Like many ultimately frustrating musical and artistic movements, progressive rock began with only the best of intentions. But what started as a daring and experimental blending of hard rock, krautrock and psychedelia swiftly became a formulaic exercise in genre formalities, with virtuoso musicianship borne of classical training not just a requirement but the raison d’être for many bands’ existence. A few hardy souls have remained loyal to the style’s original ideals over the decades (King Crimson comes immediately to mind), but by the ’90s, progressive rock had become, for the most part, the exact opposite of what the name promised: old fogey music played by nostalgia-mongers for audiences living in the past.
Enter Porcupine Tree. Beginning in London in the 1990s as the one-man-band side project of No-Man guitarist Steven Wilson (a different No Man than the one fielded by Mission of Burma mainstay Roger Miller), the Tree reclaimed progressive rock from the lifeless claws in which it was clutched by first reconnecting to its psychedelic roots and then disconnecting it from any pretensions toward classical form and technique. Though a fine guitarist heavily influenced by David Gilmour and Bill Nelson, Wilson prefers to keep his solo statements short and to the point, eschewing showboating for its own sake in favor of using his (and his bandmates’) considerable skills in service of the songs themselves. In addition to being a superb melodist, Wilson is also a sharp producer, concentrating on texture as much as performance: his records, both in and outside his group, offer plenty of sonic delights. Well-respected synthesist Richard Barbieri (ex-Japan), bassist Colin Edwin and drummers Gavin Harrison and Chris Maitland have no trouble following Wilson down the path his distinctive vision takes him, adding more than enough of their own talent to make the Tree more than just the sum of a leader and his smart sidemen. Finally, the band makes albums as opposed to collections of songs that happen to be recorded at one time. Sharing a mindset similar to Tool, Muse and Radiohead, Porcupine Tree stands as a paragon of modern progressive rock.
Featuring material compiled from a pair of cassettes distributed with copies of a psychedelic fanzine, On the Sunday of Life… introduces an artist distributing ideas like the wind scatters seeds — randomly, with little sense of purpose. But the hardiest take root. Working almost entirely alone, Wilson stuffs the record with pseudo acid fluff, complete with silly pitch-shifted vocals, sub-Syd Barrett melodies and an intolerable air of self-amusement, with daft lyrics from the soon-to-be gone Alan Duffy, titles include “No Luck With Rabbits,” “Message From a Self-Destructing Turnip” and “Linton Samuel Dawson.” But the record also contains “This Long Silence,” a slight but catchy pop tune; “The Nostalgia Factory,” the first salvo in Wilson’s ongoing war against superficiality; “Nine Cats” and “Radioactive Toy,” long, atmospheric epics that essentially lay out the direction of Porcupine Tree’s subsequent work.
“What you’re listening to are musicians performing psychedelic music,” an announcer states at the beginning of Up the Downstair and, given the evidence, it’s impossible to argue. Wilson gives his sustain-heavy guitar a workout on the soaring “Burning Sun,” the driving “Not Beautiful Anymore” and the title track, all of which make the most of repetition, melody and space-rock dynamics. But it’s not all music for tripping through the cosmos. “Small Fish” and “Always Never” reiterate Wilson’s jones for brooding pop, while “Fadeaway” introduces his mastery of sweeping psych rock balladry. With stronger focus, more obvious comfort with his chosen style(s) and the first contributions by future bandmates Barbieri and Edwin, Wilson makes Up the Downstair Porcupine Tree’s first serious statement.
For the updated reissue a dozen years later, Wilson not only remixed and remastered the original LP, he had Gavin Harrison replace the drum machine, leading to a major improvement on all fronts. The 2004 edition also adds the contents of Staircase Infinities, a 1994 Dutch EP of songs left off of Downstair, and is significant due to the space-rocking “Cloud Zero,” the gorgeous “The Joke’s on You” and the lovely instrumental “Rainy Day” (which was expanded and rewritten on the next album as “The Sky Moves Sideways”). Also intended for Downstair, Voyage 34 — basically the teetotaling Wilson’s depiction of an acid trip — was originally released as a single and then expanded into an EP and an album. As one 17-minute song, “Voyage 34” fulfills its purpose reasonably well. As four different iterations, all of epic length, it’s simply tedious.
