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
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