Review – Porcupine Tree Closure/Continuation

*****

Porcupine Tree return after 12 years’ hiatus with their new album which reached number 2 in the UK charts

Pink Floyd once satirised the music industry executive who said, ‘You gotta get an album out/You owe it to the people’ (Have a Cigar from their 1975 album Wish You Were Here). When Porcupine Tree went on an extended hiatus after their last concert in 2010, there was no pressure on them from a record company to ‘get an album out’. Band leader Steven Wilson had already launched what became an increasingly successful solo career. The other members of what is now known in copyright terms as ‘Porcupine Three’ were also pursuing their own careers. Keyboard player Richard Barbieri released a series of solo albums, most recently the troubled lockdown masterpiece Under a Spell. Drummer Gavin Harrison toured with King Crimson and became a member of The Pineapple Thief, and recorded a superb jazz fusion album Chemical Reactions with bass player Antoine Fafard.

In the meantime, another bass player was writing new material with Gavin Harrison – Steven Wilson himself. As long ago as 2012, Steven went round to Gavin’s house for a cup of tea and a chat. Gavin suggested that they should jam together, and the only instrument in Gavin’s home studio that resembled a lead guitar was a bass guitar. Pragmatism is the mother of creativity, so Steven picked up the bass and played it like a guitar player. Many years later, when promoting his most recent solo album, last year’s The Future Bites he said that he had fallen out of love with the guitar as the main source of his creativity, preferring to write on keyboards, particularly analogue synthesisers. When asked about the possible return of Porcupine Tree, he naturally always deflected the interviewer towards the solo work that he was promoting at the time, although a careful re-reading of some of those interviews now reveals that he was sometimes dropping hints that Porcupine Tree might come back at some stage, perhaps as a side-project to his solo career.

So, without any pressure or expectation, the three band members quietly wrote an album, now released under the intriguing title Closure/Continuation, suggesting that this could be the final chapter of the Porcupine Tree saga, or it could be the start of a new chapter. The lack of commercial or artistic pressure meant that the band were able to work in a completely new way. Previously, Steven Wilson had delivered songs to the band as fully completed demos which the band rerecorded. For the latest album, for the first time Steven wrote songs with the other band members, and all the instruments and vocals were performed by the three of them without any external collaborators. When their work was complete, they then offered it to several record companies, eventually going with the independent label Music for Nations who describe themselves as the ‘naughty corner of Sony Music UK, proving people wrong since 1983.’

The album has seven tracks, which are reviewed in more detail below, although streaming versions add another three tracks, Population Three, Never Have and Love in the Past Tense that are taken from the Deluxe Edition Box Set. The album is unusual in the band’s catalogue in the there is no over-arching concept as there is with many of their previous albums such as Fear of a Blank Planet. Steven Wilson’s own solo albums to date are based on a strong concept, except for the first album Insurgentes released in 2008. Perhaps the fact that songs were written piecemeal over a long period of time, and by all three band members rather than Steven Wilson on his own, meant that a concept was not appropriate this time, although the lyrics are all written by Steven Wilson and express some of the concerns he has visited on previous albums. To use a literary analogy, each song can be viewed as a self-contained short story rather than a chapter from a novel.

01 Harridan (Harrison, Wilson)

The title of this song has caused some online commentators to reach for their dictionary to discover that it means a haggard old woman. It’s an insult, or as the Oxford English Dictionary politely puts it, ‘usually a term of vituperation.’ Perhaps it leads listeners to expect a misogynistic rant, but instead the song is addressed to a man, making the term neutral. The man in question is a ‘gold man’, perhaps like the mythical King Midas whose every touch turned objects into gold, with a ‘silver tongue’ suggesting a powerful man who uses his eloquence to hide the truth which he keeps to himself. The truth in this case is that ‘you can only save yourself’. The chorus refers to hiding our cuts and our hurt from the world, appearing strong even at the point of death, ‘when we bite the dust’. The central character of the song could be a politician of the like that is dismantled in the third song on the album ‘Rats Return’, but it’s not made clear.

But the song is not completely bleak. The bridge section is much more tender, a gorgeous depiction of the ‘time of the almost rain’ which the next song Of the New Day reveals to be dawn. The beauty of the scene is poignantly combined with an expression of deep loss and regret; having ‘gone to earth’ to find love, the protagonist laments lost love, ‘and what is left without you?’ Wilson sings with a remarkable tenderness here, expressing a new vulnerability in his voice which seems to have begun on his previous solo album The Future Bites, showing a new confidence in his ability to use his voice as an expressive instrument.

The song was chosen as the first single from the album, and it was a good choice to relaunch the band on an unsuspecting world. It contains all the elements that became associated with the later Porcupine Tree, metal riffs, rich sound design, a wide range of dynamics, strong melodies, evocative lyrics and a sense of development as the track progresses. But there’s a new simplicity on this album, with pared-down production that bears a close relationship to the production style on The Future Bites. There’s less in the way of overt musical virtuosity than on previous Porcupine Tree albums, except unsurprisingly from Gavin Harrison on drums. At a recent Q&A session with the band in Leeds, Wilson and Barbieri amusingly recounted the arguments they had about who was the worst musician in the band, each trying to claim the crown and both (rightly) agreeing that Harrison is definitely the best musician in the band.

