Intro to the Space Era: 1989-1999

Here’s where the disparate strands of Wilson’s musical DNA finally start coming together. The Space Era is named for Porcupine Tree’s predominant aesthetic sensibility—a spacey psychedelia—from its inception to the release of Stupid Dream in 1999. In the meantime, what did we miss, because your author couldn’t find much of this stuff online?

  • In 1986 Wilson participated heavily in Coltsfoot’s demo tape Action at a Distance, performing on some tracks and producing others. The tape would be released in 1988.
  • No Man Is An Island released a single in 1987 called “From a Toyshop Window,” which Wikipedia describes as a hybrid of progressive rock and synthpop.
  • Also in 1987, Wilson was briefly the keyboardist for Pride of Passion / Blazing Apostles (they rebranded and renamed themselves right around when he was there).
  • 1989 saw two No Man Is An Island EPs, The Girl from Missouri and Swagger. Wikipedia describes the title track of The Girl from Missouri as a “waltz time ballad” that would later be disowned, and Swagger as “aggressive synth-pop,” indicating a band (befitting, considering the relative turbulence its lineup was experiencing at the time) that didn’t quite know what it wanted to do yet. Evidently once No-Man stabilized they felt that some of the stuff off these two EPs were good enough to be re-recorded and re-released, and we’ll get to those versions eventually.

I couldn’t find a whole lot from anything up there. From Blazing Apostles, all I could dig up from the two songs he played on were their live renditions at the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden in 1987. They sound a lot like A Flock of Seagulls.

From Coltsfoot there’s In The Hour Between, which is a perfectly serviceable prog ballad. The tape it’s on is mostly important as the first thing Wilson’s produced for a band of which he was not himself a member, and it sounds exactly like how you’d expect it to sound in 1988. That’s a roundabout way of saying it owes more to Altamont/Karma than anything he did later.

As for No-Man, first up is Forest Almost Burning, off The Girl from Missouri, which has some properly twitchy violin work. It has the distinct air of a band, from its precarious perch in 1989, gesturing toward a sound still under construction…which makes sense, considering No-Man would become influenced by trip hop and Blue Lines wouldn’t be released for another two years. The other one was Bleed, from Swagger, which sounds all right. The percussion is nice, the guitar work is proper heavy, but it’s…very strange listening to Tim Bowness alternate between his usual vaguely Bowie-esque croon and that weird, uncomfortable growl/snarl thing he does at the chorus. Can also understand why we don’t hear much of his climactic bellowing after this, too. If both songs are representative of their output at about this time, then these EPs are clearly the work of a band who are still trying to figure themselves out.

Should probably also mention that I am not a particularly huge fan of No-Man myself, but they nevertheless feature prominently at this stage in Wilson’s musical history, so we’ll see how much I can look past that and be objective.

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Steven Wilson – Tape Experiments 1985-1986

Recorded 1985-86, Released 29 November 2010

“Steven made an ASMR video!” -YouTube commenter Wesley de Wit, 2016

Here’s the difference between prog-improvisation and electronic improvisation, and why I like one and not the other. ELP-style progressive rock improvisation comes off much like an extended jam session that, paradoxically, often goes nowhere. There’s a jarring feeling of simultaneous movement and stasis that makes it extremely difficult for me to appreciate the technical wizardry going on. Electronic improvisation, meanwhile, although there may (may) not be much variation in the music itself, still gives a feeling of pushing at boundaries and going into uncharted territory. Tape Experiments 1985-1986 may not strictly be an improvised album, but the sense of emergence and exploration is still there. It’s what the scientist is doing when they go “Hmm, that’s funny” and stumble upon something great.

I managed to dig up three tracks from Tape Experiments online: Cries of Lucia, The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, and Seen. All three are not so much songs as they are soundscapes, layered experiments in collage and texture that would eventually mutate into projects like Bass Communion. This is obvious from the name of the album; you don’t pick up something called “Tape Experiments” and expect it to be something you can karaoke to.

