No-Man – Wild Opera

September 1996

Housewives Hooked on Heroin, May 1996
2-CD edition, May 2010

Take One

The process is as follows:

Listen to the subject of the post—in this case, the Housewives Hooked on Heroin EP—several times, in an attempt to generate an interesting angle on the music or the lyrics.

Best you can come up with is something to the effect of “the title track is pretty terrible but the EP itself is redeemed somewhat thanks to Urban Disco and Where I’m Calling From. Also the Scanners remix of the title track is actually some pretty good chilled-out DnB, kind of prefigures early Pendulum in a sense. I know Wilson hates it but then Wilson hates a lot of things. What you gonna do.” After that, something something prelude to Wild Opera. This is not enough for a single post, especially when Wild Opera itself comes right after.

At that moment, realize the EP works best as a prelude to Wild Opera and surmise that the supplementary EP, Dry Cleaning Ray, will be similar. Get an idea.

Listen to Wild Opera.

Take Two

Three at once, this week. We’re obviously focusing on Wild Opera, but we’ve also got the two supplementary releases orbiting around it like moons, Housewives Hooked on Heroin and Dry Cleaning Ray. These three are quite closely linked, and for that reason it’s worth examining them as a single unit representing where No-Man’s collective head was at entering the decade’s back half.

First up is Housewives Hooked on Heroin, released four months prior to Wild Opera and thus serving as an introduction to what they’d be doing on the main release. One can imagine the No-Man fandom faithful stumbling upon this joint and its radical change in sound—especially the glitchy, staccato Hit the Ceiling—and reacting roughly as charitably as certain portions of Wilson’s solo fandom did upon hearing Permanating for the first time. It’s, well, it’s decent enough on its own. The title track really doesn’t live up to that incredible name. Urban Disco is pretty good, though.

If we arrange these three releases chronologically and establish a narrative through-line between them, then Wild Opera represents a refinement of the musical concepts first explored in Housewives Hooked on Heroin. This is No-Man’s “dark” album, and while it is their heaviest and most abrasive release, let’s not forget what their default mode is. Nothing on here is sufficiently dark for a patented Jess Cope nightmare-inducing tour visual, for instance. In addition, most of the time the primary influence is not straight trip-hop, hence why whenever those influences showed through up to this point it always sounded generic and watered down. This actually dovetails nicely with something I wrote in the Flowermouth entry:

“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.”

Compare with what Bowness said on his blog about Wild Opera:

“If Flowermouth was gleefully oblivious to fashion, on a purely instinctive level, Wild Opera was the sound of No-Man heeding the musical signs of the times.”

So, basically, they’re no longer trying to satisfy One Little Indian, but emulate the musical zeitgeist of 1996….and yet it miraculously doesn’t sound like they’ve sold out. This is because the trip-hop here is of a more jazzy and orchestral bent, where the lonely streetlamps are in front of the embassy of an Eastern European nation instead of in, say, Brixton. In other words, they wanted to sound like Portishead.

This is key. Because it approaches the genre at an odd angle and through John Le Carre-tinted glasses, the Portishead flavor of trip hop actively resists being watered down, and thus retains more of its…authenticity, for lack of a better word. So even when No-Man tries to sound like Portishead, they land not at Portishead full stop but Portishead filtered through No-Man’s fractured history. Not a bad place to be, all told, although that does mean I start to wish they’d have had the guts to get real dark and dive into the abyss headfirst, to the point where something like My Revenge on Seattle would have been better served on a castoff EP released several months later.

Several times over the course of this retrospective we’ve come back to the idea of a record representing a window into a potential evolution in a project’s sound that never quite came to be…but that analogy doesn’t quite work here. Although this is a serious effort to do something a bit more beat-driven, it’s also clear that trip hop itself was a dead end in the band’s progress, as future albums would owe more to Flowermouth than this one. However, that doesn’t mean this experiment was a complete failure. Bowness and Wilson both knew the darker atmosphere present in Wild Opera still had potential. If Flowermouth and Wild Opera represent the band’s sound from Lovecries splitting in two, then every album from Returning Jesus onward represent those two halves coming together again, but differently.

Speaking of things disassembled and reassembled backward, Dry Cleaning Ray.

Take Three

Crap.

Realize (a) that Dry Cleaning Ray is mostly outtakes from the Wild Opera sessions instead of remixes, and (