The track starts with Wilson playing perhaps the funkiest bass line ever heard on a Porcupine Tree record, with lovely ambient keyboards from Barbieri and fierce vocals from Wilson. In common with some of the other tracks on the album, the chorus is very short, giving a real sense of urgency. There’s also a yearning quality in the chords that lead up to the chorus. The song seems to have reached its end only about three minutes in after the contemplative bridge section, but it gathers itself again with fizzing guitar and a thunderous metal riff with driving guitar chords. The sound drops out with bubbling synths flying across the stereo picture, followed by a whimsical jazz section with Wilson almost scat singing in falsetto above. Another driving chromatic section follows with a triumphant return of the chorus and its matching riff. The coda to the song is a repeat of the bridge section, ending on an unresolved chord which disappears into noise. An inspiring ending to a superb opening song, announcing the group’s exultant return as if In Absentia was released only a year or two ago rather than 20 years ago.

02 Of The New Day (Wilson)

After the onslaught of the previous song, there follows a gentle ballad which expresses hope and optimism at the breaking of dawn, described by the Greek poet Homer as ‘rosy-fingered dawn’, a memorable image of a time here described by Wilson as ‘the hour of almost rain/When night becomes the day.’ It’s an image of rebirth, but as this is a Porcupine Tree song there are ‘tinges of darkness around the edges’ as Wilson admitted in a Twitter Listening Party with Tim Burgess of The Charlatans on 29 June. The darkness here seems to be the protagonist’s old life, which is still there despite the breaking dawn, ‘the old days that line up behind/The monolith of the new day.’

Although it’s superficially a simple song, behind the balladry lies the rhythmic genius of Gavin Harrison. Apparently Wilson told the band’s drummer that he wanted to write a song that had multiple time changes. This means that the song has a slightly stop-start feel but it’s so well executed that after the initial slight shock of the time changes it soon resides in the brain as a classic Steven Wilson ballad.

03 Rats Return (Harrison, Wilson)

This song is about politicians who ‘leave their principles at the door’ who ‘purge [their] guilt for nameless hoards’ (pedants will note that the correct spelling of the word is ‘hordes’). The idea of rats returning ties in with the more common image of rats leaving a sinking ship; in the song the rats are presumably returning to celebrate their complete control over the places they have laid waste by their policies. The hint of a nautical image becomes more of a theme as the album progresses.

The idea of psychopaths running society is something that preoccupies Wilson; in the video for the track Eminent Sleaze on The Future Bites he plays a character who represents the ultimate extremes of Capitalism as he watches the world end, leaving him as the sole survivor.

In Rats Return, the line ‘a conscience won’t help you win the war’ perfectly encapsulates the level of psychopathy that politicians often appear to need in order to be leaders. It’s a concept explored by journalist and broadcaster Jon Ronson in his fascinating book, The Psychopath Test, which looks at the lack of empathy in public figures,

“Serial killers ruin families,’ shrugged Bob. ‘Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.”

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson (Picador 2012)

Wilson makes it clear that he is referring to real political and military leaders when he lists ‘Genghis K’ (Genghis Kahn, the military leader who was responsible for the deaths of millions), ‘Pinochet’ (the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet) and ‘Mao Tse Tung’ (Chairman Mao, responsible for countless Chinese deaths during the Cultural Revolution).

The song is another exercise in rhythmic mastery from Harrison. On Twitter he pointed out that the rhythmic pattern is so complex it takes, ‘at least half the song before people realise that there is a repeat of a four-bar syncopation, in which every bar is different.’ As a result, the rhythm is ‘spiky’, which suits the song’s sentiments perfectly. The main guitar riff could have come from the progressive metal style of some of the songs on the previous three Porcupine Tree albums, but the song also has a contemporary feel due to the sparse production. It feels like another classic Porcupine Tree song in the making.

04 Dignity (Barbieri, Wilson)

This song addresses one of Wilson’s favourite themes, the role of ambition in our lives and the failure to achieve our dreams – the ‘stupid dream’ described in the album of the same name in 1999. On the Twitter Listening Party he said that Dignity describes a guy who ‘really used to be someone’, a film star or a CEO who is now living on the street, and ‘all the pathos that goes with that downfall.’ But there is also hope – the central character retains his dignity despite his downfall, ‘your dignity will never go and your mind is pretty sound’

The song includes a reference to the final section of T. S. Eliot’s epic poem The Waste Land, What the thunder said, in the line ‘Tell yourself it’s just what the thunder said.’ The first part of that section of the poem refers to the aridity and sterility of life in the 20th century (the poem was written in 1922, so is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year). The poem ends with the Sanskrit word ‘Shantih’ repeated three times. The word Shantih, used at the end of Hindu religious texts the Upanishads, means peace. Eliot himself in his Notes to the poem described it as the equivalent of the Christian concept of ‘The Peace which passeth understanding’ or the Peace that God brings. In the context of the song, which has no overt religious message, the fact that the poem ends on an ineffably positive note could suggest that if the protagonist in the song ignores what the thunder said, and instead follows the final message of the poem, this could provide hope despite his downfall. Whether Wilson had the poem in mind when he wrote the song is unclear, although the final section also has a reference to hooded hordes swarming over endless plains, which could relate to the anonymous ‘nameless hordes’ referred to in Rats Return.