The Sky Moves Sideways is a transitional work. Wilson made about half the record alone, from the six-string soundscape of “Prepare Yourself” and the seething rock of “Dislocated Day” to the shimmering acid folk of “The Moon Touches Your Shoulder” (fairly dedicated to Nick Drake). But the title track — a massive Pink Floydian epic divided into two parts that open and close the album — features new recruits Barbieri, Edwin and drummer Chris Maitland, turning Porcupine Tree from a studio project into an actual band. The presence of other musicians opens up the sound considerably; Barbieri’s imaginative textures and Edwin’s nimble, jazz-inflected basslines became as recognizable sonic signatures as Wilson’s liquid guitar. (For the 2004 edition, Harrison again replaced the electronic percussion on the bandless tracks. The reissue adds a second disc, with two contemporaneous singles — the mostly improvised, seriously spaced-out “Moonloop” and the spectacular anthem “Stars Die” — and a version of the title song with a different arrangement and lyrics.)
With the tightness that comes from touring, Porcupine Tree fully coalesced as a band on Signify. Armed with excellent musicians capable of strong performances, Wilson rises to the occasion with his best writing yet. “Sever” and “The Sleep of No Dreaming” fold the widescreen landscapes of progressive rock into simple, melancholy melodies to compelling effect, while the two-part “Waiting” grafts brooding lyrics onto an elevated, harmony-heavy tune. “Dark Matter” floats handsomely in bittersweet lushness, and begins Wilson’s ongoing commentary on the music business. The relatively sedate “Every Home Is Wired” introduces another pet theme: the relationship between constantly evolving technology and the decay of human communication. The band also delivers several powerful instrumentals: the jazzy “Intermediate Jesus,” the glowering “Idiot Prayer” (co-written by Edwin, whose bass drives it) and the rocking title track. The 2004 remaster adds Insignificance, a collection of Wilson’s demos for the project. Released as a double 10-inch in 1998 and then reissued on CD, Metatonia consists of group improvisations recorded during the Signify sessions.
Signify felt like the culmination of everything Porcupine Tree had worked for so far. The band evidently felt the same, closing both its relationship with Delerium and the first phase of its career with the excellent double live Coma Divine. Largely stripped of studio production frippery, the performances revel in compelling melodies, adding exactly the kind of rock drive one expects in concert. Besides summing up the band’s early years, the record includes definitive versions of “Signify,” “The Sky Moves Sideways” (cut down to 13 magnificent minutes) and “Up the Downstair.” Coma Divine is the perfect introduction to Porcupine Tree’s early years.
Delerium eventually compiled its own PT summary, the two-disc Stars Die, which not only gathers most of the obvious standouts but adds a significant number of singles and B-sides, making it a worthwhile purchase even for dutiful album buyers.
Stupid Dream brought Porcupine Tree to a new label with further exploration of the overtly melodic points touched on the previous record. While it would be reaching to suggest that the band has its controls set for the heart of the musical mainstream, the Tree does give itself a kick in the pop direction here. “Don’t Hate Me” (soaring), “Pure Narcotic” (delicate), “Stranger by the Minute” (floating) and “This is No Rehearsal” (rocking) enfold snaring hooks, close vocal harmonies and singalong choruses into intricate arrangements. The layered production has more air than ever before. “Piano Lessons” is the group’s purest pop moment yet, putting a strong guitar hook and an unusually light touch in service of another bittersweet diatribe about the life of a working musician. But the band hasn’t abandoned its psych/prog roots.
The record opens with the dense and powerful “Even Less,” an anthemic meditation on death that may be the Tree’s purest prog statement yet. The menacing “Slave Called Shiver,” the darkly brooding “Stop Swimming,” the arty ballad “A Smart Kid” (which bears a resemblance to Radiohead, of whom Wilson is an acknowledged fan) and the frisky instrumental “Tinto Brass” (with jazz flautist Theo Travis, a frequent Wilson associate) would never be mistaken for pop tunes — or for anybody else, for that matter. (The 2009 reissue adds a second disc of DVD-A mixes, a format of which Wilson is inordinately fond, plus an inferior new cover.)
