Porcupine Tree – Spiral Circus

April 1994

Editorial prologue: it is around noon on April 28, 2018. I’m in Union Square in New York on what is by all accounts a lovely green spring day. I’m sitting under a bright pink flowering tree, mooching off city wifi, giving this entry a final passthrough before posting. In about six hours I will make my way to the PlayStation Theater in Times Square, where I will see Steven Wilson live for the third time in five years.

This both is and is not a coincidence.


“The principle behind the project is to drag progressive rock kicking and screaming into the nineties.” —Steven Wilson

“And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar and say, ‘Man, what are you doing here?’” —Billy Joel

Just a little over twenty years after the release of Porcupine Tree’s first live album, on my way home from the then-final Blackfield concert in New York City, I had the distinct good fortune to share my bus with a few people who’d come from the same show. I never encounter any Steven Wilson Fans in real life, so it was nice to geek out for a bit while we were all momentarily stranded within Port Authority’s decaying bowels. One of the other people on the bus had mentioned that she’d been following Steven Wilson up and down the East Coast for literal decades, and talked about how back in the early days the man had basically zero stage presence.

To which my immediate response was “Uhhhh…”

steven wilson in a dress

I honestly wish performing in a dress was something he still did from time to time. For one thing, he and Nick Beggs could be twinsies. For another, although we can’t see how he carries himself in the first Porcupine Tree live album, his mumbling, taciturn demeanor between songs gives us a pretty good idea of what the outfits were meant to compensate for.

I do kind of respect the minimalism in that sort of stage presence, though. Get up, do your thing, get down. No theatrics. No fuss. Let the music speak for itself. And honestly, when you’re playing expansive, psychedelic music in a small venue such as Borderline or The Nag’s Head, that gets the job done. You’re allowed to be unpolished. When you’re playing prog metal at a sold-out Royal Albert Hall, however…not so much.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It is December 1993, and we have a band now, so we can go on tour and play these songs properly. Thus, Spiral Circus, their first live album, showcasing their first live performances, and the first steps toward becoming the formidable live act we’d see in Anesthetize and Octane Twisted.

First thing to probably mention is that these guys aren’t like wet behind the ears when it comes to live performance or anything. Wilson’s been performing live in some capacity or other for about a decade by this point, Barbieri even longer. Statuesque stage presence or no, the Tree boys already know how to recreate something perfectly in a live setting. We only say it’s early days because it’s early for this particular project, which wasn’t anyone’s first.

Piggybacking off of that, thing two: the performances may be excellent, but the audio quality on this album is atrocious. There’s pops, there’s hiss, there’s distortion, the sound feels expansive and brickwalled at the same time…that sort of thing. There is some fluctuation thanks to the different recording equipment used in different places, but in general we’re roughly where we were during Tarquin’s freaking Seaweed Farm. That bad.

Third thing to mention is the contribution of the other band members. It irritates me to no end when people think of Steven Wilson as the sole reason the projects he’s involved in are great, which is why I try and bend over backward to highlight the contributions of others when they contribute something great too. For instance: Colin Edwin’s bass, which to me is consistently the greatest thing about Porcupine Tree in the 90s. Boy howdy does that man know his way around the low end. Maitland’s drumming and Barbieri’s keyboards are no slouches either. Wilson may write the songs, but it’s the band that performs them and makes them their own. And even in these first three shows it’s clear that Barbieri, Edwin, and Maitland’s little flourishes have all given something to these songs that we didn’t know they were missing until just now.

And that alone makes this album worth listening to. These are their first three live performances as a band, and already it’s clear they have unbelievable chemistry. These aren’t seeds of promise we’re listening to here. We’re already great, we just have to wait for the rest of the world to catch up…and give us some live recording equipment that isn’t garbage.

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No-Man – Flowermouth

April 1994

Flowermix, September 1995
Remastered October 2005

In the entry for Lovesighs: An Entertainment, I wrote the following:

“If I were to choose between those two sides of No-Man, I definitely prefer the trip hop side, largely because the failure mode of trip hop isn’t a formless mush the way it is with ambient music, so it was welcome to see an album where No-Man pulled together all the things they did in that vein, even if it wasn’t 100% successful. Might also explain my response to what they’d get up to later.”

