Album Review: Steven Wilson - 'Hand. Cannot. Erase.'

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Steven Wilson continues his hot streak of lush, catchy, engaging, and modern progressive rock with his fourth album, Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Steven Wilson is modern legend in the progressive rock world. His fame partly comes from how many different hats he has worn over the years.

He's a multi-instrumentalist, capable with singing, guitar, bass, drums, a slew of different kinds of keyboards, and electronic programming.

He is a producer and mixer, having sat behind the helm not only for all of the literally dozens of records he has made in various groups, but also for prog groups such as Opeth, Fish, and Anathema.

He has been behind the helm of a slew of 5.1 remixes of classic albums within the prog rock genre, spanning from Yes to King Crimson to Caravan to Jethro Tull.

And none of this touches on the sheer breadth of styles of music he has worked in across the many bands and projects he has created over the years, spanning progressive rock, metal, krautrock, drone, ambient music, singer-songwriter, trance, alt rock, and art pop.

He went solo in 2007, shuddering all of the groups he was a member of at the time. Since then, he's released four albums: 2008's post-punk, noise, and shoegaze-influenced and Insurgentes, 2011's sprawling experimental rock/progressive rock double album Grace for Drowning, and last year's lush, symphonic, retro prog throwback record The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) and this one, Hand.

Cannot. Erase., his fourth.

Conceptually, the album revolves around a character loosely based on the life of Joyce Carol Oates, a Londoner found dead in her flat nearly two years after she passed away. Curiously (and tragically, obviously) enough, she wasn't left undiscovered for so long due to being an elderly hermit.

She was a young woman, had a job, had friends, had family.

It's a dark mysterious thing, how someone in the prime of their life living in one of the biggest cities in the world with an active social life could pass away and be so utterly forgotten.

Wilson's central character for his record is somewhat less tragic; instead of dying, they find themselves involuntarily withdrawing from the world for three years, growing ever more desperate and confused and hurt and alienated and sick with longing and anger as the years rock on, only to reemerge to find no one missed them and nothing really changed and no great insight was found on their end.

The album opens with "First Regret," which is more or less an ambient intro track meant to set the stage. It features dreamy piano and electronics intermixed with the sounds of distant laughter and rain before transitioning into the first real song of the album. "3 Years Older" opens with a tightly strummed odd time groove accompanied by synths that wouldn't sound of out of place on a modern Rush record.

The song alternates between modes evoking early Yes and A Farewell to Kings-era Rush (fitting, as that was when Rush's Yes influence was worn most proudly on their sleeves). It evokes the same mode as "Luminol," the opening track from Steven Wilson's previous solo record, in its obvious mixture of retro prog rock and alt rock.

The song is structured like a classic prog rock tune, shifting and pivoting over the course of its 10 minutes as opposed to possessing clear verse-chorus-verse song structure, with a few recapitulated melodies appearing in various forms to give the song a sense of direction and organization.

Like Steven Wilson's previous solo records, the song features numerous sections for his all-star cast of backing musicians to cut loose with some solos.

The third track (and second real song), "Hand Cannot Erase," begins the shift into the voice that differentiates this record from Steven Wilson's previous solo records.

It's a curious beast, a pop rock song in 9/8 and a bridge that sounds like it could come straight from an XTC record.

It's superbly catchy and features the most bluntly poppy melodies in Steven Wilson's solo work, if not his entire career.

The next song, "Perfect Life," opens with a spacey bed of synthesizers with pointillist guitar melodies and electronic drum beats and a brief monologue laid on top. It then shifts to a gloomy, almost Nine Inch Nails-style electronic section, before Steven Wilson's vocals come in.

His voice adds a touch of dream-like melancholy.

It's a bittersweet song, his soft longing vocals laid over a nearly angelic bed of pristine guitars and taut drumming. Layers are added one after another over the course of the song, before, suddenly, it cuts off.

What follows is the next lengthy track, "Routine," opening with a soft upper register piano melody, Wilson's longing vocals, and the sound of the sea. The shift underscores the melancholy and sense of isolation in the previous track; as we approach a transcendent burst of joy amidst the bittersweet, we are pulled back into a distant longing melody. This track builds layers over time, repeating the cycle of the previous tracks of isolated instruments attempting to break through an icy sense of isolation and alienation.

But where other tracks would simply build and build and become more and more intense, "Routine" often strips itself back down to a single piano, a single plucked guitar, a solitary voice.

Where the other songs find their attempt to reach out thwarted in the end, "Routine" finds its efforts scraped away in the trying.

The music's frustrated attempts of overcoming alienation through cathartic bursts of sound echoes the theme of the record.

The next two tracks, "Home Invasion"/"Routine #9," function as one lengthy piece split into two tracks. "Home Invasion" begins with a jazz prog groove not unlike the opening track on Opeth's most recent album Pale Communion, "Eternal Rains Will Come." The rhythm section locks in a heavily syncopated groove featuring organ, spacey synths, and a meaty bass tone, while the two guitarists trade knotted licks over top.

