Thursday , February 29 2024
So gee, ya think I like these guys or what?

The Rockologist: Why I Love Porcupine Tree

So ya think I like these guys or what?

You know what it is they say about discovering new bands? Well no, in all likelihood you probably don’t — so please allow your friendly neighborhood Rockologist to clarify.

For music obsessives like yours truly, the experience of discovering a really great new band can be quite disarming. It’s the sound that gets you first. It grabs you by both shoulders and shakes you as if you had been asleep up until that moment. In the really extreme cases, the experience can be life changing.

Like meeting that special someone you have been searching for all your life, a really great new, unheard of before sound can have the effect of making you wonder something like “where have you been all of my life?”

Like that potential soulmate — and yes, contrary to popular perception even us music obsessives have been known to enjoy healthy love lives (well, at least some of us) — you find yourself suddenly wanting, and in fact needing to learn everything there is to know about this wonderful new discovery.

It was like that for me the first time I saw the Beatles as a seven-year-old boy on the Ed Sullivan show. It was like that again when a friend dragged me to see the great white hype that was Bruce Springsteen on his 1975 Born To Run tour.

And it was like that yet again, when earlier this year I discovered an amazing British progressive rock band called Porcupine Tree.

Prior to this year I had never heard of Porcupine Tree — a fact which is now somewhat hard to fathom considering how I pride myself on keeping up on such things. Thank goodness I have friends right here on Blogcritics who are always looking out for the best interests of your Rockologist.

So when a few of those same friends picked up on the fact that there was an old progressive rock fan waiting to come out again in some of my reviews here (the Marillion review had to be the first clue), they rightfully, and thankfully pointed me in the direction of Porcupine Tree.

And you know what? You guessed it. The classic case of “where has this band been all of my life?”

What I soon discovered — besides the fact that this band is really, really good — is the fact that they have been around awhile, and in fact are quite prolific. After my first exposure to Porcupine Tree with the album Fear Of A Blank Planet, I knew had to go in much, much deeper.

The thing is, I didn’t realize just how deep it was going to get. Not only had these guys been around since the early nineties, they we’re also apparently the best kept secret in the music business. Porcupine Tree not only had a shitload of albums — and that’s not even counting the side projects of P. Tree’s main man Steven Wilson like Blackfield — they also had a quite rabidly devoted cult following.

But upon hearing Fear Of A Blank Planet, there was simply no argument to be had. I was in. The first track off of FOABP that really grabbed me was this song called “Sentimental.” What I didn’t at first totally grasp about this album when I wrote my original review, was how it’s all about the alienation and boredom felt by teenagers who feel somehow outcast and alone — and how such a condition can lead to things like the school shootings at Columbine.

The song “Sentimental” sums up this feeling perfectly, as its haunting minor chords play against the chorus:

“Sullen and bored the kids stay,
And in this way they wish away each day.
Stoned in the mall, the kids play,
And in this way, they wish away each day”

Hey, it may have been Alice Cooper and T. Rex in the Rockologist’s day compared to Marilyn Manson or whomever and whatever floats the boat of teenaged alienation these days. Still, I instantly recognized this feeling. In my gut, I knew it, and I knew it well.

Beyond that track, FOABP goes from the textures of songs like “My Ashes” to the all out metallic shredding of the opus “Anesthetize.” But this wasn’t just mindless noise. Clearly, Porcupine Tree was a band with much more to offer.

At this point, I should also say that the single biggest thing which pisses me off about discovering this great band this year is the fact that I missed a concert they did here in Seattle by about two weeks. So guys, if you are reading this please get back this way soon okay?

Anyway, no matter. There was work to be done in the form of diving far deeper into this band’s expansive catalog. My first stop was a live DVD called Arriving Somewhere…, which all but confirmed my suspicions that I really screwed up by missing their concert here. Besides Steven Wilson being this rather amazing writer, on this DVD you also start to notice two things. One, that the musical reach of these guys is virtually limitless. And two, that they can really play — especially drummer Gavin Harrison who is an unqualified motherfucker on this DVD.