This is, upon further reflection, not quite a true statement. Flowermouth sees the band upsetting that delicate balance, drifting more toward ambient-influenced music, and creating a stronger record for it. Part of the issue with what I said earlier is that the trip-hoppy aspects of their sound evolved largely from the time and place (80s/90s England) where the band was formed, whereas the ambient parts of their sound form an emotional core. It provides a path forward when trip hop becomes decadent and ossified. The other problem with that statement is that while it’s much easier to screw up ambient music, the reward for doing it right is something transcendent, almost spiritual. And god help me, they did it.

In addition, leaning on the ambient side of their sound short-circuits another concern I had. In the entry for Ocean Song, I wrote the following:

“Honestly, in a typical No-Man song the violin is doing quite a bit of the work […] He [Coleman] is, at this stage, the glue holding No-Man’s artistic output together, and I think I’m going to sorely miss him once he’s gone.”

Yes, at this stage, meaning that period between 1990 and 1993. His relative absence was deeply and profoundly felt in Loveblows and Lovecries. Not quite so much here. He’s featured on seven of the album’s nine tracks, but he’s no longer shouldering so much of the responsibility for making them good. Nor are they wheeling him out to do a violin solo when they need to fill space. (…usually. *Looks askance at Shell of a Fighter.*) His parts are actually accentuating the music now. So while I’m still going to miss him once he’s gone, especially because this album gestures in a direction their music would have gone if he stayed with the band, it’s clear No-Man isn’t going to fall apart without him.

In a 2000 interview with Anil Prasad, the band said that Flowermouth was an attempt to go back to making “pure No-Man music” after spending the previous four years playing the Music Industry Game by the rules with little to show for it except serious record label tension. In many respects the attempt was successful. 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. (But what about Wild Opera, you say. We’ll get to that next time.) The verses of You Grow More Beautiful and Soft Shoulder in particular sound forced, almost perfunctory, like the disintegration of their relationship with their old label left behind a malfunctioning autopilot and they’re still playing what’s expected of them. The choruses of both songs, however, are soaring and beautiful. If not for the characteristically melancholy lyrics, they’d sound downright anthemic. They sound like how No-Man want to sound.

It would be reductive to say that all the electronic performances were soulless or done without passion. Simple, for instance, is a taut, tense piece of trancey dance pop majesty. Richard Barbieri’s contributions to Shell of a Fighter are what make (or, less charitably, rescue) that song. Going back to the Soft Shoulder chorus, its almost shoegazey wall of sound is brilliant. As clear as it is that their wheelhouse is firmly on the organic side of things, and they know it, they can do something harsher when they want to.

Speaking of stuff that’s organic, Mel Collins. His soprano saxophone solo on the first track sounds like it wandered in from a Dave Matthews Band jam session, and in the twenty seconds it works its magic it injects more urbanity to the album than a million programmed 90s drum beats ever could. (The first track in general is excellent, really.) His flute solo at the end of Animal Ghost is no slouch, either, pulling the track it’s on in a different, more natural and ethereal direction. The horn boy only shows up on the album three times, but he contributes some of its greatest moments, and is arguably as integral to the Flowermouth sound as Ben Coleman.

And finally, there’s the last track. Things Change is a brutal, merciless, gut-wrenching portrait of a dead relationship’s very final moments, slowed down second by excruciating second. It is, to its credit, very hard to listen to, especially with Tim Bowness’ repeated, pleading refrain of “You’re leaving me behind” reminding us exactly what’s going on here. Twisting the knife further, this breakup is reframed as the culmination of a slow drifting apart, an occurrence as natural as changing seasons, underscoring that Bowness is powerless to stop what’s happening. He can only stand and watch as his lover moves on without him. Ouch.

The drums are by Chris Maitland, who you may know. It is, in fact, partially on the strength of his work on this album that Maitland was invited to join Porcupine Tree. Well done, lads.

  1. Flowermouth
  2. Loveblows & Lovecries: A Confession

*record needle scratch* We’ve forgotten something.

