Deep Dive: Porcupine Tree & Steven Wilson

pt deep diveWelcome to the third installment of Deep Dive, where I take an in-depth look at the studio discographies of some of the giants of progressive rock and progressive metal.

For those who don’t feel like reading this massive entry, I’ve included a TL;DR and ranking of albums at the end. I’m opting to explore albums chronologically, as opposed to a ranked-list format. The context in which albums were made is important, and this is an element often missed in a ranked list.

My first two entries in this series focused on some of the giants of progressive rock’s 1970s heyday. For this entry, I wanted to focus on something heavier, which means someone more modern. After weighing a few options and starting Deep Dive entries on a couple other artists, I settled on Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson.

Porcupine Tree covered a wide style of music until their disbandment in 2010, ranging from space rock to art pop to progressive metal. Wilson has maintained that experimental spirit in his solo career, covering similar ground across his five solo albums. The early-21st Century progressive rock renaissance we’re currently enjoying may not have happened at all, had it not been for the wide success of Porcupine Tree, which opened the door for many, many other acts.

As a disclaimer, this essay does not cover all of Steven Wilson’s myriad musical projects. The man is too prolific for me to reasonably address all those projects in this one essay. I am solely focusing on Porcupine Tree and his solo material. No-Man and Bass Communion don’t fit this site’s purview; and while Blackfield and Storm Corrosion may fall under the margins of progressive rock, I simply don’t like their output and would not enjoy reviewing them in-depth. I also do not plan to discuss his remastering work on classic prog albums. I do highly recommend his King Crimson remasters, though I’d avoid his work on Too Old to Rock n Roll: Too Young to Die!, as mentioned in my Jethro Tull Deep Dive.

Part I: Porcupine Tree as a Steven Wilson Solo Project (1987-1994)

tsfSteven Wilson began Porcupine Tree as a joke. He and his friend Malcolm Stocks came up with the idea of a super-cult, hyper-unknown prog/psychedelic rock band called The Porcupine Tree and invented a rather in-depth backstory for this fictional act. Wilson (primarily) and Stocks put together a significant number of recordings for this group, and in 1989, Wilson released some of this music on the cassette Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm.

After Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm received some positive critical reception, Wilson released the EP Love, Death & Mussolini. This EP’s release was extremely limited, and physical copies of it remain highly-sought-after collectors’ items.ldm

By the time of the release of Porcupine Tree’s second full-length album, 1991’s The Nostalgia Factory (which included the entirety of Love, Death & Mussolini), founding member Malcolm Stocks had left the project, though Wilson continued the charade of being an underground ‘70s prog legend.

nfAll three of these early releases are rough around the edges and overstuffed with some unimpressive filler, but the basic DNA for the band we came to know is there. When I first started writing this piece, I wanted to discuss these early releases beyond these brief blurbs, as they’re often ignored in the context of Porcupine Tree’s discography. On the Sunday of Life is usually regarded as their first proper album. And after listening to these three releases, I’m inclined to agree with the standard view. These early releases are more like demos, and almost everything which appears on On the Sunday of Life was drawn from this early output.

otsolOn the Sunday of Life was released in 1992. This album, as mentioned above, is a compilation of material released on both Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm and The Nostalgia Factory, though more polished. The major differentiator is that this was the first Porcupine Tree album to be released on a label.

On the Sunday of Life is unquestionably the weakest of Porcupine Tree’s major releases. It’s cosmic, psychedelic rock with proggy leanings, but there are a lot of lackluster moments. This 75-minute album is laden with brief, ambient interludes, and the longer works often get lost in their own weirdness. The music is sparse and simplistic; it sounds like something produced by one musician who isn’t particularly confident in his instrumental skills. Many of the moments feel as if Steven Wilson is trying to be daring, but it comes off as muddled and dissonant.

