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Sunday 30 June 2019

Ranked & Rated: Porcupine Tree (Alex)

Ranked and Rated: Porcupine Tree

Porcupine Tree did not officially announce their decision to finish making music together. To this day, we see prog fans clamouring for a reunion. However, in the words of their esteemed frontman, Steven Wilson ‘I don’t go backward, I want to move forward. I’m proud of the catalogue: It exists, but it’s closed, finished.’ Although I can see this upsetting some, to me that’s a completely understandable position. Wilson has a solo project, Harrison has become notable for his work with The Pineapple Thief, and Edwin lends his guitar skills to projects from across the musical spectrum. Porcupine Tree made ten albums and have some excellent achievements outside of them. For the purposes of this article, I have chosen to focus solely on the studio releases.

Still, dig deeper and you find an even more experimental, tentative and enthused body of work. Voyage 34 is a beautiful and entrancing piece, proving essential for any lover of progressive music. Beyond that, I particularly recommend Staircase Infinities – a psychedelic B-side collection, Recordings – an assortment of unreleased acoustic tracks and the Stars Die compilation – a unified release which brings together the best pieces of the delirium years. So expansive are the multiple projects of Porcupine Tree, and indeed their members, that you could potentially get multiple articles out of them. For the purposes of this one though, let’s move on to the list

10. Signify (1996)

Laying at a weird crossroads in Porcupine Tree’s discography, Signify is aptly titled. With the psychedelic era in the past and with the determination to move the music in new, interesting directions, there’s an uncomfortable nature at the heart of their fourth album. We definitely see potential lurking here. The title track proves an exciting, if muted exploration into gnashing, forceful territory. The sleep of No Dreaming has a spacey, explorative feel, a foreshadowing of experiments to come. Sever remains gut-wrenchingly strange. Still, there persists a lingering sense that these are scraps of decent ideas, yet to be copiously realized. In a discography so sparsely flawed, execution matters. Incidentally, I do not find myself returning to this record often.

9. On The Sunday Of Life (1991)

Without a doubt, the debut is indeed odd. Charmingly so, one may add. Composed of material from absurdist EP’s Wilson created with early collaborator Malcolm Stocks, On the Sunday Of Life is one part parody and one part experimental. Jupiter Island and Linton Samuel Dawson show our frontman adopting a childlike squeal and taking a wild approach to effects, defying all principles of conventional songcrafting. Third Eye Surfer and Footprints are blatant nods to early Genesis and Floyd, while moments in the vein of Message from a Self-Destructing Turnip show early attempts at crafting elaborate concepts. Yet, aside from the incredible weirdness on display, there are hints of greatness peeking through. Radioactive Toy shows an initial effort to be emotional and blues-laden. The Nostalgia Factory has multiple layers and undulating synth textures, while Nine Cats is a fine acoustic piece with intriguing lyrical curiosities. Ultimately, the perplexing nature keeps me sporadically returning. Although far from flawless, a unique quality pervades here

8. The Incident (2009)

Before I justify the list position, let me add that I like the Incident a lot. A concept album, the larger part is composed entirely of a 55-minute song split into fourteen separate movements. Underpinning the record is the idea of ‘incidents’ as a sterile, dehumanising term for destruction or trauma. Based on real events, all the sections are told from the perspective of one or more characters encountering their own ‘incident’, be that a strained relationship, a brush with death, or the pressures of aging. Understandably, the accessibility may come as a surprise. While you can find plenty of intensity on Occam's Razor and The Blind House, Drawing a Line and Great Expectations would not seem out of place on our frontman's pop-orientated works. Indeed, in keeping with his expertise, Time Flies, Kneel and Disconnect and Your Unpleasant Family are wistfully thoughtful. Problematically, however, there are few distinguishable features to be found. Every preceding studio release had a unique identity and sphere of influence, while this one sees them conforming to a trademark template of how they ‘should’ sound. Steven Wilson knew this as well. A few years later he would disband Porcupine Tree and focus his eyes on his solo career. A decision which, despite risky, proved to be fruitful.

7. Stupid Dream (1999)

Taking a massive leap away from the worlds of Psychedelic Prog, and upsetting a few devotees in the process, Stupid Dream’s positive reputation has certainly outweighed any initial controversy. Unencumbered by overly complex instrumentals and massive compositions, here’s an attempt at candid songcrafting. There are definite nods to ‘creative mainstream’ acts in the vein of early Radiohead, and R.E.M, while still being unique. Openers, Even Less and Piano Lessons are outstanding, the potent interplay between Edwin’s guitars and Barbieri’s keys proving incredibly uplifting. Meanwhile, lyrics are sharp-witted, being given a chance to stand out, perhaps for the first time. Luscious contrasts between quiet and loud weave their way throughout, particularly prominent on Pure Narcotic and This is No Rehearsal, where subtle dynamic flourishes are allowed to blossom. My issues with these experiments derive from foresight. Many of the ideas seen here would be executed in more emotive, enticing and fascinating ways on future albums. Slave Called Shiver and Tinto Brass are clear examples of decent songs, whose ideas of bringing together accessibility and strangeness, would later be refined to perfection. Look no further than Don’t Hate Me, a deeply emotional piece, which would later appear in a reworked form on Steven Wilson’s 4½ EP, proving how our songwriter has honed his craft. To clarify, was Stupid Dream a vital album for exploring new sonic concepts? Of course. Were these notions sharpened and enhanced later? Absolutely.