A big problem with pulling together the No-Man bits of this retrospective is that their supplemental stuff, remix albums, EPs, and such, are stupid hard to find. In contrast, I was able to listen to every single album in that JBK post all the way through. But No-Man has pretty consistently had the largest proportion of Stuff That Can’t Be Found On The Internet Without A Torrent Or A Paid Spotify Subscription, and it’s given me a lot of problems. And that includes Flowermix, this album’s now-deleted companion remix record.

Between the cassette and CD versions, there are twelve songs that are featured on this album. YouTube, as of this writing, has four: Angeldust, Faith in You, Sample, and Why the Noise. All four are worth listening to at least once, but Angeldust is my personal favorite, largely because it takes that lovely soprano sax solo (soprano sax is the true sex sax) and lets it permeate the rest of the track the way it wants to. It’s not quite its centerpiece, but it’s pretty dang close, and I love it for that.

I wish I could find the others.

[Update 10/12/18: Glory hallelujah, here’s the whole thing. Flowermix, it turns out, is about an hour of trancey goodness, sounding roughly like what would happen if Bowness had substantially contributed to Voyage 34. A lot of the songs on here are elevated when they’re presented as their own standalone thing instead of as a remix of something else. The first track is still the standout, although the closer, Born Simple, is no slouch either. I actually might like it better than the source material.]

GUEST: Jansen Barbieri Karn – Beginning to Melt

October 1993

“It’s actually been an irritant, not a selling point. We’ve even had clauses in gig contracts to prevent them from saying ‘ex-Japan’.” —Richard Barbieri, Classic Rock magazine

There’s a pun involving a certain visual kei band that’s probably more trouble to make than it’s worth.

But so anyway let’s talk about Richard Barbieri. So far he’s drifted around the edges of what Wilson’s been doing, contributing the odd keyboard part or remix here and there, but he’s going to join the band real soon, so we’ll have to get to his back catalogue eventually. So what better place to do that than an album where he’s one of the main players.

Lots to cover here, so I’ll attempt to be brief. The story goes something like this: besides Porcupine Tree, Barbieri is best known as one of the keyboardists for Japan, a band which sold quite well in Japan. Other personnel: vocalist David Sylvian, bassist Mick Karn, drummer Steve Jansen, guitarist Rob Dean. They released five albums in four years, here summarized:

  • The funk touches in Adolescent Sex made me wish I was listening to actual funk.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Obscure Alternatives is in just about every respect superior to the album that came before it. However. The big reason I’ll probably never listen to it again is Sylvian’s extremely ill-advised n-bomb in Rhodesia, what would otherwise have been the album’s standout track. It was to make a vaguely anti-racist political point, and it was 1978, and a cursory glance at Sylvian’s Twitter feed makes me think it’s not a decision he’d make today, but it still pretty much wrecked the listening experience for me. On the upside, though, The Tenant remains absolutely brilliant, and is a much better indicator of where they’d be going than Life In Tokyo could ever be.
  • Quiet Life is a dark, brooding synthpop masterpiece. The camp yet vaguely punkish sneer Sylvian used in their first two records was a weird mismatch for their music and took me out of the mood fairly often, so his switch to a proto-Gahan baritone was more than welcome. Despair and the cover of All Tomorrow’s Parties are the standouts here.
  • Gentlemen Take Polaroids is a bit more eclectic and experimental than Quiet Life, but the tradeoff is that it’s also more uneven.
  • Tin Drum is, if you’re a Westerner in 1981, exactly what you’d expect a new wave band called Japan to sound like…if by “Japan” you mean “China,” because insulated Europeans hadn’t learned to tell different East Asian countries apart yet. Listening to this album, it’s clear that the issue with Polaroids was that they simply could not find a viable way to push their sound forward. The sumptuous bass and traditional East Asian synth work fill what we now recognize as a void in Polaroids’ earlier noodlings, and we leave this album wondering why they hadn’t thought of this sooner. I’m not entirely sure if it’s Japan’s best album—Quiet Life is still more coherent—but it’s definitely the shot in the arm the band needed at that point in time. It would have been interesting to see where they’d have gone next.

