Porcupine Tree- Deadwing (Lava)
review by Jim Clark

Track Listing

1. Deadwing
2. Shallow
3. Lazarus
4. Halo
5. Arriving Somewhere But Not Here
6. Mellotron Scratch
7. Open Car
8. The Start Of Something Beautiful
9. Glass Arm Shattering
10. Shesmovedon (bonus track)

If you're Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree, how do you go about the difficult task of following up 2002's excellent In Absentia?  Simple, make a disc that's every bit as good if not better. Porcupine Tree are one of the few bands today that have yet to release a dud. Every disc has been a winner, and considering that In Absentia marked the band's seventh studio outing, that's quite an achievement. And with their current release, Deadwing, the band has run that streak to a perfect eight.

In Absentia marked a heavier sound for Porcupine Tree, and Deadwing continues in that vein, though the heaviness is much more seamlessly incorporated. Lyrically, Deadwing is based on a film script that Wilson wrote with friend Mike Bennion that Wilson describes as being "a surreal supernatural ghost story."

A brief synth pattern kicks off the nearly 10-minute opening track, "Deadwing." After a few moments, the whole band kicks in, with Wilson laying down some monster guitar riffs. Wilson sings the first verse before the song turns unexpectedly, with a monotone spoken vocal, something unheard of on previous Porcupine Tree releases. This will definitely catch long-time listeners of the band off guard, but Wilson wisely only uses this vocal delivery twice during this song, keeping it from getting too bizarre. The middle section of the song features some very creepy keyboards from Richard Barbieri and Gavin Harrison's tribal-like drumming. This leads into a wild guitar solo by King Crimson's Adrian Belew before the song's final verse closes out the piece. Definitely a risky way to kick off the disc, considering that this is the band's second major label release.

The heaviness continues on the band's first single, "Shallow." When I first heard this track online a few months back, I was quite unimpressed. However, hearing it in context with the rest of this album, it is a very strong rocker with a catchy chorus.

The aural assault briefly subsides with the stunning "Lazarus." Wilson plays a simply exquisite piano part and delivers a lovely vocal. Understated slide guitar hangs in the background and in addition to some beautiful strings, and an acoustic guitar solo that almost sounds like a banjo. A great song that was chosen as Deadwing's first single in Germany.

The funky band composition "Halo" and it's industrial, NIN feel follows. Wilson's quiet voice soon gives way to some electronically enhanced vocals (similar to their previous "Slave Called Shiver"). The chorus is remarkably catchy on this number and it would make for a fine single in its own right. Belew adds another of his manic solos to this track.

Deadwing's focal point, the 12-minute "Arriving Somewhere But Not Here" follows. Quite simply, this stands as one of the finest songs that the band has ever produced. Starting with an atmospheric intro, Wilson soon starts singing some marvelous lyrics that appear to be about dying in a tragic fashion. "Could you imagine the final sound as a gun, or the smashing windscreen of the car," he sings. Opeth's Mikael Akerfeldt offers some great backing vocals while a chilling mellotron lingers in the background, adding to the spine-tingling feel of this epic piece. The chorus starts, with acoustic guitar and Wilson’s vocals, “All my designs simplified, and all of my plans compromised, and all of my dreams sacrificed.” Harrison's drums kick in as does a gripping guitar solo.

The second verse sounds like this death could perhaps be a suicide, “Ever had the feeling you been here before, drinking down the poison the way you were taught.” I’m probably way off on the lyrics, and that’s part of their beauty – they could have numerous interpretations.

After the second chorus of Arriving Somewhere But Not Here, a metal section takes over with bone-crunching guitar, swirling Hammond organ and speed drumming. Just when it seems that the song is going to lose the plot, Harrison's drums lead to a stellar transition back to the up-pace section from earlier. Akerfeldt plays a classically-flavored solo here before the last verse. Another lovely guitar solo takes the track to the fadeout. In all, this is a jaw-dropping number of intense beauty that just leaves me mesmerized every time I listen to it.

"Mellotron Scratch" has the difficult role of following such a masterpiece. Along with “Lazarus,” this is probably the mellowest song on the album. The vocals are backed by a drum loop and yes, mellotron. Wilson’s Beach Boys influence is evident on this number with its multiple-part harmonies.

Next up is the brilliant "Open Car," a song that begins with "Strip The Soul"-like vocals and jagged guitar. The track goes through numerous changes in under four minutes, from slashing metal to a piano-backed bridge section to a heavy, though extraordinarily catchy chorus. Of all of the songs on Deadwing, this is probably the one that gets stuck on my mind the most. A good choice for a single, perhaps.

What sounds almost like a bass synthesizer starts “The Start Of Something Beautiful,” a Wilson/Harrison composition. Again, the song alternates perfectly between the funky verses and the heavier, yet strangely beautiful choruses. A breathtaking instrumental section, with lovely piano and a guitar solo that would make Robert Fripp proud, leads into the track’s conclusion.

The atmospheric “Glass Arm Shattering” closes out Deadwing. A band composition, this track offers a calm to close out the storm of the rest of the disc. Sound effects and slide guitar take center stage with Wilson’s echo-laden vocals.

The U.S. version of Deadwing includes a bonus track in “Shesmovedon.” Originally released on 2000’s Lightbulb Sun disc, it has grown to be one of my favorite Porcupine Tree songs. Re-recorded for this release, I find it to be not nearly as strong as the original, not to mention that it sounds completely out of place. Akerfeldt replaces the backing vocals of former Porcupine Tree drummer Chris Maitland while Harrison replaces his drum parts. I personally find this remake too loud, with Harrison over-drumming in places. And Wilson’s perfect guitar solo from the original is shortened a bit at the end- a sacrilege as far as I’m concerned. Still, it is an excellent song and if the record company’s goal is to impress new listeners with it, it should work. If only they would have used the original version.

So Deadwing is a more than worthy successor to In Absentia. And it has more of a band feeling to it than In Absentia does. Barbieri weaves his haunting synthesizer effects all over the disc and Harrison, drumming on his second Porcupine Tree release, seems much more at ease. And bassist Colin Edwin holds everything down with some great bass lines.

One word of warning to long time fans of the band – if you didn’t like the heavier moments of In Absentia, this disc may not be for you. But if you give it a chance, I have a feeling that it may well end up one of your albums of 2005.

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