Steven Wilson @ Symphony Hall, Birmingham – Thursday 22nd March 2018


Musical and Visual Masterclass…….

Review by Andrew Manning

The lights go down and an announcer’s deep voice booms across the venue “Good evening and welcome to tonight’s concert. The musicians will shortly be arriving on stage but before they do we would ask you to view the following short film designed to gauge what kind of response you will have to the performance…” As the audience view the film ‘Truth’ it is an opportune time to reflect upon the fierce debate that has been raging about the music of Steven Wilson and to look forward to the evening ahead. Tonight’s visit to the Symphony Hall is part of a long European tour supporting the ‘To The Bone’ album released in 2017 which has seen another deviation in the journey of this songwriting visionary who proudly talks about much of the new music being of a progressive pop nature inspired by the records of his youth. This has divided opinions but what is very clear is that his popularity is on an upward trajectory as evidenced by the new album peaking at number 3 in the UK album charts and the current sold out shows across the country including tonight.

‘Nowhere Now’ is first up with its melancholic melody building up in tempo as the song progresses. The sound is perfect as the band perform behind a see through screen with the music immediately reflecting where he is currently at musically. The spectacular visual effects come to the fore on the screen during ‘Pariah’ with Ninet Tayeb being projected in front of the band as she lends her voice to the beautiful song which ends in a crescendo with colourful images radiating out from the back of the stage. An introductory spiel from Wilson focuses on the importance of chemistry between the band and a seated audience as all present are encouraged to “freely express their enthusiasm no matter how inappropriate it may seem” as the band move onto ‘Home Invasion’. Starting the song on keyboards Nick Beggs, of Kajagoogoo fame and more recently Steve Hackett, then moves over to the Chapman Stick as he theatrically plucks bass lines and creates sonic textures throughout the track.

At times the sound levels were monstrously loud, but not overbearing, particularly during parts of ‘The Creator Has a Mastertape’ which really created a wonderful grungy type musical experience. This was the first of seven Porcupine Tree numbers given an airing tonight but it was interesting to note that Wilson did not mention his former band name all evening only referring to the music as being from his back catalogue. For long time fans of his musical heritage there was a perfect blend across the evening of new and old. A delicate keyboard intro from Adam Holzman, a renowned American jazz keyboardist who also played on 2112 by Rush, took us into the heart of ‘Refuge’ one of the most moving tracks off the new album. A song about the refugee camps in Calais which built up to an epic sounding mid section before breaking back down again as the audience are left staring at images of lifebelts being washed up on an empty beach.

Steven Wilson
Steven Wilson

A key component to the new Wilson sound is attributed to his purchase of a 1963 Custom Shop Fender Telecaster guitar which provided an angry and aggressive sound during ‘People Who Eat Darkness’. The first half of the show climaxed with ‘Ancestral’ from ‘Hand. Cannot, Erase’ a song which builds and builds as spiralling layers of guitars and keys were added throughout by Alex Hutchings (guitar) and Holzman. This was a real piece of art that required the audience to devote their undivided attention to the intricacies being performed by this elite group of musicians.

‘Don’t Hate Me’ from the ‘Stupid Dream’ album by Porcupine Tree signalled the start of the second half of the show and it was then time for some serious disco dancing as Wilson encouraged everyone to stand up and boogie to the sound of ‘Permanating’. This well crafted pop song produced a nice uplifting brief interlude amongst the longer progressive numbers. It may be a controversial track for some Wilson fans but it went down a storm and in the words of the main man “If you don’t like this….I don’t care”. The cinematic sounding ‘Song of I” was then followed by ‘Lazarus’ which featured some soft piano and guitar work, accompanied by great vocals and lyrics.

‘Detonation’ from the new album was a display of hard hitting progressive rock which really took off with some delicious prog metal riffs from Hutchings. It was another example of Wilson communicating his thoughts and emotions with a series of engaging musical variations. His vocal performance from start to finish tonight showed great power and clarity with a measure of complete confidence ably demonstrated with a shift into falsetto mode on ‘The Same Asylum as Before’. ‘Heartattack in a Layby’ and the instrumental ‘Vermillioncore’ showed how much this band are right on top of their game as they were given the opportunity to truly shine like beacons on the stage proving what great chemistry exists between them with some pitch perfect harmony vocals from all on the former number enhanced by some surround sound speakers at the rear of the hall. The main set finished with the dark and menacing ‘Sleep Together’ with its pulsing keyboards and pounding drums courtesy of Craig Blundell. A perfect exhilarating way to end the show.

Wilson took to the stage on his own for the first part of the encore which was a stripped down version of ‘Even Less’ and was then rejoined by all for ‘The Sound of Muzak’. It was finally time to bring the curtain down with ‘The Raven That Refused to Sing’ a real moving minimalistic way to finish proceedings. The performance, energy and ambience across nearly 3 hours of music was outstanding and it will be hard to see many gigs in 2018 outshine this.

Intro (Truth – short film)

Set One
Nowhere Now
Home Invasion
Regret #9
The Creator Has a Mastertape
People Who Eat Darkness

Set Two
Don’t Hate Me
Song of I
The Same Asylum as Before
Heartattack in a Layby
Sleep Together

Even Less
The Sound of Muzak
The Raven That Refused to Sing