The song starts with the sound of children playing, rather like opening of First Regret from Wilson’s fourth solo album Hand.Cannot.Erase, a brief evocation of the nostalgic theme that has often appeared in his work. A haunting wordless vocal, pure in tone, is provided by the Swedish singer and multi-instrumentalist Lisen Rylander Löve who has worked with Richard Barbieri. A cascading rock guitar line leads to a syncopated vocal line with folky backing vocals provided by Wilson himself. The chorus has a soaring lead synth line which rises in gentle euphoria. The chord structure uses a classic songwriting technique beloved of The Beatles and others, the change from major to minor on the words ‘you stare at the sun’, here describing a moment of hope as the sun breaks through, followed by a return to melancholy on the final word ‘done’. These chord progressions give the song an instant feeling of warm nostalgia, as if the song had already been heard many times before in a dream.

05 Herd Culling (Harrison, Barbieri, Wilson)

The track opens with the visceral lines, ‘Son, go fetch the rifle now/There’s something in the yard’, throwing us immediately into a compelling psychodrama. As a lyricist, Steven has a poet or script writer’s ability to enter a story in medias res, half way through a story, the nature of which is gradually revealed as the song progresses, teasing the listener to extract the meaning of the song. In a fascinating and very detailed interview by the ever-perceptive Anil Prasad of Innerviews.org, Steven Wilson revealed the meaning of this song. He later retracted, saying he would prefer listeners to make up their own minds, so those who prefer their views not to be influenced by the lyric writer’s thoughts should skip to the next paragraph now. Wilson told Prasad that the song was inspired by the story of Skinwalker Ranch, near Ballard, Utah. Several accounts suggest that the ranch has been plagued by paranormal activities and UFOs, and a slew of books, films and documentaries have been published about it. The song describes the family’s attempts to defend themselves against aliens, ‘strange gods above the earth’ who may have landed to ‘cull a herd’ of cattle on the ranch. He told Prasad, ‘I remain skeptical [sic] when it comes to the UFO stuff and government coverups. But I love the stories.’ His fascination with ghost stories led him to write a collection of them that made up his third solo album, The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) released in 2013. On that album he used the stories to illustrate his thoughts about the human condition, and emotions such as regret and feelings of loss, rather than a scientific exploration of the existence or otherwise of ghosts. His scepticism is echoed in the chorus of the song, which consists of the single word ‘liar’, resentfully muttered at first then viciously spat out as his venom increases.

06 Walk the Plank (Barbieri, Wilson)

Another song about the corruption of power in the 21st century. On the Twitter Listening Party, Richard Barbieri described the song as being about ‘the sort of characters that are causing global trouble, a sign-of-the times commentary’. The nautical imagery is much more overt than on Rats Return; this time the rats have abandoned the sunken ship and ‘will never find their way back again.’

The song is very unusual in the Porcupine Tree canon in that it features almost entirely keyboards and drums, with very little if any guitar. To an extent, it shares the fiercely electronic sound of some of the songs on The Future Bites, particularly Eminent Sleaze although ironically much of that song was recorded using real instruments. If some of the songs on this new album feel like closure, finishing a chapter in the band’s previous history, this one feels forward-looking to new territories the band might explore in future if they carry on writing and recording together. Interestingly, on Twitter Richard Barbieri described the track as ‘the joker in the pack… if it went further it wouldn’t be Porcupine Tree.’ Steven Wilson said that if the band did work together again they would probably push towards a more keyboard-based sound with less prominence given to the guitar.

07 Chimera’s Wreck (Harrison, Wilson)

On Twitter, Wilson described this as ‘perhaps the most personal song on the album.’ It addresses a subject that has often troubled him, the nature of success and what we imagine that would look like when we are young. The ‘chimera’ described here is the illusion of the future, ‘what we imagine we want from life when we’re young probably wouldn’t have made us happy anyway.’ As mentioned above this was the theme of the Stupid Dream album, and it was also the theme of one of the hidden treasures of the Porcupine Tree back catalogue, ‘Buying New Soul’ which was recorded during the sessions for Lightbulb Sun which was released in 2000. In that song, Wilson describes his battle with the recording industry and his attempt to retain artistic integrity, ‘I still rage and wage my little war’ – but it ends with the depressing concept of selling out, of buying a ‘new soul at the start of every year’.

The personal nature of the song is emphasised by the reference to Wilson’s father, who passed away in 2011, and to whom he dedicated his second solo album Grace for Drowning, which was released later that year. Wilson began working on Chimera’s Wreck shortly after that, and the image of his father smiling at a child encapsulates their relationship in one short line. The reference to ‘A new town in the 60s’ is presumably Wilson’s home town of Hemel Hempstead, England. The new part of the existing town was completed in 1962, ‘out of concrete a design made for tomorrow’, and Wilson himself was born five years later in 1967.

