Editorial prologue: it is around noon on April 28, 2018. I’m in Union Square in New York on what is by all accounts a lovely green spring day. I’m sitting under a bright pink flowering tree, mooching off city wifi, giving this entry a final passthrough before posting. In about six hours I will make my way to the PlayStation Theater in Times Square, where I will see Steven Wilson live for the third time in five years.
This both is and is not a coincidence.
“The principle behind the project is to drag progressive rock kicking and screaming into the nineties.” —Steven Wilson
“And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar and say, ‘Man, what are you doing here?’” —Billy Joel
Just a little over twenty years after the release of Porcupine Tree’s first live album, on my way home from the then-final Blackfield concert in New York City, I had the distinct good fortune to share my bus with a few people who’d come from the same show. I never encounter any Steven Wilson Fans in real life, so it was nice to geek out for a bit while we were all momentarily stranded within Port Authority’s decaying bowels. One of the other people on the bus had mentioned that she’d been following Steven Wilson up and down the East Coast for literal decades, and talked about how back in the early days the man had basically zero stage presence.
To which my immediate response was “Uhhhh…”
I honestly wish performing in a dress was something he still did from time to time. For one thing, he and Nick Beggs could be twinsies. For another, although we can’t see how he carries himself in the first Porcupine Tree live album, his mumbling, taciturn demeanor between songs gives us a pretty good idea of what the outfits were meant to compensate for.
I do kind of respect the minimalism in that sort of stage presence, though. Get up, do your thing, get down. No theatrics. No fuss. Let the music speak for itself. And honestly, when you’re playing expansive, psychedelic music in a small venue such as Borderline or The Nag’s Head, that gets the job done. You’re allowed to be unpolished. When you’re playing prog metal at a sold-out Royal Albert Hall, however…not so much.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It is December 1993, and we have a band now, so we can go on tour and play these songs properly. Thus, Spiral Circus, their first live album, showcasing their first live performances, and the first steps toward becoming the formidable live act we’d see in Anesthetize and Octane Twisted.
First thing to probably mention is that these guys aren’t like wet behind the ears when it comes to live performance or anything. Wilson’s been performing live in some capacity or other for about a decade by this point, Barbieri even longer. Statuesque stage presence or no, the Tree boys already know how to recreate something perfectly in a live setting. We only say it’s early days because it’s early for this particular project, which wasn’t anyone’s first.
Piggybacking off of that, thing two: the performances may be excellent, but the audio quality on this album is atrocious. There’s pops, there’s hiss, there’s distortion, the sound feels expansive and brickwalled at the same time…that sort of thing. There is some fluctuation thanks to the different recording equipment used in different places, but in general we’re roughly where we were during Tarquin’s freaking Seaweed Farm. That bad.
Third thing to mention is the contribution of the other band members. It irritates me to no end when people think of Steven Wilson as the sole reason the projects he’s involved in are great, which is why I try and bend over backward to highlight the contributions of others when they contribute something great too. For instance: Colin Edwin’s bass, which to me is consistently the greatest thing about Porcupine Tree in the 90s. Boy howdy does that man know his way around the low end. Maitland’s drumming and Barbieri’s keyboards are no slouches either. Wilson may write the songs, but it’s the band that performs them and makes them their own. And even in these first three shows it’s clear that Barbieri, Edwin, and Maitland’s little flourishes have all given something to these songs that we didn’t know they were missing until just now.
And that alone makes this album worth listening to. These are their first three live performances as a band, and already it’s clear they have unbelievable chemistry. These aren’t seeds of promise we’re listening to here. We’re already great, we just have to wait for the rest of the world to catch up…and give us some live recording equipment that isn’t garbage.