The best songs here come from the band’s great Deadwing album, which they were touring behind at the time. They range from the hard-rocking “Halo,” to the gorgeous, layered space-rock of “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here,” to the lilting acoustics of the ballad “Lazarus.” But Harrison’s drumming is what really draws you in here. There is even a bonus DVD on which Harrison is allowed to shine on “Cymbal Song.”

The drummer in my own band was a convert right there.

So now, it was time to go really deep. And here is where things start to get really interesting with this band. You see, when you start to delve into this band’s history, you also start to realize that no two albums sound the same. Far from it.

Porcupine Tree has apparently led several lives, and one of the earliest was as a neo-psychedelic band which did the best knock-off of the atmospherics of early Pink Floyd that I’ve ever heard. On the title track of the double CD The Sky Moves Sideways (and we are talking thirty-five minutes worth here), Steven Wilson summons up the most dead-on David Gilmour I have ever heard (both vocally and on guitar), before taking off into some of the most positively insane guitar playing I have ever heard.

In between all of that you get everything but the kitchen sink in terms of layered, atmospheric effects. From the best solo multi-octave female vocals I’ve heard since Mike Oldfield’s Ommadawn or Annie Haslim’s old records with Renaissance, to some good old-fashioned backward-masked tracking, it’s all there. And it is just freaking amazing.

So by this time, I had started to hear about a great mainly out-of-print album called Signify, which was rumored to be their best. While that is probably somewhat debatable, it is certainly the one album which combines all of the elements which make Porcupine Tree such a great band.

When I first got Signify, — based on everything I had heard about it — I figured the best place to sample it was driving across the beautiful rural, farm-dotted roads of Oregon that I travel through once a month in my “day job.” Other than coming way too close to hitting a deer crossing the road because I was so entranced by this album at one point, this proved to be a great call.

Signify is an absolutely amazing record. There are so many musical soundscapes on this album, I cannot possibly conjure them all up in a single review. There are recordings of preachers performing exorcisms set to dark jazz played in minor chords. There are the piped-in recordings of the album’s host urging the listener to “sit back and get a cup of coffee or something” before embarking on the sonic journey of the album about to unfold.

What sticks out most in my mind are two songs — both played on one of those trips to Oregon. The first is “Waiting,” whose lilting melody played as I came up over the hillside of beautiful green fields leading down into the God-forsaken small town of Estacada, just before leading into the intense crescendo of wah-wah guitar that climaxes this incredible song.

The other song that sticks out is “Dark Matter.” On the Signify album, the lead in to this song is two minutes of atmospheric, gregorian sort of chanting called “Light Mass Prayers” that ebbs and flows in a hypnotic sort of effect. From there it segues itself into the throbbing, minor chords of “Dark Matter” itself. This is a song that simply has to be heard to be believed. Wilson’s vocals here are at first foreboding:

“This has become a full-time career,
To die young would take only twenty-one years,
Gun down a school, or blow up a car,
The media circus will make you a star”

But then they take on an almost hymn-like quality, rising from the ashes of the song’s earlier despair:

“Crushed like a rose,
In the river flow,
I am…I know”

Below, you will find a very rare live video of the song (minus the chants, unfortunately) recorded earlier this year in Mexico City:

The ebb and flow here are simply indescribable. Especially when you pull into a town like Estacada.

So can ya’ tell I like these guys yet?

And did I mention that they are really prolific?

In addition to Wilson’s Blackfield Project, Porcupine Tree have also just released another record. Not six months after FOABP, comes the extended EP Nil Recurring. This limited edition (5000 copies or so I’ve been told), is something of a companion piece to FOABP, featuring four rather lengthy tracks (the title track features Robert Fripp).

But my favorite here is “Normal,” because it is basically an extension of the track that hooked me on Porcupine Tree in the first place, FOABP’s “Sentimental.” Check it out below:

Porcupine Tree’s new Nil Recurring can still be ordered at the band’s web web site.

So gee, ya think I like these guys or what?

About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.

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