The tracks, then. Cries of Lucia is basically ten minutes of Steven messing with his voice, alternately whispering, sighing, clicking, and droning such that he sounds less like a human and more like the call of some forest cryptid. Chunks of this experiment would eventually be sampled on Hymn from Love, Death, & Mussolini and The Gospel According to the I.E.M., and we’ll get to the effect it has on those respective songs when we get there, but on its own it sounds very much like we had a run-in with some mushrooms in a field on a foggy autumn night. Very eerie.

The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud is something else entirely, a four-minute musique concrete collage that sounds alternately like home movies in a mad scientist’s laboratory and flipping between TV channels showing old science fiction movies while on acid. Seen, meanwhile, is four minutes of layered guitars fed through a tape machine. Wilson has speculated it was probably influenced by John Martyn’s “Small Hours,” but where Martyn used the guitar-and-tape-delay effect to create something serene and nostalgic and faintly melancholy and which quite honestly gives me a serious case of the warm fuzzies, Wilson’s version initially seems pleasant and serene, but pick at it a little bit and there’s this vaguely disquieting undercurrent drifting just below the surface. It’s like Wilson took Small Hours out of the fridge and left it out in the open air for a day or two, leaving it to curdle and rot. I personally prefer the Martyn version for that reason but then Small Hours was also the work of an artist at a more advanced stage in his career.

These are only three tracks out of seven, barely half the album, but I think we can reasonably assume that the other four are just as experimental and slightly off-kilter. Tape Experiments as a whole, then, is another chunk of Wilson’s early discography that’s primarily interesting because it’s Wilson’s early discography, and all the ways stuff off here would be used in songs that came later. But this particular piece of Wilson’s early discography comes at a transitional period. In 1986 Karma would break up. Also in 1986 he’d form what was initially a solo project called No Man Is An Island (Except The Isle Of Man), and 1987 would see a little joke project with Malcolm Stocks, a hoax prog rock band called Porcupine Tree.

Karma – The Last Man to Laugh

1985

We’re skipping over the untitled Altamont album that was recorded in 1984 and released in 2002 because I can’t bloody find it. Nor could I find Side B of Last Man to Laugh, a batch of remixes and alternate takes called, appropriately enough, “Counterparts.” Therefore, we will here treat Side A as though it represents the entirety of The Last Man to Laugh and ignore how the Counterparts, er, counterparts affect the songs in their final form.

Which is just as well, I suppose, because The Last Man to Laugh (start at 37’50”) is not very good. The Joke’s On You presents two different directions Karma could have gone. There was the psychedelic gorgeousness of Small Fish and Nine Cats, and the interminable classic-prog pretentiousness of Tigers in the Rain. Even without accounting for Karma’s particular challenges (all the band members were in high school and couldn’t drive and so couldn’t do much to reach that coveted Wider Audience) one fully understands why one road leads to being crowned King of Prog and the other leads to your band disbanding in a year.

The better track of the two is the first one, Where is the End If There is No Beginning, mostly on the strength of its occasional attempts at structure and the (uncredited?) female vocalist, who sounds amazing. At its best it sounds like the theme for a cheesy 80s sci-fi cartoon. The most interesting thing about the second track, however, is the title (the delightfully evocative A Piece of Earth and Good Swill to All Pigs) and some of the less cacophonic instrumental parts. Otherwise it’s an impenetrable, aimless, twenty-minute slog. They were listening to a lot of Marillion at the time, and listening to Fugazi I can hear superficial similarities, most notably in how they use the horns, but they only occasionally tapped into the sensibilities that actually made Marillion great.

There’s a part of me that both does and does not wonder what Counterparts sounds like, based off the idea that maybe, just maybe, there were more successful iterations of both songs buried in there somewhere. But maybe not. Either way, though, it’s clear both why Karma is a footnote in Steven Wilson’s overall discography, and why their musical style was ultimately a road not taken. Mostly. Small Fish and Nine Cats, even in these early forms, are still brilliant.

Let’s listen to something different.