That’s not to say On the Sunday of Life doesn’t have good music on it. “Radioactive Toy” was Porcupine Tree’s first true classic. It’s a haunting, slow-building piece that is well-served by its stark simplicity; and “Footprints” hints at this act’s more sinister future tones. “Linton Samuel Dawson”, despite Steven Wilson’s helium-infused vocals, is a damn catchy bit of poppy psych rock that can’t help but worm its way into your brain. “This Long Distance” feels like a bridge between dark ‘80s synthpop and more modern-sounding prog rock, with its soaring guitar line and plinking synth undercarriage.

utd1993’s Up the Downstair was originally intended as another double album. However, Steven Wilson opted instead to release it as a single disc, after lopping off the massive “Voyage 34” suite. Up the Downstair is a notable improvement over On the Sunday of Life, though it’s still something of a mixed bag. Pointless interludes continue to litter Wilson’s work, and his love of cosmic ambiance weighs the album down. But “Synesthesia” is a brilliant, catchy song that weds the astral complexities of early-70s Pink Floyd with the catchiness of ‘80s synthpop. The title track marks Wilson’s first collaboration with Richard Barbieri, who would eventually join Porcupine Tree as their keyboardist. Electronics are prominent, drawing heavily from acts like Ozric Tentacles and some of the synthier corners of krautrock. “Burning Sky” features similar influences. Synths underpin searing guitars to create an enjoyable (if less-than-original) atmosphere.

siLate 1994 saw the release of Staircase Infinities, a 30-minute collection of songs Steven Wilson had wanted to include on Up the Downstair but was unable to complete in time for that release. Simply put, it’s fine. Completely typical fare for this era of Porcupine Tree, and any of these songs would have fit in well on Up the Downstair. Had they been included, though, that album would have begun to feel bloated. Only “Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape” stands out. This song features some of Wilson’s best arranging up to this point, and the guitar solo, despite its length, successfully keeps the listener’s interest.

Part II: Early group work (1995-1998)

By the time Steven Wilson got around to recording the next Porcupine Tree album, he had recruited a full band to perform the material. (Two songs on this album—“The Moon Touches Your Shoulder” and “Dislocated Day”—were recorded solely by Wilson.) Wilson covered guitars and vocals, with Richard Barbieri on keys, Colin Edwin on bass, and Chris Maitland on drums. The resultant work, 1995’s The Sky Moves Sideways, was Porcupine Tree’s strongest release up to this point.

tsmsOpening with the first half of the sprawling title track, it’s here that Wilson most blatantly apes the 1970s prog giants. This album is practically him screaming, “I want to be Pink Floyd!” It’s grandiose, astral, psychedelic rock which has clear roots in “Echoes” and “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”. Lush synths and jazzy guitar licks only serve to underscore this comparison. But around the 8-minute mark, the song descends into dark electronica, giving it an immensely unique twist, especially when considering the era when it was released. (The 1990s were a dark time for progressive rock.)

Three of the album’s middle four songs are much more immediate. “Dislocated Day” is a sinister piece with a tense atmosphere powered by heavy guitars, and “The Moon Touches Your Shoulder” feels like a latter-era Pink Floyd song. “Moonloop” is an 18-minute meditation which had been released as an independent EP in 1994. It’s pretty boring, with lots of spacy, jazzy guitar noodling played at a somnambulant pace. There are a few bursts of interesting music around the 10-minute mark, but it’s definitely not worth the wait.

The title track’s second half closes the album. It bears a strong resemblance to its first half, with its electronic flavors and cosmic jamming. However, these same tendencies also hamstring it. It often feels meandering and aimless.

sSignify was the band’s next release and the first true group effort. Released in late 1996, it saw the integration of significant (heh) krautrock influence—the title track was derived from what began as a cover of Neu!’s “Hallogallo”. I’d never considered krautrock’s influence on this album, but after learning about this, I can definitely hear it. It’s got a distinctly Wilsonian twist to it, and the main riff hints at future excursions into the world of progressive metal.

“Sleep of No Dreaming” is evidence of Steven Wilson’s improving songwriting. By this point, he had established a distinct sound for his band. It drew from the ‘70s prog giants—especially Pink Floyd—but it was not nearly as derivative as Porcupine Tree’s earlier works. It sounded more confident. The complex mix of cosmic and melancholy moods showed Porcupine Tree spreading their creative wings.

