Cult Classic: Porcupine Tree-Lightbulb Sun.

Between 1987 and 2010 progressive rockers Porcupine Tree released ten studio and twelve live albums. Their sixth studio album was Lightbulb Sun which was released  on May the ‘22nd’ 2000 and was the much-anticipated followup to Stupid Dream, which was released in March 1999. It marked the start of a new chapter in the Porcupine Tree story.

Stupid Dream was the first Porcupine Tree album to feature a much poppier sound. This was very different to their abstract instrumental sound of their prior albums, Signify and Stupid Dream which was their most successful album.

Stupid Dream.

The three singles Porcupine Tree released from Stupid Dream were Piano Lessons, Stranger By The Minute and Pure Narcotic and they all enjoyed mainstream exposure. Especially in the US and Europe where the group toured extensively. They knew it was a case of putting in the hard yards like so many other bands before them.

Porcupine Tree also toured the UK in support of Stupid Dream and watched the three singles charted in the independent charts during 1999. Piano Lesson reached thirty-four, Stranger By The Minute thirteen and Pure Narcotic forty-six. Each of the singles found their way onto radio station playlists and it looked like Porcupine Tree were about to make a commercial breakthrough after five albums and twelve years of trying.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be and Stupid Dream failed to trouble the UK albums charts. This was hugely disappointing given the success of the singles. The members of Porcupine Tree hoped that their next album would see them make a commercial breakthrough.

Lightbulb Sun.

When Steven Wilson and the rest of Porcupine Tree began to write Lightbulb Sun, little did the group know that the album found them still at a crossroads. 

 Just like Stupid Dream, the album that Porcupine Tree were about to write and record would also have a much more commercial, poppier sound. Once again, the group turned their back on the abstract instrumental sound of their first four albums on Lightbulb Sun. However, after their sixth album the group changed direction and their music took on a heavy metal for the rest of the noughties. In a way, Lightbulb Sun was the end of an era for Porcupine Tree.

Of the ten songs on Lightbulb Sun, Steven Wilson penned eight of them and cowrote the other two. He wrote Hatesong with Colin Edwin. Then the pair joined forces with Chris Maitland and Richard Barbieri to write Russia on Ice Chris Maitland. These tracks would eventually become Lightbulb Sun.

Recording of Lightbulb Sun took place at Foel Studio-No Man’s Land between November  1999  and January 2000. The rhythm section featured drummer Chris Maitland and bassist Colin Edwin who Gimbri and was experimenting with a drum machine. Keyboardist Richard Barbieri played Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes, clavinet, mellotron and synth. Meanwhile bandleader, producer and vocalist Steven Wilson played guitars, piano, hammered dulcimer, mellotron, banjo, harp and used samples during the recording of Lightbulb Sun. 

Augmenting Porcupine Tree were rhythm guitarist Eli Hibit, cellist Nick Parry and Stuart Gordon who played viola and violin. During the recording session, The Minerva String Quartet were brought. Violinists Katy Latham and Lisa Betteridge plus cellist Emmeline Brewer and Sarah Heines on viola added the all-important strings to Lightbulb SunIt was completed after just three months recording and was the quickest album that Porcupine Tree had recorded.

Having completed Lightbulb Sun in January 2000, the album was scheduled for release on the ‘22nd’ May 2000. Before this, Porcupine Tree planned to release a single and nervously awaited the verdict of the critics. 

Four Chords That Made a Million was released as the lead single in April 2000 and reached eighty-four in the UK charts and sixteen in the UK Independent Charts. This built upon the success of the triumvirate of singles released from Stupid Dream.

When Lightbulb Sun was released on the ‘22nd’ May 2000 it feature a much commercial, poppier sound that should’ve appealed to wider audience than the he abstract instrumental sound of their first four albums. However, Lightbulb Sun was also an album of two parts.

Lightbulb Sun is divided into two parts between Rest Will Flow and Hatesong. However, the first part focuses on a more melodic, poppy style. Then the part allows Porcupine Tree to showcase the experimental side of their music. The group was hoping there was something for fans old and new. 