…aaaaand then a year later personal shenanigans involving Mick Karn’s girlfriend would force the band apart. The split wasn’t necessarily acrimonious, the various band members would collaborate with each other regularly into the 90s, but Japan proper would never release another album. (Don’t worry, the comparison to what happened with Porcupine Tree in 2010 has been made already.) Here’s what Barbieri specifically was up to through the end of 1993:

  • The 1985 Jansen/Barbieri collaboration Worlds in a Small Room is an airy, soothing bit of inimitably 80s ambient goodness commissioned by JVC Victor as a score for some NASA stock footage they intended to release as a film.
  • In 1987 Jansen and Barbieri collaborated again as the Dolphin Brothers, this time releasing something called Catch the Fall. It’s not hard to draw a direct line from late Japan to what they’re doing here…but unfortunately, this sounds like a regression more than anything else, jettisoning the East Asian influences and powerful drums from that period for what is, essentially, Living in a Box on downers. There are occasional moments of brilliance, like Love that You Need or Face to Face, but the album in general sounds an awful lot like something you’d hear as department store muzak.
  • 1991 saw Barbieri involved in two (hoist the signal) ex-Japan projects. The first we’ve arbitrarily defined as Stories Across Borders, yet another collaboration with Steve Jansen. It’s mostly a bunch of haunting, atmospheric instrumental pieces with touches of jazz and industrial and other stuff. It’s also right up my alley the way the sophistipop from last go-round wasn’t.
  • And finally, of course, there was Rain Tree Crow, the Japan reunion that technically wasn’t a Japan reunion. Oh my God. Okay, let’s begin by making one thing clear: this isn’t a new Japan album. There’s no new wave or art pop or any of that to be found here. If there’s any sense of a narrative through-line from Tin Drum to here it’s Sylvian and company finding themselves on the brink of superstardom and deciding, screw this, let’s go make something as experimental and anti-pop as we possibly can. No, this is Rain Tree Crow, a glorious forty-five minute jam session that plays like Graceland mashed up with The Sky Moves Sideways and performed round a Joshua Tree campfire. This is the culmination of everything these four were doing since 1978. The Asian/world elements aren’t just orientalist window dressing and are actually well-integrated into the songs. Jansen’s drums and Karn’s bass have never sounded better. (No seriously, dat bass. I want to make love to it.) This album is a beautiful revelation and you should go listen to it right now. It’s on Spotify. Do it. (And then listen to Sixth Floor off the SimCity 3000 Unlimited soundtrack but you didn’t hear that from me.)

So now we’re finally up to the present, and to the first Jansen/Barbieri/Karn collaboration, Beginning to Melt. Well, okay, let’s not get carried away. It’s not a full-fledged follow-up to Rain Tree Crow, nor are we on the level of, say, Storm Corrosion. Out of the seven songs on this album, three are a true group effort, and the other four are little solo bits they had lying around that needed a home. Some are more interesting than others. Ego Dance is tight and tense. March of the Innocents plays like if Boards of Canada were an alternative band. Meanwhile, Shipwrecks is a snorefest and Human Age is just flat boring. So, you know, it’s about as even as you’d expect an album of dusted-off not-quite-B-sides to be.

We’re here primarily for the first two tracks. The first is the soundtrack to a leisurely wander through a science fictional desert, and as such is the most obviously Rain Tree Crow-like of anything on this album. It’s one of the album’s collaborative songs, and it shows. We’ve got Jansen’s sexy drums and fuzzed-out electric guitar, we’ve got Mick Karn’s even sexier bass…and, most importantly for our purposes, we’ve got Barbieri on the keyboards, tinkering with his synthesizer in ways that would become integral to Porcupine Tree’s sound in the coming years. The other song we’re interested in is The Wilderness, on which Steven Wilson played acoustic guitar.

I wish to emphasize that The Wilderness’ status as the best track on the album and Steven Wilson’s presence on that track is a coincidence. Wilson’s part is pretty simple and mixed pretty far back, involving only some rhythmic strumming that he could probably do in his sleep. I didn’t even know it was there the first time around. The highlight here, instead, is Suzanne Barbieri’s vocals. We’ve heard her before, doing the spoken word bit of Up the Downstair, but here she’s the main event. Even as the instrumentation remains sparse and earthy, emphasizing that the wilderness is not a hospitable place, her downright angelic performance elevates the tale of the Boneshaker into something fantastic, almost mythical.

