Friday, August 15, 2003 @ 1:35 PM
Opeth and Porcupine Tree Live
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Perhaps, for some, the concept of a complete concert experience consists of watching the bands and buying a T-shirt or a CD. Perhaps they’re overlooking much. For myself and many others, the concert experience begins when you step into that line trailing off down the street, a cacophonous serpent composed of restless fans united there by a mutual purpose. The immediate camaraderie of standing with like-minded individuals who share similar tastes, likes and dislikes sets the whole tone of the evening. This instant bond leads to thoroughly stimulating discussions about the band(s) you’re seeing, bands you share a mutual love for and all the various tidbits, news, nostalgia, and trivia pertaining to each. Or how about the supreme satisfaction of seeing Mikael Akerfeldt (lead singer and guitarist of Opeth) walking by, shouting his name, and having him turn, smile and throw the horns in an appreciative salute to his fans? Such things are a gratifying and integral component of the concert experience.
So it goes without saying that, by the time they opened the doors to Seattle’s Showbox Theatre and began shuffling a few hundred anxious fans inside, the concert had already been a wholly entertaining success. This being my first show at this venue -- I didn’t know what to expect, but it was quite the place. With two large, fully loaded bars lining two walls with tables along the front of them and a modest GA floor in front of the raised, well lit stage, it had a laid back, relaxed feel that much suited the style of concert we were there to attend. While waiting for what seemed an endless amount of time as the anticipation mounted (isn’t that always the case?), I noticed a rather interesting fact: Here was a peaceful mingling of two very different fan bases. The Opeth fans, adorned in the usual black Metal t-shirts, tattoos, piercings and long hair, rubbing elbows with middle aged, short haired, white collar-looking Porcupine Tree fans. Porcupine Tree being a relatively obscure (and admittedly somewhat odd) name, I was impressed to see the loyal following that showed up in support. And there was none of the usual animosity you’d expect from adrenaline-pumped metalheads towards the likes of the much mellower PT fans. Both shared info about the bands they were there to see, enlightening one another to the brilliance of each and the caliber of performance to be expected.
I myself was vaguely familiar with Porcupine Tree, having heard and thoroughly enjoyed their last album In Absentia, for which they were touring in support of. I was not, however, familiar enough to refrain from being shocked when the band took the stage and I saw Porcupine Tree singer/guitarist (and Producer of Opeth’s latest album Damnation) Steve Wilson approach the microphone. From what I’d heard and read of the band, and the musical excellence they portray in their music, I had expected an aged, seasoned musical veteran. So I was quite shocked to see a young guy who looked to be no older than mid to late 20’s. If anything, that revelation only added to my respect for the guy, seeing what he had achieved at such a relatively young age.
The vibe of the whole band was as expected -- they had a definite air of the elite and while the music doesn’t bear the technical speed of Opeth and others, the technicality was certainly there in the song structures, and the entire band played flawlessly. This is a band with a firm grip on melody and they are able to weave it beautifully with chilling guitar work, solid bass, ethereal keys and some seriously stunning drumming. The band played for a full 90 minutes, covering some songs from In Absentia, but also, to the delight of their dedicated fanbase, a variety of (what were to me) unfamiliar songs from their extensive catalogue. While not having heard many of the songs before, I was still much moved by the beauty and several of the songs stuck in my head-namely a very beautiful song called “Shemovedon” and a rocking down-tuned song called “Futile,” which Steve claimed was never commercially released, and may never be.
At one point Mr. Wilson notified us that this was the last show of the tour, and such being the case, to expect the unexpected. Shortly thereafter the unexpected came to fruition as none other than Mikael Akerfeldt made his way to the stage and took over the vocal duties on a song that I unfortunately had never heard nor knew the name of. But the fact still stands that Mikael’s beautiful vocals made for a most pleasing treat. Also worth mentioning were the very Tool-esque visuals slides playing on a screen behind the band throughout various songs. A plethora of beautiful and disturbing photographs and artwork flickered across the background, bringing an entirely new dimension of ethereal chaos to the band’s set, with successful results. The entire set was both brilliantly and flawlessly executed, and after a 3-song encore from In Absentia, which ended with the stunningly beautiful and moving song, “Trains,” I was left with a full understanding of why their fanbase is so loyal. This is one of the most brilliant bands in music, and they displayed it all this night.
Much to my fortune, the PT fans lining the barrier near the front of the stage retreated to the back after they witnessed their band, and I was able to work my way to the barrier for a perfect view of the stage as my own anticipation escalated to nearly unbearable levels. I was fully aware that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity -- Damnation is Opeth’s one and only attempt at a fully melodic album, and this was to be the only tour to promote the amazing music displayed therein. That being the case, I also knew that Mikael had a few other songs prepared that had never before been played in a live setting. So of course this could very well be the greatest concert experience of my life.
