Steven Wilson’s musical circus is back with album number four, Hand. Cannot. Erase., which once again sees Wilson changing musical directions, opting for a more eclectic mix of styles, unified only by a central concept.
Eclectic really is the right word to use here. The title track is a straight-up pop track with a happy melody that nods its head throughout its length, reminding of Lightbulb Sun-era Porcupine Tree. Contrast this with the dark and menacing Ancestral that has plenty of progressive ambition and it’s clear to see just how wide Wilson has cast his musical net with this effort.
There is, however, noticeably less lengthy progressive numbers to be found here, compared to its predecessor The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories). This in turn has allowed Wilson to experiment with shorter instrumental tracks, like those which connect together the individual movements of Porcupine Tree’s The Incident. In fact the instrumental songs featured here act in much the same way; allowing the story behind this concept album to progress and evolve away from Wilson’s distinctive vocals. Two of these tracks, First Regret and Ascendent Here On…, are the intro and outro pieces respectively and although they add a little to the musical narrative, they just don’t hold the listeners attention as much as they probably should.
However Regret #9 is a different story. This interconnecting instrumental track begins as the closing notes of Home Invasion sound and take the listener on a sonic journey through rich textures and aural pleasure. It begins with a spacey Moog Synthesizer solo, courtesy of Adam Holzman, which floods the mind with memories of that famous eight note synth loop on Pink Floyd’s On The Run. This then merges seamlessly into a Guthrie Govan guitar solo at the 2:30 mark, encapsulating the brilliance of Steven Wilson’s backing band, before returning to a sombre atmosphere consisting of sparse banjo and piano keys.
The smaller track lengths also apply to the non-instrumental songs too. In a similar vein to Hand Cannot Erase, Transience is a short pop-inspired track that focuses on melody and accessibility rather than technical musicianship. The pair are very much traditional Wilson tracks, which is a pertinent addition to the record, reminding us that this is a Wilson solo effort, rather than that of a supergroup, which is again echoed in the broad genre choices on display.
Despite this there are still a handful of lengthy progressive marathons to savour. The aforementioned Ancestral is a progressive behemoth and is the only track to feature the superb talents of Theo Travis on flute and saxophone; a stark contrast from his heavy featuring on the last, more jazz-influenced record. 3 Years Older is the other ten-minutes-plus track and is a rollercoaster of styles, managing to transform from a quiet dreamy vocal section to a hectic metal passage, with screaming organs and a ferocious drum attack, without sounding forced. The final lengthy track, Routine, is still progressive, but takes a much more grounded approach, as it showcases Wilson’s song writing ability, along with the superb talents of vocalist Ninet Tayeb (who also makes an appearance on Ancestral) instead of taking listeners down a meandering jam session. The track itself is very melancholic and subdued, but begins to stand out with repeat listens, serving the album’s concept rather than trying to make an ambitious musical impact.
In addition to the superb musicianship, there is also plenty of experimentation to be found throughout Hand. Cannot. Erase.. Both Happy Returns and Perfect Life make use of guest musicians, the former utilising a boy’s choir and an orchestral string arrangement to achieve a hair-raising crescendo, whilst the latter features a female spoken word monologue on top of a hypnotic drum beat. Home Invasion, meanwhile, covers similar lyrical ground that Porcupine Tree covered with Fear of a Blank Planet in 2007, whilst experimenting with percussive djent-inspired guitar stabs and jazzy passages within a 3-and-a-half minute instrumental intro.
Hand. Cannot. Erase. covers a lot of musical ground and is once again a step forward in Wilson’s solo career. Whilst the supergroup band concept definitely still exists, Wilson has taken a slight step away from it in order to pursue shorter and more personal tracks, as well as few instrumental detours, which in times gone by might have been released under his Porcupine Tree outlet. This being said there is still plenty of exciting experimentation and progressive meandering to please fans of Rush, Dream Theater and Pink Floyd alike, but it comes second to the grand concept of the album. Overall this record is another truly impressive and extremely indulgent progressive record, which once again confirms Wilson as the most exciting and ambitious progressive musician this side of the Millennium.
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