Steven Wilson - Hand. Cannot. Erase.For the last decade fans of progressive music have had the absolute honor of watching (or, well, rather hearing) Steven Wilson develop from a very good producer and musician to an excellent one, viewed by many as one of the brightest purveyors of progressive music today. This has not only happened—as such things do—because he’s in vogue for having worked with Opeth or because he’s riding the coattails of Porcupine Tree‘s unlikely success. While both of these things might be true, I see his rise as attributable almost entirely to the fact that he’s the most talented producer of his generation. Furthermore, he’s a man who appears to have become less willing to compromise on the records he produces, meaning that he has taken the right side in the Loudness War, and is using his power and status for good. The result is, of course, that the music he produces, mixes (or masters), remixes/remasters, and/or performs sound so good.

That Wilson is an amazing producer, however, is entirely independent of his status as a performer or writer. Unlike many of my friends and colleagues, I’ve rarely been moved by Wilson’s own compositions. With notable exceptions, Porcupine Tree‘s studio work leaves me cold. Nor, I must admit, was I a fan of Insurgentes or Grace for Drowning at release. Despite having long been harangued for being an Opeth fanboy, I could not get into Storm Corrosion. In fact, if you had asked me 5 years ago, I would have said that Steven Wilson’s genius is the ways in which he makes other bands sound incredible. His ear, and talent for capturing and enhancing an artist’s best elements, has often resulted in his own material sounding like quotations of influences; slightly anonymous, a bit bland—even if it sounded good. That changed for me, however, with The Raven Who Refused to Sing in 2012. That record’s playful sound and compositional consistency was enchanting, and it certainly helped that Wilson surrounded himself with incredible musicians and the record sounded like it was one long live jam. So when I heard that Wilson had a new record coming, I was intrigued: would it keep up the momentum and style of The Raven?

Steven Wilson

The answer, of course, is yes and no. Hand. Cannot. Erase. maintains the momentum, but is stylistically quite different from its predecessor. Instead, this new record is a moody concept record, which Wilson has said tips its hat to his favorites as a young music-lover. As a person who voraciously read and also loved music—a thing he and I both likely share with a lot of this blog’s readers—he loved the combination of story and music and wanted to capture that feeling here. This album does just that, telling the story of a girl who moves to the big city and disappears. The concept is loosely influenced by a real case of a woman who died alone in her apartment and was discovered 3 years later; and you can hear it. The music is a journey, moving from lush, almost happy musical soundscapes, reminiscent of Rush and Camel, and a nostalgic piano interlude on “3 Years Older” that got me thinking of some of Vienna Teng‘s work. The music early on is poppy, beautiful, and lush. Songs like “Hand Cannot Erase” and “Perfect Life” might be in minor keys and have an underlying melancholy to them, but the sound is bright, with smooth guitar and keyboard sounds, and a bubbly rhythm section driving them along.

Wide Hand. Cannot. Erase.

The album slowly gets darker, though, taking a turn towards something that woke of deep sadness in me as a listener: the artful lyrics to “Routine” read like the thoughts of a woman on the edge of collapse. The song, one of the record’s brightest moments, isn’t just brilliant for its lyrics and Ninet Tayeb’s beautiful performance, though; it reaches an emotional crescendo, mirroring a person breaking under the emotional pressure—and quotes one of the most distinctive moments from 2112 while doing so. “Home Invasion,” though my least favorite on the album once it gets going, has a sinistrous beginning which puts drummer Marco Minnemann’s1 skills on display before giving way to “Regret #9,” an instrumental that concludes the second act with a Floyd feel, keyboards floating on groove before giving way to a David Gilmour-worthy solo.

