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A step (back) in the right direction...
on 5 October 2009
As a long-time fan of Porcupine Tree (and other Steven Wilson side projects) I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the Tree's more recent 'progression' (most notably the heavier sound that became more prevalent from Lightbulb Sun onward). Porcupine Tree fans tend to fall into two broad camps: those that prefer the older, more Floydian and trippy vibe of their early-to-mid period or those who welcomed and have enjoyed their move into heavier rock territory. I fall squarely into the former category and - I am delighted to report - it looks like my patience has paid off (at least in part, which I will come to shortly).
Don't get me wrong; PT never fully 'lost the musical plot' with their last few albums: there are fantastic and transcendent cuts of elegiac power to be found on their more recent offerings ('Arriving Somewhere But Not Here' & 'My Ashes' for example) but sometimes these gems were marooned in a sea of more harsh material and I found they suffered as a result. Hence I have long been waiting (well 'hoping' actually) for an album that would go back to their old 'formula' of perhaps more simplistic yet ultimately more rewarding longer musical excursions. Which finally brings me to my specific thoughts on this album (phew!):
Let me firstly start with the negative by saying that the song-cycle 'The Incident' (which constitutes all of CD1) didn't work for me as a concept. Although it does contain a musical refrain that is revisited and that anchors the piece together it is not strong enough to link the different passages thematically; in fact some of these tracks would not sound out of place if placed in an entirely different context (as they do not rely on each other to 'work' in my opinion). In other words this seemed to me a bit of a hotchpotch of songs that may - I'm guessing here - have been massaged into a concept album retrospectively as it were (i.e. merge the songs, add the musical motif here and there etc). The songs are of variable quality and, yes, they do feature a hard rock/metal sensibility at times but there are nevertheless two quite outstanding tracks among the 'concept' that demand particular attention. The first is the track 'Time Flies' which on first listen actually made me laugh out loud! Why? Well, it is such a shameless and affectionate homage to Pink Floyd that I could scarcely believe PT's brass neck. As soon as the first couple of bars were underway I thought 'mmm...this sounds like Gilmour's urgent, staccato riff in 'Dogs'. Later we are treated to the deep reverberating guitar sound as heard in 'Time' from Dark Side Of The Moon. And to top it off Wilson then uses the almost exact sound (possibly even some of the same chords) that Gilmour employs in the sublime coda/outro at the end of 'Sheep'. What stops all this from being a very clever pastiche is the fact that 'Time Flies' is a superb song that stands up on its own merits and - for me - is possibly 'the' stand-out track of the album: a fully-realised mini-concept within a beautifully executed song. The other notable song of CD1 is the final track 'I Drive The Hearse'. Again this may not please those that like PT at their heaviest but for those that Love Wilson's bleak-yet-tuneful Blackfield work you'll feel right at home here: lyrically and emotionally this is very moving stuff indeed.
Now to CD2 i.e. the CD that is NOT part of the song-cycle. Although only four tracks in length I actually found this to be the better of the two discs and - ironically - I felt all these tracks stood together in a way that the first CD doesn't. The first track `Flicker' has a slow and sinuous feel that put me in mind of 'Spirit Of Eden'period Talk Talk (high praise indeed). Somewhat formless and with no real progression (and all the better for it) it successfully evokes that indistinct PT 'mood' that they do so well. 'Bonnie the Cat' is heavier fare which sets the tone superbly for possibly the highlight of the album namely 'Black Dahlia' which then segues beautifully into the final track 'Remember Me Lover'. These two tracks typify a lot of what I look for in Porcupine Tree's music: powerful yet melancholic (sometimes desperately sad) music that stirs an indefinable sense of loss and wonder in the listener (perhaps best examples of this might be 'Fadeaway' or 'Dark Matter). Now THIS is what I'm talkin' about!
In conclusion, this is not the rumoured return to their previous sound that many might have hoped for. Uneven though it maybe it nonetheless has brilliance in parts that harkens back to former glories. Older fans may as well get used to it: the 'Sky Moves Sideways' days are gone - and what's more most fans seem to prefer the newer PT incarnation anyway. This album has pulled off the trick of managing to straddle the two styles with grace though and, although I'll always prefer their dreamier, psychedelic side, I now find myself more amenable to their increasingly contemporary sound. Hell, I may even learn to love it one day! 'Three stars' for now then (due to the unconvincing 'concept' and a few below-par tracks) but this has potential to be upgraded to four in time. Here's looking forward to the next chapter in Steven Wilson's (and PT's) intriguing musical odyssey...