By most calendar keepers, this reviewer is a latecomer to the progressive rock phenomenon known as Porcupine Tree. Many of the UK act’s “Überfans,” as bandleader/founder Steven Wilson refers to them, have been on board long before my introduction – some of them for close to 20 years. The 2000 album Lightbulb Sun and the 2002 breakthrough In Absentia were my entrées to their powerful combination of rock, dreampop, Pink Floyd-like psychedelia and ambient/downtempo grooves. Thrilling can’t begin to describe those discoveries, even now.
The band’s next album Deadwing, with its harder edge and driving, angular metal grooves, was a departure that caused some consternation in fan circles. The dread of the band veering into heavier, Opeth/Tool baroque metal territory and that their signature, cerebral psychedelics might take a back seat came swiftly. But the concept album’s intensity matched Wilson’s grand, elegant vision and Deadwing (and its accompanying tour) was eventually heralded as genius. Which it is.
All of which brings us to Fear of a Blank Planet, Wilson’s concept album nod to Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and the novel Lunar Park by author Brett Easton Ellis. Many of the lyrics on Planet are homage to the latter-mentioned, with Wilson lamenting the loss identity, purpose and connectivity in an all-consuming media culture. The album melds all of Wilson’s sonic fetishes and thoughts together deftly; the interplay that he and bandmates Colin Edwin (bass), Richard Barbieri (keyboards) and Gavin Harrison (drums) share glows radiantly on this latest effort.
Wilson and company delivered the entire Planet oeuvre during their first of two sets at the House of Blues in Cleveland last Friday night. Along with longtime collaborator/touring guitarist John Wesley in tow, Porcupine Tree delivered all of the sonic peaks and valleys of Planet in virtuosic precision. Illustrating the album’s unholy communion of prescription medication, technological alienation and firearms, the band fortified the songs with filmmaker Lasse Holle’s rococo, film-noir imagery. It amounted to a stadium-sized concert packed into an intimate little club.
And it rocked.
The first set offered note-perfect renditions of “My Ashes,” “Sentimental,” “Way Out of Here,” “Sleep Together” and the epic “Anesthetize,” which clocked in at an even-handed 18-minutes. Wilson alternated between guitar and keyboards, sharing the vocal duties a few times with Wesley – a chap who is basically “adjunct faculty” for the band, but proves time and again that he is far more. Wesley’s guitar solo on “Anesthetize” was filled with shimmering sonics. And the Edwin/Harrison connection underpinned the entire creation with focused poise.
After a 5-minute break, the band returned with the title track from Lightbulb Sun, and a run of “hits” from their more recent history including “Open Car,” “Gravity Eyelids,” “Blackest Eyes,” “Trains” and an encore rendition of “Halo.” Rounding out the set were “Half Light,” a gorgeous “Drown with Me” and “Sever” – all which featured lush layering by the always-inconspicuous Barbieri – and the wickedly delightful “Mother and Child Divided.” In all, it was hard not to be completely engrossed by the performance, imagining what else Wilson is capable of, and wondering when the band would return.
And frankly, that seldom happens to this reviewer with rock concerts these days.
Opening act 3 (not to be confused with that 80s prog offshoot of Emerson, Lake and Palmer) was a stellar surprise. The Woodstock, New York quintet is audio equivalent of Superman ice cream – a swirling blend of progressive metal styles punctuated with singer/guitarist Joey Eppard’s proficient and remarkable “flamenco/slap” guitar technique. They look like that bunch of dudes who jam out in your neighbor’s basement, but rest assured, they sure don’t sound like them. Odds are good that big things will happen for this Metal Blade Records outfit.