Review – Deadwing Deluxe Edition by Porcupine Tree

*****

Deluxe re-issue of Porcupine Tree’s 2005 album casts new light on a classic

Deadwing is the second album in a run of three classic releases from Porcupine Tree, starting with In Absentia in 2002 and ending with Fear of a Blank Planet in 2007. It was released in the middle of that sequence, in 2005. The new Deluxe Edition on CD is housed in a handsome hardback book of around a hundred pages, including photos and artwork by Lasse Hoile and Mike Bennion, and detailed articles by Stephen Humphries. In 2017, the band’s singer, guitarist and main songwriter Steven Wilson remastered the album for release on vinyl, and that mix is included here for the first time on CD. The first CD contains the full album and the second CD includes five B-sides. The third has 13 demos, the first seven of which were recorded by Wilson, the eighth by Wilson and drummer Gavin Harrison and the rest by the full band with Richard Barbieri on keyboards and Colin Edwin on bass. The generous fourth disc is a Blu-Ray which includes: a new documentary Never Stop the Car on a Drive in the Darkthe Making of Deadwing directed by Jeremy George; the album and B-sides remastered in high resolution stereo (96/24 LPCM); a 5.1 surround sound mix including four B-sides; a concert video recorded for the German Rockpalast television series at Live Music Hall, Köln, Germany in November 2005.

The Deadwing Film Script

Many of the songs on the album relate to a film script of the same name, written by Wilson and the director Mike Bennion, with whom Wilson had collaborated, writing music for several TV commercials directed by Bennion. The film of Deadwing script was never made, although it did resurface in 2020 in a new, simpler version called And No Birds Sing. A short teaser (featuring a brief cameo of Wilson as a rough sleeper) was released on YouTube in September of that year, but to date the film hasn’t been completed.

In the meantime, the Deadwing album was released partly to help the film get made – Wilson and Bennion were having difficulty creating any interest in their script. The irony is that the album is based, as Wilson admits in the fascinating documentary in this Deluxe Edition, on a script of a film that no-one has ever seen, and on characters that are known only to Wilson and Bennion. Wilson enjoys the irony, but does admit that the problem – if there is one – is that the album is impenetrable both ‘lyrically and conceptually.’ What has made the album even more difficult to interpret – until now – is that it has never been entirely clear which of the songs on the album relate to the film script. Wilson admits that around half of the nine tracks on the album are taken from the script, including the title track, Lazarus, Open Car, and Arriving Somewhere But Not Here. He gives tantalising glimpses of parts of the plot of the film, admitting to Humphries for instance that the eerie spoken words on the title track ‘Like a cancer scare/In a dentist’s chair’ are taken directly from the script. The images and photography, which are extensively and beautifully presented in the lavish book are also almost entirely based on the film script.

In the documentary, Wilson refers to the two main characters in the script, David and Elizabeth. David works in a sound studio in Soho, London. As I mention in my book On Track … Porcupine Tree (Sonicbond Publishing, 2021) the first 15 pages of the Deadwing script were posted online, but are no longer available. For a detailed summary, please see page 86 of the book, but briefly David is seen working on the sound for a video and is horrified when he glimpses a small boy who appears mysteriously in one of the scenes he is editing. He later meets Elizabeth on a Tube train platform – it’s unclear who she is, although we are told that she is a young woman in her late twenties, with a long red coat and red high heels.

A fascinating revelation made by Wilson in the documentary is that David is the only survivor of a religious cult after the rest of them died in a mass suicide twenty years before the start of the film. He fled the cult as a child, and the opening scene of the film script shows a three-year-old boy running, barefoot, through the woods at night wearing a nightshirt. Just before this, we see the boy’s mother singing a lullaby to him; are we to assume that his mother was a member of the cult and died in the mass suicide? The song Lazarus seems to be a dialogue between the boy and his dead mother – David is mentioned by name in the song.

