The members of Porcupine Tree, from left to right: Colin Edwin (Double/Bass)), Steven Wilson (Guitar, Vocals, Songwriter), Gavin Harrison (Drums, Percussion), Richard Barbieri (Synth, Keyboard)
Alrighty, now that summer is here (not that you’d know it looking at the weather these past few weeks) and school is out, I can finally get back to writing. Although the idea that not being in school meaning I would have more free time has largely been disproved at this point. It has been way too long since I’ve written a post. Good to be back. If you’re looking for a short read, you might be disappointed…hard to stay short if you’re covering a band with as rich a history as these guys.
I restart this by going back to visit my favourite rock genre; progressive rock. And who better to best represent it than my other favourite band out there, Porcupine Tree. Between these guys and Muse, I don’t even know what to say. I tried to pick a favourite, I really did, but it didn’t seem fair by any means. In any case, these guys originate (or guy, if we want to be accurate, as you’ll see further in) from Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, in England. Yet another town I know relatively little about, and sure as hell couldn’t point it out on a map. Not that that really matters in this case.
It’s hard to figure out where to even begin with these guys, considering the immense history behind them. They definitely aren’t new by any means, having formed in 1987, although the conditions surrounding the formation were somewhat less serious than their current ambitions. The original motive behind the band’s formation was for it to be a hoax, put together by future frontman Steven Wilson and Malcolm Stocks (couldn’t tell you who Stocks is, other than he was a bit player in the group’s original productions). They actually invented band members and quite the backstory for the band, including how they met at a UK rock festival in the 70’s and some details surrounding multiple trips into and out of prison. The idea was merely that, an idea, until Wilson saved up enough money and purchased equipment so he could record material under the guise of his fictional band so that there would be proof that the band actually existed. He produced an 80 minute cassette, titled “Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm,” and sent it out to a few people he thought would be interested in hearing it. One of them was a writer for a UK based underground-ish magazine, Encylopaedia Psychedelica (about psychedelic rock, to no surprise), by the name of Richard Allen, a man who would give a mostly positive review of the music, and with that, set in motion the beginnings of a real incarnation of the band.
During that time Stocks moved on to other activities (it was a mutual thing, nothing nasty went down), making Porcupine Tree a solo project. Wilson’s first album, On the Sunday of Life, released under the newly founded Delerium label (founded in part by Allen) in 1991, was a compilation of the best of his previous work from two cassettes Wilson had previously put out. Wilson’s second album, Up the Downstair (1993), had tracks which featured Richard Barbieri and Colin Edwin which, if you note from above, would soon become permanent band members. Their third albim, The Sky Moves Sideways (1995) would mark the point at which the band became a live unit, and added Chris Maitland on drums. It would prove to be their biggest step forward yet, winning the hearts of progressive rock fans across the board. In fact, the album was so well received that the group was called (by one unknown writer) “The Pink Floyd of the nineties.” However, this album would fail to fill the band’s appetite for a full-on band recording, due to the half solo-project nature of Sky. As such, 1996 would see the release of Signify, which featred the first serious iteration of Porcupine Tree. Signify would be the last album to be released on Delerium, marking what the band would call “The end of the Delerium years,” as they felt the label did not have the necessary resources to take them further than they already were.
Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree during a performance. I don’t touch on this in the article, but these guys are really wicked to see live. I haven’t myself, but the concert footage is something else. Definitely on the forefront of my bucket list of acts to see live.
Now, I’m personally not too much of a fan of their seriously earlier work (probably because there’s too much psychedelic rock influence involved in their song production, and that’s not exactly a favourite when it comes the genres), but I don’t think I’d be very objective to leave it out. So here’s my first track to listen, my favourite of the album (possibly because it is more formally structured, the least ambient sounding on the album, and not 16 minutes in length), “Moon Touches Your Shoulder” from The Sky Moves Sideways. It’s a nice ballad-sounding piece (I think) which builds over time, culminating with a typical 90’s guitar solo (I find it hard to describe, but if you know what I’m talking about, then kudos, you probably know more than I do haha) and a kind of ad-libitum-ish piano solo.
Moon Touches Your Shoulder (The Sky Moves Sideways)
Stupid Dream would be their fifth studio album, their first on the Snapper/K-Scope label, and was released in 1999. Citing influences ranging from The Beach Boys (specifically Pet Sounds) to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, this would also mark the band’s foray into being more “song-oriented,” which I can only assume meant shying away from the more experimental/psychedelic soundscapes they had previously been involved with. I guess my tastes aren’t so experimental either, as this would be the first album in a series (chronologically speaking in terms of release date, not the first time I heard it) that I would consider to be, overall, quite good. Notable songs include Even Less (very 90’s-esque), Pure Narcotic (interesting because it was recorded without drums), and Slave Called Shiver (a solid prog rock song, something which I think would prove to be influential for their future material). There’s also some significant flute contribution throughout the album, the contributor of which I know not. This would be followed quite quickly by another release, Lightbulb Sun, in 2000. Not to say that there was anything wrong with Lightbulb Sun, but I just never really go into it. Nothing really “jumped out at me,” as it were. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good album, but I think it pales for me in comparison to Stupid Dream.
