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21 April, 2007

Review: 'Fear of a Blank Planet' (Porcupine Tree, 2007)

Porcupine Tree's much-anticipated ninth studio album was released on 16 April, so I suppose I ought to stop enjoying it long enough to write a review.

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Actually, I haven't been playing it back-to-back all week (only nearly...). At a little under 51 minutes, it feels short, but it's intense; as soon as I'd finished hearing it for the first time, I wanted a rest, and didn't immediately start again as I might normally.

I could nit-pick, as there were a few tiny details I didn't particularly like, but they were only details and overwhelmingly this is exactly what I wanted from Porcupine Tree: intelligent hard rock with an immediacy which pulled me in from the start, but also a depth that can only develop as I enjoy it repeatedly. There's nothing at all like the execrable 'Shallow' on this album, and the whole composition exhibits a maturity I thought lacking last time.
I want to stress that: apart from minor details, I liked the entire album, from the very first time I heard it. Quite a starting point, which exceeds the patchy 'In Absentia' and 'Deadwing'. Those albums contain some of my favourite Porcupine Tree songs but also almost all of my least favourites, and both took a while to appreciate. Particularly on 'Deadwing', I thought certain songs were 'pop rock' with no greater depth than crowd-pleasing 'fun': "only rock'n'roll" – and I don't like that. 'Fear of a Blank Planet' goes further.

As I said in my review of the preview material at the 'Arriving Somewhere...' concert in Manchester last September, my impression was that this would be the 'heaviest' Porcupine Tree album yet; not so much 'metal' as 'relentless industrial wall of noise'. That seems to have been moderated somewhat, and the studio album isn't so much of an 'in yer face' aural assault.
I think I like that. There's still enough full-on material to satisfy fans of 'In Absentia' and 'Deadwing', and where it's 'heavy', it may be more intensely 'heavy' than ever, but there's also a return to the textured atmospherics of earlier albums. In its initial 'punch', 'Fear of a Blank Planet' may seem like a 'heavy' album, but in hindsight it's not, really. I couldn't offer a precise breakdown of the relative proportions of 'heavy' and 'not heavy' material, but it may be something like 1:3-1:4. The 'heavy' aspect merely grabs disproportionate attention, unsurprisingly.

The album's lyrical content relates to teenage disengagement from wider society. Great; good for them. I'm all for the breakdown of traditional family-orientated collectivism in favour of self-motivated secular individualism.
Actually, that's not what's meant: it's about the 'blank generation': terminally bored 'hoodies' who disengage from the outside world altogether, retreating into an empty, instant-gratification cycle of computer games, prescription drugs and zombified mall wandering. Without wishing to convey a 'message', SW apparently seeks to draw attention to the tendency to live vicariously through an ever-widening range of impersonal technology – mass-media, the internet and gadgets.
That subject is explored most transparently in the title song, but the specific meaning of subsequent songs' lyrics eludes me at present. That doesn't particularly worry me at this stage; frankly, I don't really listen to Porcupine Tree for the lyrics. In general, I get more enjoyment from the vocal rhythms than the words of a new album, and more from the images conveyed by individual lines than from any overall themes, which I might appreciate more as I become familiar with an album.
The topic was apparently inspired by Brett Easton Ellis' novel 'Lunar Park', but I haven't read that myself (yet) and the synopsis I have seen didn't reveal an apparent similarity.
I noticed in a Marillion forum that fans of that band consider this album rather 'cold', but how else could one treat the subject of emotional vacancy? I find this more compelling that wallowing in outpourings of melancholy.

I do have one criticism of the album, but it's of the personnel involved, not the creative content itself, so is relatively unimportant.
The album includes guest appearences from Alex Lifeson and Robert Fripp from Rush and King Crimson respectively, if not respectfully – I'm not an admirer, and featuring what music critics and potential album purchasers could regard as 'prog dinosaurs' was needlessly dangerous. I didn't exactly welcome the announcement that they'd be participating.
Even knowing which guitar solo was provided by Lifeson, I didn't regard it as noteworthy; SW could easily have composed something himself and denied lazy journalists the opportunity to dismissively liken Porcupine Tree to retro 'prog'... stuff. Fripp's contribution on 'Way Out of Here' was pleasant enough but again, not distinctive, and nothing SW couldn't have generated himself.
So why have guest appearences by 'name' musicians only of interest to old-time 'prog' fans, which have the very real potential to alienate more mainstream listeners and critics? It's a bad idea in terms of mass-market credibility, which succeeded musically only because the guests' contributions were unobtrusive to the point of being anonymous. I'd call that a pointless gimmick.

