GUEST: Mick Karn – The Tooth Mother

18 April 1995

When Richard Barbieri was first introduced to the history constructed in this blog, I thought it would be a good idea to rip through every album he’s done up to Beginning to Melt, to get a sense of context to what he was doing on that album and what Wilson was doing there. Since I was decidedly less than impressed with The Tooth Mother, I figured a similar revisit would help nail down what I was missing…even as the possibility of doing the same for every artist SW collaborates with gives your author the howling fantods.

So, what’s Mick been up to, since Japan collapsed in on itself?

  • First up, Titles. It’s…well, it’s okay. There’s some good stuff here, like Saviour, Are You With Me? and The Sound of Waves, but one nevertheless gets the impression that its modest yet respectable showing on the UK album charts in 1982 was in large part due to ex-Japan curiosity.
  • In 1984 Karn teamed up with Mister Peter “Bauhaus” Murphy and, as Dalis Car, released The Waking Hour. Fact magazine says it’s one of the 20 greatest goth records ever made. Whatever you say, bruv. If you ask me, the most goth this thing gets is on Cornwall Stones, the soundtrack of nerds playing DnD in basements. (As a friend of mine said, “I want to stuff [Murphy] in a locker.” That’s how much Mister Bela Lugosi’s Dead has debased himself here.) The extended improvisation of Artemis, which is basically four and a half minutes of Karn warping his bass back in on itself, is pretty sweet, if you’re into that sort of thing.
  • In 1987, Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters. Naturally, given the title and cover, this’ll be somewhat darker than what we’ve seen up till now. (Certainly more gothic than Waking Hour, I’ll say that much.) The most complete (and, therefore, best) songs here have good old David Sylvian on vocals. When Love Walks In comes especially highly recommended, thanks to those loud, heavily distorted synths in the midsection.
  • 1990 saw a collaboration between Karn, Michael White, Michel Lambert, and David “The Next Day” Torn, called Lonely Universe. This album is a decent enough bit of dark experimental jazz, the sort of thing I imagine university music professors listen to on their downtime.
  • 1993, Bestial Cluster. This was evidently re-released in tandem with The Tooth Mother at some point later on. Of the two, this album is definitely the more complete, polished work, by which I mean the songs sound like songs and not just extended improvisations. The wall of sound that is the title track is a particular standout.
  • In 1994, Karn once again teamed up with David Torn, and this time they tagged in Terry Bozzio for something called Polytown. I would like to emphasize that these are all excellent musicians, some of the best at their craft. However, I have just listened to this album and I remember absolutely nothing about it.

So, what’d I learn? How to pad a blog entry, but that’s about it. If we want to be really mean, I finally understand where Wilson was coming from in that one interview where he says that technically gifted musicians, when left to their own devices, often produce rather boring music. The only non-Japan chunks of what he’d release up to 1995 that I’d recommend in any way are probably Bestial Cluster and some cuts from Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters.

The Tooth Mother is your usual Mick Karn outing: leisurely, vaguely jazzy instrumental jams, peppered with occasional world music influences, that sound like they belong on a 1990s strategy game soundtrack. We’ve been here before, so in that respect it’s a disappointment. Anyway, because most of this album is, quite frankly, a snoozer, here’s are the high points instead:

First, Mick Karn is at best a mediocre singer. Not damning in and of itself, no; no one would ever give awards to Dylan or Springsteen for their singing, but they also make up for it by being two of the greatest lyricists in music history. Karn on The Tooth Mother doesn’t have that level of lyrical prowess, but at the same time he doesn’t strain or warble or do anything particularly embarrassing. His vocals are low and rumbling, as close to spoken world as you can get without actually being spoken word. Think Spiderland without the narrative and you’re about there.

Second, Plaster the Magic Tongue clearly works its magic when it gets ahold of a flute. Dang. You can thank Gary Barnacle for summoning the spirit of Ian Anderson to further accentuate what is already a delightfully goofy, off-kilter song. It’s like the intro to Lampshades On Fire if I didn’t have the uncontrollable urge to punch Isaac Brock in the face every time I heard it.

Third, There Was Not Anything But Nothing sounds a lot like a reworking of JBK’s In the Black of Desire (or is it the other way round?). Makes sense, Karn wrote both.

Fourth, those first two tracks are funk-ay. They sound less like something you’d hear in Age of Empires and more like something you’d hear in a 70s/80s exploitation movie. This is somewhat surprising, given that this never really registered as a mode for any of the ex-Japan guys…but even more surprising is that it’s Wilson, of all people, bringing the funk here.