Signify isn’t all proto-metallic space rock. “Waiting” is largely acoustic in its first half, and the second half shows an inventive integration of jazz and electronica in both the synths and the rhythm section. Barbieri’s electronic touches get some prominent placement on “Idiot Prayer”, and “Every Home Is Wired” marries rather sweet-sounding acoustic balladry with Wilson’s signature cynicism.

That isn’t to say Signify doesn’t have its weak spots, though. Like many of the band’s early efforts, a lot of songs drag on for a minute or two too long, and Wilson was still weaning himself off of excessive ambient interludes, most notably on the overlong penultimate track, “Light Mass Prayers”.

insiReleased simultaneously with Signify was a cassette tape of demos and B-sides from the Signify sessions, titled Insignificance. Insignificance has some interesting insights into the group’s songwriting process—most notably that cover of “Hallogallo” which transitions smoothly into an early version of “Signify”. This version of “Waiting” sounds like The Wall-era Pink Floyd song, as opposed to a Meddle-era one (and that isn’t a compliment; just wait for my Pink Floyd Deep Dive!). “Neural Rust” has some neat moments in it, and “Sever Tomorrow” sounds almost like a spaced-out Joe Jackson song. Most of Insignificance, though, is easily ignored. It’s a befitting title, as this should remain an insignificant footnote in Porcupine Tree’s output. (Insignificance has been included as a bonus disc to several remastered version of Signify.)

mA batch of jam sessions were recorded during the Signify sessions and released as the album Metanoia in late 1998. Metanoia is the most extraneous of all of Porcupine Tree’s albums. This may be my distaste for open-ended jamming talking, but the songs meander for anywhere from five to fifteen minutes with little direction. Interesting ideas crop up here and there, but they should have been refined and incorporated into pieces with a more defined structure. This release is solely for completionists.

Part III: Prog Rock classics (1999-2001)

Up to this point, most of my critiques of Porcupine Tree’s music have been shots at Steven Wilson’s unfocused songwriting and their proclivity for uninteresting jams. Beginning in 1998, though, Wilson started to focus more on songwriting as an artform, which would lead the band in a much more accessible direction, while maintaining their progressive roots.

sdReleased in 1999, Stupid Dream marked a massive shift in the band’s sound. The songs are focused and direct, and Wilson’s lyrics are more personal than on past releases. This is the album where Porcupine Tree came into their own.

The opening “Even Less” acts something of a bridge between the old and new Porcupine Tree sounds. At seven minutes long, it’s the second-longest song on the album, and it features many instrumental traits found on The Sky Moves Sideways and Signify. But the structure on this song is more coherent, and the chorus, while simple, is strong.

Stupid Dream is also the first album to display any significant pop sensibilities. “Piano Lessons” and “Stranger by the Minute” both border on being straightforward, with engaging melodies and memorable hooks. The instrumentation and structure remains intelligent and inventive, though.

Other highlights include the sinister “Slave Called Shiver”, the slow-building “Don’t Hate Me”, and the strange instrumental “Tinto Brass”. That last song, in particular, is an interesting fusion of the old and new Porcupine Tree styles with its jazzy flute licks and big guitar riffs. It incorporates both smart song structures and the construction of dramatic soundscapes.

v34As mentioned in Part I, Steven Wilson had originally intended for Up the Downstair to be a double album, with the 30-minute suite “Voyage 34” comprising the second disc. This ideas was dropped in the end, and “Voyage 34” was remixed by Wilson and Richard Barbieri to be a sprawling, 70-minute piece that finally saw a full release in 2000. In this immense song, spoken narration describes an LSD trip as the music evolves to match the mood. “Voyage 34” is, stylistically, more closely aligned with the era when it was written, rather than when it was released. It’s packed full of Floydian space rock, and Barbieri’s ever-present electronics.

However, as one might expect from any 70-minute release, there is some trimming that could have been done. This piece absolutely could have worked as a 30-minute song. I don’t know what Wilson’s original version of the song was like, but much of the soloing and instrumental exploration could have been tightened up or otherwise reduced. And the entirety of its fourth movement could have been axed. The song closes on 15 minutes of ambient effects and the occasional stab of guitar.

lsAlso released in 2000 was the album Lightbulb Sun. Lightbulb Sun built off of and expanded on the sound of Stupid Dream. The title track opens the album and sets the tone for the rest of the record, with its smart contrasts of acoustic and distorted instrumentation and strong melodies.

