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.

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No-Man – Dry Cleaning Ray

May 1997

Seeing as how they’re made up of, well, what they’re made of, B-side/remix EPs are generally a bit more eclectic and experimental than the albums they follow up. Sometimes this means the songs are inconsistent and the record scattershot, but not here. The inherent experimental nature of Dry Cleaning Ray works in its favor because the Wild Opera era is already supposed to be No-Man at their most experimental. As it happens, a lot of the experiments here are pretty dark and noir-influenced…which means that Dry Cleaning Ray consistently hits the atmospheric notes that Wild Opera, which was ultimately afraid of the darkness it was hesitantly probing, reached only on occasion. Put another way: I said in the Wild Opera post that that album was afraid to make the plunge into the abyss. Dry Cleaning Ray understands there’s no point in half-measures and dives in headfirst.

Incidentally, Dry Cleaning Ray is another data point in favor of No-Man’s ultimate abandonment of trip-hop. Consider a song like Jack the Sax, which takes the guitar from Wake As Gun, back in Insignificance, and wraps a song around it that sounds like something Beth Gibbons should really cover someday. Despite the early-Portishead comparison in that last sentence, there is no trip-hop on this song whatsoever, instead sounding like something the femme fatale in a noir movie would sing in a smoky club lounge in the middle of the night…and because of that it works much better than many of the songs in Wild Opera, which now feel as though the trip-hop elements were actively holding them back.

(This doesn’t mean all the trip-hop songs on this album are terrible—Diet Mothers and Urban Disco are great counterexamples—but like I’ve said before it’s pretty easy to tell with No-Man when the trip-hop is perfunctory and when it’s the genre the song demands to be in.)

(There’s no good place anywhere to weave this in, but I was also really impressed with Punished for Being Born, in which Bryn “Muslimgauze” Jones, who we’ll get to in considerably more detail once we hit his collaboration with Bass Communion, takes Housewives Hooked on Heroin, pulls it apart, and reconstructs it into something unrecognizably abrasive and nightmarish.)

But of course the highlight of the album is Sicknote. This song is not overtly menacing, necessarily. There’s some nice guitar work in the front, accentuated with a tinkly, slightly off-key music box. However. About three minutes in an extremely distorted, fuzzed-out guitar bursts in the left channel and goes berserk in the background for about two minutes. After that, the song brings in some creepy reversed tape loops. Throughout, Bowness sings in his usual manner, but the fragility and vulnerability in his voice here turns him into someone experiencing sheer existential terror and is trying valiantly to hold it together for appearances. I’m writing this on Thursday evening, June 14, 2018. Saturday marks three years since a certain stupefyingly racist New York landlord with a spray tan, a bad toupee, and delusions of grandeur descended the escalator of his Manhattan fortress and announced his candidacy for President of the United States. I’m editing this on Sunday evening, October 7, 2018. Yesterday, the Senate narrowly confirmed for the Supreme Court a volatile, nakedly authoritarian justice nominated specifically to further entrench fascism in the US and endanger the rights of anyone not of the herrenvolk. We know what existential terror feels like.

Speaking of which, the rumble. Throughout the entirety of Sicknote there is a very low, ominous rumble churning away, very far back in the mix. You might forget it’s there in the middle of the song, when more interesting things are happening up front, but it’s there. Never getting closer or louder, just…biding its time. It provides some clarification of what precisely Bowness is so scared of, while leaving just enough unanswered that we fill in the blanks ourselves, where it’s sure to be even more terrifying.

In some ways, Sicknote feels like an embryonic incarnation of Rabbits, David Lynch’s surreal “sitcom” that takes the superficial tropes and conventions of the genre and plunges them straight into the uncanny valley. The rumble in the song serves a similar purpose to the rain and low cello drones in the background of the miniseries. The squealing guitar halfway through calls forward to the burning cigarette hole that appears in a few episodes. And both have that very particular unsettling, vaguely menacing air about them that instinctively causes the viewer or listener to back away slightly. And in that respect, Sicknote really is a sick song, subtly visceral in tone, and the one song that most completely captures the atmosphere the Wild Opera era was shooting for. Dry Cleaning Ray is what Wild Opera should have been, and Sicknote is how Wild Opera should have ended.

GUEST: Indigo Falls – Indigo Falls

1997

Two of the many diverse things that have happened over the past 6 months or so: I got a couple of hefty PPI payouts and got husband into Die Antwoord. He’s since been known to stand outside the bathroom door when I’m inside, singing ‘You’re a reech beetch’ to me.

I am currently a reech beetch. So champagne for my real friends; real pain for my sham friends.” —Suzanne Barbieri

Last time I held forth about the failure mode of the typical ex-Japan project and why it’s relatively easy to stumble into, and I feel like it needs a little expanding before we dive into the collaboration between Suzanne Barbieri and her husband Richard.

The issue with what I’d call Generic ex-Japan is ultimately that it feels unfinished, either like we’re listening to a skeleton of a song instead of an actual song, or the instrumental improvisations from which a song will eventually form. I should again stress that Generic ex-Japan is not the majority of what Jansen, Barbieri, and Karn have released at least since Rain Tree Crow (Barbieri in particular is adept at avoiding falling into this particular self-indulgence), and indeed Indigo Falls does sidestep many of the issues that a typical ex-Japan record risks having.

