Dream Theater and Rush better watch their backs; Porcupine Tree's Fear of a Blank Planet is a strong contender for the progressive album of the year!
Arguably the biggest so-called progressive band out of England since the days of Pink Floyd, Hertfordshire’s Porcupine Tree have all but carved their own art metal niche for themselves. Mind, it hasn’t come easy; it took them more than a decade ironing out what kind of sound they wanted to pursue under the radar before they really hit their stride with 2002’s In Absentia. Their major label debut, it bore all the trademarks of their esoteric, chillingly other-worldly, intimate and masterful sound, hemmed in on all sides by a monolithic production job. It was such an impressive combination, in fact, that even the mainstream had to sit up and take notice. Deadwing came three years later, a nine-track set of extreme variation, ranging from progressive psychedelia ("Arriving Somewhere But Not Here") to disarming piano-driven balladry ("Lazarus"), that made its screenplay concept all the more confusing. Safe to say, hopes were high for a follow-up.
Fear of a Blank Planet, the band’s ultimate wink to Public Enemy, and their first album for Roadrunner Records, strips away all the pretenses and takes prog-metal back to its logical basics: six very extensive, motif-laden tracks are all there is to be found here. They’re also sounding more like Pink Floyd torchbearers than ever, favoring swirling, schizophrenic arrangements which lend themselves to epic, far-reaching guitar jangles and bewildering sound effects. Those who tirelessly sing the praises of Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy should catch an earful of Gavin Harrison’s skills on the kit; his unpredictable rhythms at times seem to be the only thing keeping the floating helixes of music from drifting off into outer space.
Spectacular the music may be, but it’s the reflective lyrics that keep the album firmly on Earth. Planet’s songwriting takes on a darker and edgier nature, leaving its predecessors up in the clouds by comparison. Frontman and mouthpiece Steven Wilson dismisses family values emotionlessly, name-dropping MTV, Pearl Jam, and pornography, but never seems callous. "My X-box is a god to me / My finger’s on the switch / My mother is a bitch / My father gave up ever trying to talk to me", he sings spitefully on the title track. The latter is built exclusively around a simple minor-key arpeggio plucked on an acoustic guitar, finding a way to build and build upon it, and does no less than hold our attention for all of its seven and a half minutes -- now that’s progressive! Upheaving into a wordless chorus, it’s not unusual to hear a fluttering piano next to a segment of full-on rocking out, for example.
That and second entry "My Ashes" seem like mere warm-ups, though, compared to "Anesthetize", the moody, fifteen-minute-plus mother of a centrepiece, where the band let both their emotions and ambitions run free. It sure does take its time. Wilson utilizes an unsettling, distant delivery not unlike that of Thom Yorke, while the lyrics are of a simple metaphorical nature: "The water so warm that day / I was counting out the waves / And I followed their short life / As they broke on the shoreline / I could see you ... but I couldn’t hear you", searching lines stretched across the great divide. The texture and glazed-over harmonies are oozing, as thick as honey; the guitar weaves from one speaker to another, as the track lifts slowly towards hope and the bright side, while the relentless drum thumps into your consciousness throughout it all. A few breakdowns spanning impenetrably across several minutes herald ascending chord changes, followed by a backbreakingly heavy whirlwind of double kick and angry pummeling at the eleven minute mark, the only all-out moment on the disc. Everything fits perfectly: clever crescendos provide a tingling sensation of comfort, and the final four minutes of riffage are pure pre-Dark Side of the Moon Floydian glory. The last thirty seconds are just whitewashes of reverb, as if the cut is so huge it needs time just to slow down.
On the other side of that, there are still three excellent slices of music to be heard, and signify a clear progression after "Anesthetize". "You can’t blame your parents anymore", Wilson declares in "Sentimental", "And I’m not really sure / If the pills I’ve been taking are helping". The former lives up to its name: fluffy piano chords adorn the track with classical flourishes, and by and large it seems a lot more -- dare I say it -- good-natured than anything that has gone by up till now.
The transcendental "Way Out of Here"'s only hook is a desperate plea -- "Way out, way out of here" -- emulated as a question, not a statement. Everything else is so pointedly subdued and pristine that when that hits, it’s so yearning it’s as if Wilson's very soul is trying to escape. It’s understandable, then, that the arrival of ambient closer "Sleep Together", another experimental foray, this time into swelling techno and keyboards, with an ominous Nine Inch Nails bassline and orchestral strings, comes as a bit of a shock. It is almost a complete right-hand turn from the rest of the album, abandoning the paranoia for openly sexual catchphrases. Still, it’s hard to pretend it’s of a standard any lower than the five sagas that come before it, and it may even open doors for future directions.
Fear of a Blank Planet is like an ocean, so vast that it crams its many themes into your brain more than any of their other albums thus far. Holding together as one gigantic concept and as six masterful compositions, Fear of a Blank Planet kicks upstarts like Isis and Tool back into their place with a listen overflowing with ideas. Whereas younger prog bands seem to feel the need to prove their worth through sudden time changes and wildly cryptic lyrics -- something even the mighty Iron Maiden have been prone to of late -- this band’s art is much more subtle. It’s the kind of rare record that, long after it’s gone, leaves whispers in your ears. Pause and appreciate that splendor. Breathe in its divinity.