Porcupine Tree are one of those bands I managed to miss out on completely, as the deep dive into rock and metal that I'd begun when I found the Friday Rock Show in 1984 started to fade at the end of that decade for a slew of reasons, not least real life asserting itself. I've seen the name often, a constant influence on later bands that I've appreciated and a constant reminder that I should get round to checking out their work. However, by the time I started paying attention, they'd given up as a band, because pivotal founder member Steven Wilson had shifted into a solo career. Until this album, my experience with them has been entirely confined to Wilson's most recent album, which was excellent.
This one, on the other hand, is underwhelming. It's not bad, let me emphasise right from the kick off, but it is underwhelming and I think it was inherently going to be, based on the approach that it takes because what it does best is subtle and what it does worst is grab us and keep us. It drifts away into the background very easily, unless we're listening through headphones in the dark, and the tracks blur together for the same reasons. However, it does reward those who pay attention.
The opening track is a fantastic example of this. It's called Harridan and it plays with urgency in an interesting way, but you have to pay attention to catch it. It's an eight minute song where the bass and drums are more important than the guitar and the vocals are sparse and somehow distant. It has dynamics in play that take it from funky Primus to sassy Nick Cave, from Pantera groove metal power chords to acoustic Barclay James Harvest, all of which work well, but they aren't the point.
The point seems to be to convince us that there's something really urgent going on but they're too busy sipping cocktails by the pool to tell us what it is and that's as frustrating as it is fascinating, a pair of feelings that merge during the second half with its frantic beats and soft jazz vocalising. It happens on Rats Return too, with the drums consistently more urgent than the soothing vocals or swirling keyboards. It's like the message is to speed up and slow down at the same time. It's fair to say that much of the joy for me here is trying to reconcile those diametrically opposite ideas but it doesn't make for a simple album.
And maybe we shouldn't look at this as an album, even though it's what it is and there are a whole slew of consistent approaches that make it appropriate to talk about as one. From the perspective of a random listener, it probably helps to listen to it as seven isolated tracks, maybe even with gaps between each and perhaps on shuffle. Most obviously, Of the New Day, with its glorious melodies that feel utterly effortless, plays much better when it isn't just a coda to Harridan. Walk the Plank, a quirky piece of soft new wave glitch prog, only finds itself in isolation.
But the band seem determined that we should listen to this as an album. The first fifty seconds of Dignity almost aren't there and it moves through sections that could be different songs, as does Herd Culling. These prompt us to wonder if the breaks between songs are purely arbitrary. Is Herd Culling one song or a set of eight outtakes from recording one song? Are there songs that start in one track and finish in another? Is this a puzzle box of an album that we have to figure out?
The only song that stands out on its own is the last one, Chimera's Wreck, because it's as active as most of the rest of the album is passive. Everything else wants us to listen to it but feels too shy to ask us to pay attention. Chimera's Wreck commands us to listen, from the opening chords that are reminiscent of Pink Floyd's Hey You, through the first verse that's phrased like the end of Wish You Were Here. It's clearly designed to build and it wants us to guess at what's coming next. It's a good thing that it's last, because almost everything else here would fade into the background if played after it.
So, there's a lot here to discover and prog fans are used to unpacking their favourite albums, so it may well find an audience. However, with the exception of that one final track, it isn't going to let us in easy. We have to fight our way through the barriers it sets up and others that we've placed in the way ourselves, just to get into the right state of mind to pay attention. Then we have to figure out what it's doing and why. Eventually we'll be rewarded but I wonder how many of us are willing to exert that much patience to get there. So I think I have to stick with a 6/10 but you should add an extra point if you have that sort of patience.