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ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, Jan 24 2016 10:07PM



With Steven Wilson’s London gig rapidly approaching it seems like a good time to reflect on my relationship with his music. Though my collection cannot be said to contain a surfeit of Wilson-related material, partly due to my ambivalence towards Porcupine Tree, it can’t be denied that his output covers a wide stylistic range largely owing to the trait of possessing a collaborative nature. I own his two most recent ‘solo’ efforts, The Raven that Refused to Sing (2013) and Hand.Cannot.Erase (2015) along with Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet (2007). I’ve also been loaned Lightbulb Sun (Porcupine Tree, 2000); Wilson’s solo material Grace for Drowning (2011), Get All You Deserve (2012), Catalogue Preserve Amass (2012); his project with Mikael Akerfeldt Storm Corrosion (2012); and Bass Communion albums Continuum (2005) and Continuum Vol.2 (2007).

I was first prompted to see him live at the Royal Albert Hall in October 2013 by friend Neil Jellis and I acceded on the strength of Raven; he’d assembled some supremely able musicians and produced an album that ticked all the right golden era of prog boxes but still retained an element of contemporary music. There’s a moment in Luminol where I can determine Siberian Khatru that reveals Wilson’s deep appreciation of classic prog but it goes further than this. His use of analogue sounds doesn’t simply conjure images of gatefold sleeves, long hair and flares and dirty university refectory floors, it gives the music a depth and warmth. Wilson is of course a highly respected producer and many of the classic 70s reissues have been placed in his extremely capable hands for a remix because of his respect for the original music and his undoubted talent at tweaking out some of the instrumentation that has been buried in the mix of the original recording; something he achieves without harming the balance of the music due to his mastery of nuances.

Raven is an excellent album throughout and the performance at the Albert Hall did not disappoint, from the opening video to the final bow, the music, the musicianship and the presentation were flawless. Presentation is obviously very important to Wilson for, like his 70s heroes, he has forged long-standing artistic partnerships with Lasse Hoile, Hajo Mueller and Jess Cope that (forgive me for sounding pretentious) create the visuals for the Wilson brand, such is their importance to the integrity of the production; even something as simple as a transparent veil draped down from the lighting gantry to the front of the stage produces a quite startling effect and this attention to detail, linking music, album art and stage presentation first emerged with the prog acts Wilson was listening to in the early 70s.



When I first heard Hand.Cannot.Erase I was a bit disappointed, not because I considered the album as a retrograde step though I had wanted more of a ‘son of Raven’, rather that the mix of styles on the one disc, electronica, industrial, post-rock and out-and-out prog, didn’t really include enough classic-style prog for my taste. Further listening has mellowed my opinion: It’s a very well constructed album but I still regard it less favourably than Raven. The playing is as good as ever and there is an outstanding guest performance by Ninet Tayeb but I think it’s more difficult to portray invisibility in a world dominated by social media that inspired the album as a musical concept compared to the very straightforward alternative ghost stories of Raven. Raven also features more sax and flute, courtesy of Theo Travis. To an extent, Hand covers some of the same territory that informed Fear of a Blank Planet, the social isolation caused by technology but, to his credit, Wilson explores a very different sonic landscape in his more recent release. This sort of fits in with the characters of the protagonists on the two albums, a male teenager in Blank Planet with its distorted guitar-driven riffs and Hand’s young professional woman.

The live performance at the Troxy in London in March 2015 was basically the Hand.Cannot.Erase. album, played in its entirety (apart from Transience) in running order, interspersed with tracks from his back catalogue that Wilson felt fitted in with the idea of isolation and loss. Seeing the band perform the piece live helped me appreciate the music more, despite the atmosphere in the Troxy being less welcoming than at the Albert Hall; from my seat in the circle, I had the constant distraction of the light and noise from the bar, like in the upper circle at the over-rated Shepherd’s Bush Empire. However, experiencing the album live meant I was better able to relate Ancestral to the song introduced as Wreckage at the Albert Hall in 2013, a piece that had been announced as a work in progress and which had different titles throughout the Raven tour. Another personal highlight was the extended First Regret, with the clever video of concrete apartment blocks that have (mistakenly) become inextricably associated with the breakdown of society; concrete jungles and problem estates.

The addition of two Royal Albert Hall dates at the end of 2015 meant I was once again invited to go along. When I signed up to the proposal I thought that I could only manage one night because of work commitments and so Neil got me a ticket just for the second evening. It transpired that to get the full experience you did need to be there for both gigs, which had subtly different set-lists. Guitarist Guthrie Govan and drummer Marco Minnemann were unable to make this leg of the tour and were deputised by Dave Kilminster and Craig Blundell respectively and over the two nights there were a series of special guests, including Guthrie Govan. The set list had relaxed from the album format and included a number of tracks I was unfamiliar with. This meant that I felt at something of a disadvantage compared to my fellow audients and though I witnessed an incredible show, I have to admit a little disappointment at the inclusion of what seemed like an unhealthy dose of Porcupine Tree; it’s almost as though I was crashing a party, not knowing the host but the feeling was partly offset by the gift of a personalised T–shirt from Neil – We have got the Perfect Life.

I’m looking forward to the performance on Wednesday. Hammersmith is a good, comfortable rock venue. I’d just like more of Raven and Hand.Cannot.Erase.






