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26 April, 2007

Review: Porcupine Tree, 53 Degrees, Preston, 20 April, 2007 (w. Amplifier)

One of my favourite bands, performing my 'album of the year' (to date) live, within cycling distance (well, 37 km) of my home?  Do you think I could have missed that?

[Looking for the album review?]

Queuing outside the venue, the audience seemed older and more predominantly male than usual, wearing a disconcerting number of retro 'prog' T-shirts. However, once inside, the hall soon filled with a wider range of people displaying preferable affiliations.

The doors opened on time at 19:30, and I went straight to the merchandise stand. I needn't have rushed, as Ade (Porcupine Tree drum tech & stallholder) seemed to have learned from last September, when tour T-shirts completely sold out within eight minutes, and there was plenty of stock. If anyone's interested, I bought the new tour T-shirt featuring a curiously low-res version of the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' cover image and a long sleeve shirt featuring the silhouette of an open hand (in the 'FoaBP' special edition's booklet, it's the image opposite the 'Anesthetize' part 3 ('Water so warm...') lyrics). Porcupine Tree are really grasping marketing opportunities at last, and Ade dropped a promotional postcard into the 'FoaBP' carrier bag.
Incidentally, don't wait to buy your copy of the new album at a concert, as neither the special edition of 'Fear of a Blank Planet' nor even the standard retail edition is being sold by the merchandise stall. This is because the band and label wish to maximise initial sales via mainstream, chart-registered retailers.

In the remaining ~20 minutes before the concert began, it was great to meet Simon 'Carbon Nation' Clarke in person, and meet ex-Lancastrian Adam again, but putting faces to online identities is always difficult, and two others vanished into the crowd before I registered that I recognised them from photos.

The venue was smaller than I'd expected; more of a club with a bar area and dance floor than solely a concert hall. I was told the capacity was around 1,200, and I don't think it completely filled, so the one-off move from the Manchester Academy (capacity 1,700-1,800) may have deterred some.
One advantage was that the room was on two levels, offering people at the back a better view than at the one-level Academy. That also seemed to spread the crowd slightly, and I easily found myself only seven 'rows' back from the stage by the time Porcupine Tree came on (I usually stand well back, 15-20 'rows' away, near the mixing desk to avoid the crowd and appreciate optimum sound).
For those planning to visit in future, the 53° is a 10-15 min walk from Fishergate (Preston's main shopping street) and the railway station, and there's a car park right by the venue.

I've mentioned before that I don't like the custom of including support bands in concerts, but for once Porcupine Tree were accompanied by a band I already like, Amplifier. In fact, after OSI's 'Office of Strategic Influence', 'Amplifier' was probably my favourite album of 2003 (though I didn't discover it until late 2004), markedly ahead of Porcupine Tree's 'In Absentia'.
It made a change to be very familiar with the support band's music, though I admit I couldn't name the opening instrumental until playing 'Insider' again this morning. Only two songs were from that second album, with the remainder being obvious choices from the eponymous debut album. Amusingly, I was able to predict which they'd be, in almost exactly the right order:
Gustav's Arrival
O Fortuna
Old Movies

So far as I could tell, the playing was excellent, remaining quite close to the studio arrangements, if abbreviated. So far as I could tell. Unfortunately, the sound quality was... sub-optimal. Amplifer's music incorporates considerable controlled feedback, but the further distortion introduced by the band's amps and mixing desk (they didn't use Porcupine Tree's) resulted in rather muddy and out-of-balance sound. At a few moments I was appreciating the memory of the album versions, as the live renditions were indistinct. I suspect those less familiar with how the music should sound received a poor first impression. That's a pity, and I recommend giving them a second chance.

Amplifier played from 20:00 for forty minutes, so there was a twenty-minute interval before Porcupine Tree were expected. Some headed for the bar, but I took the opportunity to edge forward a little, towards the middle of the stage. I'd provided a vague description of myself at the unofficial Porcupine Tree forum, which was adequate for one of my new neighbours to recognise me – hi, Steve (who introduced me to his friend as 'a man from the Internet', as if I'd just downloaded to the venue).

The lights dimmed at 21:05, but it was a further five minutes before the band came on, causing me slight anxiety about abbreviating the set to meet a 23:00 curfew. I needn't have worried; the full set was played.