We, or at least I, or at least the mental construction I have of the man’s Anglophone audience, have mentally imprisoned Steven Wilson in a box. We think of Wilson almost exclusively as a maker of Dour Prog Songs. This when he’s said countless times that he doesn’t think of himself in those terms and actually has a considerably wider range of influences than something like The Raven that Refused to Sing lets on. This when he’s made drone music as Bass Communion, krautrock as I.E.M. and on Signify, dream pop and ambient music with No-Man, and, most critically for our purposes, pop music with Blackfield and on To the Bone. The existence of a song like Permanating should have put paid to the idea that he’s comfortable being the Dour Prog Man, and that in reality he’s just as influenced by Prince as he is by, say, Pink Floyd. You know, Prince. The artist whose songs he’s covered on multiple occasions, dating back to the old Porcupine Tree demo tapes. The artist whose name is, was, and is again, Prince. And who is funky. That guy.

In that context, that funky wah guitar he threw in Thundergirl Mutation and Plaster the Magic Tongue becomes much more explicable. Just because he doesn’t bust out that part of his personality very often doesn’t mean it’s not there.

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Porcupine Tree – Live at Den Bosch

10 February 1995

There are two other live bootlegs before this one, both recorded in 1994 in Uden, Netherlands, one at Club Nieuwe Pul in January, one at the Planet Pul festival in July. On YouTube, the only chunks of the January show within easy Googling distance are Burning Sky, Radioactive Toy, and incomplete audio of Voyage 34. The person who posted the last thing says the quality stinks—and indeed, it sounds like something very obviously recorded on home equipment in 1994—but it still holds up better than similar footage recorded on an iPhone.

Don’t some of you start now.

The July performance exists in its entirety, fortunately, but beyond the novelty of holy crap they’ve been on the road like what six months and already they’re at a freaking festival, it isn’t something we haven’t heard before. (And yes, I am going to say it, why on earth can’t we see Wilson’s tootsies?) Also…PT, especially Space Era PT, and festivals? Not a good match. When they’re outside they look as if the sun, even filtered through rain and a thick layer of clouds, will burn them alive.

Now the Den Bosch show, here’s Porcupine Tree in its natural habitat. Themselves, in a dark room, bathed in reds, greens, blues, and purples, playing the sort of prog a raver would make and watching it reverberate back and forth across Willem Twee’s sacred sonic cavern. Let the music flow through you, indeed. Wilson himself is withdrawn and slightly uncomfortable, hiding behind an oversized striped shirt (same one he wore at Planet Pul, interestingly) and a vaguely Shannon-Hoon-esque mane of hair, more worried about putting the right notes in the right order than any sort of theatrics. His voice is barely audible at times, drowned out by the music. But there he remains, delivering the goods like nobody’s business.

Let’s now talk about an early manifestation of something that would become inescapable and insufferable: the Male Steven Wilson Fan. When Wilson asks the audience who has Up the Downstair, there’s this one gentleman who overenthusiastically shouts YEAH and starts shouting for Burning Sky the way people at other concerts shout for Freebird. It would transpire over the course of the video that there are others like him in the audience, gleefully making their presence known over the people everyone else actually came to see.

Disclaimer for the butthurt: of course not all SW fans who happen to identify as male. If you’re not part of the problem, you’re not part of the problem. But oh Lord do I hate the people who are. Put it to you this way: I don’t like recording concerts on iPhones, for the reasons most people don’t. Yeah, you want to preserve a moment and be able to relive it at your leisure. I get that. However, in so doing you’re pulling yourself out of the concert experience, and the moment you’re trying to capture now doesn’t and can’t exist. I’ve only ever recorded any concert anything once, and that was to share a particular song with someone not at the show who really likes that one song…but that meant I couldn’t enjoy the song myself.

If I’m at a show, I would rather be stuck behind ten serial concert recorders than one Male Steven Wilson Fan. The serial concert recorders are only hurting themselves and should be left alone (and, of course, their sacrifice gives us concert footage on YouTube, which is a bonus). The Male Steven Wilson Fans are hurting everyone else. They are loud, drunk, and obnoxious, the musical fandom equivalent of football hooligans or Philadelphia Eagles fans. I realize Wilson isn’t the only artist to attract these sorts of people, and I’m sure it’s worse with other artists, but with him there’s a Type. The gentlemen who got all shouty after Always Never would over the years grow more weirdly obsessive and sycophantic. You know the guy whose favorite SW solo album is The Raven that Refused to Sing, who swears up and down that Wilson was the only good thing about Blackfield, and who harbors a particular and entirely disproportionate hatred for iPods? That’s him.

