Porcupine Tree – Metanoia

December 1998

First, some housekeeping notes. I’m travelling these next few weeks, so the next post on this blog, on IEM’s An Escalator to Christmas, will appear on 22 December. (Natch.)

Second, one of the stops on my little world tour will be the Steven Wilson show in Sayreville, New Jersey, because it would be out of character otherwise. I’ll also be at the signing for Home Invasion at Vintage Vinyl in Fords. If you, too, are there, you’ll know me when you see me. Trust me.

Third, that is a wonderfully bisexual album cover. Now, then. To the goods.

Metanoia is a bundle of transitions and contradictions, starting right there in the name. The title of the album is taken from a psychological term describing the breakdown and reconstruction of one’s psyche…the parallels to their change in sound during this time is irresistible. Wilson and the band are largely secular people and may not think of themselves as witches, but they had to have known what they were doing. One need not believe in witchcraft to be a witch.

Most of this album is improvisations recorded in Cambridge and Henley during 1995 and 1996, and thus serves as the primordial soup from which the songs on Signify emerged. The album itself, though, was the last thing Porcupine Tree would release during the Space Era, aside from a small Polish collection of B-sides prefiguring the Stars Die compilation. Which means its role in the ritual is twofold: it’s the Alternative Era in its most elementary, embryonic form; and it’s the last stand of the Space Era, what a genre-minded Porcupine Tree snob at the time would describe as a “return to form” if it didn’t stem from before they changed their sound.

This is an hour of pure, unfiltered psychedelia right here. A lot of it sounds like a further development of the sort of thing they got up to in Voyage 34 and the Moonloop improvisation, which I think highlights their development as a band: the Metanoia improvisations are more complex than the other two, with Metanoia II in particular standing out with the Patented Steven Wilson Guitar Freakout at the end. And of course, Maitland’s drumming. Maitland was naturally a quite manic drummer, something he’d often have to tone down for the studio recordings, but here and in Coma Divine he goes wild, and it is something to behold.

And yet, and yet, and yet. Despite everything Metanoia represents in terms of where the band is and where they’re going, the improvisations are, in a vacuum, not all that interesting.

Here’s where we take a sharp left turn and talk for a moment about what friend of the blog Emily calls “Fall Out Boy Rules.” Fall Out Boy Rules, which is essentially just one rule, boils down to the following: the goodness of any Fall Out Boy album is, in part, directly proportional to how different it is to the album that came before it. This was, in part, crafted to counter the incessant whining from a certain phalanx of the FOB Faithful that they’re not just remaking Take This To Your Grave over and over again, but it also hits at an essential truth of what makes musician good: they grow and evolve over time. The only band that can get away with churning out the same album ad infinitum is AC/DC, everyone else has to change things up.

This despite the fact that Fall Out Boy Rules are very much not applicable to Porcupine Tree. Lightbulb Sun sounds a lot like Stupid Dream and is great. Deadwing sounds a lot like In Absentia and is also great. Meanwhile, Signify sounds radically different from The Sky Moves Sideways and is PT’s worst album. Ultimately the issue with Porcupine Tree is with them, there’s more weight placed on how the sound changes over how much the sound changes. Lightbulb Sun distills the positive aspects of Stupid Dream. Likewise Deadwing with In Absentia. Both albums are the band growing comfortable with how they changed their sound on the album that came before. So with that in mind, let’s take Metanoia’s direct antecedent as the Moonloop improvisations. What are the differences?

Well, we’ve already established that Metanoia’s more complex, jazzy, and improvised than Moonloop was. This is the band growing more comfortable with each other, knowing what everyone responds to and how they think, musically, so they’re able to take more risks. This should be an improvement. And yet, what made the Moonloop improvisations so compelling was the simplicity, how they managed to move rhythmically along and only change just enough to retain our attention. In contrast, the Metanoia improvisations seem freighted with unnecessary baggage. I stand by my previous statement that this album is an orgasmic psychedelic explosion, but all the same there’s the definite feeling that this is almost a remix of the Moonloop improvisations, and what changes were made overcomplicate things, providing the clearest evidence yet that they’ve essentially hit a dead end with what they could do with the Space Era sound. This ritual is really necessary.

This is a long way of saying that the best thing on the album is a weird almost-hidden-track at the very end, when the guitar freakout closing out Metanoia II deflates and cedes the floor to Milan.

Milan is absolutely bizarre. It was recorded (“recorded”) during the Coma Divine tour, in the eponymous city. It is two and a half minutes of a conversation between Glenn Povey and the band about what to get for dinner. Except Porcupine Tree and Milan are just two great tastes that do not taste great together, as Wilson and Maitland both separately make a mockery of the things Italy’s most important city is famous for. Milan’s known for its food; meanwhile, Steven Wilson is a vegetarian and this particular restaurant is not, er, friendly to someone with his dietary needs. Milan’s also known for its fashion; meanwhile, Chris Maitland turns out to be comically overdressed for the evening and wants so very desperately to sink into the floor, and Povey can barely keep a straight face at the sight of him.

This was recorded delightfully amateurishly, too. Everyone’s talking over each other. There’s a slight echo at certain places. The background noise is almost deafening, drowning out anyone unlucky enough to be too far away from the recording equipment. At one point you can hear muffled scraping noises as the microphone is moved around. If this were made today, it would be recorded on a digital camera, using its built-in mic, and indeed it feels like there’s video to this that we haven’t seen. I wish there was, so we could’ve had an eyeful of Maitland’s amazing dinner-theatre en-sem-bluh. Milan is not particularly daring, it was clearly thrown on for a laugh, but it is unique, and most importantly, it’s interestingly unique, a counterpoint to the structure and polish characterizing most of Porcupine Tree’s discography.

