If you ask any progressive rock fan to rank the most important bands in the genre today (or ever, for that matter), he or she would most likely put British quartet Porcupine Tree at the top of the list. Founded and still lead by musical genius Steven Wilson (whose solo work, as well as collaborations with ancillary giants like Opeth and Anathema, has made him a superstar in his own right) over 20 years ago, the group’s most recent work is easily among the best music being made today. In addition, as revered as Porcupine Tree is for its studio output, the band is equally admired for their impeccable and invigorating live performances. Their most recent live release, ‘Octane Twisted,’ which captures a performance of their last album (2009’s ‘The Incident’), as well as several assorted classics, is a testament to this.
Taking its title from a track from ‘The Incident,’ ‘Octane Twisted’ is actually a bit bittersweet considering how inactive the band has been lately—Wilson has been focusing on his solo work, as well as Storm Corrosion (his collaboration with Opeth mastermind Mikael Åkerfeldt) and remastering various classic ‘70s prog albums, while the rest of the band has been involved in side projects and guest spots (for example, Gavin Harrison, Colin Edwin, and John Wesley all contributed to Lo-Fi Resistance’s sophomore LP, ‘Chalk Lines‘). Factoring all of this together, many fans have been questioning whether or not Porcupine Tree is on temporary (or permanent) hiatus. Fortunately, if this release is any indication, their fears can now be absolved, as this record is a clear sign that the group is still alive. It’s also arguably one of the best live documents they’ve ever released.
Like most of their live discography, ‘Octane Twisted’ is a two disc collection, and disc one captures a performance of ‘The Incident‘ in its entirety. Considering that this isn’t a review of the album itself (you can check that out here , too), I’ll focus on the replication rather than the actual material. As you’d expect, it’s 90% the same as the studio version. Of course, keyboardist Richard Barbieri varies the soundscapes and effects a bit, and the syncopation and timbres are slightly different in spots, but other than that, it’s almost identical. Wilson’s voice is a bit deeper and rawer than on the actual LP, too. Touring guitarist/vocalist John Wesley adds some falsetto charm to the harmonies. Also, for the most part, the audience is restrained and respectful, which is surprising considering how frantic parts of ‘The Incident‘ are, as well as how much passion Porcupine Tree fans have for the music. All in all, the group does a fine job recreating their latest opus.
As for the second set, well, it’s much more intriguing, to be honest. Most fans know that Porcupine Tree started out in the late ‘80s as a DIY solo project by Wilson (it didn’t become a formal band until the mid-‘90s, around the time of ‘Signify,’ when he needed to start touring his work). Luckily, the setlist here runs the gamut of their career. Relatively recent favorites like “Hatesong”, “Even Less”, and “Arriving Somewhere but Not Here” are here, as is a brilliant jam that fuses “Russia on Ice” with some of “Anesthetize”. Considering that these are two of their most amazing tracks, the synthesis presented here is simply astounding. As for “Bonnie the Cat” (which appeared on the second disc of ‘The Incident’), it’s a prime example of Wilson’s ever-growing interest in industrial, King Crimson-esque metal freak-outs. Really, it’s not much of a song, but Harrison and Edwin have rarely shined brighter as a rhythmic duo. What’s most valuable, though, is the inclusion of two extremely early songs: “Stars Die” and “Dislocated Day”. The former is a simple yet sweet slice of melancholy, and when compared to latter day pieces, one can definitely tell how much Wilson has evolved as a songwriter. As for the latter, it’s always been one of the group’s best psychedelic jams, and they do a great version of it here.
‘Octane Twisted’ is exactly what Porcupine Tree fans would want—a nearly flawless performance of some of their best work. Perhaps more than any other artist in the genre, Wilson possesses a great duality that allows him to be both a fantastic musician/composer and an incredible songwriter. Porcupine Tree has created some of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, as well as some of the most intricate and engrossing music, and both sides of the coin are represented here. ‘Octane Twisted’ fully justifies and exemplifies why Porcupine Tree has been a favorite band for many genre enthusiasts (including myself) for over two decades.
This article was originally published by Popmatters.