The song uses sea imagery as on other parts of the album. It’s interesting that some of the imagery and language is quite archaic, almost arcane at times. This contrasts with the use of language on Wilson’s last two solo albums, which is much more direct. The final verse of this song refers to slipping the ‘wreck’ into a bottle, which presumably refers to the old practice of putting a model ship into a bottle. In this case the wrecked ship that has washed up on a shore is perhaps sealed in a bottle to because it’s no longer needed – a hopeful note on which to end the album. The robust backing vocals that appear at just over two minutes into the track have the feel of a sea shanty, and giving the song a nautical feel, a curious throwback to the 19th century. Musically, a strange but perhaps valid comparison is the music of Van der Graaf Generator, and in particular another epic track with a nautical theme, A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers from the 1971 album Pawn Hearts. Chimera’s Wreck shares the driving, repeated riffs of many of the Van der Graaf Generator songs, and their episodic nature, making it the most prog-rock song on the album.

Wilson has said that this is the best Porcupine Tree album, along with Fear of a Blank Planet and In Absentia. He also admits that ‘time will tell.’ It’s certainly by far the most collaborative album the band have ever released. The lack of an over-arching concept perhaps makes it more difficult to grasp initially than many of the previous albums, but individual tracks are very strong and as with most of Steven Wilson’s work it takes a while to give up its secrets, so repeated listens are recommended. It also maintains the consistently excellent levels of production that have characterised Wilson’s work for decades now, both as a producer and as an expert remixer of classic albums. Let’s hope that the new album, to quote one of the band’s own song titles, is the ‘Start of Something Beautiful’ rather than a final coda to their work.

For a detailed, track-by-track analysis of the previous 10 studio albums, bonus tracks, live albums and compilations see Porcupine Tree On Track by Nick Holmes, published in September 2021 by Sonicbond.

Porcupine Tree – Hidden Treasures

Excellent songs that didn’t make the final cut

Some very strong songs were left off Porcupine Tree’s ten studio albums for reasons of space, changes of style … or in at least one case due to what the band’s leader Steven Wilson now regards as a mistake on his part.

I discovered some of these while writing my new book On Track … Porcupine Tree, a detailed analysis of the band’s songs. Many fans will already know them all, but to others I hope they will provide unexpected moments of joy.

The Sound of No-One Listening

This song starts with ominous soundscaping and sound effects, including the sound of an ice cream van, which has become a common horror film trope, though it may have a sense of nostalgia for some listeners. Although the band may have changed style by the time it was recorded, it’s an excellent track that stands up very well in retrospect, with a simple compelling bass riff and a lovely flute motif. Synth arpeggios provide a glittering, hopeful backdrop, as the song reaches a climax with very energetic drumming before falling back into a darkly disturbing noise-scape again.

Men of Wood

Steven Wilson said he found it difficult to find a home for this track. It was considered for two albums and as a single, but didn’t quite fit the band’s changing style, ‘It was almost a throwback to (the band’s) psychedelic pop, and that just wasn’t quite right – it was a context thing.’ The theme is the vacuity of modern society, sharing a sentiment with T. S. Eliot’s poem, ‘The Hollow Men’. The song begins with a dirty-sounding guitar, then heads for a memorable chorus with a nicely psychedelic key-change, giving it a rather wistful feel.

Buying New Soul

This track was recorded in writing sessions at Foel Studios, Wales, in March 2000, just after Porcupine Tree’s sixth studio album Lightbulb Sun was completed. It’s a gorgeous, poignant song with a haunting chorus. It follows the theme of the band’s fifth album Stupid Dream, the difficulty of balancing artistic integrity and commercial success. A highly personal song, it reflects Steven Wilson’s continuing fight against the music industry – ‘I still rage and wage my little war’ – but it ends with the depressing concept of selling out, of buying a ‘new soul at the start of every year’. The circling synthesizer motif that opens and closes the song perfectly matches the melancholy lyric and jazz-like upright bass. There is one moment of rage, but the feeling is generally one of resignation.

Cure for Optimism

This is a Steven Wilson solo performance at his home studio, No Man’s Land. The meaning of the song is just out of reach, but the track is still very evocative, with ghostly echoed piano motifs and subtle acoustic guitars. Mental health appears to be a theme here. The reference to a ‘serpent on a mobile phone’ could suggest a record company executive.

Drown With Me

In an interview in 2020, Steven Wilson told Lasse Hoile that he thought this song was going to be ‘one of the highlights’ of In Absentia, the band’s seventh studio album. He replaced it with ‘Prodigal’, ‘which I think is one of the weaker songs’, although he stressed this was a very personal opinion that others might disagree with. The reason for the substitution was that he felt ‘Prodigal’ was a better recording, although he regretted the decision later. ‘Drown With Me’ is a gorgeous, upbeat song in which the music contrasts sharply with the lyrics. The protagonist’s plan to drown the song’s addressee and her family seems to refer to the world of serial killers, one of the main themes of In Absentia.

