Porcupine Tree - Deadwing (DVD-Audio) Review

With the CD release of Deadwing in April 2005, Porcupine Tree moved further away from their early psychedelic, progressive-rock roots and moved deeper into the dark metal territory explored in 2002’s In Absentia. As the band currently tour the album in Europe and the United States to an ever-growing fanbase, Deadwing is shaping up to be the band’s most successful album to date and, following the award-winning release of In Absentia, marks the bands second venture into DVD-Audio territory. The remixing of Deadwing has again been undertaken by Grammy award-winning producer Elliot Scheiner.

Unlike the vast leaps between the Pink Floyd influenced The Sky Moves Sideways (1995), through the Krautrock and space-rock influenced Signify (1996), to the crafted pop-metal sonics of Stupid Dream (1998), there was however no great progression or differentiation between the soundscapes of 2002’s In Absentia and 2005’s Deadwing, rather a sign of the solidifying of a band that found their own expression around Lightbulb Sun (2000), becoming less a one-man project subject to the experimentations of the eclectic, prolific and multi-talented Steve Wilson, and more as a slick working unit of musicians. If not making equal contributions on Deadwing – the musical direction and song-writing remain largely under Wilson’s control, all of the songs on Deadwing are based around a film script for a supernatural ghost story that Steve Wilson co-wrote with Mike Bennion – there is at least a sense that each of the musicians in the band, who independently lead their own diverse solo projects outside of the band, are increasingly making their own stamp on Porcupine Tree material.

Deadwing is released on DVD-A format, but has a number of other high-quality sound format options that will make it compatible with most DVD set ups, including DTS 5.1 and PCM Stereo. As I am not equipped to test out the DVD-A track, this review is based on the DTS mix. Each of the mixes is 24 bit at a 48K sample rate. The video aspect of the disc is in NTSC format and the DVD is not region encoded.


Arriving Somewhere But Not Here
Mellotron Scratch
Open Car
Start of Something Beautiful
Glass Arm Shattering

The 10 minute title track Deadwing opens the album in an uncompromising fashion and comes vividly to life in its new mix, giving the instrumentation much more breathing space, particularly around the atmospheric effects and tremolo guitar chords that float in and out of the track’s mid-section. While the song is undoubtedly powerful in its two channel CD format, this is really the only way to sample the full impact of the song. Shallow follows, a deceptively straightforward rock track which, as Wilson notes, does owe a lot to Soundgarden, but with what ought to be an incongruous piano bridge into the chorus, the real Porcupine Tree sound and structure behind the song filters through. Lazarus harks back to the catchy pop-metal of Stranger By The Minute from Stupid Dream. Halo’s clipped drum sequence and rolling bass bounce the album back effectively from this interlude, the distorted vocals and backing from Opeth's Mikael Ǻkerfeldt, along with the lyrics, bringing to mind Nine Inch Nails’ Closer. In the DTS 5.1 mix, this is one of the most dynamic tracks on the album, flitting between acoustic and piano rhythms, crushing dark chords and a scorching guitar lead from guest musician Adrian Belew. Just as it is proving to be the centre-piece of their live show on the current tour, the 12-minute Arriving Somewhere But Not Here is a tour de force that draws fully upon the abilities of the band members and showcases exactly what this band are currently capable of achieving – harmonious melodies slipping into a Rush Red Barchetta-like trot before taking whiplash decelerations into juddering riffs and soaring guitar solos, all underpinned by the precision-timing of Gavin Harrison’s driving drums. Between this and the title track, you have reference demo-quality material here, showing the full dynamic and sonic range of the DTS-audio mix.

As immediate and powerful as the first half of the album is, the second half feels more like an extension of the pure Porcupine Tree sound realised on Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun and, for me personally, with less of the self-conscious referencing and appropriation of other bands’ sounds, it’s the more rewarding half of the album. Without the relentless driving guitar and drums, the instrumentation of Mellotron Scratch has a wonderful open sound environment to stretch into and is powerfully dynamic – one of the stand-out songs in the 5.1 format. Open Car is similarly revealed to be classic Porcupine Tree, lyrically in its relationship break-up lyrics (“...being with you is hell”) and musically recalling the bleakness of Russia On Ice (giving you a tantalising idea of how magnificent that track would sound in DTS 5.1). The Start of Something Beautiful dwells further in this mood of bitterness returning to the mood of Signify, and although some of the lyrics are less compelling in print (“there’s something in your heart so cruel”), the powerhouse performance gives them force and meaning, Barbieri’s minor-key atmospherics (I swear I can hear the live opening to Japan’s Methods of Dance in there) deepening the bleak tone of the piece. With the album’s concluding track, Glass Arm Shattering, Wilson again delves into his range of musical eclecticism evinced in tracks like Access Denied and Oceans Have No Memory (from the 2001 collection Recordings) with Peter Green influenced guitar and hammered dulcimer, the song perfectly summarising the album with a tone that lingers long after the needle clicks its way into the centre groove.

