Porcupine Tree
The Incident

Many of Porcupine Tree’s recent albums have centered around a theme or mood, but it’s been quite awhile since Steven Wilson and crew have delivered a full-on concept album. Here, it’s not just a narrative concept album, but a structural one as well, as The Incident is less a collection of songs than a loosely flowing 14-track experience, which Wilson calls a “song cycle.” For Porcupine Tree and prog rock fans, this sounds like both a natural progression and a gift – perhaps the band’s answer to a classic like Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Unfortunately, I think The Incident falls far from reaching that status, although the comparison (and even moreso, to The Final Cut), is an apt one.

The Incident in question was inspired by a fatal car crash that Wilson passed on the road. Here in the States, it’s called an accident; in the UK, it’s an incident. Either way, it’s a convenient term that, for all but those who are directly affected, usually means a chance to rubberneck or briefly commiserate, but then we’re quickly back to our own lives, with the whole business left in the rearview mirror. The album is a commentary on how (oftentimes sensational) media reportage takes significant tragedies that dramatically affects peoples’ lives and renders them reducible, digestible and easily discarded. In other words, The Incident is not a happy experience, but then again, most Porcupine Tree albums have been rather inward and gloomy as well.

After a brief thunderstorm of an intro, “Blind House” crashes in with huge, murky guitars, still reminiscent of Wilson’s time spent with Opeth. Then Wilson’s soothing, melancholy vocal drifts in above spare instrumentation, before brightening into a more hopeful chorus. Classic Porcupine Tree. What’s not so classic is the stark, echoey soundscape at the song’s bridge, which sounds like Wilson’s been inspired by Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero. NIN is one of my favorite bands, and I think Reznor is a progressive rock genius in his own right, but hearing something so stark and mechanical butted up against Porcupine Tree’s usually lush, organic sound is slightly jarring. (This is further echoed on the grinding, sludgy title track, which only blooms to life in its final two minutes.) Still, “Blind House” is one of the best tracks on the album, and one that you’ll likely jump to right away.

Those moments are few and far in between, though. That’s not a commentary on the quality of the album, but more the fragmented nature of the composition as a whole, as there are only a few standalone songs. “Drawing the Line” starts as a dreamy, medicated lament, then comes to life with a surprisingly peppy chorus – a struggling cry to snap out of its stupor. It’s surprisingly energetic for Wilson, like something off of Green Day’s American Idiot (or worse, a Meat Loaf song). I’m not sure I like the shift, though. Album centerpiece “Time Flies” will likely be more frequently visited, as it’s the longest, and perhaps the most complete song on the entire album. It also sports a big, brassy guitar riff that instantly recalls the triumphant ending of “Sheep,” off of Animals (I know, enough with the Floyd references, but you’ll have to bear with me).

The rest of The Incident’s tracks are more like thoughts or shifting moods, some of them more fleshed out than others. Some, like the sunny/shady dynamics of “Great Expectations” and “Kneel and Disconnect” could very well have been stitched together, and “The Séance” is pretty much a reprise of the pretty, plaintive “Octane Twisted.” Still others, like the oddly angelic “Yellow Windows of the Evening Train,” or the redundant “Degree Zero of Liberty” are nothing more than forgettable interstitials. I understand their place in the whole, I just wish they were more appealing on their own.

And this is where The Incident really recalled The Final Cut for me, because for great tracks on that album like “The Gunner’s Dream,” or the mournful title track, you have to drift past odd snippets and snatches like “One of the Few” or “Southhampton Dock.” Taken as a whole, The Final Cut is still, for me, a transportive listening experience, but I don’t think I can ultimately say the same thing about The Incident. Its moods, although shifting, are not varied enough, and virtually none of the songs ripen into the kind of magnificent, captivating psychedelia that marks Porcupine Tree’s best moments. I’m not even sure I got Wilson’s thematic commentary or narrative from the songs or their lyrics.

And as far as this being as two-disc set, well, the second disc is essentially like getting a forthcoming EP of B-sides now (and included in the admittedly low price), rather than waiting for a release later on in the year. The songs themselves are fine, pretty much in the same vein as The Incident, with opener “Flicker” being the best of the set. Still, when compared to the rippling prog mutations on the excellent Fear of a Blank Planet companion, Nil Recurring, the second disc fails to really capture the imagination.

As a longtime fan of the band, of course I bought this album on day one without hearing a thing, and I will continue to listen to it throughout the year. It’s a good album – it’s just not the immersive, electrifying journey that I hoped we’d get from a Porcupine Tree concept album, and which I know that they can still deliver one day.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
September 24th, 2009

Comments

  1. Commented by: Barfneck

    Heard this album and it just downright sucks. It just doesn’t do it for me. A huge departure from their excellent “Fear of a Blank Planet”. I actually think this is worse than “Deadwing” and that’s saying something coz that was garbage.


  2. Commented by: gabaghoul

    dude you thought Deadwing was garbage? Love Fear of a Blank Planet but it’s essentially Deadwing pt II. So that’s puzzling.


  3. Commented by: Storm King

    I find this to be a step up from Blank Planet, which I liked well enough but never really connected with. It does have a serious Floyd thing going on, which isn’t all that shocking given PT’s discography. I had the opposite reaction to the chorus of “Drawing The Line”-it’s almost triumphant, a counterpoint to the melancholy of the theme (and it’s worth noting that rather than being the climax of the suite, it’s a note of defiance buried by the overall tale of banality, which is the point after all.)