Wilson has often written about religion in his lyrics for Porcupine Tree, and Halo on this album is about the holier-than-thou attitude of a born-again Christian,

I’m not the same as you
Cause I’ve seen the light

Wilson has also shown his fascination with religious cults. The track Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled (Lightbulb Sun 2000) features real spoken word footage from the leader of the Heaven’s Gate religious cult, 39 of whom committed suicide in March 1997 in the tragic belief that they had left their bodies to return to the ‘Level Above Human in Distant Space.’ Wilson revisited the theme in The Blind House (The Incident 2009) which is again based on a real-life case, when a police raid in 2008 on the Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas led to the release of 400 children, some of whom had married the polygamist cult leader who is now serving a long prison sentence for sexual activities with minors. It’s intriguing to note that in the interview with Humphries, Wilson says that in the film script the ghosts of the dead cult members are now coming back to reclaim David. This combines Wilson’s scepticism about religion (inherited from his scientist father as Wilson says in his book Limited Edition of One (Constable 2022)) with his love of ghost stories – as shown on his solo album The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) from 2013, which is based on a series of ghost stories that Wilson wrote.

Despite the revelation about David and the cult from which he escaped, Wilson admitted to Humphries that using a film script that very few people have ever seen (although Barbieri and Edwin did read it when recording the album) could make the album ‘a little unrelatable.’ He said that ‘nobody knew who David was’. We may have to wait until the film is released to find out more about him. But the film script is not crucial to an understanding of the album and an appreciation of its emotional resonance. In a revealing section of the documentary, Wilson says that songs like Lazarus have universal themes, such as childhood nostalgia and regret, lyrical themes which have continued to haunt his solo albums including The Raven … and Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015). He modestly fails to mention the fact that the success of Lazarus (with over 18 million plays on Spotify it’s the band’s third most popular song and Wilson has played it live nearly 500 times) is partly due to the gorgeous melody and the vocals which are delivered with sweet sincerity. Critics may agonise over the exact meaning of a lyric, whereas listeners may respond to the emotional truth of a song which is revealed as much by the music as by the words.

The Demo tracks

Another revelation – perhaps more startling – is that Lazarus originally contained extra material as can be heard on the demo version on CD2. From around 2:25 to 3:10 there’s a very strange bridge section which sounds completely incongruous, much more like the early psychedelic pastiches of Porcupine Tree when the band was still Wilson’s solo project. It’s a very unusual lapse of judgment on Wilson’s part – most of his demos are very similar to the final versions, but in this case Andy Karp from the record company said that the demo version of the song ‘suddenly went haywire with a real curveball of a middle part.’ Karp and the band’s manager Andy Leff shared the same reaction to the middle section. Their role was to turn a good piece of art into a great piece of art, just as poet Ezra Pound did when editing T. S. Eliot’s masterpiece The Waste Land (1922).

Another, more subtle but equally important difference between the demo and the final version of a song is Arriving Somewhere But Not Here. The demo begins with two minutes of ethereal choirs and the sound of a church organ. As Barbieri says in the documentary, Wilson asked him to add his distinctive sound design to the opening of the track, replacing the demo version with a ‘slowly building backdrop’ that leads much more effectively to the ‘dramatic moment’ when the main guitar theme first appears. Barbieri adds the ticking of a grandfather clock, electronic bleeps, backwards piano and a synth patch called Arab Soft Synth to create a richly enigmatic soundscape which creates, as he told Humphries, a ‘serene but portentous mood.’

The other demos are mostly versions of tracks which appear on the final album or as B-sides which are already reviewed in detail in On Track … Porcupine Tree. The B-sides on CD 2 are also covered in the book, mostly as tracks on the Stars Die compilation (see pages 130 – 132). There are however four new demo songs in the Deluxe Edition which aren’t reviewed elsewhere:

Godfearing (Wilson) [04:57]

This track has been available for about ten years on Wilson’s SoundCloud account, where he says that he’s not sure which album it belongs to, ‘while it shares lyrical themes with the songs on In Absentia, one of the melodies seems to relate to another piece from [the] Deadwing era.’ It now seems he has decided that it belongs to Deadwing.

This is an archetypal Porcupine Tree track from the band’s later era, with opening metal riffs that could have come from Swedish prog metal band Opeth (with whom Wilson was working around this time); lovely delicate vocals in the verses contrasting with an epic earworm of a chorus; a very heavy riff that could have come from Deadwing; a contemplative section with heavily echoed piano; imaginative use of hammered dulcimer and a taste of Mellotron … all beautifully combined into less than five minutes. It’s good that the track has finally found a home on an official release.

