Fear of a Blank Planet – Porcupine Tree – Review
You don’t even need to listen to any music to know what 2007’s Fear of a Blank Planet is all about, the album art says it all. The caricature of a young, hooded and wide-eyed boy sitting in the eerie darkness of his bedroom late at night. The flare from the TV illuminating his face with horrifying detail. Eyes briefly transfixed on the viewer with a look of emptiness that echoes 2002’s In Absentia and its equally misanthropic themes and ominously menacing music.
The music and the artwork are beautifully correlative as both components clearly distill what Porcupine Tree is about in six songs. This surely is a dark, mysterious and slightly morbid record, diving into our obsession for perpetual updates of our virtual selves on social media, what our lives have become now that the prime forms of entertainment mainly involve sitting in front of a screen for hours on end, and the effects this still relatively new way of life has on our psyche, namely, boredom, dissatisfaction and more serious mental conditions such as depression and bipolar disorder that we have to deal with more and more in the 21st century.
The title track lays out the album nicely with explicit lyrics that get right to the heart of the concept. Lines like ‘Xbox is a god to me/A finger on the switch/My mother is a bitch/My father gave up ever trying to talk to me’ really capture the domestic setting, albeit in a vaguely cringy and comical manner. As the song picks up it reaches its zenith with a short breakdown into an alternate version of the intro riff which then erupts into an explosive, distorted riff that closes the song.
The album takes a strange turn with the acoustic ballad My Ashes, but it pays off with the soaring vocal melodies blended with the thoughtful lyrics about regret and the dysfunctional family unit. The song provides an ambiguous beginning to the highlight of the album, the 17-minute magnum opus Anesthetize. After a surprisingly refreshing trance-inspired jazz section, the pounding bass drum of Gavin Harrison welcomes a crunching metal riff that only builds into more Opeth-like guitar leads.
With the reintroduction of the vocals comes hard-hitting lyrics delivered with the hauntingly ethereal voice of Steven Wilson. ‘The dust in my soul/Makes me feel the weight in my legs/My head in the clouds/And I’m zoning out’. The imagery is more real than we’d like it to be. We picture ourselves, unconscious of any authentic pleasures other than the quick thrills of hardcore porn and Eastenders. We picture the end of a hard day at work and the instant need to escape, the need to fill up on caffeine or alcohol until it makes us forget about how sad and lonely our lives are. This is the unsettling, yet very relatable truth that Porcupine Tree taps in to.
The song only continues to increase in intensity, eventually reaching a thrash-inspired catharsis of booming guitars and bass drums. The following section of the song slows down considerably and introduces a more airy and dream-like mood that is perfect for closing the song.
Sentimental is arguably the album’s weak spot as it delves back into the secondary storyline introduced by My Ashes in an irritatingly turbulent way that disrupts the suitably dark tone set by Anesthetize. Nevertheless it provides a beautiful and catchy reprise of ‘Sullen and bored the kids stay/And in this way wish away each day’.
The sinister tone set by Anesthetize is brought to a epic close with the final two tracks. Way Out of Here has a spooky intro with a suitably shrill vocal delivery that transforms into clattering metal riffs and increasingly upsetting and tragic lyrics detailing how far a person can be pushed before they are lost in obscurity and confusion only to briefly look back at the wreckage that was their life, torn apart by the maelstrom of the modern technological age. The music backs up this struggle as the guitars become more chaotic and Wilson’s refrain more muffled and dissonant as if we can hear the protagonist slowly slipping away. It brings us back to the Shakespearean last stand of the protagonist in Rush’s fabled 2112, ‘My spirits are low in the depths of despair/My lifeblood…/…Spills over…’.
…But it is not over yet as the orchestral finale Sleep Together kicks in. A similar song to Way Out of Here, the dramatic orchestral interludes only increase the suspense before a thunderous chorus jumps in with loud power chords and a vocal accompaniment, ‘Let’s sleep together right now/Relieve the pressure somehow/ Switch off the future right now/Let’s leave forever’. The song builds to symphonic climax eventually halted by a final drum beat, and it is as if the beating heart of the album has stopped, for better or for worse we will never quite know.
The ambiguity at the climax of the album leaves us to make our own assumptions. Maybe the protagonist finds help and turns their life around, or maybe they succumb to the same fate as the protagonist in 2112. It would be narrow-minded to just consider an individual case, Wilson wants us to look at our own lives and further on to the lives of our friends and families, and further still to the lives of the businessman in the heart of the metropolis, to the pig farmer in the countryside, to the checkout assistant in the suburbs, and ask, who is this affecting? What even is this? And is it a necessary part of the human condition or just a feature of circumstances?
To ponder over questions of this magnitude with the backing track of such beautiful and powerful music is what makes Fear of a Blank Planet one of the greatest modern progressive metal albums to date.
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