Bonus Tracks
Mother And Child Divided

Three bonus tracks, not on the album are included here in DTS and PCM Stereo format, but perhaps not as DVD-Audio. Revenant (3:01) sounds like something the band came up with in one of their improvisational sessions. It’s atmospheric, but shapeless and less than essential. Another instrumental track, Mother And Child Divided (5:07) should really have a songwriting credit for Lee, Lifeson and Peart, as it rips-off Rush's YYZ wholesale and achieves far less. There is some nice rolling percussive sounds and enough subwoofer reverberation on this track however to get you served with an ASBO. The only non-instrumental bonus track, Half-Light (6:24) is otherwise available on the B-Side of the German Lazarus EP, and leans back towards the Up The Downstair and Staircase Infinities -period Porcupine Tree, finding a mood and exploring it.

The sound quality is devastatingly clear and powerful. Quite simply, this is reference material, showing a full dynamic range, with a deep, reverberating quality, solid sub-woofer action and equal-opportunity surround sound. The album can be played extremely loudly without any distortion – indeed it’s recommended that you only listen to this at a very loud volume to fully hear the detail that has gone into each of the tracks. Just as the opening-up of the tracks in the 5.1 mix of In Absentia for its DVD-Audio release revealed the rich warm textures of Richard Barbieri’s layers of analogue synthesisers, the ex-Japan keyboardist is again the primary beneficiary in the 5.1 mix of Deadwing revealing complex sounds and moods that are often submerged beneath Steve Wilson’s always inventive layers of guitar sounds. Colin Edwin’s jazz and folk influenced bass rhythms are also lifted out of the wall of sound and are much more clearly defined, revealing the strong backbone of the songs. If anything is to the detriment of the CD mix, it’s Gavin Harrison’s drums – so sharp and driving in the stereo track, their brightness is dampened and the drumming is consequently less dominant in the 5.1 mix. Vocal arrangements, particularly on Mellotron Scratch and Glass Arm Shattering are superb, brilliantly brought to life in the 5.1 mix, featuring layered harmonies that have improved immeasurably from what I felt were sometimes forced and awkward phrasings on Signify (Sever Tomorrow) and Stupid Dream (Even Less). Obviously much of these observations are subjective and will vary depending on the sonic capability of individual set-ups and speakers, but this is an album that will show what sound your surround system is capable of achieving.

Extra Features
In addition to the three Bonus Tracks mentioned above, not available on the regular CD edition of the album, the disc is well supported with a comprehensive and worthwhile set of extra features. The video content contains Collecting Space - A Short Film About The Making Of Deadwing (6:31), presented in 16:9 letterbox and showing each of the members of the band rehearsing and recording their parts during the recording sessions for the album. It’s rather straightforward with no narration other than a few words from Gavin Harrison on the experience, but fabulous for fans. The Deadwing Trailer (2:05) is a nice little edit that perfectly captures the tone of the album, as do Lasse Hoile’s video and photo collages. A Photos section contains 106 photographs of recording studio stills, band shots, tour photos and conceptual art for the album. Lyrics are included for all songs including the bonus track Half Light, Links to relevant sites. There are text Notes on the band’s history and development and a brief track-by-track text commentary on each of the songs on the Deadwing album, including the B-side to Lazarus So Called Friend, which doesn’t appear on the album or DVD, but clearly must have been on the sequence in an early tracklisting.

There is little doubt that the Porcupine Tree’s Deadwing album was conceived with a 5.1 mix in mind and arguably, the DVD-Audio format is the only way to really hear it. It’s less showy than the 5.1 mix of In Absentia, which sometimes almost sounded like a new recording rather than a remix (although it wasn’t, of course), and Deadwing consequently feels closer to a truer sound for the album, harnessing and exhibiting the sheer dynamic power of the songs. For me personally, this is not Porcupine Tree’s best album, but with scarcely a weak track on the album, it’s one of their most complete and consistent collections that shows the band really coming together and showcasing just what they are capable of. With exceptional sound quality and meticulous detail having gone into the production of this mix for DVD-Audio, three bonus tracks and some good supporting features, this is simply an outstanding release.

9 out of 10
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