Artist: Porcupine Tree
Location: Hannover, Germany
Date: 15 October 2009
Opening Act: Robert Fripp
When I heard about this concert I figured that despite my relative ignorance of the headliners it would be worth a shot. See, I've known about Robert Fripp for years; I've heard some of his experiments with Frippertonics, his collaborations with Brian Eno, his work with King Crimson, and of course his guitarwork on David Bowie's "Heroes". Although I don't know his whole catalog and I've never been a rabid follower, he's a well-respected pioneer. I mean, he's a big name. On the other hand, the only things I knew about Porcupine Tree are that they are a contemporary band and that my father is a fan. Usually I can trust my father's opinions on contemporary music quite well, since, I mean, he doesn't have time to listen to bad music, and why would he bother when he's been collecting good music for so long? In any case, I came to hear Fripp probably a little more than I came to hear Porcupine Tree.
Robert Fripp came out first, just him, his guitar, and his electronics. No longer using his signature Frippertonics technique, today he favors a style or technique he calls "Soundscapes", which is more or less an updated, digital version of Frippertonics. As I witnessed it, he sits down and starts playing on his Gibson Les Paul, using a digital processor to make ambient synth tones. He used some sort of digital delay units to create a somewhat ambient soundbed loop, to which he would add and subtract elements as he went along. Over the loop he played more normal-sounding guitar solo bits.
He played one single piece for about twenty minutes, and although it was kind of cool, I was a bit disappointed. His soundbed was nothing revolutionary, and I kept waiting for him to drop a really intense guitar solo, but nothing came. He played great, it all sounded good, but he just didn't pull any surprises. (It didn't help the certain sectors of the audience didn't appreciate the mellow tone, either; a number of punters were clearly impatient for the old bozo to leave the stage so that the hipper, younger Porcupine Tree could hit the stage. I am reminded of the barroom gig scene in Ghost World.) I hate to say it, but Fripp isn't on the cutting edge anymore. The scene that he pioneered over thirty years ago has since outgrown him – I mean, seriously, after seeing someone like Andrew Bird, I'm not as impressed. This is a good example of a situation in which the original creative force has ceased to grow, while new innovators have come to the field and taken things to another level. But don't get me wrong – it was still cool to see Fripp, and his piece was fairly good, but not mind-blowing.
I had no idea what to expect from Porcupine Tree. When they came out and played a loud, riff-laden metal jam, I was a bit taken aback. I mean, they pulled off a mean 5/4 rhythm, but I was hoping they wouldn't just be a Tool rip-off. The song wasn't bad at all, though, and when further songs showed a much more diverse array of sounds and tones, I was much more receptive. Unfortunately, I can't offer much in the ways of a setlist since I am totally unfamiliar with the band's catalog. They said that would play the entirety of their new album, The Incident, and I do believe that kept to that promise. From what I've read, most of that album was conceived as one extended suite, and I did get a feel for that in the live performance. It was often hard to tell when songs actually started or ended, and many parts seemed to go on for a while without pause. This was not to their detriment – I found the music quite enthralling. I quite appreciated the dynamics of the band: acoustic-based pieces were right next to more ambient parts, which could be followed by heavier jams and riff- or guitar-solo-based segments. It all flowed together quite well.
After finishing the album song-cycle, the band left the stage for a ten-minute break. Upon return, they played a full second set of material, about 45 minutes, presumably from their back-catalog. (The one song name I caught was "Lazarus".) The general sound of the music remained similar, although the variety of tones was perhaps even further widened. Lower-key and/or acoustic segments seemed a bit more prominent. After their second set, they left the stage, but as expected, they came back again for a brief encore. The first song featured a fantastic acoustic guitar part, and second song was announced as "Trains". (The singer asked what "train" is in German, but he had some difficulty hearing the answer.)
Porcupine Tree ended up putting on a pretty good show, especially for playing over two hours of music. I know they are labeled, for better or worse, as a modern progressive band, and I think the classification fits – they like long, expansive songs; they like to experiment with styles and sonic directions, even within one song; and they like to push the boundaries of rock music. They don't like to stand in one place too long. They are clearly rock musicians, but they don't want to be contained by just one corner of what rock means. And I really like that. Some of the intense metal bits could be a bit much for me, but with the energy of a live show, I could still get into it in the context of the whole performance.
Robert Fripp: C
Porcupine Tree: A-
P.S. What would have made this show really cool is if Fripp had joined the band for an encore. They would have fit together well, I think, and that would have really blown my mind.
[Edit 2015.07.14:] I just noticed that the setlist was posted online:
01. Occam's Razor
02. The Blind House
03. Great Expectations
04. Kneel and Disconnect
05. Drawing the Line
06. The Incident
07. Your Unpleasant Family
08. The Yellow Windows of the Evening Train
09. Time Flies
10. Degree Zero of Liberty
11. Octane Twisted
12. The Séance
13. Circle of Manias
14. I Drive the Hearse
15. The Start of Something Beautiful
16. Russia on Ice (first half)
17. Anesthetize (Part 2: "The Pills I'm Taking")
20. Strip the Soul →
21. .3 (second half)
22. Bonnie the Cat
23. The Sound of Muzak
Also, it's worth noting that Porcupine Tree's keyboardist is Richard Barbieri, also known for performing the same role in Japan!