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17 February, 2007

Review: 'Blackfield II' (Blackfield, 2007)

After planning a collaboration for some time, Steven Wilson (Bass Communion, Porcupine Tree, No-Man and several other projects) and Aviv Geffen (Israeli pop star) released an album of intelligent pop songs in 2004, under the name Blackfield.  The follow-up to the eponymous debut album is cunningly entitled 'Blackfield II' and was officially released on 12 February, though pre-orders from Burning Shed and Headphone Dust were despatched slightly earlier; I've had my copy since 10 February so have had over a week to consider my reaction.

It's likely that most listeners approaching this album afresh (apart from those in Israel) will be Porcupine Tree fans who have never heard of Aviv Geffen. If only for those people, I could describe the Blackfield project as resembling the softer, melodic side of Porcupine Tree; in those terms it's most similar to the 'Stupid Dream'/'Lightbulb Sun' era (and near-totally dissimilar to the 'In Absentia'-'Fear Of A Blank Planet' hard-rock/metal era!). Geffen's unique compositional contribution is in adding an overtly 'pop rock' feel under-represented in SW's other work.
Totally unlike Porcupine Tree music, most tracks on 'Blackfield II' are around four minutes long, though one is just under 3 mins and the longest is 5:13. Though they share a common feel of melancholia (near-suicidal despair in a couple of instances), there isn't an overall theme, and these are ten standalone songs.

Fans drawn to the 'progressive (not 'prog') rock' or 'metal' side of Porcupine Tree have expressed slight disappointment with 'Blackfield II', particularly with the, er, less-than-challenging lyrics. It's probably important to know what one is getting: this is a 'pop-rock' project, and by the standards of the genre, it's above average. Besides, the music easily compensates for the lyrics.
I can't comment on Geffen's other music, but this is about as 'pop' as SW gets. I can't deny preferring slightly less predictable, more challenging material too, but I do like the album. Not even one track feels weak, and I don't feel an urge to skip even one.

Even more than on 'Blackfield', the most obvious performer is SW, though Geffen seems to have been the primary composer. SW wrote (music and lyrics) three* of the ten songs, Geffen wrote five, and the remaining two+ are 'music Geffen, lyrics Geffen/SW'. SW is the lead vocalist on 6 tracks, Geffen on one and they share lead vocals on on three. That, plus the fact that the vocals are lower in the overall mix, which takes the edge off any vocal idiosyncrasies, means that Geffen's relatively strongly-accented, annoyingly quavering voice is less apparent. Sorry, Geffen fans, but I think that works very well.

A couple of people have suggested the album is overproduced, but I don't agree at all. Compared to the stark 'Blackfield', 'Blackfield II' could be described as 'lush', but I like the densely layered soundscape a lot and don't recognise any reason to criticise. The first album probably established expectations of a simpler sound, but if one can get past that preconception (and I can without hesitation), multiple overdubs sound great. Admittedly, the electronic effects on '1,000 People' grab one's attention more than I might have chosen, and 'Miss U' and 'Where Is My Love?' sound a little 'busy', but I actually welcome the relative diminution of the vocals on those two tracks. Initially, I was a little concerned by the frequent use of what I thought was sampled strings, but they're played by a real ensemble, the Downtown Session Orchestra. Not that I quite understand why it matters that they're 'real' – for me, music is about the result, not the process.

Unmistakably the product of the same band, this is a slightly richer experience, which I expect to hold my attention longer. Much as I like the debut album, after the first month or so I've only played it rarely.

[Update 05/12/07: Wrong – I tired of this album very rapidly and haven't played it for months, but I've returned to the first album a few times.]

So; a few thoughts about the individual tracks. Overstating slightly, I could be described as a professional editor, so I'm naturally inclined to spot negative points, which may make my comments seem negative. Please bear in mind that I do like all these songs!

The intro/verse riff of 'Once' *: is extremely familiar – distractingly so, though I can't quite identify where I've heard it before. One almost expects to hear a different voice than SW's.
I want to stress that I do like this, an enjoyable pop-rock song, but it's not exactly groundbreaking. I could imagine it doing well in the pop charts, if it wasn't a little too generic. A quick survey at the Porcupine Tree Forum found a wide range of individual favourite tracks, but not one person ranked 'Once' as the single 'best' song.
Incidentally, it seems a little perverse that a song called 'Once' is being played twice at each of at least the first few concerts on the 2007 tour.

