Haunting the Metropolis: “Hand. Cannot. Erase.” by Steven Wilson (Kscope, 2015)

Album review by Neil Hobkirk

The drama unfolds in Metropolis, a major Montreal venue. After ninety minutes’ worth of scene-setting recorded ambient music, the five principal actors arrive onstage at well-spaced intervals. The dramatic lead appears last, after the supporting players have already begun successively performing their roles in this immersive live experience. Projected behind them, an apartment block awakes at dawn, blinking sleep out of its eyes as windows light up one by one. With the lead actor in place among the other four cast members, the drama begins to cohere. As the show proceeds and the plot thickens, moving images on the projection screen reflect the players’ efforts more and more dynamically, and the whole experience turns all the more immersive through quadraphonic sound.

The “drama” is in fact a concert by Steven Wilson, part of the 2015 Montreal International Jazz Festival. I’m here on June 27th, his first of two nights at this venue (the second was added by popular demand). It’s my third SW show in four years, following my somewhat earlier introduction to third-generation progressive rock bands—Porcupine Tree, Opeth, Dream Theater, Glass Hammer—at the hands of my friend Steve, who’s here with me. As a teen I tugged hard on the teat of “classic” ‘60s/’70s prog, greedily feeding on King Crimson, Strawbs, Steve Hackett/Genesis, Camel, ELP and Peter Hammill/Van der Graaf Generator. Further nourishment was afforded by groups spearheading an ‘80s progressive rock renaissance—Marillion, Pallas and IQ. But during the ‘90s I must have been communing with other sounds entirely, for I failed to notice a third, frequently metal-edged prog wave.

As a recording artist, Steven Wilson emerged twenty-five years ago. Celebrated progressive rock/metal band Porcupine Tree began as a solo vehicle for the self-taught songwriter/musician/producer/audio engineer, and he’s been refashioning himself as a solo artist proper since 2009 when the latest PT album The Incident dropped. Wilson’s first official solo disc actually arrived the year previous, when I finally became privy to new prog. Insurgentes (2008) turned out to be the first of four solo studio albums, and the man has made no move to reactivate Porcupine Tree, preferring to band-lead under his own name. He’s accordingly reduced his commitments to longtime side projects no-man and Blackfield, though he paused to collaborate with Opeth bandleader Mikael Akerfelt in one-off project Storm Corrosion, whose 2011 self-titled disc is a sui generis masterpiece. And Wilson has stayed prolifically committed to Bass Communion, his ambient experiment that furnished tonight’s preparatory soundscape.

But rather than overinvest himself in musical side projects, Steven Wilson has increasingly busied himself with other folks’ music. Beyond mixing all his own main and side project recordings, he’s mixed albums for contemporaries Opeth, Anathema and Travis & Fripp (a coupling of Wilson’s saxophonist/flutist Theo Travis with Crimson kingpin Robert Fripp) and become remixer of choice for first-generation prog artists, working closely with them on revelatory LP rereleases. To date he’s remixed discs by King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Caravan, Yes, ELP and Steve Hackett, as well as by innovative popsters Roxy Music, XTC and Tears for Fears. Wilson’s labours have resulted in new stereo mixes that lay bare previously unheard textures and detail, and in each case he’s engineered a complementary 5.1 surround sound mix. Besides privileging “properly immersive surround-sound mix[es]” and championing high-resolution audio (see the recent Digital Trends interview), Wilson has collaborated with sound sample specialists EastWest in developing Ghostwriter, an electronic sample library that seems an update of that electro-mechanical gizmo central to classic prog, the Mellotron.