Vapour Trails (Wilson) [03.53]

Not to be confused with the single Vapour Trail Lullaby which was written before the sessions for In Absentia but wasn’t released until 2010, when it was given away as a single with copies of Wilson’s solo DVD Insurgentes.

The song is a reminder (if one is needed) of Wilson’s supreme ability to write a simple, heartfelt ballad – recent examples include 12 Things I Forgot from his solo album The Future Bites (2021) or Of The New Day from the Porcupine Tree album Closure / Continuation (2022). Its status as a demo is shown by the slightly strained vocals, and the very simple arrangement mostly based around strummed acoustic guitar. But there’s some lovely George Harrison-like guitar later in the song, and at 3:30 there’s a heart-stopping moment when the instruments briefly drop out, leaving emotive multi-layered vocals hanging in the air like perfume.

Instrumental Demo 1 (Porcupine Tree) [05.19]

This is one of five demos featuring the complete band. Wilson had previously presented the band with songs in the form of completed demos on which he played and sang all the parts, but on Deadwing he was beginning to relax control a little and allow other band members into the writing process. On the main album, Halo and Glass Arm Shattering are written by the whole band, and The Start Of Something Beautiful is co-written with Gavin Harrison.

This song is notable for a typically melodic, wide ranging bass line from Colin Edwin in the verse, robust and intelligent drumming from Harrison, some spacious soundscaping from Barbieri, and rocky guitar from Wilson.

Instrumental Demo 2 (Porcupine Tree) [05.23]

Harrison says that the danger of a whole band writing together in a room is that they end up playing for half an hour in E major, but this song features an uplifting and imaginative sequence of key changes from around 1:15 which lift the song beyond the most basic of demos. With more work, this could have been turned into a classic Porcupine Tree song. From around 3:30 Wilson shows off his skills as a guitarist and at 4:00 Barbieri adds evocative keyboards.

The Surround Sound Mix

The Deluxe Edition provides an opportunity to hear Deadwing in a surround sound mix in 5.1 only – it was much later that Wilson began to mix in the more immersive and sophisticated Dolby Atmos format. The first Porcupine Tree album to benefit from 5.1 surround sound was In Absentia, mixed by Elliot Scheiner. Wilson worked with Scheiner on the 5.1 mix of Deadwing and by the next album Fear of a Blank Planet (2007) he had learned the art so well that his surround sound mix was nominated for a Grammy award, as was his mix of the next album The Incident (2009). Wilson has since become the go-to surround sound mixer for classic albums by bands such as King Crimson, Roxy Music, Jethro Tull, Yes, Gentle Giant, XTC and Tears For Fears. More recently he mixed his latest solo album The Future Bites (2021) and the new Porcupine Tree album Closure/Continuation (2022) in Dolby Atmos as well, adding more precise placement of instruments in the surround sound picture and height information as well.

The 5.1 mix provides a coherent, immersive experience that creates a unique sound world, strengthening some of the weaker tracks by drawing them into a creative whole. Backing vocals become much better defined in the surround sound image. Heavy metal guitar riffs are visceral. Fizzing synths that are hidden in the stereo mix lurk menacingly. Excellent use is made of the rear speakers, with the spoken word passages in the title track leaping out to startle the listener. Two tracks in particular benefit from the mix. Mellotron Scratch brings out the beauty and the pain of the song. The bass drum at the start is much more prominent, the syncopated rhythm creating a deliciously uneasy effect. The harmony voices are gorgeous. Later in the song guitars and drums join in a moment of sudden robustness as the bass drum returns. The final track, Glass Arm Shattering, provides a lovely relaxation of tension after the visceral onslaught of much of the rest of the album. In stereo, the simplicity of the track is what is most noticeable after the proggy polyrhythms of the previous track, Start Of Something Beautiful. The surround sound mix turns the track into more of an epic, a climax like Eclipse, the closing track of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon. The track begins with nostalgic vinyl crackles, which lead to lush drums and electronics. Slide guitars in the rear speakers add to the richness of the picture, and the multi-layered vocals take the listener to a new heights of emotion. The track ends with a touch of subtle humour, the sound of a stylus in a crackly groove on a record circling around the surround sound image turning the whole room into a vast record player.

