Let’s not beat around the bush – when Hand. Cannot. Erase. was originally released in 2015, it immediately became one of the finest progressive rock albums released in the 21st Century, and must rank amongst the truly great albums of any era… no ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’, no ‘maybes’. Some things are just undoubtable and irrefutable facts.
Only four years later Kscope have decided to re-release the album with an additional Blu-Ray including instrumentals and other bonus track ‘Versions’. There are two potential audiences for such a reissue – progressive rock fans who have yet to hear or purchase the album, and Steven Wilson fans who already have the original. (NB, Some of the songs available on the additional Blu-Ray have been previously available on the original ‘Deluxe Edition’ Blu-Ray release.)
The question is, should they buy this re-released album?
The answer for those that have never heard or purchased the album is very simple – YES, just get it… and why the heck haven’t you already got this in your collection? (I refer those punters to my opening comments!)
Hand. Cannot. Erase. has been previously and numerously reviewed and discussed at length, so we will not be focusing deeply on the original album. However, for those that have never heard it, a brief summary. The concept is based on the tragic story of Joyce Carol Vincent about whom Steven Wilson heard via a 2011 documentary film called Dreams of a Life. She was a woman who died in her flat in about December 2003 but her body, heartbreakingly next to wrapped but not labelled Christmas presents, was not discovered until January 2006 when bailiffs finally entered the property. The television had been going continually for over 2 years in front of her decomposing body, leading some neighbours to assume someone was in the flat. Her disappearance had not really been noticed and although her family had initially tried to locate her they assumed that she had chosen to break off ties with them. She was not some sort of elderly homeless ‘bag lady’ (which would be sad and shocking enough) – she had some problems including domestic violence in her past, but she had also previously had a successful career.
The idea that in a block of flats filled with people in one of the largest cities on Earth an individual could be so disconnected from those around her that she could just die and be virtually unnoticed fascinated and appalled Steven Wilson. His album skilfully and emotionally delves into a similar story of a woman who ‘disappears’ in a city, but it is not a total recreation of Joyce Carol Vincent’s life. There is a different, more optimistic conclusion to the album’s story, but this piece is filled with themes of sadness, disconnection and anxiety. However, strangely it is not a depressing listen as the story is told with such consummate musical skill and imagination, framed in a brilliantly inspired melodic and lyrical framework. Hand. Cannot. Erase. pulls together Wilson’s musical paths over many years, including multi-faceted progressive rock songs, like 3 Years Older and the haunting and emotional Routine, or the more rock/pop slanted, such as the catchy title song or the sun-filled optimism of the gorgeous Happy Returns and the gossamer-thin and delicate acoustic Transcience. Perfect Life is a hypnotic piece in which Katherine Begley’s monologue about a girl’s memories of a brief but influential relationship with an older ‘foster sister’ is conveyed with a synth intro and then a pulsing, percussive setting over which Steven Wilson repetitively chants “We have got, we have got the Perfect Life…”
Alongside those golden moments you have the dramatic, darker heavy rock-inflected Home Invasion and Regret #9, albeit with a shimmering progressive slant, and the truly visceral instrumental tour de force Ancestral, in which this supremely talented band truly excel. Such powerful moments are bookended by the more ambient and cinematic First Regret, suffused with an atmosphere which draws you into the world of the story, and the ethereal conclusion of Ascendant Here On. This brilliant, diverse album is set out perfectly as a cohesive and engrossing whole.
What about the punters who have already got and know this album? What is the attraction of this release to the ‘already converted’?
The packaging is fine but virtually identical to the original release. The album was perfectly mixed and mastered only 4 years ago so there’s no new ‘fairy dust’ on the sound of the original. The Blu-Ray offers the most attractive elements to interest existing fans. The Lasse Hoile studio documentary and interview is well worth seeing, but this has been available on previous editions. On this new version, there is a Photo Gallery which may be of passing interest for some.
The album is presented in pristine 5.1 ‘surround sound’, which is frankly stunning… but the album was already available in 5.1 on some versions so that is not really a new feature – it’s certainly an added recommendation to those unfamiliar with the album who have the required technology. Steven Wilson is the master of 5.1 mixes and Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a fantastic example of his skills in that area.
So what’s new on this release (as far as I am aware!)?
