I’m sort of a recovering prog-head. Which means I love prog-rock, still do. But there was a phase a few years ago where I acquired hundreds of prog-rock albums in an effort to find all the gems of the known universe. It’s a guy thing. Well, I still have them all, and I did find a lot of gems, but ultimately I realized that the reason why Genesis was way more popular than Fruupp was that Genesis was way better. Still, I acquired a pretty damn good, solid grounding in all subgenres from around the world.
Steven Wilson is a big name in the prog community, even though he always made sure that everyone knew his band, Porcupine Tree, should not be slapped with the prog-rock label. And I concurred. Porcupine Tree was a mixture of different kinds of music (ambient, post-rock, dream-pop, metal), which is progressive in theory, but in practice it was its own thing. Which was the appeal!
When he started making solo albums, he began with Insurgentes, a mix of shoegaze and dream pop with some King Crimson-esque prog in the mix. A very good album. He followed that up with Grace for Drowning, which featured elegant, grandiose pop but also one couldn’t help but notice some serious progressive rock-style sounds and parts creeping in.
All well and good. Then, not long ago this year, he released The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories). And this, my friends, is more prog than prog. It’s the proggiest prog that ever progged. It’s a grand stew of sounds akin at various points to Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, hell, even a touch of Magma! Either that or it sounds like someone slipped the members of Canterbury pastoral jazz-prog ensemble Caravan a cocktail of roofies and meth.
Any way you slice it, the album is incredible. Wilson may not have composed a lot of such music in the past, but man, can he master anything. And he evidently thought, I’m going to put together THE BEST BAND IN THE WORLD for the album and tour! These fast-fingered monsters sound like they’re playing at half-speed even when in maximum shred.
Anyway, enough about the album, this isn’t a review of that.
Me ‘n the wife went to The Phoenix in Toronto to catch the show with a great deal of anticipation. Our first shock came when we were in a long lineup to get in! Never mind that the lineup was about 95% men. It was still great to see so many people out to absorb this intricate, intelligent music. And I’m pretty sure that most music-loving women of my acquaintance would have enjoyed the show.
After a short wait, a very lengthy intro started, an ambient piece that sounded like Wilson’s Bass Communion project, as clouds passed over the backdrop of a moon. After about twenty minutes, finally, the moon changed to show the scary moon dude from the album cover.
And the show was on! I’ve seen Porcupine Tree before, and I have to say that there is an energy to this combo that I’d found slightly lacking with PT. They didn’t move much, but there was an intensity that matched the music. Well, Wilson moves a lot and quite theatrically, but someone has to.
Bassist Nick Beggs and mega-guitarist Guthrie Govan stood at either end of the stage like two statues. A chap I assume was Theo Travis honked and trilled away tunefully on horns and reeds and winds in the back. Drummer Marco Minnemann slammed away like three Neil Pearts (correction: may be Chad Wackerman…still three Neil Pearts!).
The set was very well put-together on the whole, mixing the new tracks with highlights from the first two albums. I have to say, Wilson chose exactly the songs that I would have wanted to hear, from the cacophonous shoegaze of “Harmony Korine” to the spacy title track of Insurgentes to the symphonic jazz-prog of “Deform to Form a Star” to the delicate Moody Blues-esque pop of “Postcard”. Only “Raider II” was a misstep to me (though not to the rest of the crowd, apparently), since it’s a huge prog-rock suite about a serial killer, and it’s better in theory than in practice. By which I mean, it’s okay, but the stuff on Raven is way better put-together and more cohesive, in my opinion.
The virtuosic playing could have come across as wankery, but Wilson found the right guys. Govan is certainly a shredder and I bet Malmsteen is not a dirty word to him, but he plays his parts without embellishment when required and shows great delicacy in quieter parts. When it’s his time to shred, he goes for it in a remarkably tasteful way. Same with Beggs, a bass player with a muscular, massive sound and a pleasant voice (mind you, he seemed to have several voices in several harmonies at once … hmmm) … he even busted out the ultimate geek instrument, the Chapman stick, to great joy from the crowd.
Keyboardist Adam Holzman dazzled with a number of solos that showed his jazz chops.
Wilson himself seems an affable fellow, wisecracking a bit to defuse potential pomposity. He apparently doesn’t like his photo taken, though, photography being banned at the show. Personally I quite like having my photo taken, but then no one wants to do it.
He went on a lengthy, humorous rant about an Amazon customer review that referred to his “Tolkienesque” lyrics, pointing out that he only writes songs about girls, trains and serial killers. I don’t think he was serious there … I can only remember one song about trains.
At the end of the night he finally busted out the title track of his latest album, a truly mind-blowing song that starts quiet and gradually crescendos over about seven minutes. Grandiose? Yep, and just the way I likes it. I prefer sweeping grandiosity to some of the virtuosic jazz thumpery of some of the other compositions, as much as I can appreciate complex parts.
Steven Wilson has chosen, for some reason, to lift the flag high for 70s art rock here in 2013, and I can’t think of anyone else who could pull it off with such aplomb and still draw large audiences. Long may he prog, if he so chooses.