ISSUE 2015-514

Round Table Review
Steven Wilson - Hand. Cannot. Erase.
Steven Wilson - Hand. Cannot. Erase.
Country of Origin: UK
Format: CD
Record Label: Kscope Music
Catalogue #: KSCOPE316
Year of Release: 2015
Time: 65:44
Info: Steven Wilson
Samples: Steven Wilson on Youtube
Track List:
First Regret (2:01), 3 Years Older (10:18), Hand Cannot Erase (4:13), Perfect Life (4:43), Routine (8:58), Home Invasion (6:24), Regret#9 (5:00), Transience (2:43), Ancestral (13:30), Happy Returns (6:00), Ascendant Here On (1:54)
Marcel Hartenberg's Review
There is a world out there. It is a world in which a lot of us seemingly have to share a lot of everything. Not in the true sense of sharing, but sharing as we have become accustomed to in these modern days. We experience, we have opinions, and we take photographs. We share those experiences, we share the opinions, and we share photos. Somehow that has become the norm.

It is strange and fascinating, and in a way, it all seems paradoxical. Prog was once for those who would indulge themselves in endless hours listening to album tracks on vinyl, often more alone than in a gathering of prog aficionados. Perhaps, if you were lucky, you could talk about the album you loved so much with one or two of your mates.

Now it's 2015 and the prog world has been awaiting a new album by Steven Wilson. Anticipation was out there. Yet, was it the same anticipation that was felt, let's say, 20 years ago? In what way did we then look forward to an album? In the last few months, talk of Hand. Cannot. Erase. has been in the air. Yet, were people eager for the music or eager for the moment to fill the net with observations?

These days it's simply not just you in your anorak, reading the magazines and feeling the anticipation of a new album being released. Nowadays we share our thoughts, our experiences on the internet. We talk of freedom of speech and we push our views on anything, and on any music on the web. Sometimes it seems that sharing the views count even more than the music. And so it happens that views on the artist or the band often are part of the review that is written. What, if anything, do we know? We only have our own perspective on things and that is all we have. So, this review doesn't claim to have the final statement on this release. It's merely this reviewer's point of view, after quite a few listening sessions.

Steven Wilson's new album deals with isolation in modern day society, all be it, self-chosen. In a world where we all seem to be more sharing, at least in the digital sense, there is still the possibility of choosing your own way out. Yet, it struck Steven Wilson after having seen the documentary Dreams of a Life (about the life of Joyce Carol Vincent), that self-chosen isolation doesn't just come to any old bag lady. Here was a young woman, attractive, popular, with a lot of friends and with a good job too.

Hand. Cannot. Erase. is not Joyce Carol Vincent's story. It is an album that Steven wrote on exploring self-chosen isolation and everything that comes with it. The album does have both dark and light parts. What Steven has managed to do, was get behind a fictional character and draw a full life of a person who is drawn to isolation but whose emotions involve far more than just that. Of course, the story is not a story with a beginning and ending. There is no clear outcome or ending to it. Memories, feelings of happiness, feelings of being out of place, feelings of not belonging; Steven brought all this together in a set of lyrics, in music and artwork. Lasse Hoile sends his regards, a blog even, that belongs to the main character. There are still new blog entries which you can find at www.handcannoterase.com.

Fascination. That is what both the lyrics and the music brings. The way Steven has succeeded in juxtaposing dark with light, both in his lyrics and the composed music, is, to these ears, simply stunning. You don't take a review copy of a new album out of its sleeve these days. It's normally a watermarked, file-sharing-proof digital file. But with this record it wasn't hard to have myself beamed up and landed somewhere back in the 1980s. The smell of an album cover, the first spin on the record table. I don't know if that is done on purpose, but that is the way the songs work for me. There are references to music from that period and further back. Prog and pop. Not strange, as Steven, being the writer of both lyrics and music, has only his own input to choose from. It works to great effect.

Sure, I could write and write and write on the references to find in this music. I could argue on the Porcupine Tree parts being there or not, or on how I see this album in the perspective of all that Steven Wilson has released so far. I am not doing that. What I will do however, is stress the fact that Steven Wilson has selected fine men to record this album with him. Messrs Minnemann, Holzman, Beggs and Govan add their virtuosity to all the songs. Theo Travis' parts, this time around, are somewhat limited. Yet, when they're there, they shine.

