Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Steven Wilson - Hand. Cannot. Erase.

I think it is a testament to the brilliance of Steven Wilson as an artist, that the least immediately gratifying album thus far in his solo career is still one of the most impressive things I’ve heard in these nascent months of 2015.

While I’m altogether certain I’m not the only one who longs for a Porcupine Tree reunion one of these days, Wilson’s latest flagship has long since proved itself. His ‘solo’ phase has not been so much a continuation of that band’s sound as it has been a liberation from the expectations fans might have had for any successor to The Incident. Porcupine Treeis synonymous with the sort of melancholic ‘alt-prog’ they’re known for popularizing, but fans with a cursory knowledge of Wilson’s music should know that was only a facet of his art. His poppiest tunes went to Blackfield. His love for drone and krautrock manifested themselves in Bass Communion and I.E.M respectively, and his longstanding collaboration with Tim Bowness (as No-Man) channelled ambiance in several shades. For any of the material that fell in-between these lines, a project under his own name was perfect. In spite of the heavy praise Steven Wilson has received for his eclectic solo work, I am positive a lot of the stylistic expeditions would have been given flak, had it been released with Porcupine Tree. An audience’s preconceptions and expectations can make shifting sounds a tricky thing; this is something Wilson’s pal Mikael Åkerfeldt might have taken into account when Opeth released Heritage (to intensely polar reactions) back in 2011.

The sleepy Insurgentes and – to an even greater extent – jaw-dropping Grace for Drowning pulled in sounds from every corner of Wilson’s art. With these last two albums however, Wilson has let his love of classic progressive rock guide his approach. I don’t mean to imply that Hand.Cannot.Erase. is a repeat of 2013′s The Raven that Refused to Sing, but the open-ended, career-encompassing variety that had me obsessed with Grace for Drowning back in the day isn’t so much a part of Wilson’s solo material these days.

Steven Wilson to release "Hand. Cannot. Erase." in February via Kscope

It’s not the love note to 70s’ prog rock that The Raven… was, but Hand.Cannot.Erase. continues to pay homage to Steven Wilson’s classic influences. His pop songwriting (one of his best talents, I think) takes a backseat to longwinded prog observations, the likes of which only usually seen once per Porcupine Tree record. “First Regret / 3 Years Older” is replete with Wilsonian vocal harmonies and successfully moving choruses, but its greatest charm lies in its not-so-subtle nod to A Farewell to Kings-era Rush. Yeah- I wouldn’t have ever expected to mention the Canadian trio in a Steven Wilson review (his classic influences tend to rest near the psychedelic spectrum) but the precise basswork and bright power-riffs demand the comparison be made.

The comparisons don’t end there either. “Home Invasion / Regret #9″ starts with chugging, quasi-metal fare (it’s not the first time Wilson’s love of Meshuggah has found its way into his art) before it expands into a jazzy, King Crimson-esque exploration. From there, it falls into a longform, gradually building solo showcase shared between Adam Holzman and Guthrie Govan- again, this kind of chilled and soulful soloing could be traced to Pink Floyd, but so many prog rock bands have made use of it since that it may well be considered common property. “Routine” may be the only longer track here that escapes all quickdraw comparisons to classic prog. It’s soft, varied and beautifully dynamic; I’ve seen a few people call “Routine” their favourite cut from the album; it might be a little over the place and rhapsodic for me to call it one of my favourites, but following the beautiful minimalism of “Perfect Life” before it, it’s a refreshing switch of gears.

Hearing Wilson place an emphasis on this kind of tried-and-tested longform composition is both impressive and frustration. Wilson’s natural talents with writing, matched with his encyclopaedic interest in the genre, his warmth as a producer and cast of brilliant musicians (some of them legends in their own right) make the least-involving moments on Hand.Cannot.Erase. a joy to behold. Coincidentally (and I may strike a note of controversy for saying so) those ‘least-involving’ moments all fall in the stretches of time Wilson hands the reins over to his backing soloists. Guthrie Govan stands as one of the best working guitarists today (his masterpiece debut Erotic Cakes is proof of that), but I notice my attention slipping whenever another extended guitar solo rolls around. From a technical standpoint Govan (and keyboardist Adam Holzman) hit all the proper marks, but the compositions fall into the age-old issue of making added space for the solos, without creating the dynamic surroundings to make it feel more than an expression of (their admittedly superb) technical musicianship. When it comes to some of these lax instrumental passages, I feel myself reeling back to thinking of the way Wilson masterfully opened up The Raven, with “Luminol”. “Luminol” offered some of the best musicianship I’ve ever heard in the progressive genre, and felt consistently engaging in spite of its length. There wasn’t a need to create longwinded solo passages then, and I don’t think there was a need for it here.

