GUEST: Jansen Barbieri Karn — Seed

October 1994

“While pretty much every trend of the early 90s now seems horribly dated, the hip-hop-influenced R&B genre called new jack swing now seems wonderfully dated!” —Todd “in the Shadows” Nathanson, 2015

Seed is not a new jack swing album, nor do I particularly want to see these three release a new jack swing album. Let’s put that out there right now and move on.

However. I distinctly recall the first thought I had when I listened to this little mini-album for the first time. I queued it up on my phone, hit play and WHAM. Full nineties. Right in the face.

Growing up in the 90s, my musical DNA consisted of a few disparate strands that don’t necessarily mesh well. Wilson has spoken many times about how his family was one in which Pink Floyd coexisted with Donna Summer. My family was not like that, but if we take Donna Summer as a synecdoche for whatever music was popular in our respective preadolescence, then her role is filled mostly with video game soundtracks. This album sounds more or less what the soundtrack to SimCity 3000 (ayyy) would have been like if the video game was actually set in the year 3000, and I therefore can’t help but love it.

The standout here is self-evidently the first track, an unashamedly trip-hoppy remix of Beginning to Melt that slowly unfolds over the course of eleven minutes. Well, okay, it’s only a remix in the most superficial sense of the word. They took the original song and threw on slapped on a seriously groovy bassline and programmed drum loop. You can’t help but bob your head rhythmically while listening to it. The effect is to pull the song from its original timeless void (one of the few JBK songs up to this point about which this can legitimately be said) and situate it solidly within John Major’s Prime Ministership. And, to be clear, when vaguely downtempo-y music is pretty firmly embedded in your DNA, the sudden temporal grounding works in the song’s favor. If someone made a video for this song, it would probably overflow with every cheesy fish-eyed oversaturated video effect in vogue at the time and it would be wonderful.

The other three tracks are considerably more electronic and chilled-out than the opener, and there’s a direct correlation between how good they are and if all three worked together on them. This, then, means that The Insect Tribe is the most successful; a song in which we get to experience in real time the hesitant feeling out of new sonic territory and then growing comfortable within it. The transition is marked with the introduction of Mick Karn’s bass. He only plays two notes in the song, repeated at critical points, but those two notes are powerful. They’re not so much heard as felt, the sort of bass that makes your bones vibrate. They give the song a depth that it had previously lacked…and are, since it’s Mick Karn, sexy as all hell.

In the Black of Desire and Prey are both strictly Jansen/Barbieri collaborations and sound appropriately chrome and futuristic. Wilson once again has a minor part in the latter, here contributing some electric guitar that’s about as close to funk as you can get without actually being funky, and does a pretty good job of giving the song some punch.

How appropriate that we round out 1994 with an album that screams 1994 from its every pore. While Jansen and Barbieri would collaborate again the next year, as would Barbieri with Karn, both times with Wilson tagging along, the three men wouldn’t release another album as JBK until 1999. This is a bit of a shame, but Barbieri’s been a little preoccupied lately.


Porcupine Tree – Moonloop EP

October 1994
Transmission IV, December 2001

We aren’t going to talk a whole lot about the Moonloop EP in the post we’ve explicitly dedicated to the Moonloop EP because the EP itself is not all that interesting. It’s got two tracks: Stars Die and Moonloop, both of which can be found in some capacity on some version of The Sky Moves Sideways. We are instead going to talk about the song that gave the EP its name.

But first, Stars Die, because this is technically the song’s canonical appearance in Porcupine Tree’s discography (it only shows up on The Sky Moves Sideways’ American release). It’s one of the Space Era’s signature songs, popular enough to name a 2002 compilation album, the American release of this EP, and a preeminent PT/SW fansite, back in the day. I rate it highly. It is indeed a chilled-out space-rock tune that crystallizes the more ethereal aspects of PT’s sound at the time. I feel like I’m at peace, calmly floating in a warm void when I listen to it. But it still isn’t the best thing Porcupine Tree had made up to that point.

No, the real standout of the late Space Era is Moonloop. On 28 June 1994, Wilson, Edwin, Maitland, and special guests Rick Edwards and Markus Butler marched into the Doghouse recording studio outside of Henley and pounded out forty solid minutes of gold, which Wilson then banged into shape two days later at the home recording studio he carved out of his childhood bedroom. Chunks of the result would be released piecemeal for the rest of the 90s until the fan club release of Transmission IV in 2001.