Karma – The Joke’s On You

October 1983

This release, on the other hand, is not so encumbered, and is of interest to SW completionists for its actual content instead of its position in history. I’m going to tease this for a bit, as if anyone who’s aware of this tape doesn’t know what’s coming. For space purposes the four tracks on this tape are split such that three short-ish songs are on one side and one long song is on the other. However, if we’re going to split the songs on this tape into two categories, it should be an even two tracks for each, because the first pair of tracks sound completely different from the last pair.

The first track, Intruder D’Or, is basically a four-minute introduction to what we think we’ll be getting on this tape: upbeat ELP/Marillion-style synth improvisation, with a hint of what we in 2017 would describe as “chiptune.” It’s seriously flawed. The problem with it is nothing to do with the musicianship, or the production, or anything with the song itself. It’s just that it is entirely too technical and ambitious for the album it’s on. You write a song like this to start a ninety-minute prog epic, not a thirty-minute four-song EP. When this is the first thing you hear, you get the faintly distressing feeling that the album is going to overpromise and underdeliver.

Tigers in the Rain continues in a roughly similar vein to Intruder D’Or, albeit with more structure and more of an emphasis on the guitars. It’s a progressive rock song that’s aesthetically like a lo-fi punk song. Everything’s raw and unpolished and sounds like it was done in one take. Steven’s vocals don’t sound muffled only when they’re making the microphone pop. You could tell me this was recorded live in a pub basement at one in the morning in front of a confused audience of maybe thirty, and I would believe you.

These are not the interesting bits of the album for me, and quite frankly, they won’t be for many other people who know this tape exists, either. They don’t sound much like anything Wilson’s done under any other name or with any other band, and although well-made they’re honestly kind of boring, in the same way a lot of self-indulgent improvisational prog is boring. They’re something we have to get through to reach the good stuff.

“The good stuff,” in this case, begins when you’ve drifted less than a minute into the third track, whose name you don’t register because you weren’t paying attention, and the heavy, fuzzy guitars drop out and Steven starts singing ominously and slightly mournfully, and you wonder why the lyrics sound vaguely familiar, and it isn’t until you actually look them up that you realize that yes, it’s called Small Fish for a reason, and this is, in fact, an early version of a song that would appear prominently on Up the Downstair ten years later.

This version is more overtly psychedelic than what we would get in 1993, the main vocal section bracketed with the aforementioned fuzzy guitars in front and an extended Iron Butterfly-esque drum solo in back. The vocals themselves are backed not with acoustic guitar but synth swells drifting in and out, just to hammer home that this is ultimately someone’s really bad acid trip (an early Space Era theme, we’ll discover). We’ll get to how this version compares to the Up the Downstair version once we actually reach Up the Downstair (provided I remember), but right now we’ll say it’s quite good in its own right and leave it there.

The Karma version of Nine Cats is a fifteen-minute behemoth that sounds absolutely nothing like the smaller, more intimate offering that would appear on Porcupine Tree’s first proper album nine years later. There’s nothing connecting the two beyond half the lyrics and the delivery thereof, and I say “half” because the other portion of the lyrics washed ashore, completely rearranged, as the title track of The Nostalgia Factory. Nevertheless, I am someone who shamelessly prefers long songs to short songs, so all the same this immediately piqued my interest.

The song comes in three parts: a psychedelic section with the Nostalgia Factory lyrics, a lengthy instrumental section, which is at turns heavy and spacey, and another psychedelic section with the Nine Cats lyrics. This is Steven Wilson’s first proper epic, and unlike Altamont this comes across as structured, deliberate, triumphant, even. They’re the work of a man who’s grown sea legs.

Like Intruder D’Or, Nine Cats sounds like something that should belong in a longer, more expansive album. However, unlike Intruder D’Or, Nine Cats represents a payoff, a culmination, to what we were promised in the beginning. Still, though, after listening to The Joke’s On You, we get the feeling we bore witness to just the beginning and the end of a musical journey, and we’re left wondering what happened to the other eight tracks that should be in the middle, and we finally understand exactly where the tape’s title came from.

Postscript: If Wilson ever plays Nine Cats live again he should try the Karma arrangement at least once, to see who in the audience Gets It.