On the first few initial listens, Porcupine Tree's The Incident has both the look and feel of being the British progressive rock band's masterpiece.
Everything about this album — from its elegantly photographed cover art, to the fifty-five minute title track that takes up all of disc one — screams prog-rock epic. In these rather lofty aspirations, The Incident mostly succeeds. But there are a few bumps along the road to getting there.
The distribution of the songs for one thing, is, well a little weird. Clearly the epic track "The Incident," is intended to be the focal point. But in doing so, the four tracks on the second disc, which together comprise all of twenty minutes plus change, make them feel almost like afterthoughts. Compared to the sprawling fifty-five minutes of disc one, disc two comes off as something more like a bonus, Nil Recurring style E.P.
Which is really too bad, because these four songs contain some of the best music on the entire record. "Black Dahlia" is one of those haunting, melancholic sounding short songs that PT mastermind Steven Wilson seems to be able to come up with on a dime. A quiet keyboard intro soon gives way to a rising swell of mellotron voices here, as Wilson intones surreal-sounding lyrics like 'there's a cliche in your eye, file the edges down, soon be underground."
On "Remember Me Lover," Wilson kisses off a former flame with the words "It's so hard to get along, I always know what you're gonna say, and this too, I hated you, I wish you'd learn to keep your mouth shut." Ouch! Musically, this song goes from another one of those great little melodic hooks that Wilson makes seem so effortless, into the sort of bludgeoning metal crunch that dominated PT's last album, Fear Of A Blank Planet.
Speaking of which, there's far less of that — meaning skull-crushing metal — on The Incident than I expected to see on the followup to 2007's FOABP. In fact, Wilson seems to be favoring the proggier sounds of earlier records like In Absentia and Signify again here. No complaints from me.
The nicest thing about the title track, monster-length aside, is the fact that it is still broken up into fourteen parts, each of which carry their own unique title. So despite the length, it still feels more like a set of stand-alone songs. No Jethro Tull style Passion Play indulgence here.
The mini-tracks range from shorter interludes like the minute and a half or so "Occam's Razor," — which opens The Incident with a blast of metallic guitar — to the eleven minute "Time Flies."
On the latter, Wilson sings "I was born in 67', the year of Sgt. Pepper and Are You Experienced." But musically, Wilson's head seems to be more in tune with Animals era Pink Floyd, and specifically the song "Dogs," then it does with the Beatles or Hendrix. While I want to give Wilson the benefit of the doubt and assume this is more of an homage than a rip-off, the similarities are striking to say the least. "Time Flies" basically plays like a sped-up version of the Floyd song — right down to the guitar soloing that closes it.
Still, and with that minor quibble aside, "The Incident" largely lives up to its advance billing as the rightful centerpiece of this album. It's just a great sounding piece of work.
Lyrically, it follows a loose narrative about a traffic accident Wilson apparently witnessed. Musically, it moves from quieter pieces like "The Seance" to eerie sounding, rhythmically off-kilter stuff like the five minute piece within the piece that is also called "The Incident." Wilson ties together all these elements with his usual great guitar playing, as well as his uncannily great ear for hook-laden melody.
In less gifted hands, something this ambitious might not have worked. But what has always separated Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree from many of their prog and metal peers, is the way PT focus on the songcraft first — even with that occasional fifty five minute long opus.
The Incident is a great new album by one of the best kept secrets in music (at least in America). It arrives September 15 just in time for their tour, which also kicks off this Tuesday in Seattle. I can't wait.