Porcupine Tree

“Prog rock” may be an unfashionable term to some, but British quartet Porcupine Tree makes it hip for a younger audience with invigorating albums like the recent Deadwing, which embraces metal, ambient, and classic rock, and swirls them into an unusually frothy musical brew. At the heart of the band’s sound lie the keyboards of long-time member Richard Barbieri — a former member of pop innovators Japan — who plays everything from straightforward piano melodies to hovering, spacey atmospheres.

“For me, the beauty of Porcupine Tree is that although it’s rock music, it’s experimental,” remarks Barbieri. “We use all different kinds of styles. There could be orchestrations on a really beautiful ballad and then complete industrial mayhem and really heavy guitars.” Barbieri relishes the challenge of finding the right spaces and sounds with which to make his mark. He says he’s not a typical rock soloist, “so I just try to find other ways to give the music a slightly different edge and an atmosphere . . . maybe introduce some abstract sounds into it.”

While many players structure their work in the studio and improvise live, Barbieri has found himself doing the opposite. He loves to experiment and play around while recording, and then he works to capture those subtleties in a live environment. “In a studio you can make the smallest sound into something big just by the way you’re mixing or where you place it,” he observes. “When it’s live, you’re dealing with all kinds of venue ambience and onstage sound and monitoring issues. It can be very hard to get the original idea across, but that’s the challenge.” He also tries to perfect his studio work onstage. “I’m not really an improviser, [although] I tend to improvise more in the recording. So live I’m merely re-creating an improvisation that I did during the recording.”

While he has been comfortable working in the analog realm for years, Barbieri recently decided to delve into the digital domain. Currently his main set-up includes a Roland V-Synth (“which has got a lot of possibilities for sound-shaping, modulation, and performance”), Access Virus Indigo, and the virtual Prophet-5. “I use a lot of Native Instruments stuff, like the Pro-53, the B4 organ. I also love the GForce M-Tron,” he says. “I made a solo album [Things Buried] recently, and all of the keyboards on it are digital. That was a very different feeling for me, and it was a challenge to keep that warmth and nice analog feel while working with digital synths.”