More concept art

The third act—the last 3 tracks on the album—is the record’s most melancholy and grim act, but arguably also its most transcendent moment. “Transience” reminds me of In Absentia‘s “Heartattack in a Layby,” and aches with melancholy, but has an almost optimistic chorus, and it’s followed by the record’s sprawling opus “Ancestral.” At 13:30, “Ancestral” is dark and haunting, and builds with a combination of orchestration and gorgeous vocal melodies—sent through the telephone lines, like Wilson loves to do—with heart-wrenching lyrics; beautifully written and devastating. The feel evokes Gazpacho‘s brilliant Demon, the strings and dark tones subtly gripping, before transitioning into some of Wilson’s heaviest material to-date. The orchestra, combined with tense riffing and amazing arrangement (complemented by even more Gilmour-worthy guitar work), feels like the record’s emotional peak before giving way to the final two tracks, which create a bookend with what could be a Kansas-influenced “Happy Returns” and mysterious “Ascendant Here On…”

One of the thing that differentiates Hand. Cannot. Erase. from The Raven that Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) is its tone. The production here is smooth and wet, without that trashy live sound that TRtRtS utilized. On H.C.E., there’s a heavy touch of reverb to soften the edges of, and as the record develops it gets more dreamy and distant. Early on, however, the use of what I will loosely call “electronica” on “First Regret” and “Perfect Life” is a reminder that Wilson isn’t in the business of making a ’70s prog rock cover band. This balance of the new and the old gives this record its unique flavor, while still allowing Wilson to quote at his leisure, drawing heavily from FloydCamel, Tull and the one I hear maybe the most in the balance between the bass, guitars and drums: Rush.

My biggest complaint about Hand. Cannot. Erase. is the state of existential sadness that it leaves me in every time I listen to it. Even before I knew the story, the record oozed loss, sadness, and hurt deep enough that I would walk away with a knot in my stomach, but couldn’t keep myself from pressing play again as soon as I got the chance. With stellar musicianship, a truly masterful production job that balances a whole band, electronic sounds, and the London Session Orchestra to perfection, Hand. Cannot. Erase. demonstrates how Wilson is blossoming as a composer to complement his skill as a producer, and his vision really is beautiful.

Rating: 4.5/5.0
DR: 11 | Format Reviewed: FLAC 24/96 [Purchased]
Label: Kscope Music
Release Dates: NA: 2015.03.03 | EU: 2015.03.02

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  1. Who recorded records with IllogicistEphel Duath and Necrophagist‘s DVD.
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  • Juan Esteban Mendoza

    I am glad that this album is not full of slow tempo songs like Grace for Drowning and The Raven that Refused to Sing. As much as I love those albums, I miss hearing music similar to Porcupine Tree. However this album hasn’t quite clicked on me yet. I’ll have to give it a few more spins I guess

    • Yeah, I think it’s great that this record has a blend of styles. I mean, stylistically it really demands it, doesn’t it?

  • Matthew Jeffreys

    Great review as always by AGM. I discovered Steven Wilson when Porcupine tree were going through their Prog metal phase and whilst I constantly return to albums like Deadwing, In Absentia, FoaBP & the Incident, Steven’s solo music has been a bit hit and miss for me in terms of replayability. Previous albums, although fully worthy of my respect both in terms of writing and production, have been a little too full on progressive Rock/Jazz for me. H.C.E is a slightly different beast though, as whilst being melancholy and at times very dark, it also has very catchy moments and I would say it’s his most accessible solo work to date. I can hear more Porcupine Tree in this record along with the definite nods to Floyd and Rush and for me this makes it my favourite of his solo works. Others may dislike it for those very same reasons, the great thing is that whatever his next record is, you can bet it will very different again, and that will keep me coming back for more.

    • Yeah, I love the fact that Wilson really stays on the move. I can’t say I’ll love everything he does, but I have so much respect for him as a musician and producer these days. The man is getting better, too. It’s incredible.

      • whiteadi

        also in concert is … amazing

        • I saw Porcupine Tree open for Opeth in Chicago years ago. I actually met Steven Wilson for a very short time when we were backstage. PT was extremely good live. I fell absolutely in love with some of the stuff he played from In Absentia, but could never get into any of the other stuff.

  • T.A.R.

    This release managed to pass me by, so it was a nice surprise to see Steven Wilson’s name pop up in the latest review on-site.

    I’ve generally liked Porcupine Tree and Wilson’s solo work. Enjoyed the embeded tracks and the review. Making me look forward to hearing the full album.

