1/3/15 – Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase. – 2015

Steven_Wilson_Hand_Cannot_Erase_coverSteven Wilson is the kind of artist you don’t tell people about – they already know. He’s the kind of artist that you don’t have to explain his music – you are either there with it or you’re not interested. You don’t convince people about his qualities –  you see them immediately or you don’t care to look.

With influences that range from classic Progressive Rock to contemporary Electronic music, Wilson’s new album explores both meaning and musicality. Analytical virtuosos delving deep into a frightening loneliness, a soundtrack written by Wilson about alienation in our society through the eyes of a female narrator.

There’s an intriguing (perhaps unconscious) connection with Alan Parson’s I Robot – the rise of the machine at the expense of humanity, culminating in anxiety and the anonymity of people, lost in their progress, in a setting of top notch production (Parsons co-produced and engineered Wilson’s last album The Raven That Refused To Sing). Added here are mind-boggling drumming and bass playing from Marco Minnemann and Nick Beggs, Guthrie Govan’s gymnastic guitar solos and Adam Holzman’s assured faultless, keyboards – and all this always, tempered by Wilson’s unfussy vocal.

The album concept hinges on the death of Joyce Carol Vincent, a normal person like you and me that found herself living alone in the centre of London and dying, forgotten for over two years and discovered as a skeletal corpse when her rent went too far in arrears and the bailiffs broke into her flat. What makes her story different from others is that she wasn’t alone in the world, she wasn’t destitute, she somehow just fell off her friends and family’s radar. Whether this sad tale can be documented in this musical setting might seem dubious to anyone that doesn’t like this kind of music, but the idea that society’s issues can be scored isn’t new and I doubt the cynics would question it if the setting was a ballet or in the form of a classical concerto.

The album begins with First Regret an instrumental piece and you can immediately imagine the credits introducing a film before quickly arriving at the second track, 3 Years Older, firmly entrenched in the land of  Progressive Rock where Yes and Rush rule the world (although interestingly XTC’s Dave Gregory makes an appearance, Wilson having remixed two XTC albums, Drums And Wires and Nonesuch). Wilson’s vocal is what makes the difference in this music, soft and unassuming he sounds like Gerry Rafferty’s younger brother, borrowing melodies from all his influences, taking riffs and guitar lines, mellotron pads from everyone he admired when he was growing up and with his technical know how blending them together into his own vision. Plus, the electronics pop their heads up in between those towering Progressive giants.

As the go to remix man for King Crimson, Yes and Jethro Tull you forgive him for his borrowings, you actively encourage him to find a way to bring all the best elements of these bands back and mix them together with the modern sounds that he is equally interested in – his moody, contemporary electronic influences such as Aphex Twin and Boards Of Canada – can he create a complex hybrid, reminiscent of the past but living squarely in the future?

The title track Hand. Cannot. Erase. brings those electronic elements back, a processed guitar arpeggio, dry vocal and drum machine, chunky guitar and a lyric that tries to find the truth about someone’s love, how do they really feel? Can they be honest about their need to be alone. You get the feeling that Wilson is trying to re-visit the idea that we are born alone and die alone on this Earth, still we persevere in our sharing and caring sometimes to our own disadvantage.

The electronic trend continues with Perfect Life setting up a moody sad vignette of two young girls, one coming into the other’s life and them sharing an immense happiness but then it all fades away until it’s barely a memory. It’s moving, spoken by Katherine Jenkins the Welsh Mezzo-soprano, one wonders when she mentions a mix tape containing Dead Can Dance, Felt and This Mortal Coil, whether or not Wilson can instill his tastes into her voice and into this story, whether she or anyone else could really be the right actor, still the sentiment is perfectly realised.

“When I was 13, I had a sister for 6 months. She arrived one February morning, pale and shell-shocked, from past lives I could not imagine. She was 3 years older than me, but in no time we became friends. We’d listen to her mix tapes; Dead Can Dance, Felt, This Mortal Coil… She introduced me to her favourite books, gave me clothes, and my first cigarette. Sometimes we would head down to Blackbirds moor to watch the barges on Grand Union in the twilight. She said “The water has no memory.” For a few months everything about our lives was perfect. It was only us, we were inseparable. But gradually, she passed into another distant part of my memory, until I could no longer remember her face, her voice, even her name.”

