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Wednesday 16 November 2022

A View From The Back Of The Room: Porcupine Tree (Live Review By Matt Bladen)

Porcupine Tree, OVO Arena, Wembley, London, 11.11.22

After what had been a 12 year hiatus and for me a 13 year wait to see them live again, my beloved Porcupine Tree returned to the live stage once more. After the excellent new album Closure//Continuation came out earlier this year the announcement of a tour got me very excited indeed. So on 11th November 2022 it's down to Wembley Arena for what was the final date of their world tour.

A hometown show in London was on the cards and it proved to be a special night for all. Packed to the rafters, there was no support just 3 and bit hours of the headliners consisting of the trio that are now called Porcupine Tree; Steven Wilson, Richard Barbieri and Gavin Harrison along with two American in live bassist Nate Navarro and guitarist Randy McStine.

It was this five piece that entranced a packed arena from the first moment playing the entirety of their new album interspersed between classics drawn from Signify onwards, for my fiancé who was watching them for the first time the focus on In Absentia and Fear Of A Blank Planet as the bulk of the setlist was more than welcome as it seemed to be for most of the audience the songs from FOABP going down especially well with the London crowd.

But more on that later as the slow build throb of began in earnest about 10 minutes before showtime building up in to something more ominous just as the lights went down the volume went up and they started with Blackest Eyes, the dirty riff of that tune perfectly captures in the live sound of the venue. Not too loud, or distorted the mixing was perfect meaning you could hear every single note instrument and vocal line from Wilson, the tour clearly taken a toll on his throat but still managed to hit every note with the help of McStine on the harmonies.

With a welcome, a thank you and promise of less repartee and more music they dove into three from Closure//Continuation the riff fests of the cathartic Harridan and the dark prog chug of Rat's Return sitting each side of the beautiful Of The New Day, the voice and keys of Wilson and Barbieri in unison. From here we got Even Less from Stupid Dream, an album that really like but could be considered a little too pop, here though Even Less was the ideal way to cleanse away the heaviness with a bit of anthemic, dream pop.

The acoustics brought out for the insistent Drown With Me, the drumming of Gavin Harrison restrained here but still taking focus even on what sounds a like a really easy to play song, Narvarro's bass too a star here as this rest bite from the new stuff ended with the haunting Dignity, lots of synths, keys and chiming open guitars, hammering home the message of this song, aided by the visuals that were used only when needed, the band letting the music do the talking rather than the visual feasts that Wilson uses in his solo career.

With Dignity washing over the seated crowd, something that Wilson has complained about in the past, but encouraged people to stand for a better atmosphere. The fact that they could have just asked to not have it seated, meant that it seemed weird to complain about it. Anyway as the first half of the show came to a close the two most political numbers came with prophetic Sound Of Muzak and the pro-environmental Last Chance To Evacuate Planet Earth Before It's Recycled, the final song of the first half being Chimera's Wreck ending on a high.

Then what followed was the shortest 20 minutes of my life and we got down to the meat of the evening the savage Fear Of A Blank Planet relighting the fire to a big applause, the riffs of McStine, Wilson and Navarro heavy and thunderous while Harrison's drumming was a powerhouse. The peak of this leading to the trough of Buying A New Soul which had dual synths from Richard and Steven as the acoustic beauty unfurled.

Nice to hear a song from Recordings especially an underrated track like Burying A New Soul, the Depeche Mode like Walk The Plank came after here all electronic and angular, what came next was the brilliant Sentimental building the tension back for the Herd Culling, the vicious prowling last cut from Closure//Continuation. Playing an entire album can be a risk but not for Porcupine Tree as it was slotted well into the older stuff, so it didn't feel forced.

With the new album finished there was a little bit of banter about Porcupine Tree playing long songs, and with that they unleashed the 17 minutes Anesthetize to rapturous applause, McStine especially shining here carving up Alex Lifeson's guitar solo, as Gavin Harrison's again proved what a bloody great drummer he is. It was a stand out moment and from there it was all classics, the evocative I Drive The Hearse the only song from what many thought would be their final album The Incident, the introspection continuing into the unsettling Sleep Together. With that the main set was closed, the band leaving the stage for an encore.

What an encore it was 3 of mine, and everyone else's it seems, favourite PT songs, starting with the gorgeous, emotional Collapse The Light Into The Earth, where the occasion did get to Mr Wilson as he told us he had forgotten the words, just as the room began to fill with light from phones, twinkling like stars, this enormo-dome arena show, suddenly feeling intimate and comfortable, 12,000 people all living in one moment in unison. It was a magical sight to see and left a lasting memory

Wiping away the tears the riffs were brought back for Halo (the only song from Deadwing, boo) Steven again forgetting the words, but no one cared as the home stretch was in sight. Finally it was time to go but not without one more song, Steven explaining that PT had never been a singles band, they'd never had a hit, the reason they were able to play a show like this was due to the passion of the fans that were there. However one song of there's does somehow stand a little taller than the others and with that the conclusion of the evening came with Trains, complete with a rockstar-like false finish/reprise, it was ended and the room shook with approval.

To say this had been a long time coming would be stating the obvious but with previous viewings at Royal Albert Hall, festivals even reasonably small venues too, there was something a bit special about this Wembley show. Maybe it was the occasion, maybe it was the setlist, maybe it was the company. I don't know but I'll remember this for a long time to come. Porcupine Tree are most certainly back so roll on Manchester 2023 and show number 14! 10/10

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