Porcupine Tree
Photo: Alex Lake / Courtesy of Big Hassle

Porcupine Tree Return with a Question Mark on ‘Closure/Continuation’

Closure/Continuation captures and rejuvenates the cerebral and melancholic mood that’s Porcupine Tree’s signature, but uncertainty hangs over the proceedings.

Porcupine Tree
Music For Nations
24 June 2022

With the name they gave their ostensible comeback LP, Porcupine Tree ensured one thing: you can’t really call it a comeback. Closure/Continuation, the British progressive rock outfit’s first record in 13 years following 2009’s The Incident, rhetorically announces that the band, while technically back together, aren’t necessarily committed to a full reconstitution. In the first instance, there’s the matter of longtime bass player Colin Edwin, absent on this album and kept conspicuously out of reporting about the fallout of Porcupine Tree’s early 2010s hiatus. But even if he were in the lineup, the words “closure” and “continuation” indicate a reluctance to make hay of a reunion. If it’s closure, this record is a bookend. Continuation, by contrast, lacks the excitement one would hope to accompany the return of a beloved act. After a career sojourn as long as Porcupine Tree’s, “continuation” has the energy of an office birthday party.

That proves even truer when one considers where Porcupine Tree left off. Not only was The Incident the most conceptually audacious of Porcupine Tree’s discography, a single 55-minute song comprised of 12 movements, but it led the group to play some of its biggest stages. The Incident tour saw Steven Wilson (vocals, guitars, and production), Edwin, Richard Barbieri (keyboards), and Gavin Harrison (drums) play to crowds at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and the Royal Albert Hall in London. It appears that the enthusiasm they generated still remains: for the Closure/Continuation tour, the band will return to Radio City, and take to London’s largest concert stage at Wembley.

As far as cult musical acts go, Porcupine Tree were a resounding success. Although The Incident was a less compelling artistic statement than two of its predecessors, the masterpieces In Absentia (2002) and Fear of a Blank Planet (2007), it apotheosizes much of what the band realized when it began incorporating the sounds of heavy metal into its style. Had Porcupine Tree kept on after that moment, they could easily have further cultivated their rising global audience.

The intervening years between those fateful pre-hiatus shows at Radio City and the Royal Albert Hall were nonetheless fruitful for Porcupine Tree’s members. Wilson, who for all of his genre restlessness became something of a demigod in the progressive rock community, launched a successful solo career that boasts some of his finest achievements, notably 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. Harrison taught at drum clinics around the world, served as King Crimson’s drummer on several tours, and even put out a superb big band reinvention of some classic Porcupine Tree tunes in the form of 2015’s Cheating the Polygraph. Barbieri, always the quietest of the original quartet onstage, was similarly so in the 2010s, releasing a string of EPs called Variants in 2018 and a collaboration with Marillion’s Steve Hogarth in 2012.

Nothing suggested that Porcupine Tree ever needed to call it quits for good, even if The Incident didn’t break ground for them the way earlier LPs did. (In a recent interview, Wilson summarized the album: “it wasn’t our best.”) Nor were there any distinct rumblings in recent years that the group’s return was imminent, particularly with Wilson’s solo career going strong and his penchant for noncommittal answers on a possible comeback. (Or, in some cases, minimizing such a possibility altogether.) Perhaps this explains the lack of urgency behind the Closure/Continuation name. Instead of advertising a singular route ahead, the title confirms Wilson, Harrison, and Barbieri are keeping mental notes on potential directions while roaming freely.

That’s not to say that the music of Closure/Continuation lacks any verve. It kicks off with one of its most energetic numbers, the lead single “Harridan”, which makes immediately clear what Edwin brought to the group that is now gone in his absence. As the most jazz-inclined musician in Porcupine Tree, Edwin brought a silky smoothness to the rhythm section, a welcome contrast to the spacey electronics and hard-edged riffs that defined the band’s music beginning with In Absentia. His bass lines on songs like “.3” and “Halo” exemplify his invaluable role in Porcupine Tree’s golden era. Wilson wields the bass on Closure/Continuation, and in contrast to Edwin’s smooth glide between notes, he plays the instrument more like a guitar, plucking it with a heavy hand. This technique suits the mercurial “Harridan”, notably for how it gels with the strident guitar strums on the chorus, but it also shows how much has changed for Porcupine Tree in 13 years.

