PopMatters' newest Between the Grooves series explores the often overlooked 1999 masterpiece by progressive rock legends Porcupine Tree. The album's opening track, "Even Less", still stands as one of the band's finest epics, and signifies a shift away from the eccentric psychedelia and moody Krautrock of its early work.
The sound of an orchestra tuning up slowly increases in volume. A slide guitar enters, ringing loudly of Pink Floyd. Then the song kicks into overdrive, with distortion pedals in the “on” position.
So begins Stupid Dream, legendary British prog band Porcupine Tree's transitory masterpiece. This opening track, “Even Less”, is stunning in its power, a sort unseen in the UK proggers’ previous works. There were prior hints that Porcupine Tree would crank the amps up to 11 at some point: tracks like “Dark Matter” on 1996’s Signify had its riff-heavy moments, and even the group's off-the-wall psychedelic material of the early '90s had some elements of prog rock. But the opening of Stupid Dream marked an important shift in the genre(s) that Porcupine Tree played in. Before this album, they were a psychedelic prog band with rock flourishes. With Stupid Dream that has been reversed, and given their ascent to the top of the progressive rock scene it’s clearly been for the better. And while that rise to prominence has seen these Brits do their best work (namely 2007’s Fear of a Blank Planet), Stupid Dream often gets overlooked in discussions of the band’s finest efforts, due in large part to its output in the “Aughts”. Yet 13 years after its release, it still feels vitally important, and -- more importantly -- classic Porcupine Tree.
While sonically the record feels essential, contextually it’s also very important in shaping the band that would later become one of progressive rock’s most important outfits. Prior to Stupid Dream, Porcupine Tree’s identity as a prog-rock band hadn’t fully yet formed. The first album under the Porcupine Tree moniker was really a solo experiment for frontman Steven Wilson, whose primary musical outlet at the time was the art-rock duo of himself and Tim Bowness, the brilliant No-Man. The following two releases were still mostly Wilson, though band members Richard Barbieri, Colin Edwin, and Chris Maitland all contributed. Records like 1995’s Pink Floyd-influenced The Sky Moves Sideways were described as Wilson recording the majority of the music, with the other members putting in their own opinions after the fact. Given the increased demand for the group to record and tour (when debut album On the Sunday of Life . . . was released in an initial press of 500 vinyl records, they sold almost instantly), there was a strong pressure for Porcupine Tree to become something bigger than Wilson initially intended. The shift between Stupid Dream and Signify (the album preceding it) marked the transition from half Wilson/half band to full band, setting the stage for Porcupine Tree to blossom into the prog juggernaut it is now.
While Stupid Dream draws from Signify in being a whole band effort rather than Wilson doing most of the work, sonically it is a considerable departure. Signify has come to be known as Porcupine Tree’s “Krautrock” release, especially for its motorik-heavy title track. And while the group’s penchant for unique genre exploration didn’t fade in between the two LPs, the Krautrock stylings of Signify had faded by Stupid Dream’s turn-of-the-millennium release.
Though by prog rock standards seven minutes is hardly epic, the LP's opening cut “Even Less” has stood the test of time to become one of Porcupine Tree’s best “epic” tracks, ranking alongside Deadwing’s “Arriving Somewhere . . . But Not Here”, Fear of a Blank Planet’s “Anesthetize”, and their very first epic in On the Sunday of Life’s “Radioactive Toy”. In live shows the song is usually extended, sometimes to the full 14-minute version, which remains a perennial fan favorite.
The predominant themes of Stupid Dream -- unrequited love and the downfall of the music business -- aren’t the focus of this cut, but there is a strong sense of foreshadowing. The song’s central lyric arrives in the chorus: “And I may just waste away / For doing nothing / But you’re a martyr/For even less.” The lyric is a powerful one, one that could stand to critique any number of people. The extended version of “Even Less” (which appears on the recently re-released B-side collection Recordings) takes pretty specific jabs at religious hypocrites, which is perhaps the most obvious of criticisms given the historical usage of the word “martyr”.
That lyric takes a unique turn when juxtaposed when the verses. With Darwinian indifference, Wilson sings, “Some kids are best left to fend for themselves / And others are born to stack shelves”. Unlike many pre-2000 releases, Stupid Dream isn’t overly concerned with the arrival of the new millennium in any paranoid sort of way. Rather, “Even Less” suggests that despite all the bluster about the new millennium, in reality Western culture was dominated by indifference. When Wilson reminisces, “A choirboy is buried on the moor / Where we used to go dreaming when we were bored”, you get the sense that 1999 was a year of nonchalance. This apathy is in stark contrast with Y2K paranoia, which makes Stupid Dream unique in how it looked forward into the imminent time period.
This is the very nonchalance that serves as the basis of the album’s critique of consumerism in music. The initial sleeve art (the album has since been remastered with a new cover) of the LP depicted a bleach-white and blue factory, with a worker “manufacturing” music on CDs. That art stands as a stark glance into the way the music industry spoon-fed people with its product. With the rise of boy-band pop in full bloom in 1999, there’s a ringing truth evident in the lyrics of “Even Less”. Some musicians are best left to fight for themselves; others are born to be stacked on the shelves of music stores for mindless consumption.
But what makes “Even Less” endearing, even more than the underpinnings of its lyrics, is the music itself. It’s the heaviest song on Stupid Dream, which made it the heaviest song in the band’s career up to that point. The opening riff of “Even Less” is a potent statement of intent, one that would be heard much more on later outings. It concludes with a another riff -- simple but powerful -- which chugs until its spooky coda, where a voice reads off mysterious numbers. The psychedelic elements that were once the prominent sonic of Porcupine Tree are still alive in this track, especially in the slide guitar line. Like any artist who bears the title, “Even Less” finds Porcupine Tree truly progressing, taking the long-form psychedelic prog of their early recordings and incorporating it into a song-based rock format. Many forget that Porcupine Tree began as something of a joke (one listen to On the Sunday of Life . . . makes that fact a little more than obvious), but with Stupid Dream it crafted the culmination of its steadily-improving ‘90’s releases, showing off its chops as a bona fide prog rock outfit.
Steven Wilson once called “Even Less” a “simple pop song”. Structurally, there’s a lot of truth to that (its verse/chorus/coda structure is pretty straightforward), but it definitely doesn’t feel simple. As it’s known amongst diehard fans of the band, the track is one of the band’s strongest cuts on any album, and with good reason. “Even Less” opens Stupid Dream masterfully, finding Porcupine Tree firmly planting their flag as true progressors and innovators in music.