Photo: Hajo Mueller / Courtesy of Kayos PR

Steven Wilson: Home Invasion Live at the Royal Albert Hall

Recorded during a three-night residency at London's most prestigious music venue, Home Invasion captures everything you need to know about seeing Steven Wilson live.

Home Invasion: Live at the Royal Albert Hall
Steven Wilson
Castle Rock/Universal
2 November 2018

In the age of streaming, the concert film feels increasingly like a relic. Audience experiences of music in late capitalism volley from the unowned and intangible (streaming) to the highly experiential (multi-day music festivals). Those who prefer the latter are unlikely to shell out for a full concert movie, when they could just hear the audio stream the day it hits Spotify; those who yearn for the latter may appreciate a well-made capture of a live show, but ultimately they’d rather spend money on “the real thing”, as it were. Authenticity – ill-defined and nebulous as it is conceptually – still has currency in the discourse on modern music.

For musicians, concert films represent a significant financial challenge: if done well, they’re pricey, and touring in and of itself is no small expenditure, even as it remains the primary way in which artists can hope to achieve more than break even. Chart-topping and already-moneyed artists can no doubt gather the resources to finance a live DVD, and may even turn a profit out of it. Still, for most musical artists, a concert recording is an indulgence, a steep-cost chance to immortalize that fleeting moment of live performance.

Steven Wilson claims numerous live albums and concert films in his increasingly voluminous discography. With Porcupine Tree, his most famous band, he released Arriving Somewhere… (2006) and Anesthetize (2010); with No-Man, he put out Mixtaped (2009) and Love and Endings (2012); his duo Blackfield with Aviv Geffen has Live in New York City (2007) to its name; and as a solo artist with five studio LPs under his belt, he has Get All You Deserve (2012) to represent his solo work. Those six live CD/DVD/Blu-rays are joined by a smattering of audio-only recordings across Wilson’s solo and band projects.

Wilson is chiefly known as the leading progressive rock artist of his day, and stylistic hallmarks of his include lengthy compositions, a deep commitment to vinyl and other tangible forms of recorded music, and, for a good chunk of Porcupine Tree’s existence, psychedelic music. Put succinctly, Wilson loves musical relics, especially in an age where music is increasingly rented rather than owned. (Wilson spoke with PopMatters in 2016 about putting his music on Spotify, a move he still does not unenthusiastically enjoy.) If it were even slightly feasible for Wilson to travel with a whole orchestra, he’d find a way to do it.

Home Invasion: Live at the Royal Albert Hall joins Wilson’s superb coterie of live concert films, capturing him at the zenith of his career. For his most recent studio outing, 2017’s To the Bone, Wilson signed with his first major record label as a solo artist, under the Caroline imprint of Universal. (Starting with 2002’s In Absentia, Porcupine Tree featured on the Lava Records roster, followed by Atlantic until the band went on hiatus in 2010). Despite working as an independent and underground artist for the majority of his career, Wilson never had to reach to stage elaborate concerts, or craft intricate deluxe albums and limited edition vinyl LPs. Looking at Wilson’s output in the past, one wouldn’t think him cash-strapped. Yet with To the Bone and now Home Invasion, Wilson has been able to revel in the perks afforded to those contracted to a major label. Wilson’s spent a good deal of his career doing a little with a lot. Home Invasion is a document of what an innovative artist can do, after years of globe-spanning tours and grinding out records on independent labels, with a lot.

Unlike the highly stylized Arriving Somewhere, which was shot by frequent collaborator Lasse Hoile to look as if it was filmed on old reels, or the spartan two-camera setup of Love and Endings, Home Invasion captures the Royal Albert Hall residency from every conceivable angle, and naturally weaves in the concert films Wilson selects for each of his songs. On the seizure-rending camerawork to the Porcupine Tree deep cut “The Creator Had a Mastertape”, the camera jerks back and forth in motion with the tumult of the guitar riff in the chorus, with the menacing footage visible to the Royal Albert Hall crowd laid atop the musicians like a ghost. The cameras get some excellent Citizen Kane-esque shots of guest vocalist Ninet Tayeb on “Pariah”, where her floating, singing head – projected on the stage screen – dwarfs her in the background.

As directed by James Russell, Home Invasion is not a functional concert film; it does not simply aim to capture the performances onstage. The cameras, restless more often than not, train their lenses on every facet of the concert experience, spanning the iconic “mushroom” sound diffusing saucers on the ceiling of the venue to the audience itself. Having seen Wilson perform at the Royal Albert Hall in support of The Raven That Refused to Sing in 2013, I can attest that the filmmaking crew knew just what to look for.

Musically, Wilson and his band – Craig Blundell (drums), Adam Holzman (keyboards), Nick Beggs (bass guitar and Chapman stick), and Alex Hutchings (guitar) – never waver from top form. Wilson himself only falters when his voice is required to reach falsetto heights on tracks like the ABBA-indebted dance number “Permanating” and the rollicking “Same Asylum as Before”. (On the first leg of the To the Bone tour, Wilson frequently admitted that those songs pushed his vocals out of his normal range.) But when it comes to the powerhouse ballad “Pariah” or the hook on the chorus of “The Sound of Muzak,” Wilson’s voice proves more than up to the task.

The instrumental component of Home Invasion, magnified by Russell’s direction, is where the viewer and listener get the biggest bang for their buck. Suite-like pieces like “Ancestral” and “Arriving Somewhere (But Not Here)”, both of which culminate in head-banging riffs, masterfully build and release tension, so much so that it’s easy to forget their 12- to 13-minute runtimes. Moody tracks like “Song of I”, whose film/aural juxtaposition is like Suspiria if Nine Inch Nails had scored it instead of Thom Yorke, exude a dark energy that can be felt right through the screen as you’re watching it. For those keener on Wilson’s sensitive, balladic side, “Lazarus” and “The Raven that Refused to Sing” – which Wilson has said are some of his finest compositions – provide much-needed breathers for the audience and the performers. Although To the Bone is far from Wilson’s finest hour as a solo artist, as I argued for PopMatters last year, his setlist design on Home Invasion showcases his range as a songwriter and musical thinker, reaching as far back to the days of Porcupine Tree’s Stupid Dream with a stripped-down performance of “Even Less.” Credit is due to Wilson for this: even when he’s touring to promote a specific record, his shows – which average at least two and a half hours, in my experience – feel like career catalogues, and Home Invasion is no exception.

Seeing Wilson reach this point in his career, I can’t help but feel somewhat nostalgic for the days of Arriving Somewhere…, the most distinctive of Wilson’s concert films. The experimental and (intentionally) rough-shod quality of that filmmaking still signifies Wilson (and his bandmates in Porcupine Tree’s) independent and unconventional spirit, and by contrast Home Invasion – no matter how pristine its direction or superlative its performances – feels like a professionalized version of the greatness Wilson has already achieved. One would not be wrong in saying that this line of thinking amounts to little more than saying, “I knew him before he was cool!” and, yes, nostalgia blurs where it doesn’t blind. And when faced with something like Home Invasion, which could have been done a hundred more conventional ways, it’s both comforting and enlivening to know that Wilson chose the path that most reflects his vision, which thankfully includes the continual release of concert movies. Wilson, a self-professed “specialist in dying arts” (and, in this case, mediums), turned 50 just before Home Invasion was recorded, but if this outstanding film is any indication, this is the first of many invasions to come.

Read the PopMatters interview with Steven Wilson about Home Invasion here.

RATING 8 / 10