Pink Floyd is a heavy cross to bear. Monday night at the 9:30 Club, England’s Porcupine Tree declined to carry the weight, showing that those who have dismissed the band as mere Floyd revivalists just don’t get it.
True, there is a dose of David Gilmour in Steven Wilson’s lead guitar and more than a dab of Roger Waters’ morbid world outlook in his terminally bleak lyrics. Further, Mr. Wilson admits spending a good deal of his youth in the 1980s — “a really bad time for music,” he says — listening to Floyd’s acid-drenched 1969 “Umma Gumma” album. But the constant comparisons, flattering or otherwise, to Pink Floyd have become his bane — a real Ummer Bummer.
Before the show, Mr. Wilson said his influences range from King Crimson to Miles Davis to Donna Summer and “someone from just about every musical genre you can name.” The band pulled threads from those diverse influences and sewed them into something new and adventurous in a 90-minute set that leaned heavily on 2002’s “In Absentia” album.
Actually, if Mr. Wilson has a true spiritual godfather among the progressive-rock musicians of late 1960s and early 1970s, he showed that it is really Robert Fripp and the “Red”-era King Crimson, both in overall dynamics and riffing. This was plainly evident on the colossal instrumental coda for “Gravity Eyelids,” which even had the metal-heads who had come for opening act Opeth headbanging with a vengeance.
Mr. Wilson is a former teen prodigy who for a time was Porcupine Tree, supplying all the instrumental work and vocals on the first two albums. He still supplies guitar, vocals and some keyboards, but his real instrument is the recording studio, which he has mastered like a latter-day Brian Wilson, another of his idols.
In these genre-crossing times, the best rock music requires a hyphen or two, but in the case of the Tree’s performance, that just wouldn’t be enough. How does neo-progressive-grunge-psychedelic-metal-pop-rock grab you?
The opener, “Blackest Eyes,” hovered at the intersection where modernity and classicism collide. The symmetry and lilting melody of the pop-rock passages of the song wrestled with the abstraction and dissonance of the Soundgarden-like grunge on the instrumental parts. Few artists cover this much ground in an entire album, let alone one song.
“For me, ‘Blackest Eyes’ is probably the most successful of the band’s attempts to encapsulate everything we are about in a four-minute song,” Mr. Wilson said. “We live in a culture where it’s all about what you can convey in three or four minutes; we gave it our best shot on that one.” Four minutes is a small target for a band that has often recorded 18-minute-plus concept tracks.
The visuals projected on an overhead screen were even bleaker and more disturbing than the lyrics of “In Absentia,” which explores the psychological state of those who commit acts of child abuse and murder. Watching the images pulsate to the music was like taking a trip to the cottage of the Blair Witch’s even nastier next-door neighbor.
What was sorely missed was the Tangerine Dream-like pastoral-ambient soundscapes that dominated the band’s early works, such as “The Sky Moves Sideways.” The inclusion of even one number in that vein would have provided a foil to the hard-edged, nearly industrial-grade rock that dominated the performance.
When you deconstruct Porcupine Tree, none of the elements seems capable of lifting the music to such extraordinary heights. Mr. Wilson’s vocals, while pleasant and well-fitted to the music, are certainly nothing to write home about. All the band members are good, solid musicians, but no more. They include ex-Japan keyboardist Richard Barbieri, fretless bassist Colin Irwin and drummer Gavin Harrison. For this tour, John Wesley is on second guitar and harmony vocals. Yet all the elements gel to create something far greater than the sum of the parts.
Opeth, a Swedish death-metal band, disappointed a few of the headbangers in the audience by playing mostly mellow, semiacoustic numbers from the band’s new “Damnation” album, which Mr. Wilson produced. However, singer-guitarist Mikael Akerfeldt said the band needs to stretch out and try something new. “Besides,” he noted, “we only brought the small amplifiers and single-bass drum kit.”
Most of the crowd seemed to react well to the change in direction, but Mr. Akerfeldt repeatedly apologized, with a crooked grin, for the lack of metal in the set and assured the fans that when Opeth next returns to the District, it will be doing a high-octane metal set.
Too bad, because the “Damnation” material is striking, with soft, haunting vocals and acoustic guitars riding on a carpet of lush mellotrons and other keyboards. One of the highlights of the band’s 90-minute set was an instrumental “Ending Credits,” which Mr. Akerfeldt said was a “rip-off” of English prog-rockers Camel.