Futile

This is the strongest example of the band’s interest in the music of Swedish heavy metal band, Meshuggah. The band’s drummer Gavin Harrison told Lasse Hoile that he wanted to write a Meshuggah-inspired track, that he could use as a challenge at his drum clinics, as he was finding it hard to play heavy metal. Gavin invited Steven Wilson to add guitar parts to the demo, resulting in ‘one of the heaviest pieces we ever recorded’. Lyrically, we may be back in the world of the serial killer that is so strong on In Absentia, ‘You were the one that made her cry … the world went black … lost my head.’ The chorus is fiercely dark, the metallic guitars almost burying the vocals. What makes the song remarkable is the contrast between the main guitar riff’s ferocity and the yearning delicacy of the backing vocals.

Nil Recurring

This and the next song were recorded during the sessions for Porcupine Tree’s ninth studio album Fear of a Blank Planet, which many fans consider to be their best. Both tracks feature on the band’s 2007 EP Nil Recurring. The title track of the EP is an instrumental featuring King Crimson’s Robert Fripp on lead guitar. After two minutes of guitar tapping and heavy riffing, a lovely, spacious breakdown highlights Colin Edwin’s bass and Richard Barbieri’s keyboards. Then, at around 3:20, the track gathers momentum, and a lovely riff cuts across a punchy one-note bass section. At around five minutes in, the opening echoed tapped-guitar theme returns, with a manic guitar solo and further heavy riffing, until the track suddenly dissolves.

What Happens Now?

This song’s protagonist seems to be suffering an existential crisis, rather like the main character in Fear of a Blank Planet. Material possessions mean nothing to him and they bore him, ‘So I got all these things, but so what?’ As he says, ‘You can’t take them with you’, and instead he seeks meaning through religion, asking the song’s mystery addressee, ‘You think you can save my soul?’ The answer – given in verse 2 – seems to be that he could die as a result of a suicide bombing, although the link between verses one and two is oblique. He boards a plane, in which somebody has concealed a bomb in a briefcase, as a result of which, ‘My body will spread through the heavens, across the sky/And my ashes will fall through the cloudburst.’ It’s a surprising and poetic image, despite its bleak suggestion that the answer is oblivion. Instrumentally, the track is very strong. Of particular note is the rhythmic illusion: beginning at about five minutes in, becoming much clearer at around six minutes, when the drums appear to move at half the speed of the other instruments, before the whole track slows down to an epic feeling of finality.

On Track: Porcupine Tree…every album, every song, published by Sonicbond, is out at the end of September and is available to order now at Burning Shed and other good bookshops.

Sources:

Sleeve notes to Stars Die: The Delerium Years 1991-1997 (2002)

Interviews with Steven Wilson and Gavin Harrison filmed for the In Absentia Deluxe Edition of 2020 by Lasse Hoile

Album Review – Fragments by Trifecta

*****

New Prog supergroup bring joy in fragmented times

Drummer Craig Blundell, keyboard player Adam Holzman and bass player Nick Beggs began playing together on Steven Wilson’s Hand. Cannot. Erase tour in 2015. They also joined Steven on his To the Bone tour in 2018 and 2019. When Steven went off for a cup of tea after a brief soundcheck, the three others would remain on stage to jam together, creating what they described as a ‘jazz club’. They recorded each other on their phones as they played, and decided to use these recordings as the basis of some of the songs for the new Trifecta project. The result is a version of jazz rock fusion, almost entirely instrumental, in a style described by Nick Beggs as ‘Fission! It’s like Fusion but less efficient and more dangerous … with fall out.’ The outcome is an explosion of joyful, melodic virtuosity.

Beggs and Holzman were due to tour with Steven Wilson again but tours due in 2020 and again in 2021 were cancelled due to Covid-19. Like many artists, the three members of Trifecta collaborated remotely during lockdown – Beggs and Blundell in England and Holzman in New York. But whereas the work of another Steven Wilson alumnus Richard Barbieri Under a Spell described darkly trouble dreams in lockdown, Trifecta cast a genial spell on tracks that they each completed at home before Holzman mixed the heady brew in his home studio. Further magic was sprinkled by expert mastering engineer Andy VanDette (who also worked on some of the Porcupine Tree albums). The light-hearted nature of the collaboration is shown by some of the tiles of the 15 ‘fragments’ that make up the album, such as ‘Clean Up On Aisle Five’ and ‘Nightmare In Shining Armour’. But don’t let that distract you from the serious levels of musicianship on display here.

Nick Beggs’ dry humour is evident on the only track that features vocals, the gently enticing Pavlov’s Dog Killed Schrodinger’s Cat, the lyrics of which he describes as ‘written from the perspective of a layman trying to understand quantum mechanics … and failing’. They include such memorable lines as ‘Wrestled to the ground by your quantum theory/ I’ve listened to your talk until my eyes grew weary’.

Despite the consistently high level of inventiveness and virtuosity shown by all three players, planting them firmly in prog rock territory, none of the songs are prog epics in terms of length; all of the 15 tracks are beautifully-crafted miniatures of around 3 minutes. The whole album is only 45 minutes long. Steven Wilson has recently called for a return to the shorter-form album, and his latest release The Future Bites lasts 42 minutes.