    It works better for me thinking of it as a single 55 minute long song, so the shorter tracks are movements, not songs on their own. And it does remind me, at times, of Final Cut.


  4. Commented by: timshel

    I agree with your bottom line: it’s a good album, but not a great album, and certainly not one of PT’s best works. It feels unfinished. I wanted some of the shorter tracks to be developed more, especially “Kneel and Disconnect”, which could’ve been a very touching song if it had a few verses to flesh out the subject. Perhaps Steven wanted the album to feel like a bunch of “snapshots”, but I think that was a bad move. Each song/story truly becomes little more than an incident; no emotional attachment is allowed to develop nor is any real compassion felt for the victim/speaker — it’s like reading a newspaper, only in bad poetry. I don’t think he succeeded in what he was trying to do. I hope Steven and the guys spend more time and thought on the next one.

    Still, I must say that I really like “Blind House”, can’t get it out of my head.


  5. Commented by: gabaghoul

    nice analysis timshel – wanna write some reviews? :)

    I did read somewhere that Steven started working on this very soon after completing his solo album (which I have not heard); maybe he needed some more time to replenish and let things percolate?


  6. Commented by: dr_neo_cortex

    Good review but it makes me afraid to listen to it. I’m a huge PT fan, I love all of their work. From the sound of this review, this album seems to have more in common with Metatonoia/voyage 34/staircase infinities, in that its more about moods and atmosphere than structured songs which is fine cause I like those albums but if the quality is lacking then this could end up being a real snoozer, oh well only one way to find out.

    Oh and Deadwing is great idk what you people are talking about.


  7. Commented by: Vance

    Deadwing is one of their best albums… You guys all need to lay off the pipe.


  8. Commented by: gabaghoul

    @ neo cortex: it’s not as formless and psychedelic as those earlier albums. these songs still sound like latter-day PT but many are shorter pieces and a number are just interstitials.


  9. Commented by: jk666

    Saw them last night in NYC and the slow/quiet parts just don’t work live. That means the whole piece doesn’t work live. The crowd was restless and seemed bored and talked a lot. I kept waiting for it to get interesting but it never did. During one of the heavier Opethian riffs I leaned over to my wife and did my best Mikael growl because it fit so well.

    zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz


  10. Commented by: timshel

    Actually, an apt comparison may be to “On the Sunday of Life”. Not at all in musical style, but in the way that album has a similar mix of longer, more fully realized songs and shorter mood pieces and noisy intermissions. “Radioactive Toy” absolutely slays “Time Flies” for the requisite 10+ minute track, though. Come to think of it, some of Steven’s best work is on “Sunday”…

    “Oh what the hell goes on inside your swollen head?” Hah, that’s good shit!


  11. Commented by: dr_neo_cortex

    After spinning this a few times I can say its definitely not on par with their classics but it has its moments, there are some good leads and melodies and even if all their little experiments don’t work its nice to see them trying new things. It is very subdued and melancholic compared to the last few PT releases, but I actually think this is much more layered and nuanced than a lot of their work and the production helps that a lot. It reveals more with each listen. That being it said it would be nice to see them flesh out some of the songs a bit more, and it does feel a bit incomplete.


  12. Commented by: Dimaension X

    It seems since “In Absentia”, that Steven Wilson has tried to get progressively heavier and more complex, which is fine, but I think he may have lost sight of the great “pop” structures that he’s left behind that drew me to his music in the first place.

    Or maybe he’s leaving the “poppier” sounds to Blackfield and making PT a full-on experimental heavy band.


  13. Commented by: Morppi

    Perhaps its just the lack of listening, but for me it seems that they rhythms on “Incident” aren’t just as innovative and catchy as they were on the the previous outings. Or it could be that the massive structure of the song/cd tends to cloud the mind and I just can’t recall any great grooves.

    Also, if one looks at the few first albums by PT, one can say that the way PT’s music has evolved is not really something new to their career. Voyage 34 was one big massive trippy ride on the prog-train, filled with strange structures etc. The Sky Moves Sideways also has an ample amount of experimental songwriting on it. Its the middle-era (from Stupid Dream onwards methinks) that meddled more with simple, even compact songs (though Signify had tons of those which were godly).

    So yea, Incident seems more like a return to the roots kind of an approach, though dosed with more heavy riffing than shroomy effect-porn that was prevalent on the first albums.


  14. Commented by: gabaghoul

    @ Dimaension: that’s true for the last few albums (and there were still some great pop melodies here and there), but I’d hesitate to call The Incident heavy at all. Only one or two heavy moments over the entire running time.


  15. Commented by: Dimaension X

    @gabaghoul – yeah, I think you’re right. I’ve had the chance to listen to the whole thing straight through now. I like it a lot, but is Porcupine Tree now becoming like Dream Theater? Still great music and a very enjoyable listen, but I think we’ve heard it before on their earlier albums.

    But I still like it a lot.


  16. Commented by: Blackwater Park

    Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz is right.


  17. Commented by: gabaghoul

    update: I’ve played Time Flies like 5 times today. Quickly becoming one of my favorite PT songs ever.


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