Venue : Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London
Date : 15 May 2012
It is the usual problem in Shepherd’s Bush – there is nowhere to park without having to pay through the teeth. Roadside parking restrictions are in place until 2000, and before then it is £2.80 per hour. I did not have enough loose change for that, so ended up paying £15 to park in the NCP car park. That is more than it costs me to go to a gig at The Peel. Anyway, enough of my little rant and on to the gig itself, and the tickets for this were a Christmas present from Debbie. I did have to wonder if she knew what she had let herself in for, because she was coming too. Very soon after getting there I saw Carla, who was over from Portugal for yet another gig, leaving the hot, sunny weather behind her. Not long after that Robert Ramsay from Tinyfish arrives (and we are wearing the same tshirt…but then the Tinyfish RoSfest tshirt is an excellent one, designed by Jim Sanders), and I have just seen Danny Cavanagh, the guitarist from Anathema. Debbie arrives just after James and Karin. James writes the most excellent blog, by the way, and you should go and check it out before the doors open here. Twang and Geoff Banks are handing out flyers for Celebr8. I already have our tickets for that, and just have to find a way to let Debbie know she is lucky enough to be going to a full weekend of Prog. That should be an interesting conversation. Just one more thing before we get going – you will have seen a lot of links so far, and there will be more. Please click on them because they will take you to some wonderful places, and it took me ages to add them. Literally seconds. Right. It’s showtime. Or, at least, the doors are opening.
We are near the front of the queue to go in and I make my way to the merchandise stall. There is no mad rush from me to get to the front of the stage this time, not least because I have never been that keen on the Shepherd’s Bush Empire as a venue, and especially not down at the front. I buy the limited edition vinyl of catalogue | preserve | amass, and a copy of the excellent comic, Steven Wilson’s Day Off, which has been put together by Nick Beggs. 12 pages, and not one smile from Steven Wilson. And then I spend the rest of this year’s disposable income on three drinks and two small cartons of Pringles. The Pringles remind me of Peru, which is where I was when this tour previously came to London. I am glad it came back for more. The venue fills up nicely and we take a place in the middle of the standing area. There is a screen across the front of the stage and images are being projected on to it. The final set of images being projected show a figure outside moving towards us and in the end it makes it look as though the figure (which, for the purposes of dramatic effect, I am going to say has the silhouette of Steven Wilson) is outside the window staring at us. Steven Wilson never smiles, you know. Fact. The screen stays up, the music we have been listening to keeps droning and Marco Minnemann on the drums kicks the set off with a jazzy feel into No Twilight Within The Court Of The Sun, which comes from Steven Wilson’s first solo album, Insurgentes. The projected image disappears from the screen as Nick Begg‘s bass thumps in, buzzing. There are some wonderfully weird sounds from Adam Holzman on the keyboards, and then the guitar comes in sharp from Niko Tsonev. It is a different, extended opening to the album version, and each time a new sound is added the musician gets a spotlight on them. It is now a screeching, whining, jazzy sound as the flute comes in from Theo Travis. All the sounds are swirling sharp against the biting drums, developing into the album version of the track, and I am already very impressed with Marco’s playing. Of course, there are big cheers as Steven Wilson comes on to the stage, and the music continues into that siren sound. It quietens and then blasts away with big Porcupine Tree sounding riffing, before fading again as Steven sings in. His live vocals have really progressed over the last few years, and now they have a much more confident, rounded sound. The sound grows once more, swirling and echoing high, before another blasting section rocks us as his vocals sing out powerfully. It settles and then rolls along melodic with the guitar circling into a fast, pointed, piano part, tumbling away as it keeps pushing along, moving towards silence before the piano rolls through again. That fades into cheers from the eager crowd before it once again blasts away, into more riffing, to finish sharply. There are effects on Steven’s voice as he says good evening. A voice in the crowd shouts out “I love you, Steven !” and still with the effect on the voice he replies “I love you too” – he may not smile, but he has a brilliant sense of humour. They continue with Index, from the second solo album, Grace For Drowning, after Steven announces “I am a collector”, with images being projected on to the screen which is still across the front of the stage. There is a deep, sinister bass sound against some effects with rolls on the snare under the vocals as it edges along tight