I’ll freely admit that I’m part of the problem here, in that I spend way too much time obsessing over when ex-Japan sucks versus when ex-Japan is good. I’m starting to think that’s because I’m putting forth unrealistic expectations for these albums, and should probably approach them a bit differently from how I have been lately. These are explorations, not statements, and treating them as the latter is going to inevitably lead to disappointment. A recalibration is in order.

But anyway, this album is great and a lot of the credit for this goes to Suzanne.

This is largely because her vocals, in addition to being characteristically excellent, give the songs a framework for Richard to wrap his soundscapes around. Quite a few times throughout the album I got the sense that the instrumental versions of these songs actually would be Generic ex-Japan, so I was often grateful that she was there. I get the sense that what she and her husband were attempting to do here is take the atmosphere of The Wilderness and give it the breadth and variety necessary to sustain an entire album, and by and large they were successful. Most of the time this means the music has a distinctly new-age twinge to it, thanks to Suzanne singing like a wood elf about the ambiguously-defined spirituality she was into at the time. But once in a while you get something like Feed the Fire or Towards the Light that gets a bit darker and more abrasive, as though to acknowledge that genuine spiritual enlightenment is not the empty-headed hippity-dippity brightness people think it is.

(Funny thing is Suzanne would eventually realize “hippity-dippity brightness” more or less was what she was being spoon-fed by the people she was paying attention to at the time and subsequently became more tempered and skeptical in her outlook. Prosperity gospel is a helluva persistent drug, even when it isn’t strictly packaged as “gospel.”)

Moving on to guest musicians. Wilson is basically a nonentity on this album. He shows up once again to strum his way through The Wilderness, and that’s about it. The much more considerable presence, and for our purposes much more important, is Theo Travis on soprano sax. Yes, that Theo Travis, the same one who delivered that blistering saxophone solo for Don’t Hate Me, and who would become integral to the Steven Wilson Band’s sound during the Jazz Era. Wilson himself would begin to directly collaborate with him when he appears on Bass Communion next year, but this is the first time he appears in this retrospective. And, well, he’s always welcome wherever he goes. He adds a lot to the atmosphere of both of the songs he’s on. (It’s cool to see Steve Jansen and Jakko Jakszyk here, too.)

This is the last we’ll see Suzanne until 2008’s Stranger Inside, and is the only time over the course of this blog that she takes center stage, so I figure we’ll talk a little about what she did after this. She continues to record and release music to this day, and a lot of it’s quite good. Her most notable work after this one is this interesting little concept album about the Betty and Barney Hill alien abduction called From Indian Head to Ashland, which listens in a lot of ways like if the Reich remix of Days in the Trees were stretched out to album length. A sampler’s available on her SoundCloud, along with a bunch of other songs. Do give them a listen.

Porcupine Tree – Live at Help

Editorial prologue: let’s peel back the curtain a bit. There’s generally a lag between when I write a post and when it actually goes up on the blog, so I have some time away from it and it’s fresh before I make any final edits. The meat of this post, for example, was pulled together back in May. However, between then and now the subject of this post was yanked from YouTube. I’ll provide a link if it’s ever reuploaded. In the meantime, blame Gavin.


 

28 March 1997

“I don’t remember Porcoopine Tree having the Your Movie Sucks guy as the lead singer, the Alien Ant Farm guy on bass, Robert Palmer of the Cure on the keys, and Some Jerk With A Camera on the drums. What a good band.” —Emily “Annotated Fall Out Boy” Nejako

Yes, we both know Mister The Cure is actually Robert Smith. It’s funnier this way. Please take your pedantry elsewhere.

During the Signify era, Porcupine Tree got big in Italy. There, they had a superfan in Nick Vannini, who just so happened to own a musical distribution company, and who thus had the necessary cachet to give the band serious radio play down there. And the gambit worked, to the point where playing in Italy meant experiencing uniquely large, rapturous, sold-out venues, and, most importantly, a glimpse of what it was like to be a rock star and not just a jobbing musician. Coma Divine was recorded there for a reason.

Of course, with the rock-star adulation they enjoyed in Italy comes rock-star drudgery. Photoshoots. Interviews. Talk show appearances. I’m not going to exhaustively cover bootlegs and TV appearances in this space…but I think we can make an exception here, because ye freaking gods. Their appearance on Help was a trainwreck visible from space.

It’s not the language barrier. Wilson and PT have had plenty of good interviews with people whose English wasn’t perfect. But this show and this band were nevertheless such a colossal mismatch I’m left wondering if either party had heard of the other before they came crashing together.

I’m working off of very incomplete information. I surmise that Help was a videomusic program, filmed in Bologna, whose format, if this episode is representative, involved live band performances separated by short interview segments. The show ran from 1996 to 2000 for the similarly relatively short-lived TMC 2. The host is Gabriele “Red Ronnie” Ansaloni, who’s been a professional music nerd in some capacity or other since the late 70s and by the time Wilson and company showed up had been presenting for radio and TV for fourteen years. That’s literally all I got.

