Steven Wilson, Palais Theatre, Melbourne. November 10, 2018
Review: Joshua Batten Photos: Sam Irving
Depending upon who you speak to, Steven Wilson is either the king of contemporary Prog Rock or a reverse-engineered attention seeker. In other words, he could be construed as the guy who’s trying to be commercially successful while making non-commercial music. Still, whenever Wilson comes to Australia, it’s a pilgrimage for prog fans young and old, all converging in one place to listen to songs that run for upwards of 10-13 minutes, with shoegazer-inspired guitar chugging, heart-tugging melodic passages, and heavy riffs in odd time signatures.
After two successful club tours of Australia, this was Wilson’s first show at St Kilda’s Palais Theatre. The upside of this meant that he and his band had a lot more space to work with, and his rear screen projections and light show could be seen clearly throughout the venue. Unlike previous video openings to SW concerts, which were more akin to Art Installations beginning as the doors opened and ending as the band walked onstage half an hour later, tonight as soon as the lights dimmed the show began with two minute short video called “Truth”. The video is a bit too complicated to explain here, but suffice to say it did fit in with the theme of the To The Bone album and its title track, which deals with the modern issue of truth as an absolute being questioned, as the rise of fake news and strong political ideals becomes more prevalent. I therefore found it strange that the band chose to open the show not with “To The Bone” but with the album’s second track “Nowhere Now”, which deals more with society moving backwards. This was followed by the album’s first single “Pariah”, which features vocals from Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb, whose parts were played off a tape with footage of her projected onto the rear screen.
The Palais is a seated venue, which works well for some of his older and much younger supporters who wouldn’t have attended the show otherwise, but doesn’t work so well for his core fanbase of Metalheads who are used to standing for the duration of the show. Wilson himself acknowledged this in his first talking spot of the evening, at which point he asked us to come to a compromise – sit for the first half of the show, stand for the second. The rest of the first half consisted mostly of the more experimental tunes from Wilson’s solo catalogue, including “Home Invasion/Regret #9”, “Refuge” and “Ancestral”. These songs showcased Wilson’s composition side, while also allowing for solo spots from keyboard player Adam Holtzman and guitarist Alex Hutchings. “Ancestral” had the most complicated light show of the night, while “Regret #9” and “The Same Asylum As Before” featured some bizarre rear screen videos that tried to bridge the gap between surrealism and reality.
After the intermission, everyone in the audience stood up, and immediately the whole vibe changed. As the Porcupine Tree epic “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here” slowly took shape, the enthusiasm from longtime fans became apparent with plenty of people singing along. This was one of many Porcupine Tree songs I’d never heard live before, and as such it was one of the highlights of the evening. Wilson then gave a lecture on the beauty of classic “Pop music”, and how it used to refer to things like ABBA and The Beatles, not Justin Bieber and The X Factor. With this notion, he encouraged us to do some “Disco dancing” to an “unashamedly joyous piece of pop music” and launched straight into “Permanating”. Even though this track has polarised some of Wilson’s core fans, everyone in the room seemed to enjoy it, from the musicians onstage to the fans in the back row.
For the rest of the second set, Wilson & co presented some newer tracks like “Song Of I” and “Detonation” and songs that were played at his last Melbourne show, including “Vermillioncore” and “Sleep Together”. Given that Wilson seems to be so interested in sophisticated pop music, I expected more of those kind of songs from his back catalogue, like “Halo”, “Piano Lessons” or “Harmony Korine” … but then the encore came.
Re-entering the stage solo with just his Fender Telecaster, Wilson launched into a ‘busker’ version of “Even Less”, a song which hadn’t been performed on either of PT’s Australian tours, and one of my personal favourites. To hear it played in a stripped back setting was amazing, and it was followed directly by my two other favourites, “The Sound Of Muzak” (“A miserable song with a catchy chorus”), and “The Raven That Refused To Sing” (“Just plain miserable”) complete with Jess Cope’s haunting stop-motion animation telling the story in front of our eyes.
Special credit needs to go to the members of Wilson’s backing band, who are all technically proficient in their own right. The aforementioned Holtzman and Hutchings have great jazz fusion chops which they used to advance the technicality onstage, drummer Craig Blundell is super-tight and powerful with occasional extra fills to add a bit of difference to the recorded versions of the songs, and bassist Nick Beggs switched between picked, fingered and slapped bass as well as adding Chapman stick and powerful backing vocals to several songs.
Going to a Steven Wilson concert for the first time is like a rite of passage for progressive rock fans and music fans in general. However, if you’ve already seen him in an intimate club setting like I have, it can be hard to make the switch over to a larger theatre. Still, his show is one of the few that comes to Australia which combines musical virtuosity with choreographed lighting & carefully planned visuals. If you’re interested in music of the Radiohead/Muse/Pink Floyd vibe with a bit of Metal thrown in, check out Steve’s music and start saving for his next tour – you’ll certainly get something out of it.