Spinal Tap had their Stonehenge. But it was The Smashing Pumpkins who decided to reach for the stars and have a “moon” on-stage. Actually it was a giant, white orb suspended above them but let’s not let that get between friends. In 2012 their Australian tour was bigger and bolder than ever before, no doubt a reflection of Billy Corgan’s increased happiness (or decreased mellon collie, ha ha) with the current state of things.
The dust has settled on the current line-up with Jeff Schroeder (guitars), Mike Byrne (drums) and Nicole Fiorentino (bass) having notched up a few years together after original drummer, Jimmy Chamberlin once again left the band in 2009. The group are credited with contributing to Corgan’s most ambitious project to date (a far cry from his controlling persona during the early years and the initial line-up of the band.) The result is the experimental and epic 44-track, Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, and from this the 13-track Oceania album has been released.
Corgan has acknowledged that the new stuff still tackles the same values as The Smashing Pumpkins of old, i.e. music that is: progressive, emotional, epic and restless. He’s also said that there is more to these guys than just being an “Alluring virtual jukebox,” no doubt a reflection of the flack they’ve copped on previous tours (the phrase “The best Smashing Pumpkins cover band” immediately springs to mind). Plus, he’s also recently rekindled his interest in making music, getting back to the spirit of a guy making demos in his bedroom and something that had once seemed ions away from today (pun intended)
The Pumpkins’ set at the Entertainment Centre – like every show on this tour – was devoted to playing Oceania from start to finish. In addition to an amazing rainbow light show (where floor-to-ceiling columns flanked both sides of the orb) were also some amazing visual projections. These are courtesy of Sean Evans (known for his recent work on Roger Waters’ The Wall). This had involved video-mapping to ensure that this was than your standard meat-and-three-veg trippy visions. Instead, there were plenty of symbols, mystic flavours plus black and white scenes, cosmic dreams and 3D animation and far too many other things for this reviewer to do justice.
So everything looked spectacular but what was the music like I hear you ask. Well, the material is certainly stronger than Zeitgeist. The group burst on stage with a red, Aztec symbol projected above them and Billy Corgan only had to point his finger in the air to earn rapturous applause. But as soon as “Quasar” began you were treated to some dirty guitars reminiscent of those you loved on Gish plus a solid punch from the drums and a grunting bass. This cut did rear an early, confident head.
“Panopticon” built on this feeling but with a sound that was also a tad more expansive. The guys have described the record as one for people to immerse themselves in, and with the fullness and variety of sound and lyrics it is easily achieved without drowning in the self-indulgence a lesser artist might have put forth. There are cuts like the epic “The Celestials” one that was initially written on old vintage keyboards that grow from a soft, acoustic hush to become a giant kick while “Violet Rays” has some of the best extraterrestrial-meets-underwater themes.
Along the way there were numbers containing peaceful messages of love and freedom but in true Corgan style there are also dark undercurrents and irony to stop things from becoming too warm and fluffy. “Pinwheels” was reminiscent in sound to New Order’s “Love Vigilantes” and was full of a camp, theatricality that was rewarded tonight by a few lighters. The title track meanwhile, was a broody, retro-sounding pop song and “Inkless” sounded like it came to us via a Siamese Dream or two.
Oceania is obviously Billy Corgan’s pet project and it shows that a great level of maturity and honesty is still prevalent in this creative genius’ work. There were moments when I couldn’t help but be reminded of Pete Townshend’s very own labour of love, his magnum opus Lifehouse and one that became – for better or worse – a lifelong journey in writing and exploration. Corgan could easily be Townshend’s modern day counterpart because this experimental work-in-progress both on record and in a live environment showcased a harmonious band gelling and playing well together and with enough musical chops between them to produce something that is still meaningful and vital. Heck, it may even force some of Corgan’s oldest and most ardent fans to concede that today really ain’t so bad.
For the more casual observers however, the concert was about to get a whole lot more interesting. Corgan and Co. cut loose with a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. It was a laidback and grungy version that was more fluid in approach than the original masterpiece (well, Major Tom was a junkie, right). But it was “X.Y.U.” that got massive cheers because it was the first “old” Pumpkins song to get an airing. My hat is doffed to the man in the seated area on the right hand side who was so animated during this he could’ve been riding a rock bull. Well done sir.
The killer second half featured “Disarm” (one that was every bit as good as the original). “Tonight, Tonight” was a bit sparser on the instrumentation, lending it an almost a cappella feel while “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” was an explosive serving before “Soot & Stars”. They ended on an absolute high with “Today” before returning for a perfect encore, with a feisty “Cherub Rock” and “Ava Adore” who was a very different lady tonight (think extended pauses, extra guitars in some parts and slower bits at other moments).
The night ended with a bang thanks to the call and response of “Zero,” which left us knowing that even without “1979” we’d seen one helluva rock show. In the second half we’d received a heady mix of alt rock and nostalgia and earlier on we’d seen the way forward. While it all seems to be looking up, you can’t escape this kind of past and this near 29-year old will admit that she was reduced to screaming along like a crazed school girl for the second half of play. In short, the show had been a return-to-form and Corgan has gotten things figured out (at least musically), meaning tonight had been oh so bright.
The Smashing Pumpkins’ set list:
3. The Celestials
4. Violet Rays
5. My Love Is Winter
6. One Diamond, One Heart
9. Pale Horse
10. The Chimera
14. Space Oddity (originally by David Bowie)
17. Tonight, Tonight
18. Bullet With Butterfly Wings
19. Soot & Stars
21. Cherub Rock
22. Ava Adore