Music

Porcupine Tree: Fear of a Blank Planet

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!


Porcupine Tree

Fear of a Blank Planet

Label: Atlantic
US Release Date: 2007-04-24
UK Release Date: 2007-04-16
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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.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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