I need (heh) help. So, I’ve tagged in my friend Emily Nejako of the Annotated Fall Out Boy blog, who kindly provided the epigraph for this post. What follows is a heavily abridged but otherwise lightly edited transcript of the Discord chat we had while we were attempting to make sense of what we were watching:

EN: “is it troo that you are more famous in italy than in your own count-rey”
TD: at that time, yes
EN: this is concurrent with oasis and the spice girls
TD: YEP

N.b. Although I want to stress once again that the language barrier wasn’t the issue, we nevertheless roundly mocked Red Ronnie’s fractured and heavily accented English throughout the show. Because I love you, I spared you most of the snark, but this one stayed because it’s an example of the sort of ridiculously softball questions he typically lobbed at Steven.

EN: [walking very slowly over to steven]
TD: guuHHHH
EN: he’s so scared
TD: i would be too
EN: “you seem to have roots in the 70s”
EN: what did the host just look at his hair
TD: I GUESS
EN: [steven stares into camera like he’s on the office]

EN: “why are the songs long” “because they’re long”
EN: good job

N.b. This was an exchange between Red Ronnie and Chris Maitland that’s another example of the sort of questions the band typically got on this show. One does wonder what sort of answer Ronnie was expecting out of Maitland here.

TD: oh god
TD: richard
TD: we’re already off on the wrong foot because he started with ex-japan
EN: i’m crying
EN: “is this the thing you played in japan”
EN: “pac-man?”
EN: PLEASE DON’T TOUCH HIS EQUIPMENT
TD: yep
TD: HE’S STILL TALKING ABOUT JAPAN
EN: WHY
EN: i feel his suffering

N.b. Ron thought it’d be a good idea to play with Richard’s old synthesizer for a bit. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to understand why this is Not Done. Ron would make Barbieri deeply uncomfortable throughout the show.

EN: i want to hear more porcupine tree so to simulate it i’m blowing into my beer bottle
EN: he’s like curling up into a ball
TD: yes!
EN: the next time he approaches him he’s gonna be rocking back and forth in a fetal position
TD: oh aye
EN: shut up about japan
EN: what about MY waifu, italy

N.b. Ronnie’s interrogating Barbieri about his relationships with Sylvian, Jansen, and Karn. It’s worth mentioning here that Ronnie uncritically repeated the [untrue] myth that Sylvian was voted Sexiest Man in the World and that it contributed to him, to put it politely, developing an ego later on.

EN: HELP
EN: call the help line
EN: do you need
EN: help
TD: i think they need help
EN: “why do you want to destroy?”
EN: i want to destroy his ass

N.b. Ronnie, on Wilson’s request, read from the lyrics to Radioactive Toy, and interpreted the line “give me the freedom to destroy” as “give me, Steven, who is on this show right now, the freedom to destroy.”

TD: ohgod
TD: he’s talking to barbieri again
TD: AND
TD: HE’S TALKING ABOUT JAPAN AGAIN
EN: SHUT UP ABOUT JAPAN

N.b. Barbieri finally lost patience with Ronnie’s constant badgering about his time with Japan and explained that he’s not there as an ex-Japan member and he would really like to be looking forward instead of backward, so could we please focus on what he’s doing now.

TD: wilson gets all the pedal geekery and richard gets an inquisition about his time with japan
EN: god
TD: all richard got about his equipment was a quick thing about how old his one synth was
EN: depressing

N.b. Ronnie and Wilson had a moment, stemming from another awkward question about how he always goes barefoot, where they mutually geeked out over Wilson’s pedals and how they altered his guitar sound. Notably, Ronnie keeps a respectful distance from Wilson and doesn’t try to play with his toys. This is, in essence, the one moment where we get a glimpse of how the show is supposed to work.

EN: WHOWOWOOO
TD: AWKWARRD
EN: WOOWOOWOOO HERE COMES THE CRINGY MUSIC SHOW POLICE
TD: DINGDINGDINGYEP

N.b. I have no words to describe precisely what Ronnie does here. You just gotta see it.

EN: why are they giving out candy
EN: is this payment for them suffering through this
EN: “You Don’t Know This Kind oF Food?”
TD: craig ferguson use to joke on the late late show “we give the audience free candy”
EN: omg
TD: this is an innovation
TD: we give the band free candy too
TD: AND THAT’S IT
EN: yay we lived
TD: yay
EN: I CAN’T BELIEVE I ATE THE WHOLE THING

I can’t believe we ate the whole thing, either.

This should not have gone as disastrously as it did. Ronnie’s been presenting for as long as Wilson’s been releasing music, and has been in the music business for about as long as Barbieri’s been releasing music. The man clearly knows his stuff. We should, by all rights, have had a show that was just as engrossing throughout as it was those precious few minutes when Wilson was showing off his pedals. And yet, somehow, the combination of Gabriele Ansaloni and Porcupine Tree produced nothing but industrial-strength awkward and some of the worst interview questions Emily or I have ever heard.

But at least it’s not the Jason interview.

Porcupine Tree – Insignificance

March 1997

Oh yes, that reference to the parent album is quite oblique, isn’t it? Ehhhh?

Before we begin, a summary of what I had to skip over.

