Porcupine Tree - Fear Of A Blank Planet (DVD-A) Review
Regardless of the variable qualities of the Porcupine Tree back catalogue, one thing that always marked the band out was their commitment to diversity - each album incorporating outside influences and progressively moving in a new direction. If there appeared to be less progression shown in their last album Deadwing, that could certainly have been overlooked in favour of the album’s sonic qualities and the musicianship evident in what now appeared to be a band operating as a combined unit rather than being just another project for the ever eclectic and prolific Steven Wilson. Their failure to extend their range at all on Fear Of A Blank Planet must therefore be considered something of a disappointment.
Undoubtedly still one of the foremost rock bands in the world, Fear Of A Blank Planet demonstrates the same strengths and qualities you would expect from a band as professional and proficient as Porcupine Tree, but in reality the album is lacking in both musical and lyrical inspiration. Evidently reserving his experimentation in ambient drone music, Kraut rock and sonic pop for Bass Communion, IEM, Blackfield and various solo projects, Wilson’s musical range for Porcupine Tree seems to have been pigeon-holed (or has stagnated) into a category of its own, the band’s marginalised progressive/space rock roots left long behind in favour of the more modern and lucrative but creatively restrictive death metal market.
Lyrically, it also seems that Wilson is struggling to find any personal subject matter to write about. While Deadwing was based entirely on an unproduced movie script, Fear Of A Blank Planet is similarly concept-based, bemoaning the state of a new generation plugged into technology and addicted to gaming, MTV and disposable pop-culture, getting their kicks through shop-lifting, casual sex and prescription drugs. Rather than it being a rallying cry for youth to engage in political activity, protest about the state of the world and the lack of cultural and environmental awareness however, one suspects that all this hand-wringing amounts to is really just another moan at the music industry and corporate snakes in suits with mobile phones, mass producing disposable muzak. From Four Chords That Made A Million to The Sound of Muzak ("Music of the future will not entertain, it’s only meant to repress and neutralise your brain"), it’s a theme that Wilson has been drawn to in the past and it’s one that has never yielded any great insights, nor - preaching as it does to the converted - is it likely to achieve any results. More than anything, it just comes across as whining and patronising, bitter about the fact that people aren’t listening to proper real music any more - of the sort presumably made by Porcupine Tree.
What makes Fear Of A Blank Planet’s message even less likely to say anything meaningful is Wilson’s fundamentally flawed concept of relating it from the first-person point-of-view perspective of one of the mindless masses. Being afraid of a blank planet is all very well, but what do you think can be done about it? Adopt a banal inarticulate perspective and all you will put across is a banal inarticulate perspective. This results in lyrics like "X-box is a god to me... My mother is a bitch, my father gave up ever trying to talk to me", which are hardly sentiments that are going to be adopted with enthusiasm by a Porcupine Tree audience, but could indeed become an anthem for the blank generation Steve Wilson is apparently so afraid of. Indeed Wilson can understandably barely even manage to summon up much commitment or feeling while singing such words, and as a consequence, the album and its delivery (at least in a studio context) feel rather half-hearted.
Somewhat flawed in conceptual viewpoint and its lack of musical progression, there is however little else to find fault with in Fear Of A Blank Planet’s musical arrangements, performance or delivery. This is never more evident than on the title track Fear of a Blank Planet (7:29), a typically striking Porcupine Tree opener that demonstrates the band’s strengths in combining force with melody, pinning it down with a killer hook. How disappointing then that the lyrics, taking the perspective of a teenager bored with the TV, MTV, porn and his iPod, are so unmemorable.
A large part of the reason why the first person concept approach here is so flawed is that it doesn’t yield any great insights into the mindset of disaffected youth. My Ashes perhaps points to underlying causes, though "when mother and father gave me their problems, I accepted them all", doesn’t really illuminate matters, particularly when the subject being looked at is not personal, but generational. Are all kids like this? Are all the parents to blame then? Musically however the song is again a wonder to behold, with a melody and hook as strong as anything on Wilson’s Blackfield material, and the delivery is impressive.
