In any discussion regarding Steven Wilson these days, it’s practically inevitable that the current state of prog rock also receive mention. In more ways than one, the man has become the poster child for everything progressive. I’m not just talking about the indomitable influence he’s spun with Porcupine Tree either. His online following has reached cultlike proportions, and he’s the only prog icon (possibly alongside Dream Theater) that the big name publications appear to regard as highly as the old legends. Whether in a band or going “solo”, his music relays a common progger’s frustration; that is, to want to draw upon the classic 1970s tropes the genre’s best known for, all the while retaining some impression of being truly ‘progressive’. One of the things that most drew me to Porcupine Tree in the first place was Wilson’s ability to refer to those influences without letting them drive the music’s course. Records like Fear of a Blank Planet and Deadwing stand proud as instant classics, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the next generation admires them with the same regard as any of the heyday output of Yes or King Crimson.
And yet, in the years since Porcupine Tree has gone on hiatus, it seems like Steven Wilson’s become an even bigger name. His cult following grows evergreater. I’ve seen people who could never get into Porcupine Tree throw down all arms and scream “Masterpiece!” at his solo records. I still listen to Grace for Drowning regularly since it came out in 2011, and I’m engrossed by it every time. With the release of The Raven That Refused to Sing in 2013 however, my opinion begins to diverge from popular thought. I mean, I’ll admit that Wilson assembled one of the most musically proficient ensembles of the decade for his latest two albums, but there’s something that doesn’t quite sit right with me and the direction Wilson has taken with his music. Despite his well-documented for the Transatlantics and assorted ‘retro’ (read: dino) proggers of the world, he’s been playing into traditional prog tropes more than ever. And his audience loves him all the more for it.
His latest work, Hand.Cannot.Erase., was definitely more modern-sounding than its predecessor (and I did love the album) but the current incarnation of Steven Wilson is nonetheless informed in large part by The Raven That Refused to Sing, and its self-consciously proggy approach. As can be reasonably assumed, I went into seeing Steven Wilson live with cynicism to share. For a musician that’s had a greater influence on my musical identity than most, it’s odd that my impression on his recent years is less enthusiastic than the popular roaring praise.
Of course, before Steven and his band had gotten a song into their set, I’d forgotten all about my cynicism. I forgot every curmudgeonly thought in my head. I noticed a shuddering rush in my body– the likes of which happen only during the shows I’ll remember forever.
It was June 20th, 2015. Steven Wilson was playing Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre. For proggers living away from this little Pacific Coruscant, you may have seen the Vogue before regardless; Opeth filmed their video for “Burden” (off Watershed) there a few years ago. Compared to the smaller-scale black and death metal shows I’ve been prone to seeing lately, I was taken aback by how comfortable and resonant the venue was. I usually find seated arrangements stuffy, but I don’t think I could have imagined the show happening elsewhere in the city. I firmly, firmly, firmly believe that Steven Wilson’s show was the best-sounding performance I have ever seen live. A few songs into the band’s set, I started thinking how different my experience of concerts would be if every band had such a rich-sounding setup. Not that any of this will surprise SW fans, nor did I find myself surprised; Wilson is known for his obsessive audiophilia, and it only makes sense that he would hold his live shows to the same hi-fi standard as his albums.
An appreciation of SW’s setlist goes hand-in-hand with an appreciation of Hand.Cannot.Erase. With the woeful exception of “Transience”, they played every song off the new album, beginning accordingly with “First Regret / 3 Years Older”, and switching the sequence up from there. The album’s mixture of The Raven’s technical bombast, and a more Porcupine Tree-ish intimacy made the HCE songs perfect for live. Although a few elements (such as the female vocals for “Routine”) were pre-recorded, the music was almost entirely performed live. With that in consideration, I was taken aback by how damned perfect they managed to approximate the music on record. It was as if I was hearing Hand.Cannot.Erase come to life in front of me. There was a solid selection of songs from other albums (with highlights including “Sectarian”, “The Watchmaker” and a ‘cover’ of PT’s “Lazarus”) but the memories that resound best in my head are all derived from the HCE cuts. The intensity they brought to “Ancestral” in particular made it my favourite song of their set.
If there is anything to distinguish the record from the live show, it’s the musicians performing alongside Steven. Adam Holzman and Nick Beggs are SW solo veterans, but drummer Craig Blundell and guitarist Dave Kilminster are working here as live session musicians, filling in for Marco Minnemann and Guthrie Govan, who are currently on the road themselves as The Aristocrats. It goes without saying Blundell and Kilmeister had gigantic shoes to fill. The two Aristocrats are modern legends with their respective instruments, and I don’t think anyone could truly replace their unique touch. Be that as it may, I was wowed time and again by Craig Blundell’s drum work; his kitwork was as busy as the songs would allow, and I can’t imagine another drummer having done the job better than he did that night. Although I was less impressed by the way Kilmeister filled in for Guthrie, I don’t think I could offer anything in the way of complaints. His soloing is notably less vibrant than the original guitarist, but he filled the role capably enough.
Steven Wilson’s stage show was accompanied by a host of visuals– some of them familiar from past albums, but most of it fresh to Hand.Cannot.Erase. I like the idea of a film accompanying an album, and SW’s longtime partnership with the extraordinary Lasse Hoile is one of the best-suited collaborations I’ve ever come across. The stop-motion animation playing behind “Routine” made that song one of my favourites from the show. While I liked the cinematic tone of a lot of the visuals, their effectiveness was sometimes mixed. A lot of the visuals are pretty heavy-handed in navigating the album’s concept. I get that watching a cuddle snuggle while water is poured over them throughout the course of “Hand Cannot Erase” is intended as a visual metaphor about love, but it came off as a bit pretentious and silly. Make that double for all the times the HCE lady is staring off broodingly into space, or solemnly drinking at her bedside. There were a few times I thought the visuals got too mired in their melancholy, but I do think they helped to capitalize on the visual experience the studio version can’t really offer.
I had the pleasure of seeing Steven Wilson play with Porcupine Tree in Seattle in 2009. Incidentally, that show was the first time they ever played “The Incident” to an audience. That show remains one of my best-loved concert memories, and I had it in mind while I was watching Steven Wilson a few nights ago. For better or worse, I get the feeling that he’s changed a lot over the past few years. In 2009, I got the impression I was watching an artist that really felt the introversion and melancholy in the music he was playing. Come 2015, and I get the feeling SW is happier, more confident, more consciously aware of the love of his fanbase. I think the self-satisfaction brought on by his recent success might explain his musical shift from melancholy to bombast as well. Regardless of the style he’s playing, I think Steven Wilson is always going to be better-suited with intimate, personal songwriting than he is with the flashy prog rock extravaganzas he’s taken to working with. I think Hand.Cannot.Erase establishes that point moreso than any other album in his career. In any case, seeing him play it live totally refreshed my interest in the album. I might argue that SW’s strict adherence to the recorded material robbed the show of its potential for spontaneous live magic, but that would imply I was somehow less than amazed by the show. The cynicism I have for some of the recent developments in his career aren’t likely going anywhere, but by the grace of prog, Steven Wilson amply demonstrates with each performance that he truly is at the top of the class.
Photos by Kevin Eisenlord Photography