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15 December, 2007

Review: Porcupine Tree, Academy 1, Manchester, 8 December, 2007 (w. Anathema)

Back to Manchester for my second Porcupine Tree concert of the year.

I seem to have missed the pre-arranged meet-up of PTF members; I knew some planned to be at the designated pub from 15:00, but I wrongly presumed they'd still be in residence when I arrived at 18:00.
Not to worry; I was soon adopted by a friendly couple apparently on the basis that they and I looked "suitably biker-gothy" without having resorted to such kiddie-metal stereotypes as faux-leather trenchcoats. Porcupine Tree audiences are getting younger. Pleasant couple, and that's not a reference to a laced-front leather bodice which was more laced than bodice, and which seems to have driven out much recollection of our conversation. Ahem. I do remember they weren't going to the concert, so I left them there at ~19:20 and crossed the road to the venue – accompanied by Richard Barbieri, Colin Edwin & Gavin Harrison, returning with a takeaway. Good start.

As I'd known in advance, remodeling work in the main Academy venue (Academy 1), which was the reason Porcupine Tree performed in Preston instead in April, is still ongoing. The hall itself was usable, obviously, but access was through a fire exit and the toilets were in a portakabin outside. Fine with me, but I think the lack of a cloakroom caused problems for some people.

Once inside, there was absolutely no hope of meeting anyone, as the hall was in near-total darkness, illuminated only by a couple of blue spotlights on stage plus the lights of the bar and merchandise stall, both obscured by the small but rapidly growing crowd. I'd already bought a tour T-shirt (er, three different ones, actually) by mail order from Burning Shed, so didn't need to investigate the stall myself, so I wandered around the room a little (which seemed unchanged; presumably remodelling has been confined to the backstage and foyer areas, the latter still boarded-off at the rear of the hall) then just as I decided to find a spot to stand, at 19:45, Anathema's Vincent Cavanagh was suddenly already on stage. I didn't get as far forward as I could – large gaps remained in the thinly-packed crowd – but it seemed rude to push past and obscure the view of shorter people at the very last moment.

Within a few moments of starting, Danny Cavanagh (lead guitar) was exhorting the audience to clap along, which would have been a bit of a mistake even if this hadn't been a typical Porcupine Tree audience, seemingly unresponsive yet fully attentive: they (we) hadn't yet warmed-up sufficiently that we wished to participate. Unfortunately, that established the relationship for the entire set. I hope the band understood their audience; Vincent didn't seem impressed and his statement that they'll be back next year "as headliner" seemed to have an edge.

It was a well-chosen 45-min set, showcasing the high-energy rock and 'menacing' intensity I particularly like in their music, yet with space for some of the gentler, melancholic material I, er, appreciate less.

Fragile Dreams is amongst my favourite Anathema songs, so was an excellent start.

A Simple Mistake is one of the three songs released via the band's website as a preview of the next album. I hadn't been overwhelmed by that studio arrangement, but it worked much better live, particularly the powerful second half.

'Closer' was the song which introduced me to Anathema, so it was particularly good to hear it the first (and certainly not last) time I've seen them live.

Without wishing to criticise, Lee Douglas's voice (or more generally, female voices like hers) isn't to my taste, and nor are the slower-paced Anathema songs on which she sings, so I wasn't overjoyed that she joined the band on stage for 'A Natural Disaster', a song which I've just noticed I hadn't even bothered to upload to my iPod. Played at concert volume, I was wincing by the end.
She stayed to sing backing vocals on 'Angels Walk Among Us', which was preferable, but I wasn't pleased when Vincent thanked her by saying she'll take a greater role in the next album.

Somehow I didn't realise until later that Deep had been played; it segued straight from the unfamiliar (to me) 'A Natural Disaster', so perhaps I confused it for part of the same song. No, I don't know how, either.

Flying is another that I hadn't particularly appreciated on the 'A Natural Disaster' album (my least-favourite of Anathema's post- doom-metal releases), but it worked well live.

