StarsDie.com Retrospective – Deadwing
On the heels of three albums focused on songwriting and presenting collections of mostly separate songs without a particular framework, Porcupine Tree returned to their conceptual roots in 2005 with Deadwing. Across its hour-long running time, the album explores and interprets a screenplay co-written by Steven Wilson and Mike Bennion with a tapestry of sounds and moods accentuating often ambiguous lyrics and Lasse Hoile’s collage-esque visuals. The effect is mysterious and randomized, the presented story neither contiguous nor linear.
The album itself, however, hangs together fairly well. No particular song seems to take away from the intended sonic approach, one Deadwing mostly shares with its predecessor, In Absentia — big, metal-esque guitars, driving and complex drum rhythms from Gavin Harrison, a solid bass ‘bed’ by the often understated Colin Edwin, all glued together by the atmospherics with which SW and Richard Barbieri have become so excellent at using to accentuating the song structures. Even “Shallow”, a simplistic song that very clearly screams ‘make me a single’ (and so it was!), still fits the manic and bizarre approach of the title track, the dynamics and time changes of “Open Car”, the dramatic choruses of “The Start of Something Beautiful”, and the explosive, balls-to-the-wall midsection of “Arriving Somewhere… but Not Here.”
“Arriving” is my personal highlight on the record. Its atmosphere alone is somehow unlike anything else in SW’s entire catalogue, though it certainly evolved from and is related to the moods explored on tracks like “Angel Gets Caught in the Beauty Trap” (from No-Man’s Flowermouth), “The Sky Moves Sideways”, “Voyage 34”, and “Nuclear Head of an Angel” (a track on Unreleased Electronic Music Vol. 1 from which the backwards guitars in the introduction of “Arriving” are sampled). In fact, I think this is a product of the entirety of Deadwing; while no other song on the album follows the same approach as the atmospherics of “Arriving”, it is reflected in the climax of “Glass Arm Shattering”, the introduction of “The Start of Something Beautiful”, the quiet pre-chorus of “Open Car”, even the calm beauty of b-side “Half-Light”. It took the approach and conceptual glue of this record to produce “Arriving”, and without it, I doubt it would have been approached the same way.
Similarly, “Lazarus” sticks out from the PT discography, but in a different way. Rather than evolving to a pinnacle the approaches common in SW’s writing, this song instead offers a totally different approach to his (and Barbieri’s) taste in piano composition. The principal melody of the song is a flowing, constant, quickly-paced piano motif that carries its chorus, something new at the time in the PT canon and still one that separates the track from their poppier, more radio-friendly songs — it’s nearly on the level of the infectious pop of SW side project Blackfield! Oddly enough, it was not this song from this album’s sessions that ended up on a Blackfield album, but “Christenings”, one that certainly would have thrown a different spin on Deadwing but would have had a sort of ‘partner’ in “Lazarus”.
Upon examination of all the session material released thus far, Deadwing actually seems to have quite a few pairings that oppose, contradict, and complement one another. “Arriving” and the title track, for example, play off one another by taking opposing approaches to filling out lengthy running times, with “Arriving” taking the quieter moodiness from “Deadwing” and extending it to the bulk of its length, where “Deadwing” fills out its time with the heavy rock direction that creates the breakdown in “Arriving”. “Shallow” and “Open Car” take the most accessible metal-orientated writing of the band and accentuate the chunky distorted guitars with extremely melodic breaks and loud, lush, open choruses. “Glass Arm Shattering” and “Half-Light” are forever in battle as the most appropriate closing track thanks to comments from SW, but also because they both offer two attempts at a similar approach evolved from the Beach Boys-infused vocal layering and pop sensibility PT explored on Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun. Some groups could even contain three tracks, as b-side “So Called Friend” certainly fits the relationship between “Shallow” and “Open Car”, while the melodic and layered “Mellotron Scratch” works similarly to “Lazarus” and “Christenings”.
Though SW has stated the album isn’t intended to work as a soundtrack for the film, I find the particular mood of Deadwing and some of its tracks to be extremely effective as soundtrack pieces. There are more obvious examples, such as the instrumental tracks related to the album/film (“Deadwing Theme”, “Collecting Space”, “Revenant”, “Mother and Child Divided”), but even parts of songs with vocals achieve similar results: those mentioned in relation to “Arriving”, the parts of “Deadwing” with bizarre melodic motifs and Adrian Belew’s guest guitar soloing, the sounds of trains/people linking “Lazarus” with “Halo” and “Deadwing” with “Shallow”, the uplifting buildup in the middle of “The Start of Something Beautiful”, the plaintive piano married with vinyl crackles that opens “Glass Arm”, and so on. All of these examples play out as a sort of ‘soundtrack for a film not yet made’ even if that wasn’t the intention, and this makes Deadwing a more interesting experience — it rides the line between an interpretation/sonic representation of the screenplay and a direct score for a cinematic release.
With all praise aside, a critical look at Deadwing has my ears confused. Particularly, the album is absolutely squashed against the ceiling when it gets loud, despite the press coverage indicating that it was mastered in opposition to the ‘loudness war’ that has overtaken rock and pop-based music in the last two decades. I find the stereo mix of “Mother and Child Divided” on the DVD-A unlistenable, and Harrison’s kick drum often seems to be the first element to be lost to the unruly compression applied to the album — it took me many, many listens to realize the tricky kick drum patterns on the title track, for example. I find this does take away from the listenability of the album, as even the 24bit 48kHz ‘high resolution’ audio on the aforementioned DVD-A release is still pressed so hard against the digital volume roof that the entire band is distorted beyond reason when they decide to deliver the harder rock/metal approach. However, SW has been on the offense regarding the ‘loudness war’ in the last few years as he has taken to mastering his albums himself, resulting in the impressively dynamic Grace for Drowning and less-compressed vinyl reissue of The Sky Moves Sideways. That’s good news for poor Deadwing!
- Watch SW and band perform ‘The Raven That Refused To Sing’ live!
- Blackfield IV pre-order details, tracklist, release date, album cover
- Steven Wilson and Guthrie Govan talk about their touring gear
- Early Porcupine Tree recordings ‘Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape’ now available to pre-order exclusively from Headphone Dust
- SW and band to perform in store at Amoeba Records in San Francisco
- Steven Wilson announces more European tour dates
- Steven Wilson and band perform ‘The Watchmaker’ Live in Germany
- Steven Wilson to headline Loreley Festival in Germany in July
- Steven Wilson posts update thanking fans for European tour
- Lengthy new interview with Steven Wilson recorded in Stuttgart