Music Review: Porcupine Tree – Fear of a Blank Planet

Foreword

Porcupine Tree : Fear of a Blank Planet

  • Released: April 24, 2007.
  • Tracks: 6
  • Format: Audio CD
  • Label: Atlantic / Wea
  • Avg. Barnes & Noble User Rating: 4 / 5
  • Modest Opinions Rating: 4 / 5

If there’s one thing I both love and hate, it’s discovering that a great band has flown completely under my radar. I discovered Porcupine Tree when I was looking at the Amazon.com listing for Rush’s Snakes & Arrows disc [review], to see what other people were saying about it. I noticed that Amazon recommended buying Fear of a Blank Planet along with Snakes & Arrows for a discount, and that the "People who bought this item also bought" list included the album – above other Rush material.

Naturally, I clicked over to the Amazon page for Fear…, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that Rush’s Alex Lifeson was a contributor to the record! Not only Alex Lifeson, but Robert Fripp of King Crimson as well! Well, now I’ve got to hear it, I thought. I won’t say that every project a member of Rush has been involved in has been spectacular (witness Lifeson’s Victor project), but they all warrant a listen. I fired up Rhapsody and listened to the whole album straight through; that’s rare. Not only did I listen to it without getting bored and skipping around, I went though it a second time without skipping around!

Let’s get something out of the way so there’s no confusion. Like I said, I’ve discovered a great band. I’ve not heard Porcupine Tree’s other albums, Deadwing, In Absentia or any of the others. This review is from the perspective of a listener who only knows Porcupine Tree songwriter and leader Steven Wilson’s name and the names of the previous albums because I looked them up in order to write these sentences. Complete newcomer to Porcupine Tree, here. I have, however, been a fan of progressive rock and progressive metal for about two decades, so I’ve got that going for me.

Fear of a Blank Planet is a torch-bearer for progressive rock, with roots in Pink Floyd, Rush, and Led Zeppelin, with modern day influences or similarities in Radiohead, Tool, and maybe even a bit of Placebo or Angels & Airwaves. In this day and age when pseudo-talents like Avril Lavigne get the airplay and bands like Nickelback are actually hailed as musicians, it’s easy to get jaded. Only when discovering bands like Porcupine Tree and discs like Fear of a Blank Planet is my faith in music restored.

Tunes

  1. Fear of a Blank Planet (7:28) : Like any well-crafted album opener, the title track sets the tone and subject for the entire album. I won’t reprint all the lyrics here, and its exceptionally difficult to pick out a line or two that would really do justice to the whole track. It’s something that you just need to hear (or read) for yourself. I highly suggest Googling "fear of a blank planet lyrics" and reading what you can find. It’s heavy, heavy stuff, and it’s masterful. Musically, it’s emotional, seemingly out of control, and up-and-down like the metaphorical roller coaster.

    Overall rating: Rating - Five Stars
  2. My Ashes (5:07) : This track opens with a melody that immediately puts me in mind of Led Zeppelin’s "No Quarter" from Houses of the Holy. I enjoy nods like that as long as they are not overused and the track has it’s own identity that is quickly established.
    That’s not enough for me to give this track more than 2.5 stars, though. Musically, the track is a ballad that might have been at home on a Pink Floyd record. While that isn’t bad in and of itself, I do feel that not quite enough thought was put into the musical aspect of the track. Lyrically, I think it’s a standout effort – a bit of a downer, but that’s part of the theme of the album. Extra star for the lyrics.
    Overall rating: Rating - Three and a Half Stars
  3. Anesthetize (17:36) : A track over seventeen minutes? Excessive? Actually, no, it’s not. The track is divided into logical musical themes, and though they flow together perfectly, they are distinctive. Alex Lifeson makes his contribution here on the guitar solo.

    Overall rating: Rating - Four Stars
  4. Sentimental (5:20) : It’s got great piano, great drums, and an other-worldly feel to it. The guitar line is largely background material, but it does pop every now and then, reminding the listener how cool it sounds.
    Lyrically, the song reveals a fear of aging, but not for the reasons one might think. Nobody wants to get old, but to the troubled teens of the album, getting old means not being able to blame your parents for anything anymore. The fear deep down comes to the surface when the narrator admits to wasting his life and wishing each day away. Great stuff.
    Overall rating: Rating - Four Stars
  5. Way Out of Here (7:38) :
    Robert Fripp lends his expertise here, helping to create an tone that is deep and edgy.
    Musically, the track is great. Lyrically, it leaves something to be desired. The words seem to be telling a very short story in the minutes after the narrator has killed someone. I’m not really sure though, and that’s never a good thing in a song. Maybe it’s just me.
    Overall rating: Rating - Three and a Half Stars
  6. Sleep Together (7:30) : If you’re a fan of industrial music at all, you should really enjoy this track. Once you get through the opening, it’s deeply layered, heavy, and kick-ass. This is the kind of tune you’ll want to have your expensive headphones on for. Lacking the accessories? Crank it up.
    Great way to end an album.
    Overall rating: Rating - Five Stars

Presentation

The album cover is creeeeeepy, though I’m sure that it’s supposed to be. The theme of the album, the disconnect between teens and the real world, is visualized fantastically on the cover. The blue glow of the television screen in the empty eyes… very appropriate. Being an album purchased online, I can’t talk about the rest of the presentation. I haven’t seen the interior artwork.

In The End

Having virtuoso abilities seems to be a prerequisite for inclusion in the progressive rock club. Fear of a Blank Planet definitely shows off huge talent in that regard. What makes for good progressive rock though, is the ability to temper the virtuosity to the needs of the song. You don’t need to throw every guitar trick and drum fill in the book into each song, you need to put the song first. Rush has always been great at playing to the needs of the song, and Porcupine Tree follows in that tradition. Other prog rock bands (Dream Theater comes to mind) prefer the opposite approach, often producing albums that are more like resumes than entertainment. . Fear… shows off virtuoso talent bound to the context of each song.

In reading about the technical aspects of the album, I learned that there is a rare CD/DVD combo of this album floating around. The audio is a 5.1 surround sound mix, and apparently the band’s previous albums got that same treatment and won awards for it. I am very, very interested in hearing the 5.1 mix, and will be actively seeking out the disc. I’m not yet to the point where I’m willing to pay $80 for it on eBay, but I’m hopeful. Hearing this album in surround sound would be amazing, I’m sure.

Porcupine Tree - Fear of a Blank PlanetBuy Porcupine Tree: Fear of a Blank Planet at Barnes & Noble.com

How the Reviews Work

There’s a reason I don’t usually do album reviews on the day of release. My process works like this: I listen to the whole album all the way through while doing other things, be it driving a car, doing dishes, or working on a blog post. I make notes about what catches my attention and makes me pause what I’m doing. Those, to me, usually turn out to be the real standout moments of the album. After that, I’ll listen to the album critically, with no distractions. I’m looking for technical standouts and listening to the lyrics more closely. Finally, I’ll put the album into iTunes and let it play on a loop while I’m doing other things, usually playing poker or working online. This is where I determine which songs are the best by which ones I gravitate toward as I skip around. Some albums don’t get past that first stage, some don’t survive the more critical listen. Those that get through the whole process are the ones that take the longest to write about!

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