Review Summary: An incredible work that shows the vast amount of ideas and amazing gift of songwriting that Steven Wilson possessed in the late 1990's. A must-hear.
My last review contained an overlong introduction so I'll just cut to the chase this time. Steven Wilson is a freaking genius, at least when he tries. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his main project, the progressive essential Porcupine Tree. After completing their contract with Delerium records and creating 4 fantastic studio albums that founded new boundaries for psychedelic and space rock with its prog-pop twist, Wilson was in a bit of a jam when it came to writing songs. On Signify, he had pretty much accomplished everything he wanted do with the ideas he was working with at the time, so he decided it was time to redefine the band's sound. After signing to new label Snapper Records, Wilson began to focus more on the pop sensibilities he had been experimenting with, thus creating the art-rock opus Stupid Dream. This album was everything that everyone loves about the band: fantastic vocal harmonies, top-notch drumming, tight bass lines, and lush acoustics. However, once again, Wilson was in a corner. How he had accomplished so much with just these 2 albums dumbfounded both fans and Wilson himself, and the way he honed the sound established on Stupid Dream for such an amazing effort like Lightbulb Sun is yet to be discovered.
I'm in the small minority that believes that this is Porcupine Tree's best work to date. Bridging the gap between the band's spacey progressive past and their metallic, riffy future, Lightbulb Sun handpicks the best things about Signify and Stupid Dream and melds them into one jaw-dropping, life-changing, ultra-British package. Utilizing the unsettling soundscapes and tight instrumentals of Signify ("Last Chance To Evacuate", "Hatesong", "Russia On Ice") and the bright, poppy melodies of Stupid Dream (title track, "Shesmovedon", "The Rest Will Flow") this album is an amalgam of influences, and a melting pot of ideas that begs to be heard. And boy, does it deliver.
The guitar tones on this album are nothing short of heavenly. While the guitars on their previous album left you feeling relaxed and just enjoying the sounds, they were a bit unsettling, which was effective but took a bit away from the overall experience. Lightbulb Sun's guitars invite you in, putting on an amazing show, to soothe the ears and delight the spirit. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening seconds of the album: the opening fingerpicked hook of the title track made me crack a pretty big smile the first time I heard it. Drawing influences from the Britpop scene of the time, Wilson puts his own signature tones and melodies into the hook, creating a palpable feeling of euphoria and joy that will course through the veins of anyone hearing this album for the first time. Other examples of this come on tracks like "Hatesong", which features some addictive heavy chords that were unseen in the band's repertoire before this point, and "Last Chance To Evacuate", which features a stuttering banjo for the first half of the song, and a delightfully strummed acoustic for the second, which slowly pieces together the spacey puzzle of this 5-minute musical monolith.
The bass is equally impressive-before In Absentia Colin's bass lines were actually audible, and believe it or not they actually mattered in the songwriting (I know, I was surprised as well). The main purpose of the bass on this record is to create an atmosphere of any kind. When Wilson requires an emotionally effective piece, Edwin's there to back him up, with his emotive lines on "Where We Would Be" and "Hatesong". "Hatesong" is Edwin's defining moment-the bass line makes this song, countering the heavenly guitar hooks to create a grumbling, descent-into-madness-esque atmosphere that will suck you in like a black hole. Combining Edwin with the frantic dynamics and technical prowess of the band's original drummer Chris Maitland rounds out a technically and emotively impressive rhythm section. Maitland has several standout moments here: his frantic hand-drumming on "Four Chords That Made A Million" creates a psychotic feel for the song's introduction, while his technical flams and cascading rolls on the title track lead into a powerful climax with ease. Edwin and Maitland own "Russia On Ice", a 13-minute epic that easily stands as one of Wilson's best all-time songs. The swelling dynamics and chilling feelings the song gives off would not be nearly as effective without Maitland and Edwin's stellar performances here. Edwin's bass effects create a twisted sound that plays off of Maitland's roaring snare tone and low-key cymbal breaks.
Wilson's vocals here are nothing short of mind-blowing. His lyrics are still not amazing, but they don't matter when his voice sounds this damn good. His hushed, tortured voice coasting over the opening hook of the title track is an amazing beginning to what can only be described as an awe-inspiring record. He still loves to layer-and it packs quite the punch here. The deeply embedded vocal layers on "Shesmovedon", "The Rest Will Flow", and "Where We Would Be" all give off inexplicably happy feelings despite how dark the songs can be at times. However, given Wilson's magnificent songwriting skills, I shouldn't be all that surprised.
However, the real star of this record, and what makes this record so damn amazing is the keyboard work of one Richard Barbieri. His piano parts range from atmospheric (title track) to wonderfully weird ("How Is Your Life Today?") and even just terrifying ("Hatesong"). "How Is Your Life Today?" is easily one of the oddest Porcupine Tree compositions ever. The whole thing is 3 minutes of Richard Barbieri scaring the sh*t out of the listener with a piano part resembling something you'd hear in the circus from Hell, and a hammered dulcimer being tapped at over some beauteous vocal harmonies. The atmosphere these keyboard parts engulf you in is difficult to describe, but you'll know exactly what I can't bring myself to say in coherent words once you hear them. It's a bit cliché, but these really do have to be heard to be believed.
In short, Lightbulb Sun is a masterpiece by an amazing songwriter who sadly got lost listening to bad music and taking pointers from bad songwriters. Hopefully he recovers in the future and we can hear another amazing album like this one.
Recommended tracks (Asterisk signifies best song):
How Is Your Life Today?
Last Chance To Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled
Russia On Ice