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Porcupine Tree @ Terminal 5

People often ask me “Why is it called ‘progressive’ rock? What’s so ‘progressive’ about it? Shouldn’t it be called ‘stupidly complicated self-important bullshit?'”(to which I usually say this) The truthful answer is that ‘progressive’ refers more to the genre back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and the name has simply stuck since then. That isn’t to say though that a lot of progressive rock bands haven’t had their sounds ‘progress’ over time. Porcupine Tree might be one of the best examples of this.

Over on the left, someone was stealing their car.

Over on the left, someone was stealing their car.

Porcupine Tree started out as just Steven Wilson, and the music he produced was very different from what you’ll find the band making today. Under the guise of Porcupine Tree, a name that actually started out as a joke between Wilson and a friend (what, you think anyone would actually have a good reason for naming their band Porcupine Tree? Prog isn’t THAT pretentious), Wilson started recording music that focused on soundscapes and was more akin to trance, psychedelic, and noise rock. The music evolved from there, and as the project grew in popularity Wilson was basically forced to include other musicians so that live performances could happen. With the addition of Richard Barbieri (ex-80s art rock band Japan) on keyboards, Colin Edwin on bass, and Chris Maitland on drums Porcupine Tree’s music started to change into something much more structured and easily accessible to the public ear. The band’s sound continued to change over time, with a major shift happening in 2001 when Maitland left the band and was replaced with Gavin Harrison, who is currently regarded as one of the most talented drummers in prog rock. The band’s sound over the last 5 years has gotten significantly heavier, most likely due to Wilson’s work with death metal band Opeth.

Porcupine Tree was probably the second modern progressive rock band that I discovered, and they’ve always been the prog band that I figured would eventually develop the biggest fan base. Not only is their music amazing, but their music doesn’t fall into a lot of the traps that usually kill a prog band’s momentum. Their songs aren’t about totally inaccessible concepts like the behavior of subatomic particles, the music isn’t so complicated that you need a masters in jazz performance to understand what’s going on, and the songs are short enough that you can actually squeeze them into a radio edit without totally destroying the product. They aren’t the biggest prog rock band in the world currently (Dream Theater currently holds that title, but their success is always associated with national tragedies for some reason, so I’m hoping they stop selling albums before we’re all killed), but their latest album The Incident debuted at #25 on Billboard’s top 200 and #7 on their Rock chart.

I’ve seen PT two times before this, and while I’ve been extremely happy to see the band grow, each time I’ve seen them it’s been in a progressively (ha!) larger venue and resulted in a less and less intimate experience with the band. Not that this is a bad thing in some ways, as both of my previous PT concerts have been slight adventures. The first time I saw them was in college with a friend who I had introduced to the band that year. For some reason I was able to convince him to drive 3 hours from Schenectady, New York, where we were going to school, to Syracuse, for a band he had just started listening to. The band was playing in a small bar that held about 200 people, which was cool because we ended up being only 10 feet away from Wilson. It was also next to a strip club, which sounds like a good thing, but in reality it just made the area around it sketchy and unsafe. Honestly I have no idea who booked them there or why, but I’m glad they did because it was a GREAT show and I can say I saw the band in a tiny little shit hole.

Club Tundra in Syracuse, NY. Biggest asset: Bar 30 feet away from the front of the stage.

Club Tundra in Syracuse, NY. Biggest asset: Bar 50 feet away from the front of the stage.

The next time they came to the US (they’re British, did I not say that?) the same friend and I drove 3 hours in a totally different direction, this time to see them in Boston. This time we saw them in an actual theater and instead of getting 10 feet away from Wilson we were probably 3 million feet away. At least that’s what it felt like in comparison. Again it was a great show and totally worth it, but I did feel like I was in even more danger than I had been at the sketchy strip club bar. I made the mistake of wearing my fraternity letters, and as I have since learned, progressive rock fans are not generally members or fans of members of fraternities. Something about being socially isolated their entire lives. We made it out of Boston without incident, and the show was once again phenomenal.  They previewed some of the (good) material that ended up on their next album, which was really cool to hear for the first time with hundreds of other fans.