Adventurous radio programmers could’ve found much to love on Stupid Dream, but no one bit. The band, of course, simply shrugged and kept going. Lightbulb Sun continues in the vein of Stupid Dream, with sharper hooks, tighter melodies and even airier arrangements. Romance, more specifically the dissolution thereof, is foremost on Wilson’s mind, as a majority of the songs deal with the aftermath of a breakup. Without casting aspersions on Wilson’s personal life, he moves through all the stages of grief here — denial in the sublimely pretty “Where Would We Be,” anger in the snarling “Hatesong,” bargaining in the epic “Russia on Ice,” depression in the blunt but lovely “Feel So Low,” acceptance in the straightforward “Shesmovedon” and the lush “The Rest Will Flow.” The band takes time out from romantic brooding, though, to take the point of view of a sick child in the title track (one of the band’s greatest songs), make an oblique comment on teenage romance via the Heaven’s Gate tragedy in the cleverly arranged “Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled” and take another slap at the music business with the hard-rocking “Four Chords That Made a Million,” cheekily released as a single. Armed with openly emotional sentiments and a firm melodic center, Lightbulb Sun shows Porcupine Tree continuing its evolution by moving from strength to strength. The reissue includes a DVD-A disc.
At this point, a major label finally signed the Tree. In preparation for a new career stage, the band compiled its most recent B-sides and outtakes into Recordings. Given the level of talent and craft the group usually brings to bear on its songs, the record reads more like a focused account than a dumping ground. Ranging from an expanded version of “Even Less” and the improvised instrumental textures of “Ambulance Chasing” and “Untitled” to the pop rocks of “Access Denied” and the languid balladry of “Disappear” and “A Cure for Optimism,” the LP is as enjoyable as any of the band’s regular studio LPs. That said, Recordings is dominated by its opening track, the expansive, dynamic, exceptionally melodic “Buying New Soul” (yet another commentary on the music business).
The band also summed up its most recent era with Warszawa, a live set recorded for Polish radio in 2001. With a set list drawn almost entirely from the two previous studio albums (plus a portion of “Voyage 34”), the show is leaner and meaner than previous live recordings, with an emphasis on songs over textures. Though not the revelatory experience of Coma Divine, it’s still a solid performance that further proves PT’s prowess as a live act.
Signing to Atlantic subsidiary Lava and trading out Maitland for former session drummer Gavin Harrison, Porcupine Tree hunkered down in a New York studio with Rush engineer Paul Northfield and made the tremendous In Absentia. Adding some metal dynamics to the psych/prog/pop core (influenced by Wilson’s studio work with progressive death metal band Opeth), the group unleashes a veritable cavalcade of songs that are classic rock in every sense of the word. There’s a serious streak of darkness running through these tracks — Wilson’s cynicism crosses the line to gloom on multiple occasions, as if he’s using the defiant, vibrant music to combat his own worst tendencies. Death is everywhere — in the menacing protagonists of the fierce rocker “The Creator Has a Mastertape” and the stadium anthem “Blackest Eyes,” the hapless working man in “Heartattack in a Layby,” the haunted atmosphere of the sprawling ballad “Gravity Eyelids,” the music industry itself in the angular, angry “The Sound of Muzak.” But the melodies constantly kick against the pricks of the lyrics, whether it’s the spacious arrangement of “Lips of Ashes,” the snarling riffs of the instrumental “Wedding Nails” or the defiant, acoustic guitar-driven love-against-the-odds pop anthem “Trains” (which became a concert staple). Even the lost love ode “Collapse the Light Into the Earth” gains uplift with beauteous piano melodies and an elegiac string arrangement by Dave Gregory of XTC.
The group’s instrumental imagination is also put to good use: banjo cleverly incorporated into the bridge of “Trains,” the subtle shift from atmospheric ballad to power chord frenzy on “Gravity Eyelids,” the oddly-timed riff that powers “The Sound of Muzak.” Solos are short and to the point. The band would much rather emphasize the contrast between Wilson’s crashing electric work and lush acoustic rhythms, or the spot-on application of Barbieri’s imaginative electronic textures, which range from lush and beautiful to harsh and dissonant. Harrison (who began attracting Neil Peart comparisons with this release) proves himself a real asset — his nimble kit work locks in with Edwin’s grooving bass and blends perfectly with the band’s sound, giving it extra power while remaining limber and versatile. This is the sound of a group firing on all cylinders and reveling in its best set of tunes. One of the very few modern rock records that reveals new things about itself with every spin, In Absentia is where all the elements of the Porcupine Tree sound — sterling melodies, imaginative arrangements, layered production, lush harmonies, enigmatic lyrics — truly come together in the band’s quintessential statement, This is an album against which all contemporary progressive rock should be judged.
