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 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)