Let me start this review by making it very clear that I’ve never been a huge fan of Porcupine Tree. I respect their discography, which I listened through a couple years ago in full (at least the studio albums), and I like a bunch of their records. I can’t say that I “love” any of their work, though. None of it means something to me on a deep level, not like many other bands who have literally changed my life. So when I approach this Porcupine Tree reunion and their new album Closure/Continuation, I may have a different perspective than most. The album releases on June 24.
Porcupine Tree are the granddaddies of modern progressive rock, the kind with the alternative edge specifically. Listening to their discography, though, you will notice that they started life as something far more Floydian and psychedelic, perhaps even a little shoegaze and ambient. I really appreciate those early albums, like Up the Downstair and The Sky Moves Sideways. That, for me, is still their most interesting sound. As the years went on, they incorporated more pop and alternative into their sound, exploding with popularity with albums like In Absentia and Deadwing in the 00s. The Incident initially ended their career in 2009 with a good, though relatively harmless record that I still listen to occasionally.
My primary question going into Closure/Continuation concerned what sort of sound we would get. Would they revisit any of their earlier styles? Or would this be a rehash of their 00’s efforts? The answer is definitely the latter. Closure/Continuation is solidly in Deadwing and Fear of a Blank Planet territory. It doesn’t even have the electronic edge that The Incident possessed, so in a way it is a regression in their sound. Some of the songs here actually sound similar to Steven Wilson’s Hand.Cannot.Erase. record, minus the hefty emotions and fantastic work of Ninet Tayeb. So, while this record does sound slightly more modern than, say, Deadwing; it still features the start/stop guitar trappings and pulsating bass of that era.
I have some good things to say about this album, and also some not so good. Let’s go with the bad stuff first this time. My problem with Closure/Continuation is that it is about as vanilla an album as this band has ever made. Looking back over the vast creativity of their discography, I see albums like Signify and Stupid Dream that were quirky, creamy, and interesting affairs. Other albums, like their 00s output, were emotional and truly affected me with the stories they told. I don’t get that here. This album is overall pretty dull. The label sent the lyrics with the promo, but I haven’t cared to examine them because they just aren’t that interesting. This is really strange, too, because even Wilson’s solo albums have wonderful lyrics and concepts.
This vanilla attitude extends to the music. It goes without saying that these three musicians—Steven Wilson (vocals, guitars, bass, mixing), Richard Barbieri (keyboards, synthesizers), and Gavin Harrison (drums)—are all legends on their respective instruments. Steven’s guitars are surprisingly heavy at times, and his bass lines are engaging, too. Richard is stronger in the softer moments with his keys; and, of course, Gavin is one of the best drummers of all time (unless he’s playing with The Pineapple Thief). No one can fault them for how they play on this record, and the mix, too, is absolutely immaculate. So why is it that I can barely bring myself to care about the songs on this album?
It’s not just a lack of genre diversity or eccentric post-production, the songs on this album are simply arranged and structured in some very boring ways. They sound almost too perfect in the stalest sort of fashion. It’s almost like these were the leftovers from several albums, and they decided to work on them minimally and release them as the fabled and long-awaited return of the great Porcupine Tree. There is no depth here. There is no layering or progression in sound. This isn’t a “grower” of an album, either, as I’ve had it for months now. No, this album just sort of exists; you hear it, you might bob your head sometimes, and you might even perk up at some great musicianship once in a while. What you won’t do, however, is remember much about it.
I have to admit that the second half of this album annoys the living hell out of me. Now, the first half is actually pretty good. I like the single “Harridan” for its great guitars and catchiness, and I like the shift to a softer approach on “Of the New Day”. I really, really like the song “Rats Return”, a song that flirts with the idea of being vicious and creepy: that song is definitely the most memorable overall. I also appreciate “Dignity”, as it is beautiful, though it feels twice as long as it is.
But the second half, it just irritates me. “Herd Culling” is an awful song with an intensely irritating vocal performance from Steven—-and this is coming from someone who enjoys his falsetto. “Chimera’s Wreck” is another irksome song with Steven’s attempt at a playful little vocal rhythm, but it just makes me want to plug my ears. It is only 9 minutes long, but it feels like fifteen. I don’t know why, but the second half of the album also feels mixed to be harsher and shriller, even thinner overall. The result is that these songs truly lack range or depth, and I just want them to be done. That goes for “Walk the Plank”, as well.
One exception is the song “Never Have”, one of the three bonus tracks. While I wouldn’t say it is as good as anything in the first half, it is a smoother, lovelier song with some soulful vocals. I do find myself humming that one. “Love in the Past Tense” isn’t too bad, either. I do feel that it ends on an anticlimactic note, but as a Porcupine Tree song it is fine: not good or great, but fine. “Population Three” is another grating track that belongs with “Chimera’s Wreak’, in my opinion.
I apologize if this review has seemed like more of a rant. I had high hopes for this album. I, for one, liked most of Steven’s solo output: it was fresh and creative and diverse. I also like Richard’s solo output, such as his excellent 2017 record Planets + Persona. Gavin, well, I’ve harped on the snoozefest that his work with The Pineapple Thief has been; but when he is on fire, there is no one else like him. What went wrong, then? I don’t actually blame any of these three. I blame the wailing online fanboys who begged for PT to return, even if that meant these three musicians would have to shut off the most creative side of themselves to make it happen. This feels exactly like what you would expect from a forced reunion by three disinterested artists. In some ways, it seems like the progressive rock community has, in general, left them behind whilst they were gone from the scene.
Look, if you are a massive Porcupine Tree fan, you will like this record. Closure/Continuation will give you just enough of the good ol’ days to please you for a few months, maybe. I doubt most fans will listen to it long term, though, as everything here has been done before in other PT records. If someone is just now discovering the band, they might not continue to explore their past albums, though. It just doesn’t have the heart or personality of their earlier works, and it certainly isn’t as interesting as countless other albums by “smaller” bands right now. So, sure, we can pay tribute to one of the bands that carried the prog torch, so to speak, but I’m not the kind of person to blow smoke up their asses to make them feel good about what they are creating now. This is a subpar album, pure and simple, and I daresay they know that.
Find Porcupine Tree online: