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2 October, 2007

Review: 'Nil Recurring' (Porcupine Tree, 2007)

In mid-September, Porcupine Tree released a 29-minute CD 'EP' of additional material derived from the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' sessions, with a title arguably better than that earlier album: 'Nil Recurring'.

It's important to note that though these tracks arose alongside the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' songs, they aren't outtakes rejected because they were in any way inferior, it's just that they didn't contribute to the very specific concept of that album.
To repeat: each Porcupine Tree album is a coherent composition, to be heard in order, not merely a bunch of songs. 'Fear of a Blank Planet' can be considered as one 51-minute piece in six sections, and there's no room for tangential bonus tracks.
Hence, as the band said at the official site, 'Nil Recurring' could be considered as the second Porcupine Tree album of 2007, forming an independent, standalone composition, not merely as an addendum to the 'main' album.

This material is therefore additional to the earlier release, with one possible exception. Featuring a key line from 'Anesthetize' (actually the most direct quote from 'Lunar Park', the Brett Easton Ellis novel which inspired the whole concept) plus the title and chorus of 'Sentimental', 'Normal' might be considered an alternative take on some of the material already heard on 'Fear of a Blank Planet'; had this song been used then, it could only have been instead of 'Sentimental' (and I wouldn't have wanted that to be dropped!).

Two pieces, 'Nil Recurring' and 'Cheating The Polygraph', were recorded at the same time as the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' tracks, between October and December 2006. John Wesley isn't a member of the studio band, so doesn't play on the EP, but the guitars were produced (and recorded?) at Wes' studio in Florida, as SW particularly likes the setup.
In contrast, these renditions of 'Normal' and 'What Happens Now?' were recorded more recently, in July 2007 after the first full round of touring 'Fear of a Blank Planet' across Europe and N.America.

The title track is a splendidly-complex instrumental (not that complexity is automatically good). I do like it, but I don't find it particularly distinctive; randomly shuffled amongst the other post-2002 instrumentals, I'm not confident I could distinguish it. Not a problem, as I like them too.

'Normal' is by far my favourite track on the EP, at least comparable to anything on the full album. It features acoustic guitar sections almost reminiscent of Jethro Tull, the best Porcupine Tree overlapping vocal harmonies since 2002, a recurring Eastern-influenced theme like that of 'Sleep Together', a 'heavy' guitar interlude and even a shiny new kitchen sink. Perhaps not the latter – the song really does work, despite this description implying it's a mess of conflicting elements.

Even as recently as the end of 2006, 'Cheating the Polygraph' was considered for inclusion in 'Fear of a Blank Planet': it was the then-untitled 'Track 5' played live on the 'Arriving Somewhere...' tour. Even before it was known that it'd be omitted from the album, concertgoers had been saying that it didn't seem to fit; evidently the band agreed. I recall that working version as one of the less impressive preview pieces, particularly an OTT guitar solo which only seemed to excite a couple of teenagers standing near me.
The first time I heard the mini-album, I had major doubts about this track, as the drum rhythms seemed annoyingly mismatched with the verse lyrics (Gavin Harrison shares writing credits with SW). I still think they're far too busy, but the other elements are strong enough. That 'guitar frenzy' I'd criticised last year seems to have been tamed.

'What Happens Now?' is the longest song on the EP, with a running time of 8:23, but there are no lyrics after 3:07, so it's more of an instrumental, really. Like the other instrumental, 'Nil Recurring', writing credits are shared by the whole band; I could speculate that it was derived from initial 'jamming', then cherrypicked for ideas which were developed on the main album, as fragments of 'What Happens Now?' have an oddly familiar feel.

The initial release of 'Nil Recurring' has been on the band's own 'Transmission' label, solely available by preorder from the Porcupine Tree webstore at Burning Shed, as a limited edition in a digipack. Three thousand were allocated to web sales, with a further 2,000 held back for the merchandise stall at concerts on the forthcoming tours of N.America and Europe. However, the first batch sold-out within a week, so some of the tour stock was offered via Burning Shed. That too sold out overnight, so yet more were allocated to mail-order. It's unclear how that'll affect tour merchandise, and whether the 'limited edition' has been repressed (Burning Shed apparently say not), to the annoyance of collectors who wanted it to be limited.

In any case, there was never an intention to limit availability of the music, just the digipack. As planned from the outset, a retail edition of the EP, in a jewel case, will be released in the new year by Snapper. The music is now also available for download from Burning Shed in both .mp3 and lossless .flac formats.
It's also worth mentioning that all four 'Nil Recurring' tracks appear on the limited edition 'Fear of a Blank Planet' double LP and in 5.1 surround sound on the (not limited) 'Fear of a Blank Planet' DVD-A, due out this week.
Therefore, unless you're a packaging collector, please do not pay premium eBay prices for the mini-album, and there is no excuse for accessing an illicit torrent.

I'm certainly looking forward to hearing at least some of these tracks live in December!

[Update 24/11/07: The jewel case edition of the EP will be released on 18 February, 2008. Surprisingly, it won't be released by Snapper, but by the metal-orientated Peaceville Records.]

[Update 24/02/08: The 'mainstream' edition of the mini-album has entered the BBC 'Top 30 Independent Label Albums' chart at no.8. Not bad considering the majority of hardcore fans will have already bought the digipack edition.]

[Update 02/03/08: It dropped to no.24 in its second week, but I'm surprised it charted at all, never mind still being there for a second week!]


You going to the Manchester show, then? Just got my ticket for that one. I picked up mine from the box office when I went to see Fish on Monday; saved myself some booking fees.

Posted by Tim Hall at October 3, 2007 12:45 PM

Yep. The ticket hasn't arrived yet better chase that....

Posted by NRT at October 3, 2007 02:10 PM

For a short half hours worth of songs, it's amazing what PT can come up with. 'Normal' completely revitalizes my favourite song ('Sentimental') and adds to it in ways I never thought I'd hear. I hope they make a new album soon.

I also hope they tour east Australia sometime. :-)

Posted by Dan at October 8, 2007 01:55 AM

I'm a huge PT fan, but I'm not quite loving "Nil Recurring," or at least not yet.

I liked "Cheating the Polygraph" when I saw them do it live (twice) last year, but I totally understand why they ultimately chose "Way Out of Here" instead.

Still digesting the ep, but the proof for me will be hearing them perform the tracks live later this month in Texas (still grousing over no West Coast dates!).

Posted by TIMMO at October 9, 2007 06:25 AM
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