I wasn’t seriously considering reviewing this album until I realized I’d never actually reviewed one of Wilson’s albums in full — I have written about him, though. A concert review. A mention in a list. A No-Man review (a criminally under-read review, by the way … please read it). Aghast, I thought, OK, what’s this new one all about then?
I have been really very impressed with Wilson’s “solo” career so far, meaning post-Porcupine Tree. That “band” (all quotation marks deliberate) was hit and miss for me; I liked the atmospheric rock and ambient elements, but some of the metal and alternative stuff didn’t sit all that well. Still, Stupid Dream and In Absentia contain a few of my favourite tracks of the last twenty years.
Now, as a “solo” artist, the tenor of Wilson’s work has changed a bit. Quite a bit, actually. I distinctly remember, but correct me if I’m wrong, that back around the millennium, Wilson was at some pains to make it clear that Porcupine Tree was not a “progressive rock” band. No one likes to be pigeonholed, of course, but if you wanted to sell records, that was not greatest label to have attached to you. Nonetheless, the prog fans of the world, and an intense bunch they are, anointed him their hero, the man who would make prog cool again … even if his band wasn’t particularly proggy. Still, he was also the man older bands turned to to produce new, improved mixes of their classic albums, so his affection for the genre must have been well known. And through that work the cult of Wilson with prog fans only grew.
Fast forward ten years, and not only is Wilson making music that even he can’t deny is heavily influenced by progressive rock acts of years gone by, but the cult of Wilson has grown with an intensity that is starting to feel a bit icky to this observer. The one aspect of rock and roll that’s always bugged me is the pedestal that musicians (or athletes, or writers, or actors) get put on. For the punter, appreciation becomes as much about their worship of their “genius’s” godlike presence as it does about the work itself. A real music lover admires the musician for his skills but should focus on the work. Focusing on making an idol of the composer does a disservice to both the art and the artist. So I go on my social media accounts and see people gagging over how everything Wilson touches turns to gold and aren’t we all lucky to just be able to bask in his reflected glory, and prog is best, by the way, and he proves it, etc. etc. I even saw an article that contained an interview with him, and “genius” was in the actual article title. He’s about to enter the elite territory of people who could fart into a mic for fifty-five minutes and have millions of people irrationally drooling and panting that it’s the height of human artistic achievement (in the company of Bowie, K. Bush, Bjork…).
I know, I sound cynical, but I just like to keep it real, you know? (Though I will admit to losing my mind a bit over Anathema last year and almost falling into a fanboyish state. I’m better now, though.)
So Little Steven van Wilson is riding pret-ty high right now. Of course, if we are going to make a god out of a guitarist and producer, he’s a good candidate. His last album, The Raven That Refused to Sing, is truly tremendous, flashing a billion seventies prog influences but in a manner that in no way overshadows the distinct aspects of Wilson’s musical personality (such as incorporating shoegaze and ambient elements). If Porcupine Tree was an alternative rock band with some prog background, then his current career shows a complete lack of interest in denying labels — he likes what he likes and he mixes all the elements and influences together as he pleases. Call it what you will.
To follow up such an excellent album and capitalize on what is probably the height of his popularity, Wilson would need to produce a doozy. Has he?
Hand. Cannot. Erase. is an impressively packaged album with the same crack band featured: bass monstrosity with an interesting taste in coats, Nick Beggs; ultra-shredder but with unusually good taste on guitar, Guthrie Govan; crack jazz keyboardist Adam Holzman; and spawn-of-Peart Marco Minnemann on drums (Wilson always uses great drummers). And of course, there has to be a concept, right? To be honest with you, Wilson’s taste in concepts doesn’t usually do all that much for me, and I like a good concept (this much). Fear of a Blank Planet had some great music on it, but the moral earnestness of the theme didn’t strike me. Same with Deadwing.
However, I give Wilson kudos for trying out new concepts. Like Marillion’s legendary Brave album, this one takes on a seemingly prosaic life story: “The basic story, or concept of the record – it’s about a woman growing up, who goes to live in the city, very isolated, and she disappears one day and no one notices. There’s more to it than that. Now, what’s really interesting about this story is that your initial reaction when you hear a story like that is, ‘Ah, little old bag lady that no one notices, no one cares about.’ [Vincent] wasn’t [like that]. She was young, she was popular, she was attractive, she had many friends, she had family, but for whatever reason, nobody missed her for three years.” (quote from Ultimate Guitar , retrieved March 16, 2015).
