Out of the Void It Comes
As anyone deeply concerned with the careers of either Porcupine Tree or Aviv Geffen is probably already aware, Blackfield (the band) is a collaboration between Steven Wilson (PT’s lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist) and Geffen, an Israeli rock star who also happens to be the son of the award-winning poet Yehonatan Geffen and the nephew of a highly regarded Israeli statesman, Moshe Dayan. As if seeking asylum from their established identities, the men have crafted a record that is very much a singer-songwriter affair (Wilson’s biggest shift) that’s not merely extremely personal but, with one exception, apolitical (a departure for Geffen).
That said, Wilson sings lead on most of the album’s 10 songs, and the dominant flavor remains, for lack of a better term, Porcupinian. Conventionally, I’d call this project art rock—pretty much the same way I’d classify Porcupine Tree, King Crimson, or even less “heavy” artists like Peter Gabriel and David Sylvian—people who basically work in pop-structured form but place enormous emphasis on complex arrangements, instrumental interplay, and ambience.
Blackfield (the album) started life as a one-off EP but blossomed into a full-length release as the musical exchange gathered steam. There’s a romantic grandeur at root here, and while it’s not as epic as the music we call progressive rock (Yes, Genesis, ELP, and the like), it’s also more immediate, more intimate. To Blackfield I’d offer the term “chamber prog”. It’s art rock whittled down to its structural pop core, like a 37-minute version of Porcupine Tree’s masterful The Sky Moves Sideways sans Richard Barbieri’s off-worldly keyboards. It’s moody, dynamic, and intense, but the songs are very tightly structured—and very short. That’s the zinger here: most pieces are in and out in three or four minutes, whereas songs from Porcupine Tree (or King Crimson, or the Flower Kings) can and do stretch on for seven or 10 or 17 minutes. But the brevity often feels somewhat forced, as, on several tracks, Wilson and Geffen seem to be just shifting into overdrive as the songs begin to fade.
The artists make frequent use of acoustic instruments: primarily piano and strings but also plenty of acoustic guitar. Writing about progressive rock’s “golden years” (1970 to 1976), the author Edward Macan reminds us in Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture that “it was part of the genre’s stylistic code that keyboardists and guitarists were expected to demonstrate at least near-equal fluency on the acoustic instrument”. In the wake of the countless “prog-metal” acts now crowding the closet of progressive music, Blackfield’s emphasis on acoustic sounds is refreshing, to say the least.
Musically, Blackfield is merely pensive or somber in tone, but the words make it very dark indeed, a fact reflected in song titles like “Scars”, “Pain”, and “The Hole in Me”. Even the more uplifting-sounding tracks spiral downward: “Lullaby” is a plea for peace to a messed up friend or lover, “Summer” mourns a fading romance, and “Hello” is as much an echo in an empty self as it is a call for clarity (“Is it gonna last?”). If the record is unusually personal and confessional, it’s also often startlingly literal, as in “my mood swings make me feel ashamed” (“Open Mind”), “How does it feel without your drugs?” (“Lullaby”), and a musical but brazenly un-metrical cry of “We are a fucked-up generation!” that erupts at the climax of “Cloudy Now”.
“Cloudy Now”, while sung by Wilson, can easily be heard as a comment from Geffen on Israeli-Palestinian violence. “The sun’s in the sky but the storm never seems to end / It’s a place of sorrow but we call it a home . . . / There’s wealth in the bank but there’s nothing to show inside”. Beyond assessing the mental health of their 30-something generation, the artists merely conclude, “We gotta get out of here / It’s cloudy now”. It’s interesting to ponder exactly who they’re referring to in “we” and “here”.
Near as I can deduce from the album’s lyrics and artwork, the “blackfield” of the title track and band name refers to either a physical place or an imagined opiate one might use to reclaim one’s childhood, to start anew, if only in one’s mind. Opiates by nature are numbing, however, and while numbness is preferable to pain, shaving off life’s highs as well as its lows is generally not a recipe for happiness. The duo tackles this fact in “Glow”, a devastating account of passion lost (“The glow was strong when I was a boy / But it’s gone”). Sustained misery can also numb, of course, and the closing lines of the closing song—“Hello” (ironically placed if not ironically titled)—depict a harrowing, delusional stupor: “Dead to the world you left me / In footsteps I follow”.
The music’s pervading beauty both tempers and validates the songs’ anguish, giving wings to pieces that might otherwise drown in woe-is-me sentimentality. “It’s a dark and empty road / When you’re alone” looks awfully trite on paper, but Wilson and Geffen (and, in “Summer” and three others, the Illusion string quartet) do ample justice to the spirit in which such lines were written. Every single song paints a picture of severe depression yet remains, in my admittedly sun-kissed view, highly listenable. It helps that the album is dotted with flashes of outright brilliance, like the off-kilter musical bridge in the sample-heavy “Scars”, the watery vocal effect in “Summer”, the waltz-like 5/4 lilt of “The Hole in Me”, and the Floydian echo effect on the final word of the line “An idea falls from a porcelain sky” (in the lead track, “Open Mind”). Geffen’s own backing band performed “Scars”, the only track on which Wilson sings but doesn’t play.
Devotees of both Porcupine Tree and Aviv Geffen will want to devour this record. But serious music this melodic, this accessible, and this well played, however dour its subjects, deserves an audience far wider than even those sizeable groups.
Anyone considering a purchase should know that there are three different incarnations of this album. The UK and US CD editions contain the same tracks and trio of bonus tracks, but the UK release shunts the bonus tracks onto a second disc—an apt choice for an album built around clarity and brevity. Blackfield was also released on two LPs in a gatefold package. The LP does not feature the demo “Where is My Love?” (a duet) or the live version of “Cloudy Now” but does offer “Perfect World” (also found on the CDs, bumped from the album proper at the last minute on behalf of “Cloudy Now”) and “Feel So Low”, a new rendition of the Porcupine Tree ballad from Lightbulb Sun (2000) that does not appear anywhere else. This rare track was the first thing Wilson and Geffen did together, based on an arrangement by Geffen that he’d been performing at his shows (in Hebrew).
The UK CD also features a CD-ROM video clip for “Blackfield” (the song), an excellent example of how digital processing can be used to create art that doesn’t look the least bit digitally processed. The clip, which could well have been inspired by the album cover for Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, is essentially a sequence of reverse-cascading pictures within pictures, some featuring shots of Wilson and Geffen singing, but most portraying moody live-action images of the men (and a young woman who appears to be Geffen’s love interest) standing in fields and under trees, perhaps in Wilson’s “blackfield”, holding old picture frames whose images are actually the next full-screen shot in waiting. Intriguing work presented with a look and tone that suits the song’s music as well as its words.