When the band took the stage, I was subtly surprised to see the minimal amount of amplifiers and speakers that were present -- much less than the usual load they brought with them on their previous trek through town. But all this meant was that by the end of the night I was to leave without the usual resonance of a sonic version of “Tubular Bells” reverberating back and forth between my eardrums at deafening volumes.
I then witnessed what certainly had to be an utter rarity, if not a complete first-the band played the ENTIRE album of Damnation, from beginning to end, omitting nothing. Surely most of you are aware that when a band plays live, particularly with songs containing elements of melody, the vocals are never as good as what was captured in the studio. Not so here -- Mikael’s voice was flawless and unwavering, inducing more cases of chills and goosebumps than I could possibly count. And there was a definite personal, laid back feel to the band, with Mikael taking time to address the crowd with his trademark deadpan Swedish sense of humor between each song, like when some idiot yelled, “Black Rose Immortal!!!!!” at the stage (for those who don’t know, “BRI” is Opeth’s opus, clocking in at over 21 minutes long), to which Mikael replied, “We don’t do that one live. But we accidentally did it on a soundcheck once.” There were other amusing quips such as, “For those of you who are here to see Porcupine Tree and are unfamiliar with us, we’re a scary death metal band from Sweden” and “I am expecting the guys from Porcupine Tree to play a mischievous prank on us, so if you see them give us a loud Death Metal growl, ok?” which he reminded us of periodically throughout the night, “Remember -- Porcupine Tree, Death metal.” Unfortunately the satisfaction of alerting the band never came, as Porcupine Tree allowed them to play without interference.
The highlights of the Damnation part of the set were identical to the highlights of the album, with “Windowpane,” “In My Time Of Need” and “To Rid The Disease” resonating with a profound beauty that held the normally aggressive metal fans in an appreciative, silent sway. When they came to the last song from the album, Weakness, which consists solely of a chilling keyboard melody and a sad lament by Mikael, the rest of the band left the stage to Mikael and his lamentations.
At the end of the song, Mikael left the stage, only to quickly return with an acoustic guitar and pull up a stool to situate himself. He then starts into the solitary guitar melody of “Benighted,” the first ballad from the greatest metal album in the history of the world, Still Life. The chills hit me full force as the utter beauty of the melody rolled both from Mikael’s fingers and voice, combining to create one of the most incredible performances I’d ever heard. The band took the stage midway through the song and fell into rhythm perfectly when the song broke into its climax of drum, bass and guitar, a stunning performance and absolute treat for us all. Mikael then begins to tell us that the song they were about to play had received mixed responses when first released, as it was done at a time when ballads on a black/death metal album were unacceptable. He defended it’s presence however, insisting that melody was integral and vital to both the music they were playing and the mentors who had inspired them, at which point he names off the greats -- “Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath.” Personally, this was THE song I had come to this concert to hear. Had they only played this one song, I would have been content to die there on the spot. The band began the first notes of “To Bid You Farewell” and the euphoria was so tangible I felt as though it enrapt me as like a blanket of utter peace, satisfaction and perfection. This is the most beautiful song EVER written, and though the personal value and relevance of my love for this song is only shared by one other person (you know who you are), the appreciation and satisfaction on the faces of the crowd implied that they too were in a reverie, and once again we witnessed a flawless execution of unparalleled melody.
Then another surprise came to surface -- while I’m standing there thinking the show could not be any more perfect, Mikael informs us that this last song had also never been done live. “It’s extremely difficult,” he related, “And it took some time to figure out again what I was doing with the guitars.” To our great fortune, he did figure it out, and once again it was sheer flawless perfection. Watching his fingers as they intimately manipulated the fretboard, summoning each beautiful note one by one to the 2nd ballad from Still Life, “Face Of Melinda,” my appreciation for the band’s musicianship multiplied for what had to be the 100th time that night. There just aren’t any other bands in the metal scene doing what these guys do -- so few share the standards and sense of what music should be that Opeth portray, but I found myself overcome with an unfathomable gratitude that at least we have them. There could be no doubt that this was the most incredible concert I’d ever had the pleasure of witnessing, and were I to go to the grave today, it would be with a smile on my face and an Opeth shirt on my back. If for some reason you’ve yet to hear this band -- please, do yourself a favor -- check them out and learn what music is supposed to be.
Porcupine Tree Set List (Partial)
Strip The Soul
Opeth Set List
In My Time Of Need
Death Whispered A Lullaby
To Rid The Disease
To Bid You Farewell
Face Of Melinda