Wednesday, February 25, 2015

album review: 'hand. cannot. erase.' by steven wilson

So by now the majority of you know that I'm a fan of progressive rock and metal, and as such it shouldn't really be a surprise that one of my favourite acts in that vein coming out of its brief revival in the 90s was Porcupine Tree. While I wouldn't say every album they dropped was stellar - there definitely were moments that were indulgent, overwrought, or experiments that just didn't quite come together - they had a unique sound that distinguished them from their roots while still calling back to their past, and they wrote some truly gorgeous material.

So when their frontman and mastermind Steven Wilson split off to go solo, I was optimistic. The man was a gifted songwriter and he had a solid voice, I had reason to expect good results. But my reception to the three albums Wilson has released since Porcupine Tree has been... complicated. A comparison that I've made in the past between Steven Wilson and Kanye West - stay with me on this one - in that they're both musical geniuses with a unique sound, they both use plenty of vocal effects to accent their personalities, often more than they should, they both can be introspective in releasing vulnerable and evocative records, and they both are kind of insufferable. I might have liked Insurgentes and I respect his commitment to audio fidelity and dynamics, but only releasing a digital copy as FLACs which can't be played on most players and making a short film where he smashed iPods reeked of pretentiousness in the worst possible way. And this would have been fine if the music was good - and for the most part, it definitely was, but then he followed it with the more jazzy experiment Grace For Drowning. Which wasn't a bad album, let me stress this, but it pushed Wilson's more indulgent side and my patience to the limit and lacked a lot of cohesion.

Fortunately, he pulled things tighter with the significantly stronger The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories), and with this record Wilson was stating he was moving more towards electronic or even pop music structures, I was definitely intrigued, especially when he described the themes, inspirations and story he was trying to tell. And hell, even though his solo work hadn't always gripped me, I'm still a fan, so I checked out Hand. Cannot. Erase. - what did we get?

Well, it's a damn interesting record, that's for sure, and one that is drenched in odd contradictions. It's just as layered and complex as many of Steven Wilson's other works, but it's also probably his most pop-friendly release ever with some of his best hooks. It calls back more starkly to his 70s progressive rock influences than ever, and yet it's also decidedly his most modern. It's a record that has a greater cast of characters and may be one of the few times ever he's included a second vocalist, let alone a female singer, and yet thematically it's a record that's exploring anonymity and loneliness. It's easily one of the most lightweight and bright albums that Wilson has ever released in his career with any band, and yet it's a story of death, loss, separation, and the tragedy of the unknown and unremembered. And yet at the end of the day, it didn't quite hit me as strongly as I was hoping outside of certain moments, which is a little frustrating. Still a great record, but just a step or so away from being an outright classic.

So let's start with the elements you knew were going to be great going into a Steven Wilson project: production and instrumentation. The man's production is some of the best in the industry for capturing fantastically smooth melodic texture from acoustic guitars, keyboards and piano, the gorgeous moments of strings and flutes, a mellotron and Chapman Stick, and interweaving guitar and bass melodies, with carefully positioned layering that show a commitment to musical dynamics that I really love. You don't always get raw edges with this approach - although some of the riotous organ and guitar solos are balanced with some sizzling grooves that do have some real impact - but instead a gorgeously composed, intricate piece where every element has its purpose. And yet if the one thing Steven Wilson has taken from his work with jazz is energy, it definitely plays to his advantage here, showing a much stronger tendency to switch up his more composed elements with wilder edges. The stuttered organ and bass solo on the back half of '3 Years Older', the mechanical groove of 'Perfect Life' that blends into a shimmering choral swell, the organ/bass/guitar melodic interpolations for the solo on 'Routine', the eerie spiral waves of organ-soaked progressive darkness of 'Home Invasion' that transitions into one of the funkiest tracks Wilson has ever written, the Mellotron and guitar solo on 'Regret #9', the eerie creeping dark of 'Ancestral' punctuated by with a skittering rhythm before breaking into a harder rock song with a gradually swelling tempo, and of course the aching, incredibly tragic reprise of 'Routine' that comes in 'Happy Returns'. And then there's the title track, which might be one of the best pop-flavoured prog rock songs I've ever heard - with a killer melody, deceptively simple composition, and anthemic chorus that will give Steven Wilson a killer encore song for the rest of his career. And outside of that, there are few moments that I really consider missteps - 'Ancestral' feels a little stretched at 13 minutes, the piano seemed a little out-of-tune on 'First Regret' - the record is gorgeous, still intricate but easily the most accessible album Wilson has ever released.