Yet much will be familiar to those who have followed Porcupine Tree and its members’ solo careers. One can trace the acoustic guitar arpeggios at the heart of the epic closer, “Chimera’s Wreck”, back to Wilson’s 2013 solo disc The Raven That Refused to Sing (and other stories). Barbieri’s moody electronics on highlight “Walk the Plank” recall the synth textures on Fear of a Blank Planet and convey a sense of heaviness that doesn’t require the use of the heavily distorted guitars that became integral to Porcupine Tree’s aesthetic in their 2000s heyday. The intricate rhythms of “Population Three”, included as one of three “bonus tracks” that appear to come with every edition of the record, genetically align with the jams on the 2007 Nil Recurring EP.

What’s more, the influence of Porcupine Tree on subsequent progressive-adjacent rock acts can be felt throughout Closure/Continuation. The nervy “Herd Culling”, for instance, could slot comfortably on any of the recent LPs by the Pineapple Thief, the most Porcupine Tree-esque outfit to emerge following the post-Incident dormancy period. There’s some sense to that, too: Harrison began collaborating with The Pineapple Thief on their 2016 outing Your Wilderness and became a full member with 2018’s Dissolution.

Porcupine Tree, of course, are the kind of band who balk at the thought of playing the hits or walking backward through well-trod musical paths. Closure/Continuation contains enough moments of quintessential Porcupine Tree sound to ensure that the second half of its title holds true but also gestures at new avenues for Wilson, Harrison, and Barbieri. One such avenue is a style that may seem old-hat for these gentlemen: classic ’70s prog. Although Porcupine Tree will go down as one of the premier prog groups of the post-1980s era, the music they began making with 1999’s Stupid Dream can be plotted more on a post-OK Computer trajectory than one going further back to the 1970s. During the first decade of their existence, Porcupine Tree did fashion itself a latter-day psych-prog affair; 1995’s The Sky Moves Sideways is essentially high-level Floyd cosplay. But Stupid Dream and its successors, especially In Absentia and Deadwing, share a family resemblance with the crop of British rock acts that took cues from the ground Radiohead broke in the mid-90s, even if Porcupine Tree took a more cerebral and, yes, “progressive”-minded approach to that sonic.

But Closure/Continuation hearkens back to the ’70s, a long-beloved decade for Porcupine Tree’s members, far more than anything they released in the 2000s. The lightning-fast riff on the politically charged “Rats Return”, as well as the descending pre-verse riff on “Dignity”, bear the fingerprints of Rush. The latter song, one of the album’s three eight-plus minute epics, is pure Bowie, and even melodically recalls Wilson’s approach to covering “Space Oddity” during his solo tours. In moments like these, Porcupine Tree doesn’t sound like they’re rehashing their old musical languages; instead, they exude the thrilling energy that accompanies discovering new life in the styles that they – and, perhaps, we – have mistaken for finished.

Yet by the end of Closure/Continuation, the main feeling that’s left behind is a sense of limbo. Wilson, Harrison, and Barbieri remain top-notch musicians, comfortable in songs that require technical proficiencies well above the average rock or pop musician. At its best, the album captures and rejuvenates the cerebral and melancholic mood that is Porcupine Tree’s signature. But in the end, the uncertainty innate to a title like Closure/Continuation hangs over the proceedings. The stoic sentiment that informs the lyrics of “Of the New Day”, a gorgeous tune that justifies the reunion on its own, describes this now tenuous time for Porcupine Tree: “Hold your fear in check my dear / It’s got no place here / There’s no need to fight / Just drift away on the new day.” Those aren’t the words of a group that’s convinced that it has many miles ahead of them. Nor do those words imply the closing of a chapter, either.

So let’s take the two halves of Closure/Continuation in turn. Should this mark the end of Porcupine Tree, it’s an inauspicious farewell, one that showcases the talents of its players and their unique chemistry without indicating wholly new musical terrain they might explore. But if it’s continuation? Some moments on this record might portend further collaboration between this trio version of Porcupine Tree, even if it’s hard to see through what Wilson, on “Of the New Day”, calls the “fog” before “the new day”. Porcupine Tree still have something to say. It’s just not clear what that is yet.

RATING 6 / 10