Over the last twenty years, Porcupine Tree has proven to be quite the unique and eclectic band. They can do anything from catchy pop to prog jams to ominous metal. In a world where artists are either high skilled musicians or simple but great songwriters, Porcupine Tree excel at both, creating some extremely complex music as well as some of the greatest songwriting I’ve ever heard. With their new record, The Incident, they’ve become more ambitious than ever by constructing an hour long piece, broken into fourteen parts (with a bonus disc of four more tracks). It’s an incredible ride of lush production, music that is both fierce and lull, and more affective melodies. But, it is also nothing really new for the band, continuing a sound they’ve perfected over the last decade. Hell, I would even call it Deadwing Pt. 2, but that’s perfectly fine for diehard fans like me.
The band was born as a mockery by singer/songwriter/guitarist/pianist/genius Steven Wilson in 1987. He recorded solo but released/promoted it as “Porcupine Tree.” With 1995’s Signify, he finally found his permanent band members (with the exception of having a new drummer since 2002’s In Absentia). Currently joining him to flesh out his ideas are Richard Barbieri (keyboards), Colin Edwin (bass) and Gavin Harrison (drums). Since In Absentia, Wilson has gradually become more interested in exploring a heavier, metal side for his band, perhaps due to his involvement and friendship with Opeth (he produced and collaborated on three albums). This is no more evident than on The Incident, which features some extremely heavy parts while never venturing into pure noise. On the contrary, and as usual, the album also features some wonderfully soft moments. It’s an epic masterwork of segueing music sure to astound.
The brief opener, “Occam’s Razor,” consists of a periodic loud riff and crashing symbol interspersed with acoustic guitar chords. It’s a short, instrumental prologue with ghostly tape loops which lead directly into “The Blind House.” This track follows their template of heavy riffing in between a light verse melody and declarative chorus. And it’s an awesome way to start the album (would you expect anything less?). It grabs you instantly with its dynamics, slowing down in the middle before jolting back to assault you again. The acoustic guitar based “Great Expectations,” (a ninety second odyssey) recalls their poppy side, and the heartbreaking piano segue into “Kneel and Disconnect” (another brief section) is beautiful, as is the track itself. It’s a remorseful melody with haunting harmonies as only Wilson can produce and perform. However, these last couple tracks are only a build up to “Drawing The Line,” which enteres the piece with a eerie piano arpeggio that will stay with you forever. Wilson uses his falsetto for the verse, which is quite arresting. Unfortunately, the chorus undermines the sensitivity by being a bit too angry and straightforward. It’s still a great moment of “The Incident” (the piece that is), but one feels that the track should’ve culminated in a sadder fashion given how crushing it began.
The title track takes over from “Drawing The Line” like an monster silencing a baby. From the devilish repeating voice that blankets Wilson’s many odd overdubbed vocals while the band creates catastrophe, “The Incident” is certainly one of the band’s most evil tracks. Think of it as “The Creator Had A Mastertape” on steroids. If you’ve never heard the band, don’t get the impression that it’s death metal though, as there is no growling and eventually there are great high pitched harmonies. Suddenly we have another brilliant segue of acoustic guitar with “Your Unpleasant Family.” Like “Great Expectations,” its psychedelic energy and optimistic tone would’ve fit on Lightbulb Sun. Crashing cymbals open the door for “The Yellow Windows Of The Evening Train,” one of the most moving pieces Porcupine Tree has ever done (and it’s almost all prerecorded).
I suppose this track serves as an intermission. The scratching of a record encompasses light woodwinds and piano as female vocal loops repeat a few choice notes. It’s a track that’s impossible to accurately describe, but take my word that it will completely distract you with its beauty. “Time Flies” breaks the hypnosis with more acoustic guitar, and at over ten minutes long, it’s clearly the centerpiece of the album. It’s common knowledge by now to all interested parties that this track pays homage to Pink Floyd’s 1977 classic Animals, and it’s easy to hear. From the strumming patterns off the verse to the ominous spacey bass of the middle jam to the high pitched guitar of the finale, Pink Floyd are definitely present. So, you may ask, why is this not out and out plagiarism? Because Wilson is simply too damn creative and clever as he masks these obvious trademarks behind totally original melodies and production (all of which are fantastic). Nothing is taken verbatim and it’s more of an overall aesthetic presence than any deliberate copying. He borrows these aspects with such subtlety and intertwines them with his own freshness so even if you can tell what was taken from Animals, it only makes you smile with admiration at how well it was pulled off. This is one of the catchiest parts of “The Incident” (again, the piece).
