When I first heard about Steven Wilson’s upcoming London gig to promote his new album Hand. Cannot. Erase I was more than a little surprised by the choice of venue, though I had to admit there was something appealing about a Steven Wilson performance in an art deco theatre designed by George Coles. I certainly wasn’t too concerned about the acoustics because the London Opera Centre, a school for the training of opera singers and professionals, was based there from 1963 to 1977. My main concern was that though this grade II listed building is able to hold up to 2,600 people, depending on the configuration and the event, it wasn’t set up to seat an audience of anywhere near that size, coming in on the night at just under 1750.
Limehouse, the closest station to the Troxy, is an easy commute from Guy’s Hospital and facilitates fairly efficient public transport, of which I utilised four different varieties to get me home again. With doors opening at 7pm and a show scheduled to commence at 7.45pm, I thought I’d left plenty of time to browse the merchandise and get seated before the start. However, I hadn’t figured on the queue stretching to the far end of Caroline Street and only managed to take in all the performance because the start was delayed by about 15 minutes. I’d heard a rumour that Sectarian was on the set list but wasn’t played and wondered if it was because of the late start. Still, we got a good solid two hours plus of music that included all the latest release apart from Transience, played in album running order with some other solo material interspersed that Wilson described as fitting in with the overall concept, followed by an encore of The Watchmaker, Porcupine Tree’s Sleep Together and The Raven That Refused to Sing.
I bought Hand. Cannot. Erase the day before embarking on a week-long skiing holiday and only managed to listen to the entire album once, so the material was still fairly unknown to me. The 21st Century setting has encouraged Wilson to apply a rather more modern take on prog compared to his use of the classic (largely symphonic) prog palette on Raven, including industrial and sparse electronica which takes the music into post-rock, Radiohead territory. There are of course plenty of melodies as well as heavy moments. The live show considerably raised my appreciation of the music despite not knowing whether to concentrate on the members of the group, all brilliant musicians, or the videos. On what was, effectively, only my second complete listening, I detected more of a mid-70s Pink Floyd influence; Guthrie Govan providing hefty doses of sublime Glimour-like guitar. There was an interesting moment at the beginning of the show when the crowd at the bar at the back of the circle had dissipated and quietened down during the extended First Regret and Adam Holzman struck up his piano which came out overdriven, as though it was being played through a Leslie speaker, rather than the delicate acoustic piano sound that’s on the album. Though I enjoyed the entire performance I was particularly impressed with Routine, which I’d not picked up on when listening to the studio track. Wilson had hoped Ninet Tayeb could appear on the tour but this proved impossible because she’d just given birth and we had to make do with her pre-recorded vocal. I think I detected the influence of Hackett-era Genesis which is why the song suddenly appealed to me. The only track that was played that I’d not ever heard was Lazarus, described as one of his more successful attempts at writing a song under four minutes long, no, five minutes... The second dip into the back catalogue was Index, which had been played on the 2013 tour, a pared down Peter Gabriel-like song, unsettling and disturbing. Theo Travis made a guest appearance for the second half of the performance, beginning with Ancestral, the only time he’s due to play with the band on this tour. The flute and sax add to the flavour of classic prog and two of the songs that formed the encore, The Watchmaker and The Raven that Refused to Sing, would not have been the same without the input of Travis. For me, the best bit of the whole show was Regret #9 with the brilliant Moog solo. I think I may detect the previous ‘work in progress’ from the 2013 tour (called Wreckage at the Royal Albert Hall) in Ancestral, particularly noticeable in the live setting.
A note on the video footage: Lasse Hoile’s work often incorporates architectural themes (even Harmony Korine) but his footage of the soulless urban backdrop neatly encapsulated the idea of bleakness and the contradiction of isolation within the heart of a bustling city. The front of house veil was deployed, a simple idea that produces a great effect.
Hand is quite different from its predecessor and hangs together very well, marking an eminently accessible album that should appeal to a far wider audience than the prog community. During the show the title track struck me as familiar and, forgive me for saying this, it reminded me of Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol. There’s still complexity and virtuoso playing, very ably recreated live. This apparent shift towards mainstream rock was reflected in the audience demographic: a mix of Limehouse and Shoreditch hipsters and those with a prog background. I suspect those who could be heard talking at the bar during the performance were from the former cohort and though my choice of seat was limited because I bought my ticket late, I’m glad that I managed to buy one.