While traditional rock lovers would have gone to see Def Leppard and The Scorpions at the Spark Arena this Monday night in Auckland, another slightly less known rock show was taking place up north at the Bruce Mason Centre for those with tastes in rock and music as a whole, that is comparatively less recognised in the mainstream, which was the Steven Wilson show, promoting his latest album To The Bone.
Wilson and his band are no strangers to New Zealand’s shores... Last night marks the second time Steven Wilson has taken his band to Auckland. His accompanying musicians, mostly identical to the lineup he had when he first came to New Zealand in 2015, consisted of Nick Beggs, formerly of Kajagoogoo, on bass guitar and the Chapman stick, as well as backing vocals and Craig Blundell on drums for the rhythm section. Adam Holzman, perhaps previously most well-known for having played with Jazz legend Miles Davis in the mid-80’s, was on electric piano, synths and keyboards and on lead guitar and backing vocals was Alex Hutchings, the most recent addition to the band. Though a new member, even Hutchings was also familiar to New Zealand territory as he was in fact here for a guitar clinic in Auckland back in August 2017, merely a few weeks before officially joining Steven Wilson’s band.
As soon as I set foot inside the venue, I noticed the immediate visual contrast between the audience and stage areas... the audience seats were lit in a crimson red colour while the stage was lit in light blue. This subtle hint of visual even before the show would become a major foreshadowing of one of the key themes in the show... which was the idea of contrast.
When the lights first dimmed, the audience was met with a robotic male voice that requested the audience to view a short film... The dry delivery here brought a few chuckles from the audience, followed by the Steven Wilson logo showing on the large projection screen and the beginning of said film, entitled Truth.
At surface level, the film was a simple slideshow of various images and a single word accompanying each image, along with comedic elevator music. It had a quirky, subtle humorous vibe at the start... but things quickly took a darker turn and tension began to rise, both visually and sonically, as the video delved into more serious matters such as images of conflicts in the middle-east in the form of weapon wielding soldiers and war fields, as well as figures resembling politicians, and other dark aspects in modern society hinting at various areas such as domestic violence and the abuse of social media.
Eventually, the seemingly unrelated pictures and words paired themselves with each corresponding opposite, such as truth and lie, as well as love and hate. Hauntingly, the directly contrasting words were over the same images, which noticeably hints at the notion that ‘truth’ can be bent to suit one’s agenda, a key idea within To The Bone. The transition speed between each slide began to rise along with the music, and at the climax... the musicians walked onstage and the show began.
The band kicked off with Nowhere Now off the new record, and the first thing I noticed was the punchy bass drum, which made my chest feel a ‘thump’ every time it was hit. Though much of the latest record is more straightforwardly focused on a mellower and pop-oriented sound, you could feel how much more powerful the songs come across in a powerful live setting. They quickly transitioned to Pariah, a slower ballad where the audience first got to witness the visual elements of the show in the form of an intimate close up projection of Ninet Tayeb, who provided the female vocals for this track. Though they used pre-recorded samples for her parts, her presence through the video form amplified the impact of her parts in the song.
After these two songs, Wilson properly addressed the crowd for the first time, pointing out to the seated audience that at a later point in the show they would have to stand up, as his show is after all, a “sexy Rock and Roll show”, and that one of the songs simply cannot be played to a seated audience, with positive reactions and cheers from a welcoming, excited and packed crowd.
The band then moved on to Home Invasion and Regret #9, both from his previous album Hand. Cannot. Erase. The two songs were both largely instrumental and fairly amorphous, spanning about 20 minutes in total going through various different musical styles starting from heavy metal riffs alongside chilling strings, then moving onto more jazz oriented soundscapes, with a very brief vocal section towards the middle. This is the moment when the audience first had a taste of the high level of musicianship across the whole band, with expansive solos from both Holzman and Hutchings, and Wilson and Beggs switching from their usual instruments, with Wilson playing the bass guitar while Beggs handled electric keyboards to trigger various sound effects.
The whole show in its essence was a variation in one way or another to these aforementioned descriptions. Some songs were concise while others were incredibly long and immersive, with many songs of course falling somewhere in between these two extreme ends. Ultimately, every single track had at the very least one memorable aspect to them, with the show being such a multi-layered experience. With music that is already so rich and expansive across a wide range of genres, not to mention the accompanying visual projection with its own different sets of styles, sometimes being very direct while other times more abstract, but always being captivating and driving a very particular narrative that all ties in to a massive singular spectacle, it becomes difficult to articulate all of the details that made the show what it was. Add on to this the very strong personalities of the seasoned musicians themselves, with various interactions such as smiling and laughing amongst each other and the crowd while simultaneously playing very tricky passages and grooving to the music, and you get a gig that is overwhelming to fathom and take in, albeit of course in a most positive way.
Some of the greatest highlights however from the night are when Wilson did address the audience, first when he pointed out and acknowledged that the age group of a majority of his fanbase are of the “old” category. He jokingly addressed those in the “25 years old and less” demographic, when he offered to “introduce you to an ancient artefact… this is called an electric guitar!” pointing out the obvious disappearance of electric guitar driven music in the majority of current mainstream music, with amused laughs and interactions from the crowd.
The other time he extensively conversed with the audience was when he introduced the infamous song Permanating, the first piece of “unashamedly joyous pop music” that he had ever written. He claimed the intro talk to the song is longer than the song itself, as he went on a rant about the difference between the pop music of today, like “Justin Bieber and X-Factor kind of shit”, as opposed to the pop music that existed before rock, such as The Beatles, Abba, Prince, and so on. It was quite clear that the audience and Steven were in accord with which they prefer. He went on to share that one Romanian fan turned his back throughout the whole song while they played there, poking fun and saying “he was some Metal guy... he probably can’t see joy in any music!” He quickly followed by saying “To be fair I was probably the same guy when I was his age with my Cure records…” the whole crowd enjoyed listening to Steven’s various thoughts and opinions of music across a wide range of eras.
He went on to ask the crowd to “disco dance” while playing Permanating and addressed the “prog sceptics” who may be reluctant to do so, because they have never been asked to dance before at a concert, “with their King Crimson and Pink Floyd shirts on”. He humorously sympathised with them, “I totally understand. If the musicians on stage aren’t moving, why should you move?” When he goes on such rants, I could not help but notice just how well he knows his demographic and the wider music demographic as a whole itself. It clearly showed that ultimately Steven himself is a great fan of music itself regardless of genre, as is evident by his musical output as well as his vast cultural knowledge surrounding music culture.
All in all, while New Zealand may be relatively distant and unaffected directly from the various issues discussed in To The Bone, such as the heightened tension regarding politics, ‘fake news’ or terrorist attacks, its effects are most definitely still felt by the people. The Steven Wilson show provided escapism from such negative aspects of current global affairs, while also simultaneously directly confronting and reflecting on these issues across multiple artistic expressions throughout the show.
Though Steven Wilson very recently released a live album, Home Invasion, that captured his performance of the show at the Royal Albert Hall... witnessing the show live is not to be missed, as Wilson masterfully presents tricky and challenging material in a mesmerising and easily accessible way, and the sheer power and ‘oomph’ of the live sound simply cannot be matched.