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23 September, 2006

Review: 'Arriving Somewhere...' (Porcupine Tree, 2006)

Have you bought your copy of Porcupine Tree's new live DVD (their first, after over a decade of touring), 'Arriving Somewhere...', yet?

I suppose I'd better declare a disinterest: generally, I don't like concert videos. I don't choose to experience music visually, and tend to listen whilst doing other things. I very rarely just sit and devote my full attention to music for more than a few minutes, and if I wanted to watch a DVD, it'd almost invariably be a feature film. For me, the music is about the music, and only the music. I have limited interest in the musicians, less in stage visuals, and no interest at all in the audience and 'live ambience'. Amongst the music DVDs I own, Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' and Marillion's 'Brave' are the only ones I've watched more than once, and I've yet to even finish two others by Marillion – mistaken purchases, in hindsight. I rented Opeth's 'Lamentations' a while ago, and thought the documentary was fairly good, but I returned it without even glancing at the concert footage, nominally the main content.
I made an exception for Porcupine Tree because a) it's Porcupine Tree and b) I can listen to the audio even if I don't bother with the video.

The first 2000 copies of 'Arriving Somewhere...' were a 'Special Edition', which sold out via pre-orders alone within four days – not bad considering that promotion was limited to a notice on the band's website, discussion amongst fans & an advert on the back cover of 'Classic Rock' magazine, and that sales were exclusively from the band's own web store. Further copies are selling extremely well on the accompanying mini-tour: the merchandise stall started the tour with 600 and sold them all at the first four shows.

The set comprises two DVDs in DVD-sized digipack packaging, itself in a card slip case. A (nearly) complete 105-min concert from the second 'Deadwing' US tour occupies the first disc, compiled from shows at the Park West, Chicago on 11 and 12 October, 2005. The second disc contains bonus material, described below. It's unclear whether a single-disc edition will be available at a later date.
The video format is region-free NTSC, which is playable on modern European, nominally PAL, DVD players.
The audio is in both PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 surround sound. I haven't heard the latter, but others have reported a slightly unusual mix which favours the side speakers and the bass end; no-one has expressed disappointment.

The content of the 'Special Edition' DVDs is identical to that of the the standard edition, but the first 2000 slip cases are numbered (I have sticker no.790) and came with six postcards. I know, I know; I could barely contain my excitement either. I'm sure they're very collectible postcards.

Disc One: The Concert

I'm not going to review the menu screens beyond saying they were adequate, using the same photography and design motifs as the cover.
Unfortunately, after the nice, feature-film-like opening titles, the main concert video made Carl Glover's very clean, colour-rich graphics for that cover and packaging seem almost misleading.

I'd dreaded, but been prepared for, excessively jumpy cutting between the multiple cameras (nine camera operators are credited), and got exactly that. Few shots were held for more than five seconds, and when the viewpoint returned to a particular camera, it had moved, increasing the slight disorientation. Annoying, but I've seen worse, and some of the cuts were to different views of the same subject, so some coherency was achieved.
However, I hadn't expected faux-degraded video material.

I'm pretty sure the raw footage was obtained using standard, modern cameras, with decent picture quality, but Lasse Hoile's post-production rendered the whole thing distinct grainy and in either sepia or the faded colours of aged cine emulsion. Film 'noise', including scratches, dust, and hairs were added as routine elements, with more extreme degradation (blotchiness, burned frames, etc.) in places.
Some the freeze-frame images actually make excellent stills, but this simply isn't what I want from a concert DVD. I want clear views of the band and their activities, and I doubt I'm alone. For example, for the bass-solo intro to 'Hatesong', the camera rightfully stayed on Colin Edwin, but the image is too dark, in grainy monochrome overlaid by coloured blotches & fake scratches and was deliberately blurred. All very atmospheric, but I'd quite like to actually see Colin. I'm sure some bass players would be interested in seeing his hands at that point; impossible.
Some 'arty/grungy' special effects might have been justified, but only occasionally, as atmosphere supplementing the primary content, the clean footage. Instead, this heavy-handed filtering becomes the focus of the production, imposing a barrier between the viewer and the immersive experience.
Presenting clean, unmodified images may be too 'obvious' and may have been done before on other bands' DVDs, but there's no merit in difference for the sake of difference, and anyway, effects become dated and cliched long before unpretentious footage which simply documents on-stage activities. Some people (on the production side more than the audience, I suspect) might find that boring, but I can only comment on my own taste, and this DVD doesn't satisfy my preferences.

