Contrary to the opinions of some Steven Wilson is not a genius. Like many words offering high vaunting description, “genius” is bandied about these days with an alarming ease that only serves to devalue its currency. I’ve never met Steven Wilson, but in interviews he comes across as a personable and self-aware sort of chap and I’m sure he inwardly cringes every time he reads the “g” word when applied to his good self. No, for Steven Wilson is a walking embodiment of the good old Protestant work ethic. He’s arrived where he is today, the biggest fish in the smallish pond that is European prog music mostly by dint of ceaseless hard work over the last twenty years and more, and of course he would never have ended up arriving somewhere had he had no little talent in both songwriting and production to accompany the graft, but a genius that does not make.
To listen to some of the more challenged elements at the rabid end of the Steven Wilson fan pool, you’d think the guy was on a par with Mozart crossed with Stephen Hawking! Having been a fan of the work of The Man With No Shoes since 1994ish, I can say with as much certainty as anyone that SW (it’s easier than writing “Steven Wilson” every time) has written several modern classics, albeit classics only within the clique of nerdy rock fandom. A song like Stop Swimming was never going to become the next Perfect Day in a BBC TV ad campaign was it?
SW’s workaholic tendencies have helped forge the career of Porcupine Tree from a one-man bedroom project all the way to commercial breakthrough, the latter achieved with what was ironically for me a completely wrongheaded concept played out to a disjointed mess of a soundtrack. Still, I must be wrong as Fear Of A Blank Planet broke the band, and having followed them for as long as I had, I was pleased to see it happen. Then came The Incident, which contained one very good 50-minute album within its 75 sprawling minutes of music, and following a final tour culminating at the triumphal Royal Albert Hall gig which will always hold a special place in my memory, Porcupine Tree, sensibly, was no more for the foreseeable. Thanks for the memories, guys.
You may correctly guess that the seed of an amicable parting of ways with SW and his muse and me was on the cards right back at FOABP, and you’d be right. The solo albums to date have kind of put that departure on hold; Insurgentes used sundry stylings from the indie and post-rock music of SW’s youth and young adulthood, and the result probably remains his most played solo record chez moi. And it includes the sublime Significant Other, a gorgeous slice of post-rock laid at our feet as if he’d been writing that way forever. Grace For Drowning began a homage to the original prog era, that on Raven upped the ante considerably to such an extent it bordered on pastiche in places. Wilson himself has described Raven as his love letter to jazz-prog, even going so far as describing it as “generic” in a recent interview. Still, that’s how a lot of prog (not progressive) fans like it, so who am I to complain? Remarkably, given its obvious more than mere nods in the direction of 1973, with Raven SW has crossed over and managed to draw an audience from well beyond the comfy confines of prog, and therefore a new Steven Wilson album is now AN EVENT, not just in die progwelt, but in the wider rock universe.
SW’s burgeoning regressive tendencies on the last two albums have not sat particularly well with me, and post-Raven it would have been so easy for me to forget about SW and move on, and were it not for the occasional gem like Drive Home, which has to rank as one of the best songs he’s ever penned, “hesmovedon” is exactly what would have transpired, but the likes of Drive Home, Index and the fact that it is not possible to do homage to classic jazz-prog much better than Raider II means you haven’t gotten rid of me that easily, oh no matey!
And so we arrive at the happy trails of Hand. Cannot. Erase., an everyday tale of how to disappear in plain sight, and much as the story’s unfortunate protagonist found life itself hard to grasp hold of, I am finding this record incredibly hard to get a handle on. I think that’s a good thing by the way, for had this been “Grace/Raven Part III” it would have made my job and our separation so much easier. I always had the feeling that SW would shift his muse to a different parking lot after the last two albums of “grande homage”, and much to my relief he hasn’t disappointed in that respect.
I have to hand it to The Shoeless One, he’s certainly confounded expectations where this album is concerned, and I suspect not just mine. H.C.E. will have a fair number of his new prog fans scratching their heads too, for where it would have been oh-so-easy, not to say cynical for our hero to have gone back for another spell a-rummaging through the lesser thumbed back pages of Steven’s Bumper Book Of Prog References to keep them happy, instead he has turned off down a winding thoroughfare taking in indie rock, classic references from the Tree, a shake of the locks to 70s hard rock, all wrapped up in an overarching Kate Bush-like thematic and cinematic pop sensibility. In fact the dramatics of the new song Routine place it firmly as the best 80s Kate Bush epic she never wrote. It’s heavier than that of course, but it is no secret Wilson is a fan of Ms Bush and here it comes to the fore, not just on that particular track but in the way the whole album is presented. The storyboarding and the slightly Gothic feel all serve to add to the overall “Bushiness” of Hand. Cannot. Erase. This is a good thing, too.