It’s a bit of a kitchen-sink, slice-of-life concept, one that will have to take its drama from inspiring a sense of commonality between the subject of the story and the listener, rather than an epic, dramatic tale of dragons and wizards. Her life could be ours, there but for the grace, etc. Wringing drama from this sort of theme is not an easy task.
So hence, this is a surprisingly low-key album, despite all the musical fireworks provided by the band of virtuosos. And the story is “told” in bits and pieces, such that if you had no idea there was a theme, you might not even notice.
The album’s opener, “First Regret/Three Years Older” is one of the more impressive pieces. It serves as the “overture”, and a very effective one in the proggiest sense. I was actually thrilled to hear a recurring guitar line that is pure Camel — how’s that for a wonderful musical reference? I hope it was intentional. In other places this overture is Floydian, as one might expect, but Beggs also reels off some Geddy Lee-in-1982 licks, and some big strumming recalls The Who. The inclusion of ambient electronics, as well as some great piano manipulations, keeps the feel modern despite these backdated references. There are several wonderful melodies and dynamics packed into these twelve minutes.
(I’m only providing a YouTube link to the “single” so as to be all like, copyright-respecting or whatever.)
So things are off to a great start. Wilson’s no dummy, clearly, so he pretty well always includes a “pop song” for potential radio play, such as “Lazarus” and “Postcard”. Well, the title track is his poppiest effort yet. It’s pure alternative rock, and of course it’s lovely and inspiring in that post-U2 way that pop songs are composed these days, all chimy and shit. A fairly strong resemblance in feel to “Beautiful Day” is something I’ll only touch on…
“Perfect Life” is an ambient pop number that starts with some female spoken word that I find less than absorbing, but the concluding minutes are truly transcendent as Wilson angelically intones “We have got the perfect life” (presumably ironically, though, ohhhhhh).
I’d say the album hits its zenith on “Routine”, but that depends on how much profundity you find in minutiae, as Wilson reels off a bunch of lines about the boringness of normal life, but accompanied by grandiose piano. A really swell Govan solo adds an extra element of drama, as well as a guest vocal from Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb, and a final crescendoing section of MK II string Mellotron (I think). The contrast between the grandiosity of the music and the simplicity of the lyric is interesting.
After this, I kind of lose the plot a bit, but the music is still intriguing. To me, “Home Invasion”‘s riffing recalls the prog-metal stylings that I didn’t care much for in Porcupine Tree, but some killer electric piano that sounds more like Return to Forever than anything else is pretty damn cool, followed by a bluesy melody and groove that reminds me of some doomy Atomic Rooster track from 1971. And then there’s a big synth solo before the closing axe-god guitar freakout! Now we KNOW that Wilson is the king of prog, if he’s willing to bring synth solos back! A nice piece, but only of interest if you’re one of those people who slobber over themselves at prog virtuosity. Which I am about … 60% of the time.
“Transience”, a delicate acid-folk ballad, is more my scene, fingerpicking and doomy synths galore. It’s followed by the album’s last “epic”, “Ancestral”, which begins with some trip-hop prog that is in the territory of what the underappreciated Paatos did on their Kallocain album, leading into more tasty show-offery from Govan, who is definitely my favourite new guitar hero. I never thought I’d hear someone shred this tastefully, I swear. Part II of the piece is another almost atonal prog workout with scary mellotron, sure to please Van der Graaf Generator fans. And then more metal. Sorry, I just can’t get into this sort-of Saxon riffing, as much as I like old Priest and Maiden.
Finally, we get the album closer. Anyone who’s read this site knows I’m obsessed with them, especially on concept albums; such albums are usually trying to be really profound, after all. Your life is supposed to be irrevocably altered through your experience of this art, is it not? It better be good. And Wilson’s provided us with such classics as “Collapse the Light into Earth.”
Well, he’s managed it again. Finally, I feel the real emotion behind this concept, as the album’s returned subject confesses her failings and ruminates on how life gets away from us — before we know, we’ve lost touch with the things and people that are important. And you can’t turn back the clock. Trite? Sure, if you like, but also the dominant factor in our reality, so you better get a grip on it. Life speeds up, then it’s over. This beautiful piano ballad isn’t reinventing the wheel, but it’s very emotionally moving. And the ambient finale is gloriously fitting.
So yeah, this is a very good album. I was always going to buy it, but reviewing it was iffy considering all that blatant slobbering I was seeing. But I’m glad I ended up behaving like a grown-up. It’s not Wilson’s fault he’s been put on a pedestal; he’s clearly one of the hardest-working musicians to have found success, and he deserves it. This album is a very worthy addition to his canon of fine works.