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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Porcupine Tree

The Incident

Review by Julie Knispel

Porcupine Tree has been riding a pretty significant wave since signing their first major label contract with Atlantic.  While long time fans may have been disappointed with the huge shift in style from more ambient driven material to songs informed as much by bands like Opeth and the like, Porcupine Tree’s material has remained as strong and consistent as ever.  As time has progressed Steven Wilson has found ways to merge those two seemingly incompatible musical styles in seamless ways.  The Incident may well be the pinnacle of this journey to date.

A thematically centered album, The Incident features some of the band’s heaviest playing as well as some of their most fragile, precious arrangements.  Moments evoke Pink Floyd, Crosby Stills and Nash and the Beach Boys, while other sections remind listeners of bands like Opeth or Enslaved.  Throughout it all, the four members of Porcupine Tree offer up continued evidence that they are writing and performing at the peak of their capabilities; their playing has never been tighter on record, and memorable hooks and melodies are the standard, not the exception.  While the 14 tracks on the first disc of this release are tied together, many of them can stand alone without the support of the pieces that surround them.  At the same time, this is not a Kid A-like exploration…there are compositions here that only make sense in the context of the album as a whole.

I did mention first disc above; much like the band’s previous album, there are a number of tracks completed that did not fit the general theme or concept of the release.  Unlike Fear of a Blank Planet, however, this time those separate tracks were released with The Incident, on a second disc that was included in the package.  There can be no accusation out of the box of forcing a double dip, as all the material is there and available from the date of release.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2009  Volume 6 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Disc 1
Occam’s Razor

The Incident opens instrumentally with “Occam’s Razor.”  The track features a series of slashing guitar chords, gradually and subtly developing from variation to variation.

The Blind House

“The Blind House” is a great example of shade and light in Porcupine Tree’s music as lighter vocal sections, filled with lush harmonies, alternate with heavy, grinding, metallic phrases.  Richard Barbieri’s synths and keyboards add swaths of colour and texture during the quieter sections, while Gavin Harrison and Colin Edwin lock in impressively throughout, showing once again that they are perhaps the most impressive rhythm section in modern progressive music.

Great Expectations

A pair of shorter tracks follow “The Blind House.”  The first of these, “Great Expectations,” opens with a quiet acoustic section before the full band kicks in with an ascending musical motif that seems to remind in some ways of “Even Less,” more out of arrangement than from copying.  Steven Wilson’s vocals are plaintive and pained, while his guitar playing wails and cries.

Kneel and Disconnect

“Kneel and Disconnect” crawls out from the final ascending pattern from the pervious track, and Barbieri’s piano playing is simple, understated, and matches Wilson’s more restrained vocal delivery perfectly.  We are again greeted by trademark lush vocal harmonies, and their presence throughout points toward artists like the Beach Boys and Crosby Stills and Nash as influences.

Drawing the Line

The piano theme from “Kneel and Disconnect” flows into this, the fifth track on The Incident.  Opening fairly quietly, synths and a gentle drum rhythm create a quiet backing for Wilson’s vocals.  When the band kicks in, a huge hook and loads of energy propel things along.  This track has gotten some of the more negative attention from fans and listeners,  feeling it was a blatant grab for pop attention.  Yes, the hook is huge and blatant.  Yes, the repeated “I’m drawing the line, I’m drawing the line, I’m drawing the line, I draw the line” lyrics, present throughout, seem less deep than one might expect.  But this is not the first time Porcupine Tree has crafted a track that has definite pop aspirations; “Halo,” “Blackest Eyes,” "Four Chords That Made a Million” and “Piano Lessons,” among others, are every bit as pure pop.

The Incident

“The Séance” is a strange mix of heavier Porcupine Tree and their earlier electronic style of music.  Everything possible has been processed, tweaked, sampled and altered.  A heavy grinding guitar part fits together with synths and processed rhythm loops.  Harmony vocals alternate with Wilson’s patented ‘voice down a phone wire’ vocal effects.  This is what the Porcupine Tree of 1993 would have sounded like had Wilson been listening to more metal at the time.

Your Unpleasant Family

This piece, much like “Great Expectations,” seems to serve as a bridging piece joining more major compositions.  A fairly mid-tempo rocker, it is still filled with the kind of lush arrangements that are expected from the band.

The Yellow Windows of the Evening Train

Yet another bridging piece, this time with plenty of spacey synths courtesy of Richard Barbieri, this is a nice, albeit far too brief nod to the fans who have been listening to the band since the early days, when Porcupine Tree seemed as much a space rock and ambient band as anything else.

