02 Institute2, Birmingham, March 23 2019:
In the world of alternative music, cultural phenomenons come and go at a rapid pace: some are reported at length by the media, some become five-minute social media phenomena, some go entirely unnoticed except by those ‘in the know’, and others are deliberately ignored and suppressed for a variety of reasons way too complicated to go into here.
The one thing I never thought I’d see, however, was the re-legitimization- for the first time ever since the (at least partially) press-fabricated ‘punk wars’ of the late Seventies – of that most maligned of genres, prog. Oh, sure, I wanted it to happen: moreover, ever since certain forward-thinking indie acts of the late Nineties – think Radiohead, Mansun, SFA, Kula Shaker, The Beta Band, The Delays, Mogwai, Godspeed, Puressence, Doves, Kid Galahad (remember them?) Stereolab, Broadcast, Pram and Clinic to name but a few – started to step outside the confines of the three-minute pop song and into areas formerly only explored by the likes of Can, Faust, Beefheart, Zappa, Eno, Bowie, Scott Walker, Hawkwind, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, The Residents, Cardiacs, Nurse With Wound, Peter Hammill, Peter Gabriel, Genesis, Marillion, XTC, Talk Talk et al, I prayed for it to.
Don’t forget that at one time, The Verve had been viewed as the finest exploratory space-rock band in the land: the minute, however, that they sold out to airplay paydirt with the dreadful, fishing-hat clad, Ashcroft-centred snoozefest that was Urban Hymns, the rot began to set in, and at this point, it was clear that somebody had to come along to save the world from the likes of Coldpiece, Travisty and their beige stranglehold over the late Nineties airwaves. Even if ‘certain’ elder acts, still releasing otherwise relevant music at the turn of the century, appeared happy to drop them as a saleable reference point, anyone with any sense could see that things were not headed in a good direction. Yet even the acts alluded to above are only the very few that got played on mainstream radio, or at the most on targeted ‘indie’ shows: enter stage left at this point, therefore, a nebulous underground scene of fascinating acts destined to almost never do that, but still build sizeable followings via a number of off-beaten paths.
Championed by magazines such as the then-nascent Classic Rock, alongside more ‘grass-roots’ publications like Progression, Freakbeat and Ptolemaic Terrascope, they divided into roughly five categories: a) refugees from the indie scene, as listed above but also including the likes of No-Man (actually already operating in relative obscurity since around 1991) Orange Can and the much-missed Oceansize: b) retro-psych acts on deliberately ‘niche’ labels, most notably German Hawkwind soundalikes Coloursound, Danish psych-garagists On Trial and beardy Swedes The Soundtrack Of Our Lives: c) those springing from the festi / crustie scene, to whit Moom, Astralasia and the original Porcupine Tree: d) participants of a gothier, doomier bent, usually craving a far more sui generis status outside such constraints but ultimately stymied by metally monickers like Paradise Lost, Opeth, Thine and Anathema: and e) those that embodied all of the above disciplines. Which is where, in a home studio zumwhere in deepest Zummerzet circa 1998, The Pineapple Thief come in…
As that date might suggest, their subsequent rise to prominence has been by no stretch of the imagination swift: now onto their twelfth studio album, they’ve built their following from the very barest of bones to the point where they are now able (in London anyway – tonight’s venue is far smaller) to headline festivals in reasonably-sized theatres. And, whilst airplay hasn’t exactly been flung at them in the manner it has, say, the likes of former Porcupine Tree star Steven Wilson, it’s at least been existent. Furthermore, they have a current member of King Crimson (also ex of the ‘Tree) on drums, another (Pat Mastelotto) serving in their tour support, and whilst still ostensibly signed to an ‘indie’ label, evidently have some hefty backing coming in from somewhere, hence the replacement of their former website with one of those shiny-looking new ones that just says ‘album’, ‘tour’, ‘facebook’, ‘twitter’ etc and very little else. You get the (grey) picture.