Am I going overboard on this article? Probably. Same perhaps with the song linkage. But you know, never too much of a good thing, right? So here’s the previously mentioned Even Less, Pure Narcotic, and Slave Called Shiver from Stupid Dream.
Slave Called Shiver
Following the slate of touring the band did after Lightbulb Sun (including being the supporting act for Dream Theatre on one of their major tours), they joined up with Lava/Atlantic Records for their first international record deal. It would also result in the band’s first line-up change (for unrelated reasons), seeing the departure of Maitland on drums and having him replaced with Gavin Harrison, a long-time acquaintance of the band, and a better drummer in my opinion. I mean, Maitland was good, but Harrison is fucking amazing. And it was at this point that I think Porcupine Tree really transitioned into a more purely progressive rock group (albeit with some metal influences, a la Dream Theatre). 2002 saw the release of In Absentia, the first album I would ever hear by the group, and the one that made me fall in love with them oh so much. I could go into significant detail regarding how excellent this album is, but you’re better off just listening to it yourself in my opinion. 2005’s Deadwing would mark their 7th studio album, and would also be another great album, although I believe In Absentia to edge it out for the win. More prog rock goodness nonetheless, and that’s why I keep coming back.
In trying to decide what songs to post, I run into a real difficulty not posting both albums in their entirety. While I can never truly capture the wonder that is both of these albums, I can at least attempt to, and I hope I’m at least somewhat successful in this attempt. Songs are Blackest Eyes, Trains, Deadwing, and Mellotron Scratch.
Blackest Eyes (In Absentia)
Trains (In Abesntia)
Mellotron Scratch (Deadwing)
Cue yet another label switch, as following the release of Deadwing, the band would join Roadrunner Records in the UK. Album #8 would be Fear of a Blank Planet, consisting of only 6 tracks, but still managing a run time of 50:52, and featuring a lengthy (slightly short of 19 minutes) but very captivating song by the name of “Anesthetize.” They would continue to delve into progressive rock, but this album featured more of a metal presence than previous ones if you ask me. Not that there’s anything wrong with that /Seinfeld. But seriously, they pull it off so well, and in a fashion that far exceeds Dream Theatre’s. Not to knock them, but Porcupine Tree has something that Dream Theatre lacks. As to what that might be is anyone’s guess, but I’m thinking it’s the right blend of metal and prog for my taste. The album title track, Fear of a Blank Planet, is also another noteworthy song from the album.
2009 saw their 9th album, with the release of The Incident. The album plays not so much like several individual tracks, but as one continuous song. The transitions are actually quite well done if you ask me, and the album even includes some full circle elements. They’re telling a freaking story, and it’s this kind of conceptual stuff that blows me away. Albums like this are not just something to listen to and be done with. The album is an experience, a journey you go through by listening to it; it’s quite the amazing song cycle. If you get a chance, listen to the entire thing, because the individual tracks don’t do it justice. People have sewn together compilations (in parts of course) so you can get as full an experience as possible of a full album playthrough.
Fear of a Blank Planet (Fear of a Blank Planet)
Way Out of Here (Fear of a Blank Planet)
The Blind House (The Incident)
Drawing The Line (The Incident)
So hopefully this is a (probably thorough) overview of the progression of their sound over the years. Not too much in the way of exciting things have happened, I mean, hell, they’ve had one member change in the 19 odd years of performing. Looking at where progressive rock fits in the music spectrum, the way the music industry lies as far as radio promotion goes sort of leaves it out in the cold. Not quite metal, not quite pop-rock (well, nowhere near pop-rock if you ask me), and not quite mainstream enough for your typical rock radio station to play it. Of course, this is in addition to the overall lack of radio friendly singles. When you consider the track average is 6:19 in length, compared to the average of the other stuff you hear on the radio (can’t say I know what that average is, but I’m guessing the range is 3-5 minutes), you can see why they probably don’t get any radio play over. Only two songs that I know of that go over 6 minutes that I’ve heard on the radio come from classic rock, and that’s been Free Bird and Stairway to Heaven. It’s unfortunate, because these guys deserve way more recognition than they get, at least over here. Having said that, I do applaud them for not bowing down to conformity and making a radio edit. Then again, their songs vary so much within that you really can’t cut a portion of a song without compromising it, and for that I applaud them.
But yes, that is Porcupine Tree. To think that I was also going to go on about Wilson’s recent solo project in this post as well. Ha. That’s definitely an album worthy of its own post. I’ll leave that for future occasions.
P.S. Broke 2000 words. Which is a lot. Holy fuck.