“Four Chords That Made a Million”, much like “Piano Lessons” or “Stranger by the Minute”, is an inventive fusion of progressive ambition and pop-accessible hard rock. “Shesmovedon” takes those pop ideas and blends it with Steven Wilson’s usual melancholy to make something slow-moving and impactful. “The Rest Will Flow” and “Feel So Low” show further mixtures of acoustic pop with progressive songwriting.

“Last Chance to Evacuate the Planet Earth before It Is Recycled” is another highlight. This track features folk flavors with acoustic guitar and banjo in its first third before veering off into cosmic territory. It contains audio from Marshall Applewhite, leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult who committed suicide when the Hale-Bopp comet passed by earth.  This song takes many of Porcupine Tree’s early instrumental tendencies and smartly shortens them into a three-minute package, rather than dragging on for six or seven.

The two longest tracks on this album hint at the band’s future direction. “Hatesong” builds into something big and heavy. After starting off fairly quiet, with jazzy tones, lead guitar and distorted synthesizers come to snarl over crushing riffs. “Russia on Ice” is effectively two songs. The first seven minutes or so are restrained but incredibly oppressive. String arrangements are deployed to great effect, and the bitter lyrics complement the sparse severity of the music. The closing six minutes, meanwhile, features overt flirtations with metal. Beneath all the distortion and bombast, though, are flashes of funk, folk, and electronica.

Part IV: Prog Metal Influences (2002-2010)

Steven Wilson had long flirted with heavy metal sounds in Porcupine Tree’s music. Around the turn of the century, he began to get more into extreme metal, including Meshuggah and Opeth. After being introduced to Opeth frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt, Wilson produced that band’s 2001 album Blackwater Park. Around this same time, drummer Chris Maitland left the band and was replaced by Gavin Harrison, a more technical, metal-oriented drummer.

iaAll these factors fed into the band’s 2002 release, In Absentia. For all the metallic fury in the opening riff of “Blackest Eyes”, In Absentia is not particularly metal on the whole. Heavy riffs do appear at various points on the album, but the bulk of the material here is pretty typical Porcupine Tree fare with a distorted veneer. It’s an excellent album with some of their best material, but it was clearly a first step in Porcupine Tree’s exploration of metallic ideas.

Aside from the aforementioned “Blackest Eyes”, “Gravity Eyelids” features bruising walls of distortion in its second half, which are contrasted against Wilson’s gentle vocal arrangements. The instrumental “Wedding Nails” features speedy, technical riffing and awkward, stuttering rhythms. Similar musical ideas are revisited on “The Creator Has a Mastertape”, which almost sounds like the band’s attempt to do a thrash metal song. “Strip the Soul”, meanwhile, feels like Porcupine Tree-penned doom metal.

On the lighter end of things, “Trains” begins as a fantastic folk-flavored piece of prog-pop which builds in intensity until its final seconds. “Lips of Ashes” is a slow-moving, mostly-acoustic piece which uses its sparseness to brew a haunting atmosphere. Such simplicity is also deployed in the closing “Collapse the Light into Earth”, a sorrowful piece featuring piano, Wilson’s vocals, and strings.

dwIn 2004, Porcupine Tree released Deadwing, a concept album based on a screenplay written by Steven Wilson and a filmmaker friend. (As of January 2019—the most recent update—the screenplay is still being retooled.) Deadwing demonstrated a fuller integration of the band’s metal influences while still retaining a significant portion of the prog-pop character of their last few releases.

The title track opens this album. Its backbone of pulsing synths and a galloping rhythm section drive it forward with greater speed than most of the band’s prior output. Wonky, death metal-inspired riffage augments the lighter guitar parts of the verses and Richard Barbieri’s keys. This song also features an early instance of Steven Wilson’s signature use of slightly-distorted vocals which sound as if they’re coming through a radio or telephone.