Two ancillary things before we wrap up. 1) I’m glad Suzanne’s here in the context of this retrospective because this thing has been and largely will be a sausagefest, and 2) there’s a delightfully cheesy symphonic metal cover of this song just waiting to be made.

Going back to her husband now, Richard Barbieri is probably one of the most experienced and virtuosic people Wilson’s ever worked with…and, in some ways, a person whose career with Japan would prefigure Wilson’s own with Porcupine Tree. He would join the band right around the time of this album’s release, and Colin Edwin would follow in a few months’ time. Now all we need is a drummer.

Porcupine Tree – Up the Downstair

May 1993
2004 Edition, May 2005
Double vinyl edition, 2008

“What you are listening to are musicians performing psychedelic music under the influence of a mind-altering chemical called…”

Linton Samuel Dawson.

I’ll admit I was a bit surprised when I read last year’s Guardian profile of SW and heard Up the Downstair described as an “opus.” I don’t think of Up the Downstair as an opus. A solid, coherent album, yes, but not Porcupine Tree’s defining masterpiece, the thing they will go down in history for. It’s not even the opus of the Space Era, although Voyage 34 and this album do have a shared history.

It’s pretty common knowledge amongst SW/PT auditorati, I think, that Up the Downstair and Voyage 34 were recorded at about the same time, and Voyage 34 was originally intended to be Up the Downstair’s back half, along the lines of the EP stapled to the end of The Incident. Breaking them up was a pretty smart move. The Incident’s second disc works because the songs are relatively (“relatively”) short and digestible, whereas Voyage 34, even in its primordial two-phase incarnation, would have been punishing to sit through after fifty minutes of psychedelic, spaced-out weirdness.

More importantly, separating the two means Voyage 34 gets to shine on its own, as a singular work. It gets to tell its own discrete story. It gets to have Phases III and IV. It gets to be complete. It gets to be the Space Era’s actual opus.

This is not to say that the separation was entirely clean, of course. There are a few bits and bobs from Voyage 34 that make appearances here. The first narrator from Voyage 34 opens this album with this post’s epigraph. Not Beautiful Anymore features a sample from Miss “I’m just scared, you know?” The album’s title is namechecked at the end of Phase I. It’s not much. If Voyage 34 came right after Up the Downstair, it could be thought of as an expansion of certain themes from this album, but the lack of references between the two would mean that the entire enterprise would have had a very flimsy foundation. Long Final Tracks are meant to serve as a summation or reinterpretation of what came before, a la the bonus title track of Frances the Mute, and this is not something Voyage 34 was meant to do. The way things are now, those samples from Up the Downstair seem less like Chekhov’s guns and more like little asides to something that came before, and both records are better for it.

But now for the album itself. Every Porcupine Tree studio album from Up the Downstair to about Stupid Dream has, to some degree or another, an almost self-conscious we-are-going-to-make-a-proper-album intent about it, largely because each one from that period marked some milestone in their growth as a band. In this case, we’re going to make an album because we’ve re-released all the good stuff from the demo tapes, so now we have to make something original and we have to make it count.

The best way I can describe the result is a tighter, less scattershot version of On the Sunday of Life. Synesthesia and Always Never both sound like something from a demo tape, only cleaned up, refined, and pointed in a specific direction. Monuments Burn Into Moments was ripped directly from The Nostalgia Factory. Small Fish, which we’ll get to, reaches back even farther. There’s also glimpses of the direction the band will go. The trancey title track leans into what they’d get up to in The Sky Moves Sideways, while Fadeaway catapults itself even further into the future, clearing the rest of the Space Era entirely and landing sometime during the Stupid Dream sessions, occasionally even sounding like something off the second disc of The Incident.