If Voyage 34 is the best thing Space-Era Porcupine Tree released period, the full Moonloop improvisation is the best thing Space-Era Porcupine Tree released as a band. Most of us are already familiar with the cut that shows up on The Sky Moves Sideways, a nice spot of jazzy, trancey space rock that leisurely builds and releases over Edwin’s bass and Edwards’ percussion, and which fades out to archive audio of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. (Hence the name.) It’s great. And, critically, it forms a complete song on its own that fits right in with the atmosphere The Sky Moves Sideways is going for. If the whole forty-minute improvisation showed up on the album it would have overpowered everything else. But just this movement…perfect.

No, the whole schmeer is meant to be enjoyed on its own. The Sky Moves Sideways version fades out after the moon landing, but the Transmission IV version follows that sample up with Richard “Dingbat” Nixon’s phone call to the astronauts, the one that would find a home on Stars Die. This may partially explain why that song stayed off The Sky Moves Sideways’ UK release; two songs in a row ending with audio from the moon landing is probably only appropriate when they’re the only two songs in an EP about the moon landing. But anyway, after the second moon landing sample we move into the song’s second movement, which is basically similar to the first movement except the trancey elements are switched out for something bluesier and funkier, accentuated with harmonica, organ, and chunks of the moon landing sample buried so far back in the mix it sounds like the guitar at first listen. While the bass in the first movement was deliberate and methodical and repetitive, allowing for a template upon which the guitar can squeal however it wants, the bass in the second movement joins in the fun, skipping and jumping and clearly enjoying its newfound freedom…while at the same time remaining the song’s rhythmic backbone. The overall effect is eye-opening. We’re amazed that this was something the song was capable of doing, while at the same time wondering where this had been for the past seven years.

After that, an ambient segue into the song’s third and final movement, a coda in the “traditional-rock-freakout” subgenre. Think the last part of Godspeed’s Providence or Pendulum’s The Tempest and you’re about there. This bit would eventually evolve into the coda found on the 2-CD edition of The Sky Moves Sideways, and in many ways the version there is superior, but what we have here gels better with the song it’s ending, so I can’t complain too much.

In many respects, Moonloop, both song and EP, are pretty good indications of where Wilson and co were headed going into The Sky Moves Sideways; bringing back those Voyage 34 influences (there it is again) and producing something more jazzy and trancey than what we got up till now. And out of it we got the band proper’s first masterpiece and the signature song of the Space Era. This is also the point where Porcupine Tree finally, finally completely severed all links to its joke-band past. Both songs were a full-band endeavor. Both songs were new compositions instead of something dusted off after lying around for a few years. And neither song has lyrics by Alan Duffy.

But we’re still warming up. The true masterpiece is yet to come.

Porcupine Tree – Staircase Infinities

December 1994
Remastered 2004

We’re gonna step out of time for a second here. Technically, the next release after Flame should be the Moonloop E.P., released October 1994, but that’s a not-really-preview of The Sky Moves Sideways, and I don’t want to go on before tying off the last little bits of the Up the Downstair era with a neat little bow.

Once in a while, following an album, Porcupine Tree will release a supplemental EP consisting of some worthy leftovers from the album sessions. Futile followed In Absentia, for example, Nil Recurring followed Fear of a Blank Planet, and The Incident has its second disc. Up the Downstair has Staircase Infinities, which was originally supposed to be the album’s other other back half, and yes we do ~geddit~, with the title, you can stop nudging me now.

There’s five tracks. Cloud Zero, the opener, is an interesting little number, in that it opens and closes with these weird haunting strings and synth noises, with a breezy guitar jam in the middle. Normally those two aspects of the song would clash, but the way the jam fades in in the beginning makes it seem like a very literal definition of escapism.

It’s pretty clear why The Joke’s On You was ultimately left off Up the Downstair: in the same album as Always Never, it would come off as a bit repetitive. But its real antecedent isn’t that song or the otherwise unrelated Karma misfire that gave the song its name, but (of all things) Footprints. The structure is similar: verses sung in the lower register with acoustic backing, while the choruses are more psychedelic and not sung so much as wailed. But here—and like with Small Fish, a lot of this can be attributed to the more polished production—it is as though we’ve rejoined our journeyman from Footprints after an absence of several years, during which time he’s sobered up and matured. It’s like he’s reflecting upon his drug-addled youth, mostly shaking his head at his attempt to find an enlightenment that he now realizes wasn’t there…but at the same time he still feels a twinge of nostalgia for those days and some of the things he’s experienced along the way. There was no destination, but some of the memories are still worth salvaging. I’d say something corny here about where the true enlightenment lies but it’s pretty clear that despite the occasional flashes of light and radiance it was all rather crap.

