Porcupine Tree, Fear of a Blank Planet (Atlantic, 2007)

Porcupine Tree started out as a fictitious band, created by Steve Wilson as a joke between him and a friend. Wilson fabricated an elaborate history and discography, and recorded some songs in his basement that were attributed to the band. Ironically, the music developed enough of a following that Wilson started recording full-length albums under the Porcupine Tree name. Demand for concert dates followed, and by the end of 1993 Porcupine Tree had become a quite real quartet, of whom Wilson (guitars, keyboards, vocals), Richard Barbieri (keyboards), and Colin Edwin (bass) are still members. (Current drummer Gavin Harrison joined in 2002.) The band has devoted their career to taking the progressive "art rock" of the late sixties and early seventies and re-shaping it as something more aggressive and contemporary. They continue with this purpose on their ninth studio release, Fear of a Blank Planet.

The concept behind Fear of a Blank Planet focuses on a couple of themes that were common in the music of the nineties, namely teenage disillusionment leading to violence, and feeling empty in spite of/because of the plethora of cheap amusements that are readily available. On one hand, Wilson doesn't break any new ground here -- he basically takes Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" and puts him in a mall. However, while the problems discussed here have been overshadowed in recent years by 9/11 and the Iraq War, they have not gone away; the horrible events at Virginia Tech make that plain enough. The nineties may seem idyllic compared to now, but they really weren't, and the situation certainly hasn't changed for the better. So I certainly can't fault Wilson for drawing attention to issues that have been overlooked for too long.

Musically, Fear of a Blank Planet consists of seven extended pieces. Two clock in at just over five minutes, three run seven minutes, and the marathon piece "Anesthetize" runs seventeen minutes. Wilson and his band wear their prog influences on their sleeves, even bringing in Alex Lifeson of Rush and Robert Fripp of King Crimson for guest appearances. I found the music a bit less interesting here than on the previous Porcupine Tree albums In Absentia and Deadwing, largely because their formula hasn't really developed a whole lot. Other than a bit of orchestration, the album sounds and feels just like the other Porcupine Tree albums I have. Then again, if the worst thing you can say about a Porcupine Tree album is that it sounds like other Porcupine Tree albums, you're really not saying anything negative. Wilson writes well-structured songs, and the band is equally adept at playing carefully constructed, sophisticated pieces and at rocking very hard.

Fans of Porcupine Tree will certainly want to add Fear of a Blank Planet to their collection. While I'd more strongly recommend Deadwing than this album to people who don't know Porcupine Tree, fans of prog looking for something new or anybody interested in intelligent hard rock will find much to like in any of their CD's.

Overall grade: B

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