“Shallow” feels something like this album’s attempt at another “Blackest Eyes”. There’s a big, memorable metal riff coupled with a catchy, folk-inflected chorus.

“Arriving Somewhere but Not Here” is one of Porcupine Tree’s all-time high points. This 12-minute track builds organically from burbling synthesizers to its acoustic first verses to its first guitar solo. The rhythm section provides powerful energy, but Wilson’s mournful guitar lines act as a foil, imbuing a heavy dose of sadness. When the metal comes in at the halfway point, it feels like a logical progression as it ups the intensity.

As is expected, there are calmer moments on Deadwing. “Lazarus” is a delicate ballad with a strong melody. “Mellotron Scratch” moves along at a deliberate tempo, and the Mellotron choir and flute add to this song’s dreamy atmosphere. It also features some of Wilson’s best vocal arrangements. The closing “Glass Arm Shattering” is another pretty, lush song that takes its time and acts as an apt end to the record.

A handful of other songs recorded during the Deadwing sessions have been released over the years on assorted bonus discs and special editions. In one instance, Wilson reworked a track with his side project Blackfield. All the songs are fine, but you’re not missing much by not hearing them. Had they been included on Deadwing, they’d run the risk of bogging down a near-perfect album.

foabpThe band’s next album, Fear of a Blank Planet, was released in early 2007. It focuses on topics like the isolation brought about by technology and the over-prescribing of drugs. Such bleakness is reflected in the sound of this album. It sounds cold and austere, and the metal riffs have grown even more encompassing.

The title track opens the album. It’s an urgent, distorted piece centered around an off-kilter guitar riff and masterful drumming. If I were asked to demonstrate Porcupine Tree’s metal sound, this is the song I’d trot out as an example. Many of their better-known songs are effectively art-pop with a heavy metal chorus, but this track is metal through and through. “My Ashes”, which follows, is one of the lighter moments on the album, but it’s dark and morose. The gloomy keys get some good contrast from sweet-sounding strings.

At the core of this album is the 17-minute suite “Anesthetize”. Broken into three distinct sections, it opens with rolling drums and minimalistic guitar and keys. Wilson sings deliberately, acting like a parachute, keeping the overall pace of the song down. Greater distortion enters near the end of this first movement, and it closes on a beautiful, Spanish-flavored guitar solo, courtesy of Alex Lifeson of Rush.

Part Two of “Anesthetize” might just be my favorite bit of music this band ever recorded. Froggy guitar and lightly distorted electric piano dance around each other for a few moments before descending into the heaviest riff in the band’s history. When I saw Porcupine Tree live in 2009, the song’s wonky rhythm did its best to preclude moshing, but that didn’t stop some members of the crowd near the front from trying their damnedest. Coupled with this aggression is a strong melody and one hell of a hook in the chorus. The third part is in direct contrast to this preceding onslaught—a mellow, relaxed outro.

“Sentimental” is the requisite sad-sounding piano song, a la “Trains”, and “Way out of Here” is a bitter alt-metal song that features soundscapes provided by Robert Fripp of King Crimson. This song’s last minute or so contains some intriguing, jazzy interplay between bass and drums. The closing “Sleep Together” sounds at times like it belongs on a film score. Its underlying wobbly synthesizers and dramatic string swells feel like something I might expect from Trent Reznor.

nrIn the second half of 2007, Porcupine Tree released the Nil Recurring EP, featuring four songs recorded during the Fear of a Blank Planet sessions. As with many Porcupine Tree releases, the title track opens this release. Robert Fripp plays lead guitar here, and drummer Gavin Harrison contributes some guitar as well. It’s an interesting instrumental, but I can see why it was excluded from the album. “Nil Recurring” stands fine on its own, but there’s no obvious spot for it on the album. “Normal” is a gloomy, mostly-acoustic piece with a chorus which is a further development of “Sentimental” which fails to otherwise stand out. “Cheating the Polygraph” shares significant DNA with “Nil Recurring” and “Fear of a Blank Planet”: it’s heavy, weird, and thoroughly engaging. “What Happens Now?”, meanwhile, directly quotes a riff from “Anesthetize” and features some electric violin, but it ultimately fails to do much for me. The last two or three minutes are dramatic, but it takes way too long to get going.

inciIn 2009, Porcupine Tree released their final studio album, The Incident. This is the band’s longest studio release, clocking in at just over 76 minutes (edging out On the Sunday of Life by 31 seconds). Over 55 of those minutes comprise the massive, 14-part title track, which takes up the album’s entire first disc.