6. Up The Downstair (1993)

Perhaps the most unexpected view I discovered in my listening stage, was liking Up the Downstair so much. Don’t misunderstand, I’ve heard these four compositions before yet never granted them the patience they deserve. Spellbindingly frolicking with different synth and guitar palates, the pieces here are hypnotically beautiful. ‘What you're listening to are musicians, performing psychedelic music under the influence of a mind-altering chemical called…’ sounds the opening monologue. From there, an outlandish yet detailed wave of diverse instrumental loops, effects, and flourishes flows from your device to your mind fuzz, entering you into a trancelike state as you undertake a diverse exploration of everything dark, enchanting and dreamlike. Contributing to the allure, every song was composed and performed by Wilson. Unlike On the Sunday of Life, the album discards of superfluous, paradoxical and inane aspects, while keeping intact the puzzling and abstract qualities. Do not make the same mistake I did, in relegating Porcupine Tree’s second album to the archives of your memory. Although not quite the greatest album from the psychedelic era, the work stands as proof of the importance of experimentation.

5. Deadwing (2005)

Originally intended as the soundtrack for a ghost movie – an idea which was later killed off, and only now faces the possibility of being resurrected - Deadwing occupies a distinctive place in the Porcupine Tree canon. Characters are vaguely alluded to, and there is a skeleton of a narrative distinguishable. Even so, ambiguity aids in cultivating a sense of mystery. With such elusiveness surrounding the story, the music takes on an altered identity for each listen. Look to Lazarus, where gorgeous piano arpeggios and subtle poetry, never fail to provoke a tearful response. Arriving Somewhere but not Here takes on a restless wanderlust, summoning visions of one running from their past, forcing you to reflect on all the times when you have ended up in the same state as before - ‘drinking down their poison the way you were taught’. Aside from the live staples, there’s lots of darkness and tension. A subtle reverb effect and dissonant synths open Deadwing, creating a frightening atmosphere, before slowing to a haunting dirge, the strange effects, and overall aura, complementing the ethereal motif. Halo and Mellotron Scratch prove mellow yet unsettling, artistic instrumentation and eerie lyrics creating entrancing friction. Meanwhile, moments in the vein of Open Car and Glass Arm Shattering have a schizophrenic, unsettled composition – furthering a ghostly aesthetic. Rumours of a film project resurfaced a few months ago. I hope that any visual accompaniment which does emerge can live up to the atmosphere and personality fashioned by the album.

4. Lightbulb Sun (2000)

Lightbulb Sun was Porcupine Tree’s first real attempt at bridging the divide between accessible songwriting and progressive complexity. In doing so they ushered in a new era for themselves and created one of their finest albums. From the gorgeous interplay between acoustic and electric instrumentals on The Rest Will Flow and Where Would We Be, to the sardonic sarcasm which drips from Four Chords that Made a Million, there’s an earnestness prevalent. Shesmovedon is perhaps the most renowned anthem here. Indeed, the subtle eeriness of the memorable melodies would soon become fundamental. Even in taking on cherished tactics such as adopting a carnival-esque style on How Is Your Life Today?, or playing with folk influences on Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before its Recycled, there’s a charming quality. Whatsmore, the two long-burners here are excellent. Hatesong shows our narrator's anger growing, as the piece escalates in intensity, making the mind stir. Later, Russia on Ice beguiles with a gentle yet elegant progression, the strings and keyboards contributing to an overall sense of outpouring. Strangely, the album allows me relaxation, nurturing my occasional need to hide, allowing the curtains to stay closed ‘on my little retreat’

3. The Sky Moves Sideways (1995)

Finishing the psychedelic era with a truly astonishing work of art, The Sky Moves Sideways is intriguing. Vitally, we see a large step up in both compositional maturity and sound quality. Admittedly, part of that can be attributed to the presence of a four-piece, featuring Colin Edwin on Bass, Chris Maitland on drums and Richard Barbieri on Keyboards. Even so, given the gorgeous ebbs and flows, the fuller, richer quality is certainly needed. Beginning with ambient textures, The Sky Moves Sideways Phase 1 takes us through moments of mesmerising melancholy, blissful bewilderment and chaotic cunning. I could liken the opener to a tidal wave or hurricane - sometimes slowing, often quickening, and never once ceasing a capricious course. Dislocated Day continues with ominous guitar/bass descants, and an equally menacing lyrical palate, seeing our frontman whisper ‘I will find a way to make you say, the name of your forgiver’.

