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Porcupine Tree - Fear Of A Blank Planet CD (album) cover


Porcupine Tree


Heavy Prog

4.26 | 2607 ratings

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4 stars Feverishly anticipated, swiftly reviewed (far too swiftly - how can people make an informed judgement on a record on first listen?) and ultimately less than fully satisfying, 'Fear of a Blank Planet' is an enigmatic album.

First, it has been dumbed down for the masses. Rather than the general morose, almost misanthropic assessment of the human condition we normally get from PORCUPINE TREE, this album is based on the well-worn concept of losing our humanity to soulless media. Many of the themes explored with subtlety in previous albums are regurgitated here: family dysfunction, muzak and malls, killers and guns, suicide. But they are accompanied by a hammer. The listener is bludgeoned with the concepts in a way I've not seen since ROGER WATERS let megalomania finally overwhelm him. And not only the lyrics are recycled: as many reviewers have noted, the riff from 'Trains' pokes its head up in 'Sentimental'. What is WILSON trying to evoke? Or is this a play for a broader audience, a remixed selection of their best lyrical and musical ideas, a last push for superstardom?

Second, while much of STEVEN WILSON's lyrical beauty remains, the album is structured to feature riffs and percussion. These have always supplemented excellent compositions, but they now seem to lead the music. I find they make a number of the songs almost indigestible, including the much-lauded but oddly-shaped 'Anesthetize'. There's no doubt the combination of a simple concept and dumbed-down compositions and instrumentations make for a more widely appealing album, but, for the fan, there's much less to savour than one would expect after the excitement of the first listen.

Fundamentally, I suppose my unease is that of a person left out of the conversation. On this album WILSON talks directly to teenagers. He's inhabiting their universe, trying to address their concerns, at once empathising with them and lecturing them. Well, it's been a while since I was a teenager, and back then I was far from apathetic. My greatest wish was that someone could invent a pill so I didn't have to sleep, so full of life was I. I'm therefore separated from WILSON's concept by time and temperament, and the one-sided (and dangerous) nature of the album's treatment of teenage ennui makes me uncomfortable.

The avowed centrepiece is the aforementioned 'Anesthetize'. Taking a moment to think about it perhaps reveals my unease with this album, and the direction the band appear to be taking. At 17 minutes it seems on first listen to be a progger's godsend, but at heart it's a six-minute song surrounded by eleven minutes of unrelated instrumental work. This middle section, let's call it 'cod philosophy' for short, is a wonderful example of PT's ability to write compelling hooks and produce glorious prog-influenced pop. But what's it doing buried in this combination of slab drumming and riffs? Why do we have a LIFESON solo even before the main part of the song? Solos allow us to contemplate what we're hearing, but nothing has happened for us to contemplate. Far too much has been made of this solo: most of WILSON's own solos are far more satisfying. And what's the last section of the track about? Who doesn't sit there waiting for the next song to start?

No, for me this centrepiece simply doesn't work. It's the length of 'Close to the Edge', for example, but apart from the central section contains only a fraction of that track's ideas and energy. And it's a very odd shape: rather than beginning with a theme, developing and varying it, departing then returning to it, this track gives us a six minute prelude, an unrelated six minute pop song and a pointless five minute outro. The shape feels dreadfully awkward to me.

That said, there are some excellent tracks on this album. 'My Ashes' shimmers with PT beauty, and 'Way Out of Here' is a monster track rudely spoiled by an out-of-place central riff. I find the closer 'Sleep Together' extraordinarily convincing - showing that I'm clearly out of step with most listeners, who love 'Anesthetize' and hate 'Sleep Together'. It's a chilling euphemism and metaphor for suicide, and is the only time on the album the music builds to the sublime heights I've come to expect from anything WILSON's involved in. In particular, the 'Kashmir'-like keys at the end raise the crushing weight of the track another notch.

Perhaps something essential could have been fashioned from bits of this and bits of 'Nil Recurring', the outtakes released later in 2007. As it is, there is enough here to merit many listens, but I cannot see this heavier version of PT - ironically, conceptually PT-lite - being an essential part of my regular listening experience in the way at least four of their earlier albums are.

The main effect of this album is to make me yearn for NO-MAN's next release.

russellk | 4/5 |


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