It was just over a year ago when I saw my first Porcupine Tree show at the
9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. That September '05 concert was quite the night to remember, because not only was it one of the best club concerts I have ever seen, but front man Steve Wilson also announced that they would be filming two of the following month's shows for a live concert DVD.
With this new DVD on the horizon, and some of their most acclaimed earlier albums, like Stupid Dream, getting the remastered, special edition treatment this year, I could not have been more anxious to see my new favorite band again. That all came to fruition when I scored tickets to their sold out show at the State Theatre in Falls Church, Virginia last month, only two days before the official release of the new Arriving Somewhere… DVD.
Arriving Somewhere… was recorded at Chicago's Park West on October 11-12, 2005, during Porcupine Tree's world tour in support of their latest album, Deadwing. The DVD takes its name from that album's epic masterpiece, "Arriving Somewhere But Not Here". The setlist weighs heavily on the Deadwing material, and its predecessor In Absentia, much like their last two tours have. Considering that my ears were still ringing from that amazing State Theatre show a few days previous, I could not have been more primed to fire up my surround sound system and check out this new DVD.
Chicago's Park West is a historic theater that was converted over to a concert venue in the late '70s. With a capacity of about 750 people, it has become one of the city's finest concert venues. For this show, the stage was backed by three huge projection screens, which seamlessly displayed various bizarre images from the mind of band videographer Lasse Hoile. Take a gander at his In Absentia album cover to get an idea. These projection screens have played an integral role in recent Porcupine Tree tours, providing some amazing imagery that perfectly complements each song performance. The 9:30 Club show I attended only had the one large center screen, so they either went all out for this recording, or the theater has its own screens.
As the theater lights dimmed to signal the start of the show, the haunting keyboard sounds of "Revenant", an instrumental that can only otherwise be found on the DVD-A version of Deadwing, pours out of the sound system as the band takes their positions on stage in front of an incredibly creepy video backdrop. After a few minutes of buildup, Steve Wilson straps on his PRS Custom 22 guitar and fires off the chugging intro chords to "Open Car", the ultra-heavy Deadwing track that also manages to blend in one of their famously compelling choruses.
It didn't take long for a huge grin to overtake my face, as I sat there reveling in Wilson's amazing DTS surround mix. Once again, he has produced one of the finest sounding audio tracks I have ever heard. Strangely though, he doesn't even utilize the center channel – maybe that is the secret. If this guy isn't the best producer/sound engineer in the business, I don't know who is. The Stupid Dream remaster blew me away with its astonishing clarity and power, and this mix is no different. Colin Edwin especially owes Wilson a debt of gratitude because his tasty bass riffs stood out like his amp was sitting right in my living room. Both the PCM stereo and DTS surround mixes are killer.
Unfortunately, it took even less time to realize that the video editing of this concert was shaping up to be a disaster. Wilson basically handed over the editing duties to Lasse Hoile, and this was a big mistake. I am a big fan of the amazing album artwork and videos that Hoile has produced for Porcupine Tree, but his trademark style did not transfer well to this live concert experience. For the unfamiliar, Hoile likes to incorporate a lot of distortion, black and white, saturation, sepia, and quick editing, to give his videos the look of an aged 8mm film. Think of the opening titles to the movie Se7en to get an idea.
Hoile takes this otherwise astonishingly clear and sharp, hi-def video transfer, and basically turns it into one of his personal music videos, with all of the constant cutting to black and white, and simulating that aged 8mm look he so adores. When I watch a concert video I want to get a perspective of what it was like to be in the audience at that particular show, and Hoile nearly robs you of that experience. Porcupine Tree incorporates some fascinating video imagery during most of their songs, but you never really get to experience it fully during any of the performances.
To be fair, Hoile's artistic liberties are not so overwhelming as to completely ruin the viewing experience – it was just completely unnecessary. When you watch the two Rockpalast performances from the bonus DVD, it becomes perfectly clear just how much better the main disk could have been without Hoile's fingerprints all over it. Those songs were filmed beautifully, without a hint of post-production trickery, and it perfectly captured the amazing live experiences that I remember so fondly. Hopefully that entire show will eventually get released.
Now for the good parts – the rest of the DVD! Arriving Somewhere… captures one of the world's greatest rock bands in the absolute prime of their career. I may have my beefs with the video editing, but everything else here is simply incredible – most importantly, the audio and the performance. Porcupine Tree have a knack for harmoniously blending these monstrous metallic riffs with some of the most beautiful, catchy melodies you will ever hear, and "Blackest Eyes" is one of their finest examples. If I had to recommend just one song as a good introduction to this band's current style, this would be one of my first choices.
The charming pop-ballad "Lazarus" follows, giving you a chance to catch your breath after the opening one-two punch of "Open Car" and "Blackest Eyes", and this beautiful performance makes it clear how that song could have easily outshined anything else on the pop music charts last year, had it been given the proper chance. The first real highlight of the concert shows up next via the only Lightbulb Sun inclusion, "Hatesong". This one kicks off in heavy jazz-funk mode, transitions between hard rock choruses, and eventually melts into an extended fusion jam that highlights the exceptional drumming skills of Gavin Harrison. If anyone needs convincing that this guy is one of the best drummers in the business, check out this dazzling performance. During this song, Wilson brilliantly uses the DTS surround mix to weave his guitar solo back and forth between the front and rear speakers to great effect.
