REVIEW: PORCUPINE TREE – “Closure/Continuation”
There have been few bands in modern progressive rock or metal that have had a wider influence or been more loved than Britain’s Porcupine Tree. Like most fans, I was greatly saddened to learn in 2010 that the band would be on an indefinite hiatus. As time went on band mastermind Steven Wilson all but said that the chances of the band coming back together was nonexistent. This is why their announcement of a reunion and the upcoming release ‘CLOSURE/CONTINUATION’ is most certainly the most anticipated prog album of the year. And unlike many hotly anticipated albums, this one actually delivers.
It is worth noting though that not all members of the band have returned for this fresh outing. Steven Wilson is still joined by Gavin Harrison (drums) and Richard Barbieri (keys). A key member is missing though, bassist Colin Edwin, who had been in the band since 1993. As yet there is no explanation for his absence. Neither he nor the band has spoken about why he has not returned, which is more than a little puzzling. This time around Steven has provided the bass for the album. And he has done a perfectly fine job. But Colin’s bass sound was an important aspect of PT for many years, and his tone and presence are noticeably missing throughout. Does this detract from the overall quality of the album? No. But it is a nagging issue that begs an answer.
Things begin with the first single released “Harridan” it’s been out for quite a while now, so chances are most people interested have heard it. It is however vintage later-era PT, sharp quirky drum patterns, memorable vocal lines, and harsh slabs of metal interspersed with more mellow moments. What sticks out the most is Harrison’s drumming. He’s spent much of his time during the hiatus with King Crimson, and there are few if any people with more exacting standards than Robert Fripp, so Gavin’s already near-legendary chops are even better than they were 12 years ago. There’s an edge and aggression found here that Wilson has by and large avoided in recent years, and though he worked with some great musicians on his solo albums, there’s a special feel and magic when these men come together.
It’s perhaps a bit unusual, but the second track is also the second single released, in a rather nice live in the studio video. By and large a much quieter song, with the main focus being on melodies and acoustic lines, it does still have a bit of fire in the middle. Richard’s soundscapes shine, as they bring all the elements together, creating a rather uplifting ballad. And as the video shows, Wilson plays, well, literally everything else.
The regular edition of the album is rather short, only 7 tracks, so it’s awkward to skip around a lot, particularly given how long it’s been since they released new music. But some songs just stand out more than others. One such is “Herd Culling” which has an ‘In Absentia’ and ‘Deadwing’ era vibe to it. The lyrics are sharp and cynical, which is fairly typical for the band. The song is consistently heavy, yet the keyboard element is never far away to add texture. It also features one of Wilson’s signature guitar solos to close things out, the only thing really missing is a mention of trains. I imagine this will prove to be a popular live song on the upcoming tour.
The main album closes with my favorite track “Chimera’s Wreck” which clocks in at just under 10 minutes is also the longest song on the album. The song starts rather quietly, with minimal instruments, just a clean picked guitar, and spacy keyboard arrangements. Lyrically it seems to tell the story of a child (or now grown adult looking back) of a once affluent family that is trying to break away from the family past, or a curse. In mythology, a chimera is a creature made from many disparate parts or animals. Likewise, this character is made from pieces of the past and his family, a nice little parallel. As the tone of the early music gets darker, the drums slowly move in. It’s not until nearly 4 minutes that tension begins to build, and the harder edge comes in as the repeated chorus of ‘I’m afraid to happy and I/Couldn’t care less if I was to die’ until at last, the band opens up and a full-on metal jam breaks forth, which includes some very nice bass work from Wilson. This is also probably my favorite drum performance on the album, and I can only hope they use the song to close the main set at shows. It would work as a highly satisfying conclusion to the album, but any real PT fan is going to get the extended edition with bonus tracks so I’ll have to talk about that next.
There are three bonus tracks included, the first of which is the aptly named “Population Three,” a rather obvious nod to their current lineup. The song is a purely metal-based instrumental, in the vein of “Wedding Nails.” In recent interviews, the band has talked about this being perhaps the most collaborative album that the band has ever done, and this piece and the following really feel like the prime example of that. This is followed up by “Never Had,” which begins as a more melodic and straightforward piece, but gradually morphs into more prog territory, with an instrumental middle section. It retains its melodic heart throughout, while lyrically reflecting on the ever more difficult elements of modern life.
The album closes with “Love In The Past Tense,” which I think is fairly self-explanatory in terms of themes and lyrical content. By this point in the album, the current sound has been well established; PT’s familiar mixture of melodies, spacy keyboard arrangements, and large slabs of more aggressive progressive metal. The sound is familiar to long-term fans, but the approach and group writing have produced something very fresh. As long a wait as this album was incoming, the guys sound rejuvenated, and there’s an extra something that had been missing from their more recent individual output.
Like many, I really had no hope that Porcupine Tree would ever make a full return and put out new music. And they in truth had the harrowing task of releasing something that would be highly scrutinized and compared to their lengthy and highly impressive back catalog by legions of diehard fans. It is therefore wonderful to hear that the band is indeed fully back, and that ‘CLOSURE/CONTINUATION’ not only lives up to their high standards but surpassed my expectations for a new release after so long. Old fans can rejoice, and those who don’t know them, feel free to jump right in.