Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Porcupine Tree's "Anesthetize"

This post assumes a familiarity with the principles and language of music analysis, and a basic level of fluency in reading standard notation.

In the past few months I've become acquainted with the music of Porcupine Tree, a remarkable quartet whose work is generally described as “alternative” or “progressive rock”. Regardless of genre, I find their music quite beautiful and demonstrative of an impressive sense of form and attention to detail. I'm aware that few musicians attempt to apply traditional motivic analysis to music of this sort, but Porcupine Tree's sophisticated songs amply repay the effort; in this post, I shall examine “Anesthetize”, the longest and probably most substantial track on the group's 2007 album, Fear of a Blank Planet.

As with any analysis, it is very important that I clarify both what I mean to say and what I do not mean say. My hope is that certain compositional techniques, which, for the most part, are not discussed in connection with “rock”, will prove to be as important to this music as they are to that of Bach or Schoenberg. I do not want to suggest that the elements analyzed here fully describe the piece of music in question, or even that they constitute its most important aspects. The experience of the piece itself is the final word, and without that experience all analysis is worse than useless; analysis can only hope to elucidate elements of the performance that the listener might otherwise miss.


Porcupine Tree Anesthetize from Micas on Vimeo.

All musical examples were transcribed from the recording by myself, except where noted. All transcriptions sound as written. The timestamps refer to the Vimeo video embedded with this post, and are all approximately 3 seconds later than the track on Fear of a Blank Planet.

“Anesthetize” is a multi-movement composition with three distinct sections, each of which is a self-contained song form. The relationship between these forms is not evolutionary, but continuous: while each section deals with a distinct textural, thematic and lyrical content, these diverse elements have been carefully linked; they are distinct, interconnected structures within the overall architecture of the composition. The first section (I) begins with the opening of the piece, and ends at 04:59, when the second movement (II) begins without transition. This, the longest section of the piece, extends until 12:13; a transitional section then introduces the third and final movement (III), which begins at 12:56 and closes the piece.

In this analysis, I shall be mostly concerned with the formal, motivic, textural, and lyrical construction of the piece. “Anesthetize”, like the majority of Porcupine Tree's music, is linearly constructed, with harmonies arising from the intersection of multiple instrumental voices. As such, I believe that a tonal harmonic analysis would require a great deal of creativity—in the worst possible sense—on my part, and would not be particularly fruitful.

I. “I simply am not here”

The first movement of “Anesthetize” opens with the striking juxtaposition of Harrison's turbulent drum line, tremolo guitar, and a crystalline glockenspiel that delineates the melody of the movement as an unornamented line, almost childlike in its simplicity. At 00:38, Wilson's vocal line enters, legato and suggestive of a narcotic calm that contrasts almost disturbingly with the constant unrest of the accompaniment. The lyrics convey a sense of the stifling banality of sedation; it is tempting to see in the tension of the ensemble a dark, ironic commentary on the superficial calm of lines like these:
A good impression
Of myself
Not much to conceal
I'm sayin' nothing,
But I'm saying
Nothing with feel...
The melody introduces two important structural elements: the half-step motive α and a stepwise ascending figure, A (Fig. 1). As we shall see, α and its inversion, αi will become the central motivic structure of the piece.
Fig. 1: Movement I, main vocal melody (verse)

The chorus (Fig. 2) continues the sense of narcotic ennui, both musically and lyrically:
I simply am not here
No way, I...
Shut up, be happy...
Stop whining, please
The miasmic dreaminess of the vocal line, augmented by other voices, seems to have deepened, but the drums and guitar continue their tense, disruptive counterpoint. The motives begin to intertwine: the main thematic structure underlying this passage is B (fig. 2), a stepwise descending motive which is, in its barest form, A in retrograde (See Fig. 3).
Fig. 2: Movement I, main vocal melody (chorus)
Fig. 3: Relationship between A and B motives