I don't have anything significant to say about every song. There's limited value in my repeatedly stating 'I like this one', and I'm not a musician/musicologist who could comment on technical issues, so I'll just offer a few specific notes. Let's take it as read that I think they're all great!

Fear of a Blank Planet
If any track is reminiscent of the 'Deadwing' album, it's 'Fear of a Blank Planet' itself. However, it's not merely an outtake or continuation, rapidly developing from a (maybe deliberately) familiar feel to exhibit greater depth.

My Ashes
As I said, I don't really understand the lyrics of specific songs yet, but if the video accompanying this song at concerts is an indication, it seems to be about the protagonist wistfully recalling the innocent idyll of early childhood: "life's all ****ed up now; I wish I'd appreciated it more then." Maybe.

This has a particularly rich, layered soundscape, so it's not entirely surprising that Richard Barbieri shares joint writer's credit with SW. I'm not especially keen on lavish orchestral strings in rock music. That's not a criticism, merely my preference, and at least they're real, having been played by the London Session Orchestra.

This is the shortest track, 5:07 long, but actually ends at 4:36, the remaining 30 seconds effectively being an intro to 'Anesthetize'. The track division could have been located differently, but I think the right decision was made.

Yes, the title uses the US spelling, for some weird reason.

Surprisingly, this near- 18-minute compound song, affectionately known as 'The Beast' by those attending last year's preview tour, was my initial least favourite, though that impression was only temporary and relative ('less wonderful' is hardly savage criticism). This was partly because it seemed too repetitive, even rambling, in places, partly because the compilation of three distinct sections seemed somewhat artificial, and partly because I'd had very high expectations.
The initial impression I received in September, and which I unquestioningly assimilated, was that 'The Beast' 'blows away' 'Arriving Somewhere But Not Here' i.e. that I drastically preferred the highlight of 'Fear Of A Blank Planet' to the highlight of 'Deadwing'. Having heard the finished version, I'm less sure, but why would I? They're very different songs and it's not a competition. I like them both.

No matter how many times I hear it, I'm still convinced 'Anesthetize' is really two distinct songs forced together by a cross-fade and linking 'click track'. One is 12 minutes long in two different but complementary parts and, especially after hearing it live, is by far my favourite part of the album. The second is 4½ minutes long, and is fine, but seems musically unrelated to the first (apart from keyboards reminiscent of Pink Floyd's 'Echoes'). Ultimately, it doesn't make a difference if two separate songs happen to be indexed as one, especially as the album is intended to be heard as a coherent composition in the sequence provided, not a bunch of unrelated songs to be heard in isolation. I just wonder why it was done.

Again, if the back-projected video at concerts is an indication of SW's intended meaning, the lyrics seem to be about a member of the 'blank generation' growing up and trying to re-enter the establishment world of employment, commuting, and mundane adult life – and finding herself psychologically unable to do so. Again: maybe.
It's been noticed (and acknowledged by SW) that the riff at 3:52 and thereafter is the same as in live fan-favourite 'Trains', merely transposed to different chords. Now it's been pointed out, I hear it too, but I'm not entirely sure why it'd be an intentional back-reference, even though the first line of the next song, 'Way Out of Here' happens to be "Out at the train tracks...".

Way Out of Here
Er... 'I like this one'. Well, I do, even if I don't have anything to say about it here.
Okay: SW wrote all the lyrics on the album and all the music apart from 'My Ashes' and this song, which is credited as a collective band effort. Unlike 'My Ashes', I wouldn't have known by listening.

Sleep Together
Some have said this is the furthest from anything Porcupine Tree have done before, even a hint of a major change in direction on future albums (as if that sort of thing is so planned). I don't see it myself. Though swirling orchestral strings provide a 'Middle Eastern' feel slightly reminiscent of ELO or Led Zeppelin's 'Kashmir', otherwise this is pure Porcupine Tree. It has quite a laid-back pace, but carries a brooding intensity, as if it could explode at any moment.
I could have done without the 'surprise' drumroll at the very end of the song and hence the album. It didn't seem to serve any purpose, and I'd have preferred it to end with the foregoing gentle fade, retaining rather than releasing the tension in the track.
Is it coincidental that much like 'Stop Swimming', the closing track of 'Stupid Dream', the lyrics of 'Sleep Together' could be readily interpreted as being about suicide?

As always, the album production was excellent, though for the first time, it was credited to the whole band rather than SW alone. This may explain two key differences to the foregoing two albums.
Since he joined the band, I've thought Gavin Harrison's drumming to be far too obtrusive on studio recordings, being much too dominant in the overall mix. This time, I wasn't aware of that even once.
Conversely, I was pleased that Richard Barbieri's keyboards & effects were more apparent. The combination of a driving guitar lead underpinned by a rich keyboards soundscape was what drew me to Porcupine Tree in the first place, so I'd been slightly disappointed by the (relative!) diminution of RB's role in the 'metal' 'In Absentia' and 'populist rock' 'Deadwing'; he's expressed dissatisfaction himself. He's back!

