Review: Porcupine Tree – Fear of A Blank Planet
Steven Wilson and his band delivers further evidence of being one of the best bands working today.
I tend to get cranky between the long expanses of time between releases of albums that carry both first rate musicianship and first rate thematic content. I’m one of those odd people who likes to listen to their records from beginning to end at least a couple of times. I like knowing that my favorite albums aren’t musical sausages packaged in artificial casings of beautiful faces and containing 20% or less of “potential hit” meat filling and 80% gristle.
Thankfully, Porcupine Tree’s new album, Fear of a Blank Planet is 100% Grade A content.
What started as a musical joke for front man, Steven Wilson has over the years become very serious. There is a long story about the genesis of Porcupine Tree as a band. To make that long story short, Porcupine Tree was a concept based around parodying the nostalgia for late sixties and early seventies prog bands. Parody led to music, music led to unexpected success and a band came to fruition.
It is ironic that some fifteen years later, Wilson’s band continues to be identified with the Progressive Rock sub-genre. Steven Wilson has never really accepted the “Prog” designation, certainly not willingly. The mere fact that the music has in fact, progressed in its content and history sort of sets it apart from “Classic” Progressive Rock still with us today. And that is to its credit. . .
Fear of a Blank Planet carries a common thread throughout the album, but you wouldn’t call it a concept album. From the opening title-cut we are immediately introduced to troubled youth culture, walking around in a haze of mass media-induced, prescription drug-managed pain and apathy. But no where on the album does it ever break into an anthem of pity the poor children. Fear of a Blank Planet is more of a cautionary tale asking the question of how did we get here and where is it leading us?
The title cut along with it’s potential “hysteria-inducing” first video do what they need to do to be labeled “hit material”. Whether or not it makes it as a “chart-topper” has nothing to do with what the band has put forward. The nearly seven-and-a-half minute song can be chopped down by a few minutes, the lyrics are both engaging and singable (millions of kids could sing “X-box is a god to me/ A finger on the switch/My mother is a bitch” and happily miss the lyrics’ intent) and menacing images of kids wielding guns while popping pills can both be taken as benignly “cool” or alarmingly relevant.
Either the media marketing machine will embrace it or they won’t, but what is clear is audiences are already are growing via loyal listenership and a fan base interested in spreading the word of this first class band. I suspect the day will come however, when the marketing machine comes along and discovers the wisdom of marketing this “hip new band”. It’s angry like Nirvana, but there’s something for the adults too!
From the second cut My Ashes, into the monster seventeen-plus minute cut, Anesthetize we are introduced to the deeper musical themes of the album spanning orchestral chords, buliding percussion and tastes of metal and techno fused with driving chords. Rush fans not already familiar with the band, will probably come out just for Alex Lifeson’s guest solo.
To the band’s continuing credit, they are always clear in knowing just how far they can push the envelope along the metallic edges. Starting particularly around previous albums like the brilliant In Absentia and the even more driving Deadwing, Porcupine Tree have picked up a decidely Metal feel, but when they add a new sound it fits. Even Pink Floyd’s The Wall acknowledges the disco-era that it came from, and U2’s Pop, despite its best intentions will be a product of the Nineties. But thus far, Porcupine Tree has yet to have sounds that date it to a specific era. You are more likely to get that pleasing taste of many eras.
In Sentimental, we are treated to some of the most bitter and relevant lyrics on the album:
“I never wanna be old/And I don’t want dependents/It’s no fun to be told That you can’t blame your parents anymore/I’m finding it hard to hang from a star/Don’t wanna be I don’t wanna be old”
And that’s all before the refrain of. . .
“Sullen and bored the kids stay/And in this way they wish away each day/Stoned in the mall the kids play/And in this way they wish away each day”
shows a powerful lack of sentimentality at work.
In seeing the band live once again, the cohesive nature of this band was quite apparent. If you’d only heard them on album, you’d think that Porcupine Tree were a product of the studio. They are as solid on stage as they are on record. And while performance seldom veers on stage from what we are familiar with on the albums, it isn’t because they are limited as performers, it’s that they put so much into the albums.
Another high point of both Fear of a Black Planet and the live performance come in the form of Way Out of Here. Both anthemic and longingly sad, I have played this song numerous times for the band’s powerful sound and the musicianship on display. Perhaps most noticeable is Gavin Harrison’s supreme skills on the skins. He changes rhythyms numerous times going from bashing cymbal crashes to numerous and varied flourishes on the snares and toms. But listen carefully and everyone’s talents are on display. Barbieri providing the epic canvas, Edwin providing the quietly memorable bass line, and Steve Wilson driving guitars and vocals with the help of John Wesley.
You won’t leave this album feeling like everything is gonna be safe and all right, Sleep Together sees to that. But listening to this album should leave you feeling ill at ease and perhaps a step or two closer to empathizing with the kids Porcupine Tree is talking about. They have been virtually promised by the media, their “faith systems” and often their suffering friends and parents that the end is already here.
“Let’s sleep together right now/Relieve the pressure somehow/Switch off the future right now/ Let’s leave forever/This is fate/This is your escape/Leave here now/Leave here like it’s over”
After all, aren’t we just delivering on our promises?
Porcupine Tree demonstrates masterfully on Fear of a Blank Planet just what it means to be New Era. The music and musicianship advances the art and the genre. The content serves a cautionary capacity, but neither pushes a cynical agenda nor does it provide a safe and easily digestible panacea.
What music like this does is to continue to give me hope that people are just as hungry to create work of extrinsic and intrinsic value, and at the same time face the realities that we’d rather turn a blind eye to. With this kind of material around, maybe we needn’t fear a blank planet after all.
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