Steven Wilson is considered the patriarch of modern progressive rock. He began his musical journey in the early eighties, however, he didn’t find the direction that would inform the entirety of his career until he formed No Man in 1990. No Man was the embryonic band of Porcupine Tree – who would propel Wilson to his lofty title. Unlike many other modern bands falling under the prog banner, Wilson firmly swerved PT away from the flute and lute stylings of some and the progressive metal leans of others, all the while not sounding like a rehash of PinKingGeneYes. While he has spoken of the strong early influences of Pink Floyd, he equally extolled the virtues of pop music in his impressionable musical years. Hailed as the most original progressive rock band of the post-Genesis era, Porcupine Tree blended their heavier prog rock with modern rock styles as well as ambient, electronic and industrial sounds. A single album went from dark to light, song to song.
While much of Wilson’s legacy will be told through Porcupine Tree, he firmly walked away from that project after 10 studio albums in 2009. While this prolific artist has always maintained multiple projects (choosing to refrain from marriage or children to remain wholly focused on his music) opposed to being attached to a single band, he seems to have committed to releasing music mostly as a name artist. Following the folding of Porcupine Tree, Wilson has released 5 ‘solo’ albums, though hardly alone. Since convincing former members of New Romantic founders, Japan to be his first band members way back, Wilson has always surrounded himself with formidable associates. His solo projects have included contributions from Tony Levin, Jordan Rudess, Trey Gunn, Steve Hackett, Guthrie Govan, Alan Parsons, Chad Wackerman and Andy Partridge. His latest release, To The Bone, has been hailed as not only one of his strongest to date but also his deepest stirring of bright pop colours into his more recurrent base of darker tones. Released in the summer of 2017, Steven Wilson didn’t take long to hit the road in support of his latest effort. Performing for fans in 19 countries, he came to Canada to play a show each in Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto, on April 22. Sold out shortly after going on sale, it was a packed but seated house in attendance at the Danforth Music Hall.
The show began with an introductory and seemingly pointless film before the band came onstage. Projected on a mesh at the front of the stage, this visual along with back of stage video screen helped tell the stories being performed. Wilson started the show with voice and guitar before building to the crash of the lovely Nowhere Now from the latest album. Six of the songs in the first set came from Wilson’s two latest albums, including another lovely song, Pariah, which included the projected video of vocalist Ninet Tayeb, who sings on the studio version. It made for a surreal but sweet duet. Next was the proggy jam, Home Invasion into Floydesque Regret #9 from previous album, Hand. Cannot. Erase. The latter song was punctuated by a searing Moog solo by ace keyboardist (and former Miles Davis sideman), Adam Holzman and the night’s first ripper from lead guitarist, Alex Hutchings. To great delight, the show contained a couple trade-offs between Hutchings and Wilson. Settling in the bottom end was drummer, Craig Blundell and long-time bassist and Chapman stickist(?), Nick Beggs. Both shone through their subtlety AND complexity. The first set also included To The Bone‘s People Who Eat Darkness, Wilson’s reaction to the Bataclan attack. This intense song was accompanied by an even more intense animated video depicting a man who witnesses a monstrous apocalypse beginning in the apartment across the street. It was gloriously dark. Wilson was, against assumption, outgoing, chatty and humorous in his banter. Early on, he warned a mostly middle-aged man-prog audience that the night would include some disco dancing, more on that later. He also introduced his new 1963 Telecaster, insisting that he’s never viewed instruments as more than tools but that this one was special and needed help from the audience to find a name. Sadly, Toronto find that name.
The second set stepped back in time to revisit some Porcupine Tree songs. Wilson explained that he doesn’t like revisiting much of Porcupine Tree’s catalog because he has deemed much of it ‘shit’. This was almost as unwelcome a statement as insisting the audience dance. But he did open the set with a driving version of Arriving Somewhere But Not Here then peppering it with Lazarus, Heart Attack In A Layby and Sleep Together. Prior to playing the second song of the set, Wilson, as promised, mentioned that coming up was when we all had to dance. Again, skirting stereotypes, he spoke of how he grew up in a household where there were no ‘guilty pleasures’ when it came to music and that the two albums that informed his future were, understandably, Dark Side of the Moon and Donna Summer’s Love To Love You. He went on to praise pop acts such as the Carpenters, ABBA, Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears as important in his formation. Wilson stated that he heard (as he’s not present personally on any social media, no surprise there) that the pure pop sensibility of the next song had upset some of his more rigid fans and fact made him VERY happy. The song he was introducing is the unabashedly pleasant pop, Permananting, off the latest album. And while the entire audience stood, indeed, there were some of us dancing along.
The set ended to uproarious applause and cheers and the crowd rose to Wilson’s challenge of being the loudest in Canada. Quickly, Wilson reappeared for the three song encore. Pleasing the crowd for the end of the show, Wilson started the encore with fan fave, Even Less off Porcupine Tree’s 1999 release, Stupid Dream. A song that is generally known as a full band ensemble performance, Wilson carried out and plugged his still-unnamed Tele into a tiny amplifier and treated the crowd to a solo rendition. Penultimately, Wilson played another favourite, Sound of Muzak, his scathing thesis on modern music and its industry. The last song of the night was the lovely Song of Unborn from To The Bone. A song that is a letter to all children including the ones he’s chosen to never father. The lyrics are cautionary but instructive and ultimately, inspiring hope. As a salve for much of the dark music he had been playing for the last three hours, Wilson sent the Toronto effusively applauding audience into the night with this lyrical advice:
Don’t be afraid to die
Don’t be afraid to be alive
The To The Bone tour finishes up the North American leg in Phoenix on May 14th before heading south through Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Brazil before playing a number of European headline and festival shows over the summer. Steven Wilson finishes up the tour in Japan, Australia and New Zealand in the fall.