Mellotron embellishes all main tracks on Wilson’s new opus Hand. Cannot. Erase., and the Ghostwriter surfaces several times. Merging old and new sampling technologies and polishing his elders’ landmark statements to reflect current sonic standards, Steven stands with a foot in each camp, a 21st century schizoid man. Interviewed in 2013 for Anil Prasad’s invaluable Innerviews website, Wilson calls himself a bridge between old and new progressive rock. Our man, by the way, abhors the abbreviation “prog,” preferring the full term “progressive” to convey a sense of ongoing musical evolution (see aforementioned Digital Trends interview). In a separate “innerview,” Wilson’s bassist and Chapman Stick player Nick Beggs tells Prasad that “Steven doesn’t like the term progressive rock. He prefers ‘Experimental Progressive Industrial Jazz.’ That’s his genre” (Innerviews, 2015). Beggs shows marked leg-pulling tendencies in interviews, but this label certainly suits Wilson’s restlessly progressive output.

On Hand. Cannnot. Erase., Wilson’s bandmates help him tick all EPIJ boxes. Bassist/Stick handler Nick Beggs co-founded ‘80s Brit popsters Kajagoogoo but has since become bottom-end go-to guy for prog royalty Wilson, Rick Wakeman and Steve Hackett. Beggs also gives intrepid top-end support as a stratosphere-scaling background vocalist. Drummer Marco Minnemann’s dazzling dexterity would qualify him for Frank Zappa’s band, were the maestro still with us. He was runner-up in the contest to replace Mike Portnoy on Dream Theater’s drum stool, and their loss is Wilson’s gain. Minnemann also performs in instrumental trio The Aristocrats with Wilson’s spectacular yet tasteful guitar virtuoso Guthrie Govan. This night in Montreal the two are off touring that project, but their shoes are filled impressively by Craig Blundell (drums) and Dave Kilminster (guitar). Jazz cred comes courtesy of keyboard ace Adam Holzman—an ‘80s member/musical director of Miles Davis’ group—and flutist/saxist Theo Travis, who this time plays on just one track and does not figure in the supporting tour.

Travis was all over second solo opus Grace for Drowning (2011), a heady two-disc miscellany where light singer-songwriter fare jostled extended instrumental passages replete with heavy metal power surges, urgent woodwind improvising, ecstatic choral outbursts and serene string arrangements. (In its shape-shifting volatility and jazz friendliness, that album recalls 1970’s long-underrated Lizard, a King Crimson record recently remixed by Wilson to gratifying critical acclaim.) But it was on studio album number three that Wilson’s touring band convened: he has explained repeatedly how he wrote The Raven That Refused to Sing (2013) specifically with these five gifted musicians in mind; his own habitual multi-instrumentalist role was considerably reduced.

Raven was a comparatively cohesive entity, its sound palette purposely patterned after ‘60s/’70s analogue prog. (The boss as always mixed that album, but to engineer the recording sessions he hired Alan Parsons, who’d manned the controls for Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, one of Wilson’s earliest album influences). Hand. Cannot. Erase. revisits the restless heterogeneity of Grace, but now the disparate bits and pieces are bound together by an overarching narrative. And the sonic array proves Wilson’s widest yet, embracing the pop, prog, jazz and metal sounds from previous albums, as well as ambient and industrial elements familiar from Insurgentes. Again we encounter string and choral arrangements, but we also find spoken word, folkish vocal harmonies and an impassioned female singer.

This first-ever feminine vocal presence on a Wilson record suits the narrative concept at hand. Hand in fact unfolds from the female perspective, finding inspiration in the true story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a young woman whose mortal remains lay undiscovered in her London flat for over two years. Prior to her death in 2003, Vincent had steadily withdrawn from society, isolating herself at home. In numerous interviews, Wilson’s wondered how someone this century could disappear so definitively in a crowded metropolis. Without using her name, Hand. Cannot. Erase. relates his version of Vincent’s disappearance.

The album opens as it closes—with a tiny two-minute piece. “First Regret” begins with crepitant ambient effects, followed by children’s schoolyard sounds. Then gentle piano predominates against a backdrop of static and a minimalist electronic note sequence. Quiet celeste and distant tranquil electric guitar join in before the playground hubbub recurs and serves as segueway into the next track.

