Sunday, 15 March 2015

Hand. Cannot. Erase.

I've been a fan of Steven Wilson's music for a number of years now, ever since I discovered the Porcupine Tree album 'Fear of a Blank Planet'. Wilson is at the forefront (many would say) of the current wave of Progressive Rock music that is steadily growing in influence and interest, and is in much demand not only as a writer and performer but also as an engineer, producer and re-mixer. Albums from the 'classic' era of Prog, by such luminaries as Yes, Jethro Tull & King Crimson, have recently benefited from his ear and expertise.

Wilson's music does not suit everyone. His sombre, melancholic air in many of his compositions has earned him the ironic sobriquet of 'Chuckletrousers'. That air is certainly present in his latest offering, the fourth under his own name, "Hand. Cannot. Erase", which explores themes of loss, love and depression in the imagined life of a woman Wilson read about, who had been found dead in her flat and whom no-one had noticed for months, even years. Lyrically it carries the usual pathos that one has come to expect from Wilson, and musically it rises to harsh crescendi and falls to soft, almost lilting harmonies, giving echoes of not only his solo material so far but also his earlier work with Porcupine Tree. As an album, it is possibly the best thing that he has released, and after the quality of 'The Raven that Refused to Sing' that takes some doing.

As a live show, however - WOW! I had the immense privilege last night of spending the evening in the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, where Wilson and his band were on the third leg of their tour. It was the first time I'd seen the man play live, and can honestly say I was completely blown away by the whole experience. Wilson has assembled a group of musicians with a virtuosity and flair  it is difficult to find the equal of anywhere else at the moment. Wilson, a consummate multi-instrumentalist himself, was supported by the keyboard skills of Adam Holzman, the powerhouse and subtle drumming of Marco Minnemann, the dexterity of the almost ubiquitous Nick Beggs on bass and Chapman Stick, and the awe-inspiring Guthrie Govan on guitar.

The show combined the music with a visual experience second to none. Stage lighting was used creatively, and an LED screen showed video and animation to bring new life to the songs. I was particularly moved by the stop-motion animation used during 'Routine'. Towards the end, as the band played a couple of songs from 'The Raven...' (The Watchmaker and the title track) a veil was lowered between the audience and the band, on which more animation was projected. Very effective.

The set included all of the current album, interspersed with material from the earlier solo albums and from the vast Porcupine Tree back-catalogue, including 'Let's Sleep Together' and 'Lazarus'. Where I was seated (third row, centre circle) the sound quality was superb. All in all a totally absorbing, immersive experience of contemporary Progressive music at its best.