Moreover, their audience has widened- not just in size, but in range. And that’s the cultural phenomenon to which I allude here. For, rather than your average ‘prog’ gang – the ‘Clives and Stephanies’ from the Home Counties who flock year in year out to Mostly Autumn and Panic Room shows – what I encouter tonight is a mixture of alternative rock persuasions of all ages. Sure, the old hippies are still abundant, including one in front of me whose prominent patchouli odour and velvet loons immediately conjure memories of the crusty festivals referred to above – and indeed, at one point during my ‘exterior’ fag break, it becomes quite difficult to distinguish between the PT crowd and those heading upstairs for Sleaford Mods. Yet there are also extreme metallers (the type who probably discovered this type of music via Meshuggah, Cynic or Devin Townsend), emo kids, indie types, doom-beardy-hipsters of the Mogwai/Godspeed variety, and Goths. Loads of goths, both industrial and traditional. And even more encouragingly, a variance of ages within all of the above tribes. For once, at 45, I’m not the youngest fucker in the room- and a refreshing change it makes, I tell you.
Unfortunately, said diversity also includes the by-now-customary (and inevitable) “’pair of pissed twats’ by the bar, who despite repeatedly claming to “lov dis focken band” also seem intent on talking right through them. Sure, during the heavy-riffing sections – of which there are a fair amount in the Thief’s current set, particularly on Far Below, 3000 Days and the latter part of the otherwise loping, shifting Threatening War – this is admittedly less of a problem. However, during the quiet, intricate acoustic laments of which there are significantly more in general – such as That Shore or the hypnotic, post-apocalyptic No Man’s Land, the last-named overlaid by the beautiful three-part vocal harmonies of Soord, bassist Jon Sykes and keyboardist Steve Kitch – it’s a fucking major one.
What’s even more shocking is that in response to my politely asking for quiet, they choose to threaten and verbally abuse me, claiming they have a right to cuntjabber as loud as they want because “d’ band have a full focken PA op dere”. I’m shocked: yet the shock I feel is not because I’m in the least bit scared of the little pricks, but because this isn’t the type of behaviour, either in its arrogance or its ignorance, I expect from supposed lovers of progressive or independent music. However, as with the James show at the Acad two days earlier, such attitudes seem to be becoming more and more prevalent now, and not just among youngsters: in fact, both of these arsebrained crapwits (one of whom then proceeds to get on his phone and have a conversation with another mate about the sodding rugby results) are older than me by at least five years. I despair, I really do – but I’ll be buggered if it’s going to prevent me from enjoying the Pineapple Thief themselves, who are as ever mind-blowingly good.
In truth, I’ve been in a relatively chipper mood ever since labelmates ORK came on: blessed as they are with a rich blend of extreme metallic vocals and flowing, doomy melodies, underpinned by the archetypally Crimsonian rhythm patterns of the aforementioned Mr Mastelotto, they’re just the kind of opener I like to see at such a show. Hell, I even manage to get into the venue just as they’re starting, which given the generally early kickoffs I’m rapidly becoming used to at this place is quite some achievement. So, by the time PT themselves hit off with a chugging Try As I Might and a wistful, wintry In Exile – the latter fast on the verge of becoming their ‘breakthrough song’ the way Blackest Eyes finally nailed it for Wilson’s mob – I’m primed and ready to go, and nothing, not even the customary ‘coldness’ of the venue, is gonna stop me. Then again, back when Durannie guitarslinger Andy Taylor owned this place, and it had ‘four floors of rock’ every Friday, this was the industrial goff basement, so I guess icy chills are (for me anyway) only natural by association…
More to the point, they also go perfectly with the Thief’s music – not that they’re in any way a Goth band or even ‘goth prog”’ in the manner of the aforesaid Anathema and Paradise Lost, but they sure as hell are dark, guvnor. Moody, miserablist (though they all seem like quite affable chaps onstage, to the point of mirthfully chiding one another and their multi-skilled road crew) and boasting, in Soord, a ‘sensitive beta male’ frontman in the classic Molko/Bellamy mould (albeit without the eyeliner and/or daft riah) this is no dragons’n’goblins prog cliche outfit, but a band that deals in emotions. To be more specific, emotions, feelings and impulses of a raw and unsettling nature. As such, sometimes the mood is pensive, reflective, ethereal – as on Alone At Sea, Not Naming Any Names and final encore Snowdrops: whilst on other occasions it veers between quirkily psychotic and full-on aggressive, modes that find their natural expression in the thrudding, propulsive epic White Mist and the bouncing, NIN-esque Nothing At Best (at almost 20 years old, practically the ‘grandaddy’ – to draw not-quite-accidental similes with another influential alt.progressive act- of the newer tunes, and generally reserved for the closure of the main set proper).