It also serves a purpose in the ritual. The Metanoia improvisations were belched out in ‘95 and ‘96 and were released in ‘98, threatening to escape the confines of the circle entirely. However, Milan again confines this unruly spore to a very specific place and time: a nameless restaurant in that city, on 3 March 1997, conveniently, the same month and country as the shows recorded for Coma Divine. Meanwhile, construction of the Alternative Era continues apace.

It’s December 1998. Porcupine Tree have just signed with Snapper Records to release a new, more song-oriented album. The album itself has already been completed and, happily, just needed a sympathetic and amply-resourced distributor. Everything’s in place; we just have to make our finishing move.

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No-Man – Carolina Skeletons

August 1998

We have by now spent considerable time and mental energy mapping out the magical ritual meant to bring the Alternative Era into being. We still have three more releases to go. But in the meantime something else has been slowly churning away in the background: No-Man finally, finally figuring out what sort of band they want to be. They are, of course, still somewhat inconsistent, and there’s still conflicts between the light and dark elements of their sound even as they form a unified whole, but this time there’s a renewed sense of artistic direction, that No-Man is finally definitely pointing toward something.

We won’t see the fruits of this labor for another three years, with the release of Returning Jesus. But we do get a taste here, and it is gorgeous. Slow, sparse, and beautiful, like a patchily-reconstructed memory from a simpler time. So let’s reconstruct a memory.

All of us, I suspect, have a moment in our childhoods where there is some sort of rupture. It isn’t necessarily the hyperboloidal moment that the past converges to and the future springs from, but, and I use this word neutrally, it should be traumatic. It may be a birth, a death, a marriage or divorce. It may also be a relocation or a revelation. The corny line to bust out here would be to tie it to puberty and spin a ton of metaphors about coming of age, but that doesn’t conform to my lived experience and is otherwise beside the point. Ultimately, this rupture represents the point at which the world became wrong.

You’ll notice the solipsism inherent in this analysis. The Good Old Days were never good, and they were never real, they were just your memories from when you believed everything was in its right place, and everything was only in its right place because back then you were young and your world was small and fuzzy and you didn’t have the insight to be aware that this wasn’t actually true. To long for the good old days is, ultimately, to long for ignorance. I grew up in the 90s, and the only reason I have fond memories of the 90s was that I was too stupid and sheltered to know any better.

So let’s filter this down to August 1998, before my own rupture moment. I have just recently turned seven. My mom was pregnant with my brother. I’d wanted a sibling for some time, and I understood that this was a part of the Normal Childhood that I felt entitled to. To prepare for the arrival of my brother, we would at the time have been finishing up renovating the attic of our house so it’d become my room. I would frequently go up there with a pencil and draw pictures on the drywall as it was being installed. We didn’t have a video game system in our house, so I mostly played at friends’ houses or on our computer, when it was unoccupied. We didn’t have cable, so TV was typically whatever was on PBS (Bill Nye and Arthur stick out, because of course they do.), plus Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune in the evening. On Saturdays I’d go fifteen minutes up the road and spend the afternoon at my grandmother’s, time I mostly spent, regrettably, vegging out on cartoons I couldn’t watch at home, whilst elbow-deep in a big can of cheese balls. Either that or make ample use of the sidewalk chalk, because we didn’t have a sidewalk at home, either, and grandma had more sidewalk than I knew what to do with. This was the routine. This was how the world worked. This was how the world ought to have worked.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Clinton was about to get impeached and Kosovo was tearing itself apart.

We have similar ruptures in adulthood, as well. I’ve followed a few expatriates on various social media platforms, and whenever they talk about a memory from when they still lived in their country of birth it feels like prehistory. And those are the sorts of memories that Carolina Skeletons captures so well. Not when life was necessarily better or uncomplicated, but when it was different, and the strange, complex sense of nostalgia that comes from reminiscing about times that were different.

I should probably talk about the EP a bit more, then. Carolina Skeletons has four tracks, each of which communicates that feeling spectacularly, but the highlight here comes at the very end. This is, of course, Carolina Reprise, which strips back the title track into something almost as minimal as what we covered last week. This is a lonely echoing piano piece of the sort that intimately conveys the inherent tragedy (despite everything) of not being able to return to the Before Times, and indeed the knowledge that this memory, like all memories, will fade and distort as the years wear on and we’re cruelly plunged deeper into the future. It’s the best thing on the EP, and probably, based on my half-informed guesswork as I write this, the best thing No-Man would release during the Returning Jesus era.

I don’t remember caring much for Returning Jesus itself when I listened to it all the way through the last time. I probably won’t give it another listen until I actually get to it for this blog. But hopefully this little preview will have helped alleviate whatever misgivings I had about it. Only one way to find out.

Bass Communion – Bass Communion I

April 1998

Oh ho ho, Hoity Toity Retrospective Person, you say, you confidently and triumphantly declared the Space Era dead last week, so why haven’t you posted an intro to the Alternative Era yet?

Because dead things leave corpses that need to be disposed of…and this particular corpse is still twitching. (We’ll get to that in a few weeks.) We’re in a transitional period, at the moment. The Alternative Era is still under construction, and won’t be completed and ready for showtime until the release of Stupid Dream next year.

That bit of housekeeping done, Bass Communion. The old line is “one can measure a circle starting anywhere,” and when it came time to kill the Space Era, Wilson’s circle started at Nine Cats. First released in 1983 as a gleefully monstrous sixties-psychedelia-by-way-of-Marillion behemoth on the good half of Karma’s The Joke’s On You. Shrunken and stripped down for 1991’s The Nostalgia Factory and shuffled into 1992’s On the Sunday of Life. Reached its final form in a fully acoustic rendition for 1997’s Insignificance. A perfect synecdoche for both the Space Era in all its glory and also, in the end, a harbinger of what would supplant it.

So what’s missing? What did the circle skip over that allows a project like this to slink into existence?

