Porcupine Tree: An Unabletothinkofname Retrospecitve

Yeah, this is a bit random, it's something spur of the moment I did when I was supposed to be studying. It's rambling and probably not very good, but I thought I might as well share it anyway.

ANYWAY

"It's that Mikael Akerfeldt chap again, crap" (Porcupine Tree, L-R: Gavin Harrison, Richard Barbieri, Steven Wilson, Colin Edwin)

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Formed, as many great bands are, as a joke, Porcupine Tree initially started as a side-project to Steven Wilson (vocals/guitar)'s then-main band No-Man in 1987. When some of the Porcupine Tree demos were released, the high critical praise they received (despite the fact all the songs were conceived as jokes) made Wilson rethink the band's position, and this gradually led up to the release of their debut album...

Many great bands, again, don't arrive fully formed, and Porcupine Tree are no exception. As brilliant as its best moments are, On The Sunday Of Life[5] is more than a little bit crap. Many of the songs from the demos made it on here and the jokey quality is still there, but really, who's laughing? As I've said, the highlights are high (The stunning Radioactive Toy and the wonderfully eccentric Nine Cats), the rest ranges from the boring (Nostalgia Factory) to the annoying (Linton Samuel Dawson). At 76 sprawling, difficult minutes, it's by no means essential, or even recommendable.

It took PT a few years to improve and while Up The Downstair[6.5] is undeniably an improvement, it retains their debut's feeling of near-impenetrable inaccessibility, hampered again by a dull, repetitive feel. Other than Synesthesia and the title track, again, it's hardly essential. The Sky Moves Sideways[8] is finally where they stopped being boring and actually started working on songwriting rather than songs, if that makes any sense. Bookended by its 34-minute title track (split into two 17 minute sections) it's hardly accessible, but feels far more rewarding than their two previous albums. Strangely the best track on the album isn't included in the standard issue, the fantastic Stars Die.

Signify[7], the first full record on which the full PT line up appeared (Richard Barbieri on keyboards, Colin Edwin on bass and Chris Maitland on drums) again saw the band moving in a more song-based direction, with shorter, more accessible tracks being the name of the game. It's the longer tracks, though, like the falsetto-laden Dark Matter and Intermediate Jesus that stand out, contrasting well with the shorter tracks like the pounding, taut jam of the title track and Waiting.

It took Porcupine Tree three full years to follow up Signify and, well, I'll never know if it was worth the wait or not as I was only 6, but my god, is Stupid Dream[9] brilliant. The soaring, stadium sized melodies and Pearl Jam guitars of opener Even Less set the tone for an album that's ambitious and experimental without ever becoming inaccessible in any parts.

Hailed as an alternative rock masterpiece, it was never going to be easy to follow it up, but they did their best with Lightbulb Sun[8] and while it doesn't top Stupid Dream it comes damn near to equaling it. The pounding country-rock of the title track, the jerky psychedelia of Four Chords That Made A Million and the vast, 13-minute ambient Russia On Ice combine to make a fantastic record, despite the band tensions at the time.

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Steven Wilson onstage in 2007.

In between Lightbulb Sun and recording the new PT album Steven Wilson discovered the extreme metal underground-citing the likes of Morbid Angel, the UK doom metal scene, and, obviously, Opeth, whose 2001 record Blackwater Park he produced and appeared on (as well as their Damnation and Deliverance albums).

This new heavier influence, as well as ridiculously talented new drummer Gavin Harrison (replacing Chris Maitland, who departed in 2001) and live guitarist/vocalist John Wesley, made In Absentia[9.5] the amazing, amazing record it is. From the opening double barrage of radio hit (and still their best song ever, IMO) Blackest Eyes and fantastic ballad Trains it was clear PT had mutated into not only a heavier band but also a far, far better one. The In Absentia songs still make up the bulk of PT's setlist today, from the spectral eight-minute Gravity Eyelids, the relentless heavy-funk of instrumental Wedding Nails and the furious, boiling tale of abuse that is Strip The Soul. Still their best selling album, and it's obvious why.

Deadwing[9] is many a fan's favourite. A concept album based on a ghost story written by Steven Wilson, it is, in a complete antithesis to Porcupine Tree's earlier work, flawless. There's not a single bad track on here, and while it's true I gave it a lower score than In Absentia as the material is ever so slightly less strong, it's still brilliant. It's probably the album that best defines the Porcupine Tree sound, from mellow ballad Lazarus to the pummeling hard rock of staple set-closer Halo all the way to the epic The Start Of Something Beautiful. Like all other 00's Porcupine Tree albums, essential.

People have disagreed and will disagree with me on this, but Fear Of A Blank Planet[10] is, plain and simple, the best Porcupine Tree album, and essential for every metal fan on earth. Finally abandoning his quest for radio airplay, Steven Wilson penned an album that both spat furiously at the desensitized modern world and offered a desperate, gut-wrenching lament to lost innocence. Comprised of just six utterly perfect tracks, it contains the heaviest (the midsection of the jaw-dropping 18-minute centerpiece, Anesthetize) and some of the lightest (Sentimental) PT material, it's...well, it's my favourite album. Ever. I can't say any more about it.

After its three predecessors The Incident[8], for me at least, was always going to fall just a little bit flat. By no means a bad album (Porcupine Tree have proved that they're unable to do that, at least not anymore), it suffers from slight over ambition and, it pains me to say it, some filler. A single 55-minute "musical journey" as described by Steven Wilson, the opening blasting power chords of Occam's Razor and The Blind House set the tone as a heavy album, but this is as much of a return to the days of old as Porcupine Tree are going to make. The almost indie-esque Drawing The Line and the acoustic interludes that make up most of the running time occasionally bore, but it's on brilliant tracks like the icy, industrial-flavored crushing riffs of the title track and the shamelessly Floyd-worshiping Time Flies and lilting closer I Drive The Hearse that redeem it. The least compelling of Porcupine Tree's "metal albums", but still brilliant.

RECOMMENDED TRACKS


Nine Cats/Stars Die/Dark Matter/Even Less/Stop Swimming/Lightbulb Sun/Blackest Eyes/Trains/Strip The Soul/Shallow/Halo/The Start Of Something Beautiful/Fear Of A Blank Planet/Sentimental/Anesthetize/Way Out Of Here/Time Flies

As I've said, this was written somewhat randomly so it's probably very stream of consciousness. Then again, I don't really care. =D

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Good, GOOD article. Shame you didn't mention Arriving Somewhere But Not Here, my personal favorite.

Well I listened to a couple of songs, very nice stuff. I didn't expect them to be as accessible and have as many nice hooks.

They remind me of an amazing band called VAST, who I think you'd enjoy:

As usual, a very in depth and well written article.

 

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