Porcupine Tree's latest tour finds them playing the entirety of The Incident in sequence, followed by a second set of older material. Their Houston concert was both intense and entertaining.
Porcupine Tree rode into town for the first time since 2007, playing Houston’s House of Blues. Like most concerts at the HOB, this one started right on schedule at 8pm with opening act Bigelf. Bigelf is a band bursting with big hair and big riffs. All four members sported shoulder-length or longer manes, resembling either a ‘70s hard-rock act or a modern European metal band. Their sound is a similar combination, mixing bluesy ’70s-style prog-rock with the crunchier riffs of contemporary metal. Frontman/keyboardist Damon Fox tried his best to be dynamic, but he didn’t have much room for stage presence, stuck as he was sandwiched between keyboards. The songwriting was strong and Bigelf's performance was solid, though. The band knows its way around a catchy riff, and those riffs made the band’s longer songs more accessible for a first-time listener like myself.
Porcupine Tree hit the stage shortly thereafter and leapt into the crashing guitar chords of “Occam’s Razor”, the first track from 2009’s concept album The Incident. They followed with the next song, “Blind House”, which featured an extended spacey section in between its hard-hitting choruses. Then frontman Steven Wilson took time out to greet the crowd and marvel that it had been two-and-a-half years since the band last played Houston. He also said that they’d be playing the rest of The Incident straight through before getting to some older material. I know some of the band’s devotees aren’t huge fans of this latest album, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. It also translates very well to the live setting, with a nice ebb and flow from metal-influenced songs to quieter, piano-based material to the handful of poppier moments.
“Drawing the Line”, with its intense build-up, was a highlight, as was the album’s epic “Time Flies”. The song skates along on a sprightly, major-key acoustic guitar riff that immediately sets it apart from the rest of Porcupine Tree’s longer material. And the tonal shift to minor midway through the song works just as well live as it does on the album, building back to the major key finale via a dark, creepy electric guitar solo. The one surprising highlight of this first section of the show was The Incident’s title track. On the record it slides by, a bit of a mess of squalling electronics, half-chanted lyrics, and chunky, downtuned guitar work. But in concert those pieces fit together much better to create a dark, unsettling song, nicely amplified by the abstract images on the video screen behind the band.
With The Incident (Side One) completed, Wilson announced they’d be taking a 10-minute break and would return to play another set. A digital clock appeared on the video screen and counted down, and the band returned to the stage just as the clock hit 00:00. They launched into “The Start of Something Beautiful”, a loping rocker off of 2005’s Deadwing that I had nearly forgotten existed. Next up was the Lightbulb Sun classic “Russia on Ice”, which was impeccably played. At least until the lyrics ended and it was time for the instrumental second half. The band abruptly stopped right at the halfway point and instead launched into the second half of Fear of a Blank Planet’s 17-minute epic “Anesthetize”. This transition was a bit jarring, but the concluding section of “Anesthetize” is one of the hardest-rocking songs the band has, and it really got the crowd going.
After that the group pulled out the beautiful piano ballad “Lazarus”. I remember wishing and hoping for (but not getting) this song back at the 2007 Houston concert, mostly to break up the unrelenting grimness of the songs from Fear of a Blank Planet and its companion EP Nil Recurring. This show wasn’t nearly as dark overall because of the aforementioned variety of The Incident, but it was still a welcome addition to the show. The second set ended with a few more of the band’s harder-edged songs, including “Strip the Soul” and “Bonnie the Cat”.
Porcupine Tree returned to the stage once more for a two-song encore that included “The Sound of Muzak” and “Trains”. Both are big fan favorites, and both got huge audience reactions. "Trains" found Wilson taking a break in the middle to introduce the rest of the band, after which they finished the song and took a big group bow, waving goodbye to the crowd.