The setlist only takes you back as far as 1999's Stupid Dream and one of that album's centerpieces, "Don't Hate Me", shows off some of the band's more moody, Floydian roots. This probably wasn't the best choice from that album though, considering that the song's cool flute and sax solos could not be performed. "Buying New Soul" from the 2001 B-side collection, Recordings, has quickly established itself as a fan favorite due to some incredible live performances on this last tour. The song opens with a beautiful piano and keyboard passage from the underrated Richard Barbieri, before Wilson chimes in on acoustic guitar to carry you off on a hypnotic seven-minute journey into the abyss.
Wilson also dusted off a couple of Deadwing B-sides for this set – "So Called Friend" and "Mother and Child Divided". "So Called Friend" is a fairly average rock song, for this band, and was not really a worthy contender for this DVD, when considering some of the other established songs that didn't make the cut. "Mother and Child Divided", however, is an intense prog-rock instrumental in the style of Rush's "YYZ", and was definitely worthy of its spot on this tour.
The DVD was aptly named, because the feature song of this tour was certainly "Arriving Somewhere But Not Here". This 13-minute Deadwing epic has quickly become a fan favorite and was the concert highlight both times I saw the band live. It was the absolute highlight of this DVD as well. "Halo" was the obvious choice to close out this incredible first set, with its perfect blend of psychedelic-laced metal guitar riffs, spacey synthesizer backdrop, galloping funky bass lines, and near jazz-fusion drumming that is all wrapped around another irresistible chorus. The lyrics were also displayed on the video screen as Wilson preached them, and they are some of his best, dealing with the way people use their God and religion as an excuse for almost anything. A sampling:
God is in my fingers
God is in my head
God is in the trigger
God is in the lead
You can be right like me
With God in the hole you're a righteous soul
I got a halo round me, I got a halo round me
As good as the show has been up until now, the three song encore blows it all to dust. "The Sound Of Muzak" takes on the subject of today's pathetic mainstream music industry, and features a beautiful chorus which is lead by some of the most stunning harmony vocals the band has ever produced. Wilson also unleashes a killer guitar solo near the end of the song that I have been unable to unscrew from my head ever since. "Even Less" is the Stupid Dream masterpiece, and one of my personal favorites, which they failed to play both times I saw them in concert – damn them! From the lush symphonic opening keyboard sequence, through the massive, distorted slide-guitar riffs, and on to the beautiful acoustic verses, this amazing performance shows just why the song should never be left off their setlist again.
Wilson comes across as a very shy and serious guy while up on stage, barely able to manage a few "thank yous" throughout the show. He prefers to let his amazing vocals and guitar playing speak for themselves, as he sways gently back and forth in front of the mic stand, almost like he is slow-dancing with his guitar. His playing looks so effortless and natural, and his incredible solos seem to just flow out of him without any sense of forethought. He also shows a good sense of humor when, while introducing the last encore of the night, "Trains", some jokester in the crowd yells out for "Freebird". Wilson smiles and wryly answers with "That's tomorrow, the full 17-minute blowout version." Another humorous moment occurred when Wilson broke a string near the end of the song – but I won't spoil that one for you.
"Trains" is the acoustic-flavored, pop gem from the In Absentia album, and it is easily one of the band's finest songs. Before seeing Porcupine Tree live, I doubted whether they would be able to effectively reproduce all of the lush acoustic layers, harmony vocals, and intricate nuances of a song like "Trains", but this performance demonstrates how they have actually improved upon the original. What a marvelous performance and perfect way to end such an incredible show.
The bonus DVD features performances of "Futile" and "Radioactive Toy" from Porcupine Tree's performance on the German TV show Rockpalast last year. This audio from this entire performance is available for download on the Porcupine Tree website, and it is a crime that the video of the entire performance was not made available, especially since the two performances provided here are superior to the main feature. Also included are the screen films for "The Start of Something Beautiful", "Halo", and "Mother and Child Divided", as well as the promo clip for "Lazarus", which were all directed by Lasse Hoile.
One of the coolest special features is Gavin Harrison's "Cymbal Song", which uses multiple split screens to show him playing a variety of cymbals, as each unique sound is layered together to form this unique song. Unfortunately, Lasse Hoile's full length documentary on Porcupine Tree could not be finished in time for this DVD. According to Wilson it remains a work in progress to be unveiled at a later date. How about on the full-length Rockpalast show Steve?
I cannot recommend this DVD and the band Porcupine Tree enough. As much as I bitched about the editing style, I've heard from many people who were not bothered by it at all, and actually rather enjoyed it. I just think that live performances should not be turned into someone's art project in the editing room. See what you think – just make sure you do see it!
02. Open Car
03. Blackest Eyes
06. Don't Hate Me
07. Mother and Child Divided
08. Buying New Soul
09. So Called Friend
10. Arriving Somewhere But Not Here
11. Heartattack in a Layby
12. The Start of Something Beautiful
14. The Sound of Muzak
15. Even Less