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Home Invasion: In Concert at the Royal Albert Hall (2CD/Blu Ray)

John Kelman By

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Steven Wilson
Home Invasion: In Concert at the Royal Albert Hall
Eagle Records
2018

In a career now early in its fourth decade, singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Steven Wilson has bucked almost every trend in the new millennium music industry. After spending over twenty years as the driving force behind Porcupine Tree, he made the seemingly risky move of going solo with 2009's Insurgentes (Kscope). In some ways it was an odd move, given that Porcupine Tree ostensibly began as a solo project, with Wilson collaborating, in only its very earliest years (and not for long) with Malcolm Stocks, and Porcupine Tree only becoming a full-fledged group when album sales demanded he put a band together to take his music on the road.

And history was against him. Many artists who left popular groups found, despite any cachet built with their former band (and Porcupine Tree had built a sizeable audience), that only a surprisingly paltry percentage of their former fans were willing to go along with them into their solo endeavors. By the time Wilson hit the road in 2011 for the first time under his own name, in support of his second solo album—the even more ambitious Grace for Drowning (Kscope)—the number of Porcupine Tree fans who'd gone along him was already much greater than any stats could have predicted.

Over the course of the next four years and two studio albums—2013's The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) and 2015's concept album, Hand. Cannot. Erase. (both on Kscope)—Wilson continued to grow his audience, attracting not just those who'd been following his career for years, but entirely new demographics as well.

Based on the direction of his music, which brought together influences from a multitude of musical styles that was, in itself, a rare thing, Wilson found an unexpected nexus of fans. Hardcore progressive rock fans loved his often-times complex compositions, filled with breathtaking solo space rendered all the more impressive by his occasionally shifting lineup of virtuosic supporting musicians. But Wilson was also drawing in an increasing number of fans attracted to his unequivocally lyrical (albeit dark) disposition, not to mention those captivated by the metal elements brought to bear (to varying degrees) on his solo records, and which he first explored in greater depth across Porcupine Tree's new millennium releases. Wilson even released a compilation, Transience (Kscope, 2015), intended as an introduction to his music via his more readily approachable music, including a new version of the pop-friendly "Lazarus," first heard on Porcupine Tree's Deadwing (Lava, 2005).

Most surprising, perhaps, is how much Wilson's career has evolved since 2009, with his overall reach continuing to grow in virtually every way. Successive tours have moved to larger halls, his 2011 show in Montréal, Canada filling a venue less than a third the size of the hall he filled to near-capacity in November this year.

And if his audience has been growing, he has also been bucking another trend that's largely become a disturbing new norm. Even artists who regularly play to hundreds of thousands of fans over the course of a year now struggle to sell tens of thousands of albums (often just thousands), despite having achieved sales in the hundreds of thousands—millions, even—in decades past. But just as Wilson's audience has grown in size, so, too, have his sales. All too often, an album achieves its biggest numbers in the first couple of weeks after release, only to find sales falling off a cliff after that. Not only do Wilson's new releases continue to sell long after they should be slowing down, but his back catalog continues to do well also, continuing to move surprising numbers.

Forty years ago, tours were almost always in support of a new album, as the greater percentage of an artist's income was driven by album sales, with tours often actually losing money, even if they attracted large crowds. Today, most artists who even continue to release new music do it in order to draw audiences to their live shows, where they make the vast majority of their income, between ticket sales and merchandise (a growing part of most touring musicians' earnings). Wilson, on the other hand, has admitted that his career seems to be following the old school model, with album sales representing the majority of his income (along with tour merchandise) and his tours actually often-times losing money—not because he isn't attracting sizeable (and still growing) audiences, but because he pours so much money into making his live shows such a full-scale experience, with increasingly potent visuals matching the performances by the singer/songwriter and his band, and "4D" surround sound, impeccably rendered by longtime sound engineer, Ian Bond.

Which leads to Wilson's second widely available, full-length concert recording since his leap into the unknown of a solo career. Home Invasion: In Concert at the Royal Albert Hall reflects the transitional nature of his more pop-friendly (but still progressive) 2017 album, To the Bone (Caroline International), focusing largely on that album, alongside a handful of tracks from Hand. Cannot. Erase., one track each from The Raven That Refused to Sing, 4 1/2 and Transience, and, for the first time, nearly half a dozen Porcupine Tree tunes.