Back again we go to Steven Wilson’s Home Movies. The narrative is that Bass Communion sprung, indirectly, from Altamont, and anyone who’s actually listened to Prayer for the Soul would be justified in doing a double take here. Altamont was experimental in the two-kids-screwing-around-with-homemade-recording-equipment sense, not the tape-loops-of-field-recordings sense. It’s only upon reading an old interview of Wilson’s where he says that Bass Communion and Altamont share the same set of influences that things click into place. Altamont is Babby Steven and Babby Simon ripping off the Alte Deutsche Meister wholesale, whereas Bass Communion is Adult Steven abstractly picking at what made them worth ripping off wholesale fifteen years ago in the first place.

So here we are, Bass Communion’s been quietly rolling out new soundscapes for four years and we finally have a debut album. Five tracks, most of them long. We dive in with Shopping, the only short song, serving as a slightly snarky introduction to the project. (Toccata and Fugue kicks in about a second before the song ends.) And after this, the goods.

The other four songs are ambient droney numbers that generally start out with a sample or a field recording and let sounds naturally silt into something coherent. Orphan Coal is instructive. Starts with a JBK-esque drum loop, overlaid with, in order, short female vocal samples, reversed tape loops, quietly unsettling Jonny Greenwood-esque strings, dissonant choruses, some rumbly Mick Karn-esque bass work, and finally some additional eerie synth work spread on top. The song it’s most similar to is Boards of Canada’s Jacquard Causeway, in the way every new element is at first introduced prominently and then slowly integrated into the song as a whole to make room for the next new element, ultimately making the song conclude at a completely different place from where it started. In Orphan Coal’s case, it started grubby and earthy, but ended somewhere creepy but airy. The other songs on this album are like this, too, but here is where the structure—and thus Wilson’s objective of abstracting music as much as possible—is most apparent.

Pulling apart a song like this has its own advantages in the particular mental images they evoke in the listener. Here, we turn instead to Sleep, Etc, the dystopian, quietly surreal adventure immediately preceding Orphan Coal. My notes for this song, verbatim:

  • beginning at least: burbling, discordant
  • like someone trying to evade the secret police by tromping through a swamp in a thunderstorm
  • droning police airships with searchlights overhead
    • (they’re getting closer)
    • (and they’re armed)
    • (they move like giant mechanical jellyfish)

Pure paranoia fuel, right here. And that’s something slower, more ambient music has typically been good at. What’s scary isn’t the giant clown monster with fangs and cracked makeup, cackling madly in your face. What’s scary is what’s implied to lurk just out of frame, the things about which we cannot speak. The clown can be killed. The ghosts in your peripheral vision can’t. (cf. Sicknote)

But all of this is prelude to the album’s centerpiece, the first two-thirds of the Drugged suite, the centerpieces of which are some seriously airy keyboard work and Theo Travis’ incredible soprano sax. And, oh yes, here’s where Theo Travis is formally introduced to the blog and begins with Wilson what would become a very fruitful two-decade collaboration. He is characteristically excellent here, beginning with what feels like lonely whalesong. But then more sax samples are laid on top, along with some lovely synth organ in the background, and everything resolves into something more melodic, tranquil yet oddly tumultuous, and deeply, thickly nostalgic. It is, if we may be trite for a second, the music of nature. And then at about eleven minutes some distorted, fuzzed-out electric guitars fade in, and for a moment they sound like breaking waves, and everything clicked into place.

Once in a while my family will go to South Carolina for vacation. It’s rare that I tag along, because I usually have obligations. I don’t remember what they were for this particular trip, I suspect it had something to do with college, but either way I wasn’t there. But this one particular time they came back with a story: they were relaxing on the beach, and they hear this music. And some distance away there’s this guy standing on the beach with a trombone. He’s facing the water and playing something wistful and melancholy, similar, I imagine, to what Travis is doing here, and it sounded absolutely beautiful. But no one wanted to go up to him and tell him that, because it was also very clear that why he was there and why he was playing that music was something deeply and profoundly personal to him, and interrupting him would have ruined the moment.

It feels like something similar happened with the Drugged suite. On all three parts, but especially on the first, it feels like we have seen, in some oblique way, a chunk of Steven Wilson’s soul. We’ve borne witness to something uniquely special here, and all told, that’s not a bad way to kick a project off.

  1. Bass Communion I

Porcupine Tree – Coma Divine

Editorial prologue the First: that ponytail is adorable.

Editorial prologue the Second: In non-Steve news, I have an article up on Medium about Weezer’s cover of Africa and why it’s an abomination. If that sounds interesting do check it out.


 

October 1997
Coma Divine II, January 1999
Expanded edition, February 2003
Remastered, 2016

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“Grazie.”

It’s the end of an era. No, another era. In the Signify entry I wrote:

“Ultimately, the people who become immortal are the people who get lucky. Either they have connections through family or friends, someone powerful noticed them at exactly the right time and liked what they heard, or what they were doing resonated with the contemporary musical zeitgeist.”

Steven Wilson got lucky. Yes, there’s a case to be made about the ambitious aspiring musician, but in the beginning he got lucky. There were lots of people plugged into the English neo-psychedelia scene in the 80s. There were lots of people just as worthy of superstardom as Wilson was, flinging their tapes at places like Delerium and hoping someone would take notice. But Wilson was the fortunate soul whose tape found its way out of the slush pile, and that was because the Delerium man’s buddy needed driving music and Tarquin’s was fished out at random. And then many years later the fake band became real and released albums and played shows and caught the attention of an extremely powerful record industry man down in Italy, they got played on the radio, and their cachet in the politically unstable boot-shaped country skyrocketed.