A reprise of “Occam’s Razor” comes with “Degree Zero of Liberty,” only this time the chords between the riffs are different, and actually remind us of “Mellotron Scratch” from Deadwing. I for one love conceptual continuity and think this brief reprise really makes it feel like one self contained masterpiece, recalling what came before while suggesting with the new chords that it’s not over yet. As it fades out, “Octane Twisted” begins. The haunting guitar arpeggio and overlapping falsetto vocals (similar to the end of “Mellotron Scratch”) are like hearing the desperate cries of a ghost. The band next ventures into a heavier jam, complete with more peculiar sound effects complements of Barbieri. This long prog rock out slows things down near the end to showcase Gavin Harrison’s unmatchable skill of syncopation. It immediately reprises the same beginning arpeggio for “The Séance,” and after a new, superb verse melody, we go a reprise of the overdubs from “Octane Twisted.” This is simply genius. As it nears the end, the acoustic guitar begins rocking out, and we know that its segue into “Circle of Manias” will kick ass. And indeed it does. If “The Incident” is at all about death intruding on the living, this final instrumental is it happening. Over more heaviness, Barbieri allows ghosts to swarm, and it’s another fantastic collaboration between the rhythm section.
Wilson, above all else, is an incredible songwriter, and the final chapter, “I Drive The Hearse,” showcases this. This is the latest entry into Porcupine Tree’s list of astoundingly great songs that any musician (like me) wishes they could’ve written. While not quite on the same level as classics like “Collapse The Light Into Earth” or “Heartattack In A Layby,” (two of the greatest, most emotionally draining and beautifully produced songs ever written), it’s close. It has a simple verse melody with gut wrenching guitar accompaniment, a more direct but very catchy bridge and final, single lined chorus of “When I’m down I drive the hearse,” complete with more affective harmonies. Wilson is incredibly skilled at combining simple melodies with poignant, specific lyrics to bring listeners to tears, and if there is any single moment on The Incident to hear, it’s how the guitar works with the line “Given time I’ll fix the roof.” Yes, that single line is worthy of a few sentences because, like all of the lyrics for “Heartattack” and many other songs, it illustrates an extremely personal and clear thing the speaker will miss. Rather than token love lyrics, Wilson always shows us how the most mundane, everyday things like fixing a roof or “Lighting up a smoke. I’ve got this feeling inside me. Don’t feel too good…I could do with some fresh air. Can’t breathe too well” are at the heart of losing someone. Like so many songs he’s written, this one can be repeated endlessly without wearing out its welcome.
Moving on to disc two, we have four songs. “Flicker” is a slow, trippy song with nice harmonies and vocal effects, and it recalls Signify with its atmosphere. “Bonnie The Cat” is another heavy song with Wilson doing his intimidating whispering trick. It stands out at having odd rhythms and some of the best drumming in recent memory; Gavin Harrison is the master of syncopation. The ending jamming first recalls Riverside’s “Reality Dream” instrumentals before almost borrowing directly a riff from Opeth’s “The Grand Conjuration.” “Black Dahlia” uses a weird echo on the vocals. It’s another slow ballad (which isn’t inherently bad, mind you) and it’s a pleasant listen. It’s not one of Wilson’s best ballads, but it’s still a hell of a lot better than contemporaries. The best track on this second disc is the closer, “Remember Me Lover.” It stealthily builds from a sparse guitar notes to a full fledged production. The bridge is captivating and the chorus, like a lot of their choruses, has great harmonies. There is a lot of momentum here and it would’ve fit perfectly on In Absentia. Overall the second disc has some great moments, but obviously it’s the hour long first disc that truly warrants listens.
If there is anything to find fault with on The Incident, it’s the familiarity. For so long, the band progressed musically, and it seems like they’ve stopped a bit. Going in consecutive order, Signify, Stupid Dream, Lightbulb Sun, and In Absentia all sound quite different, and the material predating Signify was way different. But since Deadwing, Porcupine Tree has been exploring this metal side, and honestly, it’s beginning to get formulaic and redundant. While The Incident is still an amazing accomplishment and is full of fantastic material in every aspect (musically, lyrically, melodically, vocally), it also sounds like it’s been done already.
When the Decemberists released the album long suite The Hazards Of Love, it seemed to be the clear winner for best album long suite of the year (I mean, who many bands do this type of thing anymore?). But now with The Incident, we have a clear contender. Where it stands in the catalogue of Porcupine Tree is entirely up to opinion (In Absentia will always be their true masterpiece though) but rest assured that it is just as magnificent as fans expect. If you’ve never heard Porcupine Tree, I would start with some earlier works dating from 1999 onward to hear the progression, and if there’s only one album to hear, I’ve just mentioned it. Regardless of how it compares to their other albums or how familiar it sounds, The Incident is a work of art standing high above the commercial garbage on the radio and VMA awards. As I’ve said before, go out and discover some of the good music being made today; music with ambition, with ideas, with musicianship, with songwriting ability. The Incident is an incident in music that must be acknowledged.