Opening track Clean Up On Aisle Five with its swirling keyboards, strong melody and powerful drumming is reminiscent of another prog rock supergroup, U.K. (John Wetton, Bill Bruford, Eddie Jobson and Alan Holdsworth) on their track ‘In the Dead of Night’, although without the impassioned vocals.

Other highlights include Proto Molecule with its amazingly funky bassline – worthy of Jaco Pastorius – evocative keyboard lines, syncopated jazz-funk riffing, and a delightful interplay between both instruments. There is more Jaco-style bass at the start of Nightmare in Shining Armor.

The Enigma of Mr Fripp cheerfully acknowledges its debt to Robert Fripp of King Crimson. It encapsulates all that is great about that band in less than three minutes. Nick Beggs plays Chapman Stick with Fripp-like intensity, the lines spiralling around each other. There are dystopian drums, sudden key changes, warm mellotron washes and rhythmic illusions. A complete King Crimson album in miniature. The track suddenly stops, delightfully segueing into the ultra-cool jazz keyboards of the next track Sally Doo-Dally.

Have You Seen What the Neighbours are Doing refers to the house next to Adam Holzman’s in the North Bronx, left empty when the man living there disappeared. It could easily have come from the soundtrack to a 1970s movie like Shaft. It begins with a disturbing film-noir scenario, with a looping funky bassline and luminous synths. There’s dirty distortion on the Fender Rhodes-like solo, adding to the sleaze. Holzman uses a similar sound on his recent live album The Last Gig.

The whole album is an unexpected lockdown delight that reveals its deep treasures with repeated listening. Two important questions remain. Are Trifecta working on new material, and will they ever tour? Hopefully the answer to both questions is yes!

Album Review – Under A Spell by Richard Barbieri

A spell-binding journey through lockdown dreams

*****

Image credit Kscope/Richard Barbieri

It’s a strange coincidence that all four members of the prog rock band Porcupine Tree have brought out solo albums during the past few months of lockdown in the UK; first drummer Gavin Harrison released Chemical Reactions (with Antoine Fafard); in January it was guitarist and singer Steven Wilson’s turn with The Future Bites; bass player Colin Edwin followed in February with Once Only with Eternal Return. Finally, keyboard player Richard Barbieri completes the set with Under a Spell.

Of the four albums, Richard’s is the most direct reaction to lockdown, as the other three albums were largely complete before the pandemic hit. He had planned to collaborate with different musicians in several studios across the world, and had recorded some of these performances in early sessions. But he was then left to complete the album on his own in his home studio, surrounded by vintage synths and effects pedals. In strange and troubling times which were tragic for many, he was plagued by returning dreams of walking along a pathway through a wood towards a light. When he awoke, the dreams hung over him like a surreal shadow and shaped the album into what he has described as ‘this weird, self-contained dream-state album’ reacting to ‘all this strangeness going on outside’.

Richard is perhaps best-placed of any keyboard player to create a soundtrack to his lockdown dreams. By his own admission, he is not a technical, virtuosic player; he has never been known for the astonishing keyboard runs of other prog rock musicians like Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson. His strength lies in a different kind of virtuosity, the ability to create unique and evocative sound worlds; listen to the opening of Ghosts from 40 years ago with art rock band Japan, or any of his work with Porcupine Tree.

Richard has said that the key to understanding his new album is to listen to the opening and closing tracks, the title track Under a Spell and the final track Lucid.

The opening track begins in a fairly oblique way, with gentle vibraphone from Klas Assarsson and bass from Axel Crone, as the spell begins to be cast and we enter the forest. Richard has said that the use of vibraphone here is inspired by Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta’s soundtrack from The Man Who Fell to Earth, Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film starring David Bowie. In the opening scene, Bowie’s space craft lands and he is seen walking down a hill in what is, for him, an alien landscape. In a similar way, Barbieri draws us in to the alien landscape of the forest he saw in his dreams. Urgent percussion joins to create a sense of unease, with fragments of melody weaving a compelling spell. It could easily be the soundtrack to a horror film, and Richard has mentioned the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project as the surreal, deserted environment he had in mind. There is also a parallel with John Carpenter’s Lost Themes recording project; having written music for his own films, most famously the soundtrack to Halloween in 1978, Carpenter is now writing very effective music for imaginary films.

If much of the album lives in a disturbing, rather nightmarish landscape, the closing track Lucid brings some hope. It describes a ‘comforting lucid dream’ from which the listener gradually withdraws as a voice whispers ‘wake up…come back alive’. It’s a gentle, mesmeric ending with a repeated interlocking keyboard figure as we come out of the dream-state, leaving the wood as we return to the sunlight.

But the journey through the wood has not been easy. A highlight of the album is the fifth track, Serpentine which features some stunning bass playing from Percy Jones who played with the jazz fusion band Brand X (featuring a certain Phil Collins on drums). There are more vibraphone sounds but this time created by Richard himself using keyboard samples. The track describes the forest seen from the point of view of a snake (hence the track’s title) and there’s a superb 360 degree video to accompany the song, created by Miles Skarin (who also made the recent ground-breaking video for Steven Wilson’s Self). It’s worth watching the video for Serpentine to the end to see exactly where the path through the forest and across a bridge leads you…

An album written during the lockdown caused by a global pandemic could be a depressing listen, but Richard Barbieri has created an evocative, ultimately uplifting journey into his dreams, beautifully recorded with unique and enchanting soundscapes. It’s the last of a recent quartet of excellent solo albums from members of Porcupine Tree, which may leave fans of the band wondering what these four superb musicians might create if they were ever to work together again.