By 2016, Wilson's career had achieved something of a critical mass, his successful tour in support of Hand. Cannot. Erase. extending from around the time of its release in February, 2015 through to nearly the end of the following year. Over the course of his long career, he'd also garnered fans of side projects including the ambient/electronic Bass Communion and Krautrock/'60s and '70s experimental music-driven I.E.M. (Incredible Expanding Mindfuck), alongside collaborations including No-Man, Storm Corrosion (with Opeth's Mikael Äkerfeldt) and Blackfield, though the demands of his solo career were beginning to limit such extracurricular activities. And then there's been his second career as "go-to engineer" for new stereo and surround sound mixes of classic recordings from artists ranging from King Crimson, Yes and Jethro Tull to Roxy Music, Tears for Fears and Chicago. By 2016, Wilson's name seemed to be popping up everywhere.

With the release of To the Bone—inspired and informed by the kind of '80s progressive pop heard from artists including Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, and pre/post-Japan David Sylvian—Wilson's career has leapt to the next level. Between its marriage of lyrical, innovative and multi-informed pop with progressive and metal leanings, not to mention some uncharacteristically joyous and optimistic songs, Wilson's music has continued reaching entirely new audiences. And while he may have lost (and, in many ways, unfairly) a small percentage of his most hardcore progressive rock fans with To the Bone, between both the music and an eye to even more immersive concert experiences, bolstered and supported by a bigger record label and management company, Wilson's live shows have both strengthened To the Bone's material and demonstrated that it's still possible to incorporate plenty of the progressive elements that made previous tours so exciting. In fact, if anything, Wilson has proven, with his To the Bone tour, that once he's enticed someone new into his fan base, they seem willing to go along with wherever he chooses to go in concert.

Recorded in stunning high definition video and audio, Home Invasion differs from his recent Montréal show in that it includes To the Bone almost in its entirety, with all but the album's title track (ten songs) represented. It ultimately makes sense, however, given how many tracks from Insurgentes, Grace for Drowning and The Raven have already been documented in live video/audio formats, on both the full-length Get All You Deserve (Kscope, 2012) and EP-style mix of live tracks, edits and alternate versions, Drive Home (Kscope, 2013).

A lengthy look at Hand. Cannot. Erase.'s epic "Home Invasion /Regret #9" features particularly stellar solos from Wilson's longtime keyboardist Adam Holzman and new-kid-on-the-block guitarist/background vocalist, Alex Hutchings. The similarly expansive, dark-hued "Ancestral," on the other hand, demonstrates how a song that seems like it could only work in the context of its position on Wilson's concept album (inspired by the tragic true story of a woman who slowly begins to withdraw from the world, rendering herself increasingly invisible) can actually work extraordinarily well as a stand-alone song, again featuring some particularly inspired soloing from Hutchings.

If all of this suggests that Hand. Cannot. Erase. has been underrepresented on Wilson's live recordings, those who pick up the standalone Blu Ray or two-CD/Blu Ray edition also get three bonus tracks: rehearsals of Hand. Cannot. Erase.'s title track and "Routine," along with "Heartattack in a Layby," from Porcupine Tree's In Absentia (Lava, 2002).

These bonus tracks are, unfortunately, unavailable on most of Home Invasion's other release formats, including standalone two-CD or two-CD/DVD sets, stand-alone DVD, or high resolution or compressed digital download formats. The five-LP box set, coming in Spring, 2019, will not only include these three bonus rehearsal tracks, but an additional three songs, performed at the same venue the night before: "How is Your Life Today?," from Porcupine Tree's Lightbulb Sun (Snapper, 2000); the title track to Wilson's first collaboration with Israeli keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Avi Geffen, Blackfield (Kscope, 2004); and Grace for Drowning's "Postcard." Still, it remains a shame that a full performance from the Hand. Cannot. Erase. tour isn't available for those who were unable to catch it anywhere.

Nevertheless, releasing a live album with so much material from an artist's most recent studio record also bucks tradition, at least for most. But here, the music from To the Bone assumes greater energy and chemistry, thanks to a revised lineup that, alongside Wilson, newcomer Hutchings and Holzman, also includes longtime bassist/stick player/background singer Nick Beggs, and über-drummer Craig Blundell, who joined Wilson's touring band during the Hand. Cannot. Erase. tour, and who has managed the unenviable (and significant) challenge of following Wilson's first touring drummer, Marco Minnemann. A massively virtuosic drummer with a distinctive approach, that Wilson was able to find another drummer who could be described the same way while, at the same time, possessed of his own musical personality and ability to embrace the existing chemistry was another feat in itself.

