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Porcupine Tree - Deadwing Print E-mail
Monday, 16 May 2005
Image Thank God for computers and the Internet -- you know, those things we slaves to Bill Gates curse all the time? Without all that comprehensive information that I remembered to turn to only at the last minute, you, the knowledgeable reader, would have most likely been distracted from the immense praise I'm going to pile on this brilliant band Porcupine Tree and their honkin' new album, Deadwing, by the silly little detail that they are not, as I've been telling everyone, this great new British group with an ass-kickin' debut. Maybe I carried that thought because I had never heard or read word one about them. Nor had any of my tuned-in music buddies. How could anyone this good be completely unknown unless they're new?

Turns out Porcupine Tree has been releasing albums since 1989 … NINETEEN-EIGHTY-NINE!! 13 albums, 10 EPs, 13 limited editions, 13 promotionals and they’re included on 11 compilations.

Busy boys, and every release got a little more attention, but talk about a glacial career arc! Forget the American pot of gold -- how can we crack Poland? But Deadwing could be the brilliant album that does it for them, having charted in nearly every country in which it has been released (#9 in Poland), first time in the U.S. for any Porcupine Tree recording. They toured here last year, opening for Yes, and are now in the midst of touring as headliners (Robert Fripp opens for them -- 'nuf said).

I've got some catching up to do.
But not before putting the word out about Porcupine Tree's impressive new disc Deadwing, because I'm not the only Yank whose radar they've snuck under, so for most of us this might as well be their debut release. I've become aware of them, as most will, through Deadwing, so we have the fun of being Porcupine Tree virgins who don't have to wait impatiently for the next release, with that large catalogue to explore.

A few relevant factoids: Porcupine Tree is a "they" now, but for many years, it was simply Steven Wilson, who as a teenager wanted to record music on a four-track his engineer dad slapped together for him, but he didn't want to come off as the geek in his bedroom that he was, so he invented this fictitious band, complete with non-existent personnel and fabricated history. (Thank you, Spinal Tap.) He disdained the '80s music of his adolescence and the turn of focus toward the single and the video and appearance, vs. sustained musical substance, and retreated to the great album releases of the '60s and '70s.

You can hear it in Deadwing. It's not a concept album, but it holds together as a complete work. While Wilson has immense talent as a songwriter overflowing with memorable hooks and lyrics, and any number of the songs here could catch on for radio airplay, after a few listenings, it's hard to imagine Deadwing without even one of its 10 cuts. It would be jarring, a completed puzzle with one big piece missing. From the shifting melodic-but-very heavy guitar crunch to soaring vocals with piano and chorus to delicate acoustic picking and the enticing repeated lyric image of "hair blown in an open car," with an ending segue into psychedelically-tinged glass harp electronics, "Open Car" at 3:46 is the shortest number but covers immense musical territory, as does every song here. Each flows seamlessly into the next, with only two songs showing a distinct break. (Then there's the five minutes of silence that follows one of Wilson's sonic shots of vinyl hiss on "Glass Arm Shattering" -- five minutes!? A statement, I'm sure, but aren't we belaboring whatever the point is?) Perhaps the most homogeneous tune is "Lazarus," a gorgeous piano-driven number that Keane wishes they could do.

The opening title cut, almost 10 minutes long, delivers Porcupine Tree's mixed message memorably, immediately, by knocking you out of your seat with smashing loud guitar chords and viciously-focused drumming after lulling you with 36 seconds of dreamy "Won't Get Fooled Again"-type synthesizer noodling, mixed with ambient sounds of a train station, which probably got you to crank it up so you could hear what's going on, then wham!! Gotcha! Yes holds hands with Ted Nugent when suddenly sinister whispering ("Like a cancer scare/In the dentist's chair/Sucking in the air/Wire across the stair/Kicking down the door") jerks you into an industrial metal mode, leading into a Fripp-like solo segueing into delicate Supertrampery, zooming Gong-like into space, back to the Who synth, guitar-hero solo shifting into Floydian keyboard ether before dropping us back at the train station, which oozes into the opening Sabbath chords and vocals of the next cut, "Shallow." And that's just a sketch of the opening cut.

