Concert Review: Steven Wilson’s Unsettling Prog-nosis at the Howard Theatre

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As the creative mind behind Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson has for at least the last decade been the unquestioned standard bearer of English prog rock. But ever restless, his side projects have taken him into numerous other musical styles, from the power pop of Blackfield, his project with Israeli pop star Aviv Geffen; to his ambient electro-pop with No Man; to last year’s nearly indefinable (and yes, deeply weird) Storm Corrosion record with Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt.

But with his latest solo record, Wilson has effectively doubled down on the progginess. The Raven that Refused to Sing is a dense, introspective, layered song suite, more complex and aggressive even than his work with P.T. It owes much to the work of King Crimson and Robert Fripp, who happens to be one of Wilson’s heroes, right down to the full time woodwind player as an integral member of the six-piece ensemble.

Let’s be clear: This is not music that you listen to to piss off your parents. It’s not music that you pogo up and down to. It’s not, thankfully, music that people attempt to talk over at concerts. (But God knows, neither is it music to get laid to.) No, this is music that a crowd—at least the crowd at the Howard Theatre in DC this past Saturday—stands and listens intently to, lest they miss a lyrical double meaning or worse, a drum fill stuck in among an on-the-fly time signature change.

As Wilson recently told Guitar World, he “never set out to be a guitar hero or a frontman. I originally fell in love with the idea of being a musical architect.” Indeed, on this tour, he’s playing the Miles Davis role, assembling a veritable prog all star team to do the solos and other heavy musical lifting, while he assumes the role of bandleader, overseeing how his compositions are presented live. And what musicians they are, namely Marco Minnemann, who very nearly assumed the drummer’s stool in Dream Theater following the band’s well-publicized tryouts in 2010, and Guthrie Govan, an actual guitar god who’s made a name for himself in the jazz fusion and shred worlds, at least when he’s not teaching aspiring players. He shares a jazz background with keyboardist Adam Holzman, the son of Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman.

That fact led to one of the funnier of many exchanges between Wilson and audience on Saturday. After he asked the crowd if they were having fun, a fan parroted the question back to the band. And when Holzman replied in the affirmative, Wilson deadpanned, “You’re not allowed to have fun in this band. See me later. You’re not in a jazz band anymore.”

True enough, “fun” wouldn’t be the first adjective one would use to describe the lyrical content of these new songs: two of them concern spousal murder, another two deal with death generally, and another still concerns an evangelist type who challenges the devil to a drinking contest—and loses. Even the material off his first two solo releases wasn’t much of a lift. The longest song of the night concerned (gulp) “BTK” serial killer Dennis Rader. Another deep track was inspired by Harmony Korine, the controversial (and often twisted) director of such far as the recent Spring Breakers.

If you were worried about nightmares, the accompanying visuals sure wouldn’t help–sepia-toned mannequins, clocks, eyes and people in gas masks. Think of the videotape in The Ring and you’re getting warm.

Heavy themes aside for a moment, most of the tracks demonstrated Wilson’s go-to songwriting tactic of playing with light and shade, juxtaposing elegant passages that echo latter-day David Gilmour with devastating power chord segments reminiscent of Tool. Woodwind player Theo Travis dropped in more than a few jazzy, Crimson-esque solos (a bit too many, frankly, given the presence of Govan), while Minnemann nearly kept himself the focus of attention from the back of the stage with his complex polyrhythms, frenetic fills and visually dramatic crossover stick work.

For his part, Wilson’s voice has never been stronger or more expressive, particularly on the hauntingly beautiful, piano based title track, and the older ballad “Postcard.” He joked that it was one of the shorter songs at 4:29, and yet “the radio guys are still telling us its too long.”

While Wilson’s talents certainly deserve the additional exposure, it’s probably for the best. His fans don’t want to share him. And radio wouldn’t know what to do with him anyway.

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