The Incident is enjoyable, but it is too long. The most-explicitly-metal moments are the strongest points during the title track’s runtime, while many of the quieter, acoustic passages feel tedious. The utilization of evil-sounding electronics borders on overuse, and a few of Wilson’s guitar solos sound like overwrought David Gilmour parodies.

There are some genuinely strong moments, however. “The Blind House (Part 2)”, “The Incident (Part 6)”, and “Octane Twisted (Part 11)” rank among Porcupine Tree’s best metal output, and “Drawing the Line (Part 5)” demonstrates that Wilson still had a good ear for smart pop. But the bloat of many of the shorter interludes and the sappiness of some acoustic passages, such as the closing “I Drive the Hearse”, drag this album down somewhat.

After extensive touring throughout 2009 and 2010, Steven Wilson announced a hiatus for Porcupine Tree. In the ensuing years, he occasionally said a reunion could be on the table, until 2018, when he announced he had no interest in reuniting the band.

Part V: Steven Wilson’s solo career (2008-present)

uemSteven Wilson’s first solo venture came in 2004, with Unreleased Electronic Music, Vol 1, but it seems to have been a weird one-off, rather than a major career decision. I debated including this in the list or not, since I excluded No-Man and Bass Communion. This was released under the Steven Wilson name, though, so I opted to include it.

Unreleased Electronic Music, Vol. 1 is bad. There’s the occasional interesting idea here or there, but most of it is aimless, unimpressive drum-and-bass and industrial music. Skip it.

insuSteven Wilson’s solo career began before Porcupine Tree’s disbandment, in 2008, with the release of Insurgentes. Compared to Porcupine Tree’s output, Insurgentes is more rooted in alt-rock than metal, and there’s a greater electronic footprint. It’s got some weird, dissonant moments mixed in among the more traditional song structures.

Insurgentes is fine. Not an awful lot stands out, and its second half drags at points. This collection of songs feels like a rough draft of a Porcupine Tree album that needed some workshopping. Wilson had always been the band’s lead songwriter, but the other members did contribute, and that lack of outside input probably hampered the development of a lot of the songs here.

gfdSteven Wilson followed Insurgentes with Grace for Drowning in 2011, a huge double album that saw him branching off in some directions Porcupine Tree never took. Most notably, there is a not-insignificant amount of jazz flavor present. (Jazz in Porcupine Tree’s music never went beyond brief interludes and the occasional flourish.) Wind instruments like flute, sax, and clarinet are common over the course of this album. Wilson stated in an interview that one of the members of Porcupine Tree (he didn’t say who) was not a fan of jazz and would veto most attempts to include it.

“Sectarian” has many of Wilson’s trademarks. It’s a dark instrumental based around an uneven guitar riff, with dramatic Mellotron effects, squealing sax, and extreme dynamic shifts. “Deform to Form a Star” is one of the most uplifting things the famously-gloomy Steven Wilson has ever recorded, and “Remainder the Black Dog” has a looming, evil atmosphere that would have been at home on a King Crimson record. “Index” is Wilson’s best-realized integration of electronic and rock music.

The clear star of Grace for Drowning, though, is the 23-minute “Raider II”. Opening with somber piano and clarinet underpinning Wilson’s softly-muttered vocals, it suddenly explodes with Mellotron, saxophone, and crashing drums. Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater provides piano on this song, and though I often lambaste him for his masturbatory instrumental tendencies, I think this demonstrates that the environment in Dream Theater is what fosters that impulse. His playing is masterful in its transitions between rock and jazz orientation. The rest of the song veers from high-octane arpeggiated riffs to mellow, jazzy atmospherics, to chaotic King Crimson-esque dramatics.

trtrtsGrace for Drowning was followed in 2013 by The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories). The Raven that Refused to Sing is a fantastic album. However, I find it funny that Steven Wilson so fully embraced many of the tropes of classic progressive rock on this album, considering his derision of the term. He’s called the phrase progressive rock “the p-word” and nearly goes into apoplexy if it’s used to describe his music.