Conclusion

Deadwing is in some ways a transitional album. It consolidated the distinctive Porcupine Tree blueprint, a hybrid of progressive metal riffs, melodic strength and rich vocal harmonies that had been a feature of the previous album, In Absentia. Perhaps what Deadwing lacks compared to that album is conceptual coherence. The next album, Fear Of A Blank Planet used the same musical formula and added a very strong concept, making it the band’s masterpiece. But Deadwing does contain two classic Porcupine Tree tracks, Arriving Somewhere But Not Here and Lazarus, and most of the other material is strong. The Deluxe Edition adds a great deal to the enjoyment of the album, an insight into the creative process and an excellent surround sound mix. So, **** for the music itself and an extra * for the rest of the new package. Following the release of the In Absentia Deluxe Edition in 2020, a Deluxe Edition of Fear Of A Blank Planet would complete the trilogy nicely.

Track Listing

CD1 Deadwing (2018 remaster)

1 Deadwing [09:46]

2 Shallow [04:17]

3 Lazarus [04:19]

4 Halo [04:39]

5 Arriving Somewhere But Not Here [12:02]

6 Mellotron Scratch [06:57]

7 Open Car [03:44]

8 Start Of Something Beautiful [07:43]

9 Glass Arm Shattering [06:08]

CD2 B-Sides

1 Revenant [03:05]

2 So Called Friend [04:49]

3 Shesmovedon [04:55]

4 Mother And Child Divided [05:00]

5 Half Light  [06:38]

CD3 Demos

1 Arriving Somewhere But Not Here (demo) [13:03]

2 Godfearing (demo) [04:57]

3 Lazarus (demo) [04:10]

4 Open Car (demo) [05:08]

5 Vapour Trails (demo) [03:53]

6 Shallow (demo) [04:15]

7 Deadwing (demo) [10:35]

8 Mother And Child Divided (demo) [05:02]

9 Instrumental Demo 1 [05:19]

10 Halo (demo) [04:50]

11 Instrumental Demo 2 [05:23]

12 So Called Friend (demo) [05:01]

13 Glass Arm Jam [04:19]

Blu-ray

Documentary Film, Rockpalast Broadcast & Extras

1 Never Stop the Car on a Drive in the Dark (Deadwing documentary [54:20]

2 Lazarus (promo video) [04:19]

3 Deadwing (remastered album 96/24 LPCM stereo) [59:37]

4 Deadwing B-sides (96/24 LPCM stereo) [25:25]

5 Deadwing 5.1 surround sound mix (including 4 bonus tracks) 48/24 (2005 by Elliot Scheiner and Steven Wilson) [59:37]

6 Additional 5.1 mixes of B-sides Revenant, Mother and Child Divided, Half-Light and Shesmovedon [19.47]

Rockpalast WDR TV broadcast:

7 Intro [00:35]

8 Blackest Eyes [04:33] In Absentia

9 Lazarus [03:58] Deadwing

10 Futile [02:31] In Absentia bonus track

11 Interview [06:02]

12 Mother And Child Divided [04:50] Deadwing B-side

13 So Called Friend [05:00] Deadwing B-side

14 Arriving Somewhere But Not Here [12:24] Deadwing

15 Sound Of Muzak [05:06] In Absentia

16 Interview 2 [01:20]

17 Start Of Something Beautiful [07:24] Deadwing

18 Halo [05:03] Deadwing

19 Interview 3 [03:35]

20 Radioactive Toy [06:05] On The Sunday Of Life

21 Trains [07.18] In Absentia

References

Never Stop the Car on a Drive in the Darkthe Making of Deadwing directed by Jeremy George

Deadwing: The History and track-by-track by Stephen Humphries (Deadwing book)

Twitter @PorcupineTree first draft of Deadwing Script

On Track … Porcupine Tree: Every Album, Every Song by Nick Holmes (SonicBond Publishing September 2021)

Limited Edition Of One – How To Succeed In The Music Industry Without Being Part of The Mainstream by Steven Wilson with Mick Wall (Constable, an imprint of Little, Brown April 2022)  

Godfearing on Wilson’s SoundCloud account

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