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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Concert Review: When Alienation Attacks

Steven Wilson plays NJPAC.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Steven Wilson with his new signature model guitar made by Jeff Babicz.
Photo by Rocco DeCarlo for StevenWilsonHQ.
Steven Wilson is a man out of time. A progressive rock hero for the modern age, he writes music with little care for radio or music television. A self-taught songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, he made his first recordings at the age of 13. He's matured since into a  brilliant, fearless songwriter with tart lyrics and a gift for imagery. In this decade, Mr. Wilson set aside his long-running band Porcupine Tree and other projects to launch a successful solo career. His music remains bleak, fierce and iconoclastic. On Sunday night, he brought his five-piece band to the Victoria Theater at NJPAC in Newark for the first of three area dates supporting his new solo album  Hand. Cannot. Erase.

On the stage of this gorgeous jewel-box theater (tucked behind the massive edifice of Prudential Hall) Mr. Wilson played most of his new record. Now, that's nothing out of the ordinary for a rock show, but Hand is not an ordinary record. It is a concept album, inspired by the true story of Joyce Carol Vincent, an English woman who was found dead three years after she passed away in her apartment. (Strangely, Ms. Vincent was not missed by her neighbors or loved ones.)  All the new songs were accompanied with films by regular collaborator Lasse Hoile, combining anonymous London landscapes and the private life of the anonymous protagonist against the razor-sharp music.

Like Mr. Wilson's previous effort The Raven that Refused to Sing and Other Stories this new record is a concept album, with songs focused around the life of its unnamed heroine. Hand tells tales of urban despair, isolation and failed love, with bereavement (or the threat of bereavement) a central theme. Thanks to the razor-sharp playing and passion of Mr. Wilson's performance the intent and meaning of the songs came through with disturbing clarity. The textures of this music range from gossamer-like synthesizer and acoustic guitar to pounding, polyrhythmic rock with drummer Craig Blundell sometimes sounding like an entire tribe of djembe players.

Mr. Wilson played electric and acoustic guitar, keyboards and (on two songs) bass guitar, alternating his slashing, kinetic technique with delicate strumming on three classic Porcupine Tree cuts. Guitarist Dave Kilmister matched Mr. Wilson note for note, their easy onstage rapport established with the echoing tones at the end of "3 Years Older." As this song ended, one realized that the house sound setup for the show was quadraphonic, with speakers at the back left and right of the balcony allowing the band to play in a 360˚ sound reminiscent of classic Pink Floyd shows.

Watch the video for "Perfect Life" here. Film by Lasse Hoile © 2015 KScope Records

 The core of this band is Nick Beggs, who alternated between five-stringed electric bass and the Chapman Stick, a ten-stringed electric instrument played by tapping the notes out on the fretboard. The Stick sound is amazingly versatile, allowing the player to strike multiple notes in rapid succession. Mr. Beggs' lines dove and looped over the rhythms of drummer Craig Blundell, providing propulsion to tracks like the soaring "Hand. Cannot. Erase." and the chilling "Index" from Mr. Wilson's Grace For Drowning record. This latter track may be about serial killers. It might  be about comic book collectors. Mr. Wilson's terse lyrics make the matter entertaining and ambiguous.

The darkest song of the night was "Routine", introduced by Mr. Wilson as "the most depressing song I've ever written." (This from a man whose catalogue includes "Heart Attack in a Lay-by"!) Like a modern version of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, "Routine" focuses on a mother's numb shock and distress at the death of a husband and two children in a school shooting. An accompanying stop-motion film (by Jess Cope and Tom Cartwright) had the mother folding clothes, setting out meals for family members who will never come home, and sorting toys. The horror of her family's fate was only revealed in the last minutes of the song, as a newspaper headline flashed on the screen against a jarring fortissimo chord from the band.

A respite followed with "How is Your Life Today?" a song from the 2000 Porcupine Tree release Lightbulb Sun. Mr. Wilson first told a story about three gigs this year in Santiago, Chile and then confessed he had only played live once before. A delicate waltz with keyboardist Adam Holzman at the piano, this song's theme of agoraphobia provided a welcome respite from the new material. Throughout the show, Mr. Holzman's keyboard lines intertwined like silver threads through the music, whether on his keyboard rig or the old-school Mini-Moog synthesizer to his right.

The encores started with a long introduction of ticking clocks and winding watches, announcing "The Watchmaker" from The Raven that Refused to Sing. A dark tale of neglect, obsession and murder between an elderly couple, the song climaxed in a raucous series of solos from Mr. Holzman. It was accompanied by films projected on a scrim that dropped from the flies and surrounded the band in light and shadow. It was followed by Sleep Together, the final track from the penultimate Porcupine Tree release Fear of a Blank Planet.

Watch Jess Cope's film for "The Raven that Refused to Sing." © 2013 KScope Records.

The scrim dropped for the last two songs. First, a solo acoustic performance of "Trains" by Mr. Wilson, putting a new twist on what is (for some reason) the most popular Porcupine Tree track. Finally, the full band returned for the slow crescendo of "The Raven that Refused to Sing," a falling interval that ended in a final, symphonic surge into major-key redemption, accompanied by a final animated film by Ms. Cope.

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