A NonPrickly Conversation About Porcupine Tree

The latest dialogue between Spirit of Cecilia Editor-in-Chief and Arts Editor Tad Wert concerns one of the giants of prog and contemporary music in general: Steven Wilson. A restless soul who has been involved in many projects – No-Man, Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, among others – and revelatory remixes of classic albums, Birzer and Wert discuss his work with the late, lamented Porcupine Tree.

Brad: Tad, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Rich Wilson’s biography of Porcupine Tree, Time Flies, from Rocket 88 books, the same publishers who brought us the Spirit of Talk Talk. Wilson is an excellent writer, and the research he did for the book is impeccable. I’ve learned quite a bit, including some fascinating tidbits such as that Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness approached not just members of Japan but members of Talk Talk(!) to become a band or a project around 1991.  The members of Talk Talk declined, but members of Japan became parts of No-man and Porcupine Tree, of course.  Can you imagine what a Wilson/Bowness/Japan/Talk Talk band might have been?  My heart pounds just thinking about it.

I first heard Porcupine Tree while driving through Fort Wayne in 2002.  Fort Wayne is one of the closest cities to us (it even has a Barnes and Noble’s bookstore), and one of the local stations was playing “Trains.” I was blown away, and–thanks to my very understanding wife–we had to stop at the local record store.  I bought In Absentia, Up the Down Stair, and Stupid Dream. One of my excellent students at the time, happened to be a PT fan, and he very graciously gave me a copy of Voyage 34 and Stars Die (the Delerium collection), about a year later. I was hooked, and I purchased the entire back catalogue at that point.

I’d heard Steven Wilson in other projects prior to this Eureka! Porcupine Tree moment in Fort Wayne, but I’d not really appreciated his genius until I heard “Trains” on the radio that day.  I was, to put it mildly, rather gobsmacked. This, it seemed to me, nineteen year ago, was exactly what prog should be in the twentieth-first century.

While I still love “Trains,” it was actually The Sky Moves Sideways that convinced me that Wilson was and is a true genius. At the time of its release, some folks even speculated that it was a secret Pink Floyd album, and, while I very much hear the Floydian influence, the album is so very Porcupine Tree to me that I have a hard time seeing it as anything other than a masterwork of the band and of Wilson.

Tad: Brad, Porcupine Tree, along with Spock’s Beard, reignited my love for prog that had lain dormant for decades. After losing interest in the 80’s and 90’s, I rediscovered this vital genre via a prog-themed issue of Mojo Magazine. While almost all of it was devoted to the “classic years” of prog, one page featured some contemporary artists. Spock’s Beard was one, and Porcupine Tree was another.

Based on that recommendation, I picked up Spock’s Beard’s V, and PT’s In Absentia. I was hooked as well! I bought all of the Beard’s music I could find, as well as Wilson’s. I remember the Spring Break of 2002, when I took my family down to Florida. I loaded my mp3 player with nothing but Beard and Porcupine Tree, and that was what I listened to exclusively the entire vacation.

I, too, was convinced that Steven Wilson is a genius, and I tracked down as many projects of his that I could find. This was before streaming services, so some of it was hard to find. I never really have enjoyed his early No-Man music, even though that was more popular than Porcupine Tree at the time. If only the Talk Talk collaboration had occurred!

Porcupine Tree, though, was another matter entirely. Wilson’s seemingly endless supply of captivating melodies kept me hooked for a couple for months. Then I began to listen to the lyrics. Wow, there is some disturbing stuff there!

Brad: Great story, Tad!  Seems like we had a similar trajectory, though I actually and amazingly encountered Spock’s Beard with the release of The Light.  There was an excellent cd shop in Bloomington, Indiana, that seemed to have everything imaginable.  I should’ve spent more time on the dissertation, but the music never stopped calling me. And, the fellowship money was necessary for rent, for food, and for CDs!

As to the lyrics, I agree, Tad.  Whenever PT gets loud and heavy in the music, the truly dark lyrics come out.  The lyrics for In Absentia, Deadwing, and Fear of the Blank Planet are some of the most disturbing I’ve ever heard.  PT, overall, seems to have gone in three phases, lyrically.  For the first several albums, the lyrics are atmospheric and dewey.  In the middle phase (Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun), they’re clever and poppy.  In their last, the heavy phase, they’re just downright dark.  Maybe they lighten a little bit for parts of The Incident, but only a little bit. Even when PT gets heavy on “Dislocated Day” on The Sky Moves Sideways, the lyrics get dark.

