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1 October, 2006

Review: Porcupine Tree, Manchester Academy, 30 September, 2006

Porcupine Tree performed at the Manchester Academy last night, as part of a short tour to promote the new DVD.  However, that description of a typical promotional concert understates a rather special event.  Uniquely, the entire first set was devoted to fifty minutes of brand new music from the next studio album, as yet unrecorded.  Only after a five-minute break did the band return to perform a further 45 minutes of music from the DVD, plus an encore.

I wouldn't normally take especial notice of exact timings, but people have been asking about it in online discussion groups, so:

  • 19:30: doors opened
  • 20:03-20:35: Paatos – support set
  • 21:03-21:55: Porcupine Tree – new set
  • 22:00-22:46: Porcupine Tree – DVD set
  • 23:00: Curfew, though I suspect they over-ran a little.
The sole slight disappointment of the evening was being present when the final 'Arriving Somewhere...' t-shirt of the night was sold. I was right there at the merchandise stand, probably the next person to be served, when Ade announced they'd all gone. This was eight minutes after the doors had opened, which rather suggests someone hadn't brought enough t-shirts to the concert – never mind me, the band lost out on potential sales. I certainly hope extra shirts are made available online after the tour. Not only leftover stock, either, as there's clearly enough demand to justify printing more specifically for Burning Shed.

I dislike the very idea of support bands, so I'm afraid I wasn't particularly receptive to Paatos – I hadn't planned to attend their half-hour set at all, but since I was there it would have been churlish to ignore them. It was clear that they're an established, professional band with a well-developed sound of their own, and certainly not beginners delivering a jumble of testosterone-fueled derivativeness (what did happen to Porcupine Tree's 2003 support band, Adom, anyway? Who cares?). That said, I didn't especially like their material and I didn't think it supplemented Porcupine Tree especially well. The fact that Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson (SW) acted as producer on Paatos' 2004 album 'Kallocain' doesn't imply an especial compatibility.

Porcupine Tree's stage setup was fairly standard (bass & drums on the audience's right, second guitar and keyboards on the left, keyboards and drums on risers, lead guitar/vocals ranging across the middle of the stage), with one unexpected addition: a small keyboard was set up at the front for SW to use occasionally. He plays keyboards in the studio, of course, but it can't be much more than a year since the first time he played the piano live in a solo concert, and I think this is the first time with Porcupine Tree. It's a development I certainly welcome.

A screen was installed for projection behind the band, but I'm glad to say it was barely used: a Lasse Hoile film was shown briefly during the interval before the second set, something involving time lapse photography of cars and cloudscapes accompanied 'Arriving Somewhere But Not Here' and Przemysław Wszebor Bernacki's animation was shown during 'Start Of Something Beautiful'. Needless to say (again), I deliberately ignored them, particularly the latter. I was there to see the band, not watch a film, especially not one I could watch at home. I presume the 'Halo' film was used during the encore too, but I'd left by then.

The sound quality was... okay; pretty good by the standards of a typical rock concert but not as good as at the 2003 Porcupine Tree concert in the smaller Academy 2 venue next door (though that had the best live sound I've experienced). It was loud – very loud, which suited the new material perfectly but left me with hearing still appreciably impaired over twelve hours later. The bass was sensational, by which I mean it was felt as much as heard; I was frequently aware of my trousers vibrating against my legs and during the intro to the second Paatos song my glasses were moving on my face.
Partly because of the volume, there was some loss of separation of instruments, especially the bass and keyboards, and I couldn't clearly hear the new lyrics. There was some experimentation with stereo effects (Wes' guitar shifted from side to side during one new piece), but there wasn't sufficient clarity for album-style soundscapes or the surround-sound experience SW apparently intends to implement one day.
One odd consequence of the loud, bass-rich amplification was that in contrast, SW's voice occasionally sounded like that of a smurf. Rather distracting!

This was Porcupine Tree's first appearence in the larger Academy 1 venue. I stood further forward than I normally choose (about ten 'rows' back, rather than near the soundboard), so it was difficult to judge the size and density of the rear of the crowd, but it looked pretty full as I left before the encore, and if it means anything, my ticket, bought a couple of weeks beforehand, was no.1,438. I think the official capacity is around 1,750-1,800. There were definitely more people present than at the Marillion concert in the same venue two years ago (Marillion claimed that concert was sold-out, but having seen tonight's visibly larger audience, I now think that was empty hype).

