Prog-Nerds of the World, Unite: Porcupine Tree’s Octane Twisted Takes Over

  • Sammy O'Hagar

Maybe it’s because I listen to so much goddamn metal, but I feel like the live album is a lost art. But even outside the metal realm—whose live albums, for the most part, consist of a slightly-differently-mixed renditions of their CD tracks with the screaming of either fat drunk dudes or scrawny, immaculately dressed fourteen years olds beating the shit out of eachother after one too many Monster Energy Drinks—I can’t recall the last time a live album that blew me out of the water. Hell, it may be Live Era ’87-’93. Maybe it’s due to bands becoming more synthetic and studio-based, maybe it’s because after the mid-‘90s getting off one’s ass and seeing a band live was the only way for them to directly make money, or maybe obscure blues medleys don’t hit home the way they used to, but even with technology catching up to what we hear in concert, good live albums have fallen by the wayside.

Which is what left me wary of Porcupine Tree’s Octane Twisted, their expansive new live album. I’ve never been huge into Porcupine Tree (nothing against them, really, but never properly got around to giving them a shot), so like two hours of them would presumably seem like homework. And that’s what it was for the first few songs. But once they (or more importantly I) settled into a groove, I let the band wash over me and was consistently entertained and often moved. While prog doesn’t necessarily suffer the same live fate as metal—its roots in jazz fusion makes improvised wankoffery fairly common—a little skepticism of being somewhat unfamiliar with the Porcupine Tree songbook made me wince at the prospect. But as with most reviews with this much context and lead-up, I was pleasantly surprised.

This mostly has to do with the band’s affection for mood and melody, calling back to their (very obvious) man-crush on mid-period Pink Floyd. Octane Twisted works in the arcs of an interesting live show, appealing to both people who might show up to see some live-ass rock music and to the nerdy IT guys who hate The Big Bang Theory for its nerd minstrelsy and wash their Porcupine Tree shirts in the most sensitive of detergents. There are little one- and two-minute intro tracks to lave into the massive sections devoted to 10-14 minute songs. And those longer songs never feel labored: growing up a Tool fan, I know the difference between songs going on as long as they need to and songs being long for the sake of long (alright, the latter could apply to parts of 10,000 Days). There’s a feeling of well-packaged rawness throughout Octane Twisted, as Porcupine Tree unfurl a very well-rehearsed live show with the opportunity for flights of improvisation. The simultaneously staged and uncaged quality of it keeps it fresh throughout the majority of its lengthy running time.

Though I’ll admit that non-devotees will most likely have a problem sticking with the entire thing in one sitting. But the little revelations sprinkled throughout certainly have the potential to satisfy and even possibly surprise non-fans. Chief among said revelations is an epic rendition of “Time Flies,” a song that borders on embarrassingly earnest lyrically but eventually settles in as a massively poignant place, paying tribute to the band’s prog and singer-songwriter roots in equal measure. Live albums like Octane Twisted make me feel like I should be listening to more Porcupine Tree, but at the same time, I’d like these songs to be preserved the way they are.  It’s good to know a live show can still be captured significantly without having to be there, repeatable for years to come. It may be lacking in the arena of screaming Japanese pre-teens of Live at Budokan, but I don’t think that crowd get it.

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