First: Mike Heron’s Where the Mystics Swim. Mister Heron is most well-known as a member of the Incredible String Band, a pioneering psychedelic folk group active in the 60s and 70s. I’d have used this post as an excuse to document the history of his most well-known musical project, with, naturally, a particular focus on how they plunged headfirst into Scientology right as the high and beautiful wave broke and the attendant effects it had on their music. Problem is, I have no idea if the Steven Wilson who engineered this album is our Steven Wilson. I can totally see our Wilson taking on a project like this with the hero of another musical story, but the only source I could find was Discogs, which can be, er, unreliable with the attribution sometimes.

Second: Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri’s Lumen, a live album recorded in November 1996 but not released until 2015. Wilson’s a guest performer. I’d have taken the opportunity to revisit the songs on this album and see if I could still stand by my initial opinion of them, but I can’t seem to find the damn thing.

Thus, to Insignificance, our happy little collection of demos and b-sides from the Signify sessions and Part Two of our attempt to usher in the Alternative Era. This boy comes in two versions. The first is the cassette released in 1997, and the second was the version released as the second disc of Signify for its 2-CD remaster in 2003. The 2003 version kicked out two tracks included in Metanoia, split another, and added a second. The changes are relatively minor and don’t seriously affect the listening experience until the very end.

Our best move here is probably separating all the tracks on this album into two parts—the originals unique to this album and the demos—and take them one at a time.

THE OLD

Hallogallo/Signify: These two were split up in the 2003 rerelease, but really, if you’re gonna smoosh ‘em together like this, you treat ‘em as one thing. Which they are. Because playing them back to back like this only reinforces that one grew out of the other.

Waiting: This is a seven-minute version of the finished album’s two-part not-quite-centerpiece. Phase One is not Signify’s best song, but it was the only song on the album that could be said to chart a path forward for the band, as pretty much everything else represents either their current sound’s death rattle or a flailing attempt to try something different. The Insignificance demo is pretty close to what we eventually got with Phase One. (Well, okay, the guitar solo is a bit less elaborate.) The expansion of Phase Two into its own thing on the full album, however, was unquestionably the right choice.

Sever Tomorrow: Definitely prefer the album version. The lyrics flow a little better there, especially the “America calls” line. Also, the demo has those pitched-up, distorted voices from more whimsical days, and they risk defusing what is otherwise a very tense atmosphere.

Dark Origins: WHEE MORE FUN WITH TITLES AMIRITE? This is clearly an early version of Dark Matter. It’s just as polished as the album version, but only the rhythm section is complete, so it sounds the way a house looks when the left side is fully built and furnished and hooked up to the relevant utilities and ready to move in, but the right side is still a hole in the ground. Those vocalizations in particular just scream “I have no idea what we’re doing here but let’s throw this in to fill space.” We need that ethereal acoustic guitar and Wilson singing about how bored he is on the tour bus. We need that snazzy instrumental section filling up the song’s back half. It’s disquietingly incomplete otherwise.

THE NEW

Wake As Gun I & II: Technically two songs, the first opens the album, the second is plopped in the middle as a reprise, and I honestly don’t think it was impactful enough the first time to really demand one. (Contrast Breathe from everyone’s favorite Pink Floyd album. Although I’m not really sure what I’d do with the freakout at the end of II…) First one’s nice enough on its own, though. And, yes, my ears did prick up upon hearing the “bloodless and inspired” line.

Smiling Not Smiling: It’s considerably more lo-fi and unpolished than everything else on the album, and I don’t know if it’s supposed to be like that or if the band soured on the song really early in the recording process. Despite the sweet slide guitar, this is probably my least favorite song on the album, and I don’t know if its clearly work-in-progress nature has anything to do with it.

Neural Rust: This sounds, in parts, vaguely similar to The Sky Moves Sideways (Phase Two). Oh dear.

Door to the River: Definitely fits better in Metanoia than it ever possibly could on Signify.

Insignificance: Another instrumental that’s a bit too spacey for this album, but that bass. Oh man, that bass. It’s Karn tier. I love it. Four for you, Colin.

THE BORROWED

Cryogenics: Unreleased and sporadically performed in 1995 and 1997. Grew out of what would eventually appear on Metanoia, but covering it in the Metanoia entry, with how I plan to write about it, just seems like an intrusion. So it’s here instead. I do not like it. I think it sounds cacophonic and self-indulgent. I totally understand why it was left off the live album it was intended for. I also understand why it was stripped for spare parts when writing The Creator Has A Mastertape.

THE BLUE

Nine Cats: Well now. Welcome back. I was having lunch while listening to this album for the first time, and when the vocals kicked in I distinctly remember dropping my fork in shock upon discovering precisely what I was hearing.

This is a fully acoustic solo arrangement of Nine Cats, recorded at Chez Mama and Papa Wilson in 1995. Since this is the third version of this song we’ve encountered thus far, Nine Cats now feels like something with a fully developed arc, slowly moving from the psychedelic version we first experienced with Karma in 1983, to the stripped-back but still electric version we heard in 1991, finally culminating with the fully unplugged version we have today in 1997.

There’s a music video that plays in my head when I hear this version. I imagine Wilson in 1997, alone on an anonymous bare stage, sitting on a stool with an acoustic guitar. No audience. He starts playing the song. While he’s singing the second verse, Wilson from 1991 walks on with an acoustic guitar and a stool of his own, and sets up to his right. When the third verse begins, 1991!SW joins in, and Wilson from 1983 walks on with his own guitar and stool, and sets up to 1997!Wilson’s left. Starting with the instrumental section following the third verse, they all play together.