An as-yet-unreleased track, Hindsight closed the set. I think it was fully-instrumental apart from a vocal sample from what sounded like an American self-motivation album, which somewhat detracted, in my opinion.

Both in terms of music and live production, it was clear that under normal circumstances (i.e. with the backing of a record label) Anathema are a headline act. After their set, it took a full 15 minutes to clear the stage of their monitors and equipment (seemingly assisted by Jamie (third Cavanagh brother and bass player) – not so typical of a headliner!) and they made good use of the lights (if with a little too much dry ice – Les Smith (keys) and Mick (drums) were almost invisible at times). For a support band, the sound was extraordinarily good, though not in the same league of clarity as Porcupine Tree. It was particularly noticeable that Anathema's richly-textured music came across well, in extreme contrast to Amplifier's muddy sound in April.

Some Porcupine Tree fans encountering Anathema for the first time have commented negatively about Vincent's 'out of tune' vocals and John Douglas' 'imprecise' drumming.
Firstly, Vincent's diction (not just accent) is strongly Liverpudlian, more so than, say, The Beatles, and the melancholic nature of the music demands a certain delivery which I think he fulfills well. If you want a polished, formally-trained crooner, you have the wrong band.
Secondly, there's more to musicianship than empty virtuosity, and I've never noticed a problem with John's drumming, whether on studio albums or live recordings. I couldn't judge for myself this time, as John had become a father earlier in the day, so the band was accompanied by Mick, a stand-in who certainly seemed familiar with the material.

As soon as Anathema left the stage, some people headed for the bar, but otherwise there was a general shuffling forward, eliminating gaps and dodging around those slow to join in. I ended up at least 10 m further forward, 6-8 m from the stage, dead-centre, with only one taller person in front to my left. Perfect; I had a great view throughout the main set, though Wes was slightly obscured. There wasn't much room to move, so it's lucky that those (very closely) around me weren't inclined to, and the half-hour wait before the main set, in a London Underground-like crush, was rendered bearable by watching the bands' techs clear and reset the stage.

Porcupine Tree's stage setup was identical to that in Preston eight months ago, contributing an odd familiarity. In fact, that was my overall impression of the concert: truly wonderful, and I enjoyed myself tremendously, but somehow it lacked the novelty and extra thrill I'd experienced in April merely from being in the presence of the band. That's not necessarily a disadvantage, as I was able to focus more on their performance and the music.

There were a few videos and lighting effects projected behind the band, but as usual I consciously ignored them (I attend concerts to see the band perform for real, live, in front of me, not to watch something prerecorded) so can't really comment on their content. I did get a dim impression that there were fewer Lasse Hoile videos than on previous tours; perhaps 5 of the 15 songs (indicated with asterices below), as opposed to 8 of 16 last time. The remaining songs were accompanied by more abstract, less attention-drawing lighting effects.

I'm pleased to say the audience (at least those in earshot and in my line of sight) were particularly still and attentive – some would wrongly say 'unresponsive', but there was plenty of appreciation at the appropriate times: between songs. I was aware of people around me taking the opportunities of quiet sections to exchange comments, but no-one near me was shouting or jumping around.

From my position 8-10 m from Steven Wilson (SW), the sound was excellent, with clear stereo effects and good balance on both quieter and 'full-on' material; perhaps the guitar separation wasn't perfect, meaning a few subtleties were only apparent because I was listening for them. However, as explained below, I moved to the extreme rear left corner of the hall during 'Trains' and noticed a general deterioration in sound quality (hardly surprising) and a distracting effect off the temporary back wall, which mightn't have optimum acoustics. As in April, the sound was loud but 'clean', and as I was walking back to the station my hearing was about as clear as when I'd entered the Academy, which makes a tremendous difference to one's appreciation of the music.

