”Prog” is officially a stupid term to describe modern music. I wish I could just stop using it, but sometimes when concision is required, there’s no better word to convey the genre. I can’t blame Steven Wilson for rejecting it for so long, as the press insisted on using it to categorize his flagship project, Porcupine Tree. Originally, “progressive” signified a complex new merging of disparate styles into a powerful, forward-thinking evolution and expansion of the definition of rock music. Nowadays, it just means “fancy”.
Four years and two albums ago, Wilson was a master at the forefront of fancy rock music. He put out Porcupine Tree's best album, Deadwing, which didn't break any ground or even turn many heads; it was simply an immaculately-crafted, cohesive collection of muscular, original guitar riffs, thoughtful lyrics and lush vocals and production. Since that time, Wilson has devolved, like most modern prog auteurs, becoming the standard-bearer for the most tired cadre of the genre, wherein you take Pink Floyd, and just make it a little heavier.
But whereas Syd Barrett and Roger Waters took personal anguish and channeled it into universal truths, Wilson's last two albums have taken faceless archetypes and turned them into clichés. The Incident is the sound of a man who has run out of ideas. It's truly disheartening to trace the path of Wilson's songwriting mindset, from the playfulness and humor of his early ambient experiments of the late 80s and early 90s, through the searching ambivalence of the early 00s, and then suddenly, into extreme pessimism and disillusionment, beginning with 2007's blunt, unimaginative Fear Of A Blank Planet. This is one case where a negative mood shift also constituted a sudden nosedive in creativity, so much so that I had to whip out Deadwing to make sure it hadn't been a mirage. (It still rocks.)
The Floyd influence has always been a part of Porcupine Tree, but throughout the dozen or so undeveloped ideas that Wilson strung together in the guise of a single bloated song (disc one), he lifts half of the major themes from Animals, and the rest of the music is all stolen from the previous two or three PT albums. I could convincingly whistle along to most of the guitar solos on first listen, meaning either that I'm psychic or that Wilson has become a paragon of redundancy. The centerpiece section of the epic is called "Time Flies", and its is every bit as obtuse and boring as that title implies, particularly lyrics like “But after a while you realize time flies/And the best thing that you can do is take whatever comes to you/’Cause time flies”. Deep.
Disc two is rarely any better. When Wilson sings "There's nothing new underneath the sun" ("Flicker"), he apparently just means that he has given up on originality. These words return again in "Black Dahlia", by now the most overused historical reference of our young millennium. The only glimmer of hope is on the closing track, "Remember Me Lover". There are some halfhearted electronic atmospherics that kind of work, a real dynamic swell of competing guitars, and a trace of actual emotion in Wilson's increasingly flat, cold singing. The riffs are still recycled, the trajectory still predictable, but at least it sounds like he cares for a few minutes.
Predictable? Derivative? Cliché? You were right, Steven: Porcupine Tree is not progressive at all.