Deadwing began life as a screenplay, a “surreal ghost story” whose details have never been revealed. Just as well, because if there’s any concept driving this LP, it’s mysterious to the point of non-existence. No matter. Wilson dials up the metallic influences here, particularly in the riffs, but the band can’t resist futzing with the arrangements. “Shallow,” a radio-friendly alt.metal single that is the Tree’s heaviest track to date, has a piano-and-acoustic-guitar bridge, and the roaring “Halo” and “Open Car” both push lush ambience and powerful melodies and bombastic riffage. The languid, oddly cadenced “Mellotron Scratch” eschews heaviness for a less direct, more enticing effect. The album’s centerpiece is “Arriving Somewhere but Not Here,” a return to the lengthy psychedelic epics from the band’s past. But the most memorable tune is “Lazarus,” a pretty ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Coldplay record. Guitarist Adrian Belew guests on “Halo” and the title track; Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt contributes harmony vocals throughout. Not a masterpiece, but still a worthy follow-up to a major work.
After the hint of Deadwing, it was inevitable that Porcupine Tree would ultimately deliver an actual concept album. There’s no narrative tying together the six songs on Fear of a Blank Planet (titled, oddly and very belatedly, after Public Enemy). Instead, the songs are unified by a theme, specifically a rerun of the idea that personal technology is killing interpersonal communication. (Novelist Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park is an acknowledged influence.) Wilson takes aim at both kids and their parents, blaming not only the videogames and websurfing that obsess the young, but also the drugs forced on them to make them “normal.” It’s a mixed success — Wilson raises some good points, but too often succumbs to a sneering air of disapproval rather than a sense of compassionate concern. Fortunately, the record puts his ideas across with music that is both densely produced and melodically engaging. The rest of the band takes a larger role than ever in composition and production. Though the record benefits from both conceptual and artistic unity, it’s easy to pick out the rocking title song, the alienated anthem “Way Out of Here” and the intricately constructed, supremely melodic “Sentimental” as highlights. Robert Fripp and Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson guest. Amazingly for an album this dour, Fear of a Blank Planet became the band’s bestselling record.
Nil Recurring consists of four songs recorded for, but dropped from, Fear of a Blank Planet. There’s nothing inherently inferior about the polyrhythmic “Cheating the Polygraph” or “What Happens Now”; if the title instrumental meanders, it does feature some sizzling Fripp lead guitar. The decision to exclude the spectacular “Normal” from the album presents a real mystery. A sister track to “Sentimental,” the song recycles the chorus and adds a variety of textures, harmonies and a finger-twisting guitar riff for one of the Tree’s most powerful and arresting tunes.
The limited edition We Lost the Skyline was recorded at a Florida in-store; due to a lack of space, only Wilson and touring guitarist/singer John Wesley took the stage. It’s a surprisingly vital document, with excellent, basic takes on staples (“Trains,” “Even Less,” “Lazarus”) and obscurities (“Stars Die,” the B-side “Drown With Me”). By stripping the band’s intricately produced tunes down to a pair of guitars and voices, Wilson emphasizes the lasting melodies that sometimes get lost, and the self-deprecating commentary (particularly his intro to the challenging “Normal”) offers reassurance that he’s not a brooding sourpuss. An unexpected delight.
After that pause to refresh, it was back to business with The Incident, another concept LP. A song cycle that stretches to nearly an hour, the record revolves around sudden events that are lifechanging for the participants but dispassionately reported by the media. You may or not find that point worth pondering. “Drawing the Line” floats on the verses and rocks hard on the choruses, while “Your Unpleasant Family” briefly sums up neighborly harassment with a sinuous slide guitar solo. “The Blind House” puts the tragedy of teenage concubines trapped in a religious settlement to a roiling psychedelic hard rock riff, while “I Drive the Hearse” sonorously brings the journey home. The epic “Time Flies” evokes sentimental fortitude with a near-summary of every weapon in the Tree arsenal — appealing melody, expansive arrangement, textural richness. It’s almost the band’s ultimate track.
