I’m not usually the kind of music fan that thinks “if only I’d been around to see them live”. I’d much rather spend my energy being thankful for the amazing gigs I’ve been lucky enough to attend over the years, than fretting about the multitude of acts that passed me by. But one notable exception has always been Porcupine Tree. The rich textured atmospheres, the juggernaut riffs, the memorable and melodious hooks, that haunting balance between bleak and beautiful – the band was a perfect storm of intriguing ingredients that all combined to form a sound completely their own. They were one of the formative bands of my teenage years, and yet sadly had already called it a day as a band by the time I discovered them. Though I’ve dabbled in various side projects and solo work over the years, none of those records ever truly scratched that PT itch. But after twelve long years finally came the announcement of a new album, and with it an accompanying tour – a chance I never thought I’d get to see one of my favourite bands, can’t say no to that, can you?
An especially long and oft delayed train journey brought me down to Wembley for the final hometown gig of the Closure/Continuation Tour. After a whole day sat on crowded trains I’d have welcomed standing for a few hours, but sadly the night was a seated event (apparently one of only a handful on the whole tour), a fact that was bemoaned by fans and the band themselves alike. Standing would certainly have been a better fit; not that it would have made much difference to me up on the arena’s upper balcony mind, but given that the entire country was vying for tickets for one singular London date, I was lucky to get a spot at all. It’d been a while since I’d been to a gig where I wasn’t front and centre, so I was a little worried being so far away would hamper the experience, but the sound was superb and I had a great view to take in the entire spectacle. No opener; this was a long awaited reunion of one of the most influential modern prog bands after all, so even a colossal three hour set would only feel like a brief window into their catalogue.
The evening didn’t feel real until the opening riff of ‘Blackest Eyes’ snarled it’s way into the stadium, with the eerie eyeless figure from the In Absentia artwork staring out at the masses. Chills. It’s the song that many fans started their journey with, in a way everything the band is condensed into one accessible package, so it felt like the perfect way to kick off the show. From there the first set for the most part indulged in material from the new record. The ferocious bass riff of ‘Harridan’, ‘Of The New Day’s lush balladry, Richard’s airy synthscapes on ‘Dignity’. Sprinkled between we find a few deep cuts and older tracks; the bluesy opening slide guitar of old favourite ‘Even Less’ ringing out to a warm reception, B-side ‘Drown With Me’ sounding more than ever like the hit single that never was, and a rare appearance of Lightbulb Sun’s ‘Last Chance To Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled’. The new album’s swansong ‘Chimera’s Wreck’, with it’s ghostly gothic folk building towards an intricate and intense breakdown, brought the first set to a close for a much needed break to stretch my legs.
With the new tracks mostly all covered, the second set was where the fan favourites came out to play. The energising opening riff and Gavin’s propulsive drums on ‘Fear of a Blank Planet’ kicking things off with probably the biggest cheer of the night. That record was well represented in this half of the show, with the piano driven ‘Sentimental’ and their full 17 minute opus ‘Anesthetize’ both making appearances. I love the transformative power of live music, particularly how hearing a song live can be like hearing it again for the first time, making you see it in a whole new light. That was the case for ‘Sleep Together’, which before now I’d considered one of the weaker tracks on Blank Planet. The ominous electronics, the monstrous earth-shaking riff that lunges at you in the chorus, the grand Eastern influenced climax reminiscent of ‘Kashmir’ – it all finally fell into place for me. ‘Herd Culling’ was a similar revelation. Though already my highlight of the new record, hearing it live it more than held its own alongside some of the band’s biggest tracks. It bared its teeth and tore its way into being one of the highlights of the night, even amongst songs I grew up hoping one day to hear, thanks in no small part to the stunning light show and incredible accompanying visuals.
As fun as the more feral and intricate moments are, it’s not Porcupine Tree without the beautiful atmospheric moments to balance them out. The wonderfully bittersweet and highly underrated ‘I Drive The Hearse’ certainly delivered in that department, and so too did the piano balladry of ‘Collapse The Light Into Earth’. The latter saw a galaxy of phone lights flare into life, causing frontman Steven Wilson to choke up for a moment and forget the lyrics. Closing with their biggest “hit” ‘Trains’, the night proved to be everything I’d always hoped it would be. It was great to see Steven, Gavin and Richard back together and in peak form, and my thoughts on band politics aside the newcomers fit into their roles excellently. Guitarist Randy McStine captured the feel of the track in his solos while also injecting some of his own style, as well as providing superb backing vocals, while Nate Navarro’s bass was grounded and expressive for most of the show, although much too low in the mix on ‘Halo’.
Their new album left the question unanswered whether this was closure or continuation. Maybe this is just wishful thinking, but the show felt far too much like a joyous reunion for the all the fans present, and the setlist a bit too indulgent with new music, for this to be just one last hurrah. I remain hopeful for at least a handful more chances to make up for all the lost time. But if I’m being overly optimistic, and this proves to be the first and last time I see Porcupine Tree, then I feel immensely grateful and privileged to have been present for this incredible show.