The English rock band Porcupine Tree has an enigmatic standing in the United States, drawing a modest number of fans from a wide swath of the musical landscape. The brainchild of Londoner Steven Wilson, Porcupine Tree has been many things over the last two decades. Starting from a mostly psychedelic rock form, Wilson kept changing the sound of the band while never abandoning its ever-growing past. Therefore, Porcupine Tree 2010 is a nearly indescribable, almost totally unique concoction swirling with indulgent blasts of intelligent metal, high-concept rock, ambient sonic exploration, psychedelic wailing, and mightily addicting melodic pop hooks.
About 800 of the band’s darkly dressed advocates converged on Amos’ Southend in Charlotte for the first ever "PT" show in North Carolina’s largest city. An interesting mix of 40-somethings, dudes in Pink Floyd and Rush t-shirts, everyday hard rockers, the occasional punker or metalhead, and eager underage kids populated the venue, and the musical diversity represented by their conversations and apparel was right in line with the current sound of Porcupine Tree.
The band’s performance centered around a complete reading of their latest album The Incident, with visuals presented on a slightly undersized screen – ""bedsheet" as Wilson quipped. The screen was fine, but Wilson is a bit of an enigma himself. Fiercely against any sort of recording – including photography – and displeased by any out-of-place shouts, he’s not shy about laying down rules. After Big Elf’s opening set of warmed-over Sabbath riffs and tired Zeppelin rehashes, a voice crept from the PA, welcoming fans to the show and explaining just how distracting photography is to everyone in the venue, even the bartenders (kidding about the bartenders), and that fans seen taking photos would be kicked out. Kicked out! Then, just a few songs into The Incident set, Wilson himself took the time to say a few words about crowd reaction. Paraphrasing: "We appreciate the ‘woos’ but if you could, try to do it when we’re rocking out." There had been no excessive shouting during quiet moments, but Wilson wasn’t taking any chances.
Thankfully, the precious conceptual bits and dynamic flashes of The Incident were never lost during the flawless performance. The images were satisfyingly evocative, melding perfectly with the music, and the band displayed a mind-boggling amount of ability. Moving flawlessly between trance-inducing vignettes, atmospheric space-rock, and hooky pop songs, the whole of The Incident unfurled with an appropriate emotional weight. Whether in the throes of a metallic manifestation like "Circle of Manias" or a Pink Floyd-ish rock landscape like "Octane Twisted," the band was always on, and confident about it. Bassist Colin Edwin is as cool as they come with Gavin Harrison’s barrage of smashing drums behind him, and synthetic specialist Richard Barbieri maintains the necessary army of keyboards with icy calm.
Inspired by the very word itself – "incident" – the album begins with a jarring blast of distortion before moving through tales of automobile crashes, religious cults, and psychotic neighbors. The musical territory is as expansive as the subject matter, ranging from jittery melodrama ("Drawing the Line") to ambient interludes ("Occam’s Razor"), acoustic majesty ("Kneel and Disconnect") and swirling, multi-sectioned prog rock ("The Blind House," "I Drive the Hearse"). One of Porcupine Tree’s hallmarks over the last decade is Wilson’s knack for crafting incredibly catchy, singable moments, such as the chorus in "Time Flies" and the rocketing final section of "The Incident." Live, these moments come to life in a phenomenally vivid manner, and the entire hour was engrossing. Seeing The Incident performed in its entirety was a once in a lifetime experience, due mainly to the fact that it’s a once in a lifetime album.
When it came out that the band would be continuing its format of performing The Incident, taking a brief intermission, then returning for a set of old stuff, I was sure that I’d walk away enjoying the second set more. While the classic songs were as amazing as I had hoped they would be, they still paled in comparison to The Incident set, which speaks volumes about the album’s place in the band’s history – because the people love the old Porcupine Tree. The dreamy favorite "Stars Die" is one of the few songs from the 1990’s that the band still plays, and while it has endured and aged well, it is in uncomfortably stark contrast to the rest of the current rotation. The highlights of set two included three of my personal favorite tunes – the alternately roaring and purring "The Start Of Something Beautiful," "The Sound of Muzak (an epic, biting commentary on the decline of quality in music)," and "Anesthetize," a song so full of 21st century dread that even Thom Yorke might take notice.
For the show’s final song, the crowd practically begged for "Trains," a very popular, very often performed song that I’ve personally never held in the same regard as epic creations like "Anesthetize" and "The Sound of Muzak." It is full of the requisite show closer elements, and it appears to have a firm grasp on that spot. Since the band strives for perfection, the setlist rarely changes, and I could have easily written the Charlotte setlist before the show with minimal errors. But the show is going to be on the list of my favorite shows of the year, without a doubt. The rarity of the band’s stateside appearances, coupled with the audiovisual spectacle of The Incident and the studied perfection of the band’s playing made this a truly unique night among my many concert experiences.