At the two-decade mark, cracks are beginning to show around the edges. Though not without appeal, short cuts like “Great Expectations” and “Kneel and Disconnect” seem more unfinished than the bridges they were no doubt intended to be. The band’s perfectly composed balance of riffs, textures and mixed-genre melodies is beginning to feel overly familiar, even predictable — a fact made painfully obvious by the four undistinguished tunes on the bonus EP. Given that the Tree has tended to move in cycles — the psychedelic experimentation of the Delerium years, the prog pop polish of Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun, the ambitious craftsmanship of the major label era — perhaps The Incident signals the end of this chapter. The band has certainly earned the right to rethink its purpose, and possesses more than enough talent to surprise its audience in the next round.
Unfortunately, Porcupine Tree has since announced an indefinite hiatus, with no plans to work together in the near future; thus, the double-live LP Octane Twisted may very well be the band’s swan song. If so, it’s not the greatest send-off. The group runs through The Incident in its entirety on one disc and a handful of catalog tracks (some obvious, some not) on the other. It all sounds skilled and professional, but hardly enthusiastic. Even Wilson apparently realized the Tree had grown as tall as it could go.
Porcupine Tree also has a slew of download-only releases available from the band’s website: B-sides, outtakes and entire concerts, including a recent performance released to benefit the ailing (now deceased) Mick Karn. The concert DVDs are also well worth seeking out.
The workaholic Wilson has side projects out the proverbial wazoo. The now-retired I.E.M., which stands for Incredible Expanding Mindfuck, is Wilson’s exploration of psychedelic trance music and space rock. The prolific Bass Communion is Wilson’s take on ambient electronica. Wilson still collaborates with singer / songwriter Tim Bowness as No-Man and is much in demand as a producer and mixer, 5.1 Surround Sound a specialty.
Blackfield, the most prominent of Wilson’s extracurricular activities, finds the singer / guitarist in collaboration with Israeli singer/songwriter Aviv Geffen. It is a lopsided partnership. Geffen is not even close to being Wilson’s equal as either a singer or a tunesmith, a fact that has become more evident as the duo evolves. It’s not as noticeable on Blackfield, which is dominated by Wilson’s melodic psych/prog/pop aesthetic — the eponymous title track could have easily fit on a Tree record. But Geffen takes a larger hand in the songwriting on II and Welcome to My DNA, which he composed virtually alone, and the music wobbles unevenly as Geffen’s flamboyant rock star melodrama increasingly conflicts with Wilson’s more measured craftsmanship. Nowhere is this more evident than on the in-concert CD/DVD NYC: Geffen’s pitch-poor flailing stands out from the rest of the performance like a copulating couple at a Baptist revival. With the possible exception of the debut, Blackfield’s body of work is for Wilson completists only.
Although it’s his vision that defines Porcupine Tree, Wilson nonetheless embarked on a solo career with Insurgentes. Despite claims in interviews of the record’s experimental nature, most of it sounds like the mothership. Despite the involvement of bass god Tony Levin, Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess, Mellow Candle singer Clodagh Simonds and experimental guitarists Sand Snowman and Dirk Serries (aka Vidna Obmana and Fear Falls Burning), Wilson retains his usual melodic and textural sense, not to mention the steady rhythmic backbone of Gavin Harrison. The cadences and arrangement of the languorous “Veneno Para Las Hadas” (which quotes from “The Sky Moves Sideways”), the pretty title track (which includes koto player Michiyo Yagi) and the anthemic “Harmony Korine” (a Tree track in all but name) will sound comfortably familiar to PT fans afraid of a radical departure. A few swaths of noisy, Killing Joke-esque guitar and the robotic “Significant Other” aside, Insurgentes stakes little ground Wilson hasn’t already confidently trod.