Ultimately, though, whichever mood they’re in, the crowd love them regardless, and clearly recognise quality musicianship when they see it. As indeed do I. True, if there’s one slight letdown, it’s that even at this late juncture, the quartet have still yet to pen more than (roughly) ten numbers with immediately recognisable hooks of the kind specialised in by the ‘other’ PT: but then again, since when did prog have to have hooks anyway? Lest we forget, Tool – the band that for many redefined the genre in the late Nineties/early Noughties with the quasi-industrial sound of the Aenima and Lateralus albums – had relatively few, and their immediately obvious influences (VDGG, Gentle Giant and again Crimson) displayed them only sporadically after 1973: likewise, both Talk Talk and Mansun, after shedding their respective pop straitjackets, came to rely less on melody and more on atmosphere, and in doing so recorded their greatest works.
On balance, therefore, the Thief’s trump card lies in their melding of both approaches: sure, Shed A Light or The Final Thing On My Mind may not be ‘pop’ songs of the kind penned these days by a certain chap from ‘Emel ‘Empstead, but they’re far more accessible, memorable and structural than anything Thom Yorke’s clan has produced since Kid A, and even at their most despairing, they’re still way more positive than the ‘this world is irrevocably fucked because the super-rich run it, so let’s let out a massive geshry of despair’ message running through Hogarth & Co’s last waxing. In conclusion, I think the West Country boys have finally found their niche, particularly given the acclaim heaped upon 2018’s Dissolution opus (the source of much of tonight’s set) which has undoubtedly pushed their commercial envelope one notch further: even so, they are still first and foremost a rock band, and as such, remain more than capable, like their old pals Riverside, of making heads bang and horns throw.
In addition to which, Soord – for all his sensitive, gently-phrased appearance – does possess a secondary function as a widdlemeister with twice the flair of any modern-day Fripp, Howe or Lifeson-lite, counterpointed nicely by that tiniest added sprinkle of the old ‘Diabolis In Musica’. Around him, Kitch’s keyboards and samples – sparse, spidery, never obtrusive – curve and dart like rivers: again, there are moments of flash and prowess, but always within the context of the song in question rather than just for its own sake. And naturally, Harrison doesn’t play his kit, he attacks it – his juxtaposition of ominous thundering and gentle accents by now his recognised trademark . But you knew that already. And even if you didn’t, it won’t take longer than 20 minutes in a room with him for it to dawn on you…
Like I said, progressive music is being redefined in a major way – and The Pineapple Thief are one of the bands most responsible. Sure, its spiritual home may still be the world’s rural communities and twinkling newtowns rather than big-city urbana, but it’s not a dirty word anymore – and it’s definitely no longer all about hobbits. Not that it ever was, of course, except within the imaginations and prejudices of twatty journalists from North London and South Manchester, who have been proven time and again to know fuck all. Meanwhile on the other side, the metalhead, the goth, the emo, the floppy-haired alt. kid, the becapped backpacked beardster, the archetypal neoprogger, the crusty and the chartered accountant are all hip to the trip: as for the drunkards, last seen departing prior to the encore (though whether this was their choice or that of the security staff is uncertain – I’d moved by then anyway) you really are a disgrace to music lovers of all kinds, and in future, kindly stay the fuck out of my way. Next time, I might not be quite so polite.