The basic logistics of SW being unable to switch guitars quickly enough and having too much to do in complex arrangements of (in April) fairly new material rather dictated the relative roles he and John Wesley played on the last tour: on several songs Wes played lead guitar and the electric solos whilst SW played the acoustic or rhythm guitar parts. Another reason was apparently that Wes improvises solos in his own style rather than following the album arrangements closely, adding novelty to live performances. I can certainly respect that reasoning, but I don't actually like it. I do appreciate Wes' playing on his own albums, but given a direct choice, I prefer SW's sound, and in general I dislike improvisation. Hence, I was very pleased that SW and Wes switched back this time, Wes returning to a more supporting role and SW taking more of the solos himself. I was only jarred out of my rapture twice by Wes solos which I didn't think quite worked.

The set featured fifteen songs and no instrumentals, though several of the chosen songs include extended instrumental sections. Six songs were from 2007, three each from 2002 & '05, and one each from 1995, '96 & '99. That's the balance I expect at Porcupine Tree concerts, emphasising the 2002-2007 albums with a few token representatives of the earlier back-catalogue. I was interested to hear that the band varied the setlist rather a lot on this tour; six songs were replaced for the following night's concert in Leeds.

There was no distinct intro track this time: the band walked on stage to the accompaniment of a few seconds from Lasse Hoile's 'Blank Planet' short film (as seen on the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' DVD-A) then launched straight into the song itself, Fear of a Blank Planet*. An excellent start to the album, and equally so in concert.

As I said in my review of the 'Nil Recurring' mini-album, I suspect What Happens Now? was derived from jamming and was in turn cherry-picked for details when composing the main 'Fear of a Blank Planet' album. Live, that relationship operated in reverse, the song neatly summarising the overall feel of the album without quite quoting from other tracks.
Incidentally, congratulations to SW for hitting the high notes live!

As usual, it was good to hear The Sound Of Muzak, but the 'as usual' part was a problem. Porcupine Tree only play a two-hour set, and there are other songs I'd prefer to hear (not necessarily 'better', just 'other'). Perhaps it's time to retire this tour regular.

Apart from that on the 'Deadwing' album, this was the best-yet arrangement of Lazarus*, one of my all-time favourite Porcupine Tree songs and one which SW's mother "actually likes". I'll have to hear an unofficial recording (which I happen to know was made, but which hasn't reached me yet) in order to pinpoint its attraction, but I think a greater role was given to the electric guitars, providing a less haunting but more immediately exciting feel. Wonderful.

As in April, Anesthetize* was sublime, but curiously it felt very long. With a running time of over seventeen minutes it is a long song, of course (a seventh of the entire concert – a seventh very well used), but this was the first time I really appreciated how long the high energy of the middle section is sustained and that the closing 'Water So Warm' section is itself fully 5½ minutes long. A marathon effort, both for the band and the audience.

Open Car isn't one of my favourite songs – the lead-in to the chorus and parts of the chorus itself are too 'generic pop-rock' for me – but it follows 'the beast' of 'Anesthetize' well. Sometimes one needs the undemanding pleasure of a little plain vanilla ice cream to appreciate a complex, heavy meal.

Dark Matter was a highlight of the concert for me. Perhaps because of its contrast with the heavier, more recent material and the fact I hadn't expected it (I almost mistook the intro for that of 'Russia On Ice', somehow), it stood out strongly, really holding my attention. I gained a new appreciation of the track, refreshing my interest in the whole 'Signify' album.

Blackest Eyes* has been a standard part of Porcupine Tree concerts since 2002, but unlike 'The Sound Of Muzak' it still feels fresh and I enjoyed it immensely. I fact, I think it's improved over the years, and prefer the vocal timings to those on the 'In Absentia' album.

This was the third rendition of Cheating the Polygraph that I'd heard. On the first occasion, when all the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' material had been unfamiliar, the then-unnamed 'Track 5' stood out as the weakest of the planned songs and I was glad it was dropped from the main album. When it reappeared on 'Nil Recurring', my immediate opinion was more favourable (apart from the overbearing drumming) but since September the slightly whiney vocals (not lyrics, vocals) have gradually dropped in my estimation. That impression was reinforced live, but the new arrangement highlighted something new to me: just how similar the heavier sections are to those of 'Anesthetize' and hence how, well, redundant. In short, this was probably my least favourite part of the set.

