Porcupine Tree makes a triumphant return to experimental, non-linear style with 2007's Fear of a Blank Planet. Maybe Steve Wilson was afraid that the comparatively poppy Deadwing and In Absentia were edging too close to the mainstream, because he seems far less concerned with overtly accessible songwriting on Blank Planet. Even still, the cerebral, atmospheric sound on this album remains enormously compelling from almost the first moment. While there is no "radio single" on the disc -- certainly nothing with a conventional pop arc like Lightbulb Sun or "Trains" -- most songs transcend their complex structure and feel as provocative as any traditional rock tune. The aptly named "Sentimental," in particular, features Wilson's trademark lush arrangement with layers of vocals, piano, ambient synths, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, live drums and sampled drums -- but cutting through its tightly contained mosaic is an expertly constructed chord progression that evokes a desperate sense of tension and longing, developing incredible emotional momentum as the track progresses.
Blank Planet sounds like Wilson spent about half of his studio time on the guitar; it's full of buzzy, meticulously distorted solos that you can easily picture him folding into the prototypical Porcupine Tree amalgamation of drum machine, organ, and synthesizers during many long hours in front of the sound board. The quiet, English restraint with which Wilson croons seems to have saved his voice from the decay that so many male singers experience over a twenty year career, and lucky for us (and for him), the style still works perfectly with Porcupine Tree's sound. As a vocalist, he has an amazing capacity for juxtaposing cold, haunting moments against evisceratingly passionate ones, mostly thanks to the control he exerts over his instrument. Wilson's clear, boy's choir timbre sounds like a torrent of frenzy and hunger when he breaks free of it and explores the limits of his vox on tracks like "Sleep Together." His sleepy, melodic approach also has the benefit of ensuring that his poetic lyrics, which run the gamut from acerbic social criticisms to wrenching personal narratives, are always perfectly discernible. Though it's only six tracks long, each of the songs on Blank Planet is exquisitely crafted, even the 17-minute long "Anesthetize." Wilson has a great sense of flow, leading mournful, ambient ballads into graceful crescendos, and over long interludes that sway blissfully throughout rises and falls, only occasionally losing themselves to moments of plodding or meandering. At roughly 51 minutes, Fear of a Blank Planet is short by Porcupine Tree standards, but by measure of quality rather than quantity, it's one of the most substantial prog albums to come out in years.