With “3 Years Older” (10:18), things turn heavy. Ominous Mellotron brings to mind Genesis’ “Watcher of the Skies” before the piece springs to life astride a peppy melody spurred by stuttering drums and crisply strummed six-string. This music is cheerful, vital and carefree—completely at odds with the album’s thematic content. Three minutes in, after a tasty guitar solo, Wilson’s characteristically plaintive vocals start up, soon joined by Nick Beggs in CSNY-style harmonizing. Wilson plays bass on this track; Beggs is restricted to backing vocals. In a departure from Raven, Wilson’s regular bandmates do not appear together on every track.

For Raven the whole band was recorded live in the studio with comparatively little postproduction. H.C.E., Wilson has pointed out, is much more a studio construct for which he assembled different musicians’ parts into an intricate whole. Speaking to Anil Prasad in a 2012 interview, he calls himself an “architect” who enlists others to perform and improvise within structures he designs. On H.C.E. he plays some guitar, bass and keyboard parts himself and enlists additional performers like Dave Gregory (XTC), whose jangly rhythm guitar remains entangled in the more driving passages of “3 Years Older.” Lyrically this track dwells on a sense of isolation, the move towards “a simple life with no one to share.” Calm Mellotron and piano persist throughout, but at 7:30 the tone turns violent, as Holzman manhandles an angry Hammond, then more violent still as electric guitar snarls to life in Govan’s hands like an enraged trapped demon. Finding comparative simplicity after the guitar’s subsided amid sequenced techno beats and bleeps, the tune returns to that brisk, vigorous main melody.

The third track too encases introspective subject matter within a cheerful outer shell—but more so. A perfect pop song, “Hand Cannot Erase” is short—single-length—and excludes exploratory instrumental passages. Chirpy electric guitar opens, an electronic techno beat takes over, then Wilson recalls “[w]riting lying emails to our friends back home / Feeling guilty if we sometimes wanna be alone.” At 1:18 the Beggs/Minnemann rhythm section kicks in, carrying the tune joyfully alongside Wilson’s and backing singer Ninet Tayeb’s combined vocals. Outwardly admitting little darkness, this title track sympathetically accepts the necessity of estrangement.

If anything, “Perfect Life” sounds more untroubled still. Driven by clanking industrial beats, this piece drifts cloud-like over a memory-haunted landscape, seemingly disconnected from earthly concerns. With guitarist Govan sitting out and drummer Minnemann only minimally present, ethereal keyboard textures predominate. In Katherine Jenkins’ spoken word intro, Wilson assigns his ghostly female protagonist an older adopted sister. After revisiting shared adolescent experiences, the monologue recalls the new sister’s departure after just six months. “For a few months everything about our lives was perfect,” narrates Jenkins before Wilson’s vocals take over, backed angelically by Beggs, repetitively intoning “We have got the perfect life.”

The “Perfect Life” protagonist maintains that she ultimately stopped being able to remember her sister, despite their six blissful shared months. This song, however—and even Hand. Cannot. Erase. as a whole—presents just the tip of an iceberg that Wilson tackles comprehensively through his approach to product. Here’s a man who dismisses downloads as ephemeral, preferring a sense of ceremonious physical engagement with an album—a feeling that fine packaging encourages. For CDs he favours packaging reminiscent of record albums. The deluxe edition of Raven came housed in a hardback book whose dimensions recalled a vinyl LP record sleeve. Presenting the song lyrics as fully illustrated stories, the book enforced our sense of that CD as a thematically cohesive album—a collection of ghost stories (titled in full The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories) rather than a random gathering of disparate songs.

Similarly packaged, the H.C.E. deluxe edition comes with loose artifacts inserted that help build backstory for Wilson’s full-blown concept album. I own the basic edition CD with bare-bones lyrics booklet, but like everyone I have recourse to a fictitious blog that shares the record’s title. The work of Wilson’s imagined protagonist, the blog preserves her thoughts over six and a half years until death. As in “Perfect Life,” she’s forgotten her adopted sister’s face, voice and name, but here she’s more recognizably haunted by the memory of at least having had a sister, a confidante. The Hand. Cannot. Erase. album and blog themselves constitute a kind of ghost story. Confiding in her long-absent sister, Wilson’s woman ghostwrites his record, leaving musical traces of her successful effort to disappear from society. Increasingly an absence rather than an actual presence, she ends up haunting her own flat. And having unfolded in London, Vincent’s story still haunts the metropolis.