Melody Maker’s review specifically mentioned that the album set out to create “a truly Nineties progressive rock soundscape,” and that’s a pretty fair assessment of what the album is doing. There are some 60s/70s embellishments, mostly found in the guitar work of Always Never and the lyrics of Small Fish, but they largely read like a way to introduce electronica to a pretentious rockist audience who’d otherwise be actively hostile to what you’re trying to do. We’re not just on the old hippie drugs anymore. We’re on DMT and ecstasy now and listening to dub and electronica. This is the album you make after coming home from a rave baked out of your mind and winding down (“winding down”) with Wish You Were Here and Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. (Yes, I’m aware Wilson isn’t a drug boy. The effect remains.)

And nowhere is that more clear than on the album’s centerpiece and title track, whose backbone is a synthesized bassline from which hangs electronic samples and guitar work that owe just as much to acid house as it does to David Gilmour. You can’t quite rave to it, but you can come pretty close. It doesn’t quite sound like anything else on this record, but its electronic soundscapes are what sticks in the head long after this album’s over, and what gave Wilson a path forward toward the trancey majesty of The Sky Moves Sideways. But that isn’t why this song appeals to me so much. I fell in love with Up the Downstair because that bassline sounds like the menu music in SimCopter.

Let me back up. In the late 90s and early aughts I was a big fan of the Maxis/EA Sim games, mostly of SimCity 2000, SimCity 3000, and the various games based off of them, like Streets of SimCity and SimCopter. Those latter two games hold a special place in my heart solely because of the novelty of being able to take a city that I built and drive a car or fly a helicopter through it. (If SimCopter means anything to you, it’s probably either because of the horrific graphics or that infamous easter egg involving tons and tons of scantily-clad gay couples.) Anyway, most Sim games from the era had soundtracks composed by Jerry Martin, whose specialty was jazz and techno music. His techno tracks from the late 90s and early 00s always had a distinct house/trance vibe…and, critically for our purposes, a general sensibility that matches surprisingly well with what Steven Wilson, his influences, and his collaborators were doing just a few years earlier.

This will come up from time to time until we hit about 2000, but here it manifests in SimCopter’s menu music, a twenty-six-second loop with a bassline that sounds enough like the one in Up the Downstair that the first time I heard it I did a double-take…and then immediately took to Skype and told a friend of mine straight-up, “Jerry Martin listened to early Porcupine Tree.” That probably isn’t true, but it is interesting how parts of your personal universe that you once thought were discreet can crash together sometimes and hit your nostalgia buttons hard.

The other song worth pointing out here is Small Fish, a ten-year anniversary update of the same song off of the first Karma album, and as such becomes Up the Downstair’s only substantial link to the more 60s-tinged psychedelia Porcupine Tree grew out of. The 1993 version is about half as long as the 1983 version. The instrumentation is simpler and the production is more polished, which here gives the impression that this is the same bad trip we experienced a decade ago, but with an added clarity.  It makes about as much logical sense to us now as it did ten years ago, of course, but the effect it has on the narrator is clear. With that clarity comes vocals that are somehow more defeated and morose than before, as our narrator has the mental agility necessary to fully process precisely the implications of the surreal horror laid out before him. It’s also worth noting that the Karma version of the song faded out to farm sounds, implying the trip ends and all is well, whereas the Porcupine Tree fades out to car sounds, and then fades back in to Burning Sky, named after Small Fish’s final lyric, implying that there will be no reprieve for the narrator this time.

The abrupt switch from spacey, nightmarish synth effects to happy elevator music in What You Are Listening To is exquisite.

Porcupine Tree albums follow a distinct pattern, alternating between Statement Records (The Sky Moves Sideways, Stupid Dream, In Absentia, Fear of a Blank Planet) that establish a particular sound, and Transitional Records (Signify, Lightbulb Sun, Deadwing, The Incident) that tinker with certain aspects of that sound to push it forward. This doesn’t say anything about their relative quality, just what they set out to do. Up the Downstair is definitely a Transitional Record, existing at the uncomfortable middle point between On the Sunday of Life and Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape (Synesthesia, Small Fish) and The Sky Moves Sideways (the title track), but even if it isn’t the opus of the Space Era the way some people think it is, it is still a giant step forward. Not least because it’s the first album featuring Colin Edwin and, in a non-remix capacity, Richard Barbieri. The various disparate tendrils of the Porcupine Tree we’re familiar with continue to come together.

  1. Up the Downstair
  2. On the Sunday of Life