As maligned as Porcupine Tree’s latest-but one-album Fear of a Blank Planet was in certain aspects, it’s odd to see how great the songs work out live. I’m still not sold on the subject matter of the songs (I can definitely say I wasn’t downloading hardcore pornography and popping pills at the tender ages of 10 and 11, a habit Steven Wilson believes this generation to be all too fond of) and the cold, glossy production of the studio album left me pining for the raw days of In Absentia and Deadwing. I was left alienated by the DVD, or Blu-ray if you’re so inclined, at its announcement and specifically the reveal of the cover artwork, which has as the main focus a great, big high definition shot of a hypodermic needle. And I’m a needlephobic. Steven Wilson’s obsession with drugs and the paraphernalia attached was seriously trying my patience, leaving me seeing the FoaBP album era in an even dimmer light than before.
As a Porcupine Tree fan, imagine my delight and relief that the gamble of buying the concert film in the hope of liking one or two songs paid off in spectacular fashion. Firstly, the idea of playing FoaBP from start to finish was a genius move by the band. The songs are accentuated by the surroundings of a live setting; the ability to stretch out a little and take liberties, the light-show and the natural reverb of a live arena all add a little bit extra to the songs. The eerie opening of Way Out Of Here is increased tenfold on Anesthetize and the song the DVD is named after sounds far more momentous and epic than the studio version, for reasons I can’t explain.
One cannot deny that the increased popularity the band has stumbled upon from the release of In Absentia to the release of The Incident has given the band a confidence, almost a swagger. Apply this to some of the older songs from the PT catalogue performed at this concert and the sparks start to fly. Sever, a firm favourite of mine for quite a while now, not only sounds haunting and brooding as it always should, but majestic and triumphant. There’s now a sense of scale to the simplistic guitars and plodding rhythms, a grandiosity that rivals Muse’s “Knights Of Cydonia” or anything Mastodon have so far released. “Dark Matter,” on the example shown here, has the potential to be considered equal amongst such revered songs as “Comfortably Numb.” Frankly, it’s not that it has the potential to be considered, it deserves to be.
Now to the technical aspects of Anesthetize. There’s nothing worse than anticipating a live dvd release, especially one of a tour you attended, spending £15 or more and finding out the picture is grainy, the camera shots are all over the place and the sound mix would probably sound better if listened to in a swimming pool filled with concrete. Luckily, Steven Wilson happens to be a perfection when concerned with sound and video. The advent of the High Definition camera was, of course, not SW’s idea but he excels in his insistence that every camera is HD and that there are so many of them. There are probably more camera’s in this tiny Dutch venue than there would be at a Bon Jovi concert in some big enormodome. I did opt for the blu-ray version, and the clarity to the picture is astonishing. It’s a cliché to state that it makes you feel as if you’re there, but it really does. The lights colouring Gavin Harrison’s cymbals and washing over the rest of the band, the close-ups of the rear screen projections are a joy to behold and enhance the experience for the viewer at home. I’ve also never anything as transcendent and incredible on a concert film as the strobe lights on the breakdown of the song Anesthetize. Just wow.
It seems like a redundant point, commenting on the sound of any Porcupine Tree release given Steven Wilson’s attention to detail in anything he does – the guy is a self confessed audiophile, and probably the only guy in rock using digital recording techniques who refuses to conform to the ‘loudness war’, but now he has DTS-HD to play around with. Say what you want about the Vinyl vs CD debate, but when digital is done properly as it is here, the results are nothing short of beautiful. The clarity is superb, the loud bits are loud and most importantly, the quiet bits are quiet. Everything is audible and has the space to be heard properly. On the strength of Anesthetize I’m seriously considering starting a petition to make Steven Wilson the de facto mastering engineer and sound mixer for every record coming out in the future. The guy is a god in the sound department, and it makes the experience of watching Anesthetize all the better.
As the concert draws to a close, the main thought reverberating around my head is that I may have misjudged Fear of a Blank Planet. For starters, it’s reinvigorated the band and enabled them to write an album as assured as The Incident. What startles me is how good the FoaBP material sounded compared to the older material on Anesthetize, and in some ways, it sounds a level above anything they’d written prior to FoaBP. Perhaps it’s the stellar production job, as the two concerts I attended during that era did nothing to elevate the album. Whatever the reason, I’m thankful; I started watching Anesthetize as a cynic of the Fear of a Blank Planet cycle, and by the end was completely convinced that it might be amongst the bands best albums. Funny how opinions change.