Routine comes in at 9 minutes, with soft piano and a lyric that describes the everyday life of a mother and house keeper, singing shared by Wilson and Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb. It’s here that Wilson tries to punctuate the message with music, thematic, dynamic soaring melodic vocal sections over changing chord sequences moving through well planned arrangements. Wilson also poetically takes us through this humdrum life contrasting the ordinary with colourful imagery:

“Keep Cleaning, keep ironing
Cooking their meals on the stainless steel hob
Keep washing, keep scrubbing
Long until the dark comes to bruise the sky
Deep in debt to night”

Home Invasion into Regret #9 sounds like a distant calling and then comes the incessant banging of metal arrangement, soon the whole band is adding powerful parts, racing away from the previous song’s domestic claustrophobia. It’s here that the fans really love him – fantastic musicians playing out Wilson’s ideas, just as he hears it, maybe even better than he hears it. Whichever it is, it allows him to build his concept on a solid musical extravaganza:

“Download sex and download God.
Download the funds to meet the cost.
Download a dream home and a wife.
Download the ocean and the sky.

Another day of life has passed me by.
But I have lost all faith in what’s outside.
They only are the stars across the sky
And the wreckage of the night.

Download love and download war.
Download the shit you didn’t want.
Download the things that make you MAD.
Download the life you wish you had.

Another day of life has passed me by.
But I have lost all faith in what’s outside.
They only are the stars across the sky
And the wreckage of the night.”

Again the vocals are different to how anyone else would sing them in this genre – no theatrics. More Floyd like and there’s some sliding Gilmouresque guitar moments that take you momentarily a little close to Dark Side Of the Moon. It doesn’t last, although some keyboard sounds borrowed from Manfred Mann’s Earth Band keep you firmly in 1973. A razor sharp guitar sound sends you directly to lead guitar heaven. It’s all perfectly produced and executed but somehow un-clinical – that might be Wilson’s genius, his ability to make this genre his when it has been owned so many times before, then turn it into a believable story and make it sound sincere, deep, whilst simultaneously sonically sounding like a million glittering dollars.

Short and perfect, Transience has that Blackfield/Porcupine Tree sweet melodic melancholia about it. It’s beautiful, lovely arpeggio acoustic guitars and distant darkness in the background. But perhaps the centre piece of the album is its longest track Ancestral. Thirteen minutes with something Radiohead about it in the programming but a slightly strange vocal sound and the addition of Theo Travis’ expressive flute sets up this spooky atmospheric piece. It’s challenging, adventurous and extremely involved and complex and gives the musicians days of rehearsals to even perceive how it all fits together. It’s a committed piece of classic neo-prog and perfectly executed. It unravels like the plot to a dark saga perhaps directed by Tim Burton and yet set in an ordinary grey English town where there’s no fantasy at all. Guthrie Govan’s impressive fluid guitar solos continue in the style of The Raven That Refused To Sing. It’s here where Wilson’s vision turns the drab into dream.

“In this city there are these who’d live alone
Twilight brings them from the gloom into our homes
And hiding there among the wreckage left behind
They see things that aren’t there when they close their eyes”

Shortly before 6 minutes this epic’s wheels begin to turn, but you’re never quite sure if it’s grinding you down into the Earth, taking you to hell or rescuing you, pulling you out from the brambles coiled around the garden shed or unlocking you from your fate, severing the chains from the kitchen sink and saving you. Whichever it is, it explodes out of the speakers and seals Wilson’s reputation as visionary writer, mixer, producer – and talking of the kitchen sink!

The album winds down with Happy Returns, coming across as resignation:

Hey brother, happy returns
It’s been a while now
I bet you thought that I was dead
But I’m still here, nothing’s changed

Hey brother, I’d love to tell you
I’ve been busy
But that would be a lie
‘Cause the truth is
The years just pass like trains
I wave but they don’t slow down

Hey brother, I see the freaks
Dispossessed on day release
Avoiding the police
I feel I’m falling once again
But now there’s no one left to catch me

Hey brother, I feel I’m living in parentheses
And I’ve got trouble with the bills
Do the kids remember me?
Well I got gifts for them
And for you more sorrow
But I’m feeling kind of drowsy now
So I’ll finish this tomorrow

With all the energy that Steven Wilson needs for all his projects, mixing, writing etc you wonder how he has time to contemplate the despair of others. He’s either extremely empathetic or an alien and as the album closes with Ascendant Here On, I’m sure I saw a spinning glowing disc ascending into the heavens without a sound and then it was gone towards a shape in the stars that looked vaguely like the outline of a porcupine.