“Luminol” opens The Raven the Refused to Sing with a bang. It’s an extremely Yes-like opening, with its Chris Squire-inspired (in-Squired?) bassline and lush Mellotrons. Steven Wilson’s first vocal lines are also reminiscent of Jon Anderson’s first (wordless) notes on “Close to the Edge”. The song’s middle section is more standard fare for Wilson: gently strummed guitar and personal lyrics, though the flute and piano demonstrate that the jazz touches are still here.

“Drive Home” is something of a mix of new and old Porcupine Tree sounds. It’s got the melodicism of their late ‘90s output while channeling some earlier spacey elements, particularly in the closing guitar solo. “The Holy Drinker”, meanwhile, continues Steven Wilson’s King Crimson kick. Oppressive, jazzy, dissonant textures dominate the song’s first few minutes, though the verses are surprisingly poppy.

The title track closes the album. The song sounds heartbroken, desperate, and lonely; but it’s gorgeous. Wilson cranked up his usual sadness to eleven here, particularly in the first half. Beneath this mood though, hints of hope shine through. The music is deeply affecting, and this is absolutely one of Wilson’s highlights as a songwriter.

hceIf The Raven that Refused to Sing was Steven Wilson embracing many tropes of classic progressive rock, then his fourth solo album, 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. is him wallowing in them. The nods to giants of the genre are blatant enough to be distracting. This album is Wilson’s first release since the early-to-mid-90s that I would describe as derivative or uncreative. Hints at his future pop direction are evident on a few tracks as well. This release is also where I break most strongly from critical consensus, judging by the Metacritic score. (An aggregate of 89? Really?)

“Three Years Older”, the second song on the album (following a brief instrumental intro), is my favorite here. It draws heavy-handed inspiration from Yes and is enjoyable overall. But where “Luminol”, another very Yes-ish song, had significant dashes of Steven Wilson’s unique style, this cut lacks it almost entirely.

Following this track are the two lead singles off the album. They’re also the two worst songs on the album by a wide margin. The title track is bland power pop, and “Perfect Life” is dull-as-dirt trip hop topped with flat narration in its first half and underwhelming vocals from Wilson in its second half.

“Routine” is enjoyable as I listen to it, but I struggle to remember specifics about it once it’s done. Except for guest vocalist Ninet Tayeb, though that’s mostly because I don’t like her voice. “Home Invasion” is one of the stronger songs on the album. It’s one of few tracks that sounds uniquely Wilsonian, with its mad, jazzy electric piano and biting guitar lines.

“Ancestral” is another highlight. Wilson’s use of electronics and violin in the opening lend it distinct character. Some instrumental moments come off as overwrought, rather than genuinely dramatic, but it’s an overall effective suite that sees Steven Wilson veer into metal for the first time since The Incident.

412Early 2016 saw the release of the EP , consisting of assorted outtakes from the previous two albums’ recording sessions, plus a live track. You’re not missing much here. “Vermillioncore” is a pretty cool instrumental that sounds like a Deadwing outtake, and “Happiness III” is a catchy, cynical piece of prog-pop that would’ve fit in well on In Absentia. The rest is forgettable at best.

Steven Wilson’s next album was 2017’s To the Bone. He’d never been shy about incorporating pop elements into his music, and he was open from the get-go that this would be his poppiest release to date. It’s mostly smart pop-rock, but it’s unimpressive. Song structures are predictable, instrumentation is pretty standard, and accessibility appears to have been a prime concern.

ttbTo the Bone isn’t the flaming trainwreck I’d feared it would be (though the same can’t be said of its artwork; whose idea was this album cover?), but it isn’t particularly interesting. It doesn’t offer much for those of us who most enjoy Porcupine Tree’s late ‘90s and ‘00s material. Wilson has proven he can write interesting music with good pop hooks and conventional structures, but when he writes a whole album exclusively in that style, he seems to run thin on material. I acknowledge I am an outlier in the intensity of my distaste for this album. I’d never thought I’d use the word anodyne to describe Wilson’s music, but that descriptor applies to an awful lot of the tracks here.

