Almost all has been quiet on the Porcupine Tree front since 2010. After a grand outing at London’s Royal Albert Hall in October of that year, the English progressive rock four-piece entered a period of hiatus, from which it has yet to come back. Frontman Steven Wilson has stuck to his solo career, putting out albums at a steady one-every-two-years rate since 2011. Bassist Colin Edwin has been involved a wide variety of eclectic projects, including the art-rock outfit Henry Fool and a collaboration with the American guitarist Jon Durant. Richard Barbieri, who manned the keyboards for Porcupine Tree, teamed up with Marillion’s Steve Hogarth for two LPs, Not the Weapon But the Hand and The Arc Light.
In terms of prog credentials, however, it’s tough to beat the jump drummer Gavin Harrison made following the announcement of the hiatus. Although by 2010 Porcupine Tree was arguably the pre-eminent progressive rock band in the world, Harrison was lucky enough to land a spot playing with a band even higher in the prog echelons: King Crimson. After playing a short touring stint with the group in 2008 as a dual drummer with Pat Mastelotto, Harrison rejoined them in 2014 as part of a three drummer core. (This is prog, after all.) If any modern drummer versed in progressive rock is worthy of picking up the sticks alongside legends like King Crimson, it’s Harrison. Although less technically ostentatious than someone like Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater, Adrenaline Mob), his drumming technique is virtuosic and ornate without clubbing the listener over the head with flurries of fills. Watching him describe the intricacies of beats that fascinate him—see this session with Guitar Center—is to get a glimpse into a mind of a drummer that takes every beat into thorough consideration.
For that reason, Cheating the Polygraph succeeds, in spite of its near cringe-worthy premise. For this eight-track album, Harrison reworks—if not mangles—classic Porcupine Tree songs and rearranges them for the big band format. One would be forgiven for thinking that this idea sounds like an alternate attempt at something like the Vitamin String Quartet’s version of Top 40 albums. While that quartet often does interesting things with the tunes they play, they too often merely play through the songs without actually tinkering with the format in a way that would make their cover versions distinctive. The timbre of a violin or a cello is different to an electric guitar or a synthesizer, but merely altering the timbre, in most cases, isn’t enough to make a song feel new in a string quartet arrangement. What that ultimately amounts to is an alternate take on muzak.
Fortunately, Harrison knows quite well that it would not do to have a note-for-note rehash of these Porcupine Tree numbers. As such, he substantially reworks each one, to the point that in many sections of these tracks it’s easy to completely forget what’s being played in the first place. At the same time, however, he keeps the best parts of the original tunes in, such that they’re both identifiable yet entirely re-envisioned. “The Sound of Muzak” and “So Called Friend” are mashed together into one, with the core rhythms of each being retained while the saxophones and horns take the music in exciting new directions. In some surprising cases, certain parts of the originals translate even better to the big band setup: the vocal line to “The Start of Something Beautiful” works brilliantly when played by brass instruments, sounding not like an instrument attempting to mimic a voice but rather like notes that were written for the instrument in the first place.
Harrison’s wise selection of Porcupine Tree tunes further helps this big band experiment from becoming awkward. Most notably, his arrangement of “Hatesong / Halo” actually trumps the Porcupine Tree iterations of those songs, particularly the latter of the two. Here the sonic parallel between Cheating the Polygraph and the music of Frank Zappa becomes most pronounced. The press materials for the record name-drop Zappa’s work with the Mothers of Invention, but it’s actually the later Zappa that these tracks bring to mind, namely the orchestral collection The Yellow Shark (1993). The saxophones on “Halo” evoke the rhythmic dynamism and quirky riffs that Zappa was able to bring to the classical music format. After one spin of Cheating the Polygraph, it’s obvious that Harrison could easily nail the head-spinning tempo and rhythm of The Yellow Shark‘s tour de force of a finale, the delightfully titled “G-Spot Tornado”.
The transition from progressive rock and metal to avant-swing works well for most of these tunes, with one notable exception. On its Porcupine Tree album version, “Heartattack in a Layby” (from the band’s 2002 breakthrough In Absentia) is a tender, fragile thing, highlighted by Wilson’s mournful vocal and acoustic guitar minor chords. On Cheating the Polygraph, the song becomes the “breather moment” amidst the enticingly perplexing rhythmic explorations that surround it. “Heartattack in a Layby” does work well to some extent as a low-key jazz number—it’s easy to imagine it being played in the late hours of a jazz club—but it’s the one clear case here where rather than being a unique take on the original, it’s instead a lesser representation of it.
One minor slip-up in a project as audacious as this, however, can be forgiven. There are several ways this could have gone wrong; given that Porcupine Tree’s music is on its own terms quite complex, it would have been easy for Harrison to go into copy and paste mode, keeping the initial arrangements note-for-note with the only significant change being the big band aesthetic. Lucky for us, he’s done something meaningfully inventive with these songs, not for any misplaced nostalgia for the “glory days” of Porcupine Tree, but because he saw in these pieces a chance for reinvention. In doing so he both reasserts his prowess as a drummer and reminds us all of why his time with Porcupine Tree was so superlative. Simply put, it’s damn near impossible to imagine J.K. Simmons’ tyrannical big band conductor from the 2014 breakout hit Whiplash ever saying to Harrison, “Not my tempo.”
// Notes from the Road
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