Artist: Steven Wilson
Album: Hand. Cannot. Erase.
Release date: Feb. 27, 2015
There's no denying that Steven Wilson's solo career has been on one heck of a roll. Since Porcupine Tree's The Incident was released in 2009, Wilson has focused entirely on his blossoming solo efforts -- releasing 2011's Grace for Drowning and 2013's The Raven Who Refused to Sing, the latter of which was Album of the Year at the 2013 Progressive Music Awards. However, his latest effort, Hand. Cannot. Erase., is perhaps the best of the bunch -- and one that will be mentioned by prog enthusiasts many years, if not decades, from now. It will also stay in my car stereo for a long, long while.
The first thing listeners must consider before digesting Hand. Cannot. Erase. is the unique subject matter. This is a concept album inspired by the case of an English woman named Joyce Carol Vincent who passed away back in December 2003, but remained undiscovered for three years. She was surrounded by gifts wrapped for Christmas, and her television and heat remained running, according to media reports. Half of her rent was being automatically paid by benefit agencies, but housing officials decided to repossess her London bedsit after enough unpaid rent had accumulated -- finally finding Vincent's corpse, which was so badly decomposed she had to be identified through dental records. Wilson learned of the story through the 2011 documentary "Dreams of a Life," and decided to explore how a young person could become so isolated, ignored and overlooked in today's tech-heavy world.
Honestly, there is so much to discover and ponder in Hand. Cannot. Erase. that it's difficult to do in just a few listens. We're not just talking about a collection of songs here -- there's the thought-provoking artwork, a special edition with stereo and 5.1 surround sound mixes plus a 40-page booklet, and a blog (handcannoterase.com) written through the eyes of the album's female character that further brings the story to life. You gotta respect the efforts, with Wilson turning the album into a full artistic experience spanning a variety of mediums. But most importantly, of course, is the music itself. And Wilson doesn't disappoint at all. As sounds of kids playing fade in on the first track "First Regret," you know it's buckle-up time. You're about to embark on a special journey that will run the gambit of emotions.
The ending of "First Regret" features a simple, yet catchy, piano part that is repeated in the second-to-last track "Happy Returns," giving the album a cohesive feel. But between those songs are a ton of magical moments. The second track, "3 Years Older," explodes with an instrumental section that illustrates the talents of every band member before quieting down with acoustic guitars and Wilson's well-crafted lyrics. "You cross the schoolyard with your head held down, and walk the streets under the breaking clouds," Wilson sings. Some of the upbeat moments here are reminiscent of The Who and, in fact, I hear a wide range of prog influences scattered throughout the 11 tracks -- from Pink Floyd to Opeth to Rush.
The album also includes a pop-esque title track, which fits surprisingly well in the scope of the album, and a female spoken-word track that is also very refreshing called "Perfect Life." The album's dynamics are also expertly done and songs like "Routine" and "Ancestral" are excellent examples of this -- flowing from loud to soft, and soft to loud, with complete ease. Then there are ever-changing time signatures in "Home Invasion" and solos on songs such as "Regret #9," which scratches me right where I itch for prog rock. It's a five-minute song comprised of a kick-ass key solo followed by a Petrucci-esque guitar solo. Beautiful stuff.
My favorite song on the album is definitely "Happy Returns," which wraps up the story well and leaves me with an eerie feeling knowing the fate of Joyce Vincent. My only criticism is the album does give off a pervasive melancholy vibe, which could make it a difficult listen for all occasions. But it's a small issue. The truth is, I can't imagine how Wilson will top Hand. Cannot. Erase., but I said that about The Raven Who Refused to Sing. The bottom line is, everything he touches turns to gold -- and, as a fan, all you can do is just enjoy the ride.
- Michael R. Ebert (progzombie.blogspot.com)