The Moon Touches Your Shoulder begins a contemplative moment, the slight discrepancies in tone allow the mood to sway from peaceful to saddened, persuading the listener's emotions and sparking ideas which would continue to influence Wilsons songcrafting. Following a dark interlude simply titled, Prepare Yourself we move into The Sky Moves Sideways Phase 2, where the transitions are even more natural, the melodies more magnificent, and the progressions more dramatic. Carried entirely by the power of the instrumentals, the closer ties together the threads introduced on the opener and makes the album feel like an experience. Distinct from both of the preceding releases, there a lot of unity between all the different ideas and notes, allowing them to come together into one cohesive epic, solidifying Porcupine Tree’s place in progressive music. Perhaps testament to their bravery, they continued to evolve past Floyd-esque psychedelia

2. In Absentia (2002)

‘A mother sings a lullaby to her child, sometime in the future the boy goes wild’ opens Blackest Eyes. Although not a concept album, there are dependable ideas present relating to the loss of innocence, regret, and sociopaths. One interpretation is that these songs are about the dangers of disenchantment. In keeping with the depressive themes, the music takes on surreal textures, seeming beautiful yet otherworldly. Marking the one and only lineup change for Porcupine Tree, Gavin Harrison took over drumming duties here, his signature grace and presence fostering a tauter sound. Trains acts as a pensive acoustic song, the familiar metaphor taking on poignancy as our narrator reflects on how fast the summers of his youth passed. Gravity Eyelids is a shiver-inducing piece, which despite sweet on the surface, has a haunting backstory. ‘If I left the stage would that be wrong?’ a character asks on Prodigal, confronting the fleeting nature of life against a warm and comforting melody. Heartattack in a Layby introduces us to an unnamed commuter, who we meet on their journey home, after deciding to apologise to a loved one – the title of the song illuminates the reason for the mournful harmonies and fraught instrumentals.

Occasionally, the fictionalised elements are drawn back and we see glimpses of our songwriter’s anxieties and obsessions. The Sound Of Muzak paints a dystopian image of a future in which creativity has become irrelevant, the infectious nature of the anthem becoming insatiably acerbic. Even the Creator Had a Masterpiece, seems widely focussed on the maddening way being imaginative can lead one down a path of fixation. Consciously, In Absentia is made to be an uncomfortable listen. By placing you in the minds of people whose thought processes you might not desire to occupy, you are compelled to find relatability in the strangest of places. Through the enchanting yet scathing playing, a nervy sensation prevails, startling the listener while compelling them to fascination.

1. Fear Of A Blank Planet (2007)

Truly immersive, Fear of a Blank Planet was a piece designed to be experienced as a continuous whole. Dealing with concepts of social isolation and allowing every song to flow perfectly into one another, everything reverberates with a sorrowful poignancy, so that by the end the listener is left reflective yet shaken. ‘Sunlight coming through the haze’ sounds the first line as we experience a dissection of our (protagonists?) thought processes and fears. Reality blurs into imagination as the guitar tones and rhythms take on a gnashing yet apocalyptic feel. We fade into My Ashes where the melancholic acoustics compliment the lasting sway of the violins, providing the perfect soundtrack to escapism. Anesthetize, from the sombre harmonies in the bridge to the anger in the finish, stands as Porcupine Tree’s most elegant long burn. Every instrument states a case, notably Harrison’s drums, and Edwin’s bass, without which the tension and unexpectedness which carries the song, would not be present. Subtle trappings and embellishments worm their way throughout and you notice yet more upon every listen.

Meanwhile, an ever so gradual evolution forces you to feel every hint of doubt and insecurity which plagues our narrator. Soon, all the subtle detail melts into a pretty piano ballad titled Sentimental, where instrumental intricacies are discarded of and we are granted a sympathetic look at one dealing with all the stresses and traumas of moving forward in life. Each line proves meaningful, yet vague enough to keep you guessing, such is the case with Way out of Here, which often allows personal release and pouring, in spite of the ominous overtones. We finish on Sleep Together: a ferocious development distinguishes the piece, bringing the album to a vivacious close, as the chief character is confronted with a choice between soldering on, or retreating from the world. Central to the beauty of the entire experience is the ambiguity, allowing us to apply the concepts to our own blank canvas. Through the mediums we use, we portray an image of ourselves, yet we’ve all felt the need to retreat, to hide away, to find a way out. ‘And in this way, we wish away each day’

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