The new King of prog (originally posted 3/11/13)

By ProgBlog, Mar 28 2014 09:58PM

Steven Wilson is undoubtedly at the pinnacle of his career and flying the flag for modern prog. With Porcupine Tree in hiatus, Wilson is not only putting together a successful ‘solo’ career (backed by some exceptionally capable musicians), he continues to collaborate and still finds time to remix original prog classics ranging from Caravan’s In the Land of Grey and Pink to King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and Red and Close to the Edge by Yes.

I only own one Porcupine Tree album: Fear of a Blank Planet (bought from Marbecks Records in Auckland, New Zealand along with Matching Mole’s Little Red Record and a CD of two Ekseption albums) though I have also listened to Lightbulb Sun, a recommendation by two friends who understand my penchant for symphonic prog. I was pleasantly surprised when I heard Storm Corrosion, not being a fan of Opeth or Mikael Åkerfeldt, and was not at all put out by Wilson’s 2011 solo effort Grace for Drowning, both of which are a clear move away from the metal side of prog. Grace even includes a masterpiece of jazz rock, the excellent Sectarian.

One of those recommending Lightbulb Sun was Neil Jellis. Neil was also responsible for me listening to Storm Corrosion, Grace for Drowning and Get All You Deserve, amongst other things; other things largely consisting of electronica! He also persuaded me to see the new king of Prog at the Royal Albert Hall and organised the tickets. I organised the pre-show watering hole.

It had been some considerable time since I’d last been to the RAH; 17th May 1995 to see the double trio King Crimson (on Bill Bruford’s birthday) and though I rated that show very highly I wasn’t a great fan of the venue, however well it’s regarded. The first time I went was to see Jethro Tull touring the A album, with Eddie Jobson on keyboards and violin and performing a solo on the Hall’s organ. At £1.75 the tickets were incredibly cheap (this was 1980) but the sound quality up in the gods, the ‘gallery promenade’, was atrocious. The next time I was there was for Robert Fripp and David Sylvian on the 4th December 1993. The sound may have been good but the seats were uncomfortable with very restricted leg room, so much so that one of my companions, Joe Chavez, was in agony and was constantly trying to find a position of least discomfort. Fortunately for me, the show seemed to pass really quickly and took on a dream-like quality – I may have been anaesthetised by the soundscapes and the pervasive scent of illegal substances.

On Sunday 20th October the pub of choice was The Queen’s Arms, situated in a mews where students brushed up against Kensington Gore locals and punters for the entertainment du jour and a mere 5 minutes walk from the evening’s ultimate venue. There were a wide range of real ales available and at the time we arrived, aiding some other Albert Hall bound gentlemen with smart phone maps on the way, the pub was packed. At one stage my position in the queue at the bar was nearly usurped by Prog magazine editor Jerry Ewing but he gracefully accepted that I was due to be served before him, without any need for the threat of violence. Also present was fellow Crystal Palace supporter and music journalist Dave Ling; looking at his blog it would appear that our paths unwittingly cross fairly frequently, not just across the aisle at Selhurst Park.

The Albert Hall seats were really good, accessed by what can only be likened to a journey through the labyrinth beneath the Colosseum. The subsequent two hours of theatrics were certainly as entertaining as anything that might have been held in Rome, beginning with a 15 minute film featuring a street corner and a busker. This could have been a work from the Venice Biennale as the busker, ignored by passersby, finally began to strum the opening bars to Porcupine Tree’s Trains and Steven Wilson stepped on to the stage.

His band comprised Nick Beggs (bass and stick); Guthrie Govan (guitar); Adam Holzman (keyboards); Chad Wackerman (drums); and Theo Travis (flute and saxophone). Mr Wilson himself played at various times guitars, keyboards and bass and was hardly ever still, constantly moving bare foot around the stage. I found the material, largely taken from his solo work, slightly heavier than on record though the range took in everything from bucolic to dark and heavy. He entertained us with a couple of interesting breaks between songs, asking Guthrie Govan to play in the style of various Swedish stereotypes, culminating in running away from a troll through a snowy forest, and also getting Adam Holzman to play some classic mellotron sounds. He has probably unleashed a deluge of irate correspondence after describing the Mellotron as the first sampler, failing to mention that the instrument was originally designed, marketed and patented in America as the Chamberlin and that the Mellotron, manufactured by Bradmatic (later Streetly Electronics) in Birmingham, UK, was a refinement of the original Chamberlin design. He also explained that bands often used to road-test material before committing it to vinyl and, expecting there to be members of the audience intent on infringing copyright law, politely asked them not to record what was a work in progress for the next solo album. For this performance it was called Wreckage but according to Neil, it had been called other things throughout the tour, “Break it and you buy it” when he went to see the show in Wolverhampton. Both the track and the titles seem to have been inspired by Robert Fripp (who was in the Albert Hall audience watching his erstwhile collaborators) who not only road tested material with King Crimson, but also gave improvisations at different shows different names when they were re-mastered for retrospective release. There was more than a little fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants dynamism and darkness to Wrecked.

The video back projections were all very evocative, from the long-term collaborator Lasse Hoile films to the remarkable animation of Drive Home and the creepy The Raven That Refused to Sing. The front of house veil, erected during the Hall’s mandatory break, was used to great effect; a simple but dramatic piece of theatre. The high points for me were Sectarian, The Watchmaker and The Holy Drinker but it was all very enjoyable and well performed. The encore was introduced with more Wilson humour, explaining that his early Porcupine Tree days were somewhat spacey. He suggested that the audience should go along with The Grateful Dead vibe and even invited us to sing along with the chorus, or what had to pass as a chorus. I’d never heard Radioactive Toy before and afterwards thought that, with Theo Travis in the line-up, he should have compared the track to Gong.

The band quite rightly received a standing ovation. Their musicianship was consummate and the material of a remarkably high quality; modern progressive rock at its best.

Just one thing... ...I believe in the republic

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