Once the fourth verse ends, 1991!Wilson gets off his stool and leaves. 1983!Wilson follows after the fifth verse. Ultimately, the Wilson of 1997 is left alone again onstage to finish the song. Once he’s done, he too gets up and leaves, leaving three empty stools on which the camera lingers for a few seconds before fading out.

Cheesy? Probably. But I think it illustrates the song’s significance as a musical thread pulling together these three different periods in Wilson’s musical evolution. And, naturally, its inclusion in Insignificance is a big part of why everything Porcupine Tree released between Signify and Stupid Dream could be described as a magical ritual to kickstart the Alternative Era. Signify vaguely suggested a way forward, but to fully develop the new sound we have to do something about the old sound. And to do that, we have to nail down precisely what it is we’re destroying. We gotta sketch out the territory.

Porcupine Tree – Signify

30 September 1996

Waiting, May 1996
2-CD edition, July 2003
Remastered 2-LP edition, May 2004
Delerium Years remaster, 2017

“You’ve just had a heavy session of electroshock therapy, and you’re more relaxed than you’ve been in weeks! All those childhood traumas magically wiped away, along with most of your personality!”

“The brainwashed do not know they are brainwashed.”

You’re Not As Messed Up As You Think You Are

I was brought up evangelical. Like most people who were brought up evangelical, after a certain point you realize that no God worth worshipping would mandate the brainwashing/oppression/extermination of queer people. Like most people who were brought up evangelical, after a certain point you realize that the institutional edifice[s] propping up middle-class American Protestant Christianity are fundamentally, systematically rotten from top to bottom. Middle-class American Christianity is not a belief system that survives any sustained contact with the beauty and diversity of the outside world that we were told God loathes (and somehow loves) so much.

And, like most people who were brought up evangelical, I ran facefirst into the outside world right around my eighteenth birthday, and you can probably guess how things would eventually shake loose afterward.

I should probably be very specific about what it is that so fundamentally bothers me about religion. Of course, when I talk about “religion,” I am going to primarily reference the one I was raised in, but I’m pretty sure a lot of these same issues are universal. For starters, one person or group of people quite simply has no business holding formal authority over people’s spirituality…especially when aforesaid person/group of people are primarily white men who’re middle-aged or older. In fact, an individual or a church’s collective spirituality is just too important to be trusted to anything that has any sort of implicit or explicit hierarchical structure.

Because with that power, naturally, comes abuse. The mountain of sex abuse scandals emanating from within Christianity speaks for itself and is a more damning indictment of the faith and of religious authority than Christ himself ever came up with. But it’s not just that, it’s also spiritual abuse. It’s rooting out anyone who dares question the stranglehold you have over your audience. It’s about projecting your own prejudices onto a messy collection of books written thousands of years ago in a time and place that, unless you’re Palestinian, is not yours, and which already have their own prejudices baked in. It’s hell, a concept that suddenly becomes horrifying if even a modicum of thought is applied to it. It’s teaching women that they’re lesser than men. It’s teaching people they shouldn’t have sex until marriage or they should remain in abusive relationships, and all the emotional damage that follows. It’s teaching queer people that they should be “converted” to a compulsory cisgenderness or heterosexuality. It’s a sick, twisted white supremacist nationalism—God, guns, and Trump—that in America has a robust history dating all the way back to when these very same preachers were defending (and, in at least once case, advocating for the imposition of) slavery. Say the right vaguely churchy words in the right order once in a while and the suckers just come rolling in.

Scaling up from the individual church level, it’s terrorist attacks on Planned Parenthood clinics. It’s missionaries tromping around the Third World reenacting the quest of their imperialist ancestors from two centuries previous to Bring Civilization To The Savage Peoples. It’s the Crusades, and the associated deep-rooted anti-Semitism and Islamophobia that leeched onto and sprung from them. It’s the teachings of an insignificant nomadic prophet, corralled into the service of innumerable bloodthirsty empires since at least the conversion of Constantine. It’s, fundamentally, the belief that anyone who’s not Christian ought to be brainwashed, intellectually lobotomized, or killed. Kant had a rare moment of lucidity if he did indeed say something like “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest,” because Christianity is fundamentally Satanic.

Moving on to the freakish assemblage of texts that spawned this faith, the Bible. Nothing in the Bible really happened except possibly a few of the Pauline epistles. Much of the Old Testament exists specifically to advance particular political agendas. That we got the four Gospels we have today can be chalked up to historical accident, and none of them are factually accurate accounts of the life of Jesus…a figure about whom we know nothing beyond that he was almost certainly a real person.

And even beyond historical inaccuracy, there’s a ton of stuff in the Bible that is legitimately horrifying. People center around those long lists of things that deserve the death penalty in Leviticus and Deuteronomy for good reason, but check out how God himself behaves in the Bible if you really want to send a chill down your spine. And in the New Testament, Paul himself is a real piece of work, to the point where one suspects that his conversion experience didn’t change a whole lot besides his religious affiliation.

But here’s the fun part: a lot of what I just said about the Bible is what people learn in their first few weeks at seminary. This is literally Christianity 101. So the appropriate Christian reaction to a New Atheist type bloviating about how the Bible is false is “well…duh.”

