Welcome to another episode of A Scene In Retrospect, everybody! Hope you had a pleasant day so far, because this is going to be a bummer; inherently so, seeing which band and album we chose to cover in this episode! That’s right, today it’s all about Fear of a Blank Planet by Porcupine Tree, the masters of somber prog rock. So sit back and prepare to be hit right in the feels, as It Djents PR/social media manager Inter and staff writers David, Ashley, and Chris give you a piece of their mind about this milestone record. Please enjoy!
Let’s get this straight, right up front: Porcupine Tree are one of my all-time favorite bands, even from the very early days. I remember working in a record shop in Islington, London in the 90’s, putting The Sky Moves Sideways on the shop stereo and feeling superior to everyone around me, while they were all wanting acid jazz and britpop! At that time, Steven Wilson was an enigma, and the band felt truly underground. Oh, how times have changed!
Since I’m so familiar with their output, I’ve always felt that Fear of a Blank Planet was the combination of their best line-up, best production, and best songs, resulting in a true peak that took nearly 20 years to reach. Why is that? What makes this album so special? As with so many perfect albums, the recipe, in retrospect, seems simple. They took all the hallmarks that made them Porcupine Tree, doubled down on them, and made the whole thing technicolour. Let’s check the boxes:
Pop sensibility? “Fear of a Blank Planet”. Math rock and Pink Floyd-esque ambiance? “Anesthetize”. Wilson’s signature melancholic lyrics? “Sleep Together”. Bone-crushing riff-o-rama? “Way Out of Here”. You get the picture!
On top of this, they sprinkled a dose of some of the best rock performances ever captured on record. The Fender Rhodes and piano on “My Ashes” and “Anesthetize” are fantastic, and the superior bass from Colin Edwards on tracks like “Way Out of Here” is something that should be included on every bass player’s curriculum. You know in your heart that the band listens back to this album and is proud of their achievement, even to this day.
How about the drums? Don’t get me started. Gavin Harrison outshines himself on this album. From the subtle, delicate performance on “My Ashes” to the almost unbelievable polyrhythms of “Anesthetize”, he shows what a composer on the drums can sound like. As a drummer myself, this is one of the few ‘holy grail’ albums that I’ll be learning from for the rest of my life.
Sure, they sound clever, rehearsed and talented, but they also know how to hit the lights when they need to. The riff at the end of “Way Out of Here” is heavy AF, and the guitar interplay in the mid-section of “Anesthetize” makes you want to smash stuff! For me, they never reached this consistent, creative peak ever again. A testament to this is that when Wilson announced there would be no more albums, I felt it was the right thing to do. Porcupine Tree have left a legacy that will influence generations to come, me included.
P.S.: It was always a daft band name!
Porcupine Tree had been fearlessly making intricate and inventive music since the early 90s, and so, by 2007, their discography was already formidable. But Steven Wilson and co’s musical mission statement only gained new levels of brilliance in Fear Of A Blank Planet, their ninth studio album.
‘Emotive’, ‘clever’, and ‘intriguing’ might be a few words to adequately describe Porcupine Tree’s work. But some may overlook the more sinister and negative aspects of our everyday psyche that albums like Fear of a Blank Planet tapped into so well. The music was less evocative of a prog-inspired space and time journey as encapsulated by much of the band’s previous work, and more of a turbulent jaunt through raw human emotion.
And human emotion, like the music of this album, is nothing less than layered and complex.
My personal highlight, as I think many others will concur, is the 17 minute epic “Anesthetize”. Featuring guest guitar work from Rush’s Alex Lifeson, the song is a journey onto itself. 17 minutes might seem excessive even in a prog setting, but not one second of it is needless, overambitious, or egotistical. Every progression is natural and beautiful in its own right. And those familiar with the journey may have a tendency to sway excitedly in anticipation of that point seven minutes in, where that down-tuned metal-as-hell riff kicks in, interwoven with those gorgeously sung verses ending with the words ‘Only MTV, and cod philosophy…‘
It’s worth keeping in mind the breadth of Porcupine Tree’s career, and how this album arrived along the tail end of it. Was Fear Of A Blank Planet the work of a tired outfit with their best years behind them? Listen and discover for yourself, if you haven’t already!
So, uh… Porcupine Tree is one of the best bands ever, right? Right. I’m an In Absentia man myself, but really, picking your favorite album by them is like picking your favorite food. Sure, you have your preferences, but most food is awesome. Fear of a Blank Planet is considered one of their best. Why? Well, for one, it has a rather simple concept for such a grandiose album: an affecting look at ennui, desensitization, and zombification caused by prescription drugs, technology, and meaningless hedonism. Seeing as this is Porcupine Tree, they also explore all of the emotion behind that.
The title track is a snapshot of a numbed teenager, absorbed into video games, internet, pornography, and practically drugged into a listless state (‘Don’t try engaging me/The vaguest of shrugs/The prescription drugs/You’ll never find a person inside’). It’s by far the most consistently high-tempo song, which you might say matches the hyperactive mind and feelings of angst that dominate our teen years.
“Way Out of Here” is a chapter of distress and the desire to outrun your own life and start over. It’s quite climactic with lots of heavy guitar distortion that was more common with the band during this late era. The setpiece of this album is the nearly 18-minute prog masterpiece “Anesthetize”, which features some guitar work from Alex Lifeson of Rush. It’s a cinematic monolith and flows quite well from part to part, as does the album as a whole.
I think what really makes this album great is just how much of a tentpole the rock instrumentation is for the emotion behind the lyrics and concepts here. Every note has its place and it deliberately is an extension of what Steven Wilson is singing. Simply put, it’s Porcupine Tree at their creative peak.
It’s hard to find the right words to express what Porcupine Tree means to me. I can’t think of many other bands which had the same impact on my musical identity or shaped my musical preferences as much this band did. They were one of my first prog bands, and also my entry point into older, more classic prog. Porcupine Tree always cultivated a certain timelessness, they never hide their respect for and influences from older prog bands like Pink Floyd and King Crimson, while making the contemporary elements visible and always up to date. Progressive rock, electronic, ambient, folk, alternative rock; the list could go on and on, and the richness of Porcupine Tree‘s artistic spheres is something which fascinates many fans around the globe.
To argue about their best album is a nearly impossible task. Are you into the bands early, more psychedelic releases? The more classic prog of Signify? Or the obvious 90’s alternative rock/folk/pop-influenced phase which started with Stupid Dream?
For me, Fear of a Blank Planet was always the most essential record from the band. I’m not saying it’s their best, but it’s the one with the broadest pallet of all their influences, and in which their accessible tendencies are inextricably entangled with very complex and compelling compositions and soundscapes. If you wanna start with the band, this album should be your point of entry. It’s incredibly well-balanced, catchy without being cheesy, strong and fragile, epic and simple. No matter which kind of music you are interested in, Porcupine Tree should be part of your experience, even if you find yourself in no favor for their music. It’s that essential.
That’s all we got for you today, folks! While I’ve got you here, why not leave your thoughts on this record in the comments? Also, are there any particular records you’d like to see covered in this feature? Let us know!
I hope to see you all back here in fourteen days for another classics review. Until then, do stay safe out there in this crazy world of ours, and as always…
…thanks for reading!