  • Stefano Kevin Prince Vitali

    First, if you don’t like Porcupine Tree’s studio albums, try all the live ones: where the former suffer from lack of cohesion and filler plague, the latter really cast a new light on their best material, which comes alive humming with energy and feeling. Plus, they cover PT’s phases really nicely: Coma Divine is the spacey one, Warszawa extracts the best from their middle period, Arriving Somewhere… and Anesthetize are the metallic ones

    About the record, you said everything in the review. It’s brilliant, enjoyable, musically and lirically well written (props to Wilson for tailoring lyrics to music and vice versa), and overall it’s a pleasure to hear. It even has sparks of originality in a genre that often tends to sit on the shoulders of past giants, when not outrightly mimicking it (Wilson being a culprit of this too, albeit brilliantly). Good reviewing work on this one, props to you

    • It’s funny, I hate live records. I would never listen to a live record of my own choice, but now I feel like I have to check them out to give Wilson his due. It would be ironic if Studio-Wizard Steven Wilson’s best material from PT would be on his live records.

      • shameful

        You really should listen to the record ‘live in Atlanta’ or at least the two songs off it- Dark matter and half light, they blow the original recordings away (John Wesleys voice in half light, superb) I think this would be because he has honed his craft since the original recordings

      • Tom Hardy

        Isn’t a live record a measure of a band’s true musicianship? The energy, vibe are sick. Anyone can speed up or switch things up in studio.

        • No, I don’t really think so. I tend to see records as being cohesive wholes. So I see, for example, a record that’s hard to listen to all the way through that’s loaded with good tracks as being artistically incomplete. In the same way, a live record often falls short because the band isn’t showing off a complete vision, they’re entertaining a crowd with their favorite tracks. Also, you can easily overdub guitars and stuff these days, so I don’t think it really shows much.

          • Tom Hardy

            Bands playing live aren’t showing off their complete vision? That doesn’t hold true for all or make much sense. I personally enjoy listening to a band play live, often to see if they can actually do what they do on record. And why not? I don’t see the point of seeing a band that fail to play their own songs with any coherence or aren’t for the lack of a better saying ‘tight enough’ live than listening to some mumbo jumbo they manage to pull on record. I reckon you’d love to watch your heroes lip sync their way through a concert, instruments included.

          • Let me try a different way to explain: I see a full-length record as a cohesive whole. When bands play live, they rarely play their records as a whole, which means that the placement of songs and the flow of an album becomes muddled. It doesn’t mean it’s not an important part of what they do–obviously a band should be able to play tight live–but I would much rather hear a studio record than a live recording of a band. I find live recordings to be uninteresting because they lack quality of a studio recording and they lack the cohesion of a great album. I like seeing bands live, but a great show isn’t the same thing and I’ve never heard a live record that genuinely captured the experience in a way I felt was worth my time.

  • RilesBell

    Another quality release from Steven Wilson. Everything he produces has such a great SOUND. My ears never fatigue when listening to his albums. Just such a great balance all around. Special mention to Guthrie Govan on those guitar solos – wow!

  • Kronos

    I’m excited for this.
    Also, on the topic of Storm Corrosion: the last track on that album is unforgettable, and makes the whole album worth buying to be honest.

    • Hmm. I never could get into it, but now I have to go and listen to it. LIke I don’t have other things to do.


    • André Snyde Lopes

      I personally think the title track is the real show-stealer. That album would be a lot better if it had less ambient faffing about. I still enjoy listening to it from time to time.

  • Jeff Kent

    If you want to hear more shred worthy music from Guthrie Govan and Marco Minneman, check out their trio with Bryan Beller known as The Aristocrats.

    • Been doing some investigation here. What kind of stuff are they doing?

      • Jeff Kent

        A little shred a little jazz fusion…Bryan is in Detklok and both Bryan and Marco are in Satriani’s band as well. They have serious chops, but don’t take themselves too seriously…as evidenced by Marco’s ‘rubber pig solo.’ Lest you think it’s all studio magic, they have a recent live album that might be even better.

  • Somebody needs to make clones of a genetic hybrid of Colin Marston and Steven Wilson. For metal science and betterment of musical productions everywhere.

  • brutal_sushi

    Been listening to this and Marillion back and fourth for the past week.

    • Marillion?

      • brutal_sushi

        Sounds That Can’t Be Made from 2012. British prog rock.

        • Huh. I had no idea that they were still making records.. ha!

          • brutal_sushi

            Oh hell yes they are. That was their latest release and MAN is it great. Delicate, strange, and atmospheric. I call it pretty-floyd. The last track on the album goes straight for the heart.