From where I was standing, the audience seemed older and more predominantly male than I'd expected – I'd thought the post-2002 albums would have attracted a younger, more metal-orientated audience. Maybe they were at the front. There were some in their teens and early twenties, but I didn't spot many band t-shirts and a woman near me seemed dressed for a quiet night at a cricket club!
On the whole, the audience was still and attentive, especially for the first set, though there was greater audible & visible reaction during the second set of more familiar material, even more of a 'party' atmosphere (for those who appreciate that sort of thing...).
There was the usual inability to 'be in the moment' – people were taking photos throughout the first set, some into the second set, and one person rang a friend and held up the phone during 'The Sound of Muzak', right in front of my face – briefly.

SW spoke very little between songs – even less than usual, I think. He said 'hello' after the first song and explained the plan for the evening (then repeated it when the audience's response to the idea of a lot of brand new material wasn't as effusive as he'd wanted), he announced the five-minute break at the end of the first set and he spoke briefly before the final song of the second set, which was the only one he introduced by name. Otherwise, the band just played and the audience were left to recognise songs for ourselves.
One thing he did say, which worried me slightly, was that the preview material was being played both as rehearsal before recording the forthcoming album and to gauge audience responses. The latter is an awful idea. I really wouldn't want an 'obvious' crowd-pleasing album from Porcupine Tree (parts of 'Deadwing' were bad enough, in that respect), and I hope the band will produce the album they want, hopefully something which challenges the audience rather than merely satisfies customers' whims. That way lies disposable, vacuous Coldplay-style rubbish!

So; the new music.

The first set featured six tracks intended for the new album (not seven – a quiet section in the third song seems to have confused some people). Considering past albums have had running times of about an hour each, I may have heard most of the new one.
Oddly enough, I was reveling in just hearing the new material rather than analysing it and taking detailed notes, so I'm afraid I can't offer a meaningful review of individual pieces.

None of the new tracks have been given titles (at least publicly) and none were individually introduced. Nothing is known of the thematic content or overall direction, but if this is a true representation, it's going to be much more intensely heavy than its forerunners.
I'm afraid I don't know much about genre subtleties, but I'd describe the new 'heaviness' as more industrial than metal. There's a wonderful 'wall of noise' effect, overlaid by guitar & keyboard melodies and textures. The drums contribute a rapid mechanical heartbeat, which is an excellent base for ominous, threatening music, very different to the more upbeat rock of 'Deadwing'. It really is heavy, too – at least at high volume in a concert setting, this could be the heaviest Porcupine Tree yet.

I mean that individual tracks are intense, but not that the album will be an unrelenting onslaught. SW played keyboards (mainly a piano effect when the lead instrument and a mellotron effect as accompaniment elsewhere) and Wes provided vocal harmonies & backing on some of the preview songs which, though not exactly 'ballads', were closer to the old, downbeat material of 1999-2001. No, that's not quite right; they don't directly sound like songs from 'Stupid Dream', 'Lightbulb Sun' or 'Recordings', but are similar in overall feel, as opposed to anything on more recent albums.

My major criticism of the 'Deadwing' album was that some elements were too 'obvious' and populist. Some parts seemed oddly familiar, as if I'd heard them before without being able to identify specific sources; I think it's the overall feel that was too generic. Some of those riffs and choruses seemed written to instantly entertain without challenging the listener, even to boost marketability. Thankfully, the new material is a welcome return to originality. It's not remarkably different to other bands and indeed foregoing Porcupine Tree albums, but the hooks are better hidden and this isn't easy, party music.

I received the impression that the preview material was primarily instrumental, which, in hindsight, implies this was work-in-progress and more is to be added. Some of the instrumental sections seemed a little repetitive (not that repetition of excellent music is a problem, and it often enhances the immersive experience I've appreciated in earlier Porcupine Tree long songs). Likewise, some lyrics were repeated several times, suggesting they were 'holding text' to be elaborated later. I'm not sure how I feel about the idea of the instrumentals acquiring lyrics – I already like them as they are!

