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HCE-finalcover

Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase. – 9.5/10

(This review was re-written and released for Nocturnal Hall Magazine. It can be found here: http://www.nocturnalhall.com/reviews/W/wilson_hand_e.html)

– Steven Wilson is a man that in my opinion needs no introduction. He is my biggest musical influence, and a true renaissance man in the world of music. Most famous for his work in the band Porcupine Tree, he has also been a key member in the bands No-Man, Blackfield, Storm Corrosion, Bass Communion, Continuum, and Incredible Expanding Mindfuck, in addition to contributing to the mixing, mastering, and producing of countless albums by other well established bands. Recently, his primary focus has been his solo career. He released his first solo album in 2009, and has followed up with a new one every two years. Hand. Cannot. Erase is solo album number 4, and was highly anticipated not only because it was another Steven Wilson release, but because of its interesting concept. It was inspired by the true story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a woman who lived in large city, died in her apartment, and was not discovered for three years despite having family and friends. Steven created his own story of a woman, complete with backstory and feelings of isolation before completely disappearing without being noticed. He uses this chance to explore themes that we have heard in his lyrics before, such as growing up in the country side, having your childhood innocence taken away from you as you grow older, and of course his fear of the problems that have been caused with the addition of technology in society. Musically, he cited The Dreaming by Kate Bush as an influence. Steven has always been strong at having the look and feel of an album match the topics. On this album, he moves away from the jazz influence of the previous album despite working with the same group of musicians in favor of a more electronic feel to match the idea of life in a big city. The album starts with “First Regret”, a 2 minute intro that sounds very much like a Nine Inch Nails interlude. It builds up with drone, a piano melody, electronic beats, and sounds of technology. From here it goes straight into “3 Years Older”, the first of three epics, clocking in at around 10 minutes. This song reminds me structurally of “Luminol” from The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories). It starts out with 2 and a half minutes of instrumental progressive rock. From The Who sounding guitar chords, to dark riffs we are used to from Steven Wilson, to uplifting keyboard sounds that sound like the intro to a Neal Morse epic, to a slide guitar solo. Everyone in the band gets heard, especially the great bass tones and drumming. The chorus and verse of this song sound like Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young with beautiful harmonies and country/folk guitar licks. The middle of the song contains jazz piano and heavy psychedelic sounding guitar riffs. The song concludes with a technical keyboard solo that sounds like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and a dissonant guitar solo before returning to electronic sounds and the melodies from the beginning. “Hand Cannot Erase” contrasts the previous song as it is a very simple song in terms of structure. It is a catchy and uplifting sounding pop song, although the lyrics are not as happy as the vocal melodies would make them sound. They are also some of my favorite lyrics from the album. It was a great decision to have a Blackfield like song after a prog epic like the previous song. This flows straight into “Perfect Life” which is a really interesting track. It starts with a female voice reciting what sounds like entries from a diary about a friend she had when she was a little girl. Underneath the voice is electronic drum beats and ambient guitar tones. The song concludes with Steven repeating a phrase with different harmonies building up over it for a big climax. “Routine” is the second epic of the album. The song starts off with Steven’s vocals and piano for the first minute. From there, electronic drums come in, as do wordless vocals in the background, and guitar chords. The song builds up and goes back and forth between Steven’s vocals and female vocals provided by Israeli pop singer Ninet Tayeb. The middle section contains the previous chord progressions with great dynamics, starting soft and ambient and building to an excellent guitar solo before the vocals come back in for a very emotional and heartfelt conclusion. The dynamics and technicality never get too crazy, and that’s what makes this track such an easy one to get lost in (perfect for a song called “Routine”). This works perfectly for the next song, “Home Invasion”, which starts out with one of the heaviest sounding riffs that Steven has ever created. Reminding me of “Mother and Child Divided” or “Circle of Manias” by Porcupine Tree, it takes a much different direction as the keyboard tones and off time drum beats give it a funkier feeling, complete with jazz fusion guitar solo. Steven then begins to sing about all the things we download in life and how it leads to missing out on actually living. The chorus is the only bright sounding moment, with clean jazz guitar chords. This song goes straight into “Regret #9”, which is an instrumental track. It has the darkness from the previous track in the background, but in the forefront is an excellent progressive keyboard solo and guitar solo. The transition between these two songs reminds me of “Us and Them” going into “Any Colour You Like” off of Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. The next track, “Transience”, is a short piece which contains of fingerpicked guitar throughout, dark keyboard chords in the background, and Steven’s soft vocals in the forefront. It provides a rest from all the previous tracks and allows the story to progress some more before the final epic track on the album. “Ancestral” clocks in at 13 and a half minutes. It starts with a dark chord progression and an excellent build up that includes Middle Eastern sounding vocal melodies, electronic drum beats, flute solos, keyboards and pianos, and a full orchestra. Finally the song gets going around 3 and a half minutes in. The song continues to journey over the same chord progression with guitar solos, background vocals, and female vocals. Around 6 minutes, the song gets more progressive with dissonant guitar lines and off beat drumming. The song then goes into sections of jazz, progressive rock, and heavy metal and continues to alternate between them for the remainder of the track. “Happy Return” emerges from the darkness with a final ballad. We are used to Steven ending his albums with great ballads, and this one is no exception. After all the different styles of music you have encountered on this album, ending with this track feels right. The chord progressions are simple but the vocal melodies are very memorable and contain more of my favorite lyrics of the album. Like “The Raven That Refused to Sing”, it is a bittersweet conclusion. The music ends beautifully, but the lyrics end on a somewhat sad note as you have grown attached to the main character after your hour long journey together. Steven ends with wordless vocals and Guthrie ends with a guitar solo. This track flows into “Ascendant Here On…”, which is a continuation of the ending of the previous track but with the chord progression of “Perfect Life” thrown in, bringing nostalgic feelings and bookending the album before it all fades away. In conclusion, Steven brings us another excellent album (as if there was any doubt). He is able to use this solo career to encompass all the characteristics he previously tried to get out in other bands such as the ballads of Blackfield, the dream pop of No-Man, the heavy metal of Porcupine Tree, and the drone of Bass Communion as well as new techniques such as the jazz of his last two solo albums. Is it the best album he has ever done? It could be. It is possible, but that is for the listener to decide. I might still say that Grace For Drowning is a more balanced album in terms of mixing together the jazz with the drone and still having plenty of heavy moments to go around. This one might be lacking in certain areas when it comes to complete balance. However, it is perfect in terms of fitting with the mood created by the story that inspired the album and the lyrics that Steven wrote when creating his own character. It is also a step in the right direction after The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories), which I felt was not as strong as his other two solo albums in terms of song structures and in terms of lyrics. This album was a bold attempt, especially when trying to write memories and emotions for someone who is the opposite biological sex from yourself. And for that, Steven deserves every single amount of praise that this album is already getting after just being released. He is a true artist who continues to push himself musically and lyrically, and he has added another masterpiece to his collection of outstanding works of art. This will be a very difficult album for other musicians to top this year.

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