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Concert Review/ Porcupine Tree & Robert Fripp

img  Tobias

Steven Wilson doesn't believe in incidents. When, halfway into the second set of tonight's gig, a couple of over-motivated fans up front are distractingly requesting some of their favourite songs, he dryly answers their pleas by holding up a piece of paper: The set list. His point is that Porcupine Tree gigs are immersive experiences with a compelling musical narrative. There are no deviations. There are no detours. There is no change of direction. There are no extensive solos, no egotrips, no unnecessary verbal introductions and no more than a few basic announcements. All that remains is this wave of sound and songs and images and imagination and the only thing you can do is stand there and allow it to wash over you with an undeniable emotional logic. It is a tightly choreographed event warping time and making almost three hours fly by within the blink of an eye. And there is no point in asking for this tsunami to change its path or follow anyone else's will but its own.

Perhaps the only time the plan seems shaky is during Robert Fripp's guest performance. Opening for a band with an ardent following is never easy. Neither is winning over 6000 listeners with a program of soundscape-oriented loop-based instrumentals. And even though King Crimson may well be one of the few ensembles that make for a sensible comparison with Porcupine Tree, if only for their shared incomparability, not all that many spectators in the majestic Heineken Music Hall look like they are aware of his groundbreaking achievements as a solo artist, a collaborator and an instrumentalist. Fripp is, however, not exactly making things easier for himself either. With the well-earned confidence of a man who has nothing to prove to the world anymore, he is neither playing for nor against the audience. Rather, he doesn't even seem to be aware that there is one at all: A bow at the beginning, a bow at the end - that is as much direct communication as visitors are going to get today. In between, Fripp offers an introvert half-hour seance that, by its solipsistic nature, is bound to be appreciated  by the Porcupine-Tree-hungry-crowd as no more than an unobtrusive soundtrack to the first rounds of beer.

It is not as though Fripp were uninspired. Quite on the contrary, he appears entirely lost in his own world up there on the podium, an immobile black-shirted speck on a giant stage draped in moody blue light, occasionally twisting knobs or devotely tuning pedals and playing his Guitar as though he were lost in thought or on another planet. The performance builds very slowly and from long-drawn, atmospheric bass-tones, which statically linger in the air for a while, before Fripp either casually or carefully (it is hard to tell) stacks another note on top of them or delicately changes their course. Rather than constituting the actual core of the performance, though, these ephemeral  structures are merely the breathing backdrop to several melodic solos somewhere between delicate Jazz and discreet Rock. From time to time, Fripp complements the harmonic structure by sprinkling complex patterns and  atonal elements on them, but he always returns to the comforting embrace of his original environment. The middle section tends more towards the bluesy in terms of timbre. A glistening bell-motive from the very beginning reappears and suddenly, all but imperceptibly, a physical pulsation from repeated Guitar licks is starting to manifest itself. For a second, the sweetness, innocence, charm and otherworldliness of his pioneering Ambient works from the 70s is back, in all its quiet, sensitive glory. But in the final minutes, these characteristics are just as quickly replaced with what sounds like a minutely timed reprise of the opening bars – which the audience around me however greets with growing impatience.

By contrast, Porcupine Tree need nothing but the cold, crass, massive and monumental fusillade of monolithic riffs that will serve as the night's thematic guide to unleash a storm of approval. The band are standing in almost complete darkness and are all but disappearing in front of the giant projection screen which will send a convulsing vortex of disturbing and confounding images into the hall for the entire performance. This first half of the program is dedicated to an integral performance of their latest studio album, „The Incident“, which deals with the mechanics of chance, determination in a world of chaos, the absurdities of death and the utter love for a by now sadly-missed golden age of possibly the most irrational of arts: Music. Even though „The Incident“ is a precisely delineated work with a slew of cleverly integrated quotes and cross-references, it takes on a subtly different meaning on stage. Strikingly in opposition to its predecessor „Fear of a Blank Planet“, which revolved around mantric Guitar charges, tribal grooves and maniacal eruptions of noise and anger, the new full-lenght is much more of a multicoloured and melodically affirmative affair which thrives on how seemingly unrelated elements are interconnecting into an epic journey.

Accordingly, tonight's concert doesn't hinge on the record's arguable centerpiece, the eleven-minute-long psychedelic candy „Time Flies“, which blends the best of Pink Floyd's often dismissed „Animals“-album into a single, cohesive tune, but rather on the song that follows it, „Degree Zero of Liberty“. Here, the introductory Leit-riff is being picked up again, recycled and reworked into a murmuring maelstrom of nocturnally beguiling chord cycles which shake listeners around and rocket them forward towards the tale's as-yet uncertain resolution. The minute dynamic shadings of the studio cut are proving to be impossible to replicate in a live setting, but the group are making up for it with a powerful yet pristine sound, a tightly grooving rhythm section, seamless transitions and polyphonic vocal passages of mesmerising allure. Romantic and accessible moments are revealing surprising harmonic twists while wilful counterpoints demonstrate their functionality within the larger picture. In short: Everything falls into place. If the end should seem unspectacular, almost hushed and unresolved at first, that, too, is part of the plan: With the album's questions so urgent and essential, there is every reason for allowing them to resonate in the listeners mind a little longer.

After a 15-minute intermission, the band return with a selection from their by now impressively diversified catalogue: „The Start of Something Beautiful“ is delivered with almost obsessive intimacy, „Russia on Ice“ as a tale of desperation and forlorn feelings, „Anesthetize (Pt. II)“ with utter urgency. And with a cut from the „Nil Recurring“-EP („Normal“), even some of the slightly more obscure insider-material of the oeuvre, as requested by the fans in the opening paragraph, is receiving some well-deserved attention. It is remarkable how quickly the individual members of Porcupine Tree are have  adapted to this second section of the show. Keyboard legend Richard Barbieri, whose contribution to the live-version of „The Incident“ mainly consisted in some futuristic sound effects mysteriously panning in the stereo image and occasional Hammond roars, now lays down haunting carpets of ghostly harmonies and pierces the Metal-onslaught of distorted Guitars and pounding Drums with ethereal Rhodes-sequences. Colin Edwin, meanwhile, is urging the action on with a flexible Hard-Funk Bass-assault, propelling tracks forward with his hypnotic signals and remorselessly rioting loops. Overall, the performance has turned more grim, determined and aggressive, but there is nonetheless enough space for tender moments, such as in the warm finale „Trains“. Again, the close and perfectly timed interaction of the band takes center stage and even some of their more epic pieces seem to fly by like pop songs.

It is only towards the very end, when there is some comic relief and a few friendly words to the crowd for their patience and the city's hospitality, that you find the time to reflect how even the two-part division of the program mirrors the Vinyl format Wilson so cherishes. As subtle as this notion may have been presented tonight, however, you can be sure that this detail, too, has been anything but incidental.

By Tobias Fischer

All images are taken from Porcupine Tree's official "The Incident" Tour Blog.

Homepage: Porcupine Tree
Homepage: Roadrunner Records
Homepage: Tonefloat Records

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