By ProgBlog, Oct 5 2015 10:00PM

I’ve got a cold. I started to feel a little ill on Wednesday and wondered if I should indulge in my usual Wednesday squash evening at the National Sports Centre, Crystal Palace, but as I’d dragged my squash kit into work I thought I’d give it a go and see how I got on. As it turned out I won some games and I lost some but I felt better for doing a bit of exercise. I was very interested to read that members of Pink Floyd used to prefer to play squash rather than going to the studio during the Wish You Were Here sessions in 1974 but putting together a follow-up to Dark Side of the Moon was proving difficult. Strains in personal relationships and professional tensions within the band had surfaced and the direction of the group was unclear and of course none of this was helped by a souring relationship with the media; the NME journalist Nick Kent being particularly unkind. Squash is not only a fantastic cardio workout, it also helps to relieve tension and pent-up frustrations. It’s been suggested that David Gilmour and Nick Mason became rather fond of the squash court and their relationship improved as a consequence – I can personally vouch for the de-stressing effects of regular squash as someone who a couple of years ago played up to six times a week – I was left feeling much more able to cope with whatever life could throw at me, physically and mentally reenergised. However, it’s also addictive (thanks, endorphins); I had to change my working hours to allow for a 45 minute session of squash at lunchtimes and I was unreasonably frustrated when either a planned opponent or I myself couldn’t make a game. Working in a hospital meant that, not infrequently, somebody would have to attend to urgent work (there were a group of around five of us who regularly took over the two courts at Guy’s, helped by me taking on the role of time sheet monitor.)

Squash has been put on the backburner of late despite a flurry of league games in the final days of my semi-retirement. Now back working full time at the Royal London Hospital I’m reduced to Wednesday evenings and the odd league match at weekends. I received an invite to play last Tuesday (September 29th) but had a more pressing engagement, Steven Wilson’s second night at the Royal Albert Hall. Having been quite blown away by the Raven that Refused to Sing show at the Albert Hall in October 2013 and in March this year, at the Hand.Cannot.Erase performance at London’s Troxy, I was only too happy to sign up to one of the gigs on this two-night tour postscript. Leading the party was friend and Wilson aficionado Neil Jellis, who not only organised some great seats, but provided his own bespoke tour T-shirts. Neil had been in the front row on the first night, in front of Wilson’s keyboard and in direct line with Craig Blundell’s kick drum and, as the two dates were billed to have different sets and different guests, had also got tickets for the second show, to which I tagged along. Having heard Neil effuse enthusiastically about the first night, I was anticipating a great performance and I wasn’t disappointed.

We wandered into the auditorium after Matt Berry, the support act, had begun his set with the rather spacey Medicine and I have to admit that not being much of a TV person, I had no idea who Berry was, other than I’d seen something in Prog magazine about him. It must have been rather daunting to open for Steven Wilson but Berry’s band did an admirable job.

When Steven Wilson’s band took to the stage, one by one, it became gradually clear to Neil that the first number was the rather heavy No Twilight within the Courts of the Sun from his first solo album Insurgentes, a track I’m not over-familiar with, likewise with the next Porcupine Tree song, a much more melodic/symphonic-lite Shesmovedon from Lightbulb Sun. I’d not seen Blundell play before (sitting in for previous incumbent Marco Minnemann) and though I’d witnessed the talents of Dave Kilminster on a number of previous occasions, none of them were as Wilson’s guitarist. From our seats, level with the stage and only a few seats away from Nick Beggs who was positioned to the left of the band (from an audience perspective) it was easy to observe the technique of each of the musicians; only Adam Holzman was partially obscured by his keyboards. The first guest of the evening was Ninet Tayeb. She’d also sung the previous night and took on all vocal duties for Routine, putting in a stunning performance. I was once again in unknown territory with the next two songs, Open Car and Don’t Hate Me, the latter coming across as quite proggy and the film to accompany the piece, of light snow falling in London was classic Lasse Hoile; Home Invasion featured Beggs on keyboard and Guthrie Govan as special guest guitarist which segued into Regret #9 with a brilliant Moog solo from Holzman. Theo Travis was then introduced and the band continued with Drive Home, personal favourite Sectarian and the haunting Insurgentes with its watery visuals that remind me of punting on the Isis. The set was completed with more from Grace for Drowning, No Part of Me and a truncated but still epic Raider II.

There were two encores, featuring three songs; Porcupine Tree’s Dark Matter after which the band left the stage but returned, after a bit of adjustment to the drums for Lazarus, with special guest Gavin Harrison, fresh from touring with King Crimson and easily remembering his old part, finally ending with another song I’d not heard before, The Sound of Muzak.

The sound (thanks to Ian Bond) was balanced and clear, even where we were seated on the extreme left and the presentation, as ever, was consummately professional. Wilson has a brilliant rapport with his audience, teasing those that hadn’t attended the first night and explaining how he was extending an introduction to make the correct pedal setting for his guitar. There was no veil on this night, though there had been on the 28th and if I have to make one complaint, it’s that the programme was the same as that sold during the spring leg of the tour, even though the two shows were more varied, more special, and the musicians had changed subtly.

All in all the occasion lived up to its hype: 4 hours of amazing music over the two nights. On reflection, I should have signed up for both shows, but I already have a ticket for January 2016...



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