It’s inevitable that the 18 minute Anesthetize (17:42) is going to be the centrepiece of the concept album and indeed it is something of a prog-rock tour-de-force, eclectically drawing on a number of influences, giving the band full rein to demonstrate their virtuosity and range – even if there seems to be a lot of self-referencing and obvious influences here. Perhaps as a nod (I’ll be generous) to The Cure’s anthem of alienation, the opening drum and guitar rhythm are borrowed directly from Disintegration, which at least avoids the usual cut-and-paste Soundgarden and Metallica metal references and broadens the band’s musical range, though the latter sequence just reprises the pace and melody of the band’s own Heart Attack In A Laybay. Even a lead contributed by Alex Lifeson bears little that is characteristic of the Rush guitarist, sounding instead like he is playing over something already laid-down by Wilson. Elsewhere, it is very much Porcupine Tree by numbers – and I mean that in a good way – with driving rhythms, complex timings and jump-cut changes of tempo. It’s in the lyrics however that the song is most disappointing – another account of adolescent alienation, watching MTV, bored and listless, popping pills and getting potentially violent down at the mall – "We’re lost in the mall, shuffling through the stores like zombies" isn’t exactly an original analogy either. This is not the J.G. Ballard-like clinical dissection of the underlying causes of violent impulses stemming from class, societal and generational neuroses that it ought to be.
The banality of the lyrics reach their height in Sentimental (5:26) – more bored kids, popping pills and getting stoned in the mall, bemoaning the fact that "It’s no fun to be told that you can’t blame your parents anymore" while wishing that "I never wanna be old". I really don’t think Steve Wilson has much of an insight into the teenage mind here and it’s a mystery why he thinks it’s worth writing a song about. Perhaps that is why the song isn’t exactly original, sounding more than a little reminiscent of Trains from In Absentia. It’s a wonderful arrangement here - a thing of beauty really - but what is the point in ruining it with such appalling lyrics? I would recommend going back and listening to Trains instead.
Way Out Of Here (7:39) could perhaps act as a showcase for the whole album, its varying tempos, jump cuts into Metallica riffs, all straight out of the usual Porcupine Tree bag of tricks – a synthesis of all their elements into one song. Robert Fripp is credited with soundscapes here, but the effect is again neutered, revealing nothing substantially new. You would like them to explore further the Frippertronics sounds tacked onto the last ten seconds of the track.
Sleep Together actually starts off doing something just like that, opening up daringly with a bouncing Richard Barbieri sequenced rhythm. It does sound familiarly like the Torch Dance from his superb album Flame with Tim Bowness, but is at least interesting here in the context of a Porcupine Tree song. It soon gets dropped however in favour of a John Bonham drum-beat and soaring Kasmir orchestral swellings (or perhaps less kindly, more like The Mission's Tower of Strength). The phrasing of the chorus does the song no favours either, evoking Come Together ("right now"). As the closing track on the concept album, the conclusions or moral is as banal as what has come before – apparently the kids need to burn their Prada trainers and get laid. Or perhaps, not taking it quite so literally, "sleep together" and "switch off the future right now" could be seen as advocating mass suicide for the current blank generation, letting them sink into a terminal condition brought on by pills and boredom. Either that or it sees our "hero" getting ready to take up a gun and in his drug-induced state of confusion blow himself and some other people away. Whatever way you look at it, it’s an unimaginative conclusion demonstrating a very old-fart attitude and not one that realistically shows much of an imaginative way forward in terms of engaging youth and their potential into something more productive. It also demonstrates a failure to understand very real issues that probably affect a significant portion of their fans. What next? Perhaps building a wall on the stage between the band and the audience?
Fear Of A Blank Planet is released on DVD-A format on Porcupine Tree’s own Transmission label (and can be purchased here, 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 24 bit PCM Stereo. The DVD-Audio track is listed as Advanced Resolution MLP 5.1 Surround, but as I am not equipped to play this format, this review is based on the DTS mix. The video aspect of the disc is in NTSC format and the DVD is not region encoded.
The sound design on Fear Of A Blank Planet is rather more straightforward than either of the previous two Porcupine Tree DVD-A releases mixed by Elliot Scheiner. Fear Of A Blank Planet eschews the flash surround effects, layering and panning of In Absentia and Deadwing in favour of a more organic, live sound.
Consequently the mix is certainly very much front-focussed and the instrumentation doesn’t have a great deal of separation. Matching the levels of the original CD version, the lead vocals are consequently fairly low, airy and submerged in the mix and the bass is fairly muddy. The drums certainly dominate, but lack the sharpness and drive they normally receive in the mix, particularly live where Gavin Harrison reigns supreme. Barbieri’s ambient keyboard sounds normally benefit from the wider separation afforded by the surround mixing, but here they don’t make the same impact. Vocal harmonies are given a wider spectrum, the harmonies and layered vocals of Anesthetize but it is the guitar that dominates throughout, and perhaps rightly so for this particular album. There are less subtleties in Fear Of A Blank Planet and the overall affect being achieved is of a fairly consistent wall of guitar sound spread evenly across the speakers, driving the rhythm and arrangement of the songs.
