April 9th, 2007
Last month I gave a preview of the forthcoming Porcupine Tree album, Fear of a Blank Planet, which is due on the 24th of this month. That peek looked at a couple studio tracks and a mediocre live version of the album recorded last fall. Now that I’ve heard the album in its entirety, I want to revisit it.
“Fear of a Blank Planet” opens the album and begins with the sound of typing on a keyboard followed by an indiscernible blast of voice. Presumably someone brought up some audio or video from the Internet. The song then begins properly with an urgent riff on acoustic guitar. A few bars of this and the drums enter followed by the rest of the band. The Tree continue in the vein of their previous album, Deadwing, and this song is reminiscent of that album’s title track with a fairly straightforward and very insistent rhythm. There is, however, some really fuzzy guitar work here that sounds like the bass from “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” by Genesis. There are a few different sections which build a sense of drama throughout the song and the presence of Mellotron-like strings adds to this. There’s a slow bit in the middle where the opening riff is played on electric guitar which is followed by some really heavy guitar soloing. This section winds down slowly over the course of nearly 2 minutes.
Lyrically the song addresses disaffected youth with its imagery of a kid sitting at a computer while a TV blares in the background. “Xbox is a god to me”, Wilson sings. The kid has overdosed on pornography to the point where it only bores him. He is medicated for bipolar disorder and finds sex to merely be another one of the “empty ways of using up the day”.
“My Ashes” is the second song and it begins with some of that rather odd sounding guitar (or is that keys here?) that we first heard on “Revenant”, a leftover from the Deadwing sessions. A single note on piano and strummed acoustic guitar enter as does Wilson’s doleful singing. Lyrically it has a similar feel to parts of Lightbulb Sun, especially “Winding Shot (Summer 1981)” with its chorus of “And my ashes drift beneath the silver sky/where a boy rides a bike”, which sees Wilson looking back to the innocence of childhood. There are some nice washes of strings (real or artificial?) and some dissonant bursts of guitar. It sort of lumbers along and is a bit like “Collapse the Light Into Earth” from In Absentia. The song is a beautiful, peaceful interlude between the title track and what comes next.
Until the official title was announced, “Anesthetize” was known as “The Beast” because it weighs in at about 17+ making it the longest song by The Tree in ages. Gavin Harrison gets things going with his work on the toms while a pointed guitar scrawls out something like a riff underneath. Think “A Saucerful of Secrets” but melodic and spacey instead of chaotic. Wilson does some real singing here, sustaining words as he does. His voice sounds purer here and on the album as a whole – he’s decided to let it go without the effects and processing that he has used in the past. It builds slowly to a simmer and Rush’s Alex Lifeson contributes a solo with his usual combination of long, sustained notes and fast playing. Wilson eventually cranks his detuned guitar up a bit as a drum box or sequencer kicks in with what sounds like a distorted hi-hat beat. The guitar here plays an almost mechanical riff which, along with the drum box, provides a martial backdrop for some soloing. Barbieri does put his own mark down here as well. Nothing Keith Emerson fast, but he leads the tune along as Wilson warms up. And when he’s ready, Wilson busts out and the band move the closest they ever have into Opeth territory. With the rigid rhythm and the guitar hitting you over the head, one can hear why the song was given its title. The pace slows a bit with the guitar revving underneath and the vocals return. “My head in the clouds and I’m zoning out”. There’s just something menacing going on here. Wilson’s voice gets its effects treatment back and there are parts where it is the grittiest I’ve ever heard it. Rather than the wonderful voice he uses in the remarkable Beach Boys-like finish to “Mellotron Scratch”, it is strained here as if he can barely contain anger. After about 11 minutes when you think you’ve heard the heaviest metal The Tree have ever made, a burst of mayhem breaks out which might leave some long-time fans wondering whom they’re listening to. I mean it’s all out thrash with the dual bass drums and manic everything. The heavy metal gives way to moody synths and, when the first guitar notes arise, it’s a bit like those from “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. This section harkens back to the more Pink Floyd-like PT sound of the 1990s. A respite from the pandemonium with some very welcome harmony vocals.
