“It was an unusual paradox: most acts keep recording stylistically similar albums… Porcupine Tree were being harassed for daring to not transform”: But Lightbulb Sun matters more than you may think

Porcupine Tree
(Image credit: Claudine Schafer)

Porcupine Tree found their sound on seventh album In Absentia, released in 2002. It followed a series of changing directions as Steven Wilson explored his own musical interest in the gradual discovery of something definitive. The albums that had gone before have received varying degrees of respect and re-evaluation over the years. In 2020, Prog argued that, for a number of reasons, 2000’s Lightbulb Sun had been unfairly disregarded, both at the time of its arrival and later.

There were those who failed to comprehend Porcupine Tree’s musical transformation from the elegantly crafted pop rock of 2000’s Lightbulb Sun into a fiery, fearsome progressive metal act in the space of two years. Consequently, those detractors dismissed 2002’s In Absentia as a cynical shift of musical genre to hop onto the then-burgeoning prog metal scene, led by the likes of Dream Theater and Opeth.

Of course, such blinkered, keyboard punditry failed to appreciate the one aspect of Porcupine Tree that was at the core of their existence – their deliberate desire to avoid repetition, predictability and having their creativity curtailed by the confines of a debilitating genre box. 

It’s an attitude that has continued to infuse Steven Wilson’s solo works. Porcupine Tree began in Wilson’s bedroom in Hemel Hempstead, where he recorded two psychedelic-influenced cassettes which would eventually be released as On The Sunday Of Life.... Following the launch of the trancey Up The Downstair in 1993, he began to realise that there was a live market for his music.

With Richard Barbieri, Colin Edwin and Chris Maitland recruited, Porcupine Tree made their live debut on December 4, 1993 at the Nag’s Head in High Wycombe. “The first time I heard the music, I thought, ‘What the fuck is this?’” admitted original drummer Maitland when referencing Wilson’s early material. “I thought some of it was pretty awful, but then you can apply yourself and begin to love it by being part of it. So suddenly you’re like, ‘Bloody hell, I really like that actually.’”

During the summer of 1993, Wilson started writing and recording for what would eventually become The Sky Moves Sideways. It remains a fan favourite – even if the band themselves now view it as veering too closely towards the type of progressive rock that Pink Floyd had created during the 70s.

Previously, they’d attracted a hippie audience on the back of comparisons to acts like Ozric Tentacles. With a move towards more traditional progressive rock, shows were gradually beginning to captivate older fans keen to discover what they viewed as “new Pink Floyd.”

That was something Wilson became acutely aware of; and although undoubtedly appreciating the attention, that association rapidly began to alarm him. The threat of the band merely recreating spacey, progressive rock that was infused with nostalgia wasn’t a career path he wanted to take. 

Signify was the first album to gain plentiful reviews in the mainstream music press – even if they were far from glowing

Almost instantly dissatisfied, he was eager to move away from what he perceived as an “easy option.” Crucially for the development of Porcupine Tree, that realisation coincided with his growing confidence in the abilities of the other members of the band.

In that sense, 1996’s Signify would be the first of the modern Porcupine Tree albums, with the band’s four personalities all adding their own inspirations. It would become a pivotal record with those musical influences colliding and forming a distinctive sound that saturated the record.

There was also an avowed determination that Signify would add a fresh dimension to their approach. It moved away from classic progressive rock and towards a sound more influenced by krautrock acts like Neu!.

The transformation of the band towards krautrock posed yet another problem for their label, Delerium, in terms of marketing – it was, after all, the third distinct musical genre the quartet had embraced in as many years. They’d initially been touted as psych/space rock before reinventing themselves as a Floydian band, so Delerium didn’t exactly relish the prospect of repositioning them in the public eye. “Yes, that was another relaunch,” recalls their then manager, Richard Allen, dryly. 

“With Signify, we ditched the whole psychedelic space rock thing and we went for krautrock. Krautrock was very hip at the time and there were all types of reissues of really obscure stuff appearing. Steven was into it, Neu! were hip, Julian Cope had just put out his Krautrocksampler book, so we sold Porcupine Tree as being influenced by krautrock.”

Becoming obsessed with harmony vocals and creating the perfect compact song, Wilson absorbed the musical leanings of such artists as The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson and CSNY

The strategy appeared to work: Signify was the band’s first album to gain plentiful reviews in the mainstream music press – even if they were far from glowing. Yet in the main the press were supportive, particularly those magazines where musical knowledge and appreciation was more important that the vagaries of musical fashion.