The majority or critics were won over by Lightbulb Sun which was released to mostly critical acclaim. They praised the standard of songwriting and musicianship with some critics calling the album Porcupine Tree’s finest hour. 

No wonder as Porcupine Tree mixed unique brand of progressive rock with melodic pop, metal and experimental music. After six albums and thirteen years Porcupine Tree had come of age with a career-defining album. It featured dense harmonies, captivating arrangements, melancholy melodies that tugged at the heartstrings and sometimes the tracks referenced Pink Floyd. Two of the highlights of Lightbulb Sun were the Steven Wilson compositions Feel So Low and The Rest Will Flow. They were part of what was the most consistent and complete album of Porcupine Tree’s tree.

Unlike many progressive rock albums Lightbulb Sun wasn’t a concept album. However, Steven Wilson explains that some of the songs relate to different subjects: “There are at least four or five songs on that record which I call the divorce songs, the relationship songs, which are all about various stages of the splitting up a relationship, of dissolving a relationship. Russia on Ice, How Is Your Life Today, Shesmovedon, Feel So Low, I mean, the last track of the album. The period in a relationship, where the relationship is kind of… still exists, but it’s in that period where, really, there is nothing left but hatred and despise-Hatesong is the other one.”

He goes on to say: “But then on the other hand, there are groups of songs on the album which are all about various childhood… nostalgic childhood reminisces, Lightbulb Sun and the first part of Last Chance To Evacuate Planet Earth, Where We Would Be. So there are kind of groups of songs.” 

Later he explains: “And then there’s a couple of songs that don’t have any relation to anything else. Four Chords That Made A Million doesn’t have any relation to anything else on the album, or anything else I’ve ever written. It’s just that.”

Lightbulb Sun was regarded as the best and strongest album that Porcupine Tree had recorded and released. Surely their sixth album would be the first to chart and see the group make a commercial breakthrough after thirteen years of touring, recording and doing the rounds of press, radio and television?

The members of Porcupine Tree watched as Lightbulb Sun reaches 161 in the UK album chart where it stalled. Although this was disappointing, it was still  the most successful album of the group’s six album career. 

Then in July 2000 was released as the second single from Lightbulb Sun and reached eighty-five in the UK charts and twenty-four in the UK Independent Charts. This was a small crumb of comfort for Porcupine Tree as Steven Wilson believed that it was: “our best work to date.”

Nowadays, Lightbulb Sun is regarded by critics as one of the finest albums of Porcupine Tree’s long career. It’s also the album that got away and should’ve transformed Porcupine Tree’s.  

When they released Lightbulb Sun it was also a much more accessible album than their previous albums. Steven Wilson made a conscious decision not to write lyrics about abstract concepts like war and religion. Instead, he drew on his own person experiences and wrote songs with much more personal and emotive lyrics. However, some of the songs he wrote especially Hatesong and Feel So Low featured negative lyrics. Despite this, many record buyers would be able to relate to the subjects that the lyrics dealt with on what was without doubt the most accessible album of Porcupine Tree’s six album career.

Lightbulb Sun should’ve been a much bigger success and introduced the group to the wider audience that their music deserved. Sadly, as is so often is the case Lightbulb Sun was an album that passed record buyers by when it was released by Snapper. 

Maybe Snapper was the wrong label for Porcupine Tree and their music would’ve found a wider audience if signed to another indie or major label? They left Snapper after Lightbulb Sun and signed to Lava who released their seventh studio album In Absentia on the ’24th’ September 2002. That was the start of Porcupine Tree’s progressive metal years. Lightbulb Sun was the end of an era for the group.

Although Lightbulb Sun wasn’t a commercial success when it was originally released in May 2000, it had started to find a wider audience by the time it was reissued in 2008. Lightbulb Sun is without doubt one of Porcupine Tree’s most accessible albums, and was a career-defining album when it was released to widespread critical acclaim twenty-one years ago in May 2000.

Cult Classic: Porcupine Tree-Lightbulb Sun.

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