The first leg of Steven Wilson‘s “Grace For Drowning” tour in 2011 was one of the live highlights of the year for me. When a second leg was announced in the same London venue I snapped up a ticket. Would prog lightning strike twice?

As preamble to the main event 45 minutes of Bass Communion‘s Cenotaph is piped into the auditorium like a pure narcotic gas. The ambient drones are coupled with Lasse Hoile‘s dark dreamlike visuals which move at glacial pace  behind a huge gauze screen which separates audience and stage. As the shrouded figure which adorns Wilson’s latest opus looms menacingly in the foreground, edging with agonizingly slow progress towards a grey foreboding sea, the effect is simultaneously immersive and disquieting. To quote Fish, one of Wilson‘s myriad ex-collaborators, “The feeling you get is similar, something like drowning”.

As Cenotaph continues to drone away, drummer Marco Minnemann takes his place surreptitiously to huge applause (and not a little relief from the oppressive atmosphere) and improvises gradually coalescing rhythmic patterns. When Nick Beggs‘ bass joins in, a ripple of recognition washes over the venue – “No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun” from Wilson’s first solo album “Insurgentes”. Spacey Fender Rhodes chords and sparse hints of melody tinkle their way in to flesh out the arrangement. Angular distorted guitar figures and Theo Travis‘ wistful flute bring the intro to its apex as Wilson arrives on stage to a rapturous welcome and the Crimsonesque nuevo metal riff from “Twilight” reaches the first crescendo of the evening. Aside from the stylistic similarities, the theatrical one-by-one entry of the musicians mirrors King Crimson‘s traditional “Entry of the Crims” concert opening.

With all the component parts in place, Wilson welcomes the audience and introduces Index with an octave-lowered and heavily effected voice reminiscent of Laurie Anderson‘s darkly comical on-stage persona. With keyboard stage front and centre, Wilson is the focal point of a remarkable group of musicians. When he isn’t unobtrusively conducting proceedings he is pacing the stage barefoot, clearly enjoying the music unfold and incandescently smoulder and spark as much as anyone. This is an improvisational band, jamming around the arrangements like jazz musicians, taking risks.

After a delicate rendition of  ‘Deform To Form A Star’, the instrumental ‘Sectarian’ raises the temperature with its 70s-influenced style of modern progressive metal. Mellotron choir and whole tone riffs conspire to blow away any notion that “Grace For Drowning” was not  heavily informed by Wilson‘s work on the King Crimson 40th Anniversary reissues. This track is the collision of In the Wake of Poseidon and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic: jazzy but heavy as a bag of rusty spanners. Towards the end, as the main theme is recapitulated, the gauze drapery falls in theatrical fashion to a huge round of applause. Simple but highly effective staging.

Later our circkus master announces that this band is not just a brief affair but has gelled into a unit which has been working on new material. The ten-minute-plus ‘Luminol’ which has been premièred on this leg of the tour is a tantalising glimpse into what the third Wilson solo album will sound like. Judging by the reception of those gathered tonight, initial signs are very good. Epic, challenging, heavy prog with plenty of room for blowing, as they say in the improv business.

The epic ‘Raider II’ takes on a new pallor with the explanation that the lyrics are about a serial killer holding a family hostage, murdering them and watching television with the victims until the cops show up and batter down the door.  What is it with Steven Wilson and serial killers? He seems like such a nice boy. Being more longform, ‘Raider II’ lets the band stretch out and is a showcase in particular for the rhythm section of Minnemann and Beggs who have been thrilling throughout.  Minnemann is a jaw-droppingly good drummer and percussionist, a real joy to watch, diluting complex rhythms into sheer entertainment and infusing the music with his playful, slightly cheeky personality. Such playfulness is a foil to the  dark mind of Wilson. When he takes to the stage for the encore ‘Get What You Deserve’ in the gas mask from the “Insurgentes” album cover he elicits the same kind of nervous giggling Gabriel must have heard when he donned the fox’s head.

A mesmerizing night of prog from the de facto leader of the current insurgency. Whether the next major studio outing from Wilson is album #3 or the follow-up to Porcupine Tree‘s “The Incident” (he insists Porcupine Tree have not gone away) the result will be another modern classic of the genre. Judging by tonight Steven Wilson‘s best is yet to come.

Steven Wilson – Official Website