From start to finish, this album had both my curiosity and my attention, and was simply beautiful. The story, and the album, are incredibly powerful and haunting. The music is dense and complex, but those of you familiar with Steven Wilson are aware of his reputation for being a virtuoso in the music world. He is the master of his craft, and should be applauded for this genius album. Steven Wilson is truly a once in a lifetime musician, and it seems he can do no wrong. Listen to the album for yourself and you will see what I mean.
It’s no coincidence that Steven Wilson made the best album of 2011, a top five album in 2013, and the best album of 2015. There’s just something about him that is musically enthralling. After this album was released last year, Wilson released the b-side/follow-up album in January 2016 called 4 ½, which was a ~35 minute album made up of bonus songs originally written for this album and his previous album, The Raven, from 2013 that didn’t make the cut. That 4 ½ album was the icing on the cake that was the best album of 2015, but I’ll leave that for another time. What more can I, a humble music fan, say about this album that hasn’t already been said any number of other reviewers gushing about this album on music sites. One reviewer even called it “The Wall for the Facebook generation”, so there really isn’t much higher praise than that.
That track, Routine, may be a long one, but it encapsulates everything this album is all about. As is the case with a lot of Steven Wilson’s work and many top-tier albums in the prog rock genre, Hand. Cannot. Erase. (punctuated like that) is a concept album, and it is a beautiful and heartripping one at that. The story is about a lovely girl who lived in Britain with her family and friends, loved by all of them, and how she moved to London to start her new life. While in London, she died mysteriously one day. Over two years later, she was found in that apartment, and no one in her life had any idea she had passed. The album is obviously not a scene-for-scene iteration from the real story of Joyce Vincent, but it tells quite a powerful story nonetheless. This album, Hand. Cannot. Erase., is about her life.
The first time I listened to this album, it was emotionally devastating, and it hit me harder than almost any album I’ve ever listened to. I attribute part of that to the other emotions I was dealing with at the time, and it was the perfect storm of emotion to kick me right in the chest. Before listening, I was already familiar with the story of Joyce Vincent and had heard a few songs from this album before, but listening to it in its entirety put it all into perspective. This is an album that doesn’t lend itself to a single, because it’s all surrounded by context, but I imagine the self-titled track may be a single for this album if any would be. I had shared with several people the track and video to Perfect Life, and some of them weren’t able to get into it. It’s ok, this is a concept album, singles don’t always hold up well. I don’t hold it against them, because it was an isolated song about a girl finding her new sister, growing close with her, and losing her a few years later. The sadness and confusion that the track drifted in and out with was on its own, so it didn’t pull forth the emotion of the tracks around it. This is one of those difficult albums that basically requires a full listen from start to finish to get through the whole story. Otherwise, it’s fragmented and doesn’t pack the same punch.
As I listen to this album again while I write this remastered review in 2016, the same emotions still ring true for me. I still get sad when I hear Perfect Life, hopeful when I hear Hand Cannot Erase, and both when I listen to Happy Returns. This album tugs at my heartstrings and all of those other cliched expressions of when something hits you “right in the feels.” I don’t think I’ve listened to an album that grabs me from the very beginning all the way until the very end without losing me somewhere along the way. This is a rare, once in a lifetime album that I can’t get over. I know I gave his previous albums glowing recommendations and it sounds like I can’t find fault in his work, but if you would truly listen to it, you would understand. By truly listen, I mean sit down and do nothing other than listen to this album, and not have it on while surfing the internet or playing video games or on in the background while making dinner or something where it is a supporting voice to your life going on around you. This album deserves the kind of attention where you put on a pair of good headphones or turn up your stereo if you can and drift into the world that he creates.
Unlike other reviews, I won’t specifically go over a few highlight tracks, and even though there are some standout tracks like the few I posted above, it’s all one big track that needs to go together. I also only have those three tracks posted above to give you, unlike the last two reviews with Earthside and Baroness. You can find the rest. You may find that some tracks will make you want to sway and others will make you want to cry, and by all means shed some tears. This is a very sad story, and yet so powerful across the board that it shouldn’t make you feel down or depressed after you listen to it. Whether it’s the pain from Home Invasion, the hopelessness in Routine, or the serenity in Happy Returns, this album is an emotional rollercoaster but isn’t exhausting like some other albums of this nature are. I may be painting two seemingly incompatible pictures with this review, but you’ll just have to listen to it to understand.
Technically, this album is virtually flawless. Marco Minnemann returns on the drums for this album and knocks it out of the park on every track he’s on. Steven Wilson brought in a choir and an orchestra to wrap this album up as well, and they just add another layer on what was already a heavy and deep album. The tracks transition into each other, so for example Regret #9 picks up right where Home Invasion leaves off and takes it into a whole different direction. This album flows like a well written story, and I don’t feel like I’m ever at a point in the album where it feels like something doesn’t belong. Even the banjo introduced at the end of Regret #9 makes sense and sounds right in its place. That’s the big thing about this album: everything is in its right place.
I can’t say enough about this album, and although I could go on, I’ll just implore all of you to listen to this album as soon as you can. This album is Steven Wilson’s magnum opus, and while I said about his last album that I didn’t think it could get much better, I was wrong. Hand. Cannot. Erase. is the kind of album that only comes around once in a generation, and I’ll be proud if I’m the person to introduce you to this album. If you can reach just one person, that’s making a difference. I hope to make a difference in your life by recommending this masterpiece to you all. Of course, I can only show you the door. There is no doubt that this album deserves the perfect score of 15 out of 15 Ratings units. I can find no flaws with this album, and if you can, that’s on you. Bravo, Steven Wilson, bravo.
That’s it. That’s the best album of 2015, and I’m so happy that I was able to write about these albums for you as well as myself. If you read these reviews, if we discussed them, if you even thought about reading them and then decided not to click on the links, or if you listened to music because of these reviews, thank you. Your readership makes this all worthwhile. If you enjoyed reading this review or some of the others, follow us on Facebook!
At the end of 2015, I was excited for the music of that year, and even more excited about what was to come. Seven months into 2016, and there’s already a whole lot of wonderful music from Haken, Dream Theater, Radiohead, Deftones, Gojira, and the incredibly powerful final and prophetic album of David Bowie. I can’t wait for the next five months, as there will definitely be another dramatic write-up of the best albums of 2016, although it will likely drop back down to the best 10 instead of 15+, because who would read the top 21 albums of 2021 if this keeps up?
Thanks for playing, everyone.
One last thing, if you made it to the bottom of this list, you can see the top 15 albums of 2015 in short list form:
13) Ghost – Meliora
1) Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.