07 May 2007

Record Review Corner: Porcupine Tree/Throbbing Gristle/The Arcade Fire

22 Vaisakha - Year 1929

I've taken a short break from buying various re-issues (Klaus Schulze, Steve Hillage, Peter Hammill, the Genesis SACD/DVD remasters, etc.) and d/l'ing rare and out-of-print prog from Soulseek, to actually purchase some new albums--here's a short review of a few of them:

Porcupine Tree - Fear Of A Blank Planet (Roadrunner/Atlantic Records): Steven Wilson and his merry band have returned after a nearly two-year break to follow up Deadwing, their last studio outing, released in 2005. I'll be honest, I only gave "Deadwing" a couple of spins and I thought it was just O.K.--the tunes seemed to go on and on in no direction--the sound of a band in search of some ideas. Not that it seemed to be complete crap to me--quality control on P.T. albums appears to be pretty tight and the production had the usual excellent sheen. "Fear Of A Blank Planet" (an obvious nod to Public Enemy's ground-breaking 1990 record), seems to have a clear 'concept' and features guest appearances from King Crimson mainman Robert Fripp and Alex Lifeson of Rush. Now, I seem to recall Wilson trying desparately to escape the "prog" tag a few years ago--but part of me thinks the man doth protest a bit too much on this one. The concept, such as it seems, revolves around the over-saturation of media and technology and anti-depressants on today's yoof. It also has something to do with Bret Easton Ellis' Lunar Park novel--but as I'm not much of a B.E.E. fan, I didn't read the book, so I couldn't tell you about that bit. The musicianship is on it's usual high standard--it weaves back and forth between gentle acoustic passages and probably the heaviest riffing Wilson's ever committed to tape...digital tape...hard drive...whatever. His hanging out with Opeth has definitely had an effect. The good news is that it's a much more cohesive album (or seems like it to me, anyway) than "Deadwing" (and even In Absentia--which I didn't think that much of either) and get this, only six tracks long--including the 17-minute Anesthetize (oop, seems like we're back in prog territory again). The sorta not-so-good news is that they still seem to be playing to their strengths and their audience's expectations, instead of becoming truly "progressive". It's alright, though--Wilson knows which side the bread's buttered on and I can't fault him too much for that. Having said that--"Fear Of A Blank Planet" still seems better to me than 95% of the garbage out there and you wouldn't be going too amiss by buying it. You could find far worse ways of polluting your album collection.

Throbbing Gristle - Part Two ~ The Endless Not (Industrial Records): With all of the "old band" reunions happening in the past few years, mostly to wallow in nostalgia--this one was beyond expectation and there's no sign of nostalgia. The first group to refer to themselves as "industrial" originally split in 1981, after making four of the most post-everything albums possible at the time. The personnel then went on to form new acts that, while broadening their musical dialogue somewhat, retained the underground spirit that bred T.G.--these being Coil, Psychic TV and Chris & Cosey/CTI. After a 25-year hiatus--T.G. decided to reform last year for a few one-off gigs (the main one being the All Tomorrow's Parties shows in London). An EP was sold at the A.T.P. gig, a taster for "Part Two". The full release hit the shops and Intraweb a couple of months ago--and the results seem....satisfying. The sound of the record isn't a huge surprise, they're still laying down the dark ambient grooves even after all this time--but you didn't expect them to get all X-Factor pop on you, did you? The thing that seems to have changed, to me anyway, is their command of the technology and the studio-as-instrument, like in the swampy rhythms of the opener, Vow Of Silence, or in the slow near-jazz of Rabbit Snare. As with D.O.A., their second full-length--first released in 1978, each member gets a "solo" track. I particularly like Peter Chrisopherson's contribution, After The Fall, which closes the album--it seems to be a fitting tribute to Christopherson's partner in Coil and life, Jhonn Balance. If you've been raised on a diet of Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, "Part Two" probably won't sound all that revolutionary to you--but when you factor in what these people were doing nearly 30 years ago and that they're all pushing their mid-50s now--well, 'nuff said. "Part Two" probably won't be selling in chart-numbers and probably won't make a lot of end-of-the-year Top Ten lists (except in uber-hip zines and muso-blogs)--but as a reunion memento and artistic endeavour, I think it's right on the money. If it comes down to spending your money on this or Lily Allen--I think you'll know what to do...

