A famous occurrence found its way into Woody Allen’s film Manhattan. The director has just explained all the artistic allusion and metaphor in his latest work, pouring over details and really attempting to make an artistic statement. Then comes time for the audience Q&A session. First question: when are you going to be funny again? I had this thought while listening to Porcupine Tree’s latest, The Incident.
Before you misconstrue where I’m headed, let me say I enjoyed The Incident quite a bit. It is, as the prog rock geeks prefer, an epic with that first and title track actually being a suite of songs and interludes (14 in all), ranging from the opening piece of aggressive guitar, “Occam’s Razor” to the affecting pop-hard rock of “Time Flies,” the centerpiece of the suite, to the melancholic and affecting closer, “I Drive The Hearse.” Four additional songs are found on a second disc, unrelated to the suite but no less tonally similar, and here lies my hesitance about The Incident.
The band’s output has been steady and prolific, from chief Steven Wilson’s initial psychedelic leanings, to full-on prog, to a pop-rock feel for often forgotten gems like Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun. The band started to get broader attention with their In Absentia CD, but for the past few albums, that has been the dominant descriptor of Porcupine Tree music. Indeed, when people describe the band, they call on In Absentia, Deadwing, Fear of a Blank Planet and will surely add The Incident to that list, while there is a greater breadth of stylistic adventure just behind those recordings. It would be a broad stroke to claim the band has solely locked into a string of metal assaults punctuated by gorgeous, sad balladry, but each new album brings us closer to that conclusion. I’ve been waiting for that shift that used to occur every two or so albums.
The question, then, is whether I am looking for the band to get different, just as that audience member wanted Woody to make slapstick comedies again, or whether I’m sensing that even though The Incident is a quality recording, the formula is becoming more and more evident. It’s a bit of both. No one could argue the fact that, in the field of modern progressive rock, Porcupine Tree stands tall, first by being technically proficient with their instruments, second by not beating the listener over the head with aimless wankery, and finally by providing real songs with real hooks. All are present and accounted for. However, Wilson’s writing is becoming more and more splintered as he takes on more and more personae. His ambient side often shows in his work with No-Man, his avant garde inclinations arise on his Bass Communion recordings, his pop leanings migrate to the Blackfield collaboration and his heavier sound, tellingly, stays with Porcupine Tree. The music is not the problem; the segmentation is.
I believe the band’s fans are really going to like The Incident, as do I, but it will be brand new listeners that get the most from it, because it will feel fresher to them. Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for everything to change. In recent years, Woody’s tried his hand from time to time in the comedy genre again, more often than not with forgettable results. Perhaps I should be careful of what I wish for?
The Incident is available at Amazon.com