Steven Wilson - Troxy
17th March 2015
I borrowed a copy of Porcupine Tree’s Lightbulb Sun and then bought the current album Fear Of A Blank Planet in 2009 but despite prompting from friends, didn’t get into Steven Wilson’s solo material until The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories). That take on classic 70’s progressive rock was a good reason to see him at the Royal Albert Hall in October 2013 where, from a good seat at the front of the stalls, I was exposed to a range of Wilson-related material (Bass Communion, Porcupine Tree, solo – including some work-in-progress) delivered brilliantly by Nick Beggs (bass and stick), Guthrie Govan (guitar), Adam Holzman (keyboards), Chad Wackerman (drums), Theo Travis (flute and saxophone) and Wilson, who at various times played guitars, keyboards and bass and was constantly moving around the stage in bare feet. Some considerable thought had gone into the presentation, too, from the opening 15 minute video of a street corner and a busker, ignored by passersby and finally beginning to strum the opening bars to Trains before Wilson himself appeared on stage, to the highly effective use of a front-of-house veil erected during the Hall’s mandatory break.
The unreleased music, called Wreckage for that performance, had been given other names during the tour including ‘Break it and you buy it’ when the show went to Wolverhampton and would subsequently appear on Hand.Cannot.Erase as Ancestral.
I was actually a bit disappointed when I first heard Hand.Cannot.Erase, not because I considered the album as a retrograde step, but because I was selfish enough to want a sound more contiguous with The Raven that Refused to Sing. As an artist, Wilson has every right to produce the music he wants to and with Hand.Cannot.Erase, he created a more contemporary disc containing a mixture of styles: electronica, post-rock and the out-and-out prog of Ancestral, but the classic-style prog didn’t run throughout the entire release. Further listening has mellowed my opinion and it’s obviously a very well constructed album, albeit one I still regard less favourably than The Raven that Refused to Sing. The playing is as good as ever and the outstanding guest performance by Ninet Tayeb is a bonus, but I think it’s more difficult to portray invisibility in a world dominated by social media that inspired the album as a musical concept compared to the very straightforward alternative ghost stories of The Raven that Refused to Sing. Another selling point for me is that The Raven that Refused to Sing features more sax and flute than Hand.Cannot.Erase, courtesy of Theo Travis. To an extent, Hand.Cannot.Erase covers some of the same territory that informed Fear of a Blank Planet, i.e. the social isolation caused by technology, though to his credit, Wilson explores different sonic landscapes on the two releases. This sort of fits in with the characters of the protagonists on the two albums, a male teenager in Fear Of A Blank Planet with its heavy, distorted guitar-driven riffs and the post-rock soundscapes of the young professional woman in Hand.Cannot.Erase.
My ambivalence towards the Hand.Cannot.Erase album began with watching the pre-release videos from January and February 2015, so I didn’t rush out and buy it when it came out at the end of February and I thought I was lucky to get a ticket for Wilson’s only London show at the Troxy, Limehouse on 17th March because I booked it the day before, having had only a week to listen to the music. By this time coverage of the artist had spread beyond prog- and prog-metal media and the album was genuinely accessible, creating something of a buzz. His band was the same as that on most of the album and apart from Marco Minnemann replacing Chad Wackerman on drums, the same as the band I’d seen in 2013. Guest vocalist extraordinaire Ninet Tayeb was unable to make it to the UK because she’d just become a mother, but she appeared to sing her parts via video.
The Troxy performance was basically the Hand.Cannot.Erase album, played in its entirety with the exclusion of Transience, in running order, but interspersed with tracks from Wilson’s back catalogue that he felt fitted in with the idea of isolation and loss. Seeing the band perform the piece live helped me appreciate the music more, despite the atmosphere in the Troxy being less than satisfactory; from my seat in the circle I had the constant distraction of the light and noise from the bar, akin to the annoyance I’d previously experienced in the upper circle at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. However, experiencing the material live meant I was also better able to relate Ancestral to Wreckage from 2013’s Royal Albert Hall concert where it included more than a little fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants dynamism and darkness. There were other highlights too, like the extended First Regret, illustrated by long-term collaborator Lasse Hoile’s video of concrete apartment blocks that have mistakenly become inextricably associated with the breakdown of society, social isolation, concrete jungles and problem estates.
I found the material slightly heavier than on record but I was more appreciative of the non-Hand.Cannot.Erase and The Raven That Refused To Sing material. I made the right decision to get my ticket.