I know I could have stopped with simply saying “TOO MANY SOLOS” and risked sounding like just as much of a curmudgeon, but the talent of everyone involved is worth far more than falling on old tricks like that. Barring that, any issues with Hand.Cannot.Erase. are negligible. Steven Wilson’s work with would-be prog ‘epics’ has seen better days to be sure, but the three 10+ minute tracks grow with every listen. “First Regret / 3 Years Older” is the most contagious opener I have heard in a long time, and in spite of my criticism towards it, “Home Invasion / Regret #9″ seems to get more charming with every listen. “Ancestral” was the slowest grower of the lot for me; the darkest note on Hand.Cannot.Erase. begins with Floydian melancholy, and erupts into one of the closest skirmishes with prog metal Steven Wilson has ever had. The dark atmosphere and oppressive riffs fly close to the heavy climax on The Incident, but unlike that album, Wilson makes sure to give the aggression due time to emerge and erupt.

Also quite like The Incident, the album’s final moments following the climactic storm are tender. “Happy Returns” isn’t quite as heartbreaking as “I Drive the Hearse”, but I’m sure it was written in a similar mindset. To be honest, this sort of Porcupine Tree-ish tenderness and beauty strikes an even stronger note with me than the more progressive and overtly sophisticated material on Hand.Cannot.Erase. To anyone who’s heard the album already, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the title track is my favourite song. “Hand Cannot Erase” is, without a doubt, one of the most infectious and enjoyable songs Wilson has ever written, up there with “Trains” and “Lazarus”. The melodies are crisp, the lyrics intimate and Wilson’s voice fittingly warm and passionate.

“Perfect Life” was a far less intuitive choice for a single, but it’s come to hit me just as hard emotionally. The anecdotal spoken word (performed by Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb) is an intimate gateway into the album’s concept of isolation. Foreboding electronic beats build underneath. Halfway into the track, the atmosphere switches from tension to tenderness. Steven Wilson’s voice chimes softly: “We have got a perfect life…” From underneath that, a one-man chorus of harmonies emerge, themselves building up in layer and intensity until the song ends. I describe this moment because it is completely haunting every time I hear it; I know the word ‘haunting’ is tossed around in music reviews as many times as McDonalds sells Big Macs in a fiscal year, but this is one of the occasions that truly warrants the description.

To date, the only album concept from Steven Wilson that really meant something to me was Porcupine Tree‘s Fear of a Blank Planet. Deadwing and The Incident are conceptual works, but there’s not a great deal of narrative or symbolic sense to make of them. I’ve always loved Steven Wilson’s intimately poetic lyrics, but I’ve rarely cared to draw conclusions about the album concepts themselves. In the case of Hand. Cannot. Erase., the concept is more clear, although Wilson’s left particular lyrical meanings up for an audience’s interpretation. Suffice to say, the album’s conceptual foundations (of a woman who isolates herself from human contact for three years) fall in line with Wilson’s recurring anxieties towards modernity. Even if the narrative’s character is female, the lyrics feel too personal to have come from anything but Wilson’s own experience. What are we to make of the way the story ends? The woman finally re-enters society, but sees nothing has changed while she’s been away. It’s a bittersweet way to part ways with a character so disenfranchised with the isolation inherent in modern living. Still, it seems a brighter ending than the one shared by the concept’s real-life inspiration; Joyce Vincent (an abused woman living in London) was discovered in her apartment three years after she died. Given the anxieties Wilson explored on Fear of a Blank Planet, it’s not surprising he would have been moved enough to create art based on that story.

Steven Wilson Band

I wonder, were she alive to hear it, what the real-world Joyce Vincent would have thought of Hand. Cannot. Erase. The essential beauty of art and music is that it allows people to share their emotional experience, conveying the hidden depths of themselves to another person they have probably never met before. Humans feel more isolated than ever, and none moreso than in cities. The kind of feeling an artist like Steven Wilson brings to his music has never been so important. No, I’m not awe-struck the way I was with Grace for Drowning or his other best work, but Hand. Cannot. Erase. feels resonant and powerful. Wilson may play with traditional progressive notions here, but unlike your Flower Kings and Transatlantics, he never succumbs to them. By this point, Steven Wilson’s solo work has become a monument, increasingly independent from the legendary prestige of his old band. Part of me still hopes he’ll revive Porcupine Tree one of these days and follow-up The Incident, but I’ll eagerly await anything of his if he keeps up with this brilliant standard of quality. The man has no signs of slowing down any time soon.

Order “Hand. Cannot. Erase” here.


1. First Regret (2:01)
2. 3 Years Older (10:18)
3. Hand Cannot Erase (4:13)
4. Perfect Life (4:43)
5. Routine (8:58)
6. Home Invasion (6:24)
7. Regret #9 (5:00)
8. Transience (2:43)
9. Ancestral (13:30)
10. Happy Returns (6:00)
11. Ascendant Here On (1:54)


* Guthrie Govan – lead guitar
* Nick Beggs – bass guitar
* Marco Minnemann – drums
* Adam Holzman – keyboards
* Theo Travis – saxophone, flute
* Steven Wilson – vocals, guitars, keyboards, bass guitar


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