The sound was excellent – perhaps the best I've heard at a concert. It was loud, but extremely clear. Last September's mix had been far too bass-rich, which battered the crowd in a way which was interesting in itself (I thought the 'wall of industrial noise' effect was great) but which distorted the music. This time, every element was crystal-clear without compromising raw power, allowing the effective use of stereo, er, effects in places. Well done. It makes a tremendous difference to be able to appreciate the subtleties of the final song with as clear hearing as during the first. This may be the first rock concert I've left without my ears ringing.

I don't particularly like back-projected videos at concerts; I don't want someone else's interpretation of the music to distract from my own enjoyment, and the whole point of attending is to see the band perform for real, live, in front of me, not to watch something pre-recorded. Perhaps unfortunately, then, eight (indicated with asterices, below) of the sixteen pieces played had video accompaniment.
Two, from 'In Absentia', used the projections from that tour: abstract assemblages of Lasse Hoile images which were atmospheric without attempting to directly illustrate the lyrical content. Two more, from 'Deadwing', were similarly fairly abstract animations (both are provided for home-viewing on the 'Arriving Somewhere...' DVD). All were easy to ignore.
That leaves four new projections accompanying songs from 'Fear of a Blank Planet'. These were rather different, being more like 'proper' music videos for broadcast than mere concert accompaniments. Stylistically similar to the album booklet artwork and still images on the special edition DVD, they seemed to be relevant to the lyrical content, without offering an outright narrative. In a way, I welcomed them as, if they genuinely illustrate the meanings intended by Steven Wilson (SW), they helped me understand the songs. However, I wasn't there to watch TV, so kept my attention on the band as much as I was able.

Aside from the entire new album, Porcupine Tree played one song from 'Signify' (1996), two (two of my all-time favourite Porcupine Tree songs, in fact) from 'Stupid Dream' (1999), one from 'Lightbulb Sun' (2000), three from 'In Absentia' (2002) and three from 'Deadwing' (2005).
That's not quite what I'd expected; recent tours have featured new material, a significant amount from the post-2002 albums, and very little from the older back catalogue. Last September, they played the new material, eight 2002-2005 songs and only one from 1993-2000; I'd expected much the same again, so was very pleasantly surprised (when I read Wednesday's setlist – I didn't arrive at this concert 'cold'). Apart from the final encore, I wouldn't have changed anything.

As usual for a Porcupine Tree concert, the audience were still and attentive – some might say static. A few tried headbanging to complex rhythms, which looked foolish, but otherwise movement was limited to a little head-nodding and foot-tapping. In writing, that sounds awfully sedate, but somehow it wasn't, and I wouldn't have wanted it otherwise – it's a concert, not a party – and there's no question that the audience were fully appreciative. One group behind me was rather... chatty, but beyond being aware of them, I wasn't particularly distracted.

I don't think I'd previously appreciated the full extent of Richard Barbieri's role in live performances. He played keyboards, of course, and his soundscapes both underpinned and rounded-out the overall sound, but there were moments when I realised neither Gavin nor Colin Edwin were playing at all. Conversely, particularly during heavier sections of the new material, SW and John Wesley (Wes) were effectively playing rhythm beneath Richard's lead.

I've said before that I think Gavin Harrison's drumming has been too high in the mix of studio recordings since he joined the band in 2002, so I'd better clarify something I realised during the concert. It's the snares which have been too dominant in the mix of songs from 'In Absentia' and 'Deadwing', but I really appreciated the contribution his bass drum made in propelling the rhythm tonight. I'm no musician, so apologise if I'm misusing the terminology; I mean the 'harsher', 'bright'-sounding percussion has been too clear in the past, whereas I'd overlooked his 'deeper'-sounding drumming.

Though there were times when he had nothing to do, I was struck by how comfortable Wes looked on stage – he's not a stereotypical guitar hero, but in his quiet way, he's a consummate pro.

So; the songs themselves:

This pre-recorded piece was only played briefly as the band came on stage rather than as an extended lead-in beforehand. As such, my mind was elsewhere and I didn't give it much attention; I initially thought it was familiar, perhaps 'Revenant', but I've since checked, and it was an unnamed ambient piece.

Fear Of A Blank Planet*
I don't remember, and haven't heard an unofficial recording yet, but I presume this was the then-unnamed piece which opened concerts on the preview tour last year. Somehow it didn't have the same initial kick of raw power as I recalled, which made me wonder whether I'd view all of the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' material so differently now it's more familiar. I still enjoyed it, of course, and was uncontrollably grinning within moments.
The back-projected video had briefly been shown on the band's MySpace site, but had been temporarily withdrawn following the Virginia Tech murders last week. Now I've seen it, I can certainly understand why, as children with handguns, some shown in a school environment, was a little too close to truth.