And, of course, let’s not forget that despite Christianity’s long and storied relationship with white supremacy, it’s not like atheism’s much better. For every atheist whose rejection of a supreme being also serves as a rejection of divinely supported oppressive power structures, you’ve got an atheist whose rejection of a supreme being serves as an excuse to justify keeping their blessedly secular Europe free of muddle-headed Muslims. And really, that’s frustrating. Atheism is awful, and has been awful for a very long time, because in the West it too, like Christianity, has been co-opted to serve the whims of empire, and has been since the days of the Enlightenment. The only reasons atheism can’t be considered As Bad as Christianity is (a) the predominant tradition has only been around for about four or five hundred years, and (b) there’s still a strand of atheism that’s legitimately liberatory.

You can thank the anarchists for that. You know the slogan: no gods, no masters. But it is an anarchistic atheism, an atheism that includes within it critiques of not just religion but also racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic power structures and of capitalism, authoritarianism, and authority in general. Give me an atheism whose denial of God is based on rejecting the divine right of kings any day over a monosyllabic atheism that sits in its own drool saying “invisible sky fairy” over and over. And this is just as important as rejecting God, because an atheism that rejects the worst impulses of Christianity only replicates them when it fails to interrogate anything else. Just ask Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or their intellectual forebear H. L. Mencken.

But, really, this is a level of intellectual complexity that’s beyond Western atheism, whose avatar is the cisgender heterosexual white guy who’s never quite gotten past that zeal of the deconverted phase where he constantly gets himself off over how he’s outgrown such silly superstitions. And, really, if there’s one thing Western atheists need to not do, it’s be impressed with themselves for learning there’s no God or afterlife and we’re only a cosmic dust mite winking briefly in and out of existence and life has no inherent meaning beyond what we invest in it from our own experiences and desires. Like, it may seem like it is in whatever one-horse cult you’ve managed to escape from, but this is not esoteric, revealed knowledge. So you think you’re special? Coming down from the mountain with the new Ten Commandments from The God Delusion etched in stone tablets? Well, good job in learning what the rest of us did a long time ago.

Thus, to Signify, the album that more or less describes that moment when you’ve joined the rest of the human race and wondering what to do now. It’s also the only Porcupine Tree record I don’t like.

She’s Not As Pretty As She Thinks She Is

I mentioned in the Up the Downstair review that Porcupine Tree records generally come in pairs, where the first album changes the band’s sound and the second refines it. This schema comes the closest to breaking entirely with The Sky Moves Sideways and Signify, because both albums represent a pretty substantial sonic shift, and in completely different directions: The Sky Moves Sideways expands the music’s psychedelic elements to territories not seen since Voyage 34, whereas Signify is the point at which we start putting the Space Era to bed.

The Space Era’s far from over, mind. Most of the tracks on this album retain the sensibilities that Porcupine Tree is known for, most notably The Sleep of No Dreaming, Sever, Every Home is Wired, Intermediate Jesus, and Dark Matter. Moving into the Alternative Era will ultimately be a three-year process involving the Insignificance demos and a final orgasmic explosion of pure psychedelia in Metanoia, but it’s pretty clear from what we have here that we’ve reached the limit of what we can do with our currently-established sound and we have to try something different. That and we’re gelling more and more as a studio band, so we’re creating more band-oriented tracks, and those will be a bit shorter and less spaced-out than what we’re known for. Also our frontman’s still listening to loads of krautrock and that’s gonna bleed over, too. (Check out that spectacular motorik in the title track.)

The problem is Signify hit at basically the worst possible time in the bands evolution: the point where it’s pretty clear that the current sound is netting them diminishing returns, but the new sound is still very much under construction. The title track is nice enough, but it grew out of a cover of Hallogallo and it shows. Probably the only song that reaches the heights we’re used to from Porcupine Tree is Dark Matter. All the other spacey songs are pretty clearly the band returning to the same wells they’ve plumbed before, only this time with samples of some unhinged preacher types thrown in for thematic flavour.

Speaking of lyrics and sonic elements that’re still under construction, this is the first time Wilson’s actually consistently had lyrics that were something besides mouth noises or random words pulled from a hat Kid A-style. (Usually. Sever still has some of that old bad-trip magic.) And, well…

He’s Not As Clever As He Likes To Think

Okay, I’m going to be polite here, and then I won’t. I’m generally neutral-to-positive on Wilson’s lyrics. He’s pretty good at putting words in a particular order (“as the world in my TV leaked on to my shoes” is a killer line, for instance), but in my book his style has consistently been better than his substance. What’s more, there are very few subjects less fruitful for Babby’s First Stab At Comprehensibility than the first time it fully sinks in that you’re gonna die.

I don’t know how much of this is me writing from my temporal vantage point. I don’t know how picked-over this topic actually was in 1996. But really…there just are not very many places to go with this particular subject. So, life is finite. You will one day cease to exist. All signs point to this life being all there is. Now what.

You might, if we use a godawful New Atheist line, stick your head in the sand and say there really is something after death. Only way to survive is on your knees, after all. You might instead turn to the hedonism of drugs or sex, or this weird new thing called the Internet wiring every home. Or you might try and create something that you hope and pray (“pray”) will outlast you, and if the drudgery of schlepping from no-name English town to no-name English town on a bus while playing to fifty people in miserable, dank, sweaty bar basements is what we need to do to get the job done, then so bloody be it.

Here’s where the anxiety over leaving a legacy comes from. You might say that religious people who long for a heaven are denying the finitude of existence, but if you’re concerned that a chunk of you will somehow remain after you’re gone…you’re worrying about the same thing, mate. It may not be a literal afterlife you seek, but it’s an afterlife nonetheless.

If you’re a creative person, and you define your legacy as something you make that lives on after you die, the pitfalls are everywhere. If the path to an afterlife is popularity, there’s more pressure to appeal to what’s popular (which rarely if ever works). If the path to an afterlife is making something that sticks out, then it’s a crapshoot because it might not reach enough people. 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. And even if you manage to Get Big, records and CDs scratch. Tapes warp. Storage media decay. Some works have somehow managed to last hundreds of years but ultimately no catalog is permanent. The product is sold, the memory fades. There’s no escape hatch forthcoming here.

I’m Not As Awesome As This Song Makes Out

At least not yet. There’s another English bloke wot’s good at the wordsmithing who twelve years later short-circuited this entire conversation without even realizing it. In 2008, ex-Million Dead boy Frank Turner released folk-punk masterpiece Love, Ire & Song, whose second track, Reasons Not To Be An Idiot, is a cheery dope-slap for everyone caught Wilsonly within their own thoughts.

In the song, Turner surveys a series of people (including himself and the listener) who’ve become neurotically obsessed over themselves, their appearance, their intellect, whatever, and shakes them around a bit to remind them that they (and, by extension, we) are not freighted with any uniquely insurmountable woes and that “deep down, you’re just like everybody else.” The last person he addresses is someone called Amy, who’s gotten sucked into all sorts of superficial faux-spiritual gobbledygook because “she’s scared that life won’t leave any traces.” Sound familiar?

His prescription is simple. Right after describing Amy’s situation he cuts the entire Gordian knot both she and Signify got themselves stuck in with five little words: “That’s not the point anyway.” All you really need in life is right there in the album’s title–love, ire, and song–and notice that immortality and leaving a legacy are conspicuously not mentioned among them. It’s nice out. Enjoy some fresh air. Go for a pint. See some friends. For once in your life, get your head out of your ass and relax.

(It’s probably also worth pointing out that Wilson and Turner are both cisgender white men from solidly middle-class English backgrounds—Wilson’s father was an electronic engineer at Philips, Turner’s father was an investment banker—which itself speaks volumes about who has the wherewithal to tie themselves into knots like this, thinking about whether they’ll leave behind anything that will last.)

Which brings us back around to, what do you do upon discovering that life is finite and has no inherent meaning? If you’re western, and don’t have an actual degree in philosophy, there are two ways this conversation can go: a simplistic nihilism, or a corny be-excellent-to-each-other pop platitudinism. Both these routes invite nothing in the way of nuance or complexity, and are just flat boring. This is not a conversation in which anyone comes away enlightened. Instead, realize that worrying about this crap is bourgeois faux-intellectual masturbation, and get up, get down, and get outside.

  1. The Sky Moves Sideways
  2. Up the Downstair
  3. On the Sunday of Life
  4. Signify

No-Man – Wild Opera

September 1996

Housewives Hooked on Heroin, May 1996
2-CD edition, May 2010

Take One

The process is as follows:

Listen to the subject of the post—in this case, the Housewives Hooked on Heroin EP—several times, in an attempt to generate an interesting angle on the music or the lyrics.

Best you can come up with is something to the effect of “the title track is pretty terrible but the EP itself is redeemed somewhat thanks to Urban Disco and Where I’m Calling From. Also the Scanners remix of the title track is actually some pretty good chilled-out DnB, kind of prefigures early Pendulum in a sense. I know Wilson hates it but then Wilson hates a lot of things. What you gonna do.” After that, something something prelude to Wild Opera. This is not enough for a single post, especially when Wild Opera itself comes right after.

At that moment, realize the EP works best as a prelude to Wild Opera and surmise that the supplementary EP, Dry Cleaning Ray, will be similar. Get an idea.

Listen to Wild Opera.

Take Two

Three at once, this week. We’re obviously focusing on Wild Opera, but we’ve also got the two supplementary releases orbiting around it like moons, Housewives Hooked on Heroin and Dry Cleaning Ray. These three are quite closely linked, and for that reason it’s worth examining them as a single unit representing where No-Man’s collective head was at entering the decade’s back half.

First up is Housewives Hooked on Heroin, released four months prior to Wild Opera and thus serving as an introduction to what they’d be doing on the main release. One can imagine the No-Man fandom faithful stumbling upon this joint and its radical change in sound—especially the glitchy, staccato Hit the Ceiling—and reacting roughly as charitably as certain portions of Wilson’s solo fandom did upon hearing Permanating for the first time. It’s, well, it’s decent enough on its own. The title track really doesn’t live up to that incredible name. Urban Disco is pretty good, though.