Technically, there isn’t much wrong with the DTS surround mix, but not everyone is going to favour it over the DTS track on the previous two DVD-Audio releases. It’s strong however and retains the intentions of the original album without going into remix territory. It really needs to be played loudly however for the full impact to be appreciated, and here it stands up pretty well, with no noticeable fluctuations or distortion. The DVD-A track is another matter and, without having heard it myself, the reports are that it certainly improves the clarity of the mix, bringing out those elements like the drums that are weak in the DTS track.
Similar to the previous Porcupine Tree DVD-A releases, each track has their own Lasse Hoile still image – these are flawless. There is promotional and projection video footage for a couple of tracks in the Extra Features. Similarly, the quality there is just about perfect.
The video footage, totalling almost half-an-hour of material, consists of a Blank Planet Intro, Fear Of A Blank Planet (Uncensored Version) and Anesthetize. The Blank Planet Intro is a montage of edited interviews with wasted American teenagers, or just boastful ones trying to impress – the patronising tone of the piece can’t seem to tell the difference. Fear Of A Blank Planet (Uncensored Version) - a radio edit of the song - is a well-made promotional video but, like the observations made in the song, is a little trite and obvious in its imagery. Lasse Hoile’s full-length video for Anesthetize tends to suffer from the same problem and has imagery and time-lapse cinematography that is very reminiscent of Koyaanisqatsi and Naqoyqatsi. Used as a projection for the song in live performance however, it forms an impressive backdrop.
Less useful on-screen, the lyrics are also included in the enclosed booklet, which is in the same font and format as the regular CD release.
Four new tracks (otherwise only available on the Nil Recurring EP) are included here in DTS 5.1 Surround mixes only. In many respects, several of the songs seem to be Fear Of A Blank Planet in embryonic demo form (much in the same manner as Insignificance/Signify), with similar lyrical and musical themes as well as a few song titles showing up in them. Nil Recurring (6:14) is a fairly shapeless instrumental, very Led Zeppelin, kind of an improvisational exercise on the themes of Whole Lotta Love and Communication Breakdown. Normal (7:10) revisits Fear Of A Blank Planet themes, but sounds like a demo. If that is Colin Edwin on there, his normally smooth delivery is almost unrecognisable. The track has some nice vocal harmonies and dispersion though. Cheating The Polygraph (7:10) has the clearest vocal performance on the disc, but lyrically, it’s back to the Buying New Soul difficulties of having a conscience about selling one’s soul to the music industry. What Happens Now? (8:24) could more or less function as a coda for the album proper. It's easily the most accomplished track and the only really finished song among the bonus tracks. Lyrics and Credits for the Bonus Tracks are also included here.
"I’m a kid bored with my iPod, X-Box, MTV, don’t get any more kicks from porn, prescription drugs or shoplifting designer goods at the mall. I hate my parents and blame them for everything and am so confused and whacked out from all the pills I take that I might do something violent". Correct me if I’m wrong, but that seems to be the extent of the high-concept material of Fear Of A Blank Planet. God forbid that I should wish misfortune on anyone, but I found Steve Wilson’s songwriting for Porcupine Tree much more creative and expressive when - as one friend put it referring to Lightbulb Sun - some bitch ripped out his heart and stomped all over it. Well-crafted, but uninspired, if Fear Of A Blank Planet lacks originality and commitment in a studio context, in terms of musicianship and performance however it is a strong album which works marvellously in a live performance. When I caught the band during the summer on an earlier leg of the current tour, most of the new material they played stood up as well as, if not better than, anything else in the set – and that is saying something.
The DVD-A surround recording of Fear Of A Blank Planet – at least on the DTS 5.1 mix that I was able to playback - doesn’t reveal any new depths to the material or the performance, retaining a relatively muddy wall-of-sound mix which submerges the vocals and doesn’t lend any additional separation to individual instruments, other than the notable layering of vocals. If the previous two Porcupine Tree DVD-A releases favoured the atmospherics of Richard Barbieri’s ambient soundscapes, Fear Of A Blank Planet is very much a guitarist’s album and in that respect at least, as well as on a technical level, the sound here is clear, strong and well-defined.