and minimal into the chorus, rising and then it breaks open and pushes on hard into buzzing riffing. It calms and returns to the original theme, building on that sound with Nick adding backing vocals while playing his bass part on his Chapman Stick. I do enjoy what he does with that. The drum fills are tight. In fact, the whole thing is tight and controlled, full of tension, even the vocals are more direct, as surging keyboards take it higher gradually and flood us into the chorus again, and the guitar sound comes through sharply. It is dramatic, thumping rock. Basic and all the more effective for that. And with a pulsing beat alongside drums rolls it comes to a full stop. A rich, melodic piano sound comes out of that halt as they go into Deform To Form A Star, a song which often appeared on my iPod Shuffle while I was in Peru. So I did not make the gigs in October and I was listening to an iPod – Steven will not have been pleased with that. The piano is melodic but still has a dry feel to it as it runs along before fading into the main theme of the track. The stage is covered in a red light as that part ends, and Steven sings and plays some keyboards as everything else edges in. The flute comes in high and gentle, flowing smoothly. The drums bite and the track pushes into a floating sound over the soaring, massive chorus. It shuffles out of that into weaving guitar, producing a lovely, easy sound with a very hard edge. This really is a cutting edge, and the cutting edge is moved by a giant leap. The guitar sound grows into a screech as Nick adds backing vocals and the track rolls on majestic, soaring into the chorus again with the flute rising so high, the guitar bursting out of that and driving on. Then it suddenly all fades to keyboards, at once floating, then twinkling high, playing around with the main theme, with the guitar adding in. It fades out, then surges with the vocals now playing around, before it kicks away with the drums driving and the flute swirling on top of floating keyboards, then fades again to close. A wood scene is projected on to the screen as Steven strums in to the instrumental Sectarian and there are tri-tones aplenty. This is a different running order to the album and I must say I think it works very well. Nick is on the Chapman Stick again and the track breaks open with intent, those tri-tones, a discordant sound and then it riffs with a thump before the guitar rises out of it and pushes higher. It is shrieking now with a saxophone sound as it thumps into bursts of hard sound, before it suddenly settles into strumming and fades with the keyboards before deeper, sinister sounds push and it develops into discordant, avant garde keyboards with jazzy drums, and I see that Nick is on his bass for this part. Excellent playing from Adam as the song rolls along and it is so easy to get caught up in it all. It settles before returning to the original theme, and the sound rises again, pushing along as the screen disappears and the crowd cheers, before the track settles to flow to a finish. “So, here we are again,” Steven says, before adding, “the show is essentially the same old shit.” See – he really does have an excellent sense of humour. Postcard opens with a piano which reminds me of Lightbulb Sun-era Porcupine Tree, or maybe some early Blackfield, and Steven sings into the pulsing tempo as it ticks along. Marco adds in some shakers. One of the problems with this venue is that when Steven is sat at his keyboard I bet no-one can actually see him. Having said that, I have been very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the sound so far this evening, which is the main thing. The drums kick in and the sound soars and floats before fading out to the keyboards to finish. Another quite basic but very effective track, full of wonderful melodies. They continue straight on with a rounded, sinister sound from the keyboards to take us into Remainder The Black Dog, moving to a piano sound which Steven sings into. The cymbals tap in as the song gradually develops and then kicks into a shuffle of haunting sounds easing along. It carefully grows with more bass sounds into the flute and then riffs away hard and powerful into jazzy keyboards, with some organ for good measure, before moving in bursts with a wonderfully deep bassline, pushing into shrieking soprano saxophone from Theo, then driving away with a thumping beat as there is some more excellent guitar work from Niko while the whole song pierces and screeches. It comes together into the piano sound and pushes on some more, holding as it thumps, with saxophone blasting through (yes, Theo has changed instrument yet again, and you have to admire his versatility). The guitar circles before the sound breaks open, then settles into some more of those driving thumps over the organ sound to fade down to the original sinister, haunting piano until a rolling snare edges us on into wailing guitar with the piano circling behind it until once again the drums release us and it screeches on with flute trilling and floating on top. It is a heady mix of sounds which gradually fades out to very well deserved applause.
