Potent 'Blank'

June 1, 2007

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

With recent releases such as "Year Zero" by Nine Inch Nails, "Happy Hollow" by Cursive and "The Crane Wife" by the Decemberists, the rock world is witnessing a resurgence of concept albums -- collections of interconnected songs that dive deep into a particular theme or that work together to tell a complicated story.

The return of this allegedly played-out medium is particularly inspiring when fans are reportedly picking and choosing single tracks for their iPods. Anyone who hopes rock will aspire to something more needs to add a new concept effort to their list of must-owns: "Fear of a Blank Planet," the latest from the English psychedelic/progressive-rock band Porcupine Tree.

"I've written songs before about ... the use of technology, particularly in the 21st century," guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Steven Wilson says of the new disc's genesis. "Songs about download culture -- there's a song called 'The Sound of Muzak' from a few years ago -- and I've also written songs about the Internet and the information technology issue.... But I felt there was a whole album in there, dealing with the whole issue with information technology, download culture, prescription drugs, 'American Idol,' Big Brother -- all of these things.

"Then I came up with the title, which is a little pun on the Public Enemy album title. I thought, 'Well, what's replaced race issues?' When I was growing up as a teenager, race issues were very prevalent -- there were a lot of 'Rock Against Racism' gigs in the 1980s, and Live Aid, etc. -- and I think what has replaced that issue for young people in the 21st century is that they're growing up surrounded by technology and gadgets. To a degree, we really have a real issue of raising a blank generation of kids -- a generation of kids who don't [have] any passion for life, any great soul or anything that motivates them greatly.

"The final part of the jigsaw for me was reading the last book by Bret Easton Ellis, Lunar Park, which I loved," Wilson concludes. "The central character is a 10-year-old kid, Robbie, who is my model for the central character in 'Fear of a Blank Planet.' This kid who spends his whole day in his bedroom with the curtains closed, hypnotized by either the computer, PlayStation, the plasma TV screen, his iPod, his cell phone ... and virtually unable to communicate with human beings in a normal way. All of these things were swimming around in my mind, and I just started to write lyrics to put all of it down."

Wilson quickly added that he wasn't saying his latest disc is the equal of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" or Radiohead's "OK Computer," but I'll venture that it comes close, because the six-track, 51-minute exploration of heady ideas is as gripping musically as it is lyrically.

Since it first came together in Hertfordshire, England, in the late '80s, the group -- currently completed by keyboardist Richard Barbieri, bassist Colin Edwin and drummer Gavin Harrison -- has often been unfairly dismissed as a progressive-rock revival act. But Porcupine Tree has always taken as much inspiration from Pink Floyd's best albums as it has from bands such as Genesis and Yes. And though two prog giants, Robert Fripp of King Crimson and Alex Lifeson of Rush, do make cameos on the new album, the band has always been less interested in recreating a lost era than in moving forward. "We feel that we're always evolving and developing the sound," Wilson says. "Otherwise it gets dull for us."

"Fear of a Blank Planet" is easily as strong as any of the band's previous eight releases, and the most timely. "The album was actually released in Europe the day the Virginia Tech shootings happened," Wilson says. "Not only that, but that day we also issued a video for the title track on the Internet which has kids holding guns to other kids' heads, among other images. My first reaction was, 'Oh, my God! I hope this album isn't cursed in some way.' The timing was unbelievable! But it's amazing how sometimes you get these serendipitous things happening where the timing just seems incredibly potent, and really very sad."

 

Manning sharp with 'Scissors' box

Celebrated by a devoted cult following, the solo albums that San Diego-born, Northern California-based singer and songwriter Barbara Manning made in the late '80s and early '90s were easily the equal of the finest moments from better-known alternative-rock peers such as Liz Phair and Juliana Hatfield, or of the work that Manning did as a member of the bands 28th Day, World of Pooh and SF Seals. Now, the strongest of those releases, "Lately I Keep Scissors" (1988) and "One Perfect Green Blanket" (1992), have been rounded up as part of a new box set called "Super Scissors" issued by Rainfall Records along with a third disc of previously unreleased outtakes and demos.

"It didn't take me long to feel that these songs and the performances -- the plaintive vocals, the haunting feel of the music -- were on the level of my heroes Sandy Denny and Nick Drake," label head Pat Thomas writes in the liner notes, and though he's clearly a fan, he isn't exaggerating. But just as striking as the lyrics and vocals is the strength of the music, which ventures far and wide from typical female singer-songwriter fare to incorporate elements of the New Zealand guitar-pop bands of the period, sonic terrorists such as My Bloody Valentine and English post-punks the Fall (who receive fitting tribute in "Mark E. Smith & Brix").

Manning is currently performing with a power trio called the Go-Luckys!, and with any luck, she'll return to touring soon. Meanwhile, visit her online at www.barbaramanning.com.

PORCUPINE TREE; 3

 7:30 tonight
 Park West, 322 W. Armitage
 Tickets, $25
 (773) 929-5959

 

 

 

 

 

 

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