Fans of prog rock and heavy metal form the core of Porcupine Tree’s audience — the thought of which probably scares off more potential ticket buyers than it attracts. But poised at the edge of breakthrough is a band that knows its history and has an eye on the future, knows when to extend a piece and when to keep it short and, significantly, how to use drums for dramatic effect. Led by the guitar of Steve Wilson, P-Tree, nearing the end of its 27-date North American tour, delivered music that was opulent, aggressive and occasionally haunting yet consistently pristine in the execution over the course of two hours at the Wilshire.
Wilson keeps the band — a smart act that has been recording for 12 years — tight and focused, never succumbing to prog-rock noodling or venturing into hard rock’s cartoonish visuals or untethered bombast. This is the rare rock band that can make a moody and shifting 12-minute song, “Arriving Somewhere but Not Here,” the centerpiece of both a record (“Deadwing” on Atlantic’s Lava) and a concert. If there’s such a thing as a front-porch prog-rock outfit, these are the guys: They possess a casual air but deliver remarkably well thought out music.
That the opening slot was occupied by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp was a sincere note of homage. Wilson acknowledged he wouldn’t be a guitarist without Fripp’s influence, which was particularly evident on songs from Porcupine Tree’s deep catalog. “Deadwing,” too, owes a debt to Crimson, taking the framework of the early-’80s version of the band and extending the reach, especially as it relates to the use of guitar as a textural scene setter and a thunder-stealing solo instrument.
Fripp’s opening solo bit was a throwback to his Frippertronics days, when his spontaneous compositions — recorded in collaboration with Brian Eno — were based on slow loops of shimmering bits of guitar-generated sounds.
Fripp was afforded hushed attention as he created four pieces by striking handfuls of notes and then twisting knobs on his amp and stomping on a host of foot pedals.
His closing piece was the most grand, a collection of string-section-oriented sonic beds layered over one another that brought out a cinematic sadness. No flash, no solos and no rock ‘n’ roll — he was rewarded with a standing ovation.