These people need to get a life. The person chronicling Steven Wilson’s discography album by album is telling a chunk of his fandom to get a life. That’s where we’re at here. Take up knitting. Read a good book. Push against the artifice of gender. For once, do something other than sit in a dark room where the only light comes in cool hues from an artfully lit stage where four men play psychedelic music. You should not be what you consume. Now please, go forth and contain multitudes.

Porcupine Tree — The Sky Moves Sideways

February 1995

Moonloop (part 2), January 2001
2-CD Edition, November 2003
Remastered vinyl edition, November 2004
Delirium Years remaster, 2016
2-CD Remaster, 2017

I. Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V)

The first Porcupine Tree album I listened to was Fear of a Blank Planet, and from there I slowly worked through their discography in loose reverse chronological order. Which means The Sky Moves Sideways was the first album from the Space Era I listened to. I had an idea of what to expect: something more psychedelic, more interested in textures and soundscapes than anything with a conventional “rock” sensibility. I was not expecting the sudden blast of techno in the title track’s third movement. It slowly dissolves into more familiar territory as it continues, but the initial transition is shocking, as though we were pulled from our leisurely acid trip in the sky and unceremoniously dropped in the middle of an old-fashioned rave in an abandoned warehouse. Those of us who listened to Up the Downstair first wouldn’t be as surprised, but those of us going through their discography backward would think, hang on, this is not what a progressive rock band’s supposed to sound like.

Now, take the third movement of the first track, and stretch its effect across an entire song, and you have Dislocated Day, a song that communicates its title quite clearly. It is one of the loudest, most cacophonic songs in Porcupine Tree’s discography, a five-minute waking nightmare that sounds like someone mashed up an embryonic Mars Volta song with a dubstep drop. I’ve said a few times that I don’t like anything jazzy in my prog, I find it pretentious and meandering, but here it works because the drums and the bass provide a rhythmic framework upon which the guitars can churn and squeal to their heart’s content. This is an aspect of Wilson’s musical personality that he touches on quite rarely, and wouldn’t release something quite in this vein for another sixteen years, which I honestly was okay with. But like most deviations from The Stuff Wot Wilson Normally Writes, it was a grower, and I’m glad it’s here.

Much of the rest of the album trends more toward space rock (the other movements of The Sky Moves Sideways, The Moon Touches Your Shoulder) or trance (Moonloop). But the point is this: The Sky Moves Sideways is the perfect introduction to what Porcupine Tree was about in the Space Era: expansive and (ostensibly) drug-soaked, yet refreshingly lean, deliberate, and light on the self-indulgence. There’s only six tracks, and only one of them is particularly complex, but the simplicity (for prog, anyway) of these songs still carries a particular emotive heft that cannot be ignored.

It’s not quite true that the PT/SW albums with the fewest number of tracks are automatically better—in that situation, one or two stinkers can sink an album—but the feeling one gets with The Sky Moves Sideways is a precisely calibrated clockwork that is exactly as long as it needs to be, with individual songs that do exactly what they need to do. And when your album has only six tracks, that’s exactly what has to be done. While Porcupine Tree would go on to make albums that are stronger in other respects, this is easily the best thing they’d make in the nineties.

II. Welcome to the Machine

…and honestly, I kind of wish the band saw it the same way. Wilson and Barbieri have both been critical of the album, either because it (allegedly) sounded too much like Pink Floyd (we’ll get to that) and/or because this was The First Proper Band Album (yes, it was) and so there was this obvious pressure for it to sound like a Proper Band Album.

And, yes, this is a Proper Band Album, even if the proper band doesn’t play on the whole thing. This is the first time Barbieri, Edwin, and Maitland all performed as part of something called Porcupine Tree instead of adjacent to something called Porcupine Tree, and the music sounds substantially better for it. I cannot imagine Phase One without Maitland’s conga solo or Barbieri’s electronic swells. Nor can I imagine Moonloop without Edwin’s inimitable bass, or Phase Two without Suzanne Barbieri’s lovely guest vocal. The chemistry we saw in Spiral Circus is here in all its glory: the addition of Barbieri, Edwin, and Maitland as full band members produces a fuller, more complete sound than Wilson could ever have mustered on his own. This is Porcupine Tree, fully realized, for the first time, and for that alone this album is revolutionary.

Or: Barbieri might think that Up the Downstair is superior, but in actuality this is the better album simply because there’s more of Barbieri in it.