After a repetition of the verse/chorus structure, the music assumes (at 02:57) a dark, distorted timbre, with high-register electric guitar repeating an ornamented variation of B; the tense drum pattern morphs into a more definite, aggressive gesture, with a tumbling anacrusis in 16ths driving home thunderous accents on the first and third beats. The darkness lifts at 03:33 with a return to the opening of the movement; here, though, Mellotron-like synths replace the glockenspiel line. At 03:50 a metallic electric guitar ostinato—a chromatic and rhythmic modification of B—enters (Fig. 4) and repeats once:

This is followed (at 04:07) by a dual guitar passage (Fig. 5) that lightens the texture and closes the movement. Its careful motivic construction is apparent from the very first phrase:
Fig. 4: Movement I, guitar ostinato

Fig. 5: Movement I, dual guitar passage
After 4 measures, the second guitar rests, leaving the first to continue solo for nearly a minute. At 04:59, this solo ends and Movement II begins attacca.

II. “Only apathy”

The opening dual-guitar ostinato of the second movement of “Anesthetize” (Fig. 6) immediately asserts the most pronounced characteristic of this movement: the subversion of meter. The offset, seemingly out-of-sync rhythms of riffs like this suggest heterogeneous time signatures, although a closer look reveals them to be carefully aligned with the prevailing 4/4 of the drums and bass. This subversion also serves a very distinct lyrical goal as well, namely, to illustrate the drugged disassociation and fragmented mental processes of the lyrics' protagonist.
Fig. 6: Movement II, ostinato 1 (transcription by Brendan Keenan)

This sophisticated ostinato introduces the rhythmic motive C, a defining element of this movement. The construction of this ostinato deserves special attention: it is a cyclical passage that aligns with the drums and bass only every 5 bars, passing in and out of phase throughout the opening of the movement. At 05:28, a new melodic motive is introduced by high-register electric guitar (Fig. 7):
Fig. 7: Movement II, opening guitar melody

The transparent texture of this opening is interrupted at 06:19 by a guitar passage (Fig. 8) that combines the melodic material of the ostinato from 03:50 (Fig. 4) with the syncopated rhythms (including the motive C) typical of the second movement. Like the ostinato in Fig. 6, this line cuts against the prevailing metric structure and returns to phase every 5 measures.

This passage, in turn, leads into another syncopated ostinato (Fig. 9) in mid-register tremolo guitar, which contains a variation of D. Unlike the previous ostinati, this passage aligns with the meter every 4 bars:
Fig. 8: Movement II, ostinato 2
Fig. 9: Movement II, ostinato 3

After one repetition, it is undercut by the menacing (and strictly metrical) low guitar/bass ostinato of Fig. 10:
Fig. 10: Movement II, ostinato 4

This succession of four ostinati—most of which are metrically perverted in some way or another—serves the psychological purpose of keeping the listener off-balance, and of gradually heightening the agitated mood of the movement. The section's main vocal melody is the ultimate result of this progressive increase in tension: Wilson's memorable vocal line (Fig. 11) drifts over the continuing undercurrent of the ostinato from Fig. 10 with a sense of restrained menace.
Fig. 11: Movement II, vocal melody (verse)

The melody derives much of its character from the variation of D first introduced (in rhythmicized form) by the guitar ostinato at 06:40, but α remains a strong presence. The lyrics are now more introspective than those of the first movement; there is the sense that the protagonist's clouded attempts to process the external world and its expectations (“I simply am not here/No way, I.../Shut up, be happy...” etc.) have given way to a clearer apperception of his/her broken internal state:
The dust in my soul
Makes me feel the weight
In my legs
My head in the clouds
And I'm zonin' out

I'm watching TV
But I find it hard to stay
Conscious
I'm totally bored
But I can't switch off
The chorus emphasizes the chemical nature of this debilitation and the sterility of the protagonist's existence:
Only apathy, from the pills in me
It's all in me, all in you
Electricity from the pills in me
It's all in me, all in you
Only MTV, cod philosophy
The ostinato from 06:19 (Fig. 8) repeats, ritornello-like, at the end of the refrain, before the repetition of the entire strophic form. A long transitional passage, beginning at 09:19, includes variations on the melodic motives of the vocal melody (with continued emphasis on α), before the return (at 11:00) of the accompanying ostinato from the verse (Fig. 10), now presented as a primary element. This ostinato is developed in an unusually dense passage at 11:09, with blast-beating from Harrison and Wilson's low-register tremolo guitar; this ends quickly, with a return to the chorus above.
A repeat of some of the earlier transitional material (from 09:19) follows at 11:48, and segues into a long, atmospheric section at 12:13 that closes the second movement.

