Issue 2005-017: Porcupine Tree - Deadwing - Round Table Review
Tracklist: Deadwing (9:47), Shallow (4:16), Lazarus (4:18), Halo (4:39), Arriving Somewhere But Not Here (12:05), Mellotron Scratch (6:57), Open Car (3:48), The Start Of Something Beautiful (7:34), Glass Arm Shattering (6:15)
hidden bonus track: Shesmovedon (US version only)
In Absentia was my favourite progressive rock album of 2002. My DPRP colleagues Ed, Rob and Bart, however did not agree with me there, as they tended to find that particular PT album too heavy and too "difficult" to listen to in one take... So, their ratings were accordingly (Ed (8,5), Rob (7,5) and Bart (8-)), as I would have rated it with a 9,5!! But, hey, there is no accounting for taste, so... But I think that with this new Porcupine Tree CD, Ed, Rob and Bart will have the same problems and/or comments. Deadwing is again a rather "heavy" album, which of course is to my liking, although you could also say that Deadwing is a step back.
Of course, there are still enough heavy guitar riffs, like on its predecessor, but the CD also has plenty of psychedelic and electronic musical elements; sometimes even more as on any PT album since Signify, which dates from 1997. The typical PT ultra modern metal grooves, the trance like dream journeys and the perfect soundscapes make this album sheer brilliant and sometimes I have the feeling that a few songs like for instance Halo, Arriving Somewhere But Not Here, The Start Of Something Beautiful and the title track are even better song material than the tracks on In Absentia.
The main difference with any other PT album is however the lack of "catchy" choruses, which could turn out to be a problem for "easy listeners"... So, there are no super PT hymns like The Sound Of Muzak, Even Less, Four Chords That Made A Million, or Gravity Eyelids on Deadwing! You could also say that there are no real "innovative" songs on Deadwing, but for my part that does not matter, because most songs grab you by the throat immediately... Like for example the fast, rather heavy song Shallow, a true musical thunderstorm; or the superb rollercoaster ride Open Car, both songs rock like hell, but also have enough melody and diversity to keep on listening to them, again and again.
The absolute highlights are: the title track - nine minutes of sheer brilliance, Arriving Somewhere But Not Here - an epic, classic progressive space rock song that cannot be described in words, and last but not least Glass Arm Shattering - a Pink Floyd-like song because of its mood, its atmosphere and of course the almost typical guitar melodies and solos; in other words: sheer magic!
So, in my humble opinion I would say that Wilson and Co. have done it again. I truly hope that Deadwing will become their final breakthrough album, as they now prove again that PT truly is the best British progressive prog band of our time. Deadwing gets better with every spin and I am certain that it will be in my top three of 2005; truly and honestly recommended.
Ed & Bart 's Reviews
ED: The peaceful sequencer and sound effects with which this album start might give you the wrong impression. Before long the whole band kicks in and it becomes very clear that Porcupine Tree haven't gotten the heavy metal of In Absentia out of their system yet. As we've come to expect, this song consist of a catchy, effective bass line and great guitar riffs while drummer Gavin Harrison uses the double bass drum to full effect. Sung verses are alternated with a chorus which is in whispering grunge style, in strong contrast with the close harmony vocals that follow later. As such, the band has once again succeeded in merging various musical styles in one song. A great album opener but not too many surprises. Well actually there is one unpleasant one, being the second guitar solo at the end of the song by Adrian Belew of King Crimson. I've never been a big KC fan and this guitar solo shows exactly why. I like melodic guitar solo's, not somebody who tries to rape his strings. I think that Steve Wilson did a still acceptable 'chaos solo' on Where We Would Be back in 2000, but this is simply too much for me. This solo almost spoils the whole track for me.
BART: The title track of the album is an uptempo rock track in which Steve Wilson quite successfully experiments with different vocal effects, including some spoken parts in a low grumble. The song is a bit monotonous, as Gavin Harrison's steady and beat powerful beat goes on for pretty much the entire nine minutes. This makes it that the song wears off after a while, and Adrian Belew's horrible guitar solo at the end makes me wish the track had been four minutes shorter.
ED: There's hardly a second to catch your breath after Deadwing. Next up is the loudest tune on the album, Shallow. Remember the rare Porcupine Tree song Futile, which was also played during the last tour ? Well, this little ditty is his evil twin. Steve Wilson himself described it as "the closest Porcupine Tree has come to making a big dumb rock song". Not a bad song at all, but not the kind of music I prefer to hear the band play. It's really an attack on the ears, so to speak.
BART: Shallow is a pretty straightforward rock-song, much in the vein of Led Zeppelin, with perhaps a dash of the modernism of Nine Inch Nails thrown in. Quite forgettable, and an odd choice as the first single off the album for the American market. After all, anyone who buys Deadwing based on hearing the single, will be quite surprised when hearing the rest of the album - not the least by the length of most of the other tracks.