Wilson has, for the most part, managed to find and recruit musicians who always seem to achieve the kind of collaborative chemistry that eludes so many others. While undeniably different from those that came before, having two players (Holzman and Beggs) who've been with Wilson from the start of his solo touring career has certainly helped with continuity. But finding players who may not be well-known outside musician circles, as has been the case with Blundell and Hutchings, and yet who are able to not just navigate the many challenges Wilson's music demands, but with a stunning collective chemistry in concert with their band mates, has certainly helped to maintain the high musical standards that have defined Wilson's solo career from the very start.

To the Bone may well be stronger on song and less focused on instrumental complexity and virtuosity, despite by no means being entirely devoid of those qualities. In performance, however, not only do Wilson's set lists allow him more solo space than at any time since he's gone solo; they also provide plenty of room for Holzman, Hutchings, Beggs and Blundell to flex their musical muscles, whether it's in the context of individual soloing or collective interaction.

That Hutchings had only been with the group for a couple months before Home Invasion was recorded at London's heralded Royal Albert Hall on the last of a three-night run in March, 2018, only makes his contribution to the group all the more remarkable. Whether adding bowed guitar to To the Bone's "Song of I" or delicately picked but foreboding chords during the early part of the album's one lengthy epic, "Detonation," Hutchings' delivery is as perfect as his staggering solo later in the same song, where he balances light-speed phrases with visceral bends and, always, a clear appreciation for the value of space and more lyrical construction over superfluous virtuosity.

Hutchings' instrumental mastery, balanced with a keen appreciation for when—and, most importantly, when not—to use it is what makes him, perhaps, the most suitable guitarist in a fairly long line of six-stringers who've held the chair in Wilson's touring band since 2011. Every guitarist has been exceptional in his own way, but Hutchings seems to be the best foil yet for Holzman, another musician whose command of tone and texture is as impressive as his virtuosity and, always, astute yet spontaneous judgement when building a solo, as he also does on "Detonation" but even more so on "Home Invasion / Regret #9."

They may not be given solo features, but the value of Beggs and Blundell's contributions, in managing both challenging instrumental ensemble work and ratcheting up the collaborative energy during solo passages, cannot be overstated, nor can their in-tandem ability to nail a groove with impeccable time and effortless humanity/musicality. During the balladic "Song of Unborn," together with their band mates, the pair demonstrates that the simplest and, even more so, slowest grooves are often-times the most challenging to maintain with absolute verisimilitude and honest feel.

Together, as a quintet, this may be Wilson's best, most empathic and compelling group yet, made all the more so now that, with Hutchings also singing background vocals alongside Beggs, he's got more voices to work with onstage. The good fortune of Home Invasion is that Wilson also has Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb on hand, guesting on three tracks including, most notably, To the Bone's "Pariah." When Tayeb isn't in the lineup, Wilson still manages to make a prerecorded vocal track work, as a dark closeup of her face, singing the lyrics, appears on the large video screen behind the group, until it ultimately (and literally) explodes in a massive burst of color, outwards towards the audience.

If every Wilson tour has ratcheted up the visuals, Home Invasion captures his most immersive performance yet. Innovative videos (many directed by Wilson's longtime visual artist, Lasse Hoile), projected on the large screen behind the group, range from actual stories (as in the show-closing "The Raven That Refused To Sing") to the exponentially increasing number of bodies marching in time to the fusion-heavy solos of "Detonation." But Wilson goes even further, imaginatively utilizing a hologram of a dancing woman during the Middle-Eastern inflected "Song of I" that, again, morphs into more and more bodies as the song progresses,. And if the stage lighting is as impressive as it's even been—more, truly—Wilson is now bringing the audience into the center of the performance by not just lighting up the stage but, at times, the entire hall; again, no mean feat for a room the size of Albert Hall.

After beginning to bring the occasional Porcupine Tree song into his shows during the Hand. Cannot. Erase. tour, Wilson now includes a greater number of PT tunes in his set lists, five of which are included on Home Invasion. Some, like In Absentia's "Sound of Muzak," are delivered relatively faithfully, though Wilson turns the chorus of that song (the third of four encores) into an audience participation piece. Others, like "Arriving Somewhere But Not Here," from Deadwing (Lava, 2005), and the positively massive second set-closer, "Sleep Together," from 2007's Fear of a Blank Planet (Roadrunner, 2007), are extended slightly longer than the originals, with his current band simultaneously reverential and unequivocally personal.

