Closure/Continuation is Porcupine Tree’s 12th studio album.
Porcupine Tree’s roots go back to the late 80s when it was still a solo project disguised as a band by vocalist/guitarist Steven Wilson. The 1993 album Up The Downstairs featured guest appearances by bassist Colin Edwin and keyboardist Richard Barbieri (ex-Japan) who joined the band the following year with drummer Chris Maitland. Porcupine Tree became a real band with the release of The Sky Moves Sideways (1995). However, the reins of the band were firmly in the hands of Wilson, who wrote and composed almost all of the band’s music.
Porcupine Tree’s first few albums were progressive rock flavoured with psychedelia and indebted in particular to Pink Floyd. In the late 90s, Stupid Dream (1999) and the subsequent Lightbulb Sun (2000) finally wiped the psychedelia from the band’s sound and replaced it with more obvious pop and alternative rock influences.
The next turning point was 2002’s In Absentia. Maitland was replaced by virtuoso drummer Gavin Harrison and the band took a sharp step towards heavier rock. In Absentia and the subsequent Deadwing (2005) flirted with prog metal. However, the music remained accessible and there was always a generous dose of pop overtones amongst the heavier twist. It was at this point that Porcupine Tree began to achieve some more significant success for the first time. Personally, I was introduced to Porcupine Tree in 1998 and it was rewarding to watch the band rise from a completely marginal band to a minor giant that filled big arenas. The band’s success culminated in 2007’s Fear Of A Blank Planet, which sold over 250 000 copies worldwide.
After a 2010 tour, however, the band, which had been steadily growing in success, disappeared into the horizon. Wilson had launched his solo career in 2008 with Insurgentes and by his third solo album, The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) (2013), he was already more popular than Porcupine Tree had ever been. Around this time, Wilson’s standard comment ”Porcupine Tree is on hiatus and will return someday” started to change to ”I’m focusing on my solo career and Porcupine Tree is unlikely to return again”.
There was no great drama in the demise of Porcupine Tree. The band members were just getting a bit fed up with each other after years of album/tour cycles. Everyone also felt that the band’s music was becoming stale. The four were right in that respect, as their latest album The Incident (2009) was a rather uninspired repetition of the old.
In the end, year after year, Wilson declared in interviews that Porcupine Tree would never return. These comments became particularly defiant as he turned more and more towards pop with To The Bone (2017) and The Future Bites (2021). Wilson said he wanted to be a pop star, while declaring guitar music dead.
The other members of Porcupine Tree were also busy as the mothership foundered. Colin Edwin made solo albums and, with Pat Mastelotto and some Italian musicians, formed a prog band called O.R.k. which has made three albums so far. Barbieri collaborated with Marillion vocalist Steve Hogarth on a couple of solo albums. But it is Harrison who has received the most attention alongside Wilson, having appeared on the covers of numerous drum magazines after winning yet another ’best drummer in the world’ award. He also joined not only The Pineapple Thief but also King Crimson. In Crimson, Harrison led a group of three drummers who were brought to the ’front line’ of the new line-up. Harrison’s work also includes his excellent solo album Cheating the Polygraph (2015), which consists of original big band arrangements of Porcupine Tree music.
The corona epidemic that started in 2019 played a major role in the return of Porcupine Tree. With the coronary epidemic making touring difficult, many bands retreated to the studio to work on new material. This is what Porcupine Tree eventually did. The influence of Corona must have motivated Wilson in other ways too. His ambitious The Future Bites tour was first postponed for months and then cancelled altogether due to the interest rate restrictions. Rumour had it that the big arenas Wilson had booked had not sold as many tickets as expected. The cancelled tour supposedly caused Wilson significant losses and, at the same time, his last two albums, which had aimed for the pop stage, had, ironically, sold less than the preceding prog album Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015), Porcupine Tree understandably began to look like an attractive safe haven again.
But Porcupine Tree’s return didn’t have to start from scratch, as Wilson and Harrison had been secretly working on new music with the band in mind since 2012. It was during these sessions that at least the first versions of ’Harridan’ and ’Chimera’s Wreck’ were written. Wilson and Harrison apparently worked on the songs on and off over the years, but the real work didn’t resume until the autumn of 2021. Barbieri was invited to join Wilson and Harrison for their jams and it soon became clear that the return of Porcupine Tree would happen with this trio without Edwin. The reason given for this by the trio is mainly that Wilson played bass in the new sessions (and in fact wrote much of the material on bass guitar) and therefore Edwin was not needed. The fact that Edwin had not shown any interest in Porcupine Tree during the break and had apparently been inactive in the band’s last years sealed the deal. There have been rumours among fans of a falling out between Wilson and Edwin, but no confirmation has been received. Edwin himself has said he was surprised to see Porcupine Tree return. He had only heard about it when Wilson sent an email which apparently had a message along the lines of: ”We made a record, you’re not in it”. He was then contacted by Wilson’s lawyer. Presumably with a contract to buy Edwin out of the band. Cold-blooded. But that’s the way professional bands work sometimes.
