Last night, I dreamed that a skinny Englishman with long, lank hair, nerd glasses and an awkward stage presence took every riff I ever loved from every band I worshipped as a teenager and seamlessly wove them together into an evening of extraordinary power and beauty, leaving me artistically awestruck and emotionally exhausted without once feeling nostalgic, old or musically irrelevant
When I woke up, I realized it was no dream. I had just seen Steven Wilson, one of the greatest musical bloody geniuses of our time.
Nowhere is his expansive musical vision more perfectly highlighted than in his new album, Hand. Cannot. Erase., which forms the backbone of the setlist for his current tour. At times breathtakingly melodic, and at others deliberately discordant and rhythmically jarring, the songs were performed with an intensity and precision that brought the seated and (it has to be said) mostly white, middle-aged, male crowd to its feet on numerous occasions during the show.
Wilson took no time in setting the tone of the evening. A deliberately lengthy and uncomfortable introduction, comprised of an ambient rhythm and a timelapse video of a nondescript apartment building exterior moving from daytime into night, quickly established the lyrical themes of isolation and alienation, while the sprawling “First Regret/3 Years Older” opening claimed the musical territory.
The musical quotes came thick and fast. First up was The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” by way of Rush’s 2112 with elements of Genesis’ “Watcher of the Skies” and Camel’s “First Light” thrown in for good measure. Along the way, there were Chris Squire/Geddy Lee bass breaks, Dave Gilmour and Steve Howe guitar solos, nods to the pedal steel and piano lines from Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” and a smidgeon of “Riding the Scree” from Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
And the evening wasn’t even ten minutes old.
But before the hipsters accuse him of retro musical masturbation and intellectual property lawyers start licking their chops, it needs to be said that Wilson’s vision is both modern and completely his own. Unlike his previous album, The Raven That Refused To Sing, Hand. Cannot. Erase. marks a return to the dystopian themes that are central to Wilson’s musical worldview. And where those themes were stated–in the harder and angular syncopated sections of pieces like “Home Invasion” and “Ancestral”–the difference becomes clear.
After a much-needed detour into lighter pop territory, courtesy of the album’s title track and the techno ballad “Perfect Life,” it was time for “Routine,” the evening’s first major highlight. With typically English self-deprecating humor, Wilson warned his audience beforehand that the song was depressing (“as if everything else I’ve ever written wasn’t,” he deadpanned), but in a satisfying, cathartic way.
Truer words were never spoken. The song’s storyline, of a mother grieving her children lost in a Newtown-like massacre, and its melody were appropriately somber. Yet the song managed to avoid being maudlin to achieve a truly deep and emotional resonance. And, like many of the songs throughout the evening, the song was accompanied by some stunning visuals, in this case a video reminiscent of Tim Burton’s animation in James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas.
After a quick foray into his past with the creepy “Index” from Grace for Drowning, it was time for the tour-de-force of “Home Invasion/Regret #9.” Here, the band was able to stretch out into jazz fusion, with the song morphing into some Fender Rhodes funkiness and ending with two gorgeous solos by keyboardist Adam Holzman and guitarist Dave Kilminster, who masterfully reinterpreted Guthrie Goven’s articulate recorded parts on the night.
Once again, the night took an unpredictable turn, with the lilting Porcupine Tree ballad “Lazarus” followed by “Harmony Korine,” the opening track from Wilson’s Insurgentes album, with Laisse Hoile’s surreal black-and-white video helping to produce an unsettling mood. Interestingly, Wilson introduced the piece by noting that it was inspired by shoegaze, the late 80s introspective neopsychedelic music that seems about as far removed as you can get from the mid 70s progressive rock that Wilson had been channeling all evening. But given its place in such eclectic musical company, the piece seemed perfectly at home.
It was back to Hand. Cannot. Erase. to bring the evening to a close, with the hard, jagged “Ancestral” giving way to the haunting, slow-building ballad “Happy Returns,” fully vindicating Wilson’s decision to play the album in sequence. The song’s lyrics of separation (“Hey brother, happy returns, it’s been a while/Bet you thought I was dead”) perfectly foreshadowed the band’s decision to then play the first encores behind a scrim. “The Watchmaker” (for all intents and purposes the great long-lost outtake from Genesis’ Nursery Cryme), was beautifully accompanied by a video superimposed on the front, while the techno loop and Nine Inch Nails-inspired heavy rock of Porcupine Tree’s “Sleep Together” featured LED lighting shining through the back and forming incongruous tie-dye patterns.
A subdued “The Raven That Refused To Sing,” with Jess Cope’s eery animated video playing on the screen behind, brought the evening to a close and left the crowd in a quiet, pensive mood as they filtered out of The Egg. Steven Wilson had challenged us–musically, emotionally and intellectually–in a way that few artists do these days. More, his request that we turn off our cell phones and not photograph, video, tweet or text during the show had been honored by almost every member of the 800-strong audience. As a result, we had been in the moment with him during every single twist and turn of the night.
One can only hope that in, this age of instant gratification and immediate communication, other artists start to make the same demands of their audience.