going to do this live in the studio and be part of the process, that for the first time ever I couldn't supervise the recording process," says Wilson, a real gear-head who's more than capable of engineering his own albums. "I wanted to dedicate myself to being the producer and being the musical director. I needed an engineer and I needed a good one and one that was familiar with what I was trying to do. I wanted that organic '70s sound. I love the quality that albums from that era have. I don't like the sound of most modern records, including my own. I was looking for someone who was experienced and he was top of my list. We called him up and he knew who I was and even liked my work and from there it was a straightforward thing to get him on board."

As a result, the album evokes the psychedelic rock of the '70s, and it even features the same Mellotron that King Crimson used on In the Court of the Crimson King.

"[Crimson guitarist] Robert Fripp is a friend of mine," says Wilson. "He's had it in his studio for the last 30 years. I asked him about it and went down there and had the parts written out. I was going to sub what I had done on a sample Mellotron with the real thing. I didn't expect it to be that much of a difference. The Mellotron itself is almost like a proto sampler, but I was blown away by how different it was. It's hard to play and his is almost 50 years old. You don't play a Mellotron, you do battle with a Mellotron. You have to use physical force. It was tough but it was a thrill to play such a legendary instrument and the sound of it was a shivers-up-the-spine kind of moment."

Thematically, the songs on Raven are linked by the ghost stories that inspired them. The material is so literary that Wilson has even issued an accompanying 128-page hardback book containing lyrics, short stories and illustrations.

"It's a multimedia project," he says of the release. "I did read Edgar Allan Poe as a kid, but [my main inspiration] was a school of British writers that came about 50 years later. They have a more British sensibility that's slightly more stuffy and intellectual.  I started writing some stories inspired by that kind of approach. They have a sense of understated dread in their stories. They're less obviously shocking. There's more brooding sense of dread that runs through them. I kind of tapped into that."

And yet, Raven isn't a drastic departure from the kind of progressive rock that Wilson played with Porcupine Tree. But since Wilson has never been ashamed of his prog rock roots, that shouldn't come as a surprise.

    "I've been making music you might call progressive rock for 20 years now and I remember as recently as five years ago that you would get a sneer or snickering," he says. "That's gone. Most people who call themselves music lovers are quite prepared to admit that Dark Side of the Moon or Close to the Edge or Aqualung are classic albums just as worthy as any other classic album."

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