One of the constant and predictable factors of Steven Wilson's music is the fact that every new album is kind of unpredictable. During his career as a solo artist, none of the albums he has recorded have followed the same path as the previous one. So was Steven Wilson's The Raven That Refused To Sing (2013, see review) a powerful album, which blended music from Porcupine Tree together with a style of jazz and fusion, creating an intense album with lots of room for the instrumentalists to excel. So, when a new album was announced, I was pretty anxious to hear which direction Hand. Cannot. Erase. would go in. Another new path or following the direction Steven was heading with the previous album? Due to the musicians that play on both albums, the second choice should look obvious as The Raven had a bunch of super musicians; Marco Minnemann on drums, Guthrie Govan as guitar player, Adam Holzman as keyboard wizard, Nick Beggs on bass and stick and Theo Travis on sax and flute. All of them have returned to contribute on the new album, but this time extra musicians were added, like touring drummer Chad Wackerman, who contributes on one composition and guitar player Dave Gregory (XTC). The real noticeable change comes from the addition of female voices which are used regularly on the album. Ninet Tayeb and Katherine Jenkins (spoken words) add something special to the new compositions and so does the contribution of The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School Choir. The result as a whole picture is less influences from jazz and fusion and more focusing on the songs itself, with a larger role for the keyboards and electronics.
Ok, how different is Hand. Cannot. Erase. from the other albums Steven has made? In a way this CD sounds like a logical successor to The Raven. During some parts; 3 Years Older for example, the intensity and craftsmanship of a song like Luminol are mixed with acoustic parts that are quite memorable. In a way this song comes the closest to the compositions on the previous album. Only the more defined use of piano and Hammond organ makes this song suit this album more that it would fit the previous. Hand Cannot Erase as a song is the indication for the whole album; very intense and more focused on the songs itself and with a bigger role for keyboards and electronics. Nevertheless, the accessible way the vocals sound on the title track make sure the melody will stick in your head for a long time. Electronics have re-found their way into Steven Wilson's music, but the way they are used in Perfect Life is more than incredible. Katherine Jenkins' spoken words, combined with the emotional vocals of the album's main man totally gives me goosebumps. And with no noticeable guitar around, that is quite unique. The one that follows is one of the absolute highlights of the album, Routine creates a very intimate atmosphere by using a smooth piano and Steven's voice. The addition of the aforementioned choir and Ninet's vocals enhance the tranquillity and serenity of the song, just as Guthrie's suitable solo does. Until the turning point comes the music softly gains power and the instrumentalists get their way, proving again why they are asked to play on a Steven Wilson album. This song easily can grow to the best Steven has recorded yet, but to be honest I have thought this several time before, involving several other compositions. I guess there is no limit concerning the creativity of Mr. Wilson. Home Invasion is keyboard minded, Holzman lays down an incredible groove together with the explosive drummer Minnemann. Over these sounds Guthrie and Nick on the Chapman Stick produce the weirdest sounds before the vocals take over and take you back to the seventies where progressive rock is meeting pop music in a perfect symbiosis. The song Regret #9 is an instrumental part that shows how a seventies feel can be converted to a modern sound, but still remaining in the retro style. A true solo part is Transience, where Steven Wilson plays all instruments and does all vocals, creating a smooth and mellow atmosphere. The third long progressive composition is Ancestral, which opens with a distorted voice and electronic drums, accompanied by various keyboards and sees the company of the choir and Ninets vocals again. Remarkable is the way the guitar solos fit to the compositions on this album; like in this song Guthrie seems to be challenged to shift his boundaries even more than he usually does. After a tension building midsection; including strings, the power increases towards a metallic outburst of guitar riffs, backed with contradicting keyboards. Happy Returns is the closest Steven Wilson comes to pop music; an accessible composition where the vocals are leading. This is another part of the influences that are used for the music on this album. Though this song is how real pop music should sound like and how it actually did...many years ago. The album closes with Steven and Adam on piano, while the school choir gently fades away.
With Hand. Cannot. Erase. Steven Wilson has added other elements and influences to his compositions, creating a pleasant mix of innovating progressive music with high quality pop reminding elements. The outcome for me is the same as when I frequently listened to The Raven; just speechless. The difference with this album for me was the fact it took a little longer to embrace the “new” musical additions but two sessions later, the hammer hit me right between the eyes/ears reminding me of Steven Wilson's brilliancy.
***** Pedro Bekkers (edited by Robert James Pashman)
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