In the Porcupine Tree catalogue, “Fear of a Blank Planet” impresses me the most in many different ways. The subject matter was so relevant for the time of its release, dealing with the typical behaviors of the youth in society due to technology, drugs and mental health problems. The album only becomes more and more relevant as time goes on as these problems seem like they are only going to get worse rather than get any better. To fit with this concept, the album is much darker and heavier than its predecessors yet what I love about this album is that it doesn’t allow itself to be entirely dominated by metal. Wilson prefers to use metal in moderation so that it has more of an impact on the listener – it surprises you and that’s what makes it so clever. This is an expertly thought out album in all aspects, it is musically exceptional and fits with a concept that will forever be an issue among the younger generations in society.
The opening track ‘Fear of a Blank Planet’, although not the highlight of the album, is awesome to listen to due to how angry but true it is. The lyrics focus on a child with bipolar disorder who is shut out from the world and uses technology as an escape, confused by the drugs they have to take. It sets up the dark tones of the rest of the album nicely, focusing on a riff based around the D minor pentatonic scale but with the addition of a dissonant sounding flat 5th which adds nicely to the notion of mental illness in this song. My favourite part has to be the middle section where a build takes place, focused greatly on the dissonant flat 5th and full of spacey embellishments from Barbieri. This then leads into an awesome drum fill by Harrison and a section in which a heavily distorted guitar rips out a crunching riff that sounds like it has been desperate to unleash throughout the whole song. ‘My Ashes’ offers an early contrast to the rest of the album, acting as a ballad that mourns the death of someone’s inner childhood that was taken away from them due to the problems given to them by their parents. Barbieri’s gorgeous piano parts are what make this song so beautiful yet mellow. It is not a ballad that is in your face with intense emotion, rather it is dreamy and laid back which is probably helped by Wilsons voice. The addition of strings in the chorus gives the song a slight increase in intensity but not so much that it takes away from the mellowness of the song.
This then leads into the masterpiece of the album: ‘Anesthetize’. It’s a song that has three parts too it and in short deals with the detachment felt from reality and from one’s own self when taking too many prescription drugs. The first part of the song is full of agony; Wilson sings these depressing lyrics in such a drawn out and despairing manner on the words ‘I simply am not here…’. Furthermore, the repetitive drum pattern conveys a relentless sense of tedium and monotony with life; the reliance on the toms in this section almost sound war-like, just like the internal war that the character is having. This section also features a killer guitar solo from Alex Lifeson, brilliant as always from the Rush guitarist, who successfully captures the mood of the song with his masterful playing. I always get excited when that menacing distorted guitar enters after Lifeson’s solo, as you can easily anticipate that the song is about to explode. And that is exactly what happens, the surprise of being bombarded by such a heavy but brief section of the song is simply awesome – less is more in this instance. The guitar riffs in this second section are the best riffs I’ve ever heard from the band, they are full of meat and grit and I can’t help but get goose bumps whenever I listen to this section. The section certainly has a more metal influence, yet it is used sparingly as to not completely alienate a hardcore fan of the band, but also so that it doesn’t get too tedious listening to the same fragments of metal. The third section is a stark contrast to the two previous sections, it is much more reflective and meditative but with that drug-induced feeling attached to it as well. It’s dream like nature reflects the narrative of the song, as the character creates a picture of the waves and the sea, a picture away from the harshness of reality conveyed in the previous sections of the song. However, part 3 is ambiguous in the respect that it could have taken place before or after the characters depression; this is such an impressive work of art, both musically and narratively.
My other highlights from this album are the final two songs. ‘Way Out of Here’ is an extremely sad song about suicide and trying to forget about something or someone whether that be a girlfriend or the thought of suicide itself. The volatile chorus that hits you out of nowhere is what I wait for every time I listen to this song, so full of emotion and passion. Wilson teases the listener again with a brief section of very heavy guitar – rather than saturate his songs with a metal influence, Wilson successfully makes the listener crave more of it as he only implements it occasionally. The chromatically ascending soundscapes, provided by non-other than the genius that is Robert Fripp, at the end of the song create discomfort which can be associated with such heavy subject matter and the discomforting thoughts that the character is having – such clever writing. ‘Sleep Together’, similar to that of ‘Way Out of Here’, also deals with suicide but the actual action of committing suicide rather than just having the thoughts. The synth sounds at the start are severe and brutal, and persistently feature throughout the song which makes them even more brutal in the context of the whole song. Rather than looking at suicide as an emotional and difficult decision to come to, this song seems rather determined and forceful on the notion of suicide. The vocals on the chorus are angry and very imperative: ‘Lets sleep together right now…’. The second part of the song has no vocals and it finishes the album on an ambiguous note: does a suicide take place or not? I guess it’s for the listener to decide.
In summary, Porcupine Tree presents an album that appears to connect with society to a greater degree as time goes by; issues of mental health seem only to be getting worse rather than better and so its importance is ever-growing. It stands out in their catalog as one of their heaviest albums, but the careful craftsmanship succeeds in making this more than just an angry metal album. The soundscapes are powerful, and the riffs are simply awesome due to the fact that they are cleverly used in moderation so that the listener yearns for more. The highlight for me is the epic ‘Anesthetize’ yet I also find the contrast between ‘Way Out of Here’ and ‘Sleep Together’ very exciting and fascinating to figure out. We can all only hope that maybe the day will come where Porcupine Tree reunite and once again play some of the songs from this masterpiece.
Written by Prog Rock Review content writer Dominic Sanderson