Porcupine Tree Dares to Be Prog

“PROGRESSIVE ROCK IS A BIG PART OF PORCUPINE TREE,” says the British group’s guitarist and vocalist Steven Wilson.

“PROGRESSIVE ROCK IS A BIG PART OF PORCUPINE TREE,” says the British group’s guitarist and vocalist Steven Wilson. “And I think that bands such as the Mars Volta, Radiohead, Sigur Ros, and Tool have made it okay to use the word ‘progressive’ again. It isn’t the kiss of death it might have been a few years ago. Having said that, I prefer to say that our main inspiration is from the golden era of album-oriented music that runs from the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds in 1966, up through the emergence of punk rock in the late ’70s. This was an era in which the album was everything, videos had yet to appear, touring was how you built your fan base, and it didn’t matter what you looked like.”

Porcupine Tree just released its eighth studio album, Deadwing [Lava], an adventurous and cinematic record built from classic rock riffs, complex melodies, multi-part vocal harmonies, and ambient atmospheres. The act began in 1987 as Wilson’s home-studio solo project. Over the course of the next 17 years, he transformed Porcupine Tree into a full-fledged group that includes ex-Japan keyboardist Richard Barbieri, bassist Colin Edwin, and drummer Gavin Harrison. For Deadwing, Wilson also brought King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew onboard for two songs.

“It’s a fantastic feeling to be respected by your peers, but it’s even more amazing to be respected by your influences,” says Wilson. “Neil Peart from Rush is a big fan, and he wrote about us in one of his books. And to have Adrian Belew call up and say, ‘I really want to work with the band’ is astounding. He contributed a wealth of incredible stuff. His playing was completely uncontrolled—there was no conception of key or time signature, and he didn’t allow himself to be restricted by things such as notes and rhythms.”

In addition to invoking prog rock precepts, Deadwing has a decidedly metal bent, continuing a direction established on the group’s 2002 release, In Absentia. “I grew up in the early-to-mid ’80s, and the first genre that really inspired me was the new wave of British metal from bands like Iron Maiden, Saxon, and Diamond Head,” says Wilson. “But I began to think it was a bit adolescent, and I lost touch with that side of my musical personality for a long time. A few years ago, however, I discovered the Swedish metal scene with bands like Opeth and Meshuggah, and that got me thinking about detuned guitars, riff-based music, and big rock licks again.”

Wilson’s songwriting on Deadwing also mirrors the darker side of life. “I usually create music when I’m in a negative state of mind,” he says. “I love recording, touring, and promoting the records, but the art of writing music is very much a cathartic and painful one. It’s an exorcism of my negative side. People ask me to reconcile my personality, which is not melancholic or dark, with the music that very much represents those things. My explanation is that the music is where that side of me goes.” (Originally published June 2005)