Porcupine Tree – Sounds of the City – Castlefield Bowl, Manchester, 29/6/23


“Flippin eck, this is torture” reads a post on a Porcupine Tree fan FaceBook page.  I have to agree. We are of course talking about Magma, a band more divisive than Marmite.  I arrive late to minimise my suffering, but still have to endure 40 minutes of music that is absolutely dire, if you can even call it music.  I have no idea what they played and to be honest I don’t want to know.  To be fair there were some people who are enjoying it, but they are in the minority; it’s like Yoko Ono playing jazz, it should never be allowed to happen.  

Post gig a friend messaged me saying that “they are one of the greatest prog bands ever to walk the earth. They were spectacular!”  Undoubtably Magma are and will remain divisive.

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Porcupine Tree

The wait goes fast and we are partly entertained by watching a roadie getting his Henry vacuum out to clean Mr Wilson’s stage area before they start, a nice touch.

With little fanfare, Porcupine Tree walks out and launch their show with Blackest Eyes, a veritable banger with a video on the large screen behind the band that matches the madness in the song. 

And tonight we have the invisible bassist.  Sadly, shortly after this run of dates started, touring bassist Nate Navarro had to return home to the USA for a family emergency.  The internet’s worst people lashed out at this, their lack of any sort of compassion was out in public for all to see, it was sickening.

Fortunately, through the wonders of modern technology, his bass notes have been pre-recorded and the band play on… it’s not ideal and lacks the thrust and dynamic that a live bass provides, such as at the start of Harridan, which is utterly brilliant.

“Thank you Glastonbury,” says Mr Wilson and the band launch into New Day also from their most recent release.

With the album Deadwing having been reissued recently, a couple of songs are added to the set Mellotron Scratch and Open Car, both are performed perfectly.  Trains pass and occasionally stop on the bridge next to the bowl with passengers getting a free yet brief show, do they even know who is playing?

At this point, I realise that the pre-recorded bass sounds are working particularly well and whilst there is a gap on stage there isn’t much of a gap in the projected sound. The Sound Of Muzak was written with the foresight of music becoming homogenised and packaged, as seen through the mind of a visionary, aka Steven Wilson, who also wants us to engage in audience participation, is he actually liking this, or is he just being crass?

Songs of joy and happiness are not a Porcupine Tree trait as is shown with Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before it is Recycled, partly inspired by the Heaven’s Gate cult and their leader Do who committed mass suicide and includes a clip from the introductory video for members of his cult (it is on YouTube if you are in any way curious).

You’d better stay home and do as your told, the dogs are not dead… as Wilson shouts “LIAR!!” during Herd Culling, a song that I just couldn’t get into when it was released but is now one of my favourites on the C/C album.

The centrepiece of Fear of a Blank Planet will always be the long-form piece Anaesthetise and Wilson suggest they are going to “attempt it”, but we know they are going to smash it… and they nail it brilliantly, it’s a Prog metal masterclass that runs through a whole gamut of stylings from melodic to hard rock to brutal metal and back to a slower considered sound.  The singalong chorus of “Only apathy, from the pills in me” galvanises the crowd, as it always does.

Keyboard and synthesist Richard Barbieri was reportedly not well during the day but he is showing no signs of flagging tonight and drummer Gavin Harrison is having another perfect day behind his kit.  Professionalism is key and there is also a natural chemistry between Wilson and second guitarist Randy McStine.  The slide solo from McStine on I Drive The Hearse is outstanding before an utterly perfect Sleep Together finishes the set, my voice is hoarse from singing along.

A well-deserved encore starts with a subtle Collapse The Light Into Earth and the phone lights are out to provide several thousand stars whereas, by contrast, Halo is more jagged with Wilson’s views on religion projected behind.

Wilson is hoping, but will one cross the bridge? Trains starts sans locomotive but one finally turns up during the chorus, and he is ecstatic! And at the song’s coda, we get another, right on cue.  The song is fantastic and the train coordination is perfection, I don’t think I have ever seen Steven Wilson so happy.

It’s over and I too am incredibly happy, that is one of the best shows I have ever seen Porcupine Tree play (I’ve seen 14).  Would I have wanted the full show?  Absolutely, but, as they say, perfection comes in smaller packages.

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About Ant Firmin