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One Track Mind: Porcupine Tree “Fear Of A Blank Planet”

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I tried but, dammit, I just couldn’t ignore Fear Of A Blank Planet any longer.

Whenever someone asks me who among the current crop of prog rock bands they should explore, Porcupine Tree always tops my list. While I enjoy Yes-influenced outfits like Spock’s Beard, PT seems to be one of the few earnestly trying to bring the genre forward. From the beginning in the mid-nineties, Steve Wilson and his merry band of experienced rockers forged ahead with their own sound that–like some of its best counterparts of the seventies–struck a perfect balance of melodic English folk and power metal.

The problem, for me at least, is that The Tree seemed to drift closer and closer to straight-ahead metal. 2005’s Deadwing brought them to the point where the power was overwhelming the grace. At the time, Wilson stated that PT was finally achieving a sound that is truly their own. Having resigned to myself that any more works of art like Signify weren’t in the offing, I approached this year’s new release, Fear Of A Blank Planet, with something almost resembling ambivalence. Even the first few listens of it didn’t do much to excite me.

But like all great ambitious records, it slowly got under my skin. Wilson seems to have perfected when to use a soft touch (employing the services of the London Session Orchestra for the strings, for instance), and when it’s time to go heavy on the crunching guitars. And he’s done it by borrowing tricks from noted predecessors like King Crimson and Pink Floyd, without sounding too much like them (even though Robert Fripp contributed to this album and Adrian Belew appeared on Deadwing). Part of the secret has been adding enough contemporary touches to keep the band from sounding like a nostalgia act.

The other thing that stands out about Fear Of A Blank Planet is the thematic nature of it. Porcupine Tree takes issue with how technology and media is creating generations of numb, isolated masses. In fact, it’s said to be based on Brett Easton Ellis’ novel Lunar Park. Coming to grips with modern times is hardly a new theme, but rarely has it been presented in such a perfect combination of texture, feel and lyrics.


Take the lead-off title track, for instance. It begins with a lone acoustic guitar playing a distinctive arpeggio line, with Chris Maitland’s counter beat drums soon making an entrance. Then Colin Edwin’s bass, Wilson’s electric guitar, and Richard Barbieri’s keys enter following that same, desperate line.

After the first four verses are cleverly sung at double meter on the last three lines, the urgency is turned up a notch as the guitar comes in heavier in the mix. And Wilson narrates the part of a tuned out, burned out teenager singing lines like:

X-box is a god to me
A finger on the switch
My mother is a bitch
My father gave up ever trying to talk to me

After chorus-verse-chorus and an instrumental break, the coda softens up the mood from one of defiant numbness to confusion, as ex-Japan member Barbieri lends just the right touch on string synths and organ:

You don’t try to be liked
You don’t mind

You feel no sun
You steal a gun
To kill time

You’re somewhere, you’re nowhere
You don’t care
You catch the breeze
You still the leaves
So now where?

At seven and a half minutes, it’s at the perfect length. Taking its time to make a complete statement, the track uses a variety of textures to envelop the listener, without dwelling on each section too long. This song is not so much composed and played as it is crafted.

That’s a lot already written for just one tune, yet there’s several other fine points embedded in the song I skipped over. And there’s still almost a whole album’s worth of tracks worth their own turn at dissection. But if there was any doubt who is at the top of the prog rock heap, all doubts are dispelled when Porcupine Tree let loose Fear Of A Blank Planet. It was affirmed from the very first selection.

Listen Here: Porcupine Tree “Fear Of A Blank Planet”

“One Track Mind” is a more-or-less weekly drool over a single song selected on a whim and a short thesis on why you should be drooling over it, too. Sample track is only available for a few days.
(Photo by Diana Nitschke)

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About Pico

  • Glen Boyd

    Great review Pico. PT is just about my favorite band right now. After discovering them and writing about them, I took the advice of several people who commented on my review and ended up snatching up about half their catalog. Right now, I can’t stop listening to this great band.

    The thing about “Blank Planet” is that it strikes the perfect balance between the heavier stuff and the texture. I fell in love them first when I heard the track “Sentimental.” Those haunting minor chords on the keyboard just grabbed hold and wouldn’t let go.

    Speaking of texture, you really should give “Deadwing” another chance. “Lazarus,” “Halo,” and especially “Arriving Somewhere” have nuance aplenty. Great review Pico.


