A continuation of Steven Wilson’s prog trip, with the accessibility of Stupid Dream.
I’ve been avoiding this album for some reason. I knew it was coming out, and once it hit the shelves, I let it sit there, almost like a punishment. You see, I’m a Porcupine Tree fan. I’ll admit it. So, again, there’s going to be some bias. Shoot me. Okay, back to business. Even though Wilson is the band’s main songwriter — which means his solo albums shouldn’t stray too far away from that overarching sound — the barefooted Brit’s solo work has, so far, left something to be desired. Grace for Drowning succeeded with its throwback to 70’s progressive rock, but fell victim to its own structure, a derivative collaboration of Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Camel.
The Raven That Refused To Sing had its moments, but continued Wilson’s regression to derivative territory, influenced even more by King Crimson. Yes, Steven Wilson became an oxymoron of the progressive genre. Overall, there was something Porcupine Tree had that Wilson’s solo work didn’t, but defining that difference was a challenge all in itself. Gavin Harrison, perhaps? I don’t know. His 2015 album, Hand. Cannot. Erase, however, brings back Steven Wilson’s trademark pop/prog sensibilities. The album introduces more personal sounds without becoming overburdened by influences, and that’s a welcome return to style.
There’s a lot going on here. Musically, the album explores multiple genres, from Rush-inspired bass licks — ha, what a coincidence — in “First Regret/Three Years Older” to straightford pop in “Hand Cannot Erase.” If you’re an avid Porcupine Tree listener, spin the instrumental “Home Invasion/Regret #9” and tell me you don’t hear those polyrhythms that made the Porcupine Tree metal phase so successful. Oh, there’s even a Rick Wright-esque keyboard solo thrown in there, which leads Guthrie’s climactic guitar wail. So, Wilson’s got that working for him. Which is nice. And then the track concludes with a banjo! Fucking banjo! You gotta love variety. “Home Invasion” stands as one of Wilson’s better instrumentals, which contains sound changes so abrupt that I could hear Kristoffer Ryggs’ knees buckle. A definite highlight. There are even some electronica influences in “Perfect Life.” Although this particular track, and second single, lacks the inspiration of the first two tracks, the electronic layers and conceptual lyrics are a breath of fresh air, complete with a climactic conclusion. Atop beautiful, electronic layers, Wilson croons:
We have/We have a perfect life.
-Steven Wilson, “Perfect Life,” Hand. Cannot. Erase (2015)
Don’t get the wrong idea. This is not a happy album. The lyrics follow typical Wilson-isms of over-the-top sorrow. Steven Wilson is Melancholy, and he throws the listener off guard by coupling this darkness with inspiring, even happy melodies. He is perfectly capable of igniting hope with a track like “Perfect Life” and then choking that hope out with “Routine.” I never usually complain about Wilson’s lyrics. Within his vast discography is everything I want from a melodramatic sad sap: hopelessness, melancholy, and brooding with just enough cheese to make the lyrics delicious. However, Hand. Cannot. Erase suffers a little on the poetry side. Maybe I’ve grown up. Or, maybe it’s just fatigue from the constant barrage of sadness from Wilson, a lack of variety in the most depressing way. I know I just complemented the album’s musical variety, but when it came to the album’s lyrics, I found myself rolling my eyes at times. Just look at this line from “Hand Cannot Erase” and tell me the cheese isn’t overwhelmingly funky:
Writing lying e-mails to our friends back home/Feeling guilty if we sometimes wanna be alone.
-Steven Wilson, “Hand Cannot Erase,” Hand. Cannot. Erase (2015)
Okay, that’s enough of lyrics. Back to the music!
“Routine” is the pinnacle of Steven Wilson’s solo vision. A track dominated by melodramatic riffs, beautiful piano, and a rousing performance by Ninet Tayeb, the track rises and falls with purpose, especially during its dramatic midsection. At the 6:00 mark — or somewhere in there, I’m too lazy to actually check — Tayeb’s voice pushes forward in the mix…and the rest is history. A truly beautiful, inspirational track, the lyrics interesting, the music everything you can expect from Mr. Wilson. The final highlight of the album is also the album’s shortest song, “Transience.” Very Porcupine Tree-like, the track opens with an acoustic riff, spotted here and there with Hans Zimmer-like blaams. Then, Steven Wilson’s trademark “ahs” and harmonies take over to create his trademark emotional atmosphere.
Steven Wilson’s 2015 LP, Hand. Cannot. Erase is a return to accessibility without abandoning the technical prog of previous albums. This evolution not only adds unique quality to the album, but grants Steven Wilson a sound all his own. Bravo, Mr. Wilson. Bravo.
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