So, what were you expecting from the new Porcupine Tree release? Based on the last few albums, it would have been safe to assume that the band would continue on its most successful formula to date: the melding of prog rock sensibilities with a generous allotment of the heavy culled from the leading edge of progressive metal and packaged in palatable, deceptively accessible song structure. And on this count, we would have been correct. But then, based on the full length preview of “Time Flies,” it would have been safe to assume a return to the looser structure of the band’s pre-Lightbulb Sun era. And on this count, we would also have been correct. Although Porcupine Tree haven’t exactly foregone the sprawling epic in recent albums – they have given us “Anesthetize” and “Arriving Somewhere…” after all – since Signify, their focus has clearly been on presenting songs in easier-to-swallow doses. What they’ve done on The Incident is to marry the sound they perfected on the last three records with the LP orientation that comprises the bulk of their foundation. Simply stated, this new collection of songs is, above all else, an album.
Whereas several of Porcupine Tree’s albums have been loosely conceptual, The Incident is built firmly on a single, albeit abstract, idea. Specifically, each track contributes to the overarching notion that much happens in life that garners little attention at the global level despite having profound effects on the individual lives of the people involved. Steven Wilson says he was riding in a car one day and came across a horrific accident scene where a police sign warned drivers of a ‘Traffic Incident’ ahead. As he considered the implications of labeling such a traumatic event so callously, he pondered the life-changing force of apparently mundane events. Borne of this introspective exercise was a 55-minute, fourteen-part song that juxtaposes, conceptually and sonically, the detached perspective of what happens to others with the catastrophic consequences of what happens to us.
The Incident opens with “Occam’s Razor,” a brief Opethian intro that sets fleeting possibility and crushing reality side by side in letting the listener know that, despite all possible rationalization, the truth is likely simple and bitter. This unfortunate circumstance is reflected in “The Blind House,” the story of a religious cult. The brilliance of the song and in The Incident in general, is the ability to convey the raw emotion of its stories through the music; the lyrics are necessary, but insufficient to the experience. In “The Blind House,” for example, the narrator speaks of maintaining the integrity of the family by fostering love within, conveyed in warm acoustic passages. Here, though, love comes at the cost of the exploitation of innocence, a realization driven home by immense discordant heaviness during these passages. We’ve all seen this type of story in the news and shaken our heads. Mr. Wilson wants to know if we’ve taken the time and energy to consider what it feels like: the fear and confusion of feeling your most trusted family members taking from you what they’ve told you makes you pure.
The theme is carried forth through “Drawing the Line,” an exemplary pop-alt-rock piece with hints of U2, during the chorus of which it is impossible to deny the pure desperation of the speaker, who has finally decided to end her own abuse, if only by retreating within. Industrially-constructed, the title track paints a cold, twisted-metal mural of detached emotion in its description of our own third-person experience of tragedy on the roadway that simultaneously mirrors our need for others to experience our pain. Bringing the message home, the album’s epic centerpiece, “Time Flies” reminds us that no matter how hard we try, life is going to follow its own path /And the best thing that you can do is take whatever comes to you. It’s at once liberating and fucking demoralizing to concede that, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. This point is made concrete in the music on this track, as it recalls Pink Floyd’s “Dogs” immediately and The Wall later, to a startling degree, perhaps admitting that those most salient experiences of youth forever maintain the core of one’s essence.
Steven Wilson has said explicitly that his band’s sound is influenced by the works of Pink Floyd, Opeth and Meshuggah and these last two are reflected quite apparently in “Octane Twisted” and “Circle of Manias,” respectively. In fact, you may be hard pressed to find a prog-orientated entity that better infuses the sounds of these bands without bastardizing their own. As for the Pink Floyd influence, it is prevalent throughout The Incident, especially the final track, where the alternating heavy-light formula is drawn to a fitting close with the incredibly rich acoustic cum electric “I Drive the Hearse,” which in spirit recalls “Outside the Wall” in driving home the heartrending realization that freedom sometimes equates to emptiness.
The Incident also includes a four song bonus disc which most likely is a collection of the songs that didn’t, for whatever reason, fit with the disc proper. No matter, these tracks are fantastic in their own right. “Flicker” will bring smiles to fans of Signify, and “Bonnie the Cat” will delight Lightbulb Sun and In Absentia aficionados, while “Black Dahlia” and “Remember Me Lover” will enamor fans from all generations.
Steven Wilson’s production job is as good as is to be expected, although this time around the sound is colder, a little more detached, and thinner in some spots, reflecting the nature of the album’s premise. It may be that The Incident lacks the overall punch of the last few albums, but the punctuated heft that is utilized is as poignantly jarring as any before and is especially effective in force-feeding the listener the harsh reality of others that we so often, perhaps necessarily, dismiss. Where this record extends recent efforts is in cementing the inextricable bond with the listener. That is, whereas on previous albums Porcupine Tree have reflected what is critical to the human condition, on this one they’ve gone deeper to capture what is critical to you and me, even if we have to work a little harder to see it. Because this record is less immediate, it isn’t easy to know how fans will ultimately gauge The Incident against Porcupine Tree’s strongest releases. In terms of pure quality, however, it is likely a matter of mere degrees. This is, without a doubt, an essential album.