Ninet Tayeb, an Israeli female singer, guests on vocals, adding even more to the concept and to the mystique of the album. Ninet was brought to Steven's attention by Aviv Geffen and she really shines. This was the first time that Steven has had someone else sing his lyrics on a solo album. To add to that, there is a boys' choir as well.

Anticipation. Wonder. Bemusement. Bewilderment. Here is an album that deserves your anticipation. An album that asks for exploration, that asks for you to fully experience it. Find your own way through it, think of it what you will, compare it with whatever you want. To these ears, it is well worth the experience, well worth exploring. A trip down memory lane and a triggering of questions on society and life as we know it. That happens. It doesn't happen that often. Yet, in this case, it felt awe-inspiring. Thank you Mr. Wilson, for sharing.
John Wenlock-Smith's Review
So here we are then, the new Steven Wilson CD. Already eager hands have reserved this and readied themselves for one of the many big-name releases this year. However rather than continue with the dark stories of The Raven That Refused To Sing, Steven has taken a different track altogether here.

However what does remain is the band, the same unit that recorded ..Raven.. has recorded this, which adds continuity and has also given room for this stellar group of musicians to exercise their not inconsiderable musical prowess on these songs.

As we all know, Mr W is rarely uninvolved in something musical, whether it is one of his numerous projects and collaborations, or remixing classic albums into 5.1 glory. So this return to his own music is most welcome. However some of the recent work he has been involved with has rubbed off here too, and I don't consider that to be a bad thing at all.

It has been widely circulated that this album is heavily influenced by a film about a woman in London, Carol Joyce Vincent, who died and was only discovered some three years later. This album is Steven's base for exploring the themes raised in the film. Whilst this album is not about Carol directly, the film certainly serves as both an inspiration and a reference point.

The opening First Regret is a brief interlude, before a very 80s, almost Rush-type sound follows on First Regret. Some electronic drums and sounds, but it's blisteringly good all the same, showing well how these musicians have gelled to craft a superlative piece of music, where every note counts and every part is crucial to the overall effect. The tile track is a more gentle affair to begin with, before Guthrie's chunky rhythm breaks out into a wall of sound. This song is very Manic Street Preachers-like and will put a smile on your face. It's a jaunty little number, with some fine, surging Chapman stick from Mr Beggs.

Perfect Life has a female spoken introduction, talking about her sister and the times they shared together, over a very electronic backing. It's an emotive piece, as is the song that it leads into, with Steven singing 'we've got the perfect life'.

Routine continues the melancholic tone set by Perfect Life, initially being a piano-based piece, before picking up a lilting rhythm and a very delicate middle section with acoustic guitar and very atmospheric flute from Theo Travis. This sets a quite sinister tone, before some striking guitar chords and rhythmic bass from Nick Beggs and a sublime, restrained yet emotive solo from Guthrie Govan, lead to a vocal by Ninet Tayeb. This is a stand-out track amongst an album of masterful, emotional and intelligent music.

Home Invasion / Regret #9 is a double-whammy of powerful, striking chords and a wild instrumental section, before some jaunty piano chords (fender Rhodes perhaps) and Steven's slightly distorted vocal enter. This is another fine track, offsetting lighter, harmonious passages against a darker, more primal surge of noise.

Transience is a gentle, atmospheric piece. The all-fluttering synths and non-verbal voicings, lead into the epic track Ancestral, which continues with the atmospherics in it's opening minutes until a vocal begins at three minutes. Another emotive guitar break leads to a very Chapman stick-driven section, then delicate keyboards, and then back to the harder-edged sound. I can imagine this one being a killer live.

The final song, Happy Ending / Ascendant begins with wave sounds and a gentle piano echoing the opening refrain from First Regret to show we have come full circle. The song features more superb vocals from Steven, before fading to angelic voices and keyboards.

There is a reason why Steven Wilson is so highly-regarded, and this album is further evidence, as if any were needed, that his is a unique talent and imagination.