Wilson had started work on creating Porcupine Tree’s next studio album as early as October 1996, initially recording a single cassette of demos that were written over the following three months. Those six songs included Even Less, Piano Lessons and Slave Called Shiver, all of which were in a roughly familiar form to the versions released several years later on their Stupid Dream album.

Wilson’s musical direction began to take on a distinctive new bearing, which shifted their sound away from krautrock shaded music and towards something very different. Becoming obsessed with harmony vocals and creating the perfect compact song, he’d absorbed the musical leanings of such artists as The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson and Crosby Stills Nash And Young.

Released in 1999, Stupid Dream was dismissed by many as an example of Porcupine Tree somehow “selling out.” From an outsider’s perspective, there was a certain logic to their claims. A band who’d previously delighted in writing sprawling, non-commercial tracks were suddenly recording an album with three-minute songs, many of which contained a natural pop charm. There were viable explanations as to why the music had taken such a turn – not least Wilson’s interest in making an album that was packed with songs, and his obsession with treating songwriting as a distinct art in itself.

Follow-up Lightbulb Sun appeared in 2000. The music followed a similar path to its predecessor, and although Wilson now considers the album to be a “weaker relative of Stupid Dream” that “didn’t really advance the band’s sound at all,” the songs retained an air of sophistication. 

With many of the tracks on Lightbulb Sun being suited to radio play, it was the perfect opportunity… However, there was a practical issue

It was, however, well balanced between the simpler, poppier approach and those songs that demonstrated more ambition. Whereas Stupid Dream had an unmistakable exterior gloss, Lightbulb Sun had an untreated rawness that was a natural match for the material.

Of course, the desire to expose one’s music to a wider audience is fraught with complications. Wilson has stated that the reason he makes music is ultimately “to share it with as many people as possible,” which entails being “forced to embrace whatever means there are for that music to do that.”

As someone for whom money has never been a prime motivator, he saw the release of singles as a necessary marketing evil that could help him achieve those goals. With many of the tracks on Lightbulb Sun being suited to radio play, it was the perfect opportunity for the band to finally gain some greater exposure. However, there was a practical issue: their record label weren’t set up to deal with a single that charted highly.

Part of Wilson’s frustration during this period was also the fact that Radiohead – who at the time were producing music in a similar vein – were selling millions of albums worldwide. Meanwhile, Porcupine Tree’s music was on a parity in terms of quality but was being wilfully ignored by the mainstream.

They didn’t go drinking backstage with Gaz from Supergrass at Glastonbury, and they hadn’t got a hope in hell of getting in with that lot

Glenn Povey

In the 90s, with prog remaining terminally unfashionable and unable to acquire media support, Radiohead had been seen as a lifeline for the genre. More traditional prog bands were able to tailor their sound and namecheck Radiohead in interviews, and yet distance themselves from what they saw as the millstone of the prog moniker. The problem was that Porcupine Tree didn’t move in the same social circles as those influential acts who could provide them with tour support slots.

As their booking agent Glenn Povey neatly summed it up: “They didn’t go drinking backstage with Gaz from Supergrass at Glastonbury, and they hadn’t got a hope in hell of getting in with that lot. You have got to be part of their social scene to get on with those people.” 

One irony of Lightbulb Sun is it was the first time the band had failed to drastically recast their sound. From psychedelia, through overt prog and krautrock, to a more song-orientated output, they had always progressed. Yet on Lightbulb Sun, aside from the more organic feel, the overall approach and sound possessed clear similarities to Stupid Dream.

The result was a vociferous criticism from a small proportion of fans, who slated the band for what they perceived as merely treading water. It was an unusual paradox: most acts spend the bulk of their careers recording stylistically similar albums and when they do try and change, they’re met with abuse. The fact that Porcupine Tree were being harassed for daring to not transform provided an insight into the type of ambitious listeners they were now attracting.

It’s to Wilson and his bandmates’ credit that they had a fanbase with such a broad taste – the result was that they generally maintained support even when their music had drastically shifted. Wilson has continued that approach of creating and performing music that’s both creative and not necessarily commercially appealing.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he released a New Wave Of British Heavy Metal album at some point

Tim Bowness

It’s an asset that long-term No-Man collaborator Tim Bowness recognises and applauds. “Steven’s music may be more mainstream in some respects, but I would make a very strong argument that he’s doing it because he likes the types of music that he’s investigating now,” he says.

“It’s similar in a way to the mid-80s’ argument that Genesis were a sell-out. I’ve known Steven since 1987 and he loved artists like Tears For Fears and Prince as much as he liked Stockhausen and Pink Floyd, so his music is entirely honest. 

“I think he’ll continue to make music that he loves. I wouldn’t be surprised if he released a New Wave Of British Heavy Metal album at some point, as that was another key influence for him.”