          • Lubo

            And what records they do!
            Marbles (2004), Happiness is the Road (2008) and Sounds That Can’t Be Made (2012) are 3 masterpieces of the British prog rock. And their live performances are unforgettable too.

          • I heard some stuff from the ’80s that I wasn’t really keen on, but now I’ve gotta check it out.

          • Lubo

            But then, I’m thinking I’m a post-Fish-era Marillion fanboy. So I’m probably not very objective. I really adore them, their music and their approach to their fans. Oh yes, I forgot to mention the album Brave – objectively one of the best conceptual albums out there.

          • I’ll keep that in mind.

          • AnnieK13

            Saw their Script For a Jester’s Tear tour in 83 (yeah I’m that old…) – Still have the six foot promo poster framed and hanging in my dining room. That was one of the most memorable concerts I’ve seen.

  • Hróðvitnir

    I was waiting for that review! Very well-written and astute. Fanboyisme aside, I really enjoy this album; the music, the production, the atmosphere. All aspects of it just blend in perfectly. Every part of it fits within the whole. His solo work has truly been, for me at least, Wilson’s rise in power.

    • Thanks a lot! I agree, Wilson breakout has been once he got on his own. I’m not sure, though, that this is necessarily because he wasn’t doing all the composing in Porcupine Tree. Honestly, I always thought PT was his baby.

  • Luke_22

    Incredible artist, incredible album. Massive fan of Porcupine Tree, but it took a while to get fully on board with his solo stuff. Now I appreciate it a great deal and this is one of his finest efforts yet. Along with Routine the second half of the album is phenomenal. And the guitar solos are sublime. Great review.

    • Dan

      He’s gotten better with each solo album, in my opinion. This one will be mighty difficult to top though!

  • AlphaBetaFoxface

    I had no idea Mr. Wilson was involved in such projects as Porcupine Tree or was even his own composer! Most definitely excited to give this a listen, the mix on Opeth’s latest blew me away. And, well, who doesn’t love an album with a strong story? Another brilliant review, captain

    • Yeah, that’s how he got his start, actually. He’s got a pretty deep catalogue. Go check it out, but I’m not a huge fan of anything until The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories), which you’ll find a link to our review of at the bottom of this review.

  • I bought the BluRay of this album. Did not regret.

  • Chris

    Glad I’m not the only one who was emotionally impacted by this album.

    “Happy Returns” almost brought me to tears the first time I listened to it. On subsequent listens, it still puts a knot in my stomach. The whole album does, really, in a way I just wasn’t expecting it to.

    • The two that kill me are “Routine” and “Ancient.”

      • Angel R. Suarez

        “Routine” and “Happy Returns” are knives in my steelheart.

        Even Jorn can’t undo this damage.

        The line “Do the kids remember me?” just oozes with emotion and weakness.

        Really a masterpiece of music.

    • Luke_22

      Yeah the Ninet Tayeb parts in Routine are particularly powerful. I also find Happy Returns to be a beautiful but gut wrenching song. Ancestral is probably the best track on the album but it’s a close fight.

    • Hulksteraus

      I got into Wilson through Porcupine Tree’s In Absentia and then got The Delerium Years (his really early stuff). I had Lazarus off Deadwing as my wedding dance… I really love his mischievous and dark humor, which is why I love listening to his albums.

      His Solo albums have been a slow burn for me, however I really dug The Raven that Refused to Sing, and after listening to H.C.E I am reminded of the other reason why I loved TRtRTS and, now, H.C.E. They are both emotionally impactful albums. In a way that reminds me of my Favourite Anathema albums, although Steve has a different emotional palette than the Cavanaghs. They have the art of melancholic and emotional melody.

    • Celaeno

      “Ancestral” is crushing me.

  • Wilhelm

    I’ll give it a go, I’m kind of hit or miss on the Porcupine Tree stuff (In Absentia yes, Deadwing – not even close) His solo stuff I’ve heard before gives off that vibe of the porcupine tree which doesn’t appeal to me. His talent as a producer is impeccable, I wish he could produce and master every modern metal album that comes out.

    • Yeah, I feel the same way about Porcupine Tree. In Absentia is half-good—love “Trains” and “Heartattack in a Layby”—but I didn’t like basically anything else.

