At this point, you know what you’re going to get from Porcupine Tree. They’ve been around for over 15 years and have evolved quite a bit over time. But things haven’t changed too much for the band since 2003’s In Absentia, which was the first album to add strong heavy metal influences to their Pink Floyd-meets-Britpop take on progressive rock. Frontman/mastermind Steven Wilson is one of those always-working musicians, with his hands in numerous side projects, including the release of his first proper solo album earlier this year. With his musical interests divided, Porcupine Tree have become somewhat predictable.
Which isn’t to say The Incident is bad. By no means. This is yet another high-quality release from the band, which remain at or at least very near the top of their game. There are moments of pristine beauty here, as well as singalong pop songs and punishingly heavy passages. But the album’s main conceit, that the title track is a single 55-minute work, seems to be mostly hype. Porcupine Tree’s new home is Roadrunner Records, a label which knows the audience they’re marketing to and understands that the idea of one super-long song is an attractive one to the band’s hardcore fanbase. In reality, The Incident is a loosely connected concept piece that is comprised of 14 separate tracks.
The band’s last release, 2007’s Fear of a Blank Planet, was a similarly loose concept album, concerned mostly with disaffected teenagers and how video game and internet culture facilitates that attitude. The Incident was inspired when Wilson was stuck in a traffic jam and noticed caution tape that read “POLICE-INCIDENT” around an accident: “Afterwards, it struck me that ‘incident’ is a very detached word for something so destructive and traumatic for the people involved.” Afterwards, he began to write songs based around that and other headline-making “incidents” and put them together here. But “The Incident” is much more succinct than its predecessor, which only contained seven tracks. Only the first single, “Time Flies”, goes above the eight-minute mark here, and the album as a whole contains 18 songs in about 75 minutes. The final four songs, however, appear on a separate disc to emphasize that they are not related to the main concept.
Besides being the lead single, “Time Flies” is also one of the highlights of the disc. It’s essentially a bright-sounding, catchy rock song that chugs along for four minutes before backing off into a minor key section dominated by a simple acoustic guitar riff and Gavin Harrison’s ace drumming. But flashes of distorted guitar crop up here and there until the song slides into an epic, creepy solo before hitting the bridge and returning to the original catchy song for a very satisfying conclusion. Elsewhere on the album, the beautiful piano ballad “Kneel and Disconnect” utilizes layered vocal harmonies and flows smoothly into “Drawing the Line”. This track at first seems like a slightly darker, more percussive followup to the previous song, but when it hits the chorus 90 seconds in, it becomes the album’s most effective combination of melody and urgency. In a desperate tone of voice, Wilson sings “I’m drawing the line / I have my pride / I’m taking control / And I save my soul / I’m shutting you out / And I have no doubt” over a tense repeated guitar note.
The album opens with a crashing guitar chord repeated three times on “Occam’s Razor”. It’s bracing and heavy, and it becomes even more effective when this theme returns later on in “Degree Zero of Liberty”, which kicks off the album’s most guitar-dominated section. “Octane Twisted” follows, starting off quiet and spare, but with menacing undertones as Wilson sings about flowing blood. The song then explodes into a pair of alternating guitar riffs for the duration. One is a balls-out heavy metal riff driven by Harrison’s pounding drums, the other is noisy and tense but with more space, thanks to Harrison switching to his cymbals and staying away from the toms. After a short break on the quieter “The Seance”, “Circle of Manias” bursts out with another two minutes and twenty seconds of heavy riffing. The relatively short length keeps this track from getting repetitive, showing that the band has learned from past mistakes (In Absentia’s “Wedding Nails” was similar, but went on for over six minutes).
Although “The Incident” isn’t precisely one long track, it does feel like a cohesive work. This is mostly a good thing, except that it has the unfortunate side effect of making the four-song disc two feel like an afterthought. That may not be fair, but it’s the impression you’re left with after the thematic unity of the first disc. Maybe after absorbing the main piece for a little while the songs of the second disc will start to come into their own, but for right now they feel like overload. The album as a whole, though, is very strong. For all his prog-rock and metal leanings, Steven Wilson knows that it all really comes down to the songwriting. And he is a very, very good songwriter, which keeps Porcupine Tree afloat even when they aren’t really pushing the envelope.
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// Notes from the Road
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