One step forward and three steps back…
The slow arrival of a new Steven Wilson record has established itself as an event to be savoured: the guy set the bar high from the off; before the off, even, if one factors in his musical pedigree as bandleader – Porcupine Tree – and collaborator – numerous. The Tree‘s output has been variously rewarding, if rarely less than interesting, Bass Communion and Blackfield have mostly left me cold. Never, though, could one accuse Wilson of being lazy, unimaginative or of taking anything for granted. Each successive release has broken ground that is, at least for him as writer and performer, new.
By contrast, Hand. Cannot. Erase. shapes up as something of a throwback; a project in the same vein as PT‘s ultimate release (The Incident, back in 2009) an ugly, overwrought, heterogenous; if not entirely unrewarding collection. Much like the granddaddy of prog rock operas, Pink Floyd‘s 1979 opus, The Wall, it played as something less than the sum of its occasionally considerable parts. In both cases one might feel justified in feeling surprised and a little let down: both bands had previous for handling the form (concept album; rock opera – call it what you will) with applomb: Animals and Fear Of a Blank Planet are both masterpieces in this writers’ opinion.
Perfect Life sounded rightaway to me as close to the ghost of PT as Wilson has sailed since his solo voyage began in earnest (let’s not forget that the former began as himself-in-bedroom-studio, sans backing band). Not that it sounds quite like that band, but the mood of the track, its apparent ‘interlude’ quality harks back to the piecemeal feel of The Incident. In that sense it’s quite a departure from his recent solo and collaborative output. As far back as Grace For Drowning and Storm Corrosion, Wilson has been favouring texture and exploration over narrative. The Raven…. signposted a move back in the opposite direction…
And so it is with H.C.E. as a complete statement. The allusions to Dreams of a Life* as the seminal inspiration might lead one to believe that this is a flowing, seamless storyteller of a record: it’s none of those things.
It really doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with Vincent‘s, or any woman’s life. Whilst there are pretty (and hummable) melodies scattered thruout, and fragments of a story, the overarching juxtaposition of brooding atmospheres and jagged shards of aggression contrives to create an air of decidedly masculine indulgence. Wilson, one feels is coolly observing the pain of Vincent and others like her without offering the listener much by way of understanding or insight. It is, to The Incident, what Queensryche‘s Operation Mindcrime II was to its antecedent, in a way: more of the same, without the heart or the commitment. Not since Michael Rutherford‘s treatment of (Peter Currell Brown‘s) Smallcreep’s Day has a musical interpretation fallen so far short of justice to the written word.
Interestingly, Wilson recently spoke of the possibility of a PT reunion with Prog magazine,
“I would have to say to the guys, ‘Look, there’s no point in me writing the material. If I were to do that I might as well do it for a solo record. Let’s try writing together, or writing in partnerships.”
…Which sounds, in a roundabout sort of a way – and factoring in also his scaling back work with NoMan and Blackfield – like he feels the well is running dry for him as a writer. His most notable work of late has been as go-to-guy for remix work for the likes of King Crimson, Jethro Tull and XTC; as interpreter of others’ work. It would be refreshing to hear the results of a more fully-collaborative incarnation of PT, if this is where following his current muse is taking him.
Offering up such a seemingly comprehensive slagging kinda behoves me, I think, to point up what is right about H.C.E. The title track is a successful detour into accessible pop-rock, rightly-compared in a Prog review to mid-period Manic Street Preachers. Adam Holzmann (keyboards) gives of his best in a sublime solo spot in Regret #9, an exceptional moment on an album where Wilson‘s crack unit rarely get a chance to bring their indisputable virtuosity to the fore. And Wilson (and KScope) shine as never before in the packaging stakes: the box-set is a beautiful thing, showcasing wonderful attention to detail with its myriad artful photographs, collages and inserts (courtesy of Lasse Hoile and Hujo Meuller). There’s a wealth of extra material for conisseur/geek; including album demos and visuals on dvd and Blu Ray.
If you’re a fan of Wilson‘s work over the last two-or-so-decades, there’s much here to enjoy – it’s as much ‘signature Wilson’ as ever – with the caveat that returns appear to be turning in the direction of diminishing, as opposed to accruing; which isn’t what one feels his departure from PT et al in favour of ‘solo’was supposed to about.
*p.s. if you live in the Brighton area, Dreams of a Life is being screened as part of the 2015 Brighton Festival.