  • Mark Saleski

    nice review. i still haven’t digested this record yet. sooo much going on in there.

  • Chris

    I think I’ve genuinely gotten myself addicted to these guys. I haven’t had time to check out Fear of a Blank Planet yet. But then again, I haven’t had time to fully appreciate the older stuff yet either.

  • Pico

    Glen, admittedly, I didn’t give Deadwing as much playing time as I have for the current release, so I’m open to the idea that it needs some time to sink in, too. I still think I’ll find Planet to be superior because all the songs are so well tied together, both thematically and musically (notice how the title track nicely segues into “My Ashes,” for instance).

    Mark, there is indeed a lot going on, here. It’s like listening to a good jazz record, if you know what I mean.

    Thanks for the comments, guys.

  • Pico

    By the way, folks, Glen has already covered the CD in its entirety, and did a mighty fine job at it, I might add:

    Glen’s kick-ass P Tree Review

  • Tom Johnson

    Great write-up on a great song, Pico. I’ve been mulling this album over for some time and plan a review along with Blackfield’s second album at some point in the future, as they seem to present two sides to Wilson’s personality now. (And if you haven’t checked out the new Blackfield yet, DO! It’s absolutely incredible. Better than Fear, actually!)

    And, um, psst – Gavin Harrison is PT’s drummer. Chris Maitland was dumped back in 2002 after he reportedly assaulted Wilson. Maitland was good, but Harrison is god-like.

  • Hung Nguyen

    Listen to Glen and give Deadwing a few more spins. Blank Planet is certainly a fine album, but to me it doesn’t quite reach the grandeur of Deadwing. “Arriving Somewhere…” gives me chills!

  • Pico

    TJ, I had forgotten about that line-up change, a simple check of the CD credits could have avoided such a silly error. Thanks for setting me straight on the drummer.

    I have the first Blackfield and it didn’t do much for me (although there were a few bright spots). The second one is gonna have to be a whole lot better to best Fear, but I’m more than willing to find out :&)

  • Tom Johnson

    Have no fear, Pico – Blackfield II is leaps and bounds better than I. There’s a small bonus to Porcupine Tree fans in that “Christenings” is actually a PT recording that was put on this new Blackfield album (why, I don’t know, but I do know it was leftover from the Deadwing sessions.) I’m not even sure if Aviv Geffen recorded anything extra for that track or if it’s just the original PT version as-is. Either way, the album should not be missed – tracks like “Once” and “Epidemic” are a couple of the year’s best.

  • Pico

    Thanks for the pocket review, TJ, II is on my list!

  • Glen Boyd

    Mine too! (Blackfield II that is).

    So far I’ve bought six PT CDs and theres no sign of stopping. I’d still put FOABP and Deadwing at the top of the list, but I also like The Sky Moves Sideways. The guitar on that one is just insane its so good.


  • Pico

    Alright, Blackfield II is much better than the debut, as advertised. Very consistent. But better than FOABP? I dunno about that, man. The P Tree album is deeper, more nuanced and also tops II in the muscianship department (yeah, I know there’s a lot of overlap in musicians, but they ‘re challenged more in PT).

    But, hey, it’s still a fine record. There doesn’t seem to be any limit on Wilson’s talents. Thanks for the heads up, Tom.

  • Glen Boyd

    Aw crap, you mean in addition to the zillion or so PT records I still need to buy, now I have to get these damn Blackfield discs too?

    Its a conspiracy I tell ya…


  • The Craw

    Interesting note about Chris Maitland leaving Ptree in 2002. I have found no info on any assault, but it seems unlikely, given that Chris played some drums on the first Blackfield album.

    My understanding is that Chris comes from a more jazz-oriented background, and was not as interested in the heavier direction that Steven was going with the new albums…

    By the way, Steven also releases discs under his own name on the Headphone Dust label. Each disc is a cover song and an original. These are great slices of music and show another side of his work….all great stuff!

  • Pico

    I am continuously amazed to learn of all the various projects Wilson works on in addition to recording and touring with both P. Tree and Blackfield. And it’s consistently good to great quality stuff.

    And for whatever reason Maitland left the band, I’ve very happy they have Harrison, now. Gavin is an absolute monster.

    Thanks for passing that along, The Craw.