Judging by this album, his trajectory will continue to soar and Hand. Cannot. Erase. will sell by the truck-load. It is a very strong piece of music and possibly more accessible than some of his earlier work. It could be the album that breaks him into wider recognition.
Nathan Waitman's Review
Steven Wilson is one of the major names in the modern progressive rock world. His music has reached the hearts of many, both through his albums with the band Porcupine Tree and now in his solo career, which culminated in what I consider to be his best work, 2013's The Raven Who Refused To Sing. After such a masterpiece of modern progressive rock, there was understandably a lot of hype surrounding this latest album. How could Steven Wilson follow-up such an incredible release, so cherished by many progressive rock fans? The answer is by creating an album that is completely different, showing that Steven Wilson is never content to stay in one lane for very long.

While The Raven was a love letter to Wilson's love of the classic progressive rock of the early seventies, this new album is decidedly more modern, with influences in the pop and electronica genres. This isn't to say that it doesn't sound like Steven Wilson, his influence is clear and all the music he touches has a recognisable signature to it, but he seems to gather his muse from a different place this time around. This leads to a record that sounds unique, special and fresh, rather than a carbon copy of what has come before.

The thread that connects this album to its predecessor is the inclusion of a line-up of world class musicians. They lift up the music to a transcendant level and bring a technical skill to Wilson's already strong songwriting talent. To inspire the songwriting this time around, Wilson uses the concept of a woman from London named Joyce Carol Vincent who died in her apartment and wasn't noticed until three years later. The theme, therefore, is that of isolation, and how, even in a crowded city, someone can be so isolated that it is almost as if they don't exist. It is a very dark subject matter, and the music behind it fits this dark mood perfectly. This is a very reflective, haunting album, but beautiful in its own twisted sort of way.

The album starts off much more positively, before it shifts and becomes gradually more and more dark. First Regret / 3 Years Older has a positive, almost Rush-sounding vibe, with some very interesting, quirky musical passages which feature incredible playing from all the musicians involved. The star of this song is Adam Holzman and his incredible piano and keyboard work, that brings this music to life and adds a layer of beauty to everything. There is a pop influence that is reminiscent of the Lightbulb Sun era of Porcupine Tree, which continues on to the title track. This and the one that follows are the least progressive-sounding tracks on the album, where the band is much more restrained. Hand Cannot Erase is a happy-sounding, pop number that is a joy to listen to.

Perfect Life on the other hand, begins with some spoken female dialogue over electronica sounding beats, giving a much darker feel. The second half contains a simple refrain, sung in beautiful harmonies, over these electronic beats accompanied by some pretty guitar and violin. It is a powerful section, that ushers in the darker tone that is present in the second half of the album.

Routine is another more restrained song with a lot of emotional depth and some female vocals added to the mix. There is a lot of pretty piano and guitar, before the ending swells with a more theatrical finish. With Home Invasion / Regret #9, the band gets a chance to shine, with some quirky progressive rock passages. The beginning contains this great funky groove led by Adam Holzman's keyboard and great drumming from Marco Minneman. The ending of this song is a special highlight, where first Holzman and then Guthrie Govan get a chance to show off their skills in two incredible solos. These have to be some of the most talented musicians in the rock world today. Their musical abilities are mind-blowing.

Transience is a short number, mainly focused on acoustic guitar and Wilson's singing. It wouldn't be out of place on an earlier Porcupine Tree album, and serves as a nice break between the two biggest progressive pieces on the album.

For me, Ancestral is the highlight of the entire album. It starts beautifully, with a clear, dark vibe with electronic beats and soaring strings and Wilson's emotional vocal performance on top. Things continue to build musically to a thrilling climax, with a guitar solo from Guthrie Govan that is out of this world. This leads to another great showcase for the whole band, as they play a twisted melody that leads into a full-on metal assault that is at the peak of musical intensity. I'm especially impressed by Marco Minnemann's drumming which is just insane. After this musical onslaught, the album concludes on as much as a positive note as Wilson is capable of, with a beautiful ballad called Happy Returns / Ascendant Here On complete with an infectious, sing-along chorus.

Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a special album that showcases the best of Steven Wilson and the incredible musicians he has assembled. It is a good blend of all the styles that Wilson is known for. I can hear influences from rock, pop, metal, electronica, and progressive rock. All of Wilson's bands and projects can be heard in-part in this beautiful stew.

Steven Wilson once again manages to take a twisted, dark subject matter and make it sound majestic and hauntingly beautiful. It is a special combination that he has perfected, above anyone else I have heard in the genre. I love the blend of simple pop melodies and quirky progressive rock insanity. All the musicians involved give a master-class, and clearly raise Steven Wilson's skilled songwriting and arrangements. This will certainly be one of the top albums of 2015, and I already look forward to what Steven Wilson has next up his sleeve.
Peter Funke's Review
Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Nobody. Can. Deny.

The real story behind this fourth solo album by Steve Wilson is quite sad and touching, nobody can deny that. Inspired by a documentary Dreams of Life, Steven Wilson decided to focus on the women's perspective of this drama. Though being an active and attractive person, Joyce, the subject of the documentary, was not missed for three years while lying dead in her apartment in London.

Wilson reflects more on the first thoughts people have upon hearing this story, because most would not believe that this can happen to somebody involved in daily life. Knowing this, you won't expect an hour of happy dance music. Knowing Steven Wilson, you wouldn't expect it either.

Nevertheless this album is far away from being depressive or producing negative vibrations. It may have more quiet passages than the ...Raven..., and this record is less heavy. The comparisons however are obvious, as this release features the same lineup as its predecessor.

But Hand. Cannot. Erase. is, in the best sense, another typical Steven Wilson output: music on the highest production levels, with a brilliant sound. No wonder, his experiences in remixing and remastering are well known, and his solo-works are gaining from that as well. The dynamics in this recording are great. Take the track Routine for example. All the instruments are brought clear in their position and distance, and all the vocals, including the boy's choir and women's voices, sound extraordinarily good.

This all would not be worth mentioning, if the music itself did not convince. It more than convinces. From the very first listening you will be excited about this music, the melody lines, the harmonies and refrains, as well as those typical Wilson breaks that we know so well from the Porcupine Tree recordings. Of course these are Steven Wilson trademarks, but don't come to the wrong conclusion that this record is just more of the same. It's poppy on the title track and has electronic and industrial influences recalling Jean Michel Jarre on Perfect Life.

But the name Steven Wilson stands first in the line for great progressive rock music and he again proves why here. Listen to those groovy parts, both relaxing and rousing, in Home Invasion, followed by the keyboard solo. This is one of those moments for music history, combining Emerson and Wakeman-style Würm construction, that is really brilliant. It's a track for my desert island.

Of the same musical quality are the (guitar) lines in the last long track, Ancestral. It is a track which will remind you in the second half of early Steve Hackett releases. Steven Wilson's way to workout themes comes here to a peak level.

They reach a peak level as well in those mentioned quieter tracks, like the closing Happy Returns / Ascendant Here On..., which is so groovy and relaxed, combined with an oh-so-charming simple melody. A five star ballad dispersing positive feelings.

Throughout this album the music is deep, interesting, challenging and fascinating at the same time. Hand. Cannot. Erase. is one of those albums that any so-called 'good' library must have and it will not bore you even after the 20th rotation.

Nobody. Can. Deny.
Karel Witte's Review
Hand. Cannot. Erase. is the brand new concept album by none other than one of progressive rock's most prolific and acclaimed composers: Steven Wilson. A lot has happened since he deviated from the standard Porcupine Tree affair with his daringly-ambitious, post-punk influenced album Insurgentes. While that album was radically different in style from Porcupine Tree, it still felt a bit like one. Mostly because of Gavin Harrison still handling drum duties.

With Grace for Drowning, Steven put out a grand, diverse but admittedly slightly unbalanced double album. He began to experiment with the line-up of his solo band, and while that yielded some interesting results, it's quite apparent that he got it down to a tee on 2013's smash record The Raven that Refused to Sing. Musically, it was a fully-fledged, old-school progressive rock album. While Steven was once hesitant to identify himself with the prog movement, it seems he has come to terms with that nowadays, being proud to act as one of prog's most important figures.

