Porcupine Tree were a strange discovery for me. While the first few listens completely turned me off (“you call this prog rock?”), I gradually warmed up to them after being forced to put up with them while my brother was driving. Specifically, the song that really got my attention was “Anesthetize”, after my brother mentioned that Alex Lifeson (of Rush) guested on a guitar solo. Little did I anticipate how my mind would be blown.

Describing Porcupine Tree as a modern day Pink Floyd, while beyond high praise, is more than a bit unfair to Steve Wilson, the primary songwriter, guitarist and singer. However, it’s easy to see why such comparisons exist; the combinations of electronics and instruments, the flowing nature of each song, the layered keyboard textures and the sophisticated, thematic lyrics (hell, even the occasional clumsy lyric is classic Roger Waters) are all reminiscent of Dark Side of the Moon. Indeed, there is a rather logical progression from Dark Side to Radiohead’s OK Computer to Fear of a Blank Planet; each devliering more dystopian, damning critiques of society and the human condition.

Writing an album about a withdrawn, vice-addicted young kid is hard enough at twenty, let alone when you’re in your forties and on your ninth album. Which makes it all the more surprising when you realise how good this album actually is. Evoking what can only be described as a menacing, confused, brood, it delves through the child’s anti-social disconnect (title track, above), drug and internet addiction (Anesthetize, below), and ultimate depression and moral decay (the rather overt Sleep Together). Like Yorke and Waters before him, Wilson isn’t critical of the misled subject of his creation but more aiming at a subtle voyeurism, through which one can’t help but sympathise with the poor protagonist.

Of course all of this would be moot if the album itself, intriguing as it is, was not underscored by a shocking modernisation of the prog rock sound. Continuing the trends form their previous albums of the 2000s, Porcupine Tree is heavy in a way that no band of the 70s could even dream of. Gone is the traditional reliance of keyboard and guitar solos to fill out the music, gone is the classical influence and gone are the ethereal highs of the likes of Yes. What remains is a gritty, dark pulse, created by Prince-style electronics, melodic bass and highly dextrous metal-fusion drumming by the universally-excellent Gavin Harrison. Wilson’s guitar is mean and riff-heavy, more Tony Iommi and David Gilmour, and the keys are much more reliant on electric piano and processed synths than the traditional distorted organ. While it’s an overall dense mix, filled with constant time signature changes and complex multi-section compositions, these elements add sophistication rather than sacrifice melody or accessbility.  

Putting a modern spin on progressive rock is a hard task, but one which Porcupine Tree have thoroughly succeeded in. Far from copying Pink Floyd, they’ve taken influence from their approach; reinterpreting, not reapplying. It’s somewhat of a cliche, but it’s really quite rare to see something so good that could have easily been so awful. Most vindicating of all, it utterly trashes the notion that progressive rock is contrived or pretentious, or worse; irrelevant. It’s a startingly fresh breath of air, made all the more salient amongst the commercial sea of mediocrity by how relevant this album really is.

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