first of all, check-check it.
(aviatrix – in fact, you might find me very interesting)
moving right along: on saturday night, i went to see blackfield and anathema at the royale here in boston. i had tickets to this for three months beforehand – it was crazy enough that blackfield was playing shows in the US, but this was the first time anathema has ever toured in this country. pretty insane when you consider they’ve been making music for two decades or so. anyway, i have a storied history with both of these bands, and it was magnificent to be able to see them both back to back. in total, it was one of the most arresting and moving concerts i’ve ever been to, and definitely the best show i’ve seen all year.
blackfield is one of the many side projects of steven wilson, the man behind the incomparable porcupine tree. he works with popular israeli rock singer aviv geffen to create some of the most baldly earnest – and saddest – music you’re ever likely to hear. geffen’s blunt lyrics and his at-times hard to digest vocal delivery toes a fine line between melodrama and comedy, but wilson helps him hone the most moving parts of his songs and the result is as emotionally intense as it is musically beautiful.
i’ve been a porcupine tree fan for ten years now, and when blackfield surfaced with their eponymous first album in 2005, i have to say i initially wasn’t wild about what i heard. in those days, though, i was quite the metalhead, and what blackfield sounded like to my ears then was like a watered-down version of porcupine tree minus all of the brilliant, cathartic heaviness. i shelved them for the time being, but by the time their second album came out in 2007, my tastes had changed significantly. due in part to the enthusiasm of my then-boyfriend for its song “some day,” blackfield ii became the soundtrack to my sophomore year of college. when i revisited the first album, i found myself smitten, too, specifically with the gorgeous arrangements and intricate production on songs like “summer” and “hello” (the latter of which i would rank among my favorites of all time, if i had the time or the wherewithal to type out such a list).
my second year of college (2007/2008) was a very difficult time for me. i was deeply depressed and stalwartly avoiding medication or therapy due to a mixture of my own capacity for being excessively headstrong and monetary concerns. my relationship with john was the only one i had bothered cultivating or contributing to in some time, so i found myself friendless and estranged from my family. i spent the latter half of my spring semester desperately seeking employment and failing to find anything aside from a part-time position doing grunt work in the college’s registrar’s office (see my recent post about opeth’s watershed album for more details on that, and the wonderful summer that followed). so, i turned to my usual solace, my lifelong hidey-hole – music – and blackfield’s (at that time) two records proved to be the centerpieces of my listening.
steven wilson’s work has always been some kind of weird aural comfort food for me. i guess i feel like i identify with both his way of describing the world lyrically and how he expresses his feelings musically. he’s too smart, too much of an outsider, and his chosen isolation in music is a result of that. his songs are melancholy and wistful, cheeky and self-aware, introspective and observant. he’s no technical genius, but he doesn’t need to be, and at any rate the simplicity of his music gives it much of its power. i’ve always had parasocial/imaginary relationships with the musicians i idolize, and my darker times i’ve often turned to wilson’s multitudinous projects as a means of seeking out a strange form of commiseration, with him i guess. that was the role those blackfield records were playing for me three years ago. since college, i’ve largely moved away from listening to them and porcupine tree’s stuff as well, due at least a little bit in part to my better performance at social integration and control over my anxieties. but seeing them at royale the other night reintroduced me to all of this stuff, to their songs both new and old, to my history with their catalog. and while i stood there dumbfounded trying to blink away tears the whole time, i’m glad it happened like it did. it was cathartic and immersing, and let me tell you: these guys can put on a real fucking rock concert.
i don’t want to gloss over anathema here; i’ve listened to them since the inception of my porcupine tree fandom because very few people listen to PT without hearing something about anathema (and opeth too, for that matter). they were once a doom metal band, back in the early ’90s, but towards the end of that decade they made a decided shift towards ambient-tinged melodic prog and they’re all the better for it. their albums alternative 4 and a fine day to exit are among the best relatively-straightforward-rock records i can even think of, and their latest album we’re here because we’re here was by far and away the best offering of its genre that came out last year – at least to this set of ears (note: if you listen to that record and don’t come away feeling like your heart’s been shattered into pieces and like you need to be held close to someone’s chest for the next hour or two, you might be a sociopath).
