Nil Rethinking

[from Reservoir / November 7, 2007]

Countless publications – this one included – have raved on and on about new distribution methods by hugely successful bands and about musicians breaking the old-guard chains that bound them. This is all well and good, but what has gone overlooked is that no one has really challenged the idea of the music release itself, save for the occasional remix contest, download-only single or an endless chain of reissuesFear of a Blank Planet and special editions.

Earlier this year, a mostly unknown British group by the name of Porcupine Tree released the Fear of a Blank Planet album that by some fluke garnered serious adulation and praise from the mainstream press. That a no-name band could do right by big-time critics is nothing new, but what made this remarkable was the album scoring points even with its overabundance of some very stubborn hallmarks of old-school progressive rock – an overarching concept and story, bizarre time signatures, lyrics based on books, double-digit song lengths, analog soundscapes and experimental guitar solos by Robert Fripp of King Crimson and Alex Lifeson of Rush, just to name a few.

Even more remarkable is that for their current tour, the band went ahead and released the four-song, 28-minute Nil Recurring EP containing the rest of the songs from the Planet sessions – most notably “Cheating the Polygraph,” a missing seven-minute piece from the original whose presence in a resequenced playlist forces the listener to wonder how that album was ever any good without it, even though the album was actually great to begin with.

Progressive and mainstream rock alike are both littered with story albums, but in the past such works were always designed to stand on their own. In theory, they are contained masses, isolated and hermetically sealed away from any and all other music. The album exists as Nil Recurringthe sum of its lone part. The songs are supposed to support each other, to give each other meaning and context. Leftovers, outtakes and unused songs are against the rules.

Nil Recurring obliterates that notion entirely.

Just imagine what would have happened if other bands had thought of this before. 2113. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hears Club Band Plus Special Guest TBA. The Kinks Are Also the Village Liquors Appreciation Society. The Even Darker Side of the Moon. Seventh Son of a Seventh Son in serial installments. VH1 rendered unable to pull off all those useless 100 Greatest countdown shows. People arguing incessantly over which of Dirt, Dirtbike or Dirtball was the one true version of Alice in Chains’ masterpiece. Fans feverishly scouring the Internet in search of the lost ruins of Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk.

But the significance of this goes beyond that. For years artists, fans and critics alike have bemoaned the death of the album format only in terms of full-length releases that just weren’t compelling all the way through. What most people never took into consideration was that most bands weren’t actually writing albums anyway, just assembling them from songs whose only real commonality was timeframe and personnel. With Fear of a Blank Planet and Nil Recurring, Porcupine Tree has effectively killed the idea of a cohesive work altogether, even one as cohesive as the concept album, which was in and of itself one of the last plausible justifications of the album format’s existence. At the same time, they’ve managed to reaffirm the significance and power of what one unified piece can convey and accomplish. Where some bands talk a mean game about revolution while acting only in terms of pricing structures or getting their fans to do pro bono PR work for them, these four went ahead and actually seized the opportunity to experiment.

Anyone can be progressive in nature, in style or in sound; with these two complementary releases, Porcupine Tree has found a way to be progressive in form as well. Other bands could learn a thing or two from this.