Porcupine Tree - Fear of a Blank Planet (2007)
Atlantic Records 2-115900
From Aural Innovations #37 (Sep 2007)
Soon after the release of Porcupine Tree's latest effort, I read that the album
had already surpassed the sales totals of any of the band's previous albums.
Which evidently means that the major-label support and distribution, and slow
but steady growth of the band's reputation via their live performances and word-of-mouth
promotion, has finally taken hold. Frankly, while 'Fear of a Blank Planet' is
another fairly strong effort, in my opinion, it pales in comparison to the previous
'Deadwing' masterpiece, and so their upturn in global recognition has come one
album too late. Nevertheless, there is enough good music here to recommend picking
up a copy. The six songs (totalling ~50 minutes) all seem to revolve around
a single concept, identified quite obviously in the title, suggesting that today's
youth are becoming evermore disconnected and dehumanized by the invasion of
technology into everyday human life, a theme touched on before by Steve Wilson
in tracks like "Every Home is Wired" from 'Signify.'
Unlike the potentially radio-friendly "Lazarus" from 'Deadwing,' nothing here could possibly threaten to break into radio/MTV playlists, especially since all the songs are a minimum of five minutes, and most past the seven minute mark. Porcupine Tree albums have often seemed to be constructed with a common layout, a big-scale dynamic and majestic number to start, a series of ebbs and flows through the middle of the album, and then a downtrodden melancholy piece to finish (going all the way back to "Fadeaway"). This time they've thrown us a curve on the finale piece ("Sleep Together" having far more variety and action), but the opener follows suit at least. "Fear of a Blank Planet" (the song) is perhaps the strongest work in total on the album...harking back a few years to 'Signify' days and the first IEM album, here we have the same sort of krautrock-ish metallized-motorik rhythm that we all grew to love (well, at least I did). 'Deadwing' really found Porcupine Tree upping the ante on just how far the band was willing to go towards more extreme metal, and here they've backed off just a bit, but the opener still kicks ass.
Having just now seen the band perform live in Cleveland, Ohio, I can confirm that the live act, especially with the addition of John Wesley as a second guitarist in recent years, is yet more energetic and simply louder than they were in earlier years. Gavin Harrison continues to impress me from the drum stool, even more than I was impressed by his predecessor Chris Maitland. (Which was a lot!) For this particular album/tour (unless I wasn't paying attention earlier), the only noticeable change is that Colin Edwin has ditched the fretless bass, and now plays a more conventional style bass with a meatier sound and a touch of distortion/fuzz added on top. Whether that took place by his own choice or by direction from Wilson, I can't say, but I think it was probably a good idea as the band has traded some of the super-ethereal qualities of "Stars Die" and "Waiting" for more anger and aggression.
Back to the album: "My Ashes" is a quickly forgettable tune, a soft, delicate ballad with acoustic guitar and a string section that comes on too strong, as they are wont to do. The massive opus "Anesthetize," at nearly 18 minutes, outweighs the lengthly "Russia On Ice" that the band offered on 'Lightbulb Sun' (my least favorite PT album). Thankfully, unlike that boring number, "Anesthetize" has a lot of cool sections (including a crunchy Metallica-style bridge, and a wild solo from guest Alex Lifeson) and keeps me interested all the way up through the 14th minute. However, the final denoument lets me down by letting Wesley open his mouth and sing counterlines to Wilson's lead vocals. I've heard Wesley sing on tour before (he butchered the aforementioned "Fadeaway" on one tour), but up 'till now his role in the studio was negligible. His falsetto voice here is really just annoying and whiny, nearly (but not quite) as bad as Thom Yorke. He's a fine guitar player - live, he was given the task of taking on Lifeson's solo break and did a fine job, but as a singer I think he's terrible.
Anyway, "Sentimental" is another quiet piece, this one exceedingly dreamy and spacey, and I quite like it, even though it doesn't really stand out on stage. Wilson's voice here is soft as usual, but his confidence and control have improved markedly in recent years. Occasionally, in a live setting, he now even belts out his voice with some aggression - that never happened in the 1990s. The finale two pieces are standard PT numbers with passages both loud and soft, enough big statements and urgency here and there to keep you going through the quiet passages. I like them, but they're nothing we haven't heard done just as well (or better) on previous albums. And the string section makes another appearance at the end of "Sleep Together," and here it is just WAY too much. Ick. And it clashes greatly with Richard Barbieri's burbly, foreboding synth tones. Bad choice in orchestration here.
Well, OK, I had my hopes up for another great album like 'Deadwing,' and this one didn't quite do the trick for me. I still like it well enough, and comes close to matching 'In Absentia' at least. But no matter what minor stylistic changes Wilson decides to make with the band from year to year, the success of the next album seems to rely primarily on whether his songwriting shines. I mean, I didn't care at all for the (over)use of choral vocals in 'Stupid Dream,' but the album is full of good songs and I rate this album extremely highly as a result. Here I only have two noteworthy complaints (Wesley's singing and the string finale, both about 2 minutes in length) so my overall rating of the album reflects mainly on whether the songs are compelling. And in that sense, the album is about 50:50. Tracks one, three, and four work quite well; two, five and six are just OK.
For more information you can visit the band web site at: http://www.porcupinetree.com
Reviewed by Keith Henderson