They continue with chiming guitar circling into Harmony Korine, the guitar sounding higher than on record, and Steven’s voice lower. The sounds drifting in are more direct, and it still taps open to such great effect. I am loving this sound, which is hardly a surprise as I have loved this song from the moment I first heard its opening hook. Nick is adding backing vocals as it settles and then begins to grow again, the sounds floating before blasting into the chorus and producing a rich, rounded, epic, anthemic sound which soars into pounding riffing. I cannot say just how stunning I think this track is. The drums are driving and holding it all tight before they release us into thumping bass and screeching guitar as it pounds relentlessly, then breaks open again and soars once more into the chorus, and then more sustained riffing as it bounces along before fading right out, then growing again as it develops the sound, hitting through the chorus once more before edging to a close and huge applause. The drums keep right on into Abandoner and Steven sings into the dreamy sound. Nick is on his Chapman Stick as the vocals push with some emotion. The guitar eases through with flute behind it and sharply circles as it develops. Then the track settles and edges on, another tight feel as the keyboards surge, a sense of expectation that it must break open soon. It holds as the flute plays around on top, trilling. High notes tap in, the cymbals tap, the tension remains. And then it breaks ! An industrial drilling as everything blasts, pounds, rumbles, and then fades to the floating keys which continued through that industrial sound, a gentle bassline, a close with a “thank you”. “This is where it gets a little more interesting” – Steven can be seen on the Insurgentes film writing and recording this track in a disused convent in Mexico City…so this is the title track, Insurgentes, and this tour is the first time they are playing it live, because Steven was never sure it would work in a live environment. On the evidence of this evening, it really does. Deep piano sounds come in slowly and are joined by floating, surging higher keyboard sounds, which fade out as he sings. It gradually begins to grow from its simple beginnings, more from the piano, the cymbals are tapping, the keyboards and guitar develop, some Chapman Stick with the soprano saxophone, backing vocals from Nick. A more rounded sound now, the drums beating against it. The soprano saxophone becomes more prominent and develops, before everything fades to a higher piano sound to close. Quite beautiful. “This is where it gets really exciting. For us, anyway”. He tells us that his next project will be with this band, and this is a new song from them. “This is quite epic. You will like it if you like Prog, and if you don’t like Prog then get out.” This is called Luminol. The drums pound in, in bursts, then it rattles away avant garde before coming together and pushing with a melodic rounded sound, the bass playing around behind it. The sound is very busy, with a lot going on, before it holds for a vocal harmony and then blasts on again. It holds once more for a lovely bass part and the crowd clap along as it rumbles. Then more avant garde sounds jumbling as the drums rattle, some keyboards swirl and float, an electronica edge to the sound before it comes together and rocks, pushing into blasting bursts, holding into the guitar, fading almost to silence, and then continuing as Steven adds guitar and sings as it holds. The sounds are floating out and hanging before the flute comes in to join a martial beat. Nick adds some more backing vocals as it gradually, gently builds, such a different feel to the beginning section. It slides into rolling piano, a little jazzy, then taps along with vocal sounds before fading to rising flute. That section comes to an end with thumping bass, then the flute rises again as the drums pound, and a massive sound soars through, everything moving higher before settling down to the guitar. It holds as the guitar edges along, until the drums pound then rock us away with shrieking guitar and another massive sound bursts on. Deep saxophone is added to the track as it pushes in blasts of sound to a sudden end. Maybe this has been experimental progressive industrial jazz. In any event, it was a more than interesting listen and it will be fascinating to hear how it develops into a studio recording – it takes me back to my time in the 80s when I followed the progression of IQ’s The Wake and Marillion’s Fugazi from the live arena to the record. Funny to think that later this year I will be going to see IQ at Celebr8, and that I will be going to see DeeExpus supporting Marillion. Back to this gig, and they continue straight on with No Part Of Me, high notes against the drums gently pounding and tapping, Nick on Chapman Stick, the guitar edging with the soprano saxophone, both keyboards flooding under it all. It is an easy, haunting sound circling fast as Steven sings in, the sound pushing as it grows, busy and rising higher to float. Then Steven is on guitar and he riffs through, and it is suddenly harder, so much more aggressive as it repeats, before it breaks open to blast into piercing soprano saxophone with driving drums. Oh, you cannot help but admire the musicianship on show here as they move it seemlessly in phases, from one feel to another, before premature applause from the crowd as the saxophone comes to an end and then it fades out eventually. “Yeah, that’s where the song ends,” is the comment from the