Tracking Surround: Porcupine Tree DVD-A

Porcupine Tree: Fear of a Blank Planet (Atlantic). As personified by this concept album's young protagonist, the worldview of the Planet isn't just blank. It's bleak: The TV is "always on," the prescription drugs leave "only apathy," Xbox is "a god to me," and sex is "just another one of all the empty ways of using up a day." In fact, our tragic hero is "terminally bored." KO'd by Computer. Whatever your age, you've likely witnessed some of this somewhere - and you'll shudder to recognize that someone close to you, in the glow of a monitor, might decide to ... Escape. Sleep. Switch Off.

That said, the soundscape of this Planet couldn't be more alive. Porcupine Tree is at the height of its powers, with down-to-earth lyrics and panoramic music by Steven Wilson and transcendent playing by everybody, especially drummer Gavin Harrison. And the way to hear it is in surround sound, a format that, once again, Wilson proves he has mastered.

This is clear from the start, on the title track: Wilson sings in appropriate isolation from the center channel as the big, jittery riff grows from a single acoustic guitar in the left and right front to heavy electrics everywhere. The surround channels are emphatic, and the subwoofer is bold without getting overbearing. Throughout the mix, Wilson's placements are judicious. Harmonies on "My Ashes" have the low part in the center and the high part in the left and right front. Greek-choral vocals on "Sentimental" comment from the rear. In guest turns, Alex Lifeson scrapes out a gem of a solo across the three front channels on "Anesthetize," while Robert Fripp haunts us with eerie swipes from a vague distance on "Way Out of Here." And when, on "Anesthetize," you hear the layered vocals for the lines "Water so warm that day / I counted out the waves," breaking languidly from front to rear, you'll know that Wilson has gone beyond the craft of sound mixing to the art of sound painting.

You can get that mix right now in DTS 5.1 on a limited Special Edition CD+DVD of Planet that also includes a 40-page booklet. But fans of high-resolution sound will want to know that a DVD-Audio edition (with extras) is due in September. S&V acquired an early copy, and the sound is superb. Harrison's drums are particularly stunning, from the resonance of his closed hi-hat taps and the oomph of his bass drum to the natural, full tone of his encircling toms on "Anesthetize." And there's much more to appreciate: Colin Edwin's rounded but firm bass throughout, Richard Barbieri's burbling synths on "Sleep Together," even Wilson's first intake of breath on "My Ashes." Porcupine Tree's music has simply outgrown two-channel stereo - and by the end of this Planet on DVD-A, our young protagonist may see no way out of here other than to Shut Down, but high-rez surround fans will have no fear of immediately pressing Restart.

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