The 70s hard rock comes over variously in a fleeting but knowing guitar reference to Jimmy Page on 3 Years Older, possibly from Dave Gregory, and also via Adam Holzman’s funky choppy Jon Lord/Vincent Crane Hammond-styled keyboards on Home Invasion morphing into Regret #9, a song built on a long sinewy synth solo that – Praise Be! – not once hits the dreaded “Tony Banks synth patch”, coming as it does from the best soul chops of Jon Lord and Edgar Winter, and quite slinky it is, too. I do wish Guthrie could play a solo without gurning though! The corkscrew-haired one ends Regret #9 with one of his typically thespian routines, and while it’s not a style I will ever particularly enjoy, I will admit it fits in just right on this track and is kept to a sensibly short length.
It has taken me a fair few listens to even begin to get beneath the surface of this record, which I am delighted to discover is not constructed from the somewhat deceptive fools’ gold of much of Raven, and I am warming to what I find, although as yet it lacks that certain spark for me, something only time will tell. Virtually all the prog references are gotten out of the way in the first twelve and a half minutes, and the rest of the album is a refreshing change. Hand. Cannot. Erase. takes influence from across Wilson’s career, with the title track being a patented SW indie rocker that wouldn’t sound out of place next to Four Chords…, and the eerie curtain-raising atmospherics of the following Perfect Life arrive from no-man territory, including spoken word passages taken from the protagonist’s imaginary blog, which can be found over at handcannoterase.com, with the song itself sounding for all the world like the long lost brother of Don’t Hate Me.
Theo Travis is used only sparingly on this album, but his brief appearances lend a warmth to proceedings that illuminates what is definitely SW’s most human solo record to date. Theo’s flute first appears in the quiet section of the mini “Bushepic” Routine. Close your eyes and I swear you will see ballerinas pirouetting across the stage behind The Shoeless One! This is about as different as prog music could be from Raider II or Luminol while still inhabiting another part of the same territory.
The dry ice swirls and parts as Transience passes over to the other “long ‘un” of the album, Ancestral, opening with more fleeting glimpses of Theo’s reeds in a theatrical cinematic setting of ephemeral menace. Skittering, almost Aphex Twin-like beats from Marco edge the tune up a long low-incline winding neo-classical staircase, past Guthrie’s flowing capes of grandiloquent guitar flurries transmitting dramatic intent. At this point it would be wise to say that, if you’re not in the mood, this song may come over as a tad bombastic, and given my current disenchantment with long composed tracks in general I’m as likely to skip it as anything on the record. Having said that, if you’re in the mood it’s a fun ride through a cheesy house of horrors.
Happy Returns ends the album with a trademark slice of Steven Wilson soul-searching, and it seems to be an understated and distant relation of Trains.
Well, here we are at the end of the review, a place where conclusions have to be drawn. While I am pleased that Steven Wilson has not fallen into the easy trap of hitting the “repeat” button, what he has come up with here does not quite get my juices flowing in the manner of old, and for all its plus points, and there are many, Hand. Cannot. Erase. will probably be when all is said and done, the first Steven Wilson or Porcupine Tree album in twenty years that I will not be buying when it comes out. And so our slow but amicable separation continues; it’s not like you need my patronage anyway, and I’m glad you’ve made it, and I’ll still be at the gigs. Maybe sometime down the line, who knows?…
01. First Regret (2:01)
02. 3 Years Older (10:18)
03. Hand Cannot Erase (4:13)
04. Perfect Life (4:43)
05. Routine (8:58)
06. Home Invasion (6:24)
07. Regret #9 (5:00)
08. Transience (2:43)
09. Ancestral (13:30)
10. Happy Returns (6:00)
11. Ascendant Here On… (1:54)
Total Time – 65:44
Steven Wilson – Lead Vocals, Mellotron, Keyboards, Guitars & Bass
Guthrie Govan – Lead Guitar
Nick Beggs – Bass & Chapman Stick
Adam Holzman – Keyboards & Piano
Marco Minnemann – Drums & Percussion
Ninet Tayeb – Vocals
Theo Travis – Flute & Saxophones
Dave Gregory – Guitar
Record Label: Kscope
Year Of Release: 2015