With so many artists flooding the market with concert videos these days, it's a given that there are plenty of opportunities to see the band in action throughout Home Invasion. But given Wilson's love of film and image, it should come as no surprise that Home Invasion is more than "just" a document of a particularly strong performance.

Wilson, in collaboration with director James Russell and film editor Tom Woolcott, has achieved something far greater, something far more cinematic. Incorporating split screens, unusual cross-fades, a bevy of visual effects and more to render Home Invasion a film that does more than merely act as a memory for those who've seen the tour and a chance for those who did not to capture some idea of the experience.

Instead, while absolutely managing to achieve both these things, the film does so much more. It employs motivic invention, such as capturing a particularly concentrated close-up of Wilson's face, only to then cut to similar perspectives of his band mates, or using camera angles to explore unusual perspectives. The film evokes, better than most concert films, the absolute scale of Wilson's visuals while, at the same time, illustrating some of the smaller motions and nuances that, with so much to watch while at a show, might go by unnoticed, but here are revealed as important components of the group's visual presentation—which must, by definition, reach from the front rows to the nosebleed sections.

Home Invasion also documents Wilson's continued growth and confidence as a front man, lead singer and bandleader. His voice has never sounded better and, while his guitar solos may not be as sophisticated as Hutchings,' they're nevertheless perfect for the moments where he chooses to take them. As a frontman, he's managed to evolve a distinctly personal style, between hand motions, facial expressions and direct engagement with his band mates and audience at various points throughout Home Invasion's two sets, and a four-song encore that begins with a solo look at Stupid Dream's "Even Less" and a final duet with Tayeb (To the Bone's gentle miniature, "Blank Tape"), before concluding with "Sound of Muzak" and, finally, the hauntingly melancholic and, at the same time, strangely uplifting title track to The Raven That Refused to Sing.

What differentiates Home Invasion from most concert videos is that, in its cinematic aspirations, it's a document that isn't just worth watching once or twice; it's a film that continues to command attention and captivate throughout a great many viewings, even as it also does, indeed, capture what attending a Steven Wilson concert in 2018 is like. Visually immersive and sonically absorptive, Home Invasion demonstrates how the music of To the Bone is, in particular, even better in live performance, all while capturing Wilson and his band's potent chemistry—a chemistry which, for any experiencing the group's November Montréal date eight months after the Royal Albert Häll concerts, has clearly only become stronger still.

Home Invasion: In Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, in many ways, redefines what a concert film can be, raising the bar so high as to wonder where Wilson will go next. Having begun to bring his Porcupine Tree repertoire back into active duty, perhaps one hope is that Wilson might consider returning a little more of his pre-Hand. Cannot. Erase, solo music to his set lists. With a group this strong, with Wilson's continuing evolution as a frontman and band leader, and even with his move in a more pop-friendly direction, what this band might do with some of the material from Insurgentes, Grace for Drowning and The Raven That Refused to Sing (along with whatever comes next) is surely rife with potential.

Tracks: Blu Ray: "Truth" (Intro); Nowhere Now; Pariah; Home Invasion / Regret #9; The Creator Has a Mastertape; Refuge; People Who Eat Darkness; Ancestral; Arriving Somewhere But Not Here; Permanating: Song of I; Lazarus; Detonation; The Same Asylum as Before; Song of Unborn; Vermillioncore; Sleep Together; Even Less; Blank Tapes; Sound of Muzak; The Raven That Refused to Sing. Blu Ray Bonus Features: Rehearsal Tracks: Routine; Hand. Cannot. Erase.; Heartattack in a Layby. Interview. Blu Ray Total Runtime: 178 Mins. 1080i 16x9 high definition, LPCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Digital Surround. CD1: "Truth" (Intro); Nowhere Now; Pariah; Home Invasion / Regret #9; The Creator Has a Mastertape; Refuge; People Who Eat Darkness; Ancestral; Arriving Somewhere But Not Here. CD2: Permanating: Song of I; Lazarus; Detonation; The Same Asylum as Before; Song of Unborn; Vermillioncore; Sleep Together; Even Less; Blank Tapes; Sound of Muzak; The Raven That Refused to Sing.

Personnel: Nick Beggs: basses, stick, keyboards, background vocals; Craig Blundell: drums; Adam Holzman: keyboards; Alex Hutchings: guitars, background vocals; Ninet Tayeb: vocals (CD1#3, CD1#7, CD2#10, Blu Ray#3, Blu Ray#7, Blu Ray#19); Steven Wilson: guitars, keyboards, bass, vocals.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Eagle Records

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