Steven Wilson had an awful lot to live up to with “Hand.Cannot.Erase,” the follow-up to the worldwide critical smash “The Raven That Refused To Sing.” So bold, adventurous, and deeply musical was “Raven” that one wondered what the erstwhile Porcupine Tree leader, producer and remix engineer du jour, and prolific collaborator could possibly do to top it.
Wisely, Wilson did not let such high expectation daunt him. Instead, he grabbed ahold of a conceptual theme – detailed several weeks ago in these pages, but in short form, the story of a young, vibrant British woman who passed away alone in her apartment and was not discovered by anyone for several years – roped in his virtuosic touring band, and basically went for broke. The end result is perhaps the high watermark of his career to date. It’s a stunning album that rewards close and repeated listening.
Wilson can still drop audio clues to his broad batch of influences, and you can certainly hear the inspiration provided by progressive music giants like Genesis, Pink Floyd, Rush and King Crimson throughout “Hand.Cannot.Erase.” Fans of the fiery and dynamic interplay, challenging time signatures, and knotty multi-movement arrangements that have made Wilson a hero to progressive fans young and old will not be disappointed; the musicianship on display here is simply breath-taking.
But the difference this time is in the depth of the compositions, all of which – be they short connective tissue vignettes, or full-blown, vocal harmony-laden magnum opuses – are rich in harmonic detail and bolstered by strong, fat-free melodies. There is intention and clear purpose in Wilson’s writing, and it’s impossible to miss.
There is also an abundant sense of pathos underlining the entire album, which is best viewed as one piece of music with separate, fully-developed movements. (Though the tracks work as standalones too - the title track in particular is slice of progressive power-pop of the first order, and works as single, should there be the need for one.) Wilson is much more Edgar Allen Poe than Stephen King as lyricist – even when dealing with subject matter that might be perceived as grim, he refuses to play the macabre card for cheap thrills, instead finding both poetry and glimmers of universal truth in what is often a thick, hypnagogic sadness. As a result, much of “Hand.Cannot.Erase” is at once heartbreaking and uplifting.
Wilson has delivered another masterwork. This is demanding music that offers a bountiful pay-off to those willing to invest their time in it.