[Porcupine Tree; 2009]

Steven Wilson is one of those artists that consistently bring out songs with lyrics that lie in the gray area between preachy and downright annoying. Preaching can be fine, it can really make a difference, if not just bring awareness, and when it works, the more controversial, the better. It can make an artist.

Fear of a Blank Planet, Porcupine Tree’s 2007 album, was a great example of the downright annoying.

Filled with fear of worldwide submission towards the Internet, video games and porn, Fear of a Blank Planet hid behind a concept album facade, but was essentially Wilson’s thoughts on the subject – he doesn’t like it, and he’s not afraid to sing about it. Sounding just about completely out of touch to anyone under 30, Wilson described the main character of the story as “…this kind of terminally bored kid, anywhere between 10 and 15 years old, who spends all his daylight hours in his bedroom with the curtains closed, playing on his PlayStation, listening to his iPod, texting his friends on his cellphone, looking at hardcore pornography on the Internet, downloading music, films, news, violence…” His heart’s in the right place, but his joyless attempts at crushing modern teenage life kind of go against the fact that his band has a huge Internet and mp3 age following.

So going from the reaction I saw on boards and reviews, this didn’t go down well among casual or hardcore fans, and musically, the album was a bit lacking anyway, so it was a relief when, in November 2008, Wilson brought out his debut album under his own name, the brilliant Insurgentes, the perfect cure to the previous disappointment.

But the preaching remained. Now focusing down on the iPod, file sharing and the slow decline of the album as an art form over the past few years, Wilson’s site now contains videos of him destroying iPods in several lame ways, probably pleasing himself over anything else, like the guy grinning at his own failed joke. The joke’s on him, as that album now sits on my iPod, and no amount of pointless destruction is going to change the way millions think or act.

And so, in the new year, we have The Incident, the new Porcupine Tree album, and Wilson’s worries about “download culture” come full circle – part one of the album, a 55 minute, 14 chapter song cycle that requires full attention of the listener, intentionally un-digestible in single bites, in the spirit of Abbey Road‘s side 2 medley, in effect a big F-U to the mostly single based pop albums of the current age. But there’s a slight problem with what Wilson and the rest of his band have done – it isn’t very good.

The first part of this album is an intentional suite of music, designed to flow and build up (and down) towards a climax, with segues, centre-pieces and short little cuts away interspersed throughout. This all happens, but it’s never to its full potential;songs that should flow into each other seamlessly cut and change awkwardly, and the melodies and hooks that deserve to be brought forward and utilized lay dormant, teasing the listener, but hurting themselves. Musically, it is very good: the playing is brilliant and while the mixing is a little bright, the albums engineers seem to have held off on the limiting, for the most part. “Circle of Manias” is perfect metal; “Time Flies,” while palm-to-face, cripplingly lame lyrically (“I was born in ’67/ The year of Sgt. Pepper’s“), is magical everywhere else, even if it is three minutes too long. When the medley (or suite, whatever you want to call it) is over, there really isn’t anything to go on, no final thought or motif. It lacks the overall scope of Dark Side of the Moon or the playful melancholy of Abbey Road. Yes, I’m comparing it to the time-tested classics, but if you’re going to do it, you’re going to have to go up against those who have done it well. The album would be miles better had they stuck to the routine and not, sad to say it, experimented.

Coming out of the exhausting medley are four tracks of utterly singular and confusing music, the exact opposite of what came before. Written and recorded during the sessions and for some reason added on as a bonus EP, the songs are essentially the definition of B-side material. Once again, musically, they’re fine. A little too-much-of-what-they’ve-done-before material, but overall a pleasant experience. A pleasant experience that should have been held onto for a seperate, future release.

So, in the end, The Incident is a disappointing failure in execution, but same old Porcupine Tree musically. Anyone new to the band, or Wilson, should explore elsewhere. Hopefully the band can explore elsewhere as well.