Chosen Spells – a selection of tracks from Under a Spell

Under a Spell is out now on Kscope.

Track list:

1. Under A Spell
2. Clockwork
3. Flare 2
4. A Star Light
5. Serpentine
6. Sleep Will Find You
7. Sketch 6
8. Darkness Will Find You
9. Lucid

Album Review – Fear of a Blank Planet by Porcupine Tree

The 2007 classic album finally appears on streaming services

*****

Lasse Hoile’s striking cover image for Fear of a Blank Planet

Within Porcupine Tree’s canon of ten studio albums, their 2007 album Fear of a Blank Planet has a similar status to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon within the Pink Floyd catalogue, a cohesive and deeply-satisfying concept album about alienation in modern life. So it has been a source of surprise and frustration to fans of Porcupine Tree that arguably their best album has been unavailable to stream, despite the fact that most of their albums have been on Spotify and other services for some time. Hopefully its availability will bring new listeners to a record which was Classic Rock Magazine’s Album of the Year in 2007.

Fear of a Blank Planet is now on Spotify and other streaming services

The album takes its title from Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, a hip-hop album greatly admired by Steven Wilson, Porcupine Tree’s band leader and principal song-writer until the band ceased to exist following their final album The Incident in 2009.

The fear of a ‘blank planet’ expressed in the album’s title reflects Steven Wilson’s deep concern about the effect that technology was having, particularity on teenagers who he felt were failing to connect with the real world as a result of their obsession with their computers, their iPods, mobile phones and gaming platforms. Writing the lyrics for the album in 2006, Steven may have been unaware that smartphones and social media were about to become ubiquitous. His fears seem prescient, bearing in mind for instance the recent Netflix docudrama The Social Dilemma in which former employees of major tech companies make serious allegations about the monetization of social networks, and the dopamine hits that engaging with them can apparently bring.

Steven Wilson said that the album’s theme of alienated teenagers was strongly influenced by the novel Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho. The novel features a character called Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho, and is a strange but weirdly compelling amalgam of partial autobiography, satire, fantasy, horror and satire. Steven was intrigued by the central character’s son Robby, who spends his time in his room playing games and watching TV, or hanging out at the shopping mall with his equally vacuous friends. According to Steven Wilson’s website,

The lyrics deal with two typical neurobehavioural developmental disorders affecting teenagers in the 21st century: bipolar disorder and attention deficit disorder, and also with other common behaviour tendencies of youth like escapism through prescription drugs, social alienation caused by technology, and a feeling of vacuity—a product of information overload by the mass media. 

In Lunar Park, the over-reliance of parents on prescription drugs to control their children (and themselves) is satirised mercilessly in a scene in which a birthday party features six-year-olds who are so over-medicated that they move lethargically and speak monotonously, chewing their fingernails until they bleed. A paediatrician stands by in case further medical intervention is needed.

Steven’s lyrics for the album are largely quite earnest rather than satirical, although the odd turn of phrase expressing teenage angst can be witty:

Your mouth should be boarded up
Talking all day 
With nothing to say

Fear of a Blank Planet

And…

I'm trying to forget you
And I know that I will
In a thousand years, or maybe a week

Way Out of Here

In interviews around the time of the album’s release, Steven Wilson expressed deep disquiet about the effect of teenagers’ access not just to drugs but to guns, which he related to the massacres at Columbine and Virginia. He also referred to the links between violence and obsession with fame fostered by reality TV, and the shootings at the Westroads Mall in Omaha where the protagonist apparently left a suicide note to say this would make him famous.

All this makes the album seem very serious and heavy, and in some ways it is. But as with many great rock albums the lyrics serve the music, which is a perfect example of Porcupine Tree’s mature style. Steven Wilson has said that at that time he was strongly influenced by the Swedish extreme metal band Meshuggah, who inspired him to write heavy riffs. But in an interview with Dutch Prog Rock headed Fear of a Dull Band there is an amusing discussion involving all four band members trying to decide exactly how heavy they had become. Steven decides that even he isn’t sure,

I think Fear Of A Blank Planet gives the impression that it is heavy because it starts with a long heavy song, and then there is Anesthetize which has this long heavy section. But I don’t know, you’d have to analyse it. ‘My Ashes’ [track two] is pretty mellow as is the last section of ‘Anesthetize‘ [track three]…

You can sense the frustration he feels in his music being categorised, something he has always resisted as his musical taste and influences have always been very wide. The fact that the whole album consists of only six songs, made into one continuous suite of around 50 minutes sounds suspiciously like Prog rock, a label which Steven has often resisted with some degree of irritation both for his work with Porcupine Tree and his later work as a solo artist.

Perhaps the best way to describe the music is a unique combination of heavy rock, melodic pop and art rock and metal with classical strings and gorgeous vocal harmonies. Progressive rock doesn’t really do it justice, except to the extent that it gives some idea of the scope of ambition…and the length of some of the songs.

