We have already written about Porcupine Tree‘s studio work, but with this post we went on to check the band’s live releases. Over the years, Porcupine Tree tree released ten studio (audio) albums. We tried to rank them based on different criteria, and below is the result.
Spiral Circus (1994)
Spiral Circus is the first live album released by Porcupine Tree in 1993, the period of Up The Downstair and is the first album to include the band as it was then all playing together on their first ever tour. The album name is a reference to the song “The Sky Moves Sideways” despite the song not being on this album however that may be due to the fact that their next album The Sky Moves Sideways had not been released yet.
This album is for collectors and hardcore fans only because of its poor sound quality. This album sounds like an unofficial bootleg recording rather than a genuine album from Porcupine Tree and does not nearly sound as good a quality as Porcupine Tree would later introduce to their albums including their live ones. However this could be due to the fact that these are recordings from their first tour and are also playing together as a proper band for the first time.
We Lost the Skyline (2008)
We Lost the Skyline is a cornerstone for how acoustic sets should be done, by a band that usually features layers upon layers of different sounds within their complex music. This live album draws you in and captivates you as a listener. The stripped down versions of “Lazarus,” “Trains,” “Stars Die” and “Waiting” are beautiful, if nothing else.
With a band line-up pared down so dramatically for this performance, what may well once have been thoughtful and elaborate compositions are inevitably reduced to singer/songwriter fare.
XM consists mainly of material from In Absentia, with 3 songs from Stupid Dream. These songs are played live, but without audience. The songs are played with precision (especially the In Absentia ones – this was surely one of the first times they had played a set of these new songs and the band were determined to get them right). The selection of songs are some of the best from In Absentia and Stupid Dream, and hearing them live brings a different dimension to the music. These songs were made to be played live, and they sound fresh and crisp. It is an extremely well-played, well produced set of songs that continues to show why Porcupine Tree were a prog-rock force to be reckoned with.
This is a live album from the Fear Of A Blank Planet tour in 2007, made exclusively for the Porcupine Tree fan club members. Steven Wilson remixed it at the No-Man studios.
The music here is fantastic, featuring tracks from all the way back to their Lightbulb Sun album to their most recent release, Fear Of A Blank Planet. Many of the tracks are presented in a heavier format here, particularly Lightbulb Sun and Trains. The former no longer has the dreamy psychedelic sound and is instead presented as a rocker, but the track is still fantastic.
With the success of XM, Porcupine Tree decided to delve into the archives again for a second release on their own Transmission label. Warszawa comprises a 70+ minute show that was broadcast on Polish radio in 2001. So no In Absentia here, but the majority of songs are from the nearest release at the time, Lightbulb Sun. The rest of the show is somewhat of a “Greatest Hits,” with songs such as “Voyage 34,” “Signify,” “Even Less,” etc. The Lightbulb Sun songs sound vibrant, and the older songs sound arguably better live than they do on the albums: “Slave Called Shiver” sounds especially powerful, and the guitar is more prominent in “Stop Swimming” which makes the song even more beautiful. The 70+ minutes of music showcases Porcupine Tree doing what they loved – playing live.
While there is still much debate as to what the “best” Porcupine Tree recordings are, the question usually divides listeners into two distinct categories of PT fans. Those who prefer the atmospheric, ambient works of the nineties, and those more in-tune with the band’s more recent pop-oriented and straight-forward rock leanings.
XMII CD is tough to find, as it was sold exclusively at PT concerts at the time, and the small amount of remaining inventory was made available exclusively through the band’s own website. You may have to pay the big bucks from those eBay purveyors (aka leeches), but worth every penny.
Performed live, the band breathes new life into jams from Stupid Dream, Lightbulb Sun, Recordings, and Signify albums. The highlight is the rendition of “Fadeaway” from Up The Downstair featuring John Wesley‘s vocals. John is an extraordinary singer, songwriter and guitarist in his own right.
This double album is from a live performance Porcupine Tree did for a German TV broadcast on November 19, 2005. It was during the Deadwing tour and the majority of songs are from that album. The recording quality is great for a TV broadcast, and sounds wonderful any way you listen to it. The acoustic passages are fantastic, although the band really shines in their heavier sections on this one – the raw, live, metallic sound is brilliant.
The highlights include “Futile,” “Radioactive Toy,” “Mellotron Scratch” and “.3” — 4 killer studio tracks and absolutely stellar live songs. The rest of the setlist is mostly from the Deadwing era, and every track (bar those four) is available on the band’s DVD Arriving Somewhere…
Octane Twisted (2012)
On September 15th 2009, I got to see Porcupine Tree. Driving down to Seattle to see them perform at the Moore Theatre, it was an incredible experience to see one of my favourite bands play live. Moreover, it was the first time Porcupine Tree had ever played The Incident before a live audience, making the experience even more significant. Listening to Octane Twisted– Porcupine Tree’s latest live offering- I recall vivid memories of that experience. With that context, and hundreds of listens to The Incident now under my belt, this double album was an instant pleasure for me. Now with a fairly extensive catalogue of live recordings, there are few surprises here that fans of Porcupine Tree wouldn’t already expect. That aside, it’s The Incident in a live setting, and that’s more than good enough for me.
