My friend Michael, who no longer really blogs–wrote his most recent post (about as long as my last post) about the band Porcupine Tree. I first got introduced to this band by listening to Transatlantic. Their guitar player formed up with the keyboard player for Spock’s Beard, Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater and Pete Trewavas of Marillion and made a pretty cool album with, albeit, college freshman lyrics (Mystery Train? Please!). So, I listened to a song or two from the In Absentia album and was powerfully blown away. What a sound–the musical sensibilities of a band not overwrought in guitar heroes, but fully aware of the idea of a group making music together. The originality is what got me. Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s and being a child of Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Rush, etc.–I wasn’t aware there were bands making music like this. How naive I was. When I first heard Dream Theater, I thought the same thing–but I actually like Porcupine Tree’s sound a bit more than that—it’s not terribly raw, though at times, it kicks some serious rock a$%.
So, today, I got a hold of their latest album Fear of a Blank Planet and I have to say that it was exciting. I mean that word literally. I haven’t been this excited about music in a long time and so I have to echo Michael’s sentiments that you really need Porcupine Tree’s music in your life. It’s spectacular. This particular album, a concept album dealing with some familiar rock themes–isolation, escapism, etc.–revolves around a boy who has essentially let his X-box, his computer and his TV run his life. The album has a lot metaphors, both musical and lyrical, that never ask the words–but essentially beg us to reconsider engaging in life again.
Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, I got excited because Rush was putting out yet another album. Allow me to establish my street-cred, here. I was a Rush fan at 15 years old when I heard Tom Sawyer for the first time. That song spoke to me the way previous generations had Bob Dylan or The Beatles speak to them. Rush was my band. I was “saving up” (hard for me to believe that I was saving up for 12 bucks or whatever–but there it is) to buy the record–yes, the vinyl record. One day, I was haunting around what was then known as Topanga Plaza but I think is now known as something else. There, on the floor, I came across a $20.00 bil and could not believe my luck. I looked about me to see if anyone was looking for it–they weren’t–and I scooped it up. Yes, I suppose we could have an ethical discussion, but the point is the statute of limitations is up–and anyway, I took the money. I walked straight into the record store and bought Rush’s Moving Pictures. After that, I went to See’s Candy and bought a pound of Apricot Delights to share with my mom. But that’s another story…
The album was a revelation. It wasn’t just good, it was great–it still is. Everything from the arrangements to the lyrics to the recording of the record were eye opening and the songs, well they were written for teenage boys. In many ways, Rush still writes for teenage boys and that’s the issue, here. That album expressed that angst, not to say ennui, that my generation felt. The Cold War, which we little understood, was our center of gravity and we were caught between the hedonism that the 80’s promised–and the sort of wondering if we would be called to defend the very hedonism we loved so much. Pretty petty–but hey, we were 15. Tom Sawyer expressed that emotion pretty solidly.
Well, I’ve bought every Rush album since. I’ve seen them 11 times in concert on every tour from Grace Under Pressure through Test For Echo. I actually e-mailed–and got a reply—from Geddy Lee back around 1995 when he was on AOL (he’s not anymore). So–I think I’ve established the credentials. I’m a fan–and like their work a great deal…
I bought Snakes and Arrows with high hopes. Vapor Trails, the band’s last release, was a strong record with some great songs and really experimental guitars. That tradition is carried on in Snakes and Arrows, but almost to the point of repetition. This is not to say the albums sound alike, they don’t. But ever since Rush began to write catchy short tunes–going all the way back to their Permanent Waves record, they have almost literally never changed. Verse, Verse, Chorus, Verse, guitar solo, chorus, end. OK–stick with what works, but I miss the variation.
To be sure, there is no shortage of brilliant musicianship on Snakes and Arrows. The two instrumental pieces–The Main Monkey Business and Malignant Narcissism–are nothing short of astounding; though I admit I have trouble with the title of the last one because it indicates a band that knows its good–and thinks this song is proof of how good they are. For the record, the bass and drums particularly on the piece are incredibly self-indulgent, but the guitar work on The Main Monkey Business, for my money anyway, far exceeds that on Malignant Narcissism. Either way, it seems a little pretentious to me.
No, it’s not the instrumentation that bothers me–Rush are at the top of their game, still, and write some truly wonderful riffs. The lyrics, however, are another matter. If you’re a Rush fan, you know that Neil Peart has been writing about some pretty basic themes for quite some time now–and that has not changed here, even though occasionally, Peart’s true pathos and power come through when he yields to the urge to get personal, which he does precious too little.
But this album’s silly tendency to write about fate in myriad ways is just not alluring. OK–we get that you don’t believe in God and you’ve said it on songs from Tom Sawyer through today, so the track Faithless, is a little redundant. The hard part is, after listening to and enjoying Rush for so long, I kind of overlooked the lack of faith issue. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion and I’m fine with that. But when one writes about it–didactically–as Neil Peart does, it becomes as annoying as a Bible-Thumper trying to save your soul after you’ve told him to shoo. Atheists can be Evangelical, too–and Peart has arrived at that level. It is now, at least in my book, officially annoying.
The other side of it is the aforementioned college freshman philosophizing about fate–and why do some people get rich and some are born into poverty. Geez–talk about hackneyed themes. OK, OK–I understand that there are those who are rich and those who aren’t–and I get that in Africa, the chances of someone being fabulously wealthy are a lot more scant than if they’re say, American. It’s actually not fate at all. It has to do with birthrates in 3rd world–and totalitarian–countries. But leave that alone. I’m just amazed that a man in his 50’s who is so well read and so intelligent can think of nothing more prescient to ask than, “why me?” Talk about malignant narcissism. Whew.
It wouldn’t be right to say I’m disappointed–I’m not. The music on Snakes and Arrows is still quite good, if a little reminiscent of most of what Rush has done. But, it’s not a great album–and the bottom line is, it’s not very exciting.
Porcupine Tree might just be exciting because they’re new to me–and I’m willing to accept that. Maybe it’ll wear off. But Marillion’s Somewhere Else is not repetitive and they’re still exciting–and so, it appears that perhaps the progressive torch has been passed and is burning brighter than ever.