Thus, Coma Divine, the fulcrum of the magical ritual to destroy the Space Era and usher in the Alternative Era, and also the point at which Porcupine Tree became too big for Delerium’s britches. Although not the band’s final release with the label—Delerium would still have some unreleased rarities that would float to the surface in the next few years—this is the last thing the band released while they were still actively making music for them. Porcupine Tree would spend most of 1998 without a label, signing a deal in December of that year with Snapper Music, eventual parent company of Kscope, the imprint who’d release things like Anathema, North Atlantic Oscillation, The Pineapple Thief…stuff in the general ballpark of what Wilson and company would sound like in the Alternative and Metal Eras. So this was a natural switch for them.

Would there be stuff that leaked out afterward? Yes. Metanoia, for instance. The Delerium Years compilation. But those are all contained within the slowly deflating star of Delerium itself, which would fold in 2003. This album belched out a satellite of its own in 1999, which would be subsequently reabsorbed and kept under the Coma Divine umbrella with the expanded edition, also in 2003. For all intents and purposes, here is a decade of history, successfully, albeit barely, bottled within a specific place (the Frontiera in Rome) and time (three nights in late March 1997).

From a certain perspective, though, I’ve managed to do the same thing. I heavily compartmentalize my music based upon a place in the world that feels like whatever it is I’m listening to. Sometimes this is based off life experience, sometimes it isn’t. The music of Burial, for instance, could accurately be described as “an incognito psychogeographic exploration of South London,” but to me the grubby, crusty atmosphere and the way the pitch-shifted vocal samples echo across the sound field also scream “desolate New York subway station at one in the morning.” Pendulum is another example: also based in London, this band specializes in drum-n-bass bangers but which will occasionally venture into something ambient or acoustic (Crush and Out Here are perfect examples). This particular contrast between ultramodern harshness and lush ambience is a dead ringer for Hong Kong, where city streets lined with looming fifty-story apartment towers that inspired Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell sit literally right next to dense wilderness.

For Space-Era Porcupine Tree, I’ve already mentioned a couple of times how the techno tracks Jerry Martin wrote for the 90s Sim games sound a fair bit like stuff from Up the Downstair and The Sky Moves Sideways, particularly in the bass and the keyboards. I’ve also mentioned SimCity 3000 a little as well; a game whose sequel, SimCity 3000 Unlimited, also featured European and Asian building sets. The Asian building set was intended to evoke someplace like Tokyo, a town everyone knows, but the generally stout, boxy architecture actually lands somewhere around the vernacular of Taipei, Taiwan.

Which means that once when I had a day-long layover in Taipei on my way from Hong Kong to the US, and I had an opportunity to leave the airport and explore the city, I listened almost exclusively to Jerry Martin and Space-Era Porcupine Tree. The Sky Moves Sideways and Voyage 34 in particular are inseparable from almost falling asleep on the 1819 airport bus somewhere on Highway 1, watching exurban Taiwan’s peculiar jumble of fields, houses, and mid-rise apartment blocks roll by on my way to a sweltering yet vibrant city in a country no one wants to believe officially exists. When I listen to Dislocated Day I’m lost in the enormous underground city beneath Taipei Main Station. Up the Downstair is the soundtrack of dodging mopeds on an impromptu dérive in and around the city’s many, many alleyways. What I have done here, in essence, was to bottle Porcupine Tree’s Space Era into a psychogeo/chronographic brick of my own making: the city of Taipei, as it existed for ten hours on 2 August 2014. Taiwan’s capital on that day is my Frontiera.

But while Taipei is still there, it hasn’t been 2014 for four years now. The Frontiera closed in 2000. Delerium Records folded in 2003. The Space Era is, as of this moment, well and truly dead.

So. What are we building on top of the ruins? Signify itself may have been a stillborn attempt to construct a new sound, but there’s still something here to build on. Enter, for instance, Barbieri’s keyboards. Over in JBK, he’d already been doing something similar to the soundscapes that’d form the backbone of the Alternative and Metal eras since Beginning to Melt, but here’s where that style begins to be introduced to Porcupine Tree in a big way. The band as a whole has also become more comfortable improvising and changing around with certain aspects of the songs they’re playing. They’ve mashed up The Moon Touches Your Shoulder and Always Never. Barbieri’s subtly changed around the keyboards in the former so it sounds just a bit more ominous, while the latter’s got some more horns in the chorus, giving it a more triumphant, early-Marillion feel. Wilson has by this time perfected his Patented Psychedelic Guitar Freakout and lets it rip with full force during The Sky Moves Sideways and Dislocated Day.

And actually, I do want to zero in on Dislocated Day for a second. In the studio, this is one of the loudest, most technical songs Porcupine Tree’s ever made. In Rome, however, the rhythm section is brought forwards and the cacophonic, squealing lead guitar is confined to the one discreet solo in the middle. Wilson’s vocals, more chanted at points than sung, are front and center, to the point where when he sings “I will find a way to make you say the name of your forgiver,” the bass and drums fade out entirely before storming back in for the drop. Somewhat relevant to the narrative we’ve constructed about this point in the band’s history, the overall atmosphere of the song is less (well) dislocated and more…witchy.

That said, though, in March of 1997 we still don’t have a whole lot to build the Alternative Era with. New soundscapes and live performance indulgences are nice, but that’s not sufficient for a whole sound. Our first attempt was stillborn, and Sunsets on Empire is still two months away. But we do have something. By the time the 1997 tour rolled around, Wilson and the band had whacked together a few demos for the new album. One of them was of a song called “Disappear.”

This song has a long and tortured history stretching all the way to Lightbulb Sun, because it fell victim to that weird artist’s curse of obsessively picking at something in the name of Perfection long after they should have stopped. The final version, unceremoniously kicked off Lightbulb Sun and only seeing release on Recordings, sounds very little like the more sprawling early demos—two of which, recorded in February and April of 1997, eventually did get a release—and an awful lot like the first half of Last Chance to Evacuate &c.

