Verdict: Steven Wilson continues his impeccable winning streak of solo recordings, perhaps releasing his defining moment in “Hand. Cannot. Erase.”
With each new addition to Wilson’s solo discography, the esteemed British rocker edged closer to the brink of burying himself beneath an inescapable mound of nostalgia.
The mysterious ambiance of ‘08’s “Insurgentes” quickly gave way to even better records, but each progression sent Wilson further back in time until “The Raven…” threatened to drown him in a sea of mellotron and extended jams. Sure, the ‘70s may have come and gone, but for Wilson, that time never left.
The reverence was beyond obvious, almost as if he’d captured that time’s very essence into a frame. “Hand. Cannot. Erase.,” though, marks another story. That frame, once revered like some religious obelisk, seems cast aside, left to collect dust in some darkened corner. For the first time in years, Wilson seems free of that all-consuming obsession, finally stretching creative muscles that audiences haven’t heard in years. Welcome to 2015, Steve.
This isn’t to suggest that the ‘70s have been abandoned entirely. Rather, that sonic reverence has been refocused into a more nuanced expression in a larger artistic vision. Throughout “Hand. Cannot. Erase.,” Wilson draws from his entire repertoire, bringing ambient, electronica, pop and metal into the larger schematic of the record’s design. These disparate elements coalesce far more effectively than anyone might have imagined.
“Ancestral,” the emotional peak of the album, seamlessly welds each of these varied methods together into a perplexingly logical whole. Stuttered electronic beats punctuate the distanced verses, setting a mood of perfect foreboding before the track, minutes later, erupts in a feverish rush of primal force. Wilson may not pen the most creative metallic riffs, but when timed to such perfection the effect is staggering. None of this craftsmanship would matter, though, without a solid production to bring the intricacies of Wilson’s music to life.
Fortunately, the Britain’s talent for sound engineering isn’t lost on “Hand. Cannot. Erase.” The record’s fourth cut, “Perfect Life,” exemplifies this knack for exceptional production as the mechanical rhythms give way to the track’s first verse and Wilson’s vocals pierce the ambience with chilling effect.
It’s a rare moment when the audience not only hears the artist’s voice, but feels it, too — like a palpable presence emerging from the speakers. “Routine,” undoubtedly one of the album’s highlights, wouldn’t carry such weight without the spacious mix allowing the acoustic guitars, violins, keyboard and percussion each its own room to breathe in crowded company. Here, Wilson’s talents as a songwriter and aural mechanic work in tandem to bring the ambitious recording to life.
And, really, if one word could summarize Wilson’s latest offering, ambitious just might be the one. As the album winds through its tale of isolation, loss and love in the metropolitan jungles of fast-lane life, it becomes increasingly obvious that this isn’t just an important album: it’s a critical one.
“Hand. Cannot. Erase.” tells a story that’s vital to so many of us. Track after track, it only becomes easier to imagine the frenzied rush through the swarm of silhouettes, blank faces immediately forgotten against the insanity of the bustling streets. It’s rare for a record to even conjure an emotional response like this, and its rarer still for that record to linger afterwards and demand further investment.
Unfortunately, given Wilson’s penchant for the underground, mainstream recognition just isn’t in the cards — no matter how deserved it may be. But, we can dream. We can always lose ourselves in that sprawling monstrosity of modern metropolis, captivated, terrified, and dream to disappear.