If you haven’t listened to The Incident already, I would humbly suggest you check it out at the nearest convenient time (or horribly inconvenient time, it still might be worth it!). Essentially a fifty-five minute epic split into fourteen parts, it’s an abstract conceptual piece with plenty of atmosphere, self-contained pieces and studiobound beauty that the band is famed for. Talking about the music based on its own merit might end up feeling like a review of The Incident rather than for this live record however. Although the second disc draws upon songs throughout Porcupine Tree’s career, the first disc is dedicated solely to their 2009 masterpiece. Something that I recall surprising me was how well Porcupine Tree managed to reproduce the sound of the album in a live space. Barring Steven Wilson’s decidedly rawer vocal approach here, the performance is incredibly similar to the studio release. Even particular sounds, samples and effects have been brought to bear. It may have been nice to hear Porcupine Tree take parts of The Incident down new, fresh routes for this live recording, but the fact that the band are able to so beautifully recreate the album live is a testament to their brilliance as a musical act.
The second disc feels less necessary than the first, but the songs are well chosen and the quality of performance is maintained consistently. Absent are the overplayed “Trains” and “Lazarus”, replaced instead by some of Porcupine Tree’s longer, proggier material. “Hatesong” is a brilliant showcase for Gavin Harrison’s precise style of playing, and Edwin’s bass groove is a real crowd pleaser for the live setting. “Russia On Ice” starts off fairly true to form, before diving into an excerpt from the middle of the incredible epic “Anesthetize.” Of course, the highlight of the second disc is “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here”, although I could have probably guessed that just by looking at the tracklist. It’s a wonderfully composed and performed tune, and it translates into the live realm perfectly.
The recording is up to par with what one might expect from Porcupine Tree– there’s an attention paid here for the sake of audiophiles, and any listeners using a high-definition sound system. At the heaviest moments of the set however, the mixing seems to rely on the bass a tad much, which tends to drown out some of the details in the performance. For the most part, Octane Twisted focuses in on the atmospheric, progressive side of Porcupine Tree, and in this respect, the recording is sublime. I’m not sure that this could compare to the near-perfection the band achieved in studio, but for the sake alone that it gives a slightly new light to The Incident, it’s worth a listen. It’s a solid live album, and though Porcupine Tree will always be best heard in their studio form, Octane Twisted goes to show how meticulous they were as a live performing act.
Coma Divine (1997)
A stunningly deep and intense live album featuring everything unique and exciting about PT‘s early sound. Indeed, just about every track here sounds as good, if not better than they do on studio albums, delivering a throbbing energy throughout which really delivers the power of the show.
Steven‘s guitar sizzles, Edwin‘s bass pulses, and Barbieri‘s synths are almost as layered as they sound recorded. The album has a very eerie/mystical mood which compliments the songs nicely. The set is a perfect combination of highlights from this era in the band’s catalogue and I am always entertained with how the group blends pieces together into lengthy jams and dynamic shifts between songs.
Opening with the title track of Fear of a Blank Planet, Porcupine Tree hit the stage at full throttle, with all the flourishes and quirks of the studio version intact but played with just a touch more venom than the original, with Steven Wilson’s vocals in particular having a more aggressive edge than the processed equivalent form the record although the guitars are less aggressive. “What Happens Now” from accompanying mini-album Nil Recurring is next sounding somewhat more spacey than the original thanks to a reverb-drenched sound before “Sound of Muzak” from the mighty In Absentia rings out and you realise how unified the theme of alienation has become on the more recent run of PT releases. The sequencing is perfect and the tracks flow together beautifully – a difficult trick when one considers how album focused Steven Wilson’s writing is. Back to FOABP, “Sentimental” gives the keyboards a chance to shine before rare track “Drown With Me” (from the In Absentia bonus CD) surprises you with a gentle burst of acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies. It’s a treat and a welcome addition to the set list, particularly for fans who may not want to have the same old tracks recycled across multiple formats as happens with some bands. Next up is a truly monumental “Anesthetize” – the highlight of FOABP (along with “Way Out of Here”) and of the live show with its multiple mood changes and full-tilt ending.
“Open Car” is, as always, a stuttering burst of uncharacteristically violent riffage before, joy of joys, “Dark Matter” form the excellent signify album meanders through your speakers. A fade out is helpfully inserted at the end of “Dark Matter” for those wishing to burn to disc and then we have the lovely “Cheating the Polygraph” from Nil Recurring which receives a note-perfect rendition but with greater emphasis on the guitar than on the EP version. Another dip into the band’s illustrious past sees them unveil “A Smart Kid,” the introspective ballad from Stupid Dream which is greeted like an old friend by the audience. “Blackest Eyes,” however, introduces a necessary change of pace with guitars and keyboards vying for prominence and the drums pounding away through that oh-so-recognisable opening riff. Another rare gem in the form of “Half Light” (which appeared on the Lazurus single and 2LP version of Deadwing) appears and reminds you of those Pink Floyd comparisons with a lazy, Hawaiian sound and atmospheric keyboards underpinning the gorgeous vocal. “Way Out of Here” is another epic moment from the excellent FOABP record that rivals “Anesthetize” for best track on the album although the queasy synth parts of “Sleep Together” sound even more monumental than before in the live setting and you can imagine them echoing around the theatre they were recorded in. Final tracks (and encores), “Even Less” and “Halo” are both classic tracks that round the set out in style.
So – what you have here are two CDs worth of prime Porcupine Tree, perfectly recorded and mixed and offering a feast of well-known tracks and rare treasures. This is a monumental release that deserves your attention from start to finish. Excellent.
Cover photo by Claudia Hahn