But look at what we do have in these early incarnations: sober, deceptively straightforward instrumentation light on the psychedelia. Wilson’s ethereal, almost ghostly backing vocals. Lyrics describing alienation, introversion, and (despite being sung to a lover) isolation. The building blocks of the Alternative Era are all right here, on two demos of a song that was never quite good/thematically appropriate enough to see a studio album release, bracketing the shows in Rome by a month on either side and released as a bonus single in Coma Divine’s expanded edition.

The Space Era is dead. Long live the Alternative Era.

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GUEST: Saro Cosentino – Ones and Zeroes

1997
Reloaded reissue, 2014

In the 1984 Eurovision Song Contest, Italy’s entry was “I Treni di Tozeur,” a melancholy, romantic number about love and longing in the Tunisian frontier, sung by Franco Battiato and Alice. Mostly Alice. Franco is apparently one of Italy’s biggest singer-songwriters, but Alice’s singing and stage presence is so powerful that Franco is reduced to a gawky Adrien Brody lookalike figuratively checking his watch in the background. And, of course, the three mezzo-sopranos belting out Mozart toward the end blow them both out of the water. It’s pretty much perfect as a cheesy karaoke number. It came in fifth.

One of the cowriters for that song was Mr Saro Cosentino, a musician and composer about whom I know very little beyond that he mostly does film soundtracks these days, who released an album called Ones and Zeroes in 1997. It sounds pleasantly like something from JBK or Indigo Falls. Karen Eden in particular does an excellent Suzanne Barbieri impression on Real Life, Bite the Bullet, and Behind the Glass. Tim Bowness sings on Days of Flaming Youth, and the result sounds like one of the better songs off of Flame.

Steven Wilson’s entire contribution to the recording of this album was setting up Tim Bowness’ microphone.

But that means he worked on this album in some small capacity, and that means the King of Prog is one degree of separation from the the hallowed realm of Terry Wogan, Lordi, Dchinghis Khan, Conchita Wurst, and Jedward. I doubt he’s chafing at the association near as much as you think he is.

In other words, this entry exists entirely to troll the King Crimson shirt brigade. Coma Divine tomorrow.

GUEST: Fish – Sunsets on Empire

May 1997

“Something…is gonna happen…”

So. Marillion. One of the bands that kept progressive music going during the fallow eighties. They’re from Aylesbury, half an hour from Hemel Hempstead. They’ve been active since Wilson was eleven. There’s a lot to get through here, so let’s begin.

1. A knight for Embankment folds his newspaper castle…

The music of Marillion up to Sunsets on Empire can be split into three phases. The first encompasses Script for a Jester’s Tear and Fugazi, and is primarily of importance to us in the way it intersects with Steven Wilson’s early music career. The former album, for instance, was released in February 1983. Karma released The Joke’s On You in October 1983. This is not a coincidence. The entire time I was listening to it, all I heard was the original version of Nine Cats, as sung by Derek William “Fish” Dick, a gentleman who was created in a lab to be the ultimate progressive rock vocalist. This guy has the vocal cords of Peter Gabriel, the range of Jon Anderson, and the theatrical penchant of Ian Anderson. And as long as we’re talking about Karma as a blatant Marillion ripoff, I challenge you to imagine Wilson yelping and whooping on The Joke’s On You the way Fish does here.

The problem is Script for a Jester’s Tear isn’t very good, although Fish is trying his damnedest to elevate instrumentation that’s 75% Mark Kelly engaging in psychosexual congress with the horn setting on his synthesizer. I.e.; fun for him, not quite so much for us. Fugazi, meanwhile, gives the Script sound a particular energy it had previously lacked, albeit through sounding pretty much like an extremely progressive-oriented arena rock band. In other words, this album lays on the eighties cheese thick and it’s wonderful. I can totally imagine an alternate universe in which the standard elements of the middle-aged white guy wardrobe included a Marillion tour shirt alongside Queen and Boston and Journey. (They’d certainly get the chart numbers worthy of such an honor.)

So, when the time came for Karma to pull together that second album, they had two options: sound like Embryonic Porcupine Tree, or throw in mainstream hard rock influences and sound like Fugazi. They did neither, turning their collective nose up at this album’s more streamlined musicianship and hoping lightning would strike twice…and thus we got Last Man to Laugh and the band’s breakup the next year.

2. Hotel lobbies padding dawn’s hollow corridors…

Marillion’s second phase is its imperial phase, comprising Misplaced Childhood and Clutching at Straws. The former is relevant for Wilson-adjacent purposes, as he remixed that album in 2017. And really, if you’re going to remix one Marillion album, it’s that one, because what a record. Yes, yes, it’s one of Marillion’s more accessible offerings this decade. Yes, we’re edging dangerously close to sounding like sellout-era Genesis (!) during the year of Live Aid (!!). But the prog is far from gone; it’s just actually digestible. A band that abandoned prog entirely would not have produced the Bitter Suite. And quite frankly, if your definition of what constitutes good prog is that it’s so intricate and complex it’s impenetrable to the average listener, you’re part of the reason Wilson’s distanced himself from the label and finds prog music irreparably ossified and self-contradictory. Get over yourself.

Also, Fish is a brilliant lyricist, in every song unspooling this string of lines that’re at once wordy and evocative. “Do you remember dancing in stilettos in the snow?”, for example, is typical, but he really shines at that point at least once each album when he’s allowed to be properly leftish and go to town painting these nightmarish visions of Thatcherite Britain (the title track of Fugazi comes immediately to mind).

