Review Summary: Porcupine Tree demonstrate the use of a conventional pop arc to progressive musicians.
The one complaint always leveled at progressive musicians is that they don't know how to write a song. Even back in the 70s, when bands like Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and co. were in their heyday, the self-indulgency of prog artists was their downfall; it just becomes hard to stomach 20 minutes of odd scales, obscure time signatures and absurd sci-fi lyrics when there are no conventional, hooky phrasings that it can be paired with. Porcupine Tree, which started off as a mere nostalgia act, harking back to this age of long-forgotten, artistic virtuoso kind of music, used to be just like this; then, Steven Wilson got an appreciation for pop music, vocal harmonies and from its psychedelic, oddball origins, a monster was born that combined the spacey ambient psychedelia of Pink Floyd with the skill of King Crimson and the hookiness of Brian Wilson.
Lightbulb Sun is from that era of PT before they began to include their metal and NIN influences (In Absentia would still have a conventional pop arc, in songs such as Trains, but the grumbling guitars of Strip the Soul, Blackest Eyes and Wedding Nails demonstrated the different terrain the band was then headed into), and it feels more relaxed for it. Most songs here have strong hooks, quite poppy choruses, most of them don't exceed five or six minutes (with two exceptions), the use of acoustic guitars is liberal, and there is an almost obsessive reliance on vocal harmonies and layering.
In fact, this album has less in common with Atom Heart Mother or even Close to the Edge than it does with OK Computer. Lightbulb Sun, Shesmovedon, and The Rest Will Flow are all conventional pop/rock songs, very subdued and mellow, with a sparing blast of power chords here and there to get a head slightly nodding, but nothing mind-boggling; it might be one of the easiest Porcupine Tree albums to get into (which, on the whole, is a bit nicer than the artistically fantastic but damn-the-conventions approach of Fear of a Blank Planet). In fact, Steven Wilson is so good at this pop thing that in many a memory he will be remembered more as the guy that wrote Shesmovedon, Trains, and Lightbulb Sun (what irony, as he attacks the music industry for selling vacuum with their prose on Four Chords That Made a Million).
But even when the band sounds ordinary, they still seem to have found a niche of their own: the soft, sparing keyboard textures, the acoustic rumblings and the layered-to-gorgeous-insanity harmonies combined with strings courtesy of XTC's Dave Gregory seem to make the band still occupy a niche of their own, as even when they delve into longer, more spacey compositions (Hatesong, Russia On Ice), there is a definitive quaint British feel to the music; as if the mere boy choir timbre vocals of Steven Wilson keep the floaty palette of music fixed firmly on earth. This might be their greatest strength: the ability to keep oddball, experimental music firmly anchored with two feet on the ground, so that not only the artistic musos can appreciate the vacuity, gloom and absurdity of the music, but also that the common man, oblivious to 16-minute meanderings and jagged odd-time riffs, can appreciate the music for its calm, soothing poppy nature; almost never have the realms of progressive, virtuosic music and the commonality of modern pop been so closely entwined. It is one of the great talents of Wilson that he can effectively combine the two without either sounding watered down or losing focus.
The only thing that Wilson will always have a penchant for, and which drops the pop factor slightly, is his tendency towards both nostalgia and gloom. Shesmovedon is almost aching in its describing of a lost lover: so savour it, it's all gone / now she's moved on
. Feel So Low is true to its namesake and its sparse acoustic arrangement with warm keyboard layers feels like it could kill by drowning. Hatesong finds Steven Wilson almost scathingly angry, in an almost comically juvenile fashion: This is a hatesong / I wrote it just for you / I thought that I'd write it down while I still could / I hope when you hear this / you'll want to sue
. The icing on the cake is the prog-titled "Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled" which samples the ill-fated Heaven's Gate cult. Now there's one depressing, moody album for ya.
This album won't find the band grooving out in almost hard rock/metal fashion as on the later Deadwing album, which seemed to echo this album with more distortion. In fact, the hardest riff on Russia On Ice is as frightening as that one Radiohead riff from Creep or Just. More to the point: this is candy for the ears; it should appeal to everyone, even though the artistic merit of the band's skill has always been more than just a commercial four chord pop song (which in PT's case also never made a million, but that would not be undeserved). In any case, they have shown that songwriting skill and technical virtuosity, as well as artistic experimentalism, can be joined in a union of forces without losing the aspects of either. In that sense, Porcupine Tree may be a jack-of-all-trades kind of band, but they're simply the one that does that marriage best, whatever genre they would decide to include. And that includes the so often reviled word of pop music.