Back at Montreal’s Metropolis, the fourth track from this fourth album unfolds visually, part of a continuous stream of footage flowing onscreen behind the band. Introducing “Routine,” Wilson jokes that it’s surely the “most miserable” song of his mostly “miserable” oeuvre. On the record, the song opens haltingly with subdued piano and seaside ambience—surf and gull sounds. Imploringly Wilson begins voicing a woman’s account of her mundane daily duties: “What do I do with all the children’s clothes?” Over chattering electronic percussive accompaniment, the story acquires a desperate edge as Ninet Tayeb takes over on vocals. When she explains that “[r]outine keeps me in line / Helps me pass the time,” her urgent delivery compels you to realize what’s at stake: not mere domestic placeholding but actual survival in the face of her children’s permanent absence. When Wilson reenters, joining Tayeb and a boy chorister, their massed voices lend yet greater urgency. Acoustic guitar chimes icily like a harpsichord, imparting haunted-house dread to this lesson in enduring loss.

A hushed instrumental interlude in “Routine,” where spectral celeste peppers an earthy bass flute timbre (Mellotron? Ghostwriter?), recalls quiet passages in Georgian composer Giya Kancheli’s music. But soon, as in Kancheli, a brutalist juggernaut upthrusts abruptly, quashing all quiet—an amped-up rock band crashing a sedate glade, Holzman’s Hammond leading the charge. The eruption frees Tayeb to soar soulfully atop spiralling instrumental lines, Beggs’ voice backing her. This release becomes a scream, then the song ends tranquilly with Wilson and Tayeb duetting above a boys’ choir, “Don’t ever let go / Try to let go.”

The enormous dynamic range of this record as a whole reminds me of Kancheli’s works, with their in-built sonic extremes—sudden swerves from near-inaudibility to cloudbursting cacophony. Steven’s stereo mix beautifully captures the Hand. Cannot. Erase. soundscape with wide-angled inclusiveness. In the Digital Trends interview Wilson mentions that in all his mixes—including those for other folks—he now confidently bypasses the mastering stage altogether: “I’m 100 percent certain that what I produce out of my studio is exactly the way I want people to hear it.” No need for a mastering engineer to finesse and compress the mixed product; Wilson’s is the final product.

During tonight’s show a stunning stop-motion video accompanies “Routine,” deepening our sense of this woman’s conflicted perseverance (“Don’t ever let go / Try to let go,” run the song’s closing lines). Wilson in fact wants his “whole show to be immersive from the moment you walk in to the moment you walk out” (Innerviews, 2012); he structures his show and album as feats of sustained storytelling that compel attentiveness. “Why,” after all, “has the art of listening to an album as a kind of narrative disappeared, while people are still quite happy to watch a movie from beginning to end?” (interviewed for The Aquarian). The “Routine” video will surely emerge on Steven Wilson’s YouTube channel before long; in the meantime, feast your eyes and ears on “The Raven That Refused to Sing” and “Drive Home.”

Next comes the most lurid scene in this “piece of cinema for the ears” (as Wilson calls H.C.E. in a Ultimate Guitar interview). After an eerie Mellotron intro, “Home Invasion” assaults the senses with apposite battering-ram force. The rhythm players’ staccato pummellings soon settle into a smug swagger with the addition of Holzman’s overdriven Fender Rhodes. Hammond embellishments, celestial sound effects and a funky bass line propel the tune into a zone bounded by ‘70s jazz-rock à la Mwandishi and Miles, Ummagumma-era space rock, and vintage prog. When Wilson’s vocals finally enter at 3:30, menacingly cataloguing the internet’s invasive seductions, they arrive distorted as in King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” After a dreamy chorus has situated the song in our female character’s inner drama—“Another day on earth has passed me by / But I have lost all faith in what’s outside”—we segue into “Regret #9,” where the dreamy theme recurs only to give way to an immaculately structured Moog synthesizer solo. Recreating his solo here in Montreal, Holzman outdoes himself, leaving listeners hanging on every note as he urges his instrument onwards and upwards, per ardua ad astra. Not sure I’ve ever heard a crowd applaud a keyboard solo this spontaneously!