The Blu-Ray contains the whole album in ‘Instrumental’ formats. It is interesting to hear these familiar songs stripped of their vocals, which allows us to hear the music in a different way, with elements we may not have noticed previously underneath the vocals coming much more to the fore. In addition to those pieces, there is a ‘bonus track’ of Piano Themes from Hand Cannot Erase. This is a short piece which may be of some interest but is hardly essential.
There are also six different takes on the songs in a ‘Versions’ section (all previously available in ‘Deluxe Editions’). Two of those songs are Radio Edits so are very similar to the originals, just shorter, although the edit of Happy Returns is more sparse with some of the synths and effects of the album version removed, which does cast that lovely song in a slightly different light. First Regret (Minimal Version) is rather, well, minimal! More of a mild curiosity than unmissable. Regret #9 (Alternate Take) presents a different version of the album’s instrumental ‘wig out’ – there is some interest in hearing a familiar piece presented in a different manner, but the differences are not massive – probably one for the purists who know every single note of the original solos!
The standout pieces in the ‘Versions’ section are Routine (Ninet Solo Vocal version) and Perfect Life (Grand Union Mix)… and these really are songs worth hearing. The Ninet Tayeb solo vocal version of Routine, without Steven’s voice, fully reveals the depth of emotion Ninet poured so passionately into the song. It’s truly heart-breaking and certainly worth hearing her wonderful voice alone.
Perfect Life (Grand Union Mix) is a radically different version to the original, and a full three minutes longer. The Katherine Begley monologue commences the piece unaccompanied by any music, which gives it more impact, and is extended as she recalls going to watch the barges on the Grand Union Canal. There is a more sparse and liquid feel to the early section as the girl remembers her ‘foster sister’ saying ‘the water has no memories’. The monologue returns later as the percussive nature of the song rises in power and the end piece of Steven Wilson chanting the refrain is extended and seems more ethereal. It’s a fascinating take on the song and definitely worth hearing – I think I prefer it to the original.
So what’s the answer as to whether to get this re-release?
Needless to say, if you haven’t got it the answer is obvious – just stop what you’re doing right now and just go out and get it – I cannot state that enough (have you noticed?!!).
If you only have the CD version without 5.1 and have the technology to hear this in surround sound then the recommendation is similar – this album is DEFINITELY worth getting to hear it in that immersive format.
The decision for most fans who already have an earlier edition is whether they are interested enough in the additional tracks they may not have heard before to invest more money. I would suggest that is down to just how much they are interested in the instrumentals and different ‘Versions’, which admittedly do have two great alternate versions. That’s down to the punters – but whatever your decision, this wonderful album will long be remembered as one of the truly great progressive albums – just make sure you have it and hear it in whatever format or version – that’s the RIGHT ANSWER!
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)
Same Tracks as CD in 5.1
Instrumental versions of all tracks (24-bit / 96-khz only)
01. First Regret (Minimal Version) (2:04)
02. Hand Cannot Erase (Radio Edit) (3:29)
03. Perfect Life (Grand Union Mix) (7:45)
04. Routine (Ninet Solo Vocal Version) (8:58)
05. Regret #9 (Alternate Take) (4:17)
06. Happy Returns (Radio Edit) (3:54)
Studio Documentary (filmed by Lasse Hoile)
Bonus Track: Piano Themes from Hand Cannot Erase (24-bit / 96-khz only)
Steven Wilson – Lead & Backing Vocals, Guitars, Bass, Programming & Effects, Keyboards, Mellotron, Banjo, Hammered Dulcimer, Shaker
Guthrie Govan – Guitars
Nick Beggs – Bass Guitar, Chapman Stick, Backing Vocals
Marco Minnemann – Drums
Adam Holzman – Hammond Organ, Piano, Celesta, Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Moog Synthesizer
Ninet Tayeb – Vocals (tracks 5 & 9)
Theo Travis – Flute & Baritone Sax (track 9)
Dave Gregory – Guitar (tracks 2,3 & 10)
Chad Wackerman – Drums (track 10)
Katherine Begley – Spoken Word (track 4)
Leo Blair – Solo Vocal (track 5)
The London Session Orchestra – Strings (tracks 9 & 10)
Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School Choir (tracks 5,10 & 11)
Record Label: Kscope
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 23rd August 2019 (original version 2015)
– Insurgentes (2009)
– Grace for Drowning (2011)
– The Raven that Refused to Sing (and other Stories) (2013)
– Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015)
– To the Bone (2017)