Porcupine Tree at The Sound Academy, May 8 2010

Here is my review (originally for Hellbound.ca) of the Porcupine Tree show that took place at The Sound Academy on May 8, 2010. You can read the original here, completely with spiffy photographs by Adam Wills.

The review also appeared on the Roadrunner Records Canada website, and was mentioned on the official Porcupine Tree website.

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In order for me to discuss this show, I need to first visit The Incident. In an interview, Steven Wilson expressed his dismay with the phrase “the incident” and the way the phrase was often deployed to distance and dehumanize. He was troubled by the way that word is used to transform traumatic, “seismic” events into something sterile and reportable. It is also an empty word, a placeholder, a euphemism that retains a sense of ominousness but that does not actually do any writing itself. “The incident” is all signifier, no signified, nothing being inscribed. So, in retaliation, Porcupine Tree took this word, this empty word and filled it: with sound, with images, with contexts. Whereas the phrase “the incident” seeks to erase and expunge specific, human details from events, The Incident reintroduces those details.

I have been listening to The Incident on and off since September; it is haunting. And I do not use the word “haunting” here in a purely descriptive or abstract way, either. This album has been a smell that will not leave my clothes, a sense of being followed, a few bars I hum over and over for days. As such, I have a deep affection for it, but also a sense of unease. The Incident has a knack for putting an aural finger on whatever sore spot I am carrying around at the time. This is not an album that grants me any peace (despite it’s apparent tenderness). I went to this show because I was genuinely excited to see a band whose music I enjoy; I also went in an attempt to better understand this album, and to hopefully exorcise some of the power it holds over me.

I was prepared. I went with other people. I was fuelled by red meat and enough beer to make me brave but not so much I’d let my guard down. And still. And still this concert slammed into me. Like I’d worn water wings, expecting they’d protect me against the force of a Tsunami.

Were this simply an auditory barrage (which I am more than familiar with), I might have had more resistance. But it was much more than that. This show was a carefully orchestrated, beautifully curated performance. The video accompaniment interesting and tasteful, and varied enough that I was never able to settle fully into it or anticipate what was coming next. The images were sometimes strange and dream-sequence-like, at other times more like a classical music video, and again sometimes simply an accompanying image—like a spray of stars during “Stars Die.” The lighting effects dovetailed beautifully with the video, such as when strobe effects were used to emphasize choppy, disorienting quick-cuts, or a steadily brightening white light used to intensify the effect of a train barrelling towards the audience. Despite the visual interest of the show, none of the effects detracted from or overshadowed the music. All the other effects served the sound and made the audience more receptive.

The performance was dominated by The Incident, which the band played in its entirety (barring a couple of tracks from the second, “bonus” disc). The performance therefore took on the character of this album: a combination of urgency and tenderness with a strong undercurrent of discomfort. Highlights from this intense first section were: “Drawing the Line,” the driving rhythm of which provided some breathless relief from pent-up anxiety; and “I Drive The Hearse,” which is even more gently devastating live than it is on the album. The band took a ten-minute break after The Incident; for the ten minutes they spend offstage, a digital countdown was projected onto the video screen. After the intense discomfiture and awful sweetness of the first section, I felt as unnerved as the building was wired to explode when the clock reached zero.

The second half of the performance featured representation from Lightbulb Sun, Fear of a Blank Planet, and The Sky Moves Sideways. The energy in the room was more scattered, almost schizophrenic during this part of the show. After the unified aesthetic of the first half, this section of the performance felt less focussed—though mercifully so. The variation also served to make the experience less overwhelming. I particularly enjoyed “Anaesthetize,” “Way Out Of Here,” and “Normal.” Both pieces from the encore came from In Absentia: “Blackest Eyes” and “Trains.”

The audience response to this entire show, but especially the encore, struck me as strange, at first. Everyone was almost unnaturally still, with the exception of some manic swaying and head bobbing (and one memorable tribal dance performed by a young man who had long since abandoned his sobriety). While it would hardly have been appropriate for a circle pit to form, it still added to my rather delicious sense of unease about the entire performance. Then, near the end, as a train on the screen drew closer and a stark white light grew brighter, it hit me. We were all as stunned as animals caught in a truck’s headlights, unable to save ourselves, unwilling to move ourselves out of the way. About to be struck, we could only stare in awe. Because, despite the damage the impact could cause, it was still beautiful. Disarmingly, awfully beautiful.

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