So how exactly does he plan to outdo The Raven...? Well, he doesn't. That album's uniform-al statement was quite rare, even for Wilson. As he's been saying in interviews, this album encapsulates multiple facets of his songwriting past, all the while sounding less jazzy and more modern. But how does this all tie together?

Steven based the concept of this album on the case of Joyce Carol Vincent, the young woman who was found in her apartment, while being dead for over two years without anyone noticing. As Steven said, the story dictates where the music ventures on this album. I won't go into that though, because I think you have to experience the story yourself, and interpret things in your own way, in order to get the most enjoyment out of it.

The intro First Regret sets the mood with a swelling organ and sounds of children playing. A bittersweet, nostalgic piano through tape flutter takes center stage, blatantly borrowed from electronic music pioneers Boards of Canada. Tension is created with ascending piano chords, and strange, distant voices, possibly portraying our globalised society in the 21st century. This gives way to a Mellotron part that ultimately leads into the main hook: a classic rock guitar riff that sounds a lot like something Rush would do.

It's incredibly obvious that this is the exact same band as on The Raven.... A short bass lead part shows us that there's no question that Nick Beggs is on this album. Marco Minnemann's off-kilter drummer style is back and it's sounding as good as ever, and also star guitarist Guthrie Govan introduces himself with a short but sweet country-rock guitar solo. So far, the tone of the music is fairly upbeat, restrained and happy.

This doesn't really change on Three Years Older, where Steven juxtaposes a very simple, poppy Pink Floyd-ish vocal melody, against outbursts of progressive riff fests. The bridge to this song is again very simple, larded with harmony vocals and guitar fills that remind me of Little River Band and The Eagles. Finally, the track winds down, but from out-of-nowhere the band suddenly takes it up a notch in heaviness. An aggressively played Hammond solo by Adam Holzman, and a mad guitar solo torn apart with effects, manages to enter darker territory in the last few minutes of this overtly 'major' sounding track. It's a warning to the listener: Don't get too comfortable.

Up next is the title track Hand Cannot Erase. It's a four-minute pop song, reminiscent of Steven's work with Blackfield, but different nonetheless. The lyrics have a universal theme, almost as if Steven is flirting with entering the mainstream charts with this one. The melody could easily be sung by Katy Perry. But Steven wouldn't be Steven if he didn't write the verses in a 9/8 time signature.

I can't say anything particularly bad about this track, but to me it's definitely the most unremarkable and uninteresting on the album. While the instrumental post-chorus echoes Lazarus in parts, I think some may have trouble getting into the slightly awkward main hook of the song. It feels like this album's Drawing the Line, which was a bit weird on the album but really came to life in a live setting. We'll see.

Perfect Life starts out with moody, ambient electronica, a nice beat and a very warm, soothing narrative part spoken by a woman. When Steven's vocals enter, it gets harmonised more and more, with the music intensifying with loads of strings. It's a pretty beautiful and different track for Steven. It stays in one particular musical landscape, and it works. Again, the big influence here is Boards of Canada. At the climax of the song, there's a beautiful bass solo by Nick Beggs. The way it's mixed is brilliant. It's in the background, but it's so defined, that the listener still hears the tiniest details of his playing. Impressive.

Routine seemingly starts out in the middle of a verse, with Wilson singing in a way that sounds as if he's acting in a musical. The tone of this part took me back to Porcupine Tree's How is Your Life Today?. The song finds Wilson often singing in unison with Ninet, and their contrasting voices mix nicely. Around the middle, there's a solo performance by a boy's choir singer, leading into a part that could be on the Storm Corrosion album. A nice, jazzy solo by Guthrie Govan shows up, and again it's very restrained. Somewhere around this part of the song, I feel the second half of the album is being announced.

A solo spot for Ninet launches into some heavy rock riffing, and leads into the climax of the song with her passionate lyric "Routine keeps me alive", backed by an emotional guitar lead that recalls Anathema's last few albums. When the volume dies down, the band suddenly attacks viciously with a distorted, stabbing riff with Ninet delivering a scream that could be on Dark Side of the Moon. How the song ends though, is one of my favorite moments on this record. A simple, clean guitar plays underneath Wilson's gently sung lyrics, with Ninet joining him in unison: "Don't ever let go, try to let go". Softly, a beautiful boy's choir part surrounds the two singers, ending the song in a state of heavenly bliss.