But it's all good gotcha, held together by Wilson's impressive musical and compositional knowledge and instincts. It's crucial that nothing here sounds like it's done just to impress, but rather to serve the whole, and Wilson envisions and executes a greater whole than anyone else I can think of working today. This is modern music (if that's possible sans hip hop) nodding to decades past, but standing confidently in the now. Wilson is a true 21st-century schizoid man. Certainly he owes a debt to those pioneering groups, but while you hear the influences of Pink Floyd, Yes, the Dead, Hawkwind, Zep, Zappa, Yardbirds, Metallica, King Crimson and many more, you don't hear the licks, per se -- you're constantly wondering, who does that sound like, without coming up with a clear answer. This puts Wilson in a higher rank than other modern highly-skilled and listenable thieves like The Killers and Franz Ferdinand. He's an absolute master of dynamics, sometimes burying vocals, sometimes putting them crystal clearly on top, singing with rock confidence, romantic ache, whispered menace or falsetto, hinting at piano or pounding the chords like manic Townshend, shifting rapidly from energizing, densely-layered sonic messes to glorious and delicate articulation of instruments, from heaven to hell in 4.2 seconds.

But Porcupine Tree never, ever forgets that the best chops in the world become pork chops unless they're served with a great song, and Deadwing has 10 out of 10. They're marvelously constructed, sucking you from one extreme change to the next like a willing rag doll in a hurricane with enough nitrous oxide and “what, me worry?” attitude to enjoy the frantic ride completely. If you play this album really, really, really loud and pay attention, I don't know how you can not love it.

This DVD-Audio disc comes equipped with a 2.0 (stereo) 48 kHz 24-bit track for those who love dynamic sound that is head and shoulders above any CD, but for some reason are still surround-challenged. For those with a 5.1 surround system that is not DVD-Audio-capable, there is a 5.1 48 kHz surround sound mix also included on the disc. But for the E ticket ride, the DVD-Audio mix of Deadwing is the way to go.

DTS is the premier firm for mixing, mastering and releasing top music into
surround, and their work on this disc is just more proof of their skills. The
neo-progressive style of Porcupine Tree is an excellent vehicle for the
often experimental moves needed to expand what is possible in mixing music into surround. Much like Yes' Fragile on DVD-Audio became a favorite among surround enthusiasts, Deadwing is a worthy addition in a more modern yet comparably progressive record.

The mix is a daring one, as it well should be for a genre like neo-progressive. Mixed by star engineer Elliot Scheiner for surround, you will find guitars coming from the rears, vocals beaming from the center speaker and effects bravely moving from the rear of your listening room to the front, in ways not really heard before. On "Shadow," the most notable element of the sound is the impressive bass. It has that live rock show feel, meaning it has impact but never gets loose or sloppy. It goes deep to give your subwoofer the workout that all good rock records today should. Critically, I found the vocal mix to slightly overemphasize the center speaker for the lead vocals of Steven Wilson. On track 4, "Halo," the mix was wider across the front three speakers in my system. What was truly was a treat was hearing art rock hero Adrian Belew's guitar solo on "Hero" go back to the free-form, screw western music style, but what made this special was that the solo started in the rears and crept to the front speakers. Their ain't no LP that can do that, which for me is exactly the spirit of progressive music.

As for the other embedded extras – not much to write home about. 100+ photos, lyrics, Easter egg and a pair of videos, one on the making of the album that offers a few inconsequential insights, the other a surrealistic montage of images and video clips set to snippets of Deadwing songs, looking like dark, badly damaged film shown on a home projector. Interesting enough for one look, but it’s not what you’ll buy the disc for.

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