Altamont – Prayer for the Soul

September 1983

Not when we have stuff that goes even farther back. Unless someone recorded his childhood guitar lessons, this is likely the earliest tape of Wilson’s in circulation in some form, dating from when he was fifteen. Wilson himself is on record as comparing these early works to “nursery school paint blots,” which I guess is fair—lord knows I’m unimpressed by what I did creatively when I was fifteen—but the impression I get from this tape, thanks to the crackles and pops and warps from age and countless rips till it finally got to me, is less embarrassing fingerpaints and more embarrassing home movies. It’s like someone’s dad stumbled in on Steven and [occasionally] Si Vockings noodling around with their instruments, decided to bust out the Super 8, and like an old Doctor Who serial the video has long since been erased but the audio has somehow survived.

And noodle they do. Altamont, the first track, isn’t so much a song as it is a wander. It sounds like the work of two young men with inviting synthesizers and Blade Runner on the brain, and it’s better than anything you or I would have done at that age. Only in its final minute and a half does it sound anything like what was going through the heads of everyone at Altamont when the hippie dream went up in metaphorical smoke in front of them, but the bad-trip feeling still permeates almost everything else.

From there we go to Watching Statues, which actually sounds like something from 1969, mostly thanks to the acoustic guitars and Wilson’s distant, muffled, reverb-soaked vocals, and also this is the first time we hear him sing and he sounds almost exactly the same as he does now. After this, The Tell Tale Heart, a pleasant little number featuring a bright, flute-y synth motif that you could fall asleep to were it not for the loud, startling explosion thirty seconds from the end.

Split Image is another wander, this one more guitar focused. This song has a lot in common with a Porcupine Tree solo, with the particular way it layers and builds and finally crescendos, (this isn’t original to Porcupine Tree, of course, the “Würm” movement of Yes’ Starship Trooper also does this) but is only particularly interesting as a suggestion of where he might go in the future.

The first and third movements of the final track also sound like something out of the ‘60s, for the same reason Watching Statues does. There’s guitars and fuzz and reverb and Steven singing once again. His vocals are measured, cautious, somewhat unpracticed. He doesn’t realize he can hit high notes yet. The middle instrumental section morphs into something shimmery and decidedly un-sixties, and yet the song’s two facets lace together seamlessly. No fifteen-year-old has any business being this musically talented. Although I suppose if you are, the question is not if you’ll be selling out the Royal Albert Hall, but when.

It is a cliche to say that the early works of an artist show their “potential,” but although that is legitimately true here, it’s also a bit of a mischaracterization. To say something has “potential” means that the thing might not be good, but the artist behind the thing has good stuff in them. The songs on this tape may be somewhat raw and oddly mixed, but they are legitimately good on their own. Steven himself might not think especially highly of them (they’ve been deleted from Acid Tapes’ catalogue at his request), and they might not hold a candle to some of his more professional work, but there’s still value in seeing what happens when you’re just at home mucking about with a tape recorder, and in this case it’s still kind of a shame that the result’s been relegated to a curiosity whose value is based solely on its novelty as The First.

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Preamble

It’s been said that there’s only space for two projects that cover the same territory: the first and the best. This, so far as I can tell, is the first. This is a retrospective series of almost everything Steven Wilson’s touched in his capacity as a musical person. These aren’t necessarily reviews, although they can be, but they will at least attempt to be engagements.

Acknowledgments. This whole thing would not exist without Uwe Häberle’s Complete Steven Wilson Discography, now in its tenth edition, and when he says complete, he means complete. The most recent edition, from 2015, is 564 pages long, with well over a thousand entries. The man has been that prolific. Also indispensable is Quinn Downton’s Neural Rust site, but where Häberle aims for a broad survey of Wilson’s entire discography, Downton focuses on certain specific releases (PT, mostly, for obvious reasons) and digs deep.

The sheer volume of stuff Steven Wilson has released as a musician means that I’ve had to do some pruning regarding what I’m going to cover in this space. As a general rule, one entry per album and any associated supplementary thingies. Albums by other artists where he guested or produced will be included. However, there will be no test pressings, promos, record company compilations or samplers, or fakes. Bootlegs will be covered only if they pique my interest. I haven’t decided whether to include remixes, either, but I got time to figure that out, trust me. As of this writing, that leaves us with ~225 entries, depending on which rarities I can get my hands on (if I haven’t heard it, I won’t spend a lot of time on it), but that’s at least manageable. The goal is a post a week, provided I don’t get too wordy.

The format of this blog owes massive debts to Chris O’Leary’s Pushing Ahead of the Dame (aka Bowiesongs) and Elizabeth Sandifer’s Nintendo and Super Nintendo Projects, both attempts at chronicling large bodies of work. (I suspect the full extent of their influence will become clear as we go further on.) The content, probably less so, at least for now. Despite this, I still hope that this space will eventually produce something useful or interesting. We’ll see.

First proper post goes up on Sunday. In the meanwhile, some setup. For our purposes, Steven Wilson’s musical output can be divided into five eras, based on whatever genre was the predominate influence upon Porcupine Tree or his solo career at the time: the Space Era, the Alternative Era, the Metal Era, the Jazz Era, and the Pop Era. I have somewhat arbitrarily defined the Space Era as beginning with Porcupine Tree’s first release, 1989’s Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm. We are not starting with Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm.