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MYSH: Porcupine Tree - Fear of a Blank Planet (2007)

2007 | Progressive Rock Progressive Metal

✩✩✩✩ | 4/5













Tracklist:

  1. Fear of a Blank Planet

  2. My Ashes

  3. Anesthetize

  4. Sentimental

  5. Way Out of Here

  6. Sleep Together


Porcupine Tree get a lot of flack for being a so-called “self-gratifying” prog band, for having some corny and inelegant lyrics, and for front man Steven Wilson’s ego and perceived god-complex. Admittedly these are all somewhat true of Porcupine Tree. But the way they are used to put the band down is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. While Porcupine Tree may be no Pink Floyd, they are similarly able to rise above their flaws and deliver some truly excellent music. Looking past its admittedly somewhat ugly veneer, you’ll see Porcupine Tree have a lot to offer. If excessive prog music grinds your gears, if you feel as though its smug aura mocks you, then Fear of a Blank Planet couldn’t be less of your thing. “Anesthetize” is 18 minutes long, and “Fear of a Blank Planet” mentions pornography, suicide, and Pearl Jam in its lyrics… there’s a lot to unpack.


Some find the juxtaposition of The Trees’ (no one calls them that) more metal-leaning riffing and their more standard 70’s prog sound to be awkward and in poor taste. I on the other hand really appreciate acts like Riverside and Porcupine Tree who can mix metal riffage into a more standard prog sound. Unlike contemporaries like Tool or especially Opeth, Mastodon, or Gojira, PT are not a metal band. Porcupine Tree’s music takes advantage of heavier riffing to amplify their more melodic and subdued sections. “Anesthetize” is the perfect example of this. Its relatively quiet intro leads into an intense and rocketing middle section before closing out with a shimmering, ethereal outro. With the greater breadth of sound and tonality available with the merging of rock and metal based riffing, Porcupine Tree can take advantage of a greater amount of motion in their songs.


Looking at the songs sequentially can help identify and integrate the ideas and themes of the album into its whole package. I personally struggle with following lyrics, or oftentimes even caring about them. This makes reviewing concept albums tricky, especially those like Fear of a Blank Planet that don’t follow a direct plot that can be synopsized. In an abstract sense Fear of a Blank Planet is about an existential fear over the state of the younger generation, their reliance on screens, their dissociation with the world and dissatisfaction with their lives, and consequently their disengagement in education and engagement with drug abuse. Now, this album came out in 2007, and while it's possible some of these (beyond screen addiction) were new struggles that adolescents were facing, I’d posit that nearly all generations of teenagers behave similarly. Certainly, many of these themes hold true today, and I’d expect they’d hold true for Steven Wilson’s generation as well.


That aside, this theme is executed quite well within the album. “Fear of a Blank Planet” has some questionable lyrics ("Xbox is a God to me"), as mentioned at the start. Still, its overall message is strong, and “Anesthetize” similarly has some campy lyrics ("Shufflin around the stores like zombies") combined with some solid ones. However, the rest of the album doesn’t emphasize the theme nearly as much, or at least it doesn’t stick out to me as much. This is really because the songs are all kind of focused on a different theme, “Fear of a Blank Planet” narrates a teen's perspective, “My Ashes” focuses on isolation and dissatisfaction, and “Anesthetize” has a lot going on but principally focuses on depression and consumerism. “Sentimental” outlines a child's fear of approaching responsibility, and “Way Out of Here” follows a struggling teen's hatred of senseless sympathy and his want to just disappear from his life. “Sleep Together” is the odd one out for having a very vague theme of treating sex as an inane activity, one which has no meaning or purpose but that is expected regardless. In the end, having just about every song told from the perspective of the youth (as Steven Wilson understood them) works in the album's favor. Such a perspective helps nail the feelings of the themes and make them feel much more real.


In terms of instrumentation, Fear of a Blank Planet is in a much stronger position than with its lyrics and themes. Steven Wilson is an accomplished guitarist and an excellent songwriter and Gavin Harrison is an outstanding drummer who knows when to go for a more simplified groove and when to let loose. Additionally, Richard Barbieri’s keys and Colin Edwards’s warm bass play an enormous role in giving the album the textural feel it has. “Fear of a Blank Planet” buildsexcellent tension throughout, and its main hook is infectious. Wilson’s vocal delivery adds a bite to the song that the rest of the album doesn’t really have. “My Ashes” is one of the ‘softer’ songs on Fear of a Blank Planet, forgoing any heavier elements and going for a more atmospheric sound, awash in effects, and with crisp production values. “Anesthetize” begins beautifully before shifting gears into a chugging, churning riff that seems to stumble forward, finally crescendoing in the best chorus on the album halfway through the song. And it’s outro is somber and low-energy, providing an excellent landing pad for the middle section. “Anesthetize” also features lead guitar work from Rush’s legendary Alex Lifeson, as well as the most energetic and busy drumming that Harrison displays on the record. “Sentimental” is another quieter track, more vocally focused and featuring some truly excellent keyboard parts. “Way Out of Here” is tremendously produced and mixed, with a satisfying spectrum of noise and distortion placed over the keyboards and vocals. This all builds tension along with the mid-song breakdown and introduction of Fear of a Blank Planets heaviest riff, belching out and interrupting the airy night sky atmosphereever-present of the song. Very drum-focused and exceptionally cathartic, “Sleep Together” is one of the best tracks on the record, with terrific layering and production, emphasizing the ever present synth elements while guitar, strings, and vocals occupy the forefront.


Similar to the experience of the theatre, Porcupine Tree’s music tends to elicit very different responses from different people. Prog nerds like myself and many other critics have commended Porcupine Tree for their evolution of classic progs formula, for their dense compositions and airy production. Others don’t find Steven Wilson’s slam poetry and King Crimson meets TOOL style to be nearly as flattering. Such a perspective I think undervalues Porcupine Tree and doesn’t do prog music the justice it deserves. Sure the album sometimes feels emotionally barren, and Wilson’s production can lead to the album feeling very sterile (a style that worked better on a band that wasn’t already so squeaky clean like Opeth). Nonetheless, Fear of a Blank Planet has a lot to offer, and frankly? I’m more impressed that the lyrics hold as true today than I am cringing at “Xbox is a God to me”.


 

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