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?
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.
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.
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 Floyd, Camel, 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.