Which brings us to Kayleigh. Marillion’s biggest hit is a baroque, deliriously cheesy masterpiece that hit #2 on the UK Singles chart. In so doing, it effectively brought the name “Kayleigh” into existence (one of the actual exes that inspired the song was named Kay Lee, the name was altered to protect the innocent). It’s killer, especially that powerful solo that bursts onstage after the first chorus, Exhibit A for Wilson’s contention that simplicity in the name of emotional immediacy is inherently better than technical wizardry for its own sake. Kayleigh would reach its definitive form in 1988, at an anti-apartheid benefit concert held at Wembley Stadium to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday. There, Fish appeared onstage to belt out this song accompanied by (a) a horn section and (b) Phil Collins on drums…in other words, the way the song was meant to be performed.

Moving on to Clutching at Straws, I pretty much toe the critical line that it’s not quite as good as its predecessor. To elaborate, I’d say that this album is kind of a tough one to get a serious critical read on, as the quality of the individual songs oscillate wildly between absolutely brilliant and sheer torture, and look there’s no way of sugarcoating it Incommunicado was the worst thing Fish wrote in the 80s. Marillion during this era never quite tipped into the worst trends of sellout-era Genesis…except here, with all those synthesized horn flourishes and that overexuberant vocal delivery and tempo that’s just slightly too fast. I know what they were shooting for, a sort of modernized throwback to the first two albums, but the result sounds like a band that’s jacked up Turn It On Again on all the steroids in the hopes that some of the cheddar that song produced would drift their way. Somewhat ironically for a song where they’re bragging about how famous they’ve become, the end result sounds like it was written out of contractual obligation. Also, Fish should never use the word “rootin’-tootin’” in a song ever again.

On the upside, Fish’s brogue. People have complained once in a while about Fish’s vocal delivery and how it sounds a bit too much like Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel, but they forget one thing: Derek Dick is extremely Scottish. He is one of the Scottiest Scotsmen that’ve ever Scotted. And boy does it show in this album, where he often drops any pretense of vocal neutrality and lets the Saltire in his voice fly. In addition, despite its unevenness, Clutching at Straws still has probably the densest concentration of highlights from the Fish era, like the burnt-out, desperate bombast of That Time of the Night, the tense, dystopian White Russian (repeating “Uzis on a street corner” like a madness mantra), and the majestic The Last Straw. Especially The Last Straw. The sudden Tessa Niles in the last minute is simply heavenly. It feels like a definitive summation of not just the themes behind Clutching at Straws but Marillion’s entire career up to that point. The album couldn’t have ended on a higher note.

3. They bury a wasteland deep in the wilderness…

And the in October 1988 something weird happened: the case of the Famous Egos that collectively afflicted Marillion hit a breaking point and Fish proceeded to fire everyone else and rename the band after himself. Thus do we hit the third phase: Fish’s solo career. This phase, like most nascent solo careers, comes in two parts: an exorcism, and a self-discovery.

The exorcism comes in Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors, recorded and released while No-Man were flogging their earliest demos and Wilson’s ostentatious fake band were cobbling together their early EP trilogy. The long-ish form explanation for the way this sounds is as follows: after a certain point the band develops a clearly recognizable sound, and then the frontman feels strangled by the expectation of what a band album should sound like. When the tension becomes too great, the frontman abandons the band for a solo career and the first album after the split will often sound like the frontman’s unfiltered head contents. This album will feel scattershot and uneven, but on the upside, that attitude got us Fish bustin’ out the pipes right in the expansive, cinematic banger of a first track.

But at least it’s all out now and Fish can move forward. If only he knew how. Fortunately, at this point we do have a germ of an idea: Fish is, lest we forget, oh so very Scottish. He’s just returned to the old country after spending the past decade in England, and it’s great to reconnect with where you came from. Let’s see what that gets us.

Internal Exile, apparently, released roughly the same time as Days in the Trees, and exactly the sort of thing Fish could not have got away with if he were still with Marillion. This is a folk-tinged concept album centering largely around Scottish nationalism and how proud he is to be Scottish…and yet, the best thing off the album doesn’t actually have anything to do with any of that. Yes, the title track is fantastic, pure, unfiltered, boisterous folk, but: have you considered his cover of Something in the Air, which I can only describe as something performed at an abandoned warehouse rave in Leith.

After this there was a detour into coverland with Songs from the Mirror, released the same time Porcupine Tree was pulling together Up the Downstair. It’s decent, albeit unremarkable. Although I would like to state for the record that like the last album, any time he goes full-on traditionally Scottish, like with Solo and Caledonia, is simply heavenly.

The next year, though, between the release of Porcupine Tree’s first live album and the marathon improvisational session that would produce Moonloop, Fish would return to original material with Suits. Now, let’s address something real quick: Marillion have been called a poor man’s Genesis for basically the whole time they’ve been popular. I don’t think that’s a strike against the band—The Gaslight Anthem ripped off Bruce Springsteen wholesale and they’re amazing—but that’s largely because Genesis is a band worth ripping off. You can do things with their sound and make it your own. The problem is this: when Phil Collins left Genesis, his solo career was already sinking rapidly into an easy-listening quicksand pit. So when your band is often compared to Genesis and you leave to form a solo career, the danger is that your solo work will be on roughly the same level as Collins’. This has loomed over Fish’s solo career the whole time he’s had one, and nowhere does this danger present itself more explicitly than on this record, a soft rock album wrapped in several layers of neo-prog.

As a consequence, Suits can be sickeningly cheesy. Emperor’s Song in particular sits comfortably in that vaguely worldbeatish triangle with Graceland on the left, So on the right, and We Are the World at the apex; the sort of song whose music video is the band performing in a savannah somewhere surrounded by photogenic African children; the sort of song that encapsulates the detritus of the decade that brought us Live Aid-esque grandiose white guilt. Fortunes of War is a less positive example, a mess of beige slop whose music video’s defining image is Fish earnestly contemplating a bullet to make the point that Armed Conflict Is Bad, Mmmkay? It’s Fish at his most embarrassing, possibly topping Incommunicado as the worst song he’s ever written, and a big flashing-light illustration of the failure mode of his solo career.