Wilson’s pop album isn’t all bad. There are a few good songs on it, but it should be noted that there are no really good songs on it. “The Same Asylum as Before” has some interesting moments, despite passages that remind one of churchy acoustic guitar music. “Permanating” is my favorite track on the album, partially because it’s the place where Wilson most thoroughly dropped his pretension and made a straight pop-rock cut. He didn’t try to pull any of his aren’t-I-clever(-and-sad) moves and put out a direct piece of piano-pop. “People Who Eat Darkness” and “Detonation” are the most reminiscent of his past output and as such, are other highlights for me.

Most songs on To the Bone, though, follow the mold of songs like “Pariah”, “Song of Unborn”, and “Refuge”. They’re slow, bland ballads that take far too long to get going, if they do so at all.

ldojThat same year, Steven Wilson provided the soundtrack for the video game The Last Day of June. This soundtrack features many musical themes from Wilson’s prior output, especially Grace for Drowning and  The Raven that Refused to Sing. After listening to the soundtrack, I can see how it would make for effective mood music in a video game. It doesn’t stand on its own as an independent album that well, unless you’re looking for moody background music.

About a day after I finished my first draft of this writeup, Steven Wilson announced his The Future Bites tour and album. No date was given for the album, but the tour is slated for September 2020. From the snippets provided in his announcement video on Instagram, it sounds like he’s continuing even more in To the Bone’s pop direction, which I can’t say I’m thrilled about. A lot of the marketing also seems to be playing into shallow, unoriginal, later-season-Black-Mirror-style “FUTURE BAD” cynicism. (Though Wilson was something of a pioneer on that front, based on some of his lyrics with Porcupine Tree.) I’m hoping I’m eventually proved wrong, though.

Edit 3/5/21: For my thoughts on The Future Bites, see my review here.

Edit 8/16/22: For my thoughts on Porcupine Tree’s reunion album, Closure/Continuation, see my review here.

Part VI: TL;DR and Ranking

Porcupine Tree were one of the leading forces in the progressive rock scene of the 1990s and early 2000s, working in space rock, progressive rock, and progressive metal. They put out ten proper studio albums and a handful of EPs and collections of outtakes. The group’s mastermind, Steven Wilson, then struck out on a successful solo career, where he has dabbled not just in progressive rock but in alternative rock and pop music.

Some these rankings were quite difficult, particularly near the top of the list. The top five albums could all have potentially wound up at number 1, depending on my mood on a given day, but I think this is the most consistent ranking.

  1. Deadwing (2005) (98/100)
  2. Grace for Drowning (2011) (97/100)
  3. The Raven the Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) (2013) (95/100)
  4. Lightbulb Sun (2000) (94/100)
  5. In Absentia (2002) (94/100)
  6. Fear of a Blank Planet (2007) (92/100)
  7. Stupid Dream (1999) (90/100)
  8. Signify (1996) (80/100)
  9. The Incident (2009) (77/100)
  10. The Sky Moves Sideways (1995) (74/100)
  11. Closure/Continuation (2022) (74/100)
  12. Insurgentes (2009) (73/100)
  13. Nil Recurring (2007) (71/100)
  14. Up the Downstair (1993) (67/100)
  15. Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015) (64/100)
  16. Staircase Infinities (1994) (61/100)
  17. On the Sunday of Life (1992) (58/100)
  18. To the Bone (2017) (55/100)
  19. Voyage 34 (2000) (50/100)
  20. Insignificance (1997) (49/100)
  21. 4½ (2016) (47/100)
  22. The Last Day of June (Soundtrack) (2017) (42/100)
  23. The Future Bites (2020) (39/100)
  24. Metanoia (1998) (38/100)
  25. Unreleased Electronic Music, Vol. 1 (2004) (25/100)

2 thoughts on “Deep Dive: Porcupine Tree & Steven Wilson

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