Dave Kilminster further incites the crowd as he tackles Govan’s guitar part, soloing with warm David Gilmour-like chops (Kilminster has logged lots of years performing with Gilmour’s Pink Floyd bandmate Roger Waters). On record, “Home Invasion” ends reflectively with a banjo/piano duet before a further segueway whisks us into the fleeting “Transience” (2:43). Wholly played and sung by Steven Wilson, this piece pictures carefree moments on a childhood train trip to the seaside, the cryptic lyrics finding revelatory context in the 24 Sept. 11 blog entry. Textures here are diaphanous, any darkness merely glanced at with foreboding synthesizer strains straight out of Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine.”

The three remaining tracks fit the orderly thematic unfolding of Hand. Cannot. Erase. “Ancestral,” the longest at 13:30, is in several respects the big one. Like Holzman’s Montreal Moog solo, this piece continually builds and builds. The slow opening pits the London Session Orchestra strings against programmed electronic percussive chatter and further haunted-house harpsichord guitar. In his sole appearance Theo Travis flutters breathily on flute, then Tayeb’s voice joins Wilson in summoning nostalgic touchstones—“A bicycle / A garden wall / A mother’s call”—before he observes that “in the city there are those that live alone.” In the song’s chorus Nick Beggs exerts the pull of ancestry, crying “(Come child) / Come back if you want to….” The emotional heart of the album, “Ancestral” seems like a struggle being worked out, a process of decision: should the “child,” so fleetingly happy in “Transience,” recover her pastoral past or remain alone in the metropolis? A scalding Govan guitar solo encapsulates the process, then the track stays instrumental for its final eight minutes. Reinforced by Travis’ baritone sax and framed by harshly ethereal Mellotron, Wilson’s group enacts an ineluctable gathering of forces, the onset of enveloping dark. Power and tempo ratchet up steadily. Live, the band fully capitalize on this extended onramp to the beyond, Craig Blundell in particular intensifying his attack to the drumhead-breaking point.

After “Ancestral” has finally ended with thirty seconds of calm, “Happy Returns” begins balefully amid ambient rain and thunder. Slow piano states the melody alongside a blipping electronic pulse, then Wilson enters in full singer-songwriter mode, acoustic guitar in hand. This stance suits the song’s emotional directness, and here the album cleaves most closely to the facts of the Joyce Carol Vincent case. We know she was found dead among unsent Christmas presents, and Wilson’s song takes the form of a letter addressing an estranged brother, promising gifts for his kids. The dead woman’s words ring with brutal irony: “I bet you thought that I was dead / But I’m still here, nothing’s changed”; “I’m feeling kind of drowsy now / So I’ll finish this tomorrow.” The guitar/piano balladeering makes way for full band and the heart-tugging goes widescreen, string section and boys’ choir contributing and Govan uncorking an excoriating solo of “Comfortably Numb” proportions.

The album’s brief closing bookend, “Ascendant Here On…” (1:54), is all boys’ choir apart from distant piano, playground cries and rainfall. So matters end somehow transcendently—with recovered childhood and ascent to the beyond. On Hand. Cannot. Erase. maybe the lyrical content’s as miserable as Steven Wilson claims, but the music, for all its moments of menace, anger and frustration, is predominantly vigorous, tender and serene. In her 9 March 11 blog entry, Wilson’s character describes collecting stories of people’s disappearances, which she maintains were intentional: these are “[s]tories not about loss and tragedy, but about escape and rebirth.” Through Wilson’s sympathetic skill as concept album architect, Hand. Cannot. Erase. finds solace in this woman’s story of her own disappearance.

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