On Porcupine Tree

~ an essay on the music of Porcupine Tree, a prog rock band.

Steven Wilson considers his career a “noble failure.” No, for real — you can hear him say it here. The frontman of the freshly reunited prog rock giant Porcupine Tree speaks in this interview about the reality that he set out to be Prince, known to all, and instead just became Steven Wilson, {one of the best musicians to ever do it}.

Porcupine Tree is one of my favorite bands and I doubt you’ve heard of them. They hail from the U.K. and have been active since the early 90s (1992–2010, 2021-present). What started as a garage side project based on the classic prog rock sounds of the 60–70s by wunderkind Steven Wilson, soon became a progressive rock/metal band harboring a cult of diehards and opening for industry behemoths like Dream Theater and Opeth.

Here are the albums. I’ll speak about what makes Porcupine Tree one of my favorites, masterminded by a musician more than worth checking out.

Porcupine Tree discography and reviews – Prog Archives
Gavin Harrison, Steven Wilson, Colin Edwin, Richard Barbieri

Porcupine Tree Mix

Spotify — This is Porcupine Tree:

“Fear of a Blank Planet”

Sullen and bored the kids stay
And in this way they wish away each day?

Laced throughout Porcupine Tree’s discography are fears. Fears of loss, of pain, for friends, lovers, the self. On PT as on other projects, Wilson writes mostly sad songs. Fears of lost love. {He writes love songs too!} And he writes songs about other fears, such as fears for the world, and its future.

Fear of a Blank Planet (2007) {PT’s best overall album in my view} crystallizes Porcupine Tree’s core philosophy as a band. In Wilson’s lyricism, he speaks to the state of our consumerist world with heavy melancholy. An intellectual + musician {powerfully pedantic combo}, he layers messages of grand import into his creations. Drugs, malls, commercialized art, corpo desk jobs — this stuff is vaporizing us!

Cliche sure, and sung by every rock band since the 60s. But it’s true. And remember I completely explored the music myself, looking up lyrics and relistening in a passionate search through a new favorite band’s lore. PT *introduced* those cliches to me, not Nirvana or Bob Dylan.

Such fears for the future were borne in observation of the generations underneath him {SW = Gen X}, such as my own millennial gen and the beginnings of the zoomer gen after that. Apathetic kids, far too soon depressed and ultimately aimless. Not all, but more and more. A lost youth necessarily means a lost future. Intriguing and concerning questions are raised as to the underlying reasons, and the prospect of the future under these conditions.

What fear is more powerful than a fear of no future?

“…Ok. But what makes Porcupine Tree so good, you know, as a band?”

And lo, Steven Wilson sings of such no-futures over immaculately gorgeous, and utterly listenable, cinematic soundscapes.

Cinematic Soundscapes

“Trying to make a movie for the ears.” ~ Steven Wilson

So Porcupine Tree is a 4-man progressive rock band. Longest running lineup = Steven Wilson on vocals & guitar + Richard Barbieri on synthesizers, piano + Gavin Harrison on drums + Colin Edwin, bass. They play prog rock, or art rock, that ends up closer to Radiohead than Jethro Tull, but feature an early phase where they are indeed Pink Floyd 2.0.

PT’s early albums showcase 10-minute psychedelic rock epics, full of long-pulsing rhythms and big breakdowns from all sides of the band. We’ll call this era: Psychedelic.

Psychedelic

[album section 1]

On the Sunday of Life… (1992) = 6/10 || Best song = “Nine Cats”
Up the Downstair (1993) = 8/10 || Best Song = “Burning Sky”
The Sky Moves Sideways (1995) = 9/10 || Best song = “The Sky Moves Sideways” (Alternate Version)

PT’s middle albums mellow out into lighter, more acoustic & piano-heavy, almost “singer-songwriter prog.” Fantastic, they will do everything from enchant to haunt to mesmerize you. Listen closely, and you will come to realize why I give this era’s name: Ghostly.

Ghostly

[album section 2]

Signify (1996) = 7/10 || Best Song = “Waiting Phase One + Phase Two”
Stupid Dream (1999) = 8/10 || Best song = “Even Less”
Lightbulb Sun (2000) = 9/10 || Best song = “Lightbulb Sun”

PT’s last set of albums, and their best, are a culmination of everything that came before. The experimentation and soundscaping from Up and Sky build into the tighter songwriting from Dream and Sun, combining into the triumvirate of Quintessential Porcupine Tree albums:

Quintessential

In Absentia (2002) = 10/10 || Best song = “The Sound of Muzak”
Deadwing (2005) = 9/10 || Best Song = “Deadwing”
Fear of a Blank Planet (2007) = 10/10 || Best song = “Fear of a Blank Planet”

My phrase *cinematic soundscape* applies especially to these three albums. What Steven Wilson and co. are able to do with their brains and instruments is nothing short of miraculous. As someone mostly unskilled in the musical arts (I read music!), I couldn’t give you the rundown of time signatures, synthesizer names, or what kit they used. I just know it sounds fuckin’ good.

