Music For Nations
There has been talk about the reunion of Porcupine Tree ever since they went on hiatus in 2010, like many other bands with a loyal following who find it difficult to let go. Is «Closure/Continuation» the most anticipated rock reunion album ever? Perhaps. Is it the most anticipated next album ever? I suppose in that respect comparison can be made with Radiohead’s «Kid A» after «OK Computer», that those who most anticipated the record will have the strongest expectations about the sound world and the style of the songwriting it should exhibit, and react accordingly.
While the source of the some of material was jam sessions between Steven Wilson and Gavin Harrison around 2012, with the rest having grown over the intervening period, as for other musicians the pandemic gave them and Richard Barbieri the opportunity to collaborate and complete the work remotely before the final recordings at Air Studios, to assemble an album. I say «assemble» advisedly, because the record and some of the songs have in places a cobbled-together feel which goes beyond the episodic nature of some of PT’s earlier work. The one unifying sound across the album is Harrison’s drumming, which is very much in the mold of the earlier records, with similar patterns, fills and breaks which will remind anyone with an ear for percussion of his prior work. Not that this isn’t true of Wilson and Barbieri, it is merely more so. Had the drumming style varied, the record might have felt even more disparate.
For those who wanted «just another Porcupine Tree record», however misguided that is, there is much to like. It is unmistakably such in its style and sound. The arrangements are similar, the same sensibilities very much in evidence, the motifs from each player familiar, and even some of the changes and melodies will remind the listener of earlier records. And why not? It is, after all, three of the same four voices. However, as you should expect – even hope for after such a long absence – they have moved on. «Haridan», the sizzling opening number, announces the return of a band who remain true most of all to themselves, by making the music they want. Wilson’s aggressive bass playing, Barbieri’s soundscaping and keyboards, and Harrison’s signature driven drumming style are all there. However, it is a song which sounds new, though it does exhibit some similarities to some of Wilson’s recent solo work. The slower songs which follow, «Of The New Day» and «Dignity» evoke tracks like «Trains», «Lazarus», and «Even Less» in their atmosphere and arrangement but are not just hommage or attempt to write those songs again. Wilson has in the past spoken of the formulaic nature of the songwriting in Porcupine Tree which began to stifle him, and there is still some of this structure in these tracks. There are some novel pieces of arrangement too, though, such as the mid section of «Dignity» which doesn’t seem to sound as much like PT as other parts of the record. Barbieri’s keyboard solo at the end of the song is very good, but perhaps some more stringent editing could have brought it forward and shortened the song.
«Herd Culling» is the weakest piece on the album in the opinion of the undersigned, with a sparse arrangement and some unevenness in the songwriting between sections and lyrics which never quite deliver on the menace of the song’s title. The chorus is unmistakeably a PT chorus, but in that way, it doesn’t fit so well with the verses or the rest of the piece, something which it shares with «Walk The Plank». Both these tracks show some new direction in arrangements, which is good, but this also doesn’t fit so well with the rest of the music on the record.
«Rats Return» is another fast, edgy piece, which has echoes of «Home Invasion» off “Hand Cannot Erase”. If you had to try to identify something about the album which makes it unconvincing, this track exhibits it most strongly. It contains many familiar PT sounds, and yet it doesn’t quite grab you, despite the forceful sound, the motifs don’t quite seem to belong together, there are too many jarring changes of pace and there are too many repeats of the same song-writing moves.
The standard edition of the record finishes with «Chimera’s Wreck», which sounds like something off “The “The Raven That Refused to Sing…” or side 2 of «The Incident», but there are also plaintive keyboard motifs which evoke «Arriving Somewhere…». The bleak atmosphere is well done, but lyrics are perhaps a little unconvincing, too studied, like the refrain «I’m afraid to be happy and I / couldn’t care less if I was to die» where there would have been more irony or detachment in the earlier lyrics. The shift in tempo halfway through takes us with a lurch more clearly into Wilson solo territory, especially with the high vocals, with new musical ideas introduced that take the song far away from where it started, and, ironically, it is here that Harrison’s drumming sounds most unfamiliar. As with elsewhere on the record, the extended instrumental repetitive passage towards the end of the song, also a hallmark of PT’s music, feel too long, the same phrases over and over in a way which doesn’t create sense of emphasis or climax.
There is one last ambient flourish from Barbieri – one of many – and the record is over.
The deluxe edition has three bonus tracks which the band omitted in order to keep the record at around 45 minutes’ length. The instrumental «Population Three» exhibits to an even greater degree the problem of stitching of musical themes, «Never Have» lacks the quality of song-writing or lyrics shown by «Of The New Day» or «Dignity». «Love in the Past Tense» is a rich, intricate track, but with very different lyrics and sound to rest of album you can see why it was pulled out, but it is the standout of the three.
So, what are we to make of this new PT record? First of all, it is unmistakably a PT record, full of familiar motifs and atmospheres; it’s also not a Steven Wilson record with backing from Barbieri and Harrison, as all three have shared song-writing duties. For someone who is not a dedicated fan, not one of those who have breathlessly waited, there’s quality here – excellent musicianship, interesting arrangements and shifts in tempo and atmosphere. There’s also considerably variety across the tracks, which for some listeners will be a positive. For the avid fan, there should also plenty of familiar material here to link this clearly to past work, to give that sense of comfort. Those who enjoy the delicacy of some of Wilson’s solo work, like «The Watchmaker», will also enjoy some of the material. Wilson once said in an interview «I like to think we make ‘Porcupine Tree’ music», so we should not have expected another «Deadwing» or «The Incident», but something new, and that is precisely what it is. It has its imperfections, difficulties with the arrangements and song writing which their earlier records do not show, but it is certainly an interesting record and one which improves with repeated listening, and one which does have its stand-out moments in «Haridan», «Dignity» and those moments of energy in «Rats Return» and «Chimera’s Wreck».
Skuffelse? There are jo grounds for that, but on balance there’s enough here to like. While the undersigned would not put this above any of their four heyday albums, it’s still a worthy continuation of their prior work which also brings in new musical ideas. If it lacks a kind of musical integrity, that perhaps comes down to the length of the writing process and the pertaining conditions and while it may make the overall listening experience a little uneven, it’s not a reason to write the album off either. For the undersigned, I hope this inspires them to continue rather than close, not because I have waited for twelve years, but because this new record has piqued my interest on its own terms. (Intervju i neste nummer av Norway Rock Magazine, ute denne uken – bestill det her!)
3/6 | Alex Maines
Utgivelsesdato 24. juni 2022