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A Novel Idea

Steven Wilson Weaves Wonders on Hand. Cannot. Erase.

3/17/15

Most albums are collections of short stories.

They may be connected by a theme, but most records are disparate journeys of varying lengths, bound together by the same piece of plastic or vinyl. Like short story collections, care is taken to sequence those individual pieces in a way that flows, that connects them more strongly. But take one of those stories out, read it on its own, and it will work. It may be stronger in context, but it will still do what it was designed to do.

But some albums are novels, and those are usually the ones I end up liking best. Musical novels tell a story from beginning to end, and though they may be divided into chapters, they are intended to be heard from cover to cover. Like the best novels, you can’t take them apart – there may be a particularly strong chapter, but it feeds into the whole, and the story it contributes to is more important and more rewarding than the one it tells on its own.

Any writer will tell you that short stories and novels make use of different skill sets, and neither one is more difficult to pull off. That makes sense musically as well – writing an amazing three-minute pop song is a different, yet no less daunting task than composing a full conceptual piece. I admire both accomplishments, but my brain is wired for novels (and trilogies, and ongoing series). I love sinking into stories with layers and hidden connections, stories that have the time and space to truly explore their themes.

This is why I’m a particular supporter of the ambitious and the expansive, and the best examples of that can usually be found in the progressive realm. Conceptual pieces sort of come with the territory – just about every prog band has eventually made their musical novel, from Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway to Marillion’s Brave to Dream Theater’s Scenes From a Memory to Spock’s Beard’s Snow. Some of them work, some of them don’t, but I’m always willing to give a few extra points when an artist reaches for the sky.

Which brings me to Steven Wilson. Like Marillion, I hesitate to call Wilson prog – there’s really no other musician alive like him. His work is certainly elaborate, and incorporates much of that ‘70s wibbly-wibbly sound, but he’s truly progressive, mixing in half a dozen different musical forms from jazz to metal to ambient to electronic to folk and coming out with something unique. For 20 years he led Porcupine Tree, a band that leapt from psychedelic to bone-crunchingly heavy to almost inaudibly placid, often within the space of a single song. He's also co-led the more soothing No-Man, the tight pop band Blackfield, and the more radical Bass Communion and IEM.

But it’s as a solo artist that Wilson has been making his mark lately. His first three solo albums were short story collections, but marvelous ones, particularly 2013’s powerful The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories. But now, with his fourth, Wilson has given us a novel.

Hand. Cannot. Erase. is the story of a woman in a room. It was inspired by the real case of Joyce Carol Vincent, a young English woman who died in her home and was not discovered for three years. (Vincent is the subject of the documentary Dreams of a Life.) The central character of Hand. is similar – she cuts off all contact with family and friends, cocoons herself in her room and dies alone. The album is the story of how she got there, and it’s an emotionally involving, deeply sad tale.

It is also musically immersive in a way that Wilson has not given us in some time. I don’t mean sonically – Wilson’s albums always sound amazing, and this one is no exception. But Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a single piece, with recurring themes that bubble up in unexpected places, with songs that complete each other, with a sweeping and well-thought-out scope to the entire composition. There are individual tracks, and two of them – the catchy title track and the lovely “Perfect Life” – can almost step out on their own (though one might wonder about the spoken monologue that makes up half of the latter). The rest of this album is inseparable, and the two tracks above leave a gaping hole if removed – they’re vital to the record as a whole, even if they can be singles.

The piano melody that opens the record (“First Regret”) is one of the main themes, recurring throughout. It glides into the 10-minute “3 Years Older,” which bursts to life on a Pete Townshend-esque guitar figure and some explosive drumming by Marco Minnemann. This is one of two progressive epics on display here, and it follows our protagonist through her sad early years, ending up in a city that feels nothing like home.

The title track is a pop song about love in hard times (“Hand cannot erase this love”), and is one of the few moments of joy here. It’s followed by another: “Perfect Life” is a glorious electronic ambient piece that tells the story of our character’s only real connection with humanity, her one-time foster sister. She was three years older, they had six months together before her parents broke up and her sister moved to another home. This song captures that nostalgic peace beautifully, and even tinges it with barely perceptible sadness. It helps that the lead vocals are often taken by female singer Ninet Tayeb – Wilson is writing from a female perspective, and he is not afraid to give those sentiments to a woman to sing.

“Routine” is, for my money, the most amazing thing here. A nine-minute multi-movement song about trying to hold on to hope, “Routine” is powerful in its fragility. “Routine keeps me in line, helps me pass the time, concentrates my mind, helps me to sleep…” On the heavier “Home Invasion,” our character loses “all faith in what’s outside, the awning of the stars across the sky and the wreckage of the night.” The dark mood continues through the instrumental “Regret #9” and the lovely “Transience,” leading into the astonishing 13-minute “Ancestral.” A tour de force, “Ancestral” is the final slide of our main character’s mind: “When the world doesn’t want you, it will never tell you why, you can shut the door but you can't ignore the crawl of your decline…” It also ends with the sharpest display of musical pyrotechnics here, Minneman and guitarist Guthrie Govan pushing it heavier and heavier until it erupts.

Hand. Cannot. Erase. ends with the piano-led “Happy Returns,” which finds our character hoping to reconnect with her estranged brother and his family. She has bought them presents, and she is writing him a note: “I’d love to tell you I’ve been busy, but that would be a lie, ‘cause the truth is the years just pass like trains, I wave but they don’t slow down…” The last thing she says is “I’m feeling kind of drowsy now, so I’ll finish this tomorrow…” And she never does. The final instrumental, “Ascendant Here On,” is her death.

And it hurts. Steven Wilson has told this tale so well, and surrounded it with music so powerful and so emotional, that it actually hurts. That’s how you know you’ve been reading a great novel – when you’ve invested so much into the people you’ve been spending so much time with that it's hard to experience pain with them. Hand. Cannot. Erase. is one of those. It’s more than just another really good Steven Wilson album, although it certainly is that. It’s a deeply felt and deeply ambitious work that stands tall, even in a discography like Wilson’s. It’s tremendous.

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I have so much to listen to, and no time to get to it all. I’m going to cut it short this week so I can hear more things, so I can tell you what I thought of more things in the coming weeks. But I have just enough time for a short story, in keeping with the theme.

Once upon a time, I fell in love with a Champaign, Illinois band called The Moon Seven Times. As an East Coast boy, I had no idea where Champaign was, of course – some magical land in the middle of the country somewhere. And as far as I knew, there were only two people on the planet who were into the Moon Seven Times, and the other one was my friend Chris, who got me hooked on them. M7x was a dream-pop shoegaze-y band making gloriously reverbed soundscapes, and I loved that stuff. Still do.

The Moon Seven Times broke up in 1998 or so, but their guitarist, a university professor named Henry Frayne, kept making lovely music under the name Lanterna. From 1998 to 2006, Frayne made five albums of blissful instrumental loveliness, and then disappeared. But man, I adore those Lanterna albums. Frayne’s tone is delicate and bright, somewhat Robin Guthrie but more earthy, and he writes simple, pretty songs to drape in that tone. Much as I would have loved a new Lanterna album every two years forever, though, I figured that would be the last I’d hear of Frayne.

Not so, as Chris kindly pointed out to me a few weeks ago. Frayne has quietly released Backyards, the first Lanterna album in nine years, and it’s just as wonderful as the other five. Strummy acoustic guitars, chiming electric tones, the perfect soundtrack for walking along a beach at sunset. Frayne doesn’t break any new ground here, but I’m just so happy to hear this sound again that I don’t care. It’s a new Lanterna album! May there be many more. You can pick up Backyards here.

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