At some point in the 1980s or early 1990s, rock musicians began to abandon functional harmony–the idea of building music around a tonic chord or key. Kurt Cobain of the band Nirvana is a good example of this. Drawing on a wide range of inspirations, such as The Pixies and Sonic Youth, Niravana began charting a decidedly atonal future for rock music in which harmonic tension and resolution would be abandoned. Of course, classical composers got there first, nearly 100 years earlier, but it would be a fool’s errand to argue that Cobain and his grungy peers were studying scores by Debussy, Bartok, Schoenberg or other 20th century composers. Most of them were barely music literate and were simply writing what sounded angsty and non-commercial to them.
Around the time that Nirvana was blowing up, in England, a young progressive guitarist and songwriter was beginning to chart his own path. Steven Wilson and his band Porcupine Tree began life solidly in the space-progressive world first charted by Pink Floyd. Wilson wears his influences–Floyd, Genesis, King Crimson, Yes, most prominently among others–on his sleeve, often leading critics to declare his music to be derivative. That’s unfair. Brahms’ First Symphony sounds so much like Beethoven that it is routinely referred to still as Beethoven’s 10th. Today, Porcupine Tree inhabits a space best described as progressive-metal, which if you are imagining Metallica performing albums like Selling England by the Pound, you are not too far off from the truth.
As it happens, Porcupine Tree is one of the Professor’s favorite bands, so when the opportunity arose to see them live with him, I jumped at the chance. Porcupine Tree are a hard band to connect to, especially if you jump around their catalogue instead of listening to complete albums. I had a hunch that a live show might help me find their groove a bit more efficiently. It did, which isn’t to say that I came away entirely sold on the band–especially in its current prog-metal phase.
Having immersed myself in Beethoven over the last several weeks, it was easy to pick up on Porcupine Tree’s obsessively repeating rhythms and riffs. I even heard what I thought were polyrhythmic sections, but listening again to the studio versions I determined that I was wrong–instead of two truly independent rhythms, the band is quite skilled at disguising variations of a rhythm over a 4-5 bars, after which you get what appears to be rhythmic resolution, but in fact was never truly clashing to begin with. Wilson also veers into atonal composition at times, producing strange chord progressions that bend your ear while, as a singer, using chromatic progressions that further distance his music from any sort of obvious tonal center.
That said, I think the band is at their best when they mix things up, either by retreating back to Meddle-like space-prog (The Moon Touches Your Shoulder) or by incorporating pseudo-polyrhythms to break up the ever-repeating riffs that sometimes can border on monotony. Personally, I welcome Wilson’s rare returns to a more functional harmony in his singing (Piano Lesson–an homage of sorts to late 90s Brit Pop).
While Wilson’s jazz and classical influences permeate his solo efforts (for example, Deform to Form a Star), his efforts to do so within the confines of Porcupine Tree appear to be more limited. That said, from time to time a few of these interesting Conversations peak out from the gloom, most notably this Philip Glass-inspired piano introduction.
Porcupine Tree, Sentimental
Philip Glass, String Quartet No. 2, IV. Quarter Note = 160
Philip Glass, Mad Rush:
At the close of the concert, Wilson remarked that Porcupine Tree isn’t the sort of band that has that one song that they have to play at every concert. And then they played the one song they have to play at every concert (Trains). It’s a good tune and clearly one of their very best, but I actually prefer another song on that album, which they also played last Friday night. For a band that embraces the dark and morose side of life, the lyrics are almost uplifting, as is the spare music that backs Wilson’s line.
I won’t shiver in the cold
I won’t let the shadows take their toll
I won’t cover my head in the dark
And I wont forget you when we part.
I won’t heal given time
I won’t try to change your mind
I won’t feel better in the cold light of day
But I wouldn’t stop you if you wanted to stay
Collapse the light into earth.Steven Wilson
As autumn approaches, here is a cocktail worthy of that song, along with a playlist of some of the Porcupine Tree songs that I’ve come to appreciated over the last week.
Collapse the Light Into Earth
- 1oz Laird’s Apple Brandy Bottled-in-Bond
- 3/4oz lemon juice
- 1/2oz honey simple syrup (1:1 ratio)
- Grated nutmeg
Combine brandy, lemon juice and syrup and shake well to combine. Strain into a coupe, top with Champagne and grate fresh nutmeg over the top.