“Cinematic soundscape” gives me a way to describe how the music makes me feel. There is a path to every Porcupine Tree song, a sometimes meandering narrative dart flies ahead to sizzling hooks, spiraling breakdowns, and sexy solos. With biting core guitar riffs and keys+bass gifting atmospheric background to it all, every song ends up building out its own little world. There’s a satisfying completeness to Steven Wilson’s music, three-act arcs with memorable beginnings and ends.

“One thing I am really good at is being able to sequence albums and songs… Partly from my love of cinema. Movies have to have an internal logic that works.” ~ SW

Via Wikipedia, [Steven] stated that David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick were major influences for the script [of Deadwing].

By his own words, cinema is one of Steven Wilson’s biggest influences. And it shows throughout his music, including his solo work and partnership with Åkerfeldt on Storm Corrosion.

{Worlds, stories, beginnings and ends. Hrm. There seems to be a common theme or two among my favorite musicians: Porcupine Tree, Tool, Isis, Bowie.👁️👁️❤️‍🔥}

Art as Panacea

~ Best song from the new album: Chimera’s Wreck. But overall a great album, enjoyed it. Feels like PT of old but with new twists on the sound, as unexpected as I expected I suppose.

Instagram caption: Porcupine Tree, 9.25.22, Bellco Theater in Denver. At long last. Thought I’d never see this band live. Grateful for an incredible show. Steven Wilson is not only a genius musician — but a showman. Style and sass in every lyric he snapped off, singing of altered states and lost loves, media and technology, dark futures and darker thoughts. The riffs go from atmospheric to incendiary and back again. Music as a panacea to the terror, a counter-anesthesia to modernity’s commodifications. No other sound like Porcupine Tree.

Set 1: Blackest Eyes, Harridan, Of the New Day, Rats Return, Even Less, Drown With Me, Dignity, The Sound of Muzak, Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled, Chimera’s Wreck

Set 2: Fear of a Blank Planet, Buying New Soul, Walk the Plank, Sentimental, Herd Culling⭐️Anesthetize❤️Sleep Together

Encore: Collapse the Light Into Earth, Halo, Trains

~

This past September, I traveled to Denver, Colorado to see a friend and a concert. It was for a band I thought I’d never see. Porcupine Tree!

And it was incredible. Watching them perform live, after all these years of listening to their music and these songs, watching Stevie proudly snap off the lyrics like he’s sung ’em a thousand times {he has}, it reaffirmed a truth.

The creation & appreciation of art redeems humanity.

I think maybe more than any other art form, music can transport. Hearing great music, transcendent singers and orchestral showcases where you can tune in to every instrument and rock, rap, pop performers at the top of their game — move us out of our bodies and minds unlike anything else.

We get lost in our favorite music. Music speaks to us, and for us, unlike anything else.

Even if you are writing sad songs, they can be beautiful. For Steven Wilson as a person, and for countless others, making music represents a way out of the darkness. From personal problems, the threats of modernity, living through a decidedly tedious era of history — the creation of music not only allows escape but a mirror. Through their songs, a musician can speak their truth to the listener.

This motive of clear and bombastic self-expression is infectious and must come out in the music itself. To me, Porcupine Tree’s refreshing mix of listenably complex cinematic soundscapes serves as one (of many) panacea against the terror of our compromised reality.

Real music, by professional musicians. Art not just as an escape but as ideal. Not just against the glut of lesser music out there, but also the prospect of that dreaded no-future. To me, Porcupine Tree’s mythology is a potential counter-anesthesia to modernity’s collapse. Their music has been like medicine to me.

I won’t shiver in the cold
I won’t let the shadows take their toll
I won’t cover my head in the dark
And I won’t forget you when we part

Express yourself, seek love & healing, don’t forget happiness but be wary of nostalgia. Among other things. {Maybe buy your favorite musician’s records and seek out music history. Don’t let drugs, or apathy, nullify your ability to be human. Your choices matter, so start making them!}

High or low, these three Porcupine Tree songs will forever inspire me:

“Blackest Eyes” ~ In Absentia (2002)
“Arriving Somewhere But Not Here” ~ Deadwing (2005)
“Anesthetize” ~ Fear of a Blank Planet (2007)

There is no other sound like Porcupine Tree. ~