Time Flies

“Tine Flies” was the advance single released from this album, and while that excerpt was pleasant and enjoyable, it didn’t come close to showing the breadth and depth of this piece.  Easily the longest composition on The Incident at 11:40, the piece seems to be a paean to the past.  Wilson’s opening lines, “I was born in ’67, the year of Sergeant Pepper and Are You Experienced?” is as autobiographical as it is symbolic.  For music fans, 1967 was the year everything changed, with bands arising from the Summer of Love and taking rock music in all kinds of new directions.  Wilson’s vocals and lyrics are wistful and longing, a sense of sadness pervading everything.  And yes, the music is a complete homage to Pink Floyd, from the “Dogs”-like chords to the explosive bits that would feel right at home on “Sheep.”  It all fits together seamlessly, creating a piece that is at once reminiscent of the past while being fresh and new.

Degree Zero of Liberty

After the symphonic intensity of “Time Flies,” a musical palate rinsing is necessary before the listener can move on.  This comes in the form of “Occam’s Razor”…oops, I mean “Degree Zero of Liberty.”  Offering a few variations on the initial themes that opened the album, this second iteration sets the stage for the four pieces that close out the album, re-centering attention on the present.

Octane Twisted

While modern Porcupine Tree draws as much from modern and extreme metal as it does space rock and progressive music, every album has featured a number of tracks that ramp back the sheer non-stop excess and show a firm grasp on dynamic, mood and tone.  “Octane Twisted” is one of those tracks, with a slow, bubbling beat, layers of vocals (sometimes with alternating lyrical lines singing against each other), and shifts in style and tempo.  The opening two minutes lead into a much heavier iteration of the theme, with crunchy rhythm guitar setting the pace.  This composition features perhaps the widest divergence of style on the album, with the quiet moments being among the more subtle and the heavy moments rivaling anything in the band’s catalogue.

The Séance

“The Séance” features a similar musical theme to the previous “Octane Twisted,” offering perhaps an inversion on the styles and arrangements of the pervious track.  Vocals are tighter and simpler, relying more on harmony than dissonance and competing lines.  The musical backing is more restrained as well, with guitars practically chiming over synth backing.  As this piece moves toward its end, intensity starts to build, setting the stage for something heavy to follow.

Circle of Manias

The final instrumental on The Incident, “Circle of Manias” is a heavy little slab of metal that seems to be cast from the same kind of mould as songs like “Nil Recurring” or “Mother and Child Divided.”  It grinds, it pounds, it practically snarls out of the speakers.

I Drive the Hearse

Porcupine Tree has a habit of closing out albums with a quiet, wistful piece of music.  In Absentia had “Collapse the Light Into Earth,” Deadwing had “Glass Arm Shattering,” and The Incident has this lovely piece of music.  I can’t say enough about this song; while “Time Flies” may well be the album centerpiece, this song may be the most impressive on the album.  Vocal harmonies are right out of the CSN songbook, Barbieri’s synths are perfect in sound and execution, and Edwin and Harrison show off some sensitive, precise playing that fits the music like a second skin.  Wilson’s vocals are at their most fragile, and his guitar playing is gentle and lulling.

Disc 2
Flicker
The first of four semi-bonus tracks, “Flicker” offers up a bevy of synth riches.  In some ways this feels like a track that would have been right at home on an album like Lightbulb Sun, with a morose tone and more restrained style that is reminiscent of the pieces from that release.  Wilson’s guitar solo at the 2:30 mark even has a bit of a blues feel to it.  “Flicker” is PT exploring their 1970’s influences openly and without second thought.
Bonnie the Cat

This is an interesting piece of music, built around what sounds like a drum/bass loop (though it is likely actually played live).  Vocals have a chopped, processed delivery, occasionally obscured in the mix.  Overall, “Bonnie the Cat” is a strange bit of music that really doesn’t sound like anything else the band has done.

Black Dahlia

Co-written by Richard Barbieri and Steven Wilson, “Black Dahlia” as expected focused on Barbieri’s synth and keyboard playing.  A gentle piece, this song is, much like “Flicker,” a composition that would have fit nicely on the band’s middle period releases Lightbulb Sun or Stupid Dream.

Remember Me Lover
Steven Wilson doesn’t write love songs, so a title like “Remember Me Lover” has to be taken with a grain of salt…or the understanding that what he’s asking to be remembered for isn’t something positive.  Wilson’s lyrics are filled with vitriol and cutting sarcasm, and so it’s odd to hear them delivered gently against a quiet musical backing of pulsing bass and synthesizers.  It doesn’t remain thus for the whole song, of course; about 6 minutes in the mood changes in an almost bipolar fashion as the band kicks into full metal mode.
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