A Brief History of Porcupine Tree

26 November 2018 Comments Off on A Brief History of Porcupine Tree

BY KAĞAN ÖZDEMİR (MBG/IV) kagan.ozdemir@ug.bilkent.edu.tr

It would not be a mistake to predict that any arbitrarily chosen contemporary progressive rock follower will have heard of Steven Wilson. He is an icon of the current rock music scene, renowned for his musical brilliance and popularization of such an obscure genre as progressive rock. He has demonstrated his excellent musicianship, in that he is able to play various instruments, guitar and keyboards among them, as well as sing. Although he has been on the music scene for almost three decades, he became famous for a second time with the release of his solo album “The Raven That Refused to Sing” in 2013. It featured many great instrumentalists, from bassist Nick Beggs to guitar master Guthrie Govan and drum virtuoso Marco Minnemann. The album was further polished by the production of Alan Parsons, who is considered one of the greatest sound engineers of all time. Even though Wilson has gained much critical acclaim in the last few years, much of his work lies in the past. His career as a musician began back at the end of the ’80s, his first two bands being No-Man and Porcupine Tree; the latter brought Wilson to prominence. Even though he has written pieces that fit into every musical genre there is, from electronica to pop rock, his musical DNA consists of two different alleles from two parents: one from Pink Floyd and the other from Abba. In other words, his work can be described as accessible music with detailed sonic qualities.

In looking at Wilson’s musical odyssey, the story of Porcupine Tree is worth telling. The band is born in the year 1987, as a parody of the psychedelic and progressive bands of the ’70s, which Wilson both criticized and admired. In this first era, Wilson is the sole member of the band, although he makes up some imaginary bandmates. Although the parodical nature of the pieces from this era of Porcupine Tree is obvious, some can be considered products of creative genius, among them “Radioactive Toy.” This song is remarkable, with its Pink Floyd–like synthesizer use, breathy vocals and numbing atmosphere, balanced with provocative guitar passages. Eventually realizing that Porcupine Tree is a project with serious potential, Wilson assembles a band with the keyboardist Richard Barbieri, drummer Chris Maitland and bassist Colin Edwin. This lineup produces many great albums, among them “The Sky Moves Sideways,” a psychedelic work akin to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” in terms of album structure; “Voyage 34,” a satire of the psychedelic subculture; and “Metanoia,” a collection of improvisational pieces. The young Porcupine Tree passes the first half of the ’90s in psychedelic explorations, while the mainstream rock music scene is being shaken up by grunge. By the eve of the millennium, the band has apparently settled into an alternative rock sound: in 1999, it releases the album “Stupid Dream,” which critiques the contemporary music scene. It is possible to interpret the title as a reference to Wilson’s “stupid dream” of achieving success as a musician (spoiler alert: he was wrong). The most remarkable songs from this album are “Even Less,” “Slave Called Shiver,” “Stranger by the Minute,” “Don’t Hate Me” and “A Smart Kid.” “Stupid Dream” was followed in 2000 by the release of “Lightbulb Sun.” This album has a sound similar overall to that of its predecessor, with aggressive guitars that are neutralized by smooth synthesizers, laid over funky rhythms from the drums and bass, which are tightly locked into each other. Remarkable songs from “Lightbulb Sun” are “Russia On Ice,” “Last Chance To Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled,” “Hatesong” (a satire on the contemporary music scene) and “Shesmovedon.”

Early in the new millennium, Maitland leaves the band due to illness and is replaced by the great drummer Gavin Harrison. This change in members leads to a significant change in sound. In 2002, Porcupine Tree releases their most critically acclaimed album, “In Absentia,” an unordinary concept album about homicide. This work brings a huge change in their sound: what was once a psychedelic or alternative rock band is now producing a blasting death metal sound. By the time “In Absentia” is released, they have gained acceptance from the metal scene – as demonstrated by Wilson’s bromantic relationship with Opeth frontman Mikael Akerfeldt. Although this album could easily be the subject of a column on its own, here it is enough to say that four tracks in particular stand out: “Trains” (possibly their best-known piece), “The Sound of Muzak,” “Prodigal” and “Strip the Soul.”
Three years later, Porcupine Tree releases “Deadwing,” which features their perhaps most emotional tracks, such as “Lazarus,” “Start of Something Beautiful,” “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here” and “Glass Arm Shattering.” Even though traces of the influence of progressive/death metal can be found in this album, Porcupine Tree also reminds us listeners that they will never leave their psychedelic roots. “Deadwing” is followed by the dark masterpiece “Fear of a Blank Planet” (2010), which criticizes the status quo of contemporary youth. Each and every song on this album stands out on its own; at the same time, its essence is captured in the 18-minute suite “Anesthetize.” Unfortunately, the amazing story of Porcupine Tree ends with the subsequent album, “The Incident” (2010). A concept album, it consists of a 50-minute suite and a few other songs of varying length. Tracks that stand out are “Great Expectations/Kneel and Disconnect/Drawing the Line,” “The Incident,” “Black Dahlia” and one of my all-time favorites, “I Drive the Hearse.”

It has been a long and adventurous journey, and the worst thing about it is that it has ended. However, although the story of Porcupine Tree has come to a close, Steven Wilson continues to carry on its legacy. He and his friends still manage to amaze us, and the sole thing we can do is appreciate their output and be thankful.