      We need more producers like him in metal, though. He only takes on really specific types of bands, and I want someone with his talent and good taste to take technical death metal head-on and make it sound good again.

  • undeathvox

    Good album, but sadly is not The Raven that Refused to Sing, it was musicaly more inspired and more dynamic, only two songs here make me feel like the other whole album made it.

    • I think the genius of this album is about the whole and the way it feels. I loved TRtRtS, but it just had a totally different feel. It was a super fun record, but it didn’t have the cohesion and emotional weight that this one did. Plus, that one felt almost like a nostalgia trip, and I think this feels more like Wilson’s own style—which is simply less dynamic, because it’s more “sadboy.”

      • Dan

        Agreed, I love both albums but it’s how this one works as a whole that sets it apart for me too

  • Steve

    I find this album a much tougher listen than Raven because it’s far more one track. Like the review says, that’s both in it’s favour and against it. I’d prefer a more dynamic record, but i’m anticipating with a few more listens this one may end up clicking more. The best thing about Wilson though is his production, hands down one of the best producers out there.

  • André Snyde Lopes

    I dunno man, the first half hour of the record drags a lot in my hears. The musicianship is still top notch but I’m not feeling this one. I think I’ll stick to Raven.

    • Weird, I think it’s so incredibly immersive. It took a little getting into, and then once it clicked it became one of the most amazing listening experiences I’ve heard this year.

  • Refined-Iron Cranium

    Despite his prominence in the progressive music world, I’ve never given Steven Wilson or Porcupine Tree’s works much of a listen. Can anybody recommend me to which one I should really listen to?

    • Luke_22

      Well you have a huge backlog of material to explore and he’s had quite the extensive and diverse career. His solo career, purely under his own name, stretches back less then a decade, but Porcupine Tree have an extensive catalog dating back to the very early 90s. I love PT, especially the later era stuff, but the material prior to that is stellar as well.

      Porcupine Tree’s Lightbulb Sun, In Absentia, Deadwing and Fear of a Blank Planet are all amazing, the first two Blackfield albums and his past two solo albums are also really great, with the PT material good as a primer. It’s all good but some of his work certainly stands out more than others. Hand.Cannot.Erase is a brilliant concept/progressive rock album that paints a great picture of where he is now in his career.

  • Dan

    Absolutely amazing album. I can’t stop listening to it. It leaves me with that same feeling when I finish it too, but I’m drawn back to that feeling and am compelled to experience it again and again. Glad to see it get a good score here

  • shameful

    The Raven is a 2013 release btw, my #1 album of 2013 :) this is a close 2nd behind raven for me. But I agree, I like that he keeps on the move and you never know what you’re going to get next. Great review

    • Thing about TRtRtS(aOS) is that it felt almost a tad too nostalgic. Alex Franquelli, who wrote the review for that album, commented to me that one of the reasons he couldn’t give it more than a 4 was because it wasn’t pushing boundaries.

      I feel like this record does a better job of cracking the nut of including all the bubbly ’70s influences while still feeling like Wilson’s own contribution.

  • Carlos Marrickvillian

    Excellent review!
    I’ve finally been able to give this album the time and space it deserves. Firstly WOW and secondly, I’m kicking myself for digitally downloading this, as I now feel compelled to get the hard copy as well.
    I couldn’t agree more with your comments. It’s certainly not for all occasions but I can’t really find anything to be critical of on this. How often do we get albums that are, at once conceptually brilliant, compositionally perfect, complex and unpretentious, lyrically masterful, exploding with feel, and stellar musicianship…and that sound so good!

    This is a perfect for me…

    There really seems to have been a RUSH (sorry) of concept albums this year…I’d be very interested in an AMG retrospective type review on concept albums in metal or in general….hint hint

  • Nate

    Maybe it’s due to the fact that I’m still young and not going through a mid-lie crisis, but I found this album absolutely boring and nothing new.

  • AnnieK13

    I love this album and it’s funny when you talk about influences I hear those you mention but I also hear a lot of early Crack the Sky.

  • Hideous destructor

    I totally agree with your view of this as a complete package. Album of the year so far, though I shamefully haven’t got round to leprous yet. If that or the new gazpacho later in the year can top this, it’ll transform a fairly mediocre year into a pretty good one.