Three minutes in, the song cuts back to a distorted organ groove evoking sounds of Deep Purple at their most progressive and heavy with a chorus of a spacey Floydian dreamscape.

Wilson's knack for melodies and production and mixing offer a more compelling vision of the somewhat standard modern prog sounds than most, offering a strong argument for why these sounds are so compelling in the first place.

The second track of the piece, "Routine #9," is comprised of two lengthy solos, one from pianist Adam Holzman and another from guitarist Guthrie Govan. They both play over the same lush bed of cosmically-inclined synthesizers, evoking one of Genesis' solo trade-offs between Tony Banks and Steve Hackett.

Its another moment for Wilson to let his all-star band shine, and it's a welcome one; Holzman and Govan earn their spots here by using their solos as moments to craft gorgeous, rich, and incredibly moving melodic solos as opposed to rote shredding.

There is superb technical prowess in the solos, of course, but they are sublimated as tools to evoke the emotional response they aim for as opposed to ends in and of themselves.

Of course, this is no knock at absurdist virtuosic music from groups like Behold the Arctopus or Orthrelm, but very rarely are bands guilty of aimless shredding doing it on purpose.

The next song is a brief 2-minute ballad not unlike a Genesis ballad (a recurring influence on the record) called "Transience." It features a finger-picked classical guitar arpeggiated melody and subtle keys and bass to enrich, with a gentle, almost lullaby vocal on top by Wilson.

It's a gorgeous and, judging by the title, deliberately all-too-brief song.

This is followed by the last lengthy track, "Ancestral," a 13-minute slowly evolving piece. It begins almost like a Portishead tune, being built around a trip-hop programmed drum beat with xylophones, piano, strings, and synths fleshing out the melody. Its tone is much more dour and distant than the previous songs.

Whatever previous sweetness there was to the bitterness is gone, replaced with heavy metal sturm und drang.

The songs tone is one of monolithic, majestic, and almost cinematic isolation.

There is a profound sense of distance and longing in the melodies and harmonies, reaching up and up, straining against their limits for some kind of potent catharsis or human connection that is continuously denied, the music dialing back down to tense beds of synthesizers just as the breakthrough note is about to be played.

This song, like most of the others on the record, leans into narrativizing its concept more through sound and juxtaposition of melodies and ideas rather than lyrics. The middle section features a dissonant finger-picked guitar melody, evoking a sense of the corruption of the spirit in isolation, a growing wickedness in isolation. This is where this song, and the record as a whole, succeeds wildly as a progressive music piece.

There is a brief jazz flute-led ambient section that, instead of cutting the tension, makes it catch in the throat.

The return of the heavy riff following that brief break finally gives the last cathartic push needed, and all without need for a single lyric to make that clear.

It paints with shifting sections, layered instrumentation, and evolving melodies the shift from bittersweet longing to despair to the anger that compels the character to break their isolation at last.

The final full song "Happy Returns" opens with the sound of rain and a strummed guitar. Lyrically, the song is about the return of the character to the world. There is an off-handed oblique reference to the Porcupine Tree song "Trains," which is fitting given that the focus on strummed acoustic guitar as the center of the track is similar.

The song, both musically and lyrically, is a bittersweet self-recrimination, doses of soul and souring notes.

The album arcs like an involuntary hero's journey, the main character cut off and isolated not by choice, seeking connection and meaning and something redemptive in their isolation.

But here, on the closing song, where typically a lesson might be imparted and the wisdom of the hero framed and presented to the listener, especially common in this kind of concept album format, instead we get the sense that the main character learned nothing, gained nothing, that they sought to make something of their isolation but only felt alone.

The reaching melodies, seeking to touch the listener, offer an avenue of escape; not isolation but human connection. But if the arc of the album tells us anything, if the nature of the isolation of the main character communicates anything, it is that we are not always in control of these circumstances and that there is not always something that can be made from our circumstances. It is a dour message, but it is a heartfelt one, deeply explored and deeply felt in the music.

The closing track, "Ascendant Here On...," acts as an outro for "Happy Returns," letting the album drift off into humming gospel choir synths and the sound of rain.

It is a reemergence into the world having learned a bitter and painful lesson. It closes the record on a tremulous and sad note, not one of triumph but one of yearning.

Wilson's sonic amalgam of progressive rock, 80s alternative, electronic music, and pop give the album a tremulous feeling. It quivers between anger, melancholy, and hope, never picking one but yearning somewhere in between.

What is left is an increasingly desperate sense of hurting.

Wilson places in the center of his prog the thing that matters most, a beating heart, in what can sometimes be technical, cold and robotic.

It's as intensely emotional as it is musically competent, as moving as it is lush and orchestrated, as human and utterly relevant as it is theatrical.

The positive reviews across the board from other venues other than ours are for a reason; whether the venue loves production, musicianship, prog, art pop, art rock, tender emotionalism, or just the romantic but utterly necessary notion that art is important and that music can save your soul, there is something here for you.

A strong (and early) contender for album of the year.

Image taken from Steven Wilson's Facebook page.