Friday, December 30, 2011

Porcupine Tree's Early Work: "Stupid Dream" and "The Sky Moves Sideways."

Beginning in high school, I very rarely listened to the radio and I only purchased mainstream music after special consideration. I propelled my listening habits by reading liner notes, articles and reviews, taking recommendations, and, thanks my long-term involvement in record retail, I sometimes test-drove something new in the event that it would present itself. I rarely ran into any serious ruts or dead ends. Still, there was a huge amount of music going on that danced outside of the horizons of these resources, so the internet had a pretty significant impact on my listening when it began to emerge in the 90s. To my amazement, I found out that progressive rock was alive and well, and a cornucopia of incredible music came to light. This is when I found out about Porcupine Tree.

Porcupine Tree began as a joke: a studio-only band fabricated by guitarist and producer Steven Wilson. The first couple of albums were almost entirely Wilson working solo, using drum machines and sequencers to fill out his psychedelic experiments.  Since then, Porcupine Tree has gained a bit more visibility, and with good reason. In my opinion, Steven Wilson is maybe the most consistent artist in recent history. In the last fifteen years, he has created more good quality work than nearly anyone in a similar span of time. Porcupine Tree began to receive a bit more notoriety in the mid-00’s, so if you are just becoming familiar with the band, it is likely that at first, more recent albums like The Indicent or In Absentia will be suggested as places to start. Porcupine Tree’s mindblowing consistency makes purchasing nearly any of their albums a good bet, but it was their pre-2000 work that initially caught my attention. I think that it would be a shame if these incredible albums were lost in the shuffle, because they are fantastic works in their own right.

By the third album, it became apparent that the hypothetical band, which had garnered some underground interest by virtue of their early releases, should evolve into a live, performing group. Wilson made this transition in 1995 on The Sky Moves Sideways, which was my entry point for the band. This album really grabbed my attention in 1998 when I put it in rotation. Thanks to Wilson’s breathy delivery, melodic atmospheres, and long-form compositions, Porcupine Tree was hailed as the “Pink Floyd of the 90s,” a label that Wilson apparently resented. By Porcupine Tree’s towering standards, The Sky Moves Sideways is a bit outdated, but it is still a masterful album that laid the groundwork for what the band would become.  I had never seen early clips of this work until I found this one yesterday.

The album that really put the group on the map for me, however, was 1999’s Stupid Dream. Wilson refocused Porcupine Tree for this album, and began applying the melancholic atmospheres he developed in his early work to more succinct songwriting. Stupid Dream was still identifiably progressive and it provided a foundation that allowed me to rethink the genre as forward looking rather than incestuously retrospective.  Among all the new and exciting music I was getting into at the time, this album was distinctive, and with incredible songwriting, amazing lyrics, and unbelievable musicianship, it sat very comfortably in my post-power-pop-era prog listening tastes.

Today it is still my favorite album from Porcupine Tree, and easily ranks among my all-time favorites alongside Discipline, Frengers, and a short list of others. This clip is from a later incarnation of the band, but Even Less is an indispensible favorite from Stupid Dream.

Porcupine Tree has always evolved subtly from one album to the next, so from album to album, the band's progression seems logical.  Over a larger arc, however, the band's beginnings hardly seem to match their most current work.  Following their evolution from a psychedelic studio project to a performing group with a profound influence on contemporary progressive rock is the most rewarding way to experience their oeuvre, in my opinion, and these albums are compelling places to start.

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