In many ways, Fear of a Blank Planet functions as a parameter to its predecessors, bravely quoting some key themes in order to retain stylistic cohesion. But at the same time, it is also an excellent chronicle of Porcupine Tree's entire body of work, as it is a lot more informed by their spacey, ambient rock leanings, which they have strategically placed into their songcraft. It is considerably less heavy than Deadwing and In Absentia, but the compositions are still nihilistic in tone and carry similar thematic ideas.
Unlike the previous two albums though, Fear of a Blank Planet seems rather uneventful upon the first set of spins, with few or no hooks to speak of. Only patient listens reveal the successful blend of their strongest yet somewhat less accessible parts of their earlier work, initially bringing the listener's focus on the mindblowing performance of Gavin Harrison. This is easily his most realized work; the drumming is uniformly superb, and it is his playing that makes the most vital turns in the music. His full tone, powerful toms, and natural hi-hat taps are stunning to say the least.
Themes of both In Absentia and Deadwing crop up on the CD, namely the main riff of the latter on the title track, a terrific blend of everything that makes Porcupine Tree the amazing band they are. Harrison's encircling snare drums slowly disappear under Steven Wilson's visionary songwriting, introducing the subject matter which gives us an insight into the psyche of a demented kid, devastated by the negative effects of technology, isolation, prescribed drugs, and the generation gap between parents and children. The middle section of the song boasts a nice spacey breakdown where airy synths float across the piece -- Richard Barbieri is absolutely essential to creating this band's sound. Even during the most subtle parts, he lays down a great sonic path for the music to travel on. I also love how he always establishes context for his amazing futuristic sound effects, carefully built around Wilson's acoustic and electric leads.
The apotheosis of the album is "Anesthetize". At over seventeen minutes, it moves from mood to mood in order to help portray the character's restlessness, and also sees a guest appearance by Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson. His soloing on this song is out of this world, recalling his finest moments circa Power Windows. This could be his longest recorded solo in years as well. At one point, the piece erupts into a volcanic outburst thanks to the rhythm onslaught by Colin Edward and Gavin Harrison. Steven Wilson's riffing is intense not to mention his plaintive singing in the final section of the song.
An excerpt from In Absentia's "Trains" resurfaces on "Sentimental", a largely piano-based piece of pop splendour; the smooth transition from the repeated acoustic guitar to said melody is awe-inspiring. Likewise, "My Ashes", easily among the darkest songs Wilson has penned, is predominantly acoustic guitar-based, but what cannot go unmentioned is the inspired symphonic orchestration.
King Crimson's Robert Fripp appears on "Way Out of Here", the only song written by the entire band on this disc. Fripp's trademark "soundscape guitars" are vastly abundant here, defining the song's eclectic flow. The slightly industrial-tinged feel is replaced by machinegun riffery, and the bass works perfectly under Wilson's godly vocal harmony. For more stuff in this vein, only more electronic and experimental, check out Steven Wilson's No-Man project, which also has Robert Fripp on some albums. "Sleep Together" further expands on this style, minimising the heaviness factor. It sees processed vocals a la Frost and wonderful string arrangements by Dave Stewart.
The production is flawless. Steven Wilson has reached the height of his powers; it is sternly disciplined yet rigorously simple at times, particularly during the raucous jamming sections. The recording and stereo mixing is amazing with emphatic surround channels, clever left-right speaker panning, and monstrous dynamics.
Is it Porcupine Tree's best? Perhaps not. But we've heard it only for a month, not years, so who knows?
- Fear of a Blank Planet
- My Ashes
- Way Out of Here
- Sleep Together