You’re supposed to close the show with your killer tune, so a lesser talent than Steven Wilson might have clipped the first hurdle and fallen flat on his face opening with a song as strong as ‘No Twilight In The Courts Of The Sun’ from Insurgentes (2008). This slow-building mostly-instrumental tour-de-force allows the top-flight backing band to make our acquaintance one at a time, until Wilson strolls on last in time to deliver the killer chords around three minutes in and the song takes off into the progosphere in latter-day Crimso stylee.
But I’m jumping the gun, here. Wilson is nothing if not a master of suspense and the atmosphere for the night was expertly set by Lasse Hoile’s eerie movie footage – as seen in the Grace For Drowning album sleeve – projected onto the transparent curtain screening the stage area, accompanied by ambient sound textures from Bass Communion. Expertise aside, I was champing at the bit to hear ‘the real deal’ and tired of this long before the band came onstage: ambient/drone type stuff has never been my bag, beyond a 3-minute intro tape. The aforementioned curtain stayed in place for the first three numbers, the backlit musicians juxtaposed with more spooky Hoile projections both in front and behind. The artfulness of the presentation immediately impressed.
Nick Beggs and Marco Minneman make for a deft rhythm section and are clearly enjoying themselves from the off: you can practically see the sparks coursing through them as they throw themselves into their work. whilst stage left on guitar, Aziz Ibrahim is a calmer presence, leaving his fingers to do the talking – which they do with great fluidity. Wilson himself is a man of few words tonight, though he does find an opportunity to banter briefly with journo Jerry Ewing, pointing at empty seats and suggesting that ‘his four dates never showed up’.
Such a top notch backing band are going to want to flex their chops and Wilson writes the kind of music that allows them to do just that. ‘No Twilight…’ is followed by a selection of material from new album including the mammoth ‘Raider II’ which Wilson introduces as ‘the cenrepiece of my new album. Centrepiece it may be by virtue of length and sheer complexity, but overall it’s the shorter, more melody-based material that sucked me in. We know that Wilson can prog it up with the best of them, but as impressive an arrangement as ‘Raider’ is, it judders and stumbles through its twenty-plus minutes, in contrast to the expertly-paced tension and release of, say ‘Arriving Somewhere…’ or ‘Anesthetize’ recorded on the day job.
‘Postcard’, on the other hand is as beautiful and poignant as can be; its theme of bereavement and depression illustated by an uncharacteristically narrative Hoile projection. ‘Remainder The Black Dog’ and ‘Get All You Deserve’ (another Insurgentes number) combine artsier atmospheric textures with more conventional songcraft without outstaying their welcome, whilst ‘Sectarian’ – almost Wilson by numbers on record – becomes a powerful statement of intent live.
It’s striking that, vocals aside, these songs bear little resemblance to Porcupine Tree – ‘Deform To Form A Star’ is the closest thing to a PT song here tonight – the influence of free jazz and ambient/noisecore giving the music a very different flavour whilst still showcasing the superlative grasp of melody and melancholy that is Wilson’s calling card. His role too, is very different: he comes across as much an artistic director as a frontman per se. Dryly suggesting at one point that ‘he just lets the band get on and do their thing’ he then proceeds to leave his position stage centre to ‘conduct’ individual band members.
The show was characterised by the perfectionism we’ve come to expect from Mr Wilson – from the lightshow/projections to the ‘tight-as’ backing band; from the crystal clear sound to the challenging material – and it was a joy to see him come out from the mantle of other band monikers to perform under his own aegis. If hard work and a great ear for a melody are the prerequisites for a a successful pop career then Wilson surely deserves to be far better known. That said, the factor that really propelled his PT career to a new level was the embrace of metal, something largely absent here tonight. This is, as the homeless guy I was chatting to outsidewhilst having a fag surmised, musos music: rock but not rock’n’roll. PT sell out The Albert Hall, SW Shepherd’s Bush and that’s probably the way it’s going to be.
Catching up with friends aside it wasn’t exactly ‘fun’ – veering to the serious side of prog rock – but I felt satisfied and privileged to have played witness.