A Smart Kid had felt out-of-place in the April set, almost lacking in power compared to the 'Fear Of A Blank Planet' material, but not this time, either because the arrangement had been revised or because of the overall balance of tonight's setlist. It was particularly good to hear SW take the climactic solo himself, as I love the 'standard' version.

Though SW almost apologised for repeating parts of the April concert, the main set again finished with the final two tracks from 'Fear of a Blank Planet', Way Out Of Here* and Sleep Together. This tour is supposed to be promoting the album, which I particularly like, so I didn't exactly object. An excellent ending. Though they're approaching the end of a long tour and SW had said he was looking forward to a rest, I was impressed by the strength of his vocal delivery on 'Sleep Together'. His voice has certainly developed in recent years.

The band left the stage for a couple of minutes then returned for possibly the highlight of the concert for me: a ~9-minute version of 'The Sky Moves Sideways Phase 1' performed live in Manchester for the first time since 1999 and hence my first time ever, if we don't count unofficial recordings. At the time I thought SW performed the opening instrumental alone, the others having nothing to do (this was the only song of the concert during which Wes wasn't on-stage, presumably grabbing a Guinness), but in hindsight Richard must have been playing too (his contribution makes the song) and I doubt the percussion was prerecorded. The subsequent vocal section was electrifying, whilst the high-energy end was a reminder (as if that was needed) of how much I love the band's pre-2002 sound.

I quite like 'Trains' but I've never understood the level of fan adulation it attracts and as with 'The Sound Of Muzak', I wouldn't object to it being dropped from the live set for a while; somehow its familiarity meant it failed to fully hold my attention. The circumstances didn't help. As it was introduced, I received a strong impression that 'Trains' would be the final encore piece. Excellent – even though I had to leave at 22:55 to catch a train, it seemed I'd see the whole concert after all. It then occurred to me that that'd only work if I was already by the exit at the end of the song – I wouldn't be able to wait for ~1,700 people to filter out ahead of me. Hence, I was obliged to push through the crowd in the middle of the song (sorry, folks) then leave quickly (at precisely 22:55) as soon as the applause began and SW looked as if he was removing his guitar to finish.

Bad news: I've since discovered that there was another encore. Good news: it was 'Halo', one of the few Porcupine Tree songs I absolutely dislike and one I was actually glad to have missed – as the final encore at the concert in April, I'd thought it a disappointing way to end, and I much preferred to walk back to the station with 'Trains' in my immediate memory.

So, another wonderful concert (from both bands), and I can't wait for the next one. It's unclear when that'll be; 2008 is supposed to be a year off for Porcupine Tree and the only known releases are to be reissues and SW solo projects. However, SW did mention they'd be back late next year, which made little sense. There's certainly been no suggestion of new material to tour.

[Those wanting the review can stop reading now; the following bit is just for cyclists.]

Leaving Preston station at ~00:15, the ride home took longer than normal due to an annoying gusty headwind, reducing my average speed to 14.5 mph (23 km/h; 38 km/h max. speed) and meaning I wasn't home until ~02:00 (01:58, I think). In hindsight, that average isn't much lower than the more usual 16 mph (26 km/h) for this route and my bike computer says I was only moving for 1 hour 34', so Preston's numerous traffic lights must have been the main delay.
For my own future reference and anyone else considering cycling from Preston railway station to Moorlands, Lancaster, the precise(ish) distance is 22.75 miles (36.6 km) – 1.75 miles more than I'd thought, which explains why it's always felt like more than 21 miles! Two useful landmarks are the northernmost turn-off from the A6 to Garstang, at 12.1 miles and hence only slightly over 10 miles from Lancaster, and Junction 33 of the M6, at 16.6 miles – it's important to accept that one isn't 'nearly there' at that point, and over 5 miles remain ahead.


Outstanding review Neil: TY!
Saw the same set in Amsterdam on Dec 5. They were great. Let's keep our fingers crossed that one day a boot may turn up somewhere...

Posted by Jan at February 27, 2008 11:17 PM
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