The treatment of Edwin was a cold shoulder, but otherwise the new Porcupine Tree seems to be a more camaraderie-based collective than before. While the music on the previous albums was mostly created as Wilson made precise demos from which the other musicians then played their parts, Closure/Continuation is more clearly a true democratic band album. Of the seven tracks on the album, only one is credited to Wilson alone. The others are credited to either Harrison or Barbieri. One of the songs, ”Herd Culling”, is co-written by the trio.
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The album opens with Wilson’s bass riff as if to make it immediately clear that Edwin is definitely no longer involved. The eight-minute ”Harridan” runs on a feverishly bass groove in five played by Wilson. The difference with Edwin’s style becomes immediately very clear. Where Edwin often plays in a soft, legato style somewhat reminiscent of Mick Karn, Wilson’s style is more guitaristic and rhythmic. Wilson on bass sometimes sounds like Chris Squire at his rawest. Overall, Wilson’s bass playing throughout the album positively surprises and it is on ”Harridan” that it is at its best.
The bass guitar’s booming tone brings a new kind of grittiness to the band’s sound. Even aggression. Even though the most obvious metallic influences have been removed from the band’s style, the music now sounds harder than ever before. And since Wilson has said that he composed much of the album on bass guitar, its role is also quite different from before. The bass guitar often takes on the role that an electric guitar normally would and often plays key melodic parts.
The star of ”Harridan” is Wilson’s bass guitar, but Harrison’s massively and wildly sounding drums are certainly no slouch in comparison. Barbier’s understated synthesizer textures are reminiscent of the band’s Signify album. The subtle use of sequenced pulsations points in the direction of Wilson’s latest solo album, The Future Bites. ”Harridan” is a very nice start to the album.
”Harridan” is followed by ”Of The New Day”, the only song on the album composed by Wilson alone. Unfortunately, this song is the least of the album’s offerings. It is a very typical Wilson ballad that adds nothing to his repertoire of numerous melancholy laments of the same kind. Despite its frequent time-signature changes, ”Of The New Day” is the album’s most popish offering, but it lacks the proper hook and catchy melody that Porcupine Tree once managed to provide with a verse like ”Lazarus”.
The album’s third track ”Rats Return” returns to the raucous atmosphere of ”Harridan” and is the album’s strongest offering. The hard-hitting song features an extremely powerful riff, although its value is somewhat diminished by the fact that it feels very much like ”Luminal” (from Wilson’s solo album The Raven That Refused to Sing). On the other hand, the riff sounds more metallic and is the album’s most obvious reference to the Porcupine Tree of the In Absentia era. The most interesting thing about the song is Harrison’s insistent, morse code like jerky rhythm playing in the background.
”Dignity” is the album’s second ballad, but it’s a more varied and interesting whole than ”Of The New Day”. Its calmer sections recall Wilson’s solo song ’Drive Home’, but the song’s more muscular middle section, with Wilson’s angrily growling bass guitar and electric guitar skimming the distant horizon, fortunately elevates it well above the average Wilson ballad. Unfortunately, the vocal melodies of the song are not that great and personally I am quite fed up with Wilson’s one-dimensional singing style. On the other hand, it is fortunate that on this album he does not attempt to expand his recent experiments with falsetto singing except once briefly on ”Chimera’s Wreck”. Wilson’s previous attempts at falsetto have been nothing more than a source of bemusement on his last couple of solo albums, but this time it works a little better. However, Closure/Continuation is at its most effective as an instrumental and then again in a few chorus sections that become downright mantric, where the vocals blend naturally into just one part of the music.
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The rest of the material on the album was mostly written over the years, but ”Herd Culling”, which follows ”Dignity”, is a kind of commissioned work. It’s the album’s most recent track and was written at the very end when the band felt there was a gaping hole in the album’s dramatic arc.
Combining electronic pulse and heavy riffs, ”Herd Culling”, which moves at a brisk pace, features an interesting repetitive ”LIAR” chorus that adds some variety to Wilson’s flat vocal style. Cleverly, the ”LIAR” exclamation is sometimes interspersed with light la-la-la-lawyer slurring so you’re not always sure which phrase is being used.
