The sound of prog today. What is it the sound of? It's the sound of a man who looks like this:
I think I prefer capes. Maybe the bus-driving RPG nerd look will catch on.
Steven Wilson, who sort of is Porcupine Tree, or is at least the only member anybody mentions, seems pretty damn polydactylous judging by the number of pies he seems to have his (pasty, probably spindly and overlong) fingers not only jammed into, but wiggling around inside and prodding bits of carrot and... I've taken this a bit too far now.
The guy has remixed every single album on Carlsson's shelves and then some. He has remixed most of the joke albums posted in the spoof 'Prog Canon' threads. He has recorded about a dozen records with Porcupine Tree, plus some solo ones and some side projects, for the sole purpose of remixing them a few years down the line. Steve Hoffman has a contract out on him.
His personal project, Porcupine Tree, are a very modern take on prog: extended songs with various sections, serious musicianly chops, vague album-long concepts, and Wilson's production very much to the forefront. Few long solos here, no medieval gubbins and little comic prancing: it's all very serious, all based around riffs and synths and dynamics. After listening to this album I have to regard it as stadium prog, with the heavy riffing, powerful drumming, dramatic structures and catchy choruses that entails.
The issue I have is that, and I don't really know how else to put this, Steven Wilson - renowned prog producer and engineer Steven Wilson - is a pretty crappy producer. Sure, he gets very clear and clean sounds and works hard at the dynamics. But the actual production sound is quite horrible. It's all chrome-plated and smooth, with no edge. '90s drivetime rock tuned up. He prizes brightness and sheen over feeling and warmth, with the result that his angsty lyrics and dramatic riffs are blunted and offputting. He is very, very efficient, to the point of creepiness.
There is clearly talent on evidence in the music, as the songs have smart structures and memorable riffs. Wilson and his band are proficient and competent. There is no pointless noodling, but that's almost a pity in this context, as what we do get is funk-metal, on at least two songs. One of those songs is called 'The Creator Has a Mastertape': a bit of producer humour there. You wag, Steven.
They throw in regular acoustic passages - many of them suspiciously similar - and there are bits that sound like Radiohead, perhaps. Mostly, though, it's faintly portentous and occasionally pumping cyber-rock. Synths that lend some zoom without getting too obtrusive, guitars and drums that focus on precision and force. On songs like 'The Sound of Muzak', Wilson does that thing where you get too close to the mic and it makes you sound like you're singing inside a computer. There are few nods to Golden Age Prog; this is modern prog, taking its cues from grunge and prog-metal, prog for the Internet age.
When I think about this record on a personal level, the biggest problem is that Steven Wilson's taste in rock music is just so radically different from mine. The melodies and chord sequences he favours are not ones that I enjoy. The angsty, driving technogrunge that he wants to create is not my idea of a good time. Lyrics like "it's so erotic when your makeup runs" make me cringe. I hear on this album rock music that is utterly soulless, however many minor-key piano verses there might be and however much Wilson emotes. He wants to sound meaningful but he sounds passionless and empty. This isn't how rock music should sound: it's dated sci-fi, shiny spaceships with doors that slide obligingly open, and flying cars. It sounds like people 25 years ago thought the future would look, before it arrived and proved them wrong. It sounds like a computer game.
Image is certainly important. I listen to a lot of electronic music and the facelessness of the producers is part of the deal. They often hide their identities, play with them, and one is quick to realise that the identity is unimportant. Translate that to rock music, though, and it doesn't work. A boring-looking man making overproduced, metallic and angsty prog is a real turn-off. The biggest problem Porcupine Tree have is that they sound exactly like the kind of music you would imagine a man who looks like Steven Wilson to make.