A little while back I wrote a bit about prog-rock, which was a very 70’s thing and very English. It’s still around, but even now in the internet age, it’s still dominated by those two things: a mid-70’s vibe and a characteristically English way of music. Which brings me to Stephen Wilson, whose music is dominated by those two things. He’s from London, England and his albums feature all kinds of 70’s instruments: mellotrons, analogue synths and lots of keyboards. As if that wasn’t enough, he enlisted Alan Parsons to help produce his last album, The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories).
Now, a little over two years later, Wilson is back with a new album Hand. Cannot. Erase., which is deeply inspired by 70’s progressive rock. I’ve read Kate Bush was big influence on his ideas for this album and I can absolutely hear it: the sound textures here, the way the keyboards sound and the little touches of strings, and wind instruments all remind me of her music. But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves here: just as often, I found myself thinking of Brian Eno, Yes, or King Crimson. The other big inspiration here was the story of a woman named Joyce Carol Vincent, who died alone in her apartment but whose passing went unnoticed for three years. And there are recurring themes here: the phrase “three years” pops up occasionally, as do lyrics concerning someone who “passed into another distant part of my memory.”
In 11 songs, Wilson sort of sets out his ideas and, I think, tries to establish some kind of a plot, although I’m not overly sure he was successful at it. Hand. Cannot. Erase. opens and closes with instrumental songs which feel more like mood-setters than actual songs; I’d argue the album doesn’t really feel open until the second track “Three Years Older.” And right away, Wilson sets out the formula he’ll follow with the whole album: unusual rhythms, vocal harmonies, and lots of soloing.
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Indeed, the whole record is packed with his playing of various instruments: there are lengthy guitar workouts on “Regret #9” and “Ancestral,” while “Three Years Older” has two different keyboard solos! No wonder three of these songs stretch on for nearly nine minutes or more. It’s a good ten minutes longer than The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) for whatever that’s worth. While long instrumental passages are a hallmark of this brand of progressive rock, they’re also its Achilles heel: here, Wilson’s long instrumental sections never seem to go anywhere. The guitar solos don’t build up to anything exciting and the keyboards seem like chunks of dough in the ice cream: they add flavour and texture, but they’re empty calories.
Meanwhile, the Vincent inspiration is curious and takes many forms. For example, there’s a lengthy monologue by Katherine Jenkins on “Perfect Life,” where she describes sharing a few months with another woman and their close bonds: they’d hang out all the time and listen to music together. But one day her friend vanished and faded to the point where she barely remembers the friend’s face or voice. At other times, Wilson assumes the character himself: in “Happy Returns,” she writes a letter to her brother to explain her absence, saying the years have passed like trains which don’t even slow down. But she’s back and even has gifts for her nieces or nephews!
While Hand. Cannot. Erase. has some nice moments, like the title track or “Home Invasion,” both of which do a nice job of sounding reminiscent of older progressive bands without sounding derivative, I found myself weighed down by the ambition of it all. The long soloing which never builds to anything, the extended instrumental passages and frankly, what seems like filler towards Hand. Cannot. Erase.’s backend. Honestly, between the plot and the music, I found it all a bit much to take in.
This hasn’t always been the case with Wilson’s music. His last album was just six songs, each one something of a ghost story: one was a man who challenges the devil to a drinking contest, another about a man who can’t deal with his girlfriend’s death. Even though that was way more of 70s-inspired album, the material was more immediate and didn’t feel like it was as much to take in; it also helped that you can throw on any of the tracks and not need any back story.
I hate to sound middle-of-the-road here, but Hand. Cannot. Erase. has both the interesting aspects and the drawbacks of progressive rock. The music is occasionally inspired but also occasionally self-indulgent, like Wilson is showing off his studio chops. All in all, I think it’s a lot like black licorice: it’s definitely not for everybody, but those who’ve acquired the taste will like this a lot.