Hey Mr. Wilson
Insurgentes Is a Fine Solo Debut

Final Edition

Some of you may have seen that the Rocky Mountain News closed its doors last week.

The Rocky was one of Denver’s two major newspapers, along with the Denver Post. It had been around for just shy of 150 years. For the last month, it had been up for sale, but its corporate owners just couldn’t find anyone willing to buy a newspaper in these terrible economic times. So with one final edition, printed on Friday, an institution stopped its presses for the last time.

The Rocky is the first major newspaper to crumble under the weight of changing times. It won’t be the last, and it won’t even be the last this year, I guarantee it. Newspapers are in trouble. They were in trouble before the national economy took a tumble, but they’re in even worse shape now. The Internet has proven both a boon to news gathering and delivery, and a millstone around our necks. Shrinking reporting staffs around the country are working harder than ever to keep up with a 24-hour news cycle that demands we give our work away for free.

It’s like a death spiral, and it’s not going to get any better until we figure out how to make up lost ad revenue online. We don’t know how we’re going to pull out of this, and the Rocky’s demise raises the question of whether we’ll pull out at all. If you think the media sucks now, wait until it’s all bloggers and “citizen journalists,” with no newsroom training, but with agendas galore. If you love your newspaper, please support it. We need you more than ever.

Anyway, the Rocky staff produced a video to mark their last publication day. It’s 20 minutes long, but it’s riveting stuff, showing the real human cost when a newspaper goes under. I think “It was scheduled for Saturday” is the saddest thing I’ve heard in a long time. You can watch the video and read the Rocky staff’s thoughts on a century and a half of publishing here.

* * * * *

Are You My Mummy?

Porcupine Tree was on my to-do list for far too long.

I expect most music fans have one of these lists. Mine contains three dozen or so bands I’ve been meaning to get into, but haven’t yet taken the plunge on. The more music I hear, the more I’m aware of just how much music I haven’t heard, and the to-do list keeps on growing. It’s like this guy I once knew who went to strip clubs all the time. He was asked once why he keeps going, and his reply was, “Because I haven’t seen all the titties.”

The first Porcupine Tree album I heard was In Absentia, from 2002. It was louder than I expected, but very good stuff, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Turns out, 2002 was a good year to jump aboard, since PT mastermind Steven Wilson began remastering and reissuing the band’s catalog that year. I gleefully bought all of them, and marveled at the metamorphosis Porcupine Tree had undergone. I guess you could call them progressive, but they started as a more psychedelic, space-music outfit, and only gradually allowed the guitar to take over. 2007’s Fear of a Blank Planet was the apex of the new approach – loud and thudding, melodic and graceful, massive and grand.

So after all this work establishing Porcupine Tree’s identity over the last decade, what does Wilson do? He goes and makes a solo album, one that returns to the Pink Floyd-esque soundscapes his band used to create. I can see why the just-released Insurgentes would be released under Wilson’s name, instead of the band’s – with only a few exceptions, these just aren’t Porcupine Tree songs anymore.

But man, they’re good ones. Wilson has described this as the most experimental song-based music he’s ever made, and I think that’s about right. There aren’t any 15-minute noise experiments on here, but the songs are much less structured than anything Porcupine Tree’s done in some time, and the entire record is about texture and mood. Most of it’s slow and spacey, the vocals are usually low in the mix, lyrics are fragments instead of whole thoughts, and songs will flip inside out at a moment’s notice, rarely ending up where they began.

Opener “Harmony Korine” is one of the most straightforward, wafting in on chiming guitars and building its simple frame into a guitar-heavy powerhouse. I’m not sure what this song has to do with the real Korine, writer of Kids and director of Julien Donkey-Boy and Gummo. (The chorus is “Feel no shame, too brave, feel afraid to wait forever.”) Could be Wilson just liked the name. Regardless, it’s some time before you get another rolling-guitar anthem on Insurgentes again.

