Artist: Porcupine Tree

Album: Lightbulb Sun

©by Chris Vreeland

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know much about this band. They’ve apparently been putting albums out for years, and I believe this is at least their fourth effort. I’m lucky to have a group of friends who actively seek out obscure but good music for the purpose of sharing with one another, and Lightbulb Sun first came to me in the form of a CD-R (Home taping is killing music!), given by a friend who thought I would enjoy the album. He was right. Flying in the face of the RIAA naysayers, I ran out and bought a new copy of the album a few days later, so I could enjoy the cover art and read the liner notes. I’m a liner note enthusiast, which is why I’ll never be able to abandon my jewel cases and store all my CD’s in a wallet, like so may folks these days.

But I digress. What about the album? It came to me by way of a “prog” enthusiast, but I don’t see it fitting into the progressive rock label. It certainly doesn’t fit into the “Math Rock” variant of the genre, as a friend of mine is wont to describe the heavies of Prog, like ELP and Yes. Porcupine Tree is much more heavily groove-oriented than your standard Prog band, with nearly all the songs on the album in straight time, either 4/4 or 3/4, with only one or two exceptions. In that regard, they could still be considered “progressive,” in the same sense that Pink Floyd is marginally a prog rock band, and the comparison is apt in more ways than one.

The lyrics on Lightbulb Sun, especially including the title track, with which the album opens, are heavily slanted towards the gloomy side of things, though more in an everyday normally depressed sort of way, not the maniacal-madman-gloomy of Roger Waters. The opener concerns a character who can’t go out due to some undefined protracted illness, and his one dim bulb substitutes for the sun, as his mother brings him “a sickly pink liquid that puts me to sleep” and “makes sure that I’m watered and fed” but in an un-Watersyian fashion, he thinks of a better day, when he can go back to his daily life. The first time I listened to the album, I was ready to declare “Whiney Butt” after the second song, in which the protagonist bemoans being left by a woman:

The letters pile up in the hallway
Junk mail and bills from the catalogues
And the neighbors have guessed ‘cos I’ve canceled
the milk
And they don’t hear your voice through the wall anymore.

but that’s really only one side to Lead Vocalist, Guitarist, and Lyricist Steven Wilson, who shows a complexity of thought on the rest of the album not displayed by traditional Whiney Butts like Morrisey or Bono. Plus, he crafts beautiful melody lines, and sings them in tune.

In the album’s fifth track, a two part song, he makes the interesting, if non-sequitur juxtaposition of idle reminiscence about an old flame, and a summers day spent with her outdoors in part a, with an apocalyptic vision of visitation by a superior race from distant space in part b.

Musically, if I were to sum up Porcupine Tree in one phrase (a dangerous American predilection, known as the sound byte), I’d have to say imagine Pink Floyd a generation younger, with a good drummer. A really good drummer. Chris Maitland isn’t flashy in the way he constructs accompanying parts, his hat-kick-snare style is really pretty meat and potatoes, but his fills and flairs are really astonishing in several places. The keyboards used throughout the album are all vintage, with plenty of Hammond, Rhodes, String Ensemble, Mellotron, and analog synth, happily noted in the liner, where it states “Richard Barbieri uses outdated keyboards.” He does so well, in an unobtrusive, supporting, and song-oriented manner, not unlike Richard Wright, causing me to infer another Pink Floyd parallel. The bass player, Colin Edwin, is really quite accomplished as well, with about half the songs played fretless, and is uniformly tasteful throughout, if not just a tiny bit stiff for my tastes. But then, I’m going to be hyper-critical as a bass player, since he’s not playing everything the way I’d have him play it, I suppose, so discount my rantings there.

Beyond being a capable Lyricist, Vocalist and Songwriter, Wilson is also pretty crafty with a guitar, and recorded very solid and creative rhythm parts, as well as cutting some choice leads. In fact, the moment that first turned my head was the solo on the eighth song, Where We Would Be, which is largely a very somber, wistful acoustic ballad, into which he jammed a sublime distorto-feedback over-the-top solo that just plain makes the hair stand up on the back of one’s neck. Time will tell, but it will probably remain one of my all-time favorite guitar solos for years to come.

All in all, a fine album, more than worth the price of admission, which includes a guest appearance by ex-XTC guitarist Dave Gregory, who arranged the string quintet (quite capably, I might add) on three songs. It’s a well engineered, well mixed, and just plain good sounding production, as well. If you’re an audiophile, you won’t be disappointed here. And why aren’t these guys all over American radio? Well, its their loss.

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