Lightbulb Sun
It was wonderful to hear this live, not least because I hadn't attended any concerts on the 2000 tour, when it was last performed. Unexpectedly (by me), SW played a rather (visually) attractive acoustic guitar whilst Wes played the electric parts, which meant he took the solo. That was excellent: extended, and distinctly his own rather than a clone of SW's style.

My Ashes*
I think this was the first time SW spoke, greeting the crowd and saying that they'd play the whole new album interspersed by songs from the back catalogue "that we haven't played before" [pause; shocked exchange of glances between Steve & I ] " least not with this lineup." [*******!]
Again, I was surprised by Wes' central role in the live rendition: he sang the entire choruses, rather than simply backing SW. I'm not sure why. I don't think it added anything special, and it was slightly distracting to hear material I'm still assimilating in his accent and higher vocal register.
This video depicted fragmentary images of young childhood, which suggested to me that the song could be about a member of the 'blank generation' recalling happy, more innocent earlier life.

SW introduced 'Anesthetize' by saying it's "a pretty hard one to play though not the hardest one on the record to play; more of that later". I thought that meant he'd later state which is most difficult, but he didn't.
Wow. I'd had some doubts about this song on the album, but suddenly I really 'got' it – it was sublime, especially the middle section. My highlight of an already wonderful evening.
The Alex Lifeson solo in the first section was played by Wes. I'm afraid the original was better; Wes' version seemed to lack direction.
Hearing it live reinforced my impression that this is really two distinct songs artificially forced together. The end of the second section felt like the natural end of the song, and received corresponding applause (which I joined, as it was deserved!), whereas applause after the third section felt like a formality.

Open Car
Not my favourite track, from not my favourite album, but it worked very well in the live setting, and was a good choice after an extended period of music unfamiliar to anyone who didn't already have the new album.

Gravity Eyelids*
Perhaps foolishly, I hadn't realised that the first third of the song is a duet between SW and Richard Barbieri. Until the second verse, the drums were played from tape (reproducing the filtered sound of the studio version), but I'm not sure why the bass was pre-recorded too – it's not as if Colin Edwin was doing something else at the time.

Drown With Me
SW introduced this by explaining the band had recorded but left certain songs off albums, then regretted doing so. The example he cited was 'Stars Die' which, for a fraction of a second, implied they were about to play it. However, that's practically impossible (too many layered vocals) and he went on to announce this b-side from the 'In Absentia' sessions. I'd hoped and expected it to be 'Half-Light', an outtake from 'Deadwing' which had been in the Glasgow set two nights ago, but 'Drown With Me' was okay too.
Like 'Stars Die', the studio version of 'Drown With Me' makes extensive use of overlapping vocals which couldn't be reproduced live. However, the live band does have two vocalists and backing tapes could be made, so it was surprising to hear the whole effect stripped away; apart from during the title phrase itself, I don't think SW and Wes sang together even once. Unfamiliarity with this version may have affected my judgement, but I'm afraid those sections just sounded clumsy and unfinished.

The video depicted an older teenager in cafés, on public transport, etc., which I interpreted as being about a member of the 'blank generation' growing up, entering the mundane adult life of work & commuting and being unable to engage with that either.

Blackest Eyes*
I must have been enjoying myself – it's not often that I feel an urge to (discreetly) sing along in public.

For several seconds, I didn't recognise this at all. It's distinctly different to the studio and 1997 live versions, with an unfamiliar drum rhythm. I'm looking forward to hearing it again on an unauthorised recording I happen to know was made, as I didn't really take it in at the time. I liked it, anyway.
One of the things I appreciate about Porcupine Tree is that they don't rest on their back catalogue, but I'd very much like to hear more mid-90s songs reinterpreted in this way.

A Smart Kid
I can't hear this song too often, so it almost goes without saying that I enjoyed it. However, it wasn't the highlight I'd expected it to be. Relative to the overall feel of the concert, it somewhat lacked power, and the normally stunning climactic guitar solo was slightly overshadowed by earlier pieces. It pains me to say it about one of my all-time favourites, but I think other songs could have been better choices within this setlist.

Way Out Of Here*
SW introduced this by saying the final two songs on the album are about escape.
I suspect this was the one they've been struggling to play live. Again, I'm no musician, and the playing seemed flawless to me, yet at one point (I think it was during this song), Richard and Colin abruptly looked at Gavin and grinned, so they must have spotted something I missed.
As soon as I saw the accompanying video, which depicts an attractive goth girl in a railway yard, I thought of a teenage member of the unofficial Porcupine Tree forum who was female, gothy and killed by a train in 2005. I've since discovered it was no coincidence.

