Steve Wilson and Porcupine Tree are back with Fear of a Blank Planet, a six-song collection of dark, moody songs dealing with the bleak future of children raised on MTV, X-Boxes and the Internet. The whole package runs about an hour, exploring murky ambient territory with a healthy dose of big metal guitars and melancholic vocals, dredging up atmosphere at every turn. While Wilson is incapable of putting out a weak album, he unfortunately isn't really breaking any new ground this time out.
Which isn't to say that the album lacks substance. Compared to most of what's out there it ranks a very well. Take, for instance, the title track which opens with an insistent acoustic guitar part that unnervingly picks away at your sense of ease before a solid rock beat invades. The music itself is quite invigorating at times, but it's the lyrics that suffer, a usual Wilson reliance on cliche that is almost embarrassing compared to the intricate music. One example: "My friend says he wants to die / He's in a band / They sound like Pearl Jam / The clothes are all black / The music is crap." Not exactly poetry. Telling the story of a boy struggling to overcome messed-up parents, "My Ashes" is more tranquil with dripping synths and pulsing tones, raising the lyrical bar as well with "And my ashes find a way beyond the fog / And return to save the child that I forgot." "Sentimental" is likewise soothing, almost bringing hope to the album with a piano backed by a cathartic vocal melody which realizes "that you can't blame your parents anymore," eventually leading up to an emotional breakdown that borrows a bit from In Absentia's excellent "Trains."
"Way Out Here" plays with dynamics, starting with a New Age soundscape compliments of King Crimson's Robert Fripp before seamlessly building to a psychedelic metal jam sure to satisfy the black leather-wearin' crowd. The creepy "Sleep Together" closes the album, incorporating industrial elements from the best of Nine Inch Nails and orchestral strings that lift the song to a climatic finale. But the strongest song is the 17-minute "Anesthetize," which opens with a moody Pink Floyd passage that heats up with growling guitars and echoing keyboards to a massive syncopated riff that plays with stereo perception, leading up to an exceptional guitar solo by Rush's Alex Lifeson. The song deftly continues through many changes and moods, rarely staying on any section long enough for boredom to grow, fully exploring an alternative realm where thrashing guitars peacefully coexist with spacey keyboards and lush vocal harmonies.
IÃ•m wanting to get excited about Fear of a Blank Planet, the latest album by Porcupine Tree, but something fails to move me. On the surface it has all the same characteristics of 2002's In Absentia, a landmark album that hit me hard, showcasing Wilson's ability to perfectly merge metal, industrial, goth, pop and prog. The follow-up, Deadwing, was good, but failed to hit the bulls eye. Fear of a Blank Planet is unfortunately even farther off the mark, sharing more with Porcupine Tree's earlier, more ambient albums. While some may prefer that style, I personally find it a bit sterile and remote. While the album deals with disconnected youth, I doubt it's what Wilson had in mind.
But then again, maybe it's all a matter of having spent too many years on this warm globe to feel the alienation that is required to fully appreciate Fear of a Blank Planet. (Jason Hoffman)
Originally published in 2007 in WhatzUp.