Porcupine Tree has been, for well on a decade now, a cult favorite trying to simply be a favorite, but there has been a problem in making that happen. That problem is the box lead member Steven Wilson refuses to be put in. The band started as a home studio project, a solo affair that leaned heavily on psychedelia, hence the trippy group name. The project would soon be fleshed out into a full group comprising Wilson, bassist Colin Edwin, drummer Chris Maitland (to be followed later on by Gavin Harrison), and former Japan synth player Richard Barbieri. With the expanded group ethic, Wilson found the proper tools to stretch out in progressive rock, pop, and even the current metal sound. That metal sound has, unfairly, caused some to blanch at the group’s Tool-like complexity and weight, which are mixed with Wilson’s harmonious, classic rock vocals.
And so it goes that radio programmers who need clear-cut lines of demarcation don’t know where to stick Porcupine Tree. For the most part it’s a cop-out, especially with their two most pop-centric releases, Stupid Dream (1999) and Lightbulb Sun (2000). While some songs do go off into eight-minutes-or-more fantasia, the majority on both releases are solid examples of pop songcraft, little marvels of production and eminently worthy of obsession. Amsterdam label Tonefloat knows very well about such obsession — they’ve been releasing Wilson’s music on high-quality vinyl for years, not just the recent Porcupine Tree album Fear of a Blank Planet (2007) but also his ambient forays as Bass Communion and his duo with vocalist Tim Bowness called No-Man. It’s a treat for fans of the band to finally have a vinyl version of Lightbulb Sun in their sweaty mitts. It couldn’t have come at a worse time, though.
Dedicated to Michael Piper, a friend, supporter, and promoter of the band, this release was intended for Piper’s U.S. specialty label Gates of Dawn. During preproduction, Piper had to enter the hospital for major lung surgery and subsequently died there. It’s somehow fitting that the title track references a breathing sickness. Tonefloat picked up the ball from there and put together a vinyl enthusiast’s wet dream of a release: a brand-new remastering supervised by Wilson, an expansive gatefold sleeve that properly shows off photographer John Foxx’s intriguing cover image, super-heavy-grade vinyl guaranteed to sound amazing, and a side four featuring three tracks (“Disappear”, “Buying New Soul,” and “Cure for Optimism”) that didn’t make it onto the original CD.
What makes the timing even less fortuitous is that Tonefloat releases aren’t cheap. They’re made from, arguably, the finest materials out there; Tonefloat is a true record-fetish company in every respect. Tack on the divergent euro-to-dollar conversion and international shipping costs and even ardent fans have reason to doubt the necessity of a Lightbulb Sun purchase. Sympathetic high-end audio retailers like Acoustic Sounds, luckily, have felt our pain and are currently offering the LP at a considerably lower cost, though it’s still four times as much as the reissued CD.
Is it worth the price? Being a big fan of what Wilson and company have been putting out, I’m glad to have it. It’s a gorgeous piece of construction as I’ve already detailed, but even if it came in a plain brown wrapper, it’s the music that sets Lightbulb Sun apart, not just from genre classification but often from what we’ve come to expect from Porcupine Tree itself. “Shesmovedon” belongs on rock radio; it’s sad that it never got there. “The Rest Will Flow” features a string arrangement from former XTC member Dave Gregory, and such a song wouldn’t have sounded alien on one of their albums (specifically the texture-rich Nonsuch), but who’s to say the hip-hop-laden 1999-2000 corridor would have embraced it had it been given a shot?
For those with the inclination to buy it, the vinyl version of Lightbulb Sun is highly recommended; click to Tonefloat’s site for more details. Info on the band can be found at their official site, porcupinetree.com.