So after missing them on their last tour for various reasons, I really wanted to be sure that I saw them on this one. Now living in Manhattan, I have the advantage of not having to drive 3 hours to concerts anymore (minus Summer festivals, and All Points West does NOT fucking count). Now I simply have to walk 3 blocks over to times square to the Nokia Theater, walk down 10ish blocks to MSG or the Hammerstein Ballroom, take the subway up to the Beacon Theater, or walk 10 blocks up to get to Terminal 5 (I kind of live in the best location ever in the history of Manhattan), where PT ended up playing in NYC this time around. The same friend and I thus made the epic trek up to Terminal 5 (not before stopping at The Pony Bar, delicious American craft  beer goes extremely well with progressive rock) for our 3rd PT show.

For those who haven’t been to Terminal 5, you kind of have to know where it is (usually the entrance isn’t blocked by vans, I assume). It’s on a side street on the far west side of Manhattan, and there’s no giant TERMINAL 5 sign anywhere. It’s in the middle of about 8 billion car dealerships, so if your car gets stolen or you don’t feel like paying for parking, you can just buy a new car after the show. Once you get in it’s kind of like an M.C. Escher painting in that you’re confronted with lots of random staircases that take you up, down, around, and who knows where else. There’s an outdoor area with a bar and lots of couches covered in pigeon shit that they stick you in if you show up before the show. It would be a nice area to hang out in if it wasn’t so fucking grimy from being outside. The bar was also serving something that looked like fried hot pockets. Still undecided if this is a great or horrible concept.

So they eventually funnel you out of the pigeon shit lounge up and down more staircases and into the actual venue:

A drum set this sized fits two-three normal drummers, or one prog drummer.

This is actually an optical illusion. If you're a normal drummer you see two or three drum sets, and if you're a prog drummer you see one.

As you can see, those on the bottom floor are packed in tightly enough that there are probably a few accidental pregnancies every show. Now usually I’m of the opinion that, if I’m seeing a show, I want to be as close as possible, otherwise why go see a show? Otherwise you might as well just put in a DVD and turn your stereo up enough to cause permanent structural damage to your living room and save the money on the concert ticket. However for this show I ended up on the 2nd floor on one of the railings. After the usual waiting and chatting with the other concert goers the opener appeared, King’s X.

Now one of the things I had always heard about Terminal 5 was that the sound was HORRIBLE there. However PT has always been known for making sure their concerts sound crystal clear, so I was going into this show with an open mind. That open mind was immediately filled to capacity by whoever was doing sound for Kings X. It was almost impossible to discern different bass notes, and the cymbals on the drummer’s kit might as well have been not miced, because you couldn’t hear them resonate at all. I was most pissed over the fact that Doug Pinnick’s amazing vocals were so far down in the mix. I enjoyed the show for what it was, but going into PT I was scared for what their set was going to sound like.

Luckily whatever issues were going on with King’s X were totally absent with PT. All of the instruments came through clearly and the band itself was extremely tight. They opened with the entire first disk of their new album and their performance totally redefined my opinion of said album, which to this point had been positive but not stellar. After this show the entire album has shot way up in my mind. The second set was all older tunes with the exception of one new song from the second disk of the new album. Again, spectacular. Absolutely crushing versions of some of their heaviest tunes as well as appearances by some of their less often heard songs. A full set list is at the bottom.

One thing I did have a problem with was the lighting they had. The light show was pretty mediocre, and I think Gavin Harrison was playing in complete darkness the entire time. I seriously could barely ever see him. I know Wilson also puts a lot of thought into the video package that plays with each song, but I honestly don’t think I looked at the screen behind the band more than twice. The action is on stage, let us see the fucking musicians!

All in all, a great concert experience. Terminal 5 isn’t anywhere near the top of my list for venues, but I won’t bitch about seeing a show there if the show itself is good. Next time I’m gonna try to get on the floor and see what the experience is like there, where hopefully my height advantage will give me a good view while keeping other people from seeing anything.

Setlist:

The Incident
-intermission-
Start of Something Beautiful
Russia on Ice/Anesthetize
Remember Me Lover
Strip the Soul/3
Mother and Child Divided
-encore-
Sound of Muzak
Trains

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