To be fair, I did become accustomed to the style (and it's used less on later tracks), so it didn't totally spoil the experience, but I still wish it had been done differently and it irritates me that perfectly good footage was deliberately and unnecessarily degraded. If only I had access to Hoile's computer, so I could re-render the whole thing using the original, unfiltered material....

On the whole, the audience were unobtrusive, apart from in the obligatory 'from the crowd' shots, but there was at least one ****er standing right in front of the stage who kept raising his hand into the line of sight. Yes, you can go to the toilet, and don't ****ing come back.

The setlist was pretty good, showcasing the latest material without being too obvious (five songs from 'Deadwing' and three non-album tracks) and balanced by slightly older material (four from 'In Absentia' (2002), one from 'Recordings' (2001), one from 'Lightbulb Sun' (2000) and two from 'Stupid Dream' (1999)).

By the way, the aforementioned rendition of 'Hatesong' was wonderful, as was the subsequent track, 'Don't Hate Me'. Very nice instrumental sections. Richard Barbieri's keyboards intro to 'Buying New Soul' was another high point.

That's worth stressing: whatever my disappointment with the video component of the DVD, the music is excellent, especially the pre-'Deadwing' pieces, which tended to be substantial elaborations of the album versions (the newer material was mostly played 'as-is'). I do anticipate playing the DVD frequently as an audio live album and, if only on that basis, recommend it highly.

Disc Two: The Bonus Material

I drastically prefer this style of concert video. The cuts were still a little jumpy, but the shots were held longer than the Chicago set and the jumps were between a small number of consistent viewpoints, so they're not too confusing. There are no distracting visual effects, either; just clear, true-colour coverage of the band.
'Radioactive Toy' is one of my favourite songs, and it was interesting to hear an interpretation by the current lineup. Too short! In the full version, as heard on 'Coma Divine', it was the extended 'ambient' middle section leading into the full-on rock climax which made the song special, so skipping the former diminished the latter, for me.

'Lazarus' promo video
I love the song, but the video is nothing special; cine film footage of a 1970s? family holiday in Québec intermingled with close-ups of band members. There's no specific cause for complaint, but earlier promo videos for Porcupine Tree and Blackfield have been so much more innovative and compelling.

Live projections
It was a good idea to include these short videos, as I suspect many concert-goers would find them interesting. I'm afraid I don't. In general, back projections aren't my thing. I don't want the distraction of someone else's visual interpretation of the music; at a concert I only want to see the band, whereas when listening to the music elsewhere I want to form my own mental images. Hence, I'd find these projected videos mere annoyances at concerts, and feel little inclination to watch them at home.
'Halo': I don't like the song anyway, so I suspect the one time I've watched this will also be the last.
'Mother And Child Divided': Actually, I'm not sure these things even work outside the concert setting. In isolation this was just boring.
'Start of Something Beautiful': That's more like it. This had the production standards of a 'proper', standalone promo video; punctuated by more generic imagery, it incorporated an excellent puppet animation by Przemysław Wszebor Bernacki which I would choose to watch for its own merits (though I still wouldn't want to see it at a concert). It accompanied a song I particularly like, but I doubt the video will influence my interpretation and appreciation of the song itself, thankfully.

Photo Gallery
Interesting enough, though I doubt I'd choose to watch the full 9½ minutes more than a couple of times. However, it's accompanied by the only totally new music on the DVD set: an almost ambient instrumental piece which I've immediately ripped to .wav for more frequent listening. Pretty good.

'Cymbal Song'
Why does a Porcupine Tree DVD include a Gavin Harrison solo track? It's okay (put it this way: I won't be ripping this to my mp3 player), but irrelevant, and I doubt I'll play it again.

[Update 1/10/06: interested in the live experience?]

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