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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Porcupine Tree

Fear of a Blank Planet

Review by Julie Knispel

Fear of a Blank Planet, Porcupine Tree’s third album on major label Atlantic Records, shows them refining their mix of progressive rock, pop and metal influences, adding in a few twists and new/old touches to keep their sound from becoming static. A conceptual album based around consumer culture and the dulling of senses in a society overrun with sensory stimuli, the album flows in a manner more consistent with the band’s earlier prog/space rock efforts than their more modern song-oriented efforts. All the traditional elements are there; Steven Wilson’s incisive lyrical pen, the tight rhythm section of Colin Edwin (bass) and Gavin Harrison (drums), tighter than they have ever sounded on record. Richard Barbieri’s mad scientist synthesizers continue to bubble along, adding texture and sound for sonic colouring rather than solo wankery. Much like he did on 2005’s Deadwing, SW has invited a few special guests on board to spice things up even further. Alex Lifeson (Rush) lays down a solo on the epic “Anesthetize,” which is instantly identifiable as his work; King Crimson founder Robert Fripp provided soundscapes on “Way Out of Here,” while long time collaborator/tour guitarist/tour vocalist John Wesley adds backing vocals throughout the release.

Several songs were recorded for this release but not included on the album; according to interviews Steven Wilson has recently taken part in, these tracks will be released separately later this year in EP format. Among these tracks is a piece titled “Nil Recurring,” which is said to feature Robert Fripp. Wilson states that the four unreleased tracks total approximately 20 minutes of material, and live tracks recorded for BBC radio may be added to this possible release to flesh it out some.

The re-introduction of more extended song structures, an emphasis on mood and tone over strict song based arrangements, and a willingness from the musicians to look back at Porcupine Tree’s work from the past while maintaining a firm foot in their current sound, have allowed Fear of a Blank Planet to refine what modern Porcupine Tree is to its purest state. This is as strong a statement of purpose as the band has ever given its listeners.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2007 Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Fear of a Black Planet
The album opens with its title track, a rumination on a life where reality is what’s seen on the TV screen, and all problems can be solved through the proper drug, be it prescribed or purchased on a street corner. Wilson name checks all the current buzz worthy topics in this track...X-Box, pornography, the omnipresent television, bipolar disorder, boredom despite more activities and stimulation than one can possibly ever become involved in...or perhaps because of. Stylistically the song feels very much like “Deadwing” without mimicking it; a quick acoustic guitar riff leads into a driving hard rock tour de force that doesn’t let up until the final notes die away.
My Ashes
“My Ashes” follows on, and drops the mood down significantly. Drawing heavily from Brett Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park, the song is told from the standpoint of a child who has lost everything, the ashes of his life and his parents’ lives cast down upon him, covering him in despair. Rejection, codependency and withdrawal are the themes that power the song, while synth and keyboard work from Wilson and Barbieri bring forth comparisons to “Revenant,” a “lost track” used as an opener for Deadwing tour concerts, and released on the DVD-A of that album. John Wesley’s high tenor backing vocals contribute poignancy to this somber track, while the slow strummed acoustic guitar chords add to the funereal atmosphere.
Anesthetize
Fear of a Blank Planet is split in two by the 17 minute epic “Anesthetize.” Broken into three untitled sections, the first two flow easily into each other, while the third often feels like a track all its own. Colin Edwin’s quick bass playing, high up on the neck, opens the track along with chimes and subdued synth pads, while Wilson’s lyrics seem much like a litany of things today’s disenfranchised youth hear on a daily basis; shut up...be happy...stop whining...don’t leave your baggage. The tempo picks up in the second “movement” (titled “The Pills In Me” as per a BBC radio session from April 2007), showing Porcupine Tree in perhaps their heaviest mode ever. This is the closest the band come to being a straight metal band, an influence that has grown with each successive album following Gavin Harrison’s entry to the band. The synth driven first movement is long gone, replaced by crunching guitars and four to the floor drumming. The final movement in “Anesthetize,” and the section which flows least well from the one preceding, is almost elegiac in tone, with some of Wilson’s most heart wrenching lyrics to date. This is a piece that could stand well all on its own as an individual song; while it doesn’t necessarily tie up the track, it’s a number that stands alongside tracks such as “Stop Swimming” and “Heart Attack in a Layby” as among the band’s most despairing compositions.
Sentimental
“Sentimental” opens in a manner consistent with the title; piano chords plug away while a drum loop sets the beat underneath. The narrator rejects age and aging; not so much “hope I die before I get old” as much as wishing away the days in a sort of Neverland inspired stupor. Piano and synth lines wind around each other intricately, and the composition as a whole has a somewhat fragile feeling to it. Through it all, themes are returned to; uncertainty, a feeling of a wasted life, boredom, wondering if what’s being felt is reality or brought on by chemicals.
Way Out of Here
These themes are continued on “Way Out Of Here,” with a focus on dreams of escape battling with anger. The narrator can no longer cope with the questions now that, for him, it’s too late. He’s closing down, shutting off all memories of the past, threatening to forget everything, just to stop feeling. It’s a powerful song, one which never fails to raise goose bumps, whether it’s Wilson’s emotional vocal delivery, or the intense arrangements, barely restrained before being released in a burst of chords and synth orchestration.
Sleep Together
Fear of a Blank Planet closes with “Sleep Together,” an enigmatic closer if ever there was one. Listening to the song, the lyrics can be interpreted in one of two ways:

1) The narrator has broken free of the expectations of society/his peer group, feeling that the only other choice would be to drown in the morass of a pressure cooker society.
2) The narrator has, in the words of Alex from A Clockwork Orange, “snuffed it.”

The reference above to A Clockwork Orange is an interesting one, actually; Anthony Burgess’ novel deals with many of the same themes, some 45 years earlier. It’s interesting to see the same themes returned to time and time again, in a cyclical nature - food for thought, perhaps. Bubbling synthesizers, orchestrated string arrangements courtesy of Dave Stewart (no idea if it’s Eurythmics Dave Stewart, National Health Dave Stewart, or another Dave Stewart), and arrangements that shift again from restraint to all out musical anarchy, close out the album on an incredibly intense note.

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