III. “Water so warm”

The passage that introduces the third movement is almost purely textural, relying on washes of wordless vocals and pulsing, mechanical-sounding synths to shift the mood of the music from the active density of the past 7 minutes to a more static, glassy atmosphere. At 12:59, a guitar ostinato (Fig. 12) enters. Here, Wilson employs a bell-like, chorused guitar tone, unlike any other tone previously heard in the piece; the motivic content of the line, too, bears little resemblance to any of the earlier motives:
Fig. 12: Movement III, guitar ostinato

This ostinato is soon accompanied by chiming synths, long tones in the bass, and a relaxed drum pulse in 4/4. At 13:33, the main vocal theme of the movement enters, in canon (Fig. 13); the effect is hypnotic, with a quality like that of time-lapse photography.
Fig. 13: Movement III, vocal melody

It is immediately apparent that the primary descending motive of these overlapping lines is not new, but B, one of the two main motives of movement I. This is, I believe, a crucial link between these two movements, which might otherwise seem too disparate in their musical characters.

The lyrics of this section possess a very different tone from that of the earlier movements:
Water so warm that day
I counted out the waves
As the broke into the surf
I smiled into the sun
The entirety of this passage is sung in canon at the unison, the voices constantly crossing in densely-layered counterpoint. Wilson's soft, dark-toned solo vocal line (Fig. 14) is significantly lower than his earlier vocal parts; as with the movement's ostinato, however, little connection with earlier motivic elements can be discerned:
Fig. 14: Movement III, solo vocal melody

I confess that the lyrics of this movement remain somewhat obscure to me. In contrast to the first-person perspective of the writing of the first and second movements, these passages seem distant, almost retrospective. Has the narrative shifted to another perspective? What, exactly, is the significance of the scene described, and what is its connection to the protagonist of the earlier movements of the song?
The water so warm that day
I was counting out the waves
And I followed their short life
As they broke on the shoreline
I could see you
But I couldn't hear you

You were holding your hat in the breeze
Turning away from me
In this moment
You were stolen
There's black across the sun.
After the short solo verse, the canonic voices return (at 15:26) with a repetition of their earlier material; they fade out gradually and cease at 16:20. A chorused passage in guitar, accompanied by a distorted synth wash provides a brief coda, and the movement closes on a short reiteration of the same vocal drones with which it opened.
  *          *          *

The first two movements of “Anesthetize” display remarkable continuity and a propulsive sense of development. Motivically, the primary motives of the first movement are transmuted and developed by the second; lyrically, the two movements also possess are strong sense of development and growing depth. Perhaps the most powerful section of the entire piece is the piling-up of ostinati that occurs at the beginning of the second movement; the dramatic subversion of meter in this section—perfectly suited to the lyrical material at hand—is a masterful touch, the impact of which is somewhat weakened by the repetitive transitional material that takes up the latter half of the movement.

Taking into account the unity of these movements, it is difficult to understand the role of the third: it evinces no clear connection to the rest of the piece. Furthermore, it shows a very different side of Porcupine Tree's musical personality—viz. the preference for long, atmospheric passages, built around an ostinato and sound effects, that dominates their early albums—from the tightly-structured, rhythmically assertive earlier movements. Lyrically, as I've noted above, this movement is also a maddeningly enigmatic conclusion to the propulsive narrative of the first and second movements.

1 comment:

  1. i cant see the figures... any reason why ??? they're just gray triangles with an exclamation mark in the middle.. btw nice analysis !!!

    ReplyDelete