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

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