anyway, they played first, in condensed pseudo-acoustic form, with just mainmen and brothers danny and vincent cavanagh, a couple of guitars, and a sampler. in the hands of a less talented pair, this could have been terribly dull, but not with anathema. vincent’s voice is one of the most beautiful and terrifyingly powerful i can think of in all genres, and let’s be honest, he probably could have carried the whole weight of their performance a capella and it would have been just as good. but i shouldn’t belittle their playing, or danny’s masterful use of the sampler – and the guitar as a percussion instrument.
they started the set with “thin air,” the balls-grabbing, heart-wrenching opener of we’re here because we’re here, and even that song’s on-album, almost-overproduced resplendence was done justice, all soaring vocals and loping guitars and periods of instrumental tension. they only were on for seven songs, playing an assortment from their last five albums minus, sadly enough, a fine day to exit, but it’s hard to complain when they gave us two of alternative 4‘s finest (“lost control” and “fragile dreams”), a pair of judgment’s kicks-in-the-emotional-nads (“deep” and “one last goodbye”), one of a natural disaster‘s many highlights (“flying”), and another slice of the brilliance that is we’re here because we’re here (“angels walk among us” – don’t let the corny title fool you). the cavanaghs knew their crowd: many of us had been clamoring to see them for years, and they were clearly just as excited as we were to be in boston. danny took a picture of the audience at one point for bragging rights to the rest of the band, who vincent mentioned might be joining them for a second round come fall. here’s hoping.
so, their set was woefully short, but every minute of it was as intense and charged as their music is on record. we didn’t have to wait long for blackfield, mostly because the cavanaghs had been playing in front of the headliners’ already-set-up equipment. they picked the perfect opener, too: one of the best tracks from their latest album welcome to my dna, the middle eastern-tinged bombast that is “blood.” the sound system in the royale is incredible, but i was worried that even it wouldn’t be able to handle the multi-layered nuance of a steven wilson project. boy, was i off-base. save for mr. wilson’s voice being a little too buried in the mix for the first two songs or so, the band sounded fucking incredible.
they tore through seventeen songs before taking any sort of a break, paying equal attention to their three records and hitting most of the highlights from each. i’m not wild about welcome to my dna; i think it pales in comparison with both of the previous records and i was pretty disappointed even after spinning it a few times. still, even the weakest songs on that album sounded great on saturday night, like the meandering title track and the jarring-in-a-bad-way “go to hell.” “go to hell” suffers from its ridiculous high school poetry lyrics, or so i thought. but when geffen sings “fuck you all, fuck you/i don’t care/go to hell” over and over again, isn’t there something to be said about that kind of unadorned earnestness? after all, there are plenty of other bands (porcupine tree included) that sing songs about feeling the same way; they just take the extra step of wrapping it all up in figurative language. anyway, the performance of it was effective enough to make me think more closely about the song.
for me, the high points (of course) were my favorites from the first two albums: the seriously pitiful “pain” with its hopeless lyrics and striking chorus; the string-laden glistening dollop of melancholia known as “miss u;” the three-minute exercise in compositional perfection that is the piano-driven “hello.” welcome to my dna‘s standout track, “zigota,” was one of the best pieces of the performance too, starting off as it did with lulling musings that slowly build up into gripping mellotron-washed verses and chilling choruses. i still find myself muttering “one direction with no turning back/soon it will burn to black” under my breath a few dozen times a day.
the way these guys play together and bounce off one another on stage is so great to behold. for all of the heaviness and drama of their music, their camaraderie is clear as day. by the time they closed with a version of “cloudy now” with extra swells-and-falls-and-swells-agains, they had played twenty-one tracks and honestly looked ready to play another ten. their energy is difficult to describe, but omnipresent and so easy to get caught up in. i left the royale feeling like something had either been torn out of me or something had been added. it’s hard to explain. things just seemed different, and they still sort of do.
i’m struggling to find a succinct way of concluding this, so i’m just going to go for the gold. both of these bands are worthy of your attention if they don’t already have it. so go listen.
“don’t you know there’s only one way out, and it comes when it comes.”