Sleep Together
I must have been overwhelmed by this point, as I don't recall anything specific about it!

With that, the band left the stage for a couple of minutes, long enough for the road crew to remove SW's keyboard, then returned for the encore:

Even Less
This has been a staple of concerts since at least 1997 (yes, well before the release of 'Stupid Dream'), so I'd expected it to have been retired by now. Not that I'm complaining – it's always been my favourite Porcupine Tree song, so I was enraptured to hear it. That said, its stylistic difference to the current material didn't quite fit the mood of the evening (perhaps that's why it was in the encore rather than the main set) and, at least this time, I preferred 'Anesthetize'.

Mother & Child Divided*
Maybe I was tired, but this didn't excite me as much as it might; the same sort of material had already been covered stunningly in the main set, so this instrumental felt superfluous. I'm not really complaining; I just mean it was the least memorable part of the evening.

Throughout the concert I'd been hearing familiar songs afresh and gaining a new appreciation, so I genuinely approached this with an open mind. However, it's no use; even with the new arrangement, I simply don't like this shallow, populist song. It's a pity that I couldn't fully appreciate the last opportunity of the evening to be a few metres from my musical 'heroes', as I'd already emotionally disengaged.

And that was it, until my next Porcupine Tree concert. I can't adequately express how much I enjoyed this one.
I'm afraid this review reveals the major deficiencies in my supposed writing ability. I have no problem being analytical and commenting on specific points, but I can't adequately convey my emotional responses to the concert: the excitement of being a few metres from the band (I certainly can't rationalise that), the exhilaration of being immersed in wonderful music played at high-volume,... I don't know; just the sheer ecstasy of the whole experience. I can't describe it, but it's the nearest an atheist can get to a nonexistent heaven (in public, anyway).

I couldn't have hoped for a better setlist, but a 'source close to the band' told me that the band rehearsed three hours of material before the tour – each night's set is about two hours long, so expect some variety as the tour proceeds. In fact, the cue sheets by the mixing & lighting desks suggested 'Trains' had been a possibility this evening.

I'm used to attending concerts in Manchester and Liverpool, so it was a pleasant change to not encounter ticket touts outside the venue beforehand nor bootleg T-shirt sellers afterwards. However, a couple of Roadrunner Records/Porcupine Tree street team members were present, distributing stickers to the departing audience. Let's hope they secured a few converts.


A few tried headbanging to complex rhythms, which looked foolish,

Eeep. I resemble that remark :)

Posted by Tim Hall at April 27, 2007 01:08 PM

Good review,
I will be at Montreal, & Quebec city May 26,27 th
only four weeks to then.

Posted by G Wilson at April 27, 2007 07:04 PM

Great Review, i love this part
'Sleep Together
I must have been overwhelmed by this point, as I don't recall anything specific about it!' - song caught me offguard too, that song has a virgin sound to it which hasnt been covered by any bands that ive heard. No wonder you were overwhelmed
i was at the show in chicago where they recorded thier dvd. and having being a fairly new porcupine tree fan at the time i attended it back in 05, i hadnt heard 'buying new soul' until that day. On another note, the FoaBP album reminds me a lot of the 'Signify' Album. cant put my finger quite on it yet after only having FoaBP for 3 days now. Which it kinda reminded me of why i started getting hooked on PT in the first place. I plan on seeing them a 2nd time in june at Amsterdam!!

Posted by Cory Smith at April 30, 2007 09:48 AM

Hi Ministry!
Excellent review :)

I was at The Forum show six days later, and the intro piece played over the PA while the set changed from Amplifier's to PT's and up until PT entered the stage was the "new ambient music by SW/RB" that's featured on the Arriving Somewhere... DVD, photo gallery section, played in a loop.

Great shows by the way!!

Posted by Julio at May 2, 2007 09:35 PM

Nice review... read it a while ago, but it merited a re-read after I saw PT in NYC last night. (I generally knew what to expect, but pleased to hear different songs thrown in: Half Light and Trains.) Thanks for keeping us posted.

Posted by Felt at May 21, 2007 12:11 AM

i just saw PT on friday and when Way Out of Here was played and i saw the accompanying video i also thought of the PTF member who was killed by a train, glad to hear that it wasn't just my morbid self that thought this. maybe it isn't so coincidental

Posted by Mariah at May 22, 2007 10:06 PM
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