Steven Wilson has been making records for more than 30 years and releasing albums in various guises (Porcupine Tree, No-Man, Blackfield) for more than 20. And yet he remains largely a well-kept secret, lionised mainly in the world of progressive rock: his last album, The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) was Prog magazine’s critics’ Album Of 2013, while that mag’s readers voted it at No.9 in their 2014 survey of The Greatest Prog Albums Of All Time. Remarkably, it was the only contemporary record by a long mile to feature in a Top 10; its closest competitor in chronological terms was Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, from 1975.
In many ways Wilson, a boyish 47, is the bridge between prog’s classic era and its present-day incarnation. Not for nothing was he entrusted by the likes of Yes, Crimson and Tull with providing faithful new 5.1 surround-sound versions of such early-70s prog sacred texts as In The Court Of The Crimson King, Close To The Edge and Aqualung. Likewise his music bears echoes of prog’s legends while also having one foot firmly in the modern (prog) world of Radiohead and Opeth.
If any Steven Wilson album is going to delight both generations of prog, and even reach beyond that genre’s scope, to rock fans in general, it is his fourth solo album, Hand. Cannot. Erase. It’s a tour de force of experimental music making, from the lyrical to the lacerating, with passages that enchant and others that singe the synapses./o:p
Like Wilson’s beloved The Dark Side Of The Moon, the album that fired his love of the long-player in the first place, it takes the listener on a journey. It can be a bumpy ride.
The songs on The Raven were inspired by the supernatural stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Hand. Cannot. Erase., too, is about ghosts, but of a different kind. Its provenance is more recent, but just as mysterious and chilling: Wilson was “completely spellbound” by Dreams Of A Life, the 2011 drama-documentary about the tragic death of Joyce Vincent, an attractive, popular and ostensibly successful 38-year-old woman who died alone and whose decomposing body was discovered, in January 2006, beside the flickering light of a still-functioning television in a North London bedsit, having lain there for more than two years.
He uses this grimly poignant event for an evocation of isolation and alienation in this super-connected social media world. Again he employs his super-proficient regular team of Guthrie Govan on lead guitar, Nick Beggs on bass, Adam Holzman on keyboards/piano, Marco Minnemann on drums/percussion and Theo Travis on flute and saxophones to extrapolate on the theme. Needless to say the playing throughout is superb, and allows the listener to luxuriate in the musicianship while appreciating the songs themselves.
The album is book-ended by two two-minute instrumentals, heightening the impression of Hand. Cannot. Erase. as a concept: First Regret, a ballad, opens with the sound of children’s laughter, the sort of banal hubbub that would have been heard outside Vincent’s flat; Ascendent Here On… is the elegiacal closer, featuring plangent piano chords and a boy choir. In between there is music both mournful and majestic. The 10-minute Three Years Older is like a concise history of progressive rock, with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young harmonies, a Who guitar riff here and a Yes (circa Yours Is No Disgrace) bass attack there, followed by some Floydian melancholy and ELP-ish keyboard drama.
The title track has the dynamic surges and thrusts of prog, with the melodic appeal of orchestral rock, Wilson’s voice anonymous enough to serve as cipher (he occasionally assumes the identity of the ’Vincent’ character) or narrator. Perfect Life segues from ambient synth wash to electronic pulse. Routine is a duet between Wilson and Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb, an episodic number with crescendos and lulls. Home Invasion opens with cinematic synths and staccato electroid stabs.There ensue several minutes of cosmic interplay between Govan and Holzman, which begs the question: what has this got to do with poor Joyce Vincent? Ditto the 13-minute, multi-part Ancestral, which is unashamedly epic and the fullest expression of Wilson’s penchant for both warp-factor progtronica and 70s keyboard pomp. The guitars chug with the controlled savagery of metal, the drums and Mellotrons duel to the death.
But none of it seems germane to the subject at hand.With Wilson – as with all great prog – you have to suspend disbelief and check in your literalism at the door. On Hand. Cannot. Erase. the puzzling demise of a beautiful young woman is merely the launch pad for a series of musical and lyrical forays that are quite stunning in their scale and achievement.You might dismiss them as the grandiloquent meanderings of overinflated virtuosos. Or you might hear Wilson proclaim, on Happy Returns: ‘The years just pass like trains – I wave but they don’t slow down’, then solemnly pause before repeating: ‘Don’t slow down.’ At which point, with a stifled guffaw, you may conjure mocking images of Ricky Gervais’s character in The Office in meaningful poet-troubadour mode. But more likely you will be awed by the scope of the undertaking and commitment to ravishment.
Not sure what Joyce Vincent would have made of it – she was more of a soul and funk girl – but lovers of rock both classic and current will be blown away.