Well, this is certainly a surprise! Gavin Harrison, drummer par excellence of Porcupine Tree, has recorded an album of reworked PT songs, and it is not what you would expect. Rather than stick to a rock format, Harrison has entirely re-imagined these songs as big band jazz performances. And you know what? It works!
The key to Cheating the Polygraph’s success is that these are not note-for-note reproductions of the originals, but rather soaring flights of swing that use the original melodies as jumping off points. Freeing Steven Wilson’s melodies (and very few can write a melody as seductive as he can) from the strictures of rock, Harrison and his band really stretch out and explore the implications of Wilson’s chords through the harmonies and rhythms of jazz. And this is jazz that goes way, way out there. If Duke Ellington were alive today, he would probably be making music like this.
According to Harrison, the songs he selected are his personal PT favorites, which is fascinating. They aren’t the obvious choices, and most come from relatively obscure sources: “What Happens Now?” and “Cheating the Polygraph” are from the Nil Recurring EP, “So Called Friend” and “Futile” are from Recordings II, “Mother and Child Divided” is off the Arriving Somewhere soundtrack, and “The Pills I’m Taking” is a section from “Anesthetize” that I have from a BBC Radio One Rock Show Session (it may be available elsewhere; I’m not an obsessive PT collector!). So for many casual PT fans, Cheating the Polygraph may be the first time to hear these tunes.
A standout performance is “Heart Attack In A Layby”, where the somber mood of Wilson’s original performance is preserved, but marimbas and bass clarinet add an exotic element that is simply beautiful. Another highlight is “The Pills I”m Taking” which Harrison transforms into a suspenseful brass blast that would be right at home as the theme song for a 1950s TV crime drama. “Hatesong/Halo” begins with a marimba workout that soon morphs into an edgy flute-led arrangement; it sounds like a long-lost Stravinksy composition. The transition from “Hatesong” to “Halo” is masterful; pairing those two songs into a suite brings out the best in both.
What about Harrison’s own performance? Well, when I first saw the DVD of Porcupine Tree’s Anesthetize concert, I posted a review on Amazon, stating, “For me, this production highlights how indispensable Gavin Harrison is to Porcupine Tree. His drumming is simply phenomenal. Despite PT being Steven Wilson’s baby, Gavin is the true star of this DVD.” On Cheating the Polygraph, he has not lost one bit of his drive and grace. Every song is built on the foundation of his propulsive percussion. Harrison remains a master of energetic cross-rhythmic drumming while never sounding “busy”. He is to rock what Tony Williams was to jazz – always pushing the boundaries of what percussionists can do.
Cheating the Polygraph may not be “rock”, but it is challenging and very satisfying music. In my book, that makes it prog, and excellent prog at that!
Here is a preview of the album; Kscope Music plans to release it on April 13th:
Update: I should have mentioned Gavin’s collaborator, Laurence Cottle, is responsible for the marvelous arrangements of these songs. Let’s hope their partnership is not a one-shot deal!