The words 'Masterpiece' and 'Classic' are often bandied around in this world of music. Very few actually are albums of such distinction. But, in my humble opinion, this year's album by Steven Wilson, Hand. Cannot. Erase. is worthy of such praise.
Steven Wilson. Prog God. Multi-instrumentalist. Producer Extraordinaire. The man the best Progressive rock bands in the world trust with their recordings.
Steven's last album, The Raven That Refused To Sing was a Tour-de Force of Progressive rock. Indeed, it was voted Album Of The Year 2013 at the Progressive Music Awards.
It would have been so easy for Steven Wilson to recreate Raven for it's follow up album but true to his searching spirit, he decided to move on to a much more emotive and reality-grounded subject matter than the supernatural Raven..
For Hand. Cannot. Erase. Steven has looked into the true-life story of Joyce Carol Vincent. You can hear Steven about the inspiration for the album on the video below.
As you would expect from such a musical man, Steven brought together some top notch performers for the album, which also formed his band for the live presentation of the work. You can see the band working on the album on the two links below.
It is very much a Twenty First Century album. Top drawer recording techniques and production values and so much more besides.
For this album, Steven has created a story of fiction and writes from a female perspective, which makes for an interesting approach. Steven has used the story of Vincent as a base point to build a story of success, depression and finally isolation in this, the reality of our lives today.
This album is SO much more than a Progressive Rock workout - it is THE album for our times - as Steven has said, we have never been so connected, with the rise of Facebook, Twitter, etc. But also, never has a populous been so isolated and inward looking. Just look at everybody who walks around with headphones these days with no interaction with our fellow human beings.
I don't want to spoil the story by revealing it here. It really needs reading in the lyrics and digesting with music over time.
The album should be listened to as a whole, no doubt about it. So put the time aside to listen.
Hand. Cannot. Erase. opens with a 2 minute instrumental called First Regret, which contains a theme that recurs throughout the album in small glimpses.
3 Years Older follows and is the first of three longer tracks (10 minutes+) that are contained within the album and will no doubt be the tracks that please the Progressive Rocks fans that listen to Steven's music. It starts with percussive guitar work before gently falling into a section which contains harmonies that Crosby, Stills & Nash would be proud of. The album is a dynamic joy and this one song explores multi facets of the music that you'll find throughout the album.
You would expect Steven to show influences of his heroes such as Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes etc. And there are times when you could be listening to passages from these bands throughout the album. But Steven can also write a killer pop song. And the next track, the title track of the album, in it's 4 minutes, could grace any modern rock album with ease. It reminds me a little of something The Manic Street Preachers could have come up with, at their most commercial. Twinkling guitars, glorious harmonies, pounding bass, swirling synths. It's a real joy and it's good to see Steven produce something with a pop vibe. And it also fits perfectly into the beginning of the album before it starts to acquire a darker tone.
What might be unexpected is the use of modern loops and programming throughout the record and highlighted in the next track, Perfect Life. But Steven has a history of collaboration and has produced several albums within this modern style with Tim Bowness under the No Man moniker.
It's a gentle hypnotic track which has some beautiful harmonies. Again, it's all part of this progressing story.
The next track, Routine, is another longer song at 9 minutes and begins with a piano based ballad before it starts to explore different ground within the story.
The album is like a weaving of a large tapestry before your very eyes (or ears), with the different colouedr wools, silks and textures coming together to produce an arresting and sometimes disturbing picture. For every piece of light, there is an equivalent piece of darkness.
One of the images that came into my mind when listening to the album is that of walking around a cathedral, you understand it's a human construct and you can appreciate it's beauty. But within the shadows, you feel a certain unease and then you glimpse the beautiful light that shines through that stained glass windows. The second part of Hand. Cannot. Erase. is very much like this.
Home Invasion is a dark, brooding, slice of rock with a staccato riff that highlights the technical expertise of the band
Steven Wilson on guitars, keyboards and lots of other stuff, Nick Beggs on basses and backing vox, Guthrie Govan on guitars, Marco Minnemann on drums & Adam Holzman on keyboards.
It's very much a track with a Pink Floyd influence.
Home Invasion segues into Regret #9 - an instrumental keyboard based track that creates an uneasy feeling but which ultimately builds into a epic Floydesque guitar solo before imploding in on itself to the sound of a lone banjo. Very Mike Oldfield.
The 3 minute Transience provides some welcome sensual relief - very reminiscent of the pastoral approach of Gabriel era Genesis and very beautiful.
I find myself using the word Beautiful a lot in this review - and that's because the album IS beautiful in places - just like life.
So following this small chink of sunlight, we have the 13 minute epic that is Ancestral. For many reviewers, this seems to be the pivotal track on the album.
A song of brooding darkness, isolation, oppressiveness - but it doesn't ALL sound like a doomladen affair. There are many musical twists and turns contained in this one track and is essential in the telling of the story. It is the most Prog song on the album and it needed to be.
There has to be a resolution. And there is one. This comes in the form of Many Happy Returns/Ascendant Here On.
Again, I don't want to spoil the ending so I'll leave it for you to experience if you so desire
Steven has stated that the album sounds like an amalgam of his previous work - all the roads leading to this one destination. I can see what he means. It's a work of emotional intensity and integrity.
photo courtesy of Lasse Hoile
I can see Hand Cannot. Erase. being the subject of many a thesis and academic investigation. It's an important album and a contemporary statement of our times.
And - A Classic & A Masterpiece.