Porcupine Tree - Lightbulb Sun

Originally written for the Marillion fanzine "The Rest of Both Worlds". Interestingly enough, Porcupine Tree have since stopped dithering, producing two harder edged albums and siphoning the lighter end of things off to the Blackfield collaboration with Israeli musician Aviv Geffen.

Few would deny the experimental, rock-as-art bent of the early Porcupine Tree albums, written, played and produced almost exclusively by Steve, sorry, Steven Wilson himself. From 1996, the development of Porcupine Tree as a more formal band has been paralleled by a shift in musical emphasis, towards a style more immediately acceptable by the 'mainstream' record-buying public, but at the same time contradicted by a return, after Signify, to albums almost entirely written by Wilson. SW's recent interviews show a marked dissatisfaction with attempts to pigeonhole the band's music in the 'prog' (read: don't buy it if you want to be fashionable) bracket. Is Lightbulb Sun a successful attempt to banish this tag - and how does it rate?

From the acoustic opening of the title track, the band has undoubtedly become a very tightly-integrated unit, however much Wilson is in charge. A powerful piece matched to a subdued commentary on the isolation of childhood illness gives way to the first of a number of bitter sweet forays into emotional rejection - How Is Your Life Today? - and the album is already marked out as being comprised of a series of mood pieces. I feel it no coincidence that Wilson has also recently acknowledged a concerted effort to concentrate both on matching his vocal ability to his material, and to making his lyrics more accessible. These first two tracks show how, on Lightbulb Sun, the lethally dry wit of This Is No Rehearsal has been combined with an observational melancholy that requires a style of delivery suited to his natural voice and, as developments go, this is the area where the album as a whole is most successful.

The irony continues with 'the obvious single', Four Chords That Made A Million, which is unfortunately nothing special lyrically, musically, or vocally - Steven still has harder edges on his slippers than his voice - but the Tree, ever adept at matching their varied contributions, redeem themselves with Shesmovedon (yes, my spacebar *is* working). Measured against Wilson's stated objectives, this track is probably the highlight of the album; it also holds its own against many favourites from the back catalogue, with a couple of stunning guitar contributions of particular note. In contrast with the static pieces on the album, of which the following, disconnected halves of Last Chance... are two of the more notable, it has the distinct advantage of being more a musical movie than a snapshot.

Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled is a curious lyrical mix of adolescent reminiscence and a return to the insane, religious Americans theme of earlier material (the Heaven's Gate Cult, to be precise). As part one is called Winding Shot 1981, I'm not sure if the Monsoon reference in the segue between the sections is deliberate. Single number three from the album, The Rest Will Flow, is the third 'static' piece in a row and one does begin to find the album a little flat - there's nothing really to take exception to but nothing to rave about either.

However, there is a third type of track on this album - unfortunately, and to continue the earlier visual analogy, this is the 2001, A Space Odyssey meander, showcased ably by Russia on Ice and, to a lesser extent, Hatesong. I would have extreme difficulty finding a better example of 'pointless noodling' than the last six minutes of Russia On Ice. This track starts beautifully - subdued, moody atmospherics prepare a steel grey stage for suitably cold sentiments - but then begins its fall from grace with Dave Gregory's strings, that jump from background atmospherics to gratuitous over-production just after the 6-minute mark, and subsequently wanders off into the musical outback without a map. This track's very appearance in its recorded form begins to beg questions of the musical integrity of the whole album - is there not simply too big a gap between it and the rest of the package? - and the terminally repressed nature of album closer Feel So Low means that the penultimate track owns the flavour that stays in the mouth. Wilson's production is normally so good that I cannot understand how he allowed this Russia On Ice to reach the master in this form.

Actually, it's a little unfair lumping the deliciously vicious Hatesong in the 2001... category - it's really just one of the short songs that has been more justifiably jammed out, including a fleeting morph into Planet Telex at 5 minutes on the counter, but the positioning of these two tracks makes the album rather lopsided, particularly when Where We Would Be, which sits between the two longer tracks, is another short commentary piece, this time on the childhood perceptions of one's own future. (Wilson seems to be taking particular care on the solo to draw more from contemporary guitar culture than certain seventies influences.) Whether the intention is to say to new listeners 'Look, we do longer tracks too' or to appease more longstanding fans, Hatesong succeeds; Russia On Ice fails.

Overall, a few listens are a required candle to this latest offering - certainly enough spins to appreciate the standard of the lyrics. Musically I find it (mainly) coherent, certainly more than competent but, with the exception of Shesmovedon, insufficiently developed and largely unremarkable. It also has a ponderous tendency. I have likened the listening experience to watching Darcy Bussell perform a flawless Riverdance. Then again my wife, whose ballet background inspired the above comparison, is far more mainstream in her musical tastes and she really likes it.

Given positive and serious media exposure this album would have a chance, but falling between two stools won't deliver that - you can't just hide the inconvenient bits at the end and hope the reviewer doesn't get to them! Many readers would find Holidays In Eden with the 100 Nights trilogy replaced by Grendel a similar 'worst of both worlds'. If Russia On Ice were curtailed, I would find Lightbulb Sun a far more coherent album and, as such, rate it far better. As it stands, despite high quality lyrics and musical performances, it is my least favourite of the last three Porcupine Tree albums.