Then with Home Invasion, the power of this album finally shines through in full effect. A massively unexpected dark vibe enters here, with a synth part sounding like The Poltergeist. Suddenly, there's an aggressive death metal riff. It's a home invasion indeed. This opening instrumental section finally lets go of the restrained feel of the previous tracks. It's as if the band had to play in-service of the song for the first half of the album, and now they're pissed off and ready to destroy things.

The song's main groove is very funky, reminiscent of The Holy Drinker in tone. Wilson is singing with an almost glam rock type of attitude, spewing out lyrics that deal with the throwaway download culture. The instrumental pre-chorus has Guthrie playing some chords that sound a lot like Focus, it's pure ear candy. Wilson's chorus takes me straight back to the days of Stupid Dream, with the chorus effect on his voice and the Floydian slide guitars in the background. Throughout, the band is on fire here.

That fire continues to burn when the track seamlessly leads into a second instrumental track, Regret #9, which feels like the second part of Home Invasion. Adam Holzman treats the listener on a joyfully fluid Moog synthesiser solo, reminiscent of ELP. After that, we finally hear Guthrie Govan unleashed, with one of his best solos to date. After all this firework, the track ends by reprising some piano chords from First Regret, linking these two tracks together.

Transience is a lovely slice of the cosmic folk he created with Storm Corrosion. It's a short, calming piece that tries to prepare the listener for the beast of song that is Ancestral.

While this album has been a very good one, I feel this is where Steven almost reinvents himself. Its 13-minute running time is roughly split into two parts. The first part sounds like Massive Attack meets Peter Gabriel, backed with cinematic strings. Wilson here finds new emotional depths to explore in his vocals, quite possibly giving the best vocal performance of his career, enhanced by Theo Travis' flute. When Guthrie Govan takes over once again with an awe inspiring guitar solo, it's just as good as the Drive Home solo.

After Ninet sings a few lines in relative silence, the second part begins with a labyrinth-like instrumental that's part King Crimson, part Meshuggah, part Mastodon and part Rush. This is simply the heaviest Wilson has sounded since Fear of a Blank Planet, or Raider II. A subdued spacey section follows, with Theo Travis' flute, and it sets up the final blast of apocalyptic madness of Ancestral, which ultimately culminates in a Dream Theater-like swirl of notes. It's a mesmerising, rich and adventurous track.

Happy Returns is an album closer that's very reflective in tone, sad but happy at the same time. The piano part of First Regret is reintroduced, this time with Wilson's vocals. This sounds like the perfect song to end a concert with, in the same vein as Trains, but calmer. A beautiful track, although the sappy 'too-doo-doo' vocal chant may be love-or-hate for some. Ascendant Here On is a short instrumental coda reprising the boy's choir and some familiar piano chords. It is nothing spectacular, but an appropriate piece with which to end this album.

What else is there to say? That it's good? Yes, it's very good. The production follows the blueprint of The Raven..., but a bit warmer sounding. The recording, the tone of the instruments and the mix are, as always, second to none. I think the second half of the album is the stronger, and there seems to be a clear line when Routine ends and Home Invasion kicks off. The first half is more pop oriented, while the second half really kicks it up a notch in heaviness and instrumental prowess.

The album's flow is cohesive enough, but because of the diversity of the material I think most would ultimately settle for a few of their favorites. Some will focus on the more adventurous pieces, others will maybe get more joy out of the more straightforward tracks. There is something for everyone here. Because of a few slightly unremarkable segments, this falls short of being his best album yet. But it strikes an impressive balance between taking risks and playing on established strengths.

While not every song is brilliant, some of the music on here is among Wilson's best ever. How he can continue to be inspired and put out one quality record after another is beyond me. This will surely end up on a lot of end-of-year best-of lists, including mine. Highly recommended.
Conclusion:
Marcel Hartenberg: 9.5 out of 10
John Wenlock-Smith: 8.5 out of 10
Nathan Waitman: 9 out of 10
Peter Funke: 9.5 out of 10
Karel Witte: 9 out of 10

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Published Wednesday 25 February 2015

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