Without a doubt, Steven Wilson is the modern standard bearer for progressive rock. Over the course of four solo albums since putting Porcupine Tree on hiatus, Wilson has reached a standard of success other proggers just dream of. All right, he’s not Katy Perry, but his new album, Hand. Cannot. Erase., debut not just in the charts in Europe but near the top of several. For a guy who’s spent the last few years channeling King Crimson, Yes, and a host of other terminally unfashionable bands (while remixing chunks of their back catalogs), that ain’t bad.
What’s more, Wilson’s done by producing four albums that are distinct from each other but still sound clearly like him. Where The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) fully embraced its 1970s proggy roots, Hand. Cannot. Erase. casts a wider net, harkening back not only to some of the more tuneful bits of Porcupine Tree (think Stupid Dream or Lightbulb Sun) but also other Wilson projects like Blackfield or even No-Man. As a result, the album is more accessible, but no less interesting. Each track, whether it’s an acoustic vocal piece or a frenzied prog workout, is deftly constructed and performed.
The performance comes largely from the band assembled to tour Grace for Drowning (and which made The Raven . . .), with some interesting additions, including a choir and some effective strings (arranged by the ever talented Dave Stewart). Wilson does a lot of work himself, but he leaves the spotlight stuff to others, particularly guitarist Guthrie Govan, who has his usual shreddy self reigned in somewhat, to great effect. There’s even a piece that’s basically spoken word, although I think it’s probably the weakest effort here.
Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a concept album, inspired by the story of Joyce Carol Vincent – a woman who died in her apartment and wasn’t found for three years. She reportedly wasn’t a loner or recluse, had friends and family. Wilson was drawn to the story by wondering how she got there. As a result, this is kind of like Wilson’s run at Brave, the Marillion album inspired by a BBC report about a uncommunicative girl wandering on the Severn Bridge. The album is Steve Hogarth’s attempt to figure out how the girl got there.
The comparison is inevitable and, unfortunately, Hand. Cannot. Erase. suffers for it. Hogarth and company are expert at picking you up and wringing every bit of emotion out of you. You feel for the girl in Brave, even if you never quite understand what went on in her head (there are also some broader swipes at the society in general that might have driven her there). Wilson doesn’t work the same way, preferring a more detached observational approach. He’s very Kubrickian in that way, which isn’t a bad thing (I loves me some Stanley), but it does make for a stark contrast.
All in all, Hand. Cannot. Erase. is another great effort from Wilson. Highly recommended.