But that’s not to say the album isn’t completely without merits. Since the cover of Something in the Air we’ve been seeing more and more electronic influences creep in, and nowhere is that quite more evident in No Dummy, this weird reggae-ish thing that has some very nineties keyboard work and a saxophone that wouldn’t sound out of place on Under the Table and Dreaming. This song also features some of the most bone-shatteringly deep bass work in Fish’s career thus far, of the sort that made me wish he and Mick Karn got together in the studio at least once. That said, like with the Scottish folk of Internal Exile and Songs from the Mirror before it, there’s still the sense that Fish is trying on hats that don’t quite fit. These are, ultimately, experiments. Some of them are successful, some of them aren’t. The result, unfortunately, is a solo career that is frustratingly uneven. This is unsustainable. We’ll have to try something a little different.

4. Your next allotted twenty-four hour slice of destiny…

So now it’s May of 1997. We’re entering a weird liminal period. I am five years old and discovering that the world extends far beyond the mountains that surround my hometown. On TV, for instance, there’s a white-haired man in a suit who’s always someplace stately, so that means he must be the President. Meanwhile, Tony Blair becomes Prime Minister, Deep Blue defeats Garry Kasparov, and the Spice Girls perform for the British royal family. Next month Richard Ashcroft will walk down a street in Hoxton, and Radiohead will release the first of several quietly nightmarish, Ballardianly anxious magnum opuses. In two months Hong Kong will switch from being a British colony to a Chinese colony. In three months Princess Di will have a fateful spiritual experience in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris, and Oasis will release Be Here Now and kill Britpop for good. No-Man are burning off the remnants of Wild Opera and will soon pull together what will become Returning Jesus. Porcupine Tree are deep in a magical ritual to kill off the Space Era. And Steven Wilson gets together with Fish and releases Sunsets on Empire.

Which I then listen to and like fifteen seconds in there’s a record needle scratch in my head.

Before we go any further, we must address this, and I hate that I have to address this, but… betwixt Dick and Wilson, who are credited as co-writers, whose bright idea was it to throw in the n-word right in the first line of the first track? The line for white musicians throwing in slurs to make a satirical political point (like here; the song is partially about the Balkans during the wars and the first couple lines are meant to be what society tells people who’re about to be ethnically cleansed) and/or make it clear the viewpoint character is a horrible person stands at In The Flesh, off The Wall, and it is a bar no song since has yet cleared, including this one. Sorry if that wrecked it for you; it came perilously close to wrecking it for me (the offending lyrics were altered for the US release, which…well, they do get the point across clearer), and to be honest once I’m done writing this post I will never listen to this song ever again.

There’s also been some other stuff that hasn’t aged well either, unfortunately. Brother 52, for instance. I could not find any further background on the story the song’s centered around, and maybe when you’re a Scotsman in the spring of ‘97 the concept of “gun nuts with enormous quantities of firearms find themselves under siege Waco-style” doesn’t have the same implications it does today, but…well, let’s cut to the chase here. This Doc dude’s a Second-Amendment nutcase and I’d be genuinely surprised if the story happened as it was told. “Anybody that’s stockpiling firearms and ammunitions is a threat to the government, so the government wages war against us,” the guy says. Baloney. To paraphrase, Bubba was not coming for your guns. In fact, from the vantage point of 2018, anyone with an enormous gun stockpile is probably not a freedom fighter but a terminally aggrieved white man who believes women shouldn’t have autonomy and/or people of color shouldn’t exist. So this is a cause that I’m…kind of surprised to see Fish, who’s farther left than most, take up and champion here. I neither know nor care how he feels about it now, but I, at least, would be trying my hardest to forget this song ever existed.

Now for the good stuff. First, the spoken word bits. They’ve been rolling around in the background for Fish’s discography since the Marillion days, but most of the time they’ve been pulled into the background, like the ones in Dark Side of the Moon. The conversation between Dr Finlay and Torch in Torch Song is representative. But Sunsets on Empire represents the point where the spoken word bits become the centerpiece of the songs they’re featured on. It helps that Fish’s natural speaking voice is this deep Scottish rumble that’s at once soothing and authoritative and very, very well suited to this sort of thing.

As are, of course, the words themselves. Fish has always been a very good lyricist, but the spoken word interludes let him be self-indulgent in the one place where self-indulgence works great in prog. Check out this little bit from Jungle Ride:

“The glazed eyes of porcelain clowns stare skywards at clouds of goldfish madly circling their own silent plastic worlds, high above the children who stuff ping pong balls like pills in the mouths of slowly rotating heads…”

Beautiful. Like The Mars Volta by way of the Weaver. He’s a bit more direct than that most of the time, but boy can he get evocative when he wants to be. This is one of the things that distinguishes Derek Dick from most other prog boys; he’s always thought of himself as a poet who sings, and has thus been most comfortable constructing songs around words than around instrumental improvisation.

Fish’s words also help the instrumentation out tremendously. He’s been dancing around what he achieves here throughout his solo career, but this is probably the first time since leaving Marillion that he’s managed to strike the perfect balance between technical complexity and emotional resonance. For the first time since Clutching at Straws the words consistently give the music a particular focus that a lot of prog lacks. We’re mainly concerned with what the song is about here (whether it be things like Bosnia, the inadequacy of religion, or Fish’s daughter), as opposed to using the song’s ostensible themes as an excuse for the musicians to show off.

In essence, with Sunsets on Empire, Fish has finally found his footing as a solo musician. The result sounds a fair bit like what Marillion would have sounded like in the 90s if he’d stayed on as frontman. We could describe this as a regression thanks to the lack of folk or electronica or anything else that made his earlier solo work stand out, and it is, but it is an exceptionally well-made regression, and is the reason the next album’s progression is as successful as it is. Because in this album, he consistently brought forward the album’s emotional center, and that’s infinitely more rewarding than any amount of technical brilliance could ever be.