III. Have a Cigar

Another big reason the band themselves are lukewarm about The Sky Moves Sideways is quite simply that the album was a chore to make. The original concept behind the album was that it’d be a single 50-minute song. Ye gods, would that have been a terrible idea. This isn’t The Incident, whose first disc floats halfway between one nearly hour-long track and fourteen shorter, more digestible tracks. Nor is this Voyage 34, which could get away with one 70-minute song split into four movements because it was essentially a house/trance song performed with rock instruments. The Sky Moves Sideways is a space rock song that is structured in a very particular way, and that very particular way means it can’t be fifty minutes long without some serious padding. Thank God Wilson abandoned that idea early.

Somewhat less tractable was the problem that every creative person runs into sooner or later: the impossibility of birthing your vision in exactly the way it appears in your head. In those early days, before Porcupine Tree became a band and before that horrible 50-minute single-song idea was abandoned, Wilson found himself hamstrung by the technical limitations of his recording equipment, and so production moved along in fits and starts. Quoth the man himself, “It’s like putting a jigsaw puzzle together… What is the most satisfying way to sequence these parts that tells a satisfying story? But let’s just say one of the reasons I’m not so proud of The Sky Moves Sideways is that not all of it did work. Because it was tape, it was kind of stuck with this form.”

The issue with this, of course, is that we the audience don’t definitively know how the song plays out in the artist’s head, and ultimately what we see is the artist comparing the version that exists to a hypothetical version that doesn’t. We just have what we hear, and what we hear is very good. So, to phrase this rudely, we don’t care. This is not to say that the vision doesn’t matter. The vision represents something to aspire to. But if what’s actually released doesn’t conform to what’s in your head, the world will continue spinning.

Breaking the fourth wall for a moment, I should point out that this post has also been a nightmare to write, because in an attempt to do something slightly outside my wheelhouse I may have overextended myself more than usual.

IIIS. Prepare Yourself

Miscellaneum the First: that inexplicable red phone booth on the album cover really should be a TARDIS. Community fans, don’t @ me.

Miscellaneum the Second: those swells in the first movement of Phase One remind me of some of the more ambient God Mode songs in SimCity 4, which basically meant I was hooked at first listen.

IV. Wish You Were Here

Reports that The Sky Moves Sideways sounds too much like Pink Floyd are greatly exaggerated. If I had to guess, the people making those comparisons are the same shallow music reviewers whose immediate frame of reference for the stuff Porcupine Tree have been doing up to this point was freaking Ride. (I can’t really judge too hardly, considering my frame of reference is Jerry Freaking Martin of all people…but Jerry Freaking Martin is not a Name to the music press the way Ride was, and I’m at least willing to admit the connection is purely personal.) That is to say, these guys saw the big long psychedelic/progressive track bookending The Sky Moves Sideways, the big long psychedelic/progressive track bookending Wish You Were Here, and went for the obvious comparison, because although those two songs are somewhat similar, they are literally the only thing these two albums have in common.

(…and even then the conceit is not entirely accurate, because the underlying assumption here is that, like Wish You Were Here, The Sky Moves Sideways is structured such that there are two very long songs at the beginning and end and several shorter songs in the middle. The second longest track on The Sky Moves Sideways is Moonloop.)

I mean, we can pick this apart. If we propose that The Sky Moves Sideways is a parallel to Shine On You Crazy Diamond, what’s the parallel to, say, Welcome to the Machine? The obvious candidate would be Dislocated Day, the album’s heaviest track, but that song is technical and disorienting while Welcome to the Machine is clinical and industrial. You might, if you squint and turn your head sideways, draw a line from Have a Cigar to The Moon Touches Your Shoulder, but that song’s mostly off up in space, while Have a Cigar is bolted firmly to the ground. In addition, that means the song that maps to Wish You Were Here’s title track is either Moonloop or this dinky two-minute affair that exists solely for the listener to catch their breath before launching into the next long song.

Besides, even if we aren’t looking to explicit song-by-song parallels, the music in general still has a lot more influence from trance and contemporary space rock than from Floyd. It’s much more fruitful (and interesting!) to see The Sky Moves Sideways as a thematic progression and culmination of the musical inclinations expressed in Up the Downstair, which means you’re better off looking at bands like The Orb to see what Wilson was going for here. Invoking the Floyd comparison is evidence of miniscule reference pools more than anything else.

