Planet rock

The prog stylings of Porcupine Tree
By BRETT MILANO  |  May 1, 2007

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BLANK KIDS?: “I think it’s a hopeful sign that kids are getting into sophisticated music,” Steven Wilson (second right) argues.

Vinyl collectors will be greeted with a familiar sight when they open Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet (Atlantic): adorning the CD is Atlantic’s classic ’70s red-and-green logo — the same design that graced the original pressing of the prog classics In the Court of the King Crimson and Yes’s Close to the Edge. The past few years have seen a number of “prog rock is back” alerts. Most are false alarms. But this band from Hertfordshire are the real deal. And Fear of a Blank Planet is not only their most vintage-sounding album, it’s also their best.

Like the epics of yore, the album was tested live before it was recorded: Porcupine Tree played the unfinished songs as the first half of their set on a tour last fall that came to the Berklee Performance Center. Even when you didn’t know the titles or the subject matter, the music grabbed. It suggested that the band had grown out of their neo-metal phase (though founder and main songwriter Steven Wilson stepped forward on guitar often enough) and into richer, melodic soundscapes. They recorded the album after the tour wrapped up, releasing the live DVD Arriving Somewhere and Blackfield II (Atlantic), the sophomore disc by Wilson’s more straightforward side project, to hold fans over.

It’s no surprise that Blank Planet is a concept album. The surprise is the concept. Wilson has steered clear of explicit statements in the past. He’s employed dark subject matter (2002’s In Absentia was about the inner life of a psychopath), but it’s always been with a cerebral sense of humor. Indeed, when Porcupine Tree began a decade ago, it was as an affectionate parody of a psychedelic band, à la XTC’s Dukes of Stratosphear.

Blank Planet is dead serious, and a little moralistic as well. It’s about kids growing up in a shallow culture, lulled into oblivion by the media, prescription drugs, and the Internet. The metallic title track rails against a list of modern woes, from pornography to Xbox addiction to bands who sound like Pearl Jam. The grand chorus of the 17-minute “Anesthetize” (a high point of the Berklee show) has the disc’s most pointed lyrics: “Only apathy from all the pills in me. . . . Only MTV and cod philosophy.” If it’s sometimes a bit preachy, Wilson at least shows empathy for the denizens of today’s teenage wasteland. The album’s soaring finale, “Sleep Together,” suggests that love may be the way out of the morass — a conclusion Wilson’s ’70’s heroes would likely endorse.

When I reach him by phone, I suggest that the concerns raised on Blank Planet aren’t that different from what’s worried parents for decades. “Absolutely right,” he shoots back. “But when I was a teenager 20 years ago, the only thing my parents would consider having a negative influence on me was television, and I couldn’t have one in my room. I had to beg to even have a hi-fi. Young people born in this era live through their iPods and cellphones. Everything from music to news to pornography is readily available to them. The question is, how does that affect the human psyche? Added to that is the use of prescription drugs to solve things that my parents would have solved by telling me off.”

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