'1,000 People' + is about a pop star's inability to respond to fan adulation. It's a theme other lyricists have covered, and Geffen doesn't say anything new on the subject. I'm assured this is just a slightly inadequate translation of Geffen's original Hebrew lyrics, but that isn't exactly relevant: this rendition has to stand alone. And, in my opinion, it does. Even discounting the words themselves, the interaction of the vocal rhythm and instrumental music is compelling. The French horn, played by Itamar Leshem, is a well-chosen addition.
Speaking of individual favourite songs, this is SW's, apparently.

'Miss U' is the first song to feature Geffen as lead vocalist (the only one on which he takes the lead alone); in fact the first point at which I noticed his distinctive voice at all. The song is very similar to material on the debut album. Apart from the guitar solo/lead out, it's also rather repetitive and perhaps my least favourite track.

'Christenings' * is something of an oddity. It was written and demo'd as a potential Porcupine Tree song during the 'Deadwing' sessions. I'd thought SW had contributed the song to the Blackfield project to be recorded by this band, much like the debut album featured a number of Blackfield renditions of songs previously released by Geffen. Not this time: this is the Porcupine Tree recording, featuring SW, Richard Barbieri and Gavin Harrison (I'm not sure who played bass; perhaps Blackfield's Seffy Efrati, perhaps SW). Weird.
My initial thought was that it was better suited to a Blackfield album, as it's too overtly 'poppy' for Porcupine Tree, but it doesn't really have a Blackfield feel either.
It's inspired by Syd Barrett, apparently, but isn't specifically about him, having been generalised to refer to a generic has-been pop star. Pretty good, but not a highlight of the album.

SW's is the only voice clearly apparent in 'This Killer' (that could be said about most of the album, really), but I suppose Geffen is in the nice harmonies in this nice, melodic song. I'm afraid that's also a slight criticism: I don't really go for 'nice'. The result is pleasant enough, but undemanding. The clichéd 'twist in the tail' of the lyrics doesn't help.

'Epidemic' + is excellent; possibly my favourite track. Oddly, this five-minute song feels like the distillation of a far longer, structured piece, an impression heightened by a hint – only a hint – of Porcupine Tree-style metal-inspired guitar, which itself adds energy and a great sense of menace.
The brief inclusion of a female backing singer (Daniella Pick) near the end is another of the small yet valuable details which I regard as immensely beneficial to the overall result, and which others seem to regard as overproduction.

Something about 'My Gift Of Silence' * grabs me as being more creative than the others, displaying both a complexity and subtlety slightly lacking in other, generically 'poppy' tracks.
I genuinely wrote that sentence 'blind', before checking the album credits and discovering it's a SW composition (music and lyrics). Whatever; it's excellent.

Somehow, the first half of 'Some Day' reminds me of SW's cover version of Abba's 'The Day Before You Came'. Perhaps that's partly why the percussion in the middle section seems misplaced, clashing with the lyrical content and other instruments. Then again, that characteristic is shared by a couple of songs on 'Blackfield'.

'Where Is My Love?' was a bonus track on the European edition of 'Blackfield'. I didn't like it there (and my dislike has increased with time), for its over-sentimental content, repetitiveness and SW's odd vocal delivery (slurred 'r's). This is considerably better, with vocals lower in a richer (denser and more varied) instrumental mix. Shock, horror: I actually like it a lot, especially the guitar-led second half.

That there's a REM track with a similar title to End Of The World is coincidental, but repetition of that line in the chorus in this song is slightly reminiscent of the REM one too. However, that's only an initial impression, and the strength of the Blackfield song soon drives out the comparison. I can imagine this somewhat anthemic track becoming a popular encore piece.
The first few times I played the album, the songs weren't familiar enough for instant recognition, but each time I reached the chorus of this one and suddenly recognised it, I couldn't help grinning in anticipation – I loved it immediately.

That's ten tracks, giving a running time of 42½ minutes compared to 37 for the debut album. 'Blackfield' felt short, but this feels like a decent length, certainly within the range of traditional mainstream albums.

Oh; and for those who discovered this review whilst searching for 'blackfield II lyrics', they're in the CD booklet. At the time of writing, they're only available in the CD booklet, not online. I don't know whether that's deliberate, giving people a reason to buy the CD rather than download.


you're absolutely right about the way I discovered this review:) I downloaded the album from emusic, since it was about 3 times cheaper than buying it. I don't like this second album as much as the first, some songs seem too poppy and forgettable. But I'm looking forward to their Friday gig in NYC anyway.
A very good review, btw:)

Posted by Peter at March 13, 2007 05:27 PM
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