Navigator is a decent little instrumental that would have been one instrumental too many if it were included on the album. The one big thing Rainy Taxi has going for it is its mood—the title is very appropriate—and one of the earliest appearances of the Patented Porcupine Tree Heavy Vocoder Voice, here repeating “this rainy taxi” or somesuch like a malfunctioning numbers station.

And, of course, there’s Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape. Part of me doesn’t believe this song was ever seriously considered for Up the Downstair because there’s no earthly way it could be included on that album and not cause severe whiplash. Yes, some stuff has changed—there’s a bit more atmospherics, and the on-stage banter is now so distorted it’s unintelligible—but this is in general the same song we remember from Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm. Including the applause. Just like with The Joke’s On You, it’s like we’re checking back in on the fake band after a few years, this time discovering that they’ve graduated from mid-size venues to stadiums. We’re proud of them.

Here’s a nugget. Staircase Infinities was recorded between February 1992 and May 1993. Porcupine Tree became a proper, fully formed band in December 1993, in the middle of recording The Sky Moves Sideways. Between Staircase Infinities and The Sky Moves Sideways only one other thing would be recorded under the Porcupine Tree name: the final two phases, technically remixes, of Voyage 34. Therefore, one could argue that this update of Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape, recorded as it was at this particular fulcrum of the band’s career, released as the final track on the final record Porcupine Tree would make strictly as a solo project, suddenly harkening back to the Fake Band Days long after those pretenses were dropped, was in fact a magical ritual meant to transform Porcupine Tree into a real band.

Yes, Wilson’s not a magical thinker. Neither am I, really. But sometimes you don’t know your own strength.

GUEST: Richard Barbieri and Tim Bowness – Flame

29 August 1994

This is not a big album. There’s not a whole lot in the way of big moments or expansive soundscapes. This is the result when two acquaintances get together and jam for a little bit.1 Flame is a modest record with modest ambitions,2 and in many respects, this is of a piece to the sort of albums that Barbieri worked on with Jansen and (occasionally) Karn at about this time: some small, simple melodic noodlings,3 with a little help from their friends.4 The musical personalities of the two men at the center do show though in the music; through his vocals, Bowness injects a particular delicacy and vulnerability into Barbieri’s darker, more dispassionate synths and keyboards.5 Beyond that, though, there’s not a whole lot to recommend here.6

1 The obvious comparison to Storm Corrosion is both accurate and inaccurate. Accurate in the sense that you should probably expect a one-off collaboration between two progressive-minded musicians to be a jam session, and inaccurate in that people—rightly or wrongly—were expecting Storm Corrosion to be something completely different, and that the album Wilson and Åkerfeldt actually produced is still pretty good.
2 Spoiler alert: I don’t like Flame all that much. But let me be clear, I’m not knocking Flame for being a modest record. Worlds in a Small Room is a modest record and it’s fantastic. So’s Lightbulb Sun, when we get to it. The problem is in the execution, not the concept, and here the execution is…considerably less than the sum of its parts.
3 I feel like if you’re gonna make a modest record, what it lacks in terms of ambition it should make up for with mood, and here they’re only partially successful. In other words, when Flame falters, it falters in the same way acoustic coffeeshop covers of pop songs falter.
4 This round the friends include common denominator Steven Wilson, Steve Jansen, Mick Karn, both Chris Maitland and Gavin Harrison, and Michael Bearpark. Wilson contributes some appropriately spacey guitars to Flame and Song of Love and Everything. And, just like last time, I didn’t notice that was him at first listen. That’s not a strike against his work at all, it just means it fits.
5 In other words: this is an album that only could have been made by these two people in particular. I will be honest, this combination is only partially successful. Bowness’ voice is better suited for songs that are brighter and airier than the stuff Barbieri & co compose for this record. It’s not a coincidence that the song featuring Bowness’ best performance, Brightest Blue, is also the album’s, er, least dark song. But all the same it’s an interesting experiment.
6 I lied. That sax in Time Flown is pretty cool.