Steven Wilson is one of music’s best producers and, as I ranted and raved last year, quickly becoming one of progressive music’s best songwriters, as well. Hand. Cannot. Erase. was, as I’ve just recently written again, a triumph. However, like all triumphs—yes, all of them—part of honing in on the “triumphant” is knowing when to edit. That doesn’t always mean that what was cut was bad, of course, and 4½ is Steven Wilson and his trusty (and ridiculously talented) band knocking out 37 minutes of excellent leftovers.
Turns out that Steven Wilson‘s slop is better than most writers’ best shot. The record—maybe EP, but it feels a little long for that at roughly 37 minutes—is made up of six great songs that don’t reinvent Wilson’s sound, but rather revisit his previous work. 4½ is made up of four leftover tracks from Hand. Cannot. Erase., one from The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) and a stunning live duet between Ninet Tayeb and Steven Wilson of an old Porcupine Tree song (“Don’t Hate Me”). 4½, essentially, proffers 6 reasons to be excited for Wilson and co.’s forthcoming 5th album and then drops the mic.
The first four songs here sound pretty clearly like the leftovers from the Hand. Cannot. Erase. sessions. “My Book of Regrets” offers the brittle guitar tone and driving, catchy chorus that could have placed early on in the 2015 full length. “Happiness III” strikes a similar tone, while also featuring a chorus that sounds like The Beatles as interpreted by REM. These are interspersed by “Year of the Plague” and “Sunday Rain Sets In,” both are atmospheric, bittersweet instrumentals. The latter features a jazzy and, at times, dissonant tone which reminds me of some of Opeth‘s later material, but neither stray far from Wilson’s propensity for sad, sweet songs.
The track I’m fairly certain came from the Raven sessions is “Vermillioncore,” which features a “Luminol”-like bass line and has the feel of a jam track that was edited into shape. [EDIT: Turns out I was wrong, this track is from the HCE sessions and “Year of the Plague” was from the Raven sessions. Is my face red…] The musicianship on here—it goes without saying at this stage—is exquisite, with all the guys Wilson works with delivering excellent performances. However, it’s Nick Beggs’ virtuoso execution on 4½ that gets the most love here, with the bass guitar taking center stage in the mix and as a performance. The production being balanced, spacey and light, Wilson cedes Beggs’ bass a lot of room and the end result is a fat, gorgeous sound that drives the whole record forward.
EPs don’t usually get reviews around here, but 4½ is just too good to ignore—and 37 minutes is basically a full length anyway. While this record doesn’t even try to conceptually live up to Hand. Cannot. Erase., each song stands on its own, and the whole is a well-paced and delectable nibble that will hold fans over until the next album.
[PS: the video is from Hand. Cannot. Erase., not 4½.]