Porcupine Tree: A work in progress, Part II

By  Will Romano

Porcupine Tree. Photo courtesy Porcupine Tree.

Porcupine Tree. Photo courtesy Porcupine Tree.
‘Nil Recurring’ imagery

Though Porcupine Tree has been compared to modern and classic art-rockers such as Pink Floyd, Yes, The Mars Volta, Genesis, King Crimson, Tool, Dream Theater, Muse and even Radiohead, the group’s closest connection to the aforementioned bands lies in its ambition more than its music.

If anything, Porcupine Tree is closer in spirit to Brian Eno’s funky, prog-y, experimental pop, Oblique Strategies-inspired 1970s records (though Porcupine Tree is certainly quite a bit “heavier” than Eno), such as Another Green World and Before and After Science. Even the more atmospheric Ambient 1: Music for Airports or even the Eno-era David Bowie records, in particular Low, are a better comparison due to their combination of studio experimentation with musical accessibility and luminous, even ominous, sonic qualities.

“Although there is a lot of the ’70s that surround Porcupine Tree — the ’70s ethics and the whole love for the album and the artwork and the concept — the band has been pretty wise to contemporary music and modern technology,” says Barbieri. “That’s what makes us a modern band.”

“I’ve always been very fascinated by sound design,” says Wilson, whose early recordings were done with reel-to-reel analog tape. “… Hard-disk recording is very important, because the way I write now is on a computer. I am pretty much constructing riffs, textures, melodies, chord patterns and then juggling them around. It is almost as if [I’m] putting a jigsaw puzzle together. As with a jigsaw puzzle, there is only one real way in which the pieces all fit together and make sense … I can’t imagine producing music on tape in a kind of linear fashion these days, because so much of the music comes together by process of shuffling around.”

Ironically, it’s been technology and its assault on our psyches that Wilson has railed against in many of the band’s songs. Fear of a Blank Planet, the band’s last full-fledged studio release (partly inspired by the Bret Easton Ellis novel “Lunar Park”), represents perhaps the culmination of Wilson’s view that our decrepit, download-one-song-for-99-cents, PlayStation, bling’s-the-thing, reality-TV, prescription-drug culture is further eroded by a technology that seeks to isolate and alienate us from other human beings.

As if mirroring Wilson’s venomous attitude toward our seemingly shallow modern culture, the band’s music is aggressive, guitar-overdriven and intense, as evidenced by the nearly 18-minute, at times downright guttural, “Anesthetize,” which features a guitar solo by Alex Lifeson of Rush.

“On Fear of a Blank Planet, we are talking very much about the whole digital technology era, and the fact that although information technology brings the world into our front room, it also creates more a sense of universal paranoia,” says Wilson. “It’s the idea that you are very insignificant — just a blip in the time-space continuum.”

Our technology has afforded us the freedom to easily create or summon nearly anything and everything we want — any time we want it. Yet, the more we have, the more we feel unsatisfied, unfulfilled, and downright bored. Driving this point home is Porcupine Tree’s 2008 EP, Nil Recurring, released through the band’s own Transmission Recordings label (and also on Snapper’s Peaceville label). Recorded during the Blank Planet sessions, the four-track Nil Recurring, strangely, seems to pack more of a socio-political punch than the mother record that spawned it.

The EP’s stark black-and-white cover photograph plainly shows two zombified male teens glaring into the distance, one facing the camera with a thousand-yard stare, the other turned sideways. They appear motionless, yet not altogether emotionless. It’s as if their blank facial expressions conceal a latent anger simmering just under the surface.

“I think the Columbine or Virginia Tech shootings are symptomatic of problems young people have these days,” says Wilson. “I was in my late teens over 20 years ago, and the idea that as a teenager I would have any of these following things — my own phone, my own TV, my own car, my own DVD player, my own PlayStation, my own iPod, etc., etc. — would have been absolutely absurd.”

For the two disturbed teens on the cover of Nil Recurring, all that matters is the next cheap thrill until their growing indifference pushes them to the brink of utter paranoia and violent, psychotic meltdown.

“There is a sense that this Nil Recurring implies a constant nullification of life experience,” says Wilson. “These teens need to do something just to feel alive. I think there is also an element that it doesn’t just apply to the younger generation.”
Porcupine Tree’s and Steven Wilson’s themes of isolation and alienation are reinforced by the sometimes dark, penetrating and eerie sonic textures created by
both Wilson and Barbieri.

“A lot of what I do is based on memories or feelings or places I’d been,” says Barbieri, who recently released his own sonic tour de force solo effort for Kscope titled Stranger Inside (yet another record released in the band’s “year off”). “There are things that stay with you and come into your mind every so often, and I try to get that down onto tape … [T]here are a number of songs that are purely from inside — straight from an inner space.”

“Richard is never going to give you a conventional sound,” says Wilson. “It is just not what he does. He is very much a sonic architect. He is a kind of secret weapon we have when it comes to creating those strange soundscapes.”

Another key musical element that sets Porcupine Tree apart from so many other pretenders to the prog throne is its groove. Drummer Harrison is, arguably, the most inventive and precise progressive-rock skinsbeater since Rush’s Neil Peart inspired an army of a million (and counting) air-drummers.

Former drummer Chris Maitland, now touring with the international production of “Mamma Mia,” was well-suited to the freer and looser psychedelic-leaning material of the band’s earlier years. Harrison’s taut, yet explosive, rhythmic phrasing shades and shapes the concise, yet, in some ways, more complex, songcraft that define Porcupine Tree’s current musical approach. 

“There were several times where there were teasers like, ‘You would be out on your ear’ and they would get in Gavin Harrison if you’d screwed up,” says Maitland.

“When I was in the band, there was an appreciation for Gavin Harrison as a superb player. I remember Richard saying that he should be playing for Frank Zappa or something.”

Yet, Harrison is, and has always been, as much about feel as technique. Harrison admits that he’d spent his youth listening to jazz, R&B and funk rather than Yes and ELP albums. “Maybe in a bizarre way it gives a new angle to the way I play what is, effectively, progressive music,” says Harrison. “You have a jazz/R&B drummer playing progressive rock. I’m always trying to make a groove out of things, even if the songs are in odd time signatures.”

KEEP READING: Click here to read the third and final installment of our cover story about Porcupine Tree!

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