Rather, you get pieces like the eight-minute “Salvaging,” which begins with a foghorn, stomps through four minutes of stoner-metal repetition, and then suddenly blossoms into a strings-and-ambience second half. Don’t get too comfortable, however – Wilson builds up the white noise, collapsing the entire piece end over end before it’s finished. You’re almost grateful for the gorgeous, linear “Veneno Para las Hadas” (loosely, “To Poison a Fairy”), with its thundercloud guitars letting loose a light rain of piano. This is one of the album’s most beautiful songs – two fragmented verses, and a soaring wordless chorus.

Insurgentes stumbles with the other eight-minute piece, “No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun,” which sadly lives down to its King Crimson-esque title. Little more than a pasted-together studio jam, this song features Crimson bassist Tony Levin and Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess, and it sounds like it. It does nothing for the album’s mood, and drags on far too long. (A more placid instrumental with the same players, “Twilight Coda,” is much better.)

But that’s the one track I have trouble with, and it’s followed by my favorite, “Significant Other.” We’re back to otherworldly atmospheres here, this time with a memorable melody in tow, and some astonishing backing vocals by Clodagh Simmonds. “Only Child” is a creepy song reminiscent of the Church, and “Get All You Deserve” provides the album’s climax – it starts off quietly enough, in a Thom Yorke vein, but since Wilson is credited with playing “total fucking noise” in the liner notes, you know it won’t stay that way. And the title song is a pretty piano coda to close things out.

So what do we have here? Insurgentes is a Porcupine Tree album that isn’t, a record that balances the band’s later, song-based records with its earlier, more experimental works. We have a solo album from a guy who basically is his band, carving out a wholly separate identity. But mostly, we have an album of superb musical landscapes, another jewel in an already glittering catalog. This may not be the best place to start with Wilson – try any of the last few Porcupine Tree albums first. But once his off-kilter style takes hold, you’re going to want this. I hope we see more like this from Wilson, a singular artist stepping out under his own name for a whole ‘nother trip.

Oh, one more thing – you won’t get the title I chose for this section unless a) you’ve seen the Insurgentes cover, and b) you’re a Doctor Who fan. If you have seen a) and are b), though, it’s pretty funny. Trust me.

* * * * *

Thoughts before watching Watchmen

I honestly didn’t expect to feel like this.

We’ve got only a few days to go before Zack Snyder’s Watchmen film hits theaters. It’s actually going to happen. People have seen it. I’ve read reviews already. I’ve been dreading a Watchmen movie in general, if not this Watchmen movie in particular, for about 15 years or so, and on Friday, I’m actually going to head on down to a theater, plunk down some cash and sit through this thing. And I’m feeling… honestly…


I expected it would feel like a chore, or an obligation. I have to see the Watchmen movie, no matter how it is, simply because it’s the Watchmen movie, and if that doesn’t explain it, I probably won’t be able to. I envisioned dragging myself down to the cinema, my unwilling feet propelled by a sense of fanboyish duty.

“I don’t want to go,” my feet would say.

“But it’s Watchmen,” I’d cajole in return. “We have to.”

“But it’s going to suck,” they’d reply, and I would have no argument. And then I would seek treatment.

I have read and re-read Watchmen more than any other book, I believe. If there’s a close contender, it’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a series which, in comparison, could not be more opposite in tone, although a similar core of hopelessness runs through both. Douglas Adams believed everything was ridiculous and should be destroyed, but he chose to laugh about it. In a way, he’s the Comedian, the character that is brutally murdered in Watchmen’s opening pages. He got the joke. The older I get, the clearer that joke becomes.

Watchmen, as I am sure you know, is a graphic novel. Written by Alan Moore, drawn by Dave Gibbons. It is 23 years old, and yet it is still the most perfect synthesis of artist and author I have seen, and the book which makes the most of the unique and fascinating language of comics. Watchmen starts off looking like a superhero story, but in the end, has so thoroughly subverted both the smaller genre of superhero stories and the larger genre of comics that it could stand as the medium’s last word, if it weren’t so damn inspiring.

