Words by: Cal Roach
Porcupine Tree :: 06.02.07 :: The Rave :: Milwaukee, WI
Since its inception in the late '60s, prog-rock (short for progressive rock) has gotten a bad name from music critics, who consistently call it self-indulgent, adolescent escapism. Now that Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson has gotten used to the prog tag, he apparently felt free to create that ultimate art-rock cliché: the concept album. The recently released Fear Of A Blank Planet is a 50-minute sermon against the evils of modern youth culture inspired by Brett Easton Ellis' novel Lunar Park – namely pills, the internet and MTV - against a backdrop of some of the heaviest, most intricate music Porcupine Tree has yet produced. On this Saturday evening in Milwaukee, the band strove to drive its point home for the final night of their American tour.
Steven Wilson - Porcupine Tree
Opening act 3 proved to be a perfect fit for Porcupine Tree, playing rhythmically dense, metal-tinged prog with hints of folk and jazz. For all their eclecticism, the feel was frequently reminiscent of bands like Dream Theater and Queensrÿche, especially in the synthesizer sounds and Joey Eppard's just-this-side-of-glam vocals. The musicians were extremely tight and played very complex, shifting patterns without missing a beat, transitioning from breakneck electric jams to acoustic interludes with ease. Unfortunately, much of the precision was lost in the muddy acoustics of The Rave. Still, the audience was clearly impressed.
The headliners began their set with the title track from FOABP, and it was clear that the sound wasn't going to get much better for them. Video of kids with blank stares pointing guns, taking pills, starting fires and destroying TV sets flashed on a screen behind the band, almost as to make sure anyone who didn't already know the words wouldn't miss what Wilson was singing about. This barrage of play-by-play images continued during many of the new songs, becoming redundant and dulling the message of the already blunt lyrics. The animated floating cell-droid motif during the set-closer "Sleep Together" was a welcome respite for those who hadn't already chosen to close their eyes and just concentrate on the music.
However, no amount of moralizing, redundant images or poor sound quality could ultimately stifle the impact of this music. The band played everything from the new album, and it all came across forcefully live (aside from "Sentimental," which sacrificed its intimacy and really didn't go anywhere). The 17-minute centerpiece, "Anesthetize," was incredibly powerful, bursting during the virtual death-metal midsection, sinking gracefully into an opiate-laced sway and building momentum from there that completely eclipsed the album version. "Way Out Of Here" was also mesmerizing, equal parts Rush and Opeth in its hugeness, then dissolving into a melancholy, atmospheric jam. "Sleep Together" was a slow-burner that exploded when Wilson left the keyboard and started pummeling his guitar. It was a triumphant end to the set.
Older tunes had gained a lot of momentum on the road as well. "Half Light" featured some derivative but stunning David Gilmour-esque wailing from touring guitarist John Wesley, eventually bleeding into "Sever," which swelled with post-rock furor, Wilson's voice showing a fullness barely hinted at on the original recording. "Blackest Eyes" was dedicated to a young fan named Arielle who had recently passed away. Her family and friends were in the audience, and the emotion was palpable throughout the room. The most viscerally charged moments were from songs only a couple of years old, namely "Open Car," which featured a new metallic breakdown that lent the song a ferocious undertone, and "Mother & Child Divided," an obscure bonus track from the reissue of 2005's Deadwing, which slammed into high gear from chord one and never let up. It was played flawlessly and floored the audience. The group finished its encore with another Deadwing retooling, "Halo," which started with a swirling, futuristic electro-haze, then careened through its perfect mixture of melody and thrash like truly great pop metal should. Its final moments were the evening's most thrilling. Porcupine Tree possesses the song craft, the virtuosity and, right now, the momentum to drive itself into the consciousness of the mainstream. In the wake of the success of bands like Tool and Muse, the road may be paved for the next prog-rock breakthrough.
Steven Wilson by Rudy Nesta
JamBase | Wisconsin
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