The Arcade Fire - The Neon Bible (Merge Records): Another band hitting the 'comeback' trail this year is Canada's own The Arcade Fire--following up their excellent (one of the best I've heard in recent years) debut album, Funeral and the self-titled EP (released in 2004 and 2005, respectively). I won't go near the words "sophomore slump"--'cos it certainly doesn't seem that way to me--it's just, well, only a few of the tracks are really hitting me on the first few listens. I suppose that's a minor complaint, as it took me a few listens to really get into "Funeral". I dunno, I guess I'm not hearing anything as powerful and tuneful as Wake Up or Neighborhood (7 Kettles). That being said, as with P. Tree, the quality control is very cranked up--and tunes like Keep The Car Running and Intervention have that vital spark that made the debut such a great record. (Antichrist Television Blues) has a folk-tinged, Springsteen vibe to it, only pepped up by a near-martial beat and it rollicks along at a nice pace. There's also a re-vamped version of No Cars Go, which appeared on the EP and various radio sessions--it isn't much improved here, but seems to fit in more with these songs than it does on the EP. Don't get me wrong on this one either--I do like it and I hope these guys & gals make a few more as good as this one seeme to be. I suppose I just had very high expectations of it and it didn't quite deliver. It's entirely possible that it'll be a 'grower' and the more I spin it, the more it'll reveal. Now, you may be thinking of ordering the Take That reunion album off of Amazon. Do yourself a huge favour and order "The Neon Bible" instead. In my view, the Arcade Fire need the bread more than Take That do and, in my current mix of musical education and musical ignorance--have created a far better album.

NOTE: This post should've been ready last weekend, but our hard drive crashed due to a virus--and we had to have the drive restored, so I apologise for it's delay.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting reviews. I have a Porcupine Tree album somewhere that I must have played only once. They never struck me as anything to care about. Maybe I should try again. Throbbing Gristle back again? Not really music I can actively ENJOY but they have made some interesting noises snd thta's always welcome! I agree with you re: Neon Bible. I can't get into it so far. To be honest as much as Funeral was an obviously great debut, I find them a but hard going. There's too much and the kitchen sink happening and the bloke sounds like David Byrne, which is fine if you ARE David Byrne but I don't need another one. They are clearly a great band but even though I have both albums I rarely listen to them. Is it me or is it them? I think it's me.

The Purple Gooroo said...

I do prefer the earlier P. Tree more--especially the first few albums--neo-psych & prog done very tastefully. They've headed into "darker" territory on the last few and while the records are very well-crafted--there seems to be something missing. I do like the new more than the last couple and I'll try to hang on and give a few more spins.

Yeah, T.G. are back--but only for a short time--and then I think it's 'splitsville' for good. Definitely an acquired taste--but I do like to listen every so often. They created some of the most outre (and progressive--in the definitive sense of the word) of the 70s. The new one ain't bad--pretty good for some grizzled geezers (and geezerette ;-) ).

Ha Ha Ha Ha - I hadn't made the David Byrne connection with the Arcade Fire. Yeah, they do seem bombastic to me--but maybe that's what sets them apart. I do like "Funeral" more than the new one. Of course, as I say, it may be a "grower". It may not be you, maybe they're too "kitchen sink" for your taste. Nothin' wrong with that...

Mark D. said...

Neon Bible seem to be less endlessly reslistenable than Funeral (and unfortunately, here in the U.S. it has been too thoroughly championed by the shrieking horn-rim pencil-neck crowd)(AND Christgau gave it an A-plus, a sure sign of marshmallow ears). But man, that is a great band.