(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Recording review - Porcupine Tree, Octane Twisted (2012)

Almost studio perfect, but fans are waiting for newer material

Porcupine Tree’s roots as a solo project for Steven Wilson makes them more comfortable in the studio. As they’ve developed into a full band, they’ve preserved that tight, clean sound in their live shows. In large part, that’s due to Wilson’s obsessive focus on the details of the band’s performance. The new release, Octane Twisted, is a sprawling live double album. Disc one presents the title suite of The Incident (2009), recorded at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre on April 30, 2010 during their tour behind the album. The second disc features songs from the second set in Chicago as well as performances from their Royal Albert Hall show (10/14/2010).

This live recording of “The Incident” on Octane Twisted is almost studio perfect. This sets up a paradox. On the one hand, the concert doesn’t expand on the source material: trim out the small touches of stage patter and audience response and the songs would match the recorded versions fairly closely. With Porcupine Tree on hiatus and Wilson paying more attention to his solo work and other projects, it’s a poor substitute for a fresh studio album. Still, Octane Twisted showcases an amazing band breezing through a rich, orchestral collection of songs. These phenomenal musicians live up to Wilson’s attention to detail. Their technical skill transcends ego in the service of the flow and Wilson has carefully calculated the dynamic shifts to match his vision.

Porcupine Tree’s well-rehearsed approach makes them the antithesis of jam band improvisers, but the music still feels light and lively. “Time Flies” lyrically references the Beatles and Hendrix, but Wilson’s calm voice and the jangly guitar layered over a staccato rhythm feel more influenced by the head space of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. Subtle keyboard washes suspend the tune. The transition from the galloping beat to a softer guitar pattern feels casually executed. The shift to introspection lets the tune drift aimlessly. The mood deepens and the first note of lead guitar impinges, signaling growing concerns. A syncopated drum beat develops to support a cathartic, swirling lead. Each section may have been worked out, but the flow is natural.

Wilson’s compositions balance grand, epic gestures with softer, thoughtful moments. “The Blind House,” see-saws between a grinding metallic groove and sparsely backed vocals. The lyrics are threatening and the heavy breaks give the song a psychic heft. This weight fits the larger theme behind “The Incident”, reflecting the human traumas behind impersonal news stories. The suite wraps up with “I Drive the Hearse”, which offers a delicate finish so the listener can decompress from the impact of the preceding tracks. The song meanders into a drawn out ending, allowing some of the tension to finally release.

The second disc contrasts the coordinated flow of disc one, pulling in songs from across the band’s catalog. They reach all the way back to 1995’s “Stars Die”. Porcupine Tree give themselves permission to loosen up the arrangements on this older material. The material from the Chicago show is solid, but the two longer tracks from the Royal Albert Hall concert deliver the peaks. The full length, extended version of “Even Less”, originally released on the compilation Recordings (2001), stretches into an epic journey. The first half’s pain and anger drifts into an ambient spaciness before coalescing back into a more intense bass-driven interlude that sets up a return to the main theme. The closing track is the moody “Arriving Somewhere but Not Here” from Deadwing (2005). Wilson’s breathy vocals insinuate unseen dangers as the music layers in a subtle sense of disquiet. The tempo and rhythmic power build to set up the metallic shred section that forms the heart of the song. The collapse into a jazzier guitar line offers a moment of relief before picking up the verse again. I love the dynamic progression: the thoughtful start begins the story until it erupts into a more visceral headbanging beat only to fall into the softer end section.

The contrast between the two halves of Octane Twisted offers a choice between the studio-style clarity of the first disc and the looser arrangements of the second. Either selection has its strengths, but unfortunately neither offers what fans really want, which is new material from Porcupine Tree.

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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