Steven Wilson, Vienna Gasometer, 2 November 2013

I’d been waiting a long time for this concert, and it really didn’t disappoint at all. I’d been aware of Steven Wilson’s project Porcupine Tree for some time, and attended their concert at the Arena in 2007, but I was never entirely convinced by their particular brand of progressive metal. The progressive part was fine, it was the metal part I had problems with. I’ve never been much of a headbanger, put it that way.

So when Wilson put Porcupine Tree on ice and struck out on his own with the Insurgentes LP in 2008, I quickly sat up and took notice. It was a superb album, ranging effortlessly in tone and atmosphere between neo-prog and avant rock and thereby fulfilling pretty much all of the criteria for what I want from rock music at the moment. More importantly, Wilson was finally shedding the vestiges of metal that had taken Porcupine Tree down some stylistic dead ends. 2011’s Grace for Drowning was a worthy follow-up, but it was this year’s magnificent The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) that really sealed the deal for me. A collection of long songs with supernatural themes, the record immediately catapulted Wilson into the forefront of my musical consciousness, where he’s remained ever since.

When Wilson played at Gasometer last week, therefore, I wasted no time in getting there early and grabbing a front centre spot. I don’t normally put photos on this blog, but I quite like the one I took at this gig, so here it is:

Steven Wilson live in Vienna

The evening started, somewhat unnecessarily I thought, with a film of a busker slowly going about setting up his pitch. The film can’t have lasted more than 15 minutes, but it seemed a lot longer. When the busker finally got going, he was replaced by Wilson himself, kicking off the evening in fine style with a solo acoustic version of the Porcupine Tree song “Trains”.

If that was his way of signalling that Wilson in solo mode is not just Porcupine Tree with a different line-up, it was a point that was amply reinforced throughout this gripping concert. Leading his hugely talented band through the demanding territory of his solo music, Wilson proved himself to be a supremely skilled and engaging frontman. Although lead guitar duties were ceded to the unnecessarily hairy Guthrie Govan, Wilson made telling contributions himself on both acoustic and electric. His voice, meanwhile, is a beautifully versatile instrument, utterly lacking in histronics and equally at home with tender ballads and driving rock anthems. Tracing worlds of lost love, false hope and shattered dreams, Wilson’s songs take flight in a thrilling and unique blend of ghostly prog, out-there jazz and angular, discordant rock.

Colin Potter: And Then; Colin Potter & Paul Bradley: Behind Your Very Eyes; Jonathan Coleclough/Bass Communion/Colin Potter: s/t

Here’s a trio of droney CDs featuring Colin Potter, best known as the principal co-member (along with Steven Stapleton) of Nurse With Wound for studio work. Potter is also head honcho of the ICR label, and owns the IC Studio in Preston where many recent albums by NWW and other artists have been recorded.

On the solo release, Potter presents five longish tracks. The one-word track titles are taken from a cryptic utterance printed on the inlay and the CD itself: “Before it was inside… but now it is outside. Next will come examination and all will be revealed. Finally, however, nothing is certain, and then?” This frustrating riddle, reminiscent of the gnomic texts printed on the covers of Hafler Trio albums, is all Potter is prepared to extend to the listener by way of meaning or explication. Fortunately, however, there is plenty of textural variety to keep the listener interested. “Before” kicks off with a series of atmospheric windswept rattles and clatters, which are soon wiped away by a looming industrial-strength drone. This thing shifts and pulsates uncannily; it sounds organic and breathing, despite its electronic origin. Towards the end, the piece moves back outside where it began, to a hostile external environment.

This listener was utterly floored by the next piece, the stupidly titled “…”, which is a very different beast from anything else on these three albums. The track is infectiously rhythmic, sounding like a damaged music box as it arcs through 15 minutes of electronic restlessness. What makes it really special, though, is the sense of claustrophobia it conjures. As the beats pile up, they reinforce a palpable sense of tension and of a search for release. This is an object lesson in intelligent dance music. Elsewhere, “Next” has a woozy late-evening feel to it, with soft enveloping drones layered over night-time sounds and gradually becoming more and more grandiose and expansive over the course of its 20 minutes. There’s an immense architectural flair at work here, an intuitive understanding of shape and proportion, which only falters during the rather lumbering and tentative “And”. Rounding off the CD, “Finally” is another wispy, organic dronescape with a shimmering metallic heart.

The collaboration with Paul Bradley is a more homogeneous affair, with four lengthy drone-based pieces. Overwhelmingly dark and malevolent, the lack of tonal variety becomes oppressive after a while. “Cavity” is nightmarishly filmic, evoking images of hunt and pursuit, while the slightly less gloomy “Decline” sounds almost liturgical, as though striving to fill a cathedral with its resonant organ tones. This is music that demands to be played loud, engulfing the listener in its lowering sheets of sound.

The third album in this batch is something of a mixed bag. It’s essentially a remix CD, in which Potter, Jonathan Coleclough and Bass Communion (better known as Steven Wilson, the frontman of neo-progressive rock outfit Porcupine Tree) take turns to remodel material by each other. It’s curious, but very pleasing, to note that someone as deeply immersed in the genre of progressive rock as Wilson can also turn his hand, in a committed and convincing fashion, to the slow, Rothkoesque tropes of dark ambient music. On the opening track of the first disc, “Passed”, mournful percussive sighs float around disembodied organ sounds and skeletal beats, evoking a huge sense of loss in twelve unhurried minutes. At twice that length, on the other hand, “Yossaria” outstays its welcome with a queasy, repetitive brass figure and an extended sub-Floyd workout of clattering clock and typewriter effects (at least, that’s what they sound like to me). The insistent, nagging buzzes of “Raiser” begin to irritate, until they are carried away on a warm bed of silvery drones and warm, echoey beats.

The whole of the second disc is given over to “Epidural”, a vast canvas of delicately shifting patterns featuring celestial, Garbarek-esque saxophone from Theo Travis. This piece is a starkly beautiful, minimalist symphony, with the constantly shifting and pulsating vibrancy of the sax hovering ethereally over deep sub-bass drones. The sax bows out as the piece nears its end, leaving only low end rumbles and faint traces of static.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 16, 2008)

Porcupine Tree, Vienna Arena, 15 November 2007

Trudged through the first snow of winter to the Arena last night for a concert by the British group Porcupine Tree. Their fusion of progressive and hard rock didn’t really grab me throughout, but there were many fine moments. Principally I was struck by the honesty and openness of frontman Steven Wilson. He came across as a humble but dedicated man, focusing wholeheartedly on his performance but with a complete lack of histrionic gestures. He’s no slouch on the guitar either.

The visuals screened behind the band were, for once, a useful accompaniment. There’s something rather intractable about Porcupine Tree, I think. They’re a complex, focused, almost futuristic proposition.