Now for the words, and here the comparison is even less sensical. Wish You Were Here is famously about Pink Floyd’s complicated relationship with the record industry and the hairless ruin that once was Syd Barrett. Meanwhile, Porcupine Tree’s broadside against the record industry was still two albums away, and their only major personnel change—replacing Maitland with Gavin Harrison—wouldn’t happen for another seven years. Wish You Were Here is an album borne out of traumas both past and present. The Sky Moves Sideways demonstrably isn’t. (As for what The Sky Moves Sideways actually is about, well…let’s pull some vaguely spacey words out of a hat and see what sticks, eh? I cannot wait until Wilson overcomes this particular Kid-A-esque writers’ block and actually writes some freaking lyrics next album.)

No, The Sky Moves Sideways and Wish You Were Here are two albums that are clearly out to do two different things, and implying the two are in any way similar is only useful as a way to structure a retrospective essay on the former. (Winky face.) So, in essence, it’s perfectly understandable why Wilson & co. are annoyed by the Floyd comparisons, and also why they started moving away from space rock with their next album.

V. Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts VI-IX)

The Sky Moves Sideways, despite its tautness, is nevertheless a fractured record. Either due to record label shenanigans or Wilson’s perpetual dissatisfaction with the track listing (which, in case it wasn’t already clear, I emphatically do not share) or the album’s troubled, halting production, the album exists in several very different versions.

The first is the UK CD version, which I regard, for obvious reasons, as definitive. (The UK vinyl version is slightly different, in that it leaves out Moonloop.) The second is the US version, which is a butchery. First of all, they hacked the title track into its separate movements. Uh, no. I say again, this isn’t The Incident. You can listen to, say, The Blind House or Time Flies on their own without it affecting the listening experience, but you can’t say the same for The Colour of Air or Wire the Drum (okay, maybe Is…Not, but in that respect it’s an aberration), and how dare you imply that’s the case.

Second of all, they bollixed up the track order. Dislocated Day is positioned where it is to show off the full range of what the band is capable of. In America it was kicked to the album’s second half, where it feels like an intrusion by a completely different band. Stars Die performs…okay in its place, but coming right after the majesty of Phase One its status as the signature song of the Space Era becomes even less explicable than it was before. (And worst of all, Moonloop was cut in half.) And just in general, the whole thing feels like it was jumbled up by someone who doesn’t realize that maybe, just maybe, albums aren’t glorified compilations of songs, and someone who’s championed the album as a concept might have a particular investment in the order the songs are strung together. But nope, this was apparently SW’s doing, which probably speaks to how difficult it was to pull this album together in the first place.

The third version is the 2-CD remaster, which is faithful to the UK vinyl release, which means Moonloop was ripped out of the first disc and relegated to the second. I’m not a fan of this decision, because Prepare Yourself should prepare ourselves (ayy) for something long and complex that emphatically isn’t the final track, and now the first disc feels artificially shortened. But at least it isn’t the US release.

The second disc consists of the following, in this order: an early work-in-progress version of The Sky Moves Sideways, Stars Die, Moonloop, and the Moonloop coda. Let’s begin at the beginning. The best adjective I can come up with to describe this 35-minute brick of a title track is “primitive.” The lyrics haven’t been fully hashed out yet. Some parts are missing. Others are clearly placeholders meant to fill out the song temporarily. Still others are timed a bit wonky. And it’s pretty clear why splitting the song in two was a good idea. This version is nowhere near as successful as the final result, but at the same time I can still see it doing okay if this more or less was what eventually wound up on the album.

Stars Die suffers once again from having to follow up The Sky Moves Sideways, but that song’s under-construction inferiority means this song comes off a little better. This Moonloop is basically the same version we all know and love, but that coda. Mmmm. Bellissimo. A proper rock-out epilogue to that epic saga of manned spaceflight.

Personally if we could have (this would have been impossible if we wanted to have the same track listing for the CD and vinyl editions), I’d have kept Moonloop on the first disc and inserted the coda between the proper Moonloop and Phase Two, where it belongs. The second disc I’d have flipped the songs around so that Stars Die kicks things off and it has a chance to shine on its own, and after that go into the old version of The Sky Moves Sideways, similar to the Moonloop EP. (I don’t care about Men of Wood. That song, which sounds halfway between something from one of the demos and something from the Alternative Era, has no business being anywhere near this album.) This would upset the rough runtime balance the two discs have, and there might be space issues with a first disc that clocks in at over 70 minutes, but at least we’re not pretending that the second disc is anything but stuff we left off the first one for whatever reason.

UK version, though? Absolutely brilliant.

  1. The Sky Moves Sideways
  2. Up the Downstair
  3. On the Sunday of Life

PS: Many, many thanks to Neural Rust for the behind-the-scenes info relayed here.