If we arrange these three releases chronologically and establish a narrative through-line between them, then Wild Opera represents a refinement of the musical concepts first explored in Housewives Hooked on Heroin. This is No-Man’s “dark” album, and while it is their heaviest and most abrasive release, let’s not forget what their default mode is. Nothing on here is sufficiently dark for a patented Jess Cope nightmare-inducing tour visual, for instance. In addition, most of the time the primary influence is not straight trip-hop, hence why whenever those influences showed through up to this point it always sounded generic and watered down. This actually dovetails nicely with something I wrote in the Flowermouth entry:

“However, in listening to this album it becomes quite clear that the trip hop sound didn’t come from their heart as much as their attempt to mold themselves in One Little Indian’s image in the hopes they’d sell more records.”

Compare with what Bowness said on his blog about Wild Opera:

“If Flowermouth was gleefully oblivious to fashion, on a purely instinctive level, Wild Opera was the sound of No-Man heeding the musical signs of the times.”

So, basically, they’re no longer trying to satisfy One Little Indian, but emulate the musical zeitgeist of 1996….and yet it miraculously doesn’t sound like they’ve sold out. This is because the trip-hop here is of a more jazzy and orchestral bent, where the lonely streetlamps are in front of the embassy of an Eastern European nation instead of in, say, Brixton. In other words, they wanted to sound like Portishead.

This is key. Because it approaches the genre at an odd angle and through John Le Carre-tinted glasses, the Portishead flavor of trip hop actively resists being watered down, and thus retains more of its…authenticity, for lack of a better word. So even when No-Man tries to sound like Portishead, they land not at Portishead full stop but Portishead filtered through No-Man’s fractured history. Not a bad place to be, all told, although that does mean I start to wish they’d have had the guts to get real dark and dive into the abyss headfirst, to the point where something like My Revenge on Seattle would have been better served on a castoff EP released several months later.

Several times over the course of this retrospective we’ve come back to the idea of a record representing a window into a potential evolution in a project’s sound that never quite came to be…but that analogy doesn’t quite work here. Although this is a serious effort to do something a bit more beat-driven, it’s also clear that trip hop itself was a dead end in the band’s progress, as future albums would owe more to Flowermouth than this one. However, that doesn’t mean this experiment was a complete failure. Bowness and Wilson both knew the darker atmosphere present in Wild Opera still had potential. If Flowermouth and Wild Opera represent the band’s sound from Lovecries splitting in two, then every album from Returning Jesus onward represent those two halves coming together again, but differently.

Speaking of things disassembled and reassembled backward, Dry Cleaning Ray.

Take Three

Crap.

Realize (a) that Dry Cleaning Ray is mostly outtakes from the Wild Opera sessions instead of remixes, and (b) that maybe only one song off the album could legitimately be described as “disassembled and reassembled backward.” Discover that chunks of Dry Cleaning Ray pull from releases you haven’t covered yet. This angle ain’t gonna work.

Try to dig up contemporary press—reviews and interviews, that sort of thing—to back up the claim that Wild Opera is widely regarded as the dark album. Come up empty. The only even remotely interesting piece of criticism comes from the sole comment on the album’s AllMusic review, which calls “trip hop” a dirty word. Wonder how that guy feels about iPods.

Feel yourself pulled in ten thousand fruitless directions. At the same time, imagine yourself as Barton Fink, and all that implies, staring at a blank typewriter.

Attempt to continue the essay, this time focusing almost entirely on Wild Opera. Shoehorn something in about how you wouldn’t be surprised if Jerry Martin were listening to this album and Endtroducing… on repeat while composing the SimCity 4 soundtrack, based off that magnificent sax in Radiant City. Observe that Ben Coleman’s absence really is not deeply felt here, and nothing against the man, but anything he could have contributed to the album would have been superfluous.

Try and fail to excise the Housewives / Opera / Dry Cleaning Ray angle from what you’ve already written. Realize you still have quite a lot of things to say about the interplay between dark and light that can’t be squeezed into the essay you have as written, and how it basically doesn’t work. Try to find yet another creative way to say that Bowness’ voice is not very well suited to dark music, and that as good as the trip-hop is they’re still fundamentally uncomfortable with it, and stuff like Flowermouth is better largely because it really does feel like their natural habitat, and including songs like My Revenge on Seattle means they probably know it. Realize with some horror that what you really want out of No-Man is Together We’re Stranger rerecorded and rereleased endlessly, and that demand fundamentally goes against what constitutes good musical artistry and what you value in music that has any business calling itself “progressive.” Recall that based on stuff he said about “progressive” music when you saw him perform in New York back in April, Wilson probably agrees with you.

Bang head against keyboard.

Take Four

Throw hands up. Go trawling for buzz one last time, come up fruitless. Discover the following completely unrelated extract from that 2000 Innerview you quoted the last time you covered a No-Man studio album:

“I think No-Man go through phases of distinctively reflecting the current musical climate such as Lovesighs, Loveblows and Lovecries, Wild Opera and Dry Cleaning Ray, and phases of retreating into ourselves and trying to produce something we consider timeless and meaningful such as Carolina Skeletons and Flowermouth. The new album definitely fits into the latter category. Next time, it’s disco!”

Well, it took seventeen years, and it was only one half of the band, but by God we finally got our bloody disco.

  1. Flowermouth
  2. Wild Opera
  3. Loveblows and Lovecries: A Confession