ED: What's this? A Robbie Williams ballad on a Porcupine Tree album? This is quite different from the normal quiet songs of the band because it's got an atmosphere that is more 'bittersweet' or melancholic than the normal depressed or frustrated one we've come to know. Wilson himself described this as a "mellow chilled out song". The piano melody plays an important role in the song and there's a fair bit of slide guitar present as well. Takes a while to get used to, but not a bad track at all.
BART: While Shallow has been chosen as first single off the album for the American market, the record company (wisely?) decided that that song is much too loud for European radio stations, and they went for the complete opposite choice for the first single for Europe (make that Germany only, at present). With it's typical indie/alternative ballad-style it is definitely a song that could work on the radio, but it suffers from the same thing as Shallow - it is not a representative for Porcupine Tree's music.
I quite like the track though. I guess I'm a sucker for slow songs and Lazarus is definitely the type of melancholic music I love.
ED: This song has a great, pumping bass line and more mysterious whispered and distorted vocals. The song has a weird spooky kind of 'preaching' atmosphere about it. The chorus is quite catchy but slightly simple for PT standards. Furthermore there's a nice break with a strange time signature, more heavy guitar riffs and another dreadful peace of Belew guitar raping.
BART: This song sounds like a possible third option for a single - short enough and catchy enough to be played on the radio. Just like Shallow, this is another short and relatively simple powerful rock song, but this time far better executed and more interesting both musically and lyrically. The lyrics deal with the omnipresence of God, or more precisely, the way God is used by many people as an excuse for pretty much every action they do. All this is done with a terrific ambiguity, so the song might as well be a hymn.
The melody and vocal styles of this track remind me a bit of the work of Gavin Friday, while the music would not be out of place on a Muse album.
Arriving Somewhere But Not Here
ED: The absolute highlight of the album, no doubt about it. Good melody, great tension building, spooky Barbieri keyboard patterns, a very heavy middle section before calling down again, lyrics that send shivers down the spine, fine harmony vocals, you name it, this song has it all. I have to admit though that this is 'PT by the book' and easily comparable to tracks like Russia on Ice. One thing I dislike about the song is the very uninspired monotonous drumming by Gavin Harrison in the heavy section; just straightforward continuous bashing in the same pattern. No fills, rolls or breaks. That's why I still consider Chris Maitland the better of the two drummers the band worked with.
BART: Arriving Somewhere But Not Here is much more a typical Porcupine Tree song, with an atmosphere quite in the vein of Russia On Ice. Again, there are lots of harmony vocals and interesting effects are used on the vocals, including a type of vocoder.
Muse once again pops up as a musical reference. Not in vocal style of course, Steve Wilson is in a completely different league as Matthew Bellamy, but the fast, driving rhythm and guitar work certainly echo that of the better British alternative bands, like Muse or even Radiohead.
ED: Another mellow tune featuring processed vocals, not very different in style from the first half of Gravity Eyelids. The second half and highlight of the song are the beautiful vocal harmonies singing various melodies, although this trick has been used before on Heartattack in a Layby (one of my favourites from In Absentia). As such, not a bad track but nothing new under the sun either.
BART: A song about mellotrons? Surely something must have cracked in the mind of Steve Wilson - in recent years he has made quite a few statements on how he doesn't like being
labelled as progressive rock, and certainly an ode to the black bitch won't do the image much good, will it? Unfortunately the album booklet doesn't contain any lyrics, but what I can make out of the multiple vocal melodies at the end of the song is "blow it down - shut it down" - certainly not a love-song then!
For fans of the tron there is quite a lot to love though, with gentle washes of mellotron all the way through. More Beatles than Genesis, but mellotron nonetheless.
Oh, and there's guitar, bass and drums too... besides the mellotron that is... Did I mention the mellotron yet?
ED: Short but sweet! Cynical lyrics about the development of a relationship combined with a venomous delivery of the music. The vocals seamlessly flow with the guitar riff and there's an almost uncountable number of tempo and style changes in this relatively short song. One of the few times the band seems to try something new, more along the lines of alternative rock. At the same time it's not too far removed from Strip the Soul either.
BART: At first Open Car seems like another one of Steve Wilson's views on the three-minute rock song, but unlike Shallow it doesn't follow the four chord straightforward rock format. It starts pretty much the same way as Strip The Soul off In Absentia, but after two verses of rap-like vocals and an Aerosmith-like guitar line, the song shifts 180 degrees in true Porcupine Tree style fashion for the bridge and chorus. And lo and behold, the chorus contains the Pink Floyd Power Chord Sequence™ - a nice an probably not entirely intentional nod to one of Wilson's biggest influences.
The Start of Something Beautiful
ED: Again, one of the better songs of the album, starting with Barbieri ambience and a humming bass line and nice drum pattern. The lyrics are top-notch on this one ('mother lost her looks for you, father never wanted you'), although the chorus is so distorted that I can't really hear what Wilson is singing. My only complaint for this song would be that it's a bit too long and since it doesn't really develop into something different anymore after the instrumental mid section, it sort of outstays its welcome a bit.