I'd like to say it was all wonderful, and I almost can, but I'm afraid the fifth track seemed to lack direction and featured some sort of guitar frenzy by SW which impressed the teenagers in front of me but to me was just pointless noise; there didn't seem to be an emotional backing to it with which I could engage. Likewise, the first half of the final track seemed, well, whiny, though it consolidated and built to an excellent ending.

In summary, I loved almost all of the first set, from the initial explosion of guitar noise to the last, and I'm looking forward to hearing the finished album with an intensity I didn't feel for 'In Absentia' and 'Deadwing'. The new material promises to blow away anything on 'Deadwing', and the third preview piece, a '17-minute beast' known about beforehand, is even better than 'Arriving Somewhere But Not Here'. Those who haven't been able to attend a concert on this tour and haven't had the privilege of the preview (and I do feel privileged, really) have missed something special.

The second set was more conventional.
Some who have attended shows on this mini-tour have complained that the song selection was a little stale, even suggesting the band 'must' be bored playing the same songs each night. After fifty minutes of brand new music, I think the band can be forgiven a return to familiar material in the second set – I doubt boredom is an issue. Demanding even more variety strikes me as excessively cheeky.
Others have criticised the focus on post-2002 material at the expense of the back-catalogue, and the lack of anything from 'Stupid Dream'. Firstly, it should be clear that this is the 'Arriving Somewhere...' tour to specifically promote the release of the live DVD. It's not the 'Stupid Dream' tour, and the fact that that album was reissued a few months ago is of no relevance. The second set was always going to draw on the DVD tracklist (which could have allowed 'Even Less' and 'Don't Hate Me', I suppose, though I don't think they'd have fitted the context). Secondly, this is still part of the overall promotional effort for 'Deadwing', so that album was bound to be favoured.

  • Open Car – not a favourite from 'Deadwing', as the chorus, and particularly the lead-in to the chorus, suffers from the 'obviousness' flaw I mentioned earlier. That said, it was played well and was fun. The stage lights were directed at the crowd during key moments, and it was plain that people were enjoying it.
  • The Sound Of Muzak
  • Buying New Soul – somehow, the 'new' keyboards intro didn't work quite so well as on the DVD (though the transition to guitar was better), possibly because the audience's attention seemed to wander and conversation was audible over the relatively quiet music.
  • Arriving Somewhere But Not Here – as excellent as always, though Wes' guitar solo after the climax of the song was a little too close to self-indulgent prog and I confirmed my earlier impression that, overall, the new '17-minute beast' is better.
  • .3
  • The Start Of Something Beautiful
  • Trains – this drew a roar from the crowd (and a curious yelp from the cricket club woman) when it was announced, but a collective unfamiliarity with the music was revealed by extended applause in the normally-brief gap before the song's finale. SW seemed amused/confused, and just for a moment I though he was going to go with the crowd reaction and stop early. Thankfully not.
I'd had a problem with accommodation so needed to leave immediately after the main concert in order to catch a train. However, I already knew from reports of the mainland European concerts that the encore pieces would be 'Halo' and 'Blackest Eyes'. It was a pity to miss the latter, but it's been a staple of sets since 2002, so I've heard it numerous times in concert recordings. The former is one of the two 'Deadwing' songs I downright dislike, so it was no hardship at all to miss it.

And then a brisk 20-min walk to Oxford Road station, an hour on a crowded train to Preston with not too many drunks, a 21-mile bike ride (~12 in increasingly heavy rain) to Lancaster, and straight to bed by 02:15!


Thanks for sharing this. I've seen PT twice, one at Irving Theatre in NYC, and once at Nokia Theater, also NYC, and was slightly disappointed, both by the crowd turnout, and I don't know if Steve was still in his Opeth (whom I love also) fixation, but the songs were too heavy for me (and I'm an HM fan for over 26 years), and the magic seemed lacking. I will have to pick up the DVD though, and look forward to the new Blackfield, as well as watching/listening to the DVD-A of Deadwing. Still curious as to what the movie script/idea will develop, if it's still being worked on? Sorry for rambling.

Posted by kevin g at December 15, 2006 08:48 PM
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