The first track Fear Of A Blank Planet immediately establishes the album’s theme, beginning with the sound of keys on a vintage computer keyboard. The opening riff, on acoustic guitar, begins with a repeating octave interspersed with a tritone – an interval known as the ‘devil in music’ often used in heavy metal as in the song Black Sabbath.

Gavin Harrison, one of the finest rock drummers in the world (now with King Crimson and the Pineapple Thief) enters with a syncopated rhythm which sets up the dystopian mood of the song.

But this being a Porcupine Tree song, the heavy suddenly morphs into a beautiful moment of introspection, an instrumental at around four minutes in, still using the opening guitar riff but with atmospheric synth playing from Richard Barbieri and languid drumming from Gavin Harrison.

The driving urgency of much the song is paradoxically at odds with the lyrics that often express the torpor of the teenage boy’s life

I'm stoned in the mall again
Terminally bored
Shuffling round the stores...

The sense of boredom is felt so keenly felt that it bursts out into the burning rage that perfectly captures the hormonal maelstrom of a teenage boy. This is combined with a sense of cynical detachment and the sedative effect that prescription drugs have on him ‘my face is mogadon…I’m tuning out desires’. The effect is heightened by the heavy compression applied to Steven’s vocals in the verse, creating a sense of detachment.

Most of the music for My Ashes was written by the band’s keyboard player, Richard Barbieri, who was previously a member of Japan and its spin-off project Rain Tree Crow.

 In keeping with the theme of the album, the song is shot through with melancholy resignation but also with a degree of bitterness; the central character is presumably the teenage boy who is the protagonist in the opening track, based on the character in Lunar Park. In the novel, the relationship between the narrator (who happens to be called Brett Easton Ellis) and his son Bobby is very strained, and in the song the boy blames his problems on his parents 

When a mother and father 
Gave me their problems 
I accepted them all 

Anesthetize

After the simplicity of the previous song, this track is of epic proportions and length. Various YouTubers, who have usually not heard of Porcupine Tree, can be seen reacting with genuine surprise and delight when hearing the song for the first time, and for those who are new to the band it could be a good place to start. To fans of the band it has become a classic.

The first section of the song features a guitar solo from Alex Lifeson of Rush (around four minutes in). Steven Wilson told Prog Archives that that he read a magazine article that mentioned that Lifeson was a fan of Porcupine Tree, causing him almost to fall off his chair as he had grown up listening to Rush. Steven got in touch with him via the journalist who had written the article and asked him to contribute the solo to the album.

The second section features astounding drumming from Gavin Harrison, which is isolated in the video below.

Gavin Harrison plays the drum parts on the second section of Anesthetize, The Pills I’m Taking 

Most bands would have ended the song at this point, perhaps with a metallic flourish or a faded final chorus repeating itself as it disappears into the ether, but Steven Wilson takes us in to a completely different world in the final section, with lovely vocal harmonies and a gorgeous melancholic feel.

Sentimental

On 4 June 2007, NPR (National Public Radio) in America picked this track as their Song of the Day, which means that it was picked up by over 1000 public radio stations in the US. Cecile Clouthier reviewed the song under the heading Progressive Rock Gets Mordantly Witty and her description is not only pleasingly witty but very accurate. 

The wit arises mainly from tension between the charmingly calm atmosphere of the chorus, particularly the third time with smooth backing vocals from John Wesley, and the words which describe the ‘sullen and bored’ kids who are ‘stoned in the mall’ again, returning to the theme of teenage alienation.

Way Out Of Here

This song perfectly demonstrates two of Steven Wilson’s favourite and most successful vocal techniques. It begins with one of his most beautiful vocal lines, intimate, delicately poised between speech and melody, creating a great sense of empathy with the subject of the song, dreaming of escape. The chorus then changes focus completely with a full-voiced, almost epic delivery, to express the main character’s desperate need for escape, to find a way out of here’.

Sleep Together

The final song on the album remains one of Steven Wilson’s favourites, as shown by the fact that he played it on his huge tour to support the release of his 2017 solo album To the Bone. It appears on the Home Invasion: In Concert at the Royal Albert Hall live DVD released in 2018 (track 17). 

Generally, Steven Wilson unconsciously absorbs his musical influences but as he told Roy Povarchik of Alternative Zine ‘there is one exception, which is that I wanted the track Sleep Together to sound like Nine Inch Nails, with John Bonham [of Led Zeppelin] on drums, and produced by Massive Attack!’

So ends a classic album, with six very strong but very different tracks; you are in for a treat if you haven’t heard it before. And if you want more of the same, also try Nil Recurring, the companion EP of material recorded during the Fear of a Blank Planet Sessions.

See you next time.

Personnel

Steven Wilson: vocals, guitars, piano, keyboards 

Richard Barbieri: keyboards and synthesizers 

Colin Edwin: bass guitars 

Gavin Harrison: drums 

Alex Lifeson (Rush): guitar solo on ‘Anesthetize’ 

Robert Fripp (King Crimson): soundscapes on ‘Way Out of Here’ 

John Wesley: backing vocals 

London Session Orchestra: strings