England's prog-rock torchbearers continue to put out exciting, accessible music with this strong EP.
Nil Recurring is a four-song EP from Porcupine Tree that comes on the heels of 2007's Fear of a Blank Planet. These songs were written during the recording of Blank Planet and, as you would expect, they sound like an extension of that album. Clocking in at just under 30 minutes total, the four tracks are 6-8 minutes long, which is par for the course these days with Porcupine Tree.
Steven Wilson, front man and songwriter for the band, has undergone something of a career renaissance in the past five years or so. Wilson toiled for all of the '90s with Porcupine Tree as a spacey progressive rock band with an occasional knack for writing catchy four-minute pop songs. But he found his band almost alone in the prog-rock landscape at the beginning of this decade. It was around that time when he discovered the progressive metal scene, and managed to score Porcupine Tree's first major label deal in North America. He also ended up doing production work for Swedish death-metal titans Opeth, which resulted in a noticeable toughening up in Porcupine Tree's sound for its major label debut, In Absentia. These days, the band still has its major label deal, and a much bigger audience. The Porcupine Tree show I attended in October 2007 was full of middle-aged couples in Rush and Yes shirts, teens and 20-somethings sporting various death metal logos, and folks of all ages wearing their Pink Floyd gear.
Wilson has near seamlessly combined different elements into a distinct sound that can go from bruising metal guitar riffs to spacey psychedelia to beautiful piano-based pop. Accordingly, Nil Recurring manages to do most of these things over its relatively short running time. The instrumental title track opens the disc with six minutes of heavy riffing, featuring King Crimson guitarist, Robert Fripp, on lead guitar. It's exactly the kind of song you'd expect to find on this sort of release, a hard rocker that didn't really fit in with the themes of the previous album.
"Normal", the second track, is undoubtedly the most interesting song on Nil Recurring. A complete reworking of the Blank Planet track "Sentimental", it features the same lyrical refrain -- "Sullen and bored the kids stay / And in this way wish away each day / Stoned in the mall the kids play / And in this way wish away each day" -- and some of the same vocal melody. It drops the original track's musical references to the band's own classic, "Trains", though, in favor of a pair of new guitar riffs. It also contains a line about doing "a good impression of myself," taken almost verbatim from another Blank Planet song, "Anesthetize", and adds a completely new refrain in the final two minutes: "Wish I was old / And a little sentimental." It's a strong song on its own, but a very unusual piece when placed into the context of Fear of a Blank Planet.
"Cheating the Polygraph" is another rocker, one that pulls back and forth between hard distorted guitars with soaring vocals and more subdued bluesy sections. This particular song is really driven by the rhythm section, as much as Wilson's vocals and guitars. Drummer Gavin Harrison knows exactly when to pull back with tasteful percussion fills, and when to really open up and use his whole kit, and Colin Edwin's mid-song bassline drives the transition from the tune's front half to back end.
"What Happens Now?" closes the disc out with something a little more reminiscent of 1990's Porcupine Tree. It's powered by atmospheric clean guitars and subtle washes of synthesizer. There are a few lines of lyrics early in the song, but the vocals quickly disappear in favor of roughly five minutes of what sounds like live jamming recorded in studio. It's the longest track on the disc at a little over eight minutes, and the only one that starts to wear out its welcome.
Overall, this is a very strong collection of songs, and close to a must-have for fans of the band. It also functions as a solid introduction to one of the more vital names in progressive rock. Despite the metal influences, you won't find any harsh death metal vocals with Porcupine Tree. Wilson has a great singing voice, a knack for catchy guitar riffs, and a secret weapon in Harrison, a most underrated drummer.
Originally self-released in extremely limited quantities back in the fall, Nil Recurring has been picked up by British-based indie Peaceville Records, and given a full commercial release. Peaceville/Snapper has also been handling all of Porcupine Tree's back catalog, as well as slowly re-mastering and re-releasing the band's long out-of-print middle albums. They've given this disc a very nice presentation, with the liner art consisting of pictures of disaffected, surly-looking British teens. It keeps with the themes of Fear of a Blank Planet and helps give Nil Recurring a visual continuity with that album. All of this is very nice, but Peaceville is also calling this EP a "mini-album", and is charging full album price for it. As much as I'm recommending the music here, it rubs me the wrong way that the record company isn't giving fans even a small price break on this release.