The penultimate song on the album, ”Walk The Plank”, is another recent addition and was written at the very end of the sessions. It is the song on the album that most clearly refers to the music Wilson has made in recent years. ”Walk The Plank” is like a more progressive version of the electropop of The Future Bites. On the other hand, the song also has a lot of the atmosphere of Barbier’s solo albums and is a joint composition between Wilson and Barbier. ”In ’Walk The Plank’, the synthetic bass pulses strongly, Harrison’s drums are surrounded by programmed rhythms and there is no guitar at all. Except for one explosive distortion (which may well be from the bass guitar). ”Walk The Plank” is an okay song, and would have been a delight on The Future Bites, but on Closure/Continuation it feels a little disconnected from the rest of the material.
The album closes with its longest, and perhaps finest song, the just over nine-minute ”Chimera’s Wreck”, a ghostly lament that recalls the hazy material of Storm Corrosion (a joint project between Wilson and Opeth frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt). ”Chimera’s Wreck” is a delightfully organically evolving track and, because of its many different sections, in some ways the closest thing to the basic idea of progressive rock of any song on the album. To some extent, the song also seems to tie together the different directions of the album.
”Chimera’s Wreck” also features some of the darkest and most interesting lyrics on the album, which seem to create a kind of middle-aged realisation that you haven’t really understood or learned anything about life through the years and experiences you’ve accumulated.
Afraid to be (afraid to be)
What I should be (what I should be)
The sum of all (the sum of all)
Of new and old (of new and old)
Experience has made me none the wiser
I’m afraid to be happy and I
Couldn’t care less if I was to die
I’m afraid to be happy and I
Couldn’t care less if I was to die, whoa
Porcupine Tree’s records have a good reputation in terms of production and Closure/Continuation continues to be a quality line. In fact, it’s a big improvement on the old, in the sense that where the Porcupine Tree albums of the 2000s in particular were compressed to the point of flatness, Closure/Continuation sounds satisfyingly dynamic. It’s a heavy sound, but not exhausting at any point. Harrison’s drums and Wilson’s bass in particular sound excellent, but the sound is also well balanced. The album also avoids the sterile feel of some of Wilson’s productions, often sounding like three musicians actually playing together live in the same room, rather than a sterile studio experiment.
The return of Porcupine Tree was a much anticipated event and Closure/Continuation topped the album charts in many European countries in the week of its release. Obviously, it also dropped like a stone the following week, so there is no new breakthrough to speak of. However, the numerous versions of the album resulted in kind of shopping spree for the old fans. Typical of Wilson’s current style, for example, not all the songs can be obtained by simply buying the cheapest version of the album, but three songs from Closure/Continuation are labelled as ’bonus songs’ and can frustratingly only be obtained by buying the expensive deluxe edition. The three bonus songs ”Population Three”, ”Never Have” and ”Love in the Past Tense”, which last about 18 minutes in total, are good quality listening, but I still won’t miss them particularly even though ”Love in the Past Tense” would have been a good replacement for ”Of the New Day”. As such, the 48 minute duration of the vanilla version is just right and a step in the right direction as typically Porcupine Tree albums have always been a bit overlong.
Is Closure/Continuation then the end of the Porcupine Tree story or a steady continuation if not a new beginning? The album doesn’t offer much that is new compared to the old Porcupine Tree and Wilson albums, but it does combine familiar and functional elements into a whole that mostly manages to avoid the feeling of recycling. Closure/Continuation is like a best-of collection of Wilson’s best mannerisms. In this sense, the album can be thought of as more of an end point tying up loose ends than a bold new beginning. However, if the author is allowed to speculate, I believe that in the future Wilson will focus mainly on his solo career, but will return to Porcupine Tree every 3-5 years or so. Hopefully continuing in the style of a more democratic line-up pioneered by Closure/Continuation.
Best songs: ’Harridan’, ’Rats Return’, ’Chimera’s Wreck’.
Author: JANNE YLIRUUSI
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- ”Harridan” 8:07
- ”Of the New Day” 4:43
- ”Rats Return” 5:40
- ”Dignity” 8:22
- ”Herd Culling” 7:03
- ”Walk the Plank” 4:27
- ”Chimera’s Wreck” 9:39
Steven Wilson: vocals, guitars, bass guitar, piano Richard Barbieri: keyboards, synthesizer Gavin Harrison: drums, percussion