Now the most recognizable change-up to Steven Wilson's formula is the introduction of a female vocalist, Israeli pop star Ninet Tayeb - and believe me, she's essential to making this record work, both through her own potent and expressive delivery to match Wilson's and because the entire album is intended from a female perspective. Yes, this was an album inspired by the story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a woman who disappeared for three years before being found dead in her apartment - and yet nobody had noticed she was gone. Not her friends or family, nobody missed or thought to check on her for three years. And thus accompanying this album Wilson also created a full blog of his album's protagonist, with the sort of rich, intricate detail that's characteristic of his writing that never really seems to make a direct point and seems more designed to set a mood. Hell, it's apparent with his lyrics on this record too. For the purpose of this review, I'm going to be focused on the lyrics on record, not the extraneous blog ramblings - mostly they serve to flesh out the picture and themes that Wilson's approaching, adding more character and detail, but not essential to tell the story.

So what story is Wilson trying to tell? Well, it's similar to that of Joyce Vincent - a woman, seemingly out of nowhere, disappears for three years and nobody seems to notice. Yet this disappearance isn't caused by death, but by her own free will to withdraw from the spotlight and observe rather than be observed. And much of the album goes into fleshing out this character and why she might do this - a vanished sister, abortive romances that fall flat in the face of her desire to be alone, misspent opportunities - why interact with a world that she has no stake in? And as something of an introvert myself in the age of the internet, I get this, and I really do appreciate the assertion that just because that love might not be actively shown every single day, it doesn't mean it's not there. And there is a certain euphoria to come with the escape of knowing that you can be invisible and static and let the world move around you. There's power, and even timelessness in anonymity, encapsulating a moment in time that can never be stripped away. And thus of course Steven Wilson draws a parallel with the internet, an easy window to the outside world for you to observe moments in time and only involve yourself as you choose.

And yet it's not surprising that he shows the toll that such an isolation can take - as much as you might find ways to subsist in your own world, hold onto your moment, the rest of the world will move around and move past you. The running metaphor of ghosts becomes all the more sharp and relevant, except our protagonist isn't being haunted by anything spiritual but by the ghosts of who or what she could have become if she had chosen to interact with the uncaring world. If you choose to ignore the world, the world will ignore you back, and as the album continues you can feel the strain. But it's also here where I have the one real problem with this record: for as much as we get fragments of motivation to why the protagonist chooses to vanish from human contact, as an audience she's a difficult character with whom to connect, especially considering that Steven Wilson didn't step away from the microphone and give his female co-star more of a real role. I get using him when singing from third person, but she should have been the face this album, especially when it's plainly being sung from the first person. But going beyond that, as introverted as I can get, the catharsis that comes with just observing fades quickly, at least for me - most of society actively wants to change things, involve themselves in the world, and there's a certain futility to sheer detachment, especially when it's so heavily established early on in her character. As someone who has lived on his own for nearly five years, I can empathize with this character, but considering the only real choice she makes on this album is to close herself off even further for reasons that don't quite feel fleshed out, there's a certain distance, not that same connection. It doesn't help there are songs like 'Routine' that seem to complicate the picture - I get the sympathetic metaphor it's drawing, showing how mothers can feel invisible and entrapped by routine and love, actively engaged with the world yet rarely seen, but who is she with respect to the narrative of the record, a ghostly alternate life for our protagonist or a friend who simply lost track of the protagonist in her own life? And then there's the ending of the album - the protagonist finally reaches out with 'Happy Returns' to her as-of-unmentioned before brother in a letter where it shows her isolation has taken a heavy toll - a letter you could argue she never sent, as the album ends with a ghostly, angelic shimmer that slowly, slowly fades into silence.

So, to conclude... these are the tough ones. Because for most of this album I find it absolutely stunning, a tragic story with a ton of nuance that is well told and gorgeous orchestrated. And as I said at the very start, I really want to say this record is a damn classic - there are definitely a fair few songs here that have the composition and memorable moments to earn it. But it's not clicking with me on the deeper, emotional level that makes an album a classic, which means it's getting an extremely strong 8/10 and definitely a high recommendation. I predict this album being divisive among Steven Wilson fans - it's not as dark or heavy as his previous work, and the more pop and electronic elements will annoy some - but trust me when I say if you're a fan of progressive rock or you're looking for more of an entry point, you definitely want to check Hand. Cannot. Erase. out - you won't regret it.

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