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.

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