BART: As the title suggests, this is one of the more beautiful songs on the album. A good balance between melancholic and heavy, with excellent lyrics. The song sounds a bit like a cross between earlier Tree tracks Shesmovedon and Hatesong.
Glass Arm Shattering
ED: This is just plain boring. A bit of a return to the Sky Moves Sideways days of the Tree with a very drawn out ambient piece that just drags on for more than 6 minutes. The vocals are very uninspired and sound like Wilson just didn't feel like singing at all that day. Of course this is intentional, but it just isn't my cup of tea. Sure, I like the echoing Floydian guitar chords I've missed for a couple of albums but the band has done much better peaceful album closers over the years than this attempt. It's a real shame they've chosen this piece instead of the originally planned Half-Light, which ended up as a B-side on the Lazarus single.
ED: Glass Arm Shattering is a nice ending song of the album, harking back to the days of The Sky Moves Sideways and Signify with spacey, Floydian slide-guitar and monotonous and melancholic vocal melodies. I agree with Ed that it isn't their best album closer, though I wouldn't want to call it boring.
Originally the track Half-Light was planned as album closer, but got moved to the B'side of the Lazarus single instead. I can understand why there wasn't room for both of these songs, as they are quite similar in atmosphere, but I too feel that the wrong one has been chosen as album closer. More the reason to buy the single (soon to be reviewed by yours truly - if the damn thing ever arrives!).
ED: Okay, more important than the above track by track is my overall opinion on this new Porcupine Tree album. I've been a huge PT fan since The Sky Moves Sideways and I've always been amazed at how they have come up with new influences and a new direction album after album. As such, they moved from psychedelia to drawn out Floydian stuff to moody rock songs to multi-vocal splendour to in-your-face kick-ass rock with a proggy twist. Sometimes the albums contained a few less interesting songs (especially Signify) but the albums were always well above anything most other bands dared to release. Porcupine Tree just kept innovating, expanding and reinventing their own sound.
I was quite shocked when I heard In Absentia for the first time, but I've grown to like the album a lot. I did hope that they had gotten the metal out of their system at least a bit by now. Unfortunately that's not yet the case, as the Deadwing album proves.
Let me tell you something about my favourite PT tracks. They tend to be the ones where quiet, peaceful sections are alternated with heavy sections. So, I really don't mind heavy guitar riffs and kick-ass arrangements. As such, I love tracks like Blackest Eyes, Russia on Ice, Hatesong, Strip the Soul, Gravity Eyelids, etc. And there's quite a few songs on this new CD that fall in the same category as well. I am less interested in the two excesses though, one being the songs that are loud all the way through (e.g. Futile, Shallow, Creator Had A Mastertape). These are all good tunes but I personally have to be in 'a certain mood' to be wanting to listen to them. The other excess is the very mellow, almost ambient ones like Lips of Ashes or Glass Arm Shattering. Quite often, these tracks drag too much.
So, my 'problem' with this new Porcupine Tree album can be summed up as follows: too little innovation and too many excesses. There are simply too many songs that are either too loud or too mellow instead of a good combination. Also, I've heard all of it before on other Porcupine Tree albums; almost all of the songs could be placed on one or more of the previous 4 albums the band released. And to be honest, that's not what I've come to expect of this band. As a matter of fact, I think the band has produced better B-sides over the years than some of the songs on this album. What's more, I would gladly trade two songs of this album for Half-Light and So Called Friend, which were moved to the CD single of Lazarus.
Having said that, this is still an excellent album when compared to other bands. And it is still growing on me and will no doubt end up high in my top 10 of 2005. On the other hand though, for a Porcupine Tree album it's a bit disappointing. Hence my rating just below the 'DPRP Recommended' rating of 8 out of 10. Consider it a symbolic statement.
BART: Upon reading Martien's review I had to re-write my conclusion and comment on his. Indeed, as Martien predicted, I do not agree with his 9.5 out of 10 rating for an album he calls "a step back", but apart from that I quite agree with the things he says. It is a good album, far better than most in the genre and I concur with Martien's bold statement that Porcupine Tree might be the best contemporary prog band (despite Steve Wilson hating the term 'prog'). However, at the same time Steve Wilson and co have raised the bar so high with previous albums, that is has become nearly impossible to top them. I rate Deadwing higher than In Absentia, but not as high as the double whammy of Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun, simply because of the fact that I have grown to expect more of this band. If a new band would come with an album like Deadwing, it would be hailed as a masterpiece. For a band like Porcupine Tree however, it is a step back. It sounds too much like something that has been quickly done on a rainy Sunday afternoon, not straying much off the
trodden paths. And in that, it disappoints slightly.
It would almost seem the record company had a hand in the production of the album too. Porcupine Tree have been very lucky to have landed a record deal at Lava Records, which gives them benefit of the worldwide distribution network of Warner Music. Yet it seems that there has been a push to target this album at a different audience, with a heavier and more straightforward rock sound. This is enhanced by the look of the artwork of the album, which echoes that of bands like Muse and Radiohead.
The album is a must-have, no less. But newcomers to the band might want to try out some of the back catalogue first.