After years of following an artist, there is a tendency to feel they may have reached their zenith point, it’s hard to imagine them bettering that effort, or even better creating something entirely new altogether you haven’t heard before. This is the curious case of prog-rock’s modern professor Steven Wilson. His 2013 album The Raven That Refused To Sing (Kscope) was a darkly progressive rock/gothic nightmare musical come to life and one of my favorites in this decade. In typical Wilson fashion, it was achingly gorgeous and not at all pretentious. That’s a hard trick to pull off in this genre, even for the great ones, which he certainly qualifies for inclusion in that rare air. For his new album Hand. Cannot. Erase. (Kscope) he has managed to explore new ground, yet maintain the essence of what defines his art.
Musically the album is a tour de force. Again teamed with incredible players to flesh out his vision, Wilson and crew run the gamut from progressive rock spectacle, gentile pop sensitivity, tone-poems with funky beats, and even the occasional aggressive section to get the blood boiling and the goose-flesh all prickly. From Moog solos from out of 1975, to pastoral backing vocals, and breathy woodwinds, the chops on all the tracks are tight. The lead cut ‘First Regret – 3 Years Older’ is a “kitchen sink” affair with all the sound elements you come to expect here. The title cut is a triumph in every way that never needs to roar to be felt and understood. I half expected ‘Perfect Life’ to be an interlude, but it grows into a complete song by its end. ‘Routine’ is as good a ballad as we’ve heard in a long-time. ‘Home Invasion – Regret #9’ has an amazing stutter-step riff and some other motifs that could have been from lost ELP or Yes songs. ‘Transience’ with its madrigal lilt and ‘Ancestral’, falling back to a trip-hop world sinewy vocals and flute licks are polar opposites, but together they are mighty. The final piece, entitled ‘Happy Returns’ marks the end of the album and deals with the finality death, but manages to sound sunny in disposition and philosophy.
Where The Raven… was mysterious and downright grave emotionally, the new album is poignant and uplifting almost all the way through. Even in somber moments, the songs have an underlying feeling of hopefulness that defies the melancholy. Another concept album in his repertoire, this one is based on the true and tragic story of Joyce Vincent, 38, who died at home and went undiscovered for two years. The themes of each song are specific enough to the tale, but have a universal message in each one for the listener. Like Tom Waits or Peter Gabriel before him, Wilson is a master delivering the unbridled beast of a song in a beautiful package, ready to be explored. And we’re always ready to learn from the master.