The double-disc Grace for Drowning finds Wilson downplaying his searing guitar work and drawing more inspiration from ’70s prog rock (particularly King Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator) than he has since The Sky Moves Sideways. Admittedly, the eerie “Index” and the noisy “No Part of Me” don’t fall far from the Porcupine Tree. But the dynamic instrumental “Sectarian,” the enigmatic “Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye” and the monstrous epic “Raider II” (which really sounds like a meeting of the Crimson and Van der Graaf minds) expand Wilson’s horizons by surprising degrees. Even the lush pop ballad “Postcard” and the Brian Wilsonish title track sound fresh in this environment. By weaving his usual sense of melancholy melody into airy arrangements that owe more to records made 40 years ago and allowing rippling piano and cathedral Mellotron to dictate most of the arrangements, Wilson opens his sound up more on Grace for Drowning than he has in his more self-consciously experimental work. Rudess, Levin, Snowman and regular Wilson associate Theo Travis return, joined by former Crimsonites Trey Gunn and Pat Mastelotto, touch guitarist Markus Reiter and, on the moodswinging “Remainder the Black Dog,” prog guitar icon Steve Hackett.
Wilson captured the subsequent tour on Catalogue|Preserve|Amass, a release meant to show off his band — a multi-faceted ensemble of fusion and rock sessioneers, including Travis and Kajagoogoo bassist Nick Beggs — as prominently as his songs. Alan Parsons (!) engineered the stunning Raven That Refused to Sing. Setting a brace of original ghost stories to music that draws even more heavily from classic prog rock than Grace for Drowning did, Wilson uses his musicians in accordance with the emotions each tale tries to convey. Thus the bristling runs of Travis and guitarist Guthrie Govan, the dissonant ivories of keyboardist Adam Holzman (a onetime Miles Davis sideman) and the multi-limbed rattle of drummer Marco Minnemann drive the angry “The Holy Drinker” and “The Watchmaker” (whose elderly protagonist may or may not have murdered his wife), while the ebb and flow of six-string arpeggios, angelic vocal stacks and roiling rhythms illuminate the final regrets of a drowning victim in the harrowing “The Pin Drop.” The shapeshifting “Luminol” takes off atop Beggs’ busy bass storm, then Holzman’s jazzy piano and haunted Mellotron flow through the life of the libretto’s damaged street singer. Amidst all the emotional and instrumental complexity, though, Wilson smartly reverts to more basic songcraft when needed. The melancholy pop tune “Drive Home” uses a shimmering blend of acoustic guitars and lush keyboards to advise its protagonist to move on after the accidental death of his lover, while the almost impossibly sad title tune relies on little more than piano, a string arrangement and vocal harmonies to explore an old man’s rapprochement with his sister’s memory. Diminishing his musical role and concentrating on writing, singing and producing, Wilson creates an intricately lush canvas, using his band as his paint, and comes up with his first solo album to stand up to the best of Porcupine Tree.
The CD/DVD package Drive Home is a bit of an odd duck, containing the single edit of its eponymous track, an “orchestral version” of “The Raven That Refused to Sing,” an outtake from the studio sessions and a handful of live cuts recorded in Frankfurt — a package clearly aimed squarely at fanatics. That said, there’s much to enjoy here: the in-concert tunes boast performances balanced equally between taste and technique, the heavy prog outtake “The Birthday Party” rips and the live “The Raven That Refused to Sing” manages to somehow be even more bereaved than the original, thanks in part to Beggs’ plainspoken take on the coda.
Richard Barbieri has been nearly as busy outside the band as Wilson, collaborating regularly with his ex-Japan bandmates Steve Jansen (as the Dolphin Brothers as well as under their own names) and Mick Karn. He’s also made records with his wife Suzanne (as Indigo Falls), No-Man’s Tim Bowness and Cluster’s Hans-Joachim Roedelius. Colin Edwin co-leads the experimental jazz / worldbeat combo Ex-Wise Heads with Henry Cow hornman Geoff Leigh and plays in the metal / fusion acts Random Noise Generator and Metallic Taste of Blood. He’s also released solo albums and collaborations with guitarist Jon Durant and bassist Lorenzo Feliciati. Gavin Harrison has a solo LP (with appearances by Barbieri, Karn, prog/jazz keyboardist Dave Stewart and prog singer/songwriter Jakko Jaksyk), instructional videos and a trio of collaborations with avant-garde multi-instrumentalist 05ric. In 2008, he joined a short-lived, unrecorded incarnation of King Crimson.