Review Summary: Porcupine Tree's new album is extremely competent, emotionally harrowing, but ultimately lacking the final part of oomph of their previous records.
A man drives his car down a British motorway. He passes green fields and trees. His eyes focused on the scenery, the driveway almost blurred beneath the dying haze of vision in an obscured summer evening. As the white dotted lines keep disappearing beneath the wheels of his car, the inevitable happens; there is a crash of metal, a sound of tinkling glass, skid marks on the tarmac, and anguished yells from bystanders rend the sweltering evening air. Ambulance sirens make their way to the scene, police rope off the area with marks of tape reading DO NOT CROSS – INCIDENT, and as traffic resumes on the other lanes, in that car the inevitable flickering ghost of a deceased driver rises up into the night sky. Wishing to escape from the horrific event that caused his passing, he steals away into a passing vehicle; what fortune that that passing vehicle belonged to one Steven Wilson, band leader, songwriter and front man of progressive art-rock band Porcupine Tree.
It may not have gone exactly like that, but it’s probably close enough to describe the concept if you want to get an idea what the Incident, the first disc of Porcupine Tree’s latest studio album, is all about essentially. It takes powerful, cataclysmic, life-changing events, and transforms their personal coverage into some sort of detached media reportage, making it seem cold and lifeless, a mere way of exemplifying the fragility of human life, and how sorrow, misfortune, and despair are not unique to the victims of these events, but a widespread global phenomenon, afflicting more lives than is commonly taken to be true.
It is almost harrowing to process the idea of this lyrical concept: fortunately, Wilson’s gloomy lyrics seem palatable mostly due to the fact the music is less abrasive and more down to earth. There is an earthy sense of reality in Wilson’s work that frequently dulls the ravaging impacts of the work he writes about; in a way, this makes the music all that more accessible to a wider audience (most of this band’s production and songs are slicker than they sound, making the true metal parts easier to take for the uninitiated and the softer parts easy to stomach for the aging rocker). In a sense, this is the band’s (and particularly Wilson’s, who wrote all of the lyrics and most of the music) song writing skill exemplified again; the band is extremely adept at taking different, completely juxtaposing musical styles, and threading them into each other so as to create the effect of some sort of complex tapestry. Think complex fractal figures, distorted visions, Escherian imagery, and a kaleidoscopic effect all jammed into one big screen, changing at will, fascinating at times, but baffling at others.
If you had to take threads to wire this musical tapestry, it would probably take cues from a lot of more common bands than you think, although they are less obvious than before. Pink Floyd, the band that seemed to be the primary influence in the early days, has been all but forgotten; nowadays, the band probably marked their wires Radiohead, electronica and industrial music, modern experimental metal, old-school prog, and even what sounds like the bastard child of Nirvana and Soundgarden. The Blind House, the album’s true opening track (Occam’s Razor’s ringing chords and eerie slithering effects don’t really count), opens up with a blasting series of riffs that sound like the spirit of Mastodon’s Crack the Skye is being channelled through the speakers, but midway through it turns in on itself into a completely Kid A groove. The Yellow Windows of the Evening Train immerses itself in the sort of ambience Sigur Ros would find gorgeous. Circle of Manias is such an attempt to rhythmically bash in the heads of the audience with complex guitar rhythms Meshuggah would be pleased to know they have fans. Porcupine Tree, again, seem to be able to veer from extreme to extreme in the course of an album, or sometimes even a song: check out The Incident, which sounds like Nine Inch Nails rocking it out in the studio until Meshuggah and Opeth join the party and end up throwing the whole song around the walls… while all the while a little boy cries frightfully at the noise, screaming “I just want to be loved”.
But for all this prodigious skill, and make no mistake about the instrumentalists too; Harrison is a drum master and Barbieri’s synthesizer manipulations are to die for; there is a little bit lacking in the song writing department that Porcupine Tree had mastered on previous albums. After the last four or five albums, which all contained a bunch of hit songs somewhere on the album, this album seems to be devoid of those. Most of the Incident is too fragmented to contain any, being more of a continuous piece of music, where very few things make sense in isolation, apart from Drawing the Line and The Incident (although the gorgeous piano ballad Kneel and Disconnect may be the best thing the band has written since Lazarus or even Trains), but even on the more song-oriented, band-collaborated second disc, the work reminds more of the Nil Recurring EP, than it does of any material that will really propel the band forwards instead of leaning on their comfortable back catalogue.
No matter how gloomy Steven Wilson may sound, or how dramatically he articulates the fall of personality, mortality and thought with his decidedly acidic words (“when I fall / I drive the hearse”), the creepiness never really ascends from a mere vibe to actual despair; unlike their previous album, which made the dangerous excess behaviour concomitant with the ubiquity of modern technology almost frighteningly obvious to the general public. There’s just the super-spark missing that elevates this album from “all fine, all decent” to really amazing, which is something that did appear on previous records. It, for a Porcupine Tree record, aided by the band’s extended push into more esoteric territory, is slightly too meandering; artistically pleasing and emotionally punishing, but musically too out there for it to be considered with the real pantheon of PT’s musical works that define their sound nowadays. Most of the time, the band does rein in musical excess, and it is frankly not noodling that is the issue; more that not everything is as instantly memorable as Steven Wilson has created in the past. On the merit of their skill, this record is excellent, and huge chunks of the album seem to be completely in order (in fact, nothing really irritates about this disc), but its inoffensive nature is a slight drawback for a band that was known to combine poignancy and immediacy with artistry and experiments. This album needs one song that does the trick and elevates it to something more than another good Porcupine Tree record; it lacks what made In Absentia excellent (a “Trains” or a “Blackest Eyes”.)
No doubt, the band will continue down this path, endlessly writing and diving into more and wilder artistic experiments, pleasing themselves as artists, and no one will blame them; in fact, if all bands wrote albums of this quality the world would be a better place. But for Porcupine Tree, a band that has been known to accomplish excellence and greatness, something merely good is a slight disappointment. Given the band’s skills, expect order to be restored on the next record, because then Porcupine Tree will never have to be the band that drives the hearse of the man in the opening paragraph. And the day a band like this goes down the drain is a sorry one indeed.