Aside from the production, I was also immediately impressed by the album's mastering (a different issue): not too loud, so there's room for dynamic subtlety and even on my very ordinary player there's negligible distortion at high volumes. It seems Porcupine Tree have stepped back from of the loudness war, presumably respecting the fact that their core market tends to be concerned about sound quality (consider the interest in high-resolution DVD-A technology, and criticism of compressed DVD-V), not to mention SW's own preferences. Notably, SW is credited as having mixed and mastered this album himself, whereas 'In Absentia' and 'Deadwing' were mastered by a third-party, Andy Van Dette, who evidently has more commercial 'everything louder than everything else' sensibilities.
To quote SW, interviewed by 'HDTV Etc.' magazine in 2005, if you want to hear it louder, "please use your volume knob".

Note that the album is deliberately not being sold by the band's web store at Burning Shed yet, nor from the merchandise stall at concerts on at least the UK part of the European tour, as the band wish initial purchasers to buy from chart-registered retailers. Once that promotional push subsides, Burning Shed should have copies, but they don't anticipate ever stocking the special edition, which was limited to 7,500 copies worldwide, all already accounted for – one by me.

Whilst the retail edition is a CD and standard booklet in a jewel case, the special edition comprises a CD, DVD and expanded 40-page booklet. The outer packaging, a thick card slipcase, contains:

  • the CD and DVD in plastic sleeves, in a thinner card gatefold. The sleeves don't really fit into the gatefold, but that is nit-picking!
  • a 40-page booklet containing the lyrics, album credits and extensive artwork. Like the slipcase and gatefold, the artwork features Lasse Hoile's characteristically downbeat photography laid out in the familiar Aleph style by Carl Glover. Lots of pills, empty landscapes, vacant teenagers and TVs tuned to dead channels.
I can't comment on the surround sound mix on the DVD, as I don't have a suitable amplifier system connected to my player, but it contains the PCM stereo mix too, which I can play.
I'd better stress that the special edition comes with a standard NTSC DVD i.e. a 'DVD-V', usable in any normal, modern DVD player capable of 5.1 surround sound output. It is not a DVD-A containing a higher-resolution mix only accessible by a dedicated DVD-A player. There is an intention to release a DVD-A later in 2007, almost certainly with bonus material, but this isn't it. This is a standard-resolution 5.1 mix of the same six songs as on the main CD (accompanied by still photographs additional to those in the booklet), with no bonus tracks whatsoever.
If you'd expected the 'special' edition to compile all available bonus tracks and high-resolution mixes into one 'ultimate' edition, you must be new to Porcupine Tree.

Easily my album of the year (so far, though I'm not aware of release schedules being due to provide competition in 2007) and a very welcome antidote to Marillion's tired efforts.

[Update 22/04/07: 'Fear of a Blank Planet' reached no.31 in the UK album charts in its first week of release.]

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It seems Porcupine Tree have stepped back from of the loudness war...

Horay! I was really dissapointed with the mastering on Deadwing and was quite worried about this.

...the special edition, which was limited to 7,500 copies worldwide, all already accounted for...

I was able to order this from yesterday, and apparently it's still in stock...

Posted by danbee at April 22, 2007 09:15 AM

Best of luck! There are odd copies floating around, but don't relax until it's in your hand.

People have reported problems with many retailers taking orders for the special edition before realising the distributor has only provided the standard version. One effect is that certain people have ordered from two retailers, then cancelled the second if the first actually arrives.
I suspect that's why Play have 'additional' copies. I don't think they're one of the retailers which have been offering the standard edition and partial refunds, so you should be okay.

Posted by NRT at April 22, 2007 10:46 AM

Well, apparently it's been posted. So we'll see! I'll be quite disappointed if I don't get the DVDA, as all the 5.1 mixes I've listened to so far have been stunning.

Posted by danbee at April 22, 2007 01:51 PM

In case anyone reading that misunderstands, the special edition does come with a 5.1 mix on DVD, but that's a DVD-V containing compressed 'feature film'-quality sound, not not a DVD-A, which would also offer higher-resolution audio.
I doubt anyone but an audiophile would notice the difference, but if you particularly want a DVD-A, you'll need to wait until Autumn 2007.

Posted by NRT at April 22, 2007 02:23 PM

Ah... I thought it was DVDA. My misunderstanding, although I didn't expect it to have any bonus tracks. Still, you're right in that I doubt I'll notice the difference.

Posted by danbee at April 22, 2007 10:40 PM
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