It is a complex, layered, multi-tiered story about what it takes – what it really takes – to save the world. I have read it probably two dozen times, and each time, the end of the 11th chapter arrives like a kick in the stomach. Its conclusions are inescapable, its plot seemingly preordained, and yet, its impact surprises me, every time. It is a tough, uncompromising story with no easy answers, no simple characters. It is also, to many, the standard-bearer of this thing I love called comics, one of the most perfectly realized (and certainly one of the most famous) graphic novels ever created.

Moore himself has called it unfilmable. (Of course, he’s also a perpetually grouchy curmudgeon who worships a snake god.) Directors have come and gone over 23 years – Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, to name two – and each has given up on Watchmen. Eight years ago, X-Men screenwriter David Hayter was set to direct, which led a much younger me to call for his death. (I have issues.) I would rather see no Watchmen movie than a bad one.

Why? It’s simple, but convoluted, honestly. I’ve been talking about Watchmen for more than 15 years – evangelizing about it, even. Most of the people I’ve pushed it on haven’t read it. But I’m betting they’ll go see a Watchmen movie, and whatever ends up on screen, that’s what they’ll think I’ve been talking about for 15 years. It’s really my credibility I’m worried about, which, in retrospect, isn’t a great reason to call for a man’s death. (More like a mediocre reason at best.)

Watchmen would be so easy to screw up. And when I heard that Zack Snyder, the punk behind Dawn of the Dead and 300, had taken up the challenge, I sighed. 300 was visually striking, and a pretty faithful page-to-screen translation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel. But it’s pretty simple. Nothing in Snyder’s oeuvre convinced me he could handle this.

So why am I excited? Because I think, as best as he could, Snyder may have gotten it right.

This movie will not be Watchmen the book. I understand that. But Snyder seems to have done everything in his power to stay true to the story and tone (and even the dialogue) of the book. There is a scene in the trailer of Dr. Manhattan building his clockwork fortress on Mars, and when I saw it, my heart skipped a beat. It is exactly right. Interviews and behind-the-scenes footage show a director working like mad to create something as faithful as he can make it. And Dave Gibbons liked it, which is a good sign. (There’s no pleasing Moore, who will not see it on principle.)

Two things I am still worried about.

First is the acting. Nothing has dropped my spirits more in the past few weeks than seeing actual clips of these characters talking. I am specifically concerned about Malin Ackerman as Laurie, and Matthew Goode as Adrian. Goode is way too young and small to be Ozymandias, so he has to show me that he’s right for the part in other ways. And Ackerman, from what I’ve seen, may not be up to the arc her character has to travel.

The second is the ending. I know, I’ve been reassured over and over, but I’m still worried. The mechanics of the ending have changed, but if the meaning remains the same, I will be happy. In truth, the mechanics were never that thrilling to me, so if Snyder has managed the same commentary on life through different means, I will be happy. (Quick update – I’ve read a synopsis of the new ending, and if they pull it off, I think it might actually be better than the original. It’s at least a more elegant way of making the same point. Which is sort of miraculous, really.)

But I expected that list to be pages long at this point, and it isn’t, because so much of this seems to be just right. I don’t even mind that the name of the team has changed from Minutemen to Watchmen, to match the title. I get why Snyder would do that. It’s silly, but I get it. It’s a small price to pay for a true Watchmen movie.

I am daring to hope that Watchmen works. Everything I have seen screams to me that it does. Every review I read assuages my fear more and more. It may, actually, against all odds, be a terrific, faithful adaptation of this near-unfilmable book. I hope so. And so I will go to the theater Friday with a spring in my step, and no dread in my heart. Watchmen is a movie, and I am actually out-of-my-skin excited to see it.

More next week, after I have.

Also next week, the returns of U2 and the great Quiet Company.

See you in line Tuesday morning.