stage. Steven tells us that the source of all material for songs is trains (big cheer), chicks and serial killers, and while the UK has produced its share of serial killers, the USA excels at that type of thing and the next song is about Dennis Lynn Rader, an American serial killer who went under the name of BTK. The song is, of course, Raider II. It opens with the most wonderful deep piano chords. They are then repeated with soprano saxophone added. And again, as it is moving so slowly. Steven finally talks in against the deep sounds, almost whispering. It is a pity the crowd cannot shut up. In a very good way, the track is really taking its time to get going, building the tension, creating the scene, before it suddenly breaks with a sinister blast (which always reminds me of a T-Rex hook) and the sounds soar. Steven sings into the bigger, buzzing sound as it pounds now, his voice very deliberate and becoming aggressive. It repeats into high trilling flute, develops, then flows out into keyboards and strumming guitar, before the keyboards develop with the flute. There are some vocal sounds as it holds and then develops some more with this beautiful melody, very much against the lyrical theme of the song – not unlike Blackest Eyes, then. It settles to Steven singing on top of the flute and guitar and it pushes into little blasts before riffing hard again then blasting away with that hook, the drums rattling headlong against circling guitar with the soprano saxophone coming in. It screeches high and rolls. Suddenly the drums halt us into jazzy sounds from Theo which swirl around as the track grows against some jazzy piano. The drums and bass keep it tight and then blast it away again, rattling headlong once more as it screams into a huge blast and hold. Eerie sounds swirl around and float higher to hang there. Nothing is moving. Then a cymbal ticks out time, the bass rumbles, vocal sounds float, and Steven talks into it as the guitar edges along with the sound. It practically stops, then opens up as the melodic guitar becomes more prominent and circles, joined by the flute playing with the main theme. The drums tap to release us and it pushes along as the flute develops higher with some trilling. There is some excellent bass keeping it moving along until it holds as Steven sings in, still with the main theme prominent, then it breaks open again with riffing and the drums release us once again as they shuffle the track along before it really cranks it up and a throbbing bass comes through as the higher sounds all push and soar and the vocals power towards a climax into more crashing sounds with Marco on his feet, Theo’s saxophone coming in discordant, screeching as the track continues to rise, pushing, pushing, relentless again, driving headlong to a powerful, sustained hold which itself crashes open to a sustained climax with massive applause and cheering, and Steven throws his plectrum away and walks off stage as the track fades down with a shriek to flute, keyboard sounds, thudding bass, occasional drums, and Adam walks off as Niko develops a part which shrieks as Theo goes off stage, then Niko himself departs, leaving Nick and Marco working a pulsing, ticking sound, the cymbals crashing it out as the bass sound fades and they both finally go off stage, leaving us transfixed, to end a stunning, epic track and a brilliant and very entertaining set. The cheering and applause is mighty and very well deserved.
Of course, they come back on. Theo is on Steven’s keyboards for the beginning of Get All You Deserve, another from Steven’s first solo album, Insurgentes. They have had a good mix of tracks between the two albums this evening. The piano comes in deep and slowly develops. Another very effective basic structure. Steven sings high on top of the piano as a wind sound pushes through. Nick is again on his Chapman Stick for this one. The piano sound is rich and rounded and it is taken up again as the singing continues, and the keyboards come through together with some gentle guitar. The drums tap with the Chapman Stick and the guitar surges with a distorted sound. Suddenly the sound is a lot bigger and so much more complex. Theo moves back to his saxophone and Steven puts on a respirator. He stands centre stage with his arms apart as the sound breaks open and we embrace the Prog messiah. He keeps the respirator on as he gets his guitar and riffs in to the powerful sound and it shrieks. The sound is massive, pounding, driving, drilling in and going all the way. You cannot resist it as the drums keep pounding and biting against the screeching, buzzing sounds and it keeps pushing, developing until it fades to silence and huge applause. Awesome. Steven introduces the band as the clapping and cheering continues. “Thank you and good night !” appears in handwriting on the back wall of the stage. He thanks the crew and then us. They all seem reluctant to leave the stage, to bring this to an end, but eventually they do and we all make our way out after a stunning performance of truly brilliant music from an outstanding group of musicians. I am already excited about the album they will produce.
As we exit, Geoff Banks is still there handing out flyers for Celebr8, and if you are reading this review and do not already know about this excellent Prog festival in London then you should click on the link and do yourself a favour and buy a ticket from The Merch Desk. It really is going to be something special, and especially with the bittersweet possibility of it being the final gig from Tinyfish.