“Sentimental” comes next and starts with a fairly jaunty piano line which, I believe, Wilson played. Harrison plays a rhythm on the hi-hat and snare. Or is that a drum machine? The vocal line is really catchy, though I can’t make out all the words, with some jangly guitar to boot. Some synth fills in the spaces in the background and piano helps the song move along as a kid ponders his life and the pain inside. A rare acoustic guitar solo is all-too brief. This is the “Lazarus” of FoaBP.
“Way Out of Here” follows. It begins slowly – kind of like “Stop Swimming” – with moody synth and what sounds like a loopy guitar. Robert Fripp adds his Frippertronic soundscapes to this song but I’m not sure if they’re here at the beginning or not. It soon kicks in with some big guitar. After a few bars of riffing and a soaring chors, things slow down a bit and Wilson’s voice sounds unprocessed again. The rhythm almost stutters along giving an irritated feel. Wilson also gives a great solo before the song almost comes to a halt. Wilson picks out a riff and then the listener runs up against another monster riff. Drummer Gavin Harrison then proceeds to go bonkers. With dual bass drums pounding, he just starts flailing and hits everything in reach. The chorus returns and Colin Edwin’s bass moves things along.
“Sleep Together”, is the final track on FoaBP. The band are breaking a long tradition here of closing albums with a slow, moody track to contrast with the also traditional very big, heavy penultimate song. A slithery synth line worthy of Ozric Tentacles opens the song and, when Wilson begins singing, some piano is added. The drums eventually kick in and it seems that the bass drum is brought much more to the fore in the mix here than on previous albums. Here’s the chorus:
Let’s sleep together
Relieve the pressure
Switch off the future
Let’s sleep forever
After the chorus, swells of the Mellotron choral and string sounds build and bubble up plus Gavin Harrison adds some great bass drum work as the song heads back to the verse. After a slow bit in the middle featuring that splooshy synth, the band returns and the song closes with a great instrumental section featuring some great soloing from keyboardist Richard Barbieri. Considering the band’s move towards heavy metal in the past several years, Barbieri’s contributions to this song not only stick out, but are also fantastic. The solo at the end features the string sound which is bent and twisted and just great.
This album has a lot of listening left before it truly becomes a part of the Porcupine Tree canon in my head, before I know all the lyrics, and the exact moments when a guitar comes crashing in or a synth part begins wavering somewhere in the background. But, at this point, I can say that it very much follows in the steps of Deadwing. There are more Opeth-like moments but the boys haven’t packed their bags for Stockholm and became agents of death metal bec
ause, concomitant to this, there’s also more acoustic guitar than we’re used to. I personally appreciate some of the new synthesizer sounds here. They fit well within the songs and contrast nicely with the more organic sounds of piano and Mellotron. The songs are full of the drama that we prog fans know & love. As an album, it’s carefully crafted to maximize that drama on a larger scale. Heavy and light are juxtaposed both within and between songs. You’ll be hit over the head and left wondering exactly what could come next.
The band is largely covering familiar territory here but it adds something here and tweaks something there. The drums propel the songs forward here like no other PT album before it and the triangle at the beginning of “Anesthetize” is a nice touch, for instance. Current followers of the band will automatically love FoaBP and their continued flirtation with metal will no doubt draw more fans of that genre. But there is no commercial potential here (I say this as a positive thing) and I wouldn’t be surprised if the band’s label here in the State, Atlantic, dumps them in the near future. Still, it is heartening to see them playing some larger venues this time around and it seems like Chicago is a bastion of PT fans as it’s the only city getting 2 (non-consecutive) stops on the first leg of the upcoming tour. The Dulcinea and I will be seeing them at the first Chicago date and the last U.S gig in Milwaukee. Dogger and Mel will be accompanying us in Chicago. The humor value of Dogger and I headbanging will be enormous.