Porcupine Tree: The Rave, 6-2-07

Sat Aug 04 2007

Since its inception in the very late sixties, prog-rock has gotten a bad name from music critics, who call it self-indulgent, adolescent escapism with alarming consistency. Now that Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson has gotten used to the prog tag, he apparently felt free to create that ultimate art-rock cliché: the concept album. The recently released Fear Of A Blank Planet is a 50-minute sermon against the evils of modern youth culture (mainly pills, the internet and MTV) against a backdrop of some of the heaviest and most intricate music Porcupine Tree has yet produced. On a Saturday night in Milwaukee, the band strove to drive its point home for the final night of the American leg of its tour. Anyone who didn’t get the point must have had his or her eyes closed.

Opening act 3 proved to be a perfect fit for Porcupine Tree, playing rhythmically dense, metal-tinged prog with hints of folk and jazz. For all its eclecticism, the feel was frequently reminiscent of bands like Dream Theater and Queensryche, especially in the sound of the synthesizers and Joey Eppard’s just-this-side-of-glam vocals. I’d like to say with certainty that the musicians were extremely tight; they played very complex and shifting patterns without seeming to miss a beat, transitioning from breakneck electric jams to acoustic interludes with ease. Unfortunately, much of the precision was lost in the muddy acoustics of The Rave. Still, the audience was clearly impressed.

The headliners began their set with the title track from FOABP, and it was clear that the sound wasn’t going to get much better for them. Video of kids masked in blank stares pointing guns, taking pills, starting fires and destroying TVs flashed on a screen behind the band, almost as if Wilson knew no one who didn’t already know the words wouldn’t be able to make out what he was singing. This barrage of play-by-play images continued throughout the night during many of the new songs, becoming redundant, dulling the message of the already blunt lyrics. The animated floating cell-droid motif during set-closer “Sleep Together” was a welcome respite for those who hadn’t already chosen to close their eyes and just concentrate on the music.

No amount of moralizing, redundant images or poor sound quality could ultimately stifle the impact of this music, however. The band played everything from the new album, and it all came across forcefully live (aside from “Sentimental,” which sacrificed its intimacy and really didn’t go anywhere). The 17-minute centerpiece “Anesthetize” was incredibly powerful, bursting during the virtual death-metal midsection, sinking gracefully into an opiated sway and building momentum from there that completely eclipsed the album version. “Way Out Of Here” was also mesmerizing, equal parts Rush and Opeth in its hugeness, then dissolving in a melancholy, atmospheric jam. “Sleep Together” was a slow-burner that exploded when Wilson left the keyboard and started pummeling his guitar; it was a triumphant end to the set.

Older tunes had gained a lot of momentum on the road as well. “Half Light” featured some derivative-but-stunning David Gilmour-esque wailing from touring guitarist John Wesley, eventually bleeding into “Sever,” which swelled with post-rock furor, Wilson’s voice showing a fullness barely hinted at in the original recording. “Blackest Eyes” was dedicated to a young fan named Arielle who had recently passed away; family and friends were in the audience, and emotion was palpable throughout the room. But the most viscerally charged moments were from songs only a couple of years old; “Open Car” featured a new metallic breakdown section that lent the song a ferocious undertone. “Mother & Child Divided,” an obscure bonus track from the reissue of 2005’s Deadwing, slammed into high gear from chord one and never let up in intensity; it was played flawlessly and floored the audience. The group finished its encore with another Deadwing retooling, “Halo,” starting with a swirling, futuristic electro-haze, then careening through its perfect mixture of melody and thrash like the lost potential for truly great pop metal. Its final moments were the evening’s most thrilling. Porcupine Tree possesses the songcraft, the virtuosity and right now, the momentum to drive itself into the consciousness of the mainstream. In the wake of the success of bands like Tool and Muse, the road may be paved for the next prog-rock breakthrough.

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