Steven Wilson: ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase.’ Album Review

Hand. Cannot. Erase. is the fourth solo album from Porcupine Tree founder and four-time Grammy-nominated artist, multi-instrumentalist and producer, Steven Wilson. Wilson’s previous album, 2013’s The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories), was seeped in the sound of classic progressive rock. Musically, this new album is the most electronic sounding, outside of his work with Tim Bowness as no-man. Yes, it is still a progressive album, but using a more modern and varied palette.

Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a concept-based album inspired by the real-life story of Joyce Vincent who died alone and whose body lay undiscovered for two years, surrounded by un-delivered Christmas presents. The lyrics go further than the initial inspiration, and deal with our so-called connected 21st century life, being perhaps less connected than we think. The songs reflect on how easy it is to get lost amongst the millions of people who inhabit our towns and cities, and how those around us might not always question the gradual disappearance of a friend or family member.

“First Regret” is a piano and beats introduction, that seques into “3 Years Older,“ a powerful multi-paced, at times, classic rock sounding track. “When you’re on your own, that’s when you’re free.” The title track “Hand Cannot Erase” is the most immediate song on the album. It has the feel of Mansun mixed with the Prince powerpop of “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man.” It’s a pure pop/rock rush.

“Perfect Life” is a beautiful song, and the album’s centrepiece. A slowly drifting electronic landscape underpins the sad, reflective female spoken voice that chronicles the short and intense relationship between two sisters. A deep connection is felt, and then abruptly lost. Both “Perfect Life” and the track “Ancestral” (that appears towards the end of the album) have a little of the feel of the dark electronica of Portishead and Nine Inch Nails. There are only a couple of occasions (notably towards the end of “3 Years Older“ and “Regret #9”) where old-school progressive rock touches the album arrangements.

The baroque ‘n roll “Routine” features Wilson sharing vocal duties with Ninet Tayeb, and a short-interlude with choir-boy vocals bridging sections of the song. “Routine” is anything but routine in its arrangement, taking twists and turns from quiet to heavy instrumentation, with Ninet Tayeb supplying an almost Floydian scream towards the song’s climax. You know I said there were not many prog touches…

“Home Invasion” does live up to its title – with a disturbing, heavy instrumental introduction, harking back to Wilson’s earlier work. As the vocal section kicks in around the half-way mark, a series of wonderful post-punk guitar riffs makes you realise that the guitar is the real star of this album, more so than on previous Steven Wilson solo albums.

“Regret #9” highlights the Moog skills of former Miles Davis keyboardist Adam Holzman and the virtuoso guitar delights of Guthrie Govan (similar to his stellar work on the previous album’s “Drive Home”). The song ends on a short, stark section as the mood drops for “Transience.” The intro to this track reminds me a little of The Alan Parsons Project – a distant cousin of Porcupine Tree’s “Heartattack in a Lay By” maybe, the beauty of “Transience” lies in its understated simplicity.

“Ancestral” is the song that’s likely to be a mainstay in the live set for years to come. A haunting, glitchy opening section underpinned by strings and flute from Theo Travis give way to the most exhilarating pure metal piece of music Wilson has released since Fear of a Blank Planet back in 2007.

“Happy Returns” is the most emotionally charged song on the album, bringing the story to its tragic, untimely end. Hand. Cannot. Erase. is an album that works as a complete piece, from start to finish, but like the album’s title track, “Happy Returns” also works in isolation as a stand-alone song. If you take the time to research the inspiration behind the album, the final line of “Happy Returns” will hit you hard.

Although there is a cohesive and strong narrative to the album, there are enough musical twists throughout the 11 tracks to keep you on the journey right to the very end. It’s easy to let yourself be distracted by tweets, texts, and other demands on your attention that can detract from the overall album listening experience. Hand. Cannot. Erase. grabs your full attention from the beginning to the very final note, and that’s the sign of a great album.

As well as an emotional response, music can sometimes make you take a step back and reflect on your own life, and the actions you have taken. If the story of Joyce Vincent and the songs of Hand. Cannot. Erase. make you remember someone you have lost contact with over the years, maybe take a few minutes to make a quick call or fire off a friendly e-mail. The album makes it clear that it’s very easy to disconnect, but re-connecting can be even easier. Hand. Cannot. Erase. will be released by Kscope on February 27th in Germany, March 2nd in the UK/Europe, and 3rd March in the USA and Canada.