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Porcupine Tree: Anesthetize 4LP Box

img  Tobias Fischer

History is never written in the present tense and memory is selective. Still, live records keep perpetuating the idea that there is one truth only. If you were there, try to think back to the two Porcupine Tree gigs captured on Anesthetize. During the morning, did you simply go to work, oversleep or spend some time over at the official Porcupine Tree forum? Was your afternoon filled with quiet anticipation or with re-listening to some of your favourite PT-songs? When, sometime towards the early evening, you drove to Tilburg, was Fear of a Blank Planet spinning in the cd-player of your car, In Absentia, Deadwing or Signify - or even the latest Opeth? On location, did you go for a quick lunch or a few beers in one of the city's many cafes or make your way straight to the 013 club, where the Dommelsch stage was filling up to its 2000+ capacity? And when the light died down and the curtain dropped, are you sure you experienced the same as anyone else? Did you shed a tear during a heartfelt rendition of „My Ashes“? Loose yourself in the epic narrative of „Anesthetize“? Or did you get hit by the goosebumps when the fury of „Strip the Soul“ cooled down to a passage of quiet reflection in the song's final bars? What seemed to be a collective experience splits into myriads of personal moments, leaving as much memories as questions in their wake. In retrospect, what was it really like?

What's certain is this: Even if you weren't present, these two nights at Tilburg were special if only because they caught the formation precisely at the cusp between a pace-setting underground band and a potent leader, between their psychedelically tinged past and a new style incorporating metal, ambient soundscaping and classic songwriting virtues. Their profile had been dramatically upgraded, too: On the first leg of the tour, Porcupine Tree had still occasionally supported colleagues like Oceansize, now their status as headliners was undisputed. Thanks to its blend of emphatic melodies and an epic concept, recently released full-length Fear of a Blank Planet had marked an acme even to those, who did not appreciate its change of direction. And yet, commercial triumph was served on a plate of complete creative intransigence and the paradox resulting from this unlikely combination is always palpable on these live takes. There is a sense of sharing something deeply personal and a feeling of closeness between performers and public - perhaps all the more so because it was unlikely to last: Next time Porcupine Tree were to play the Netherlands, they would sell out the Heineken Music Hall in Amsterdam, a venue twice the size of the 013.

To both the band and their fans, of course, these performances meant a whole lot more still. The final edit of Fear of a Blank Planet had been developed on the road as it were, with Porcupine Tree gauging the material by incorporating the album's compositions into their set list without any of their fans yet being familiar with them. When the finished work was finally released in 2007, pieces like „Cheating the Polygraph“ or the motoric Kraut-groove of „What happens now?“ were no longer part of the suite, discarded in favour of tracks which drew a stronger audience response and for the sake of a tightly choreographed dramaturgy. Here, with the exception of Robert-Fripp-co-composed „Nil Recurring“, they are back in the fold again, interlocking into an epic continuum. What the formation were thus presenting was a perfectly plausible alternative version of the studio record, which, thanks to its different angles and juxtapositions, in turn offered new insights. While the cd ended with what could be construed as sex as a metaphor for a return to reality and the vinyl-edit concluded with a dark death-as-a-relief-fantasy, the Tilburg performance wraps things up by expressing a desire for a future spent in simplicity: „Wish I was old and a little sentimental /You gotta see the waves, not the wine bottle.“ In a way, Fear of a Blank Planet is ultimately revealed as a modular composition, as a single, borderless moment frozen inside the disturbed mind of the protagonist, rather than a linearly progressing storyline. And in the moment of performing it live, tiny traces of consolation and hope creep in where there seemed to be nothing but angst, depression and torpor. It is a celebration of the beauty in a work which has often been described as Steven Wilson's most dark, dirty and sceptical vision.

This aspect of beauty shines through in the artwork accompanying the limited edition as well, with each of Anesthetize's four discs enveloped by a full-colour outer- and a black and white inner sleeve and the whole bundle housed in a heavy cardboard box. Still, considering the fact that the same performance was already captured on a celebrated double-DVD, one can't help but ask, whether presenting the concerts on vinyl, which by default interrupts the flow of the performance, makes sense. Intriguingly, the result may actually be even more faithful to the gigs. Rather than pretending that by using high definition images and multi-angle shots one can truly approximate reality, Anesthetize zooms in on the emotional impact of the performance. Through the natural breaks and incision caused by having to flip the records over, what used to be a continuous concert is broken down into its multitude of moments and myriads of meanings, the moving images of the DVD replaced by the still, incisive pictures of the booklet's grainy photography. The ambiguity this creates is the ambiguity of witnessing a band play live and then returning to that event in your heart and mind - a wholly subjective process, consciously defying music's supposed and already questionable documentary and preservational qualities as if to say: Nothing's quite as boring as the truth.

Which doesn't reduce Anesthetize to a random affair. Quite on the contrary, every second of applause and music has been carefully planned during the mixing stages of the album. And yet, this minute attention to detail only serves to open up the history of these two October-days in Tilburg to infinite personal interpretations. What was it like? It's your turn to decide.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Porcupine Tree
Homepage: Tonefloat Records

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