Sound familiar?

We said earlier that Porcupine Tree is at this time in the middle of a magical ritual to kill off the Space Era and usher in something different. But what that something different is going to be is as yet unknown. For all that krautrock is a fine musical tradition, the way everything came together in Signify was clearly a non-starter. The band is working on demos right now, but it’s not clear that these efforts will bear fruit either. So now what.

Well, as it happens, Goldfish and Clowns and The Perception of Johnny Punter sound very much like oddly bent Porcupine Tree songs…specifically, the sort of Porcupine Tree song they’d make from Stupid Dream onward. It’s not that Fish now sounds like Porcupine Tree, it’s that Porcupine Tree decided to sound like Fish. The corollary to this is it’s pretty easy to imagine Wilson singing some of these songs, or even rearrange and cover them at his shows…even the ones he didn’t write. (Similarly, it’s pretty easy to imagine a No-Man cover of Say It With Flowers.) Essentially, in recording this album, Derek William Dick birthed the Alternative Era.

So we have a path forward. Now what do we do with the detritus of the old, because not only do we have to fully burn off the Space Era, we have to deal with the wreckage that is Signify. The latter, fortunately, has only managed a brief, comparatively stillborn existence compared to the Space Era’s eight-year-deep musical density and heft, and so is pretty easy to dispatch. And that is what Fish does here with What Colour is God?, a song that puts religion on blast in a very Signify-esque manner, right down to the psychotic preacher samples that could have been ripped directly from Sever itself. He even managed to inhale, Kirby-like, Porcupine Tree’s primary lyrical mode up to this point in that spoken-word bit in Jungle Ride up there, an easy feat since “bad LSD trip” is already not far from his own lyrical style to begin with. The rest of the Space Era, though, is still a bear to get rid of, a big enough monster that not even a giant, burly Scot can expect to take it on single-handedly. There is still more work to be done.

No-Man – Lost Songs, Vol. 1

Recorded 1991-1997
Released July 2001

Hello, my name is Ted (hiiii Teeeed) and after three albums and God only knows how many EPs, singles, and compilations I still have no idea what it is I want out of No-Man.

It’s pretty well established at this point that thus far there’s been a particular tension between No-Man’s natural, ambient side and their synthetic, electronic side. Up to and through Loveblows and Lovecries, I had a clear preference for the electronic elements of their music, on the grounds that the ambient stuff was easier to screw up. Then, following a marathon listen of all their studio albums, I decided I actually preferred the ambient stuff, because they actually did knock it out of the park in Flowermouth and Together We’re Stranger. This would persist through the Wild Opera era, even to the point that I would declare that what I want out of No-Man is Together We’re Stranger rereleased ad infinitum. This would continue right up until last week, where I said the electronic bits of Dry Cleaning Ray worked because they tried to do something different with them. This when I had completely missed a more fundamental realization: the electronic bits were actually working again at all.

And…oh yes. The one song I couldn’t find off of Heaven Taste, the 1995 update of Bleed. During the course of writing this review, I found it, and holy crap, they made it work. It’s dark and ominous and unsettling in all the best ways, all taut and tense for the first five minutes before exploding into this furious, absolutely brutal wall of sound that’s the closest these guys will probably ever come to straight-up harsh noise. This new version of Bleed is one of the best songs No-Man have ever written, and it’s composed entirely of stuff I thought I hated about their sound.

And then I come to this compilation of castoffs and demos, and my understanding of what No-Man is and should be is thrown into the air again.

As befits a collection of castoffs and demos, this album is an eclectic survey of every conceivable side of No-Man’s musical personality, and if any of my assumptions about what they were good at held water, I’d be able to tell pretty easily which songs would be good and which wouldn’t. But instead it turns out pretty much everything here is consistently excellent.

Some highlights. Samaritan Snare, which basically does the Dry Cleaning Ray bluesy noir schtick but with added Theo Travis. The version of Soft Shoulder dusted off here, yet another reason I’m just straight-up confused about what I want out of No-Man because here they took the weakest point of that song and not only placed it front and center but actually made it work. Amateurwahwah, with its simple yet powerful keyboards and booming drums that could almost have been recorded by John Bonham himself. The closing track, Coming Through Slaughter, which sounds like No-Man coming into contact with a chunk of Hand. Cannot. Erase. that broke off and drifted about twenty years into the past.

Now for the highlights featuring Wilson in more than the usual capacity: All The Reasons is generic No-Man, yes, but it’s especially well-done generic No-Man, and it’s got Wilson on backing vocals. Never mind that he’s just going “maybe in time~” or something like that and it’s buried relatively far back in the mix, it’s still amazing. Likewise, Love Among the White Trash, which is probably the closest thing these two irreligious men will ever get to writing a gospel song. Paradub is a little something Wilson seems to have banged out during an improvisational session and it sounds great.

I could go on. But ultimately, there is not a dud amongst these songs. Not one. This was kind of surprising to me considering it’s (a) No-Man, a chunk of Wilson’s musical history that only becomes more opaque the deeper I dive into it, and (b) it’s a castoff album. These are not songs that are supposed to be good. Wilson’s own reflection on recording these songs sound like he was trying to turn a turd into a hamburger but was only partially successful. And yet, here we are.

But there is some solace to be found here. Throughout much of the 90s No-Man was pinging between trip hop and synthpop and art rock and dream pop, caught between the zeitgeist, a residual concern of the One Little Indian days bubbling up even now, and their own understanding of what would be meaningful music. A truly definite No-Man “sound” would not fully coalesce until Returning Jesus, four years later. So while I may not know what I want out of No-Man anymore, it’s somewhat heartening to know that No-Man really didn’t, either.