PT has just released a massive boxset, The Delerium Years: 1991-1997, which includes all of the major releases of those years plus a disk of rarities, some remixed work, the full forty-minute version of the rock improvisation, “Moonloop,” and, what I’m most eager to see, a 140-page hardcover book with liner notes by the always amazing and excellent (and a Hillsdale graduate) Stephen Humphries.  Honestly, the liner notes alone are, to me, worth the price of the boxset. It’s high on my Christmas wish list.  And, should Santa not deliver, I’ll get it anyway!  Bah humbug. Humphries, it should be noted, might be the best writer in rock right now. Certainly, he or Jerry Ewing.

As much as I love Porcupine Tree, though, I do wonder how much they’ve influenced prog as a genre.  I mean this in the sense that–well, Radiohead, for example, affected pop and rock for at least a full generation.  How many prog bands over the last 20 years have inserted dark lyrics and heavy musical parts in imitation of PT?  I’m guessing quite a few.  Quite a contrast, say, to The Flower Kings, who almost never go heavy or dark (with exceptions). Any thoughts on this, Tad?

Tad: Brad, you raise an interesting point – how influential was Porcupine Tree in prog? I would say that for most of the 2000’s, you couldn’t avoid comparing any new artist to them. I was very disappointed when WIlson disbanded PT for a solo career, but in retrospect it was a smart move career-wise. PT was so integral to the prog scene there was no way he could have broken out of it, and we wouldn’t have masterpieces like To The Bone today. 

And I think he will end up being even more influential in the long run as a solo artist. What’s working against him is the fragmentation of music in general. When Radiohead were at their peak, music distribution was still dominated by the major labels. With streaming, consumers can tailor their listening to extremely small niches and never hear “big” artists. My students are incredulous when I tell them I would not recognize a single Beyonce song if I heard it, because I’ve never listened to any pop radio or streaming channels.

Before we wrap up this dialogue, I want to give credit to Wilson for his prescient warnings regarding the internet and social media. “Every Home Is Wired” from 1996’s Signify (my favorite of PT’s early albums, by the way) is incredibly prophetic. For me, the web came into its own in 1995, when the first decent browser, Netscape, appeared. One year later, Steven Wilson could foresee the dark side of anonymous online interaction and surveillance. And, of course, the entire Fear of a Blank Planet was a jeremiad against the isolation of children imposed by gaming, social media, and medication. And how about that killer guitar solo by Alex Lifeson!? 

It’s interesting that Wilson resisted being on Spotify for years, but he eventually gave in. (For what it’s worth, Neal Morse – former leader of Spock’s Beard – still refuses to participate with Spotify. He created his own streaming channel of just his music for paying subscribers.) Curious readers of this post can now listen to the complete discography of Porcupine Tree in one convenient location, something that took me months and many dollars to achieve!

Brad: Tad, all of this (your response) is simply excellent, and I can only agree and agree and agree.  Let me be blunt, though: Lifeson’s solo on Anesthetize is my favorite of all of his guitar solos, believe it or not.  And, I say this as a Rush fan since 1981!  There’s something about that brilliant track which brings the best out of Lifeson. I should also note: Lifeson is my favorite rock guitarist. So, my praise of this solo–while possibly over the top–has some weight.  Well, at least in my mind.

So, let me conclude–especially after re-listening to PT’s entire catalogue (well, almost–I skipped a track, here and there)–I do think that Steven Wilson is a man of integrity and genius. The prog world (indeed, the world) is better because of him.  Whether he’s in Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, No-man, or in his own fascinating solo career, he’s never uninteresting!  Prophet, maybe.  Genius, yes.

Tad: Agreed! Definitely a genius. I wonder how popular he would have been if he were active in the early ‘70s. In some ways, he is the Todd Rundgren of our time – brilliant songwriter, musician, and producer!

For readers interested in exploring Wilson’s PT-era work, I have created a Spotify playlist of my favorite tracks, which I’ve embedded below. An excellent sampler of his solo work is the album Transience, which Wilson compiled himself. The Spotify link for that album is here.

2 thoughts on “A NonPrickly Conversation About Porcupine Tree”

  1. I’m enjoying these dialogues more and more; thanks! Though for the first time, I actually don’t have anything to buy as a result of reading this one; I threw caution to the winds & blew out my savings for The Delerium Years already. The book is gorgeously, lavishly illustrated, but I’d also say Humphries gets to the heart of that period better than Rich Wilson does. (Time Flies is another purchase that I have Brad to thank for.)

    I’ve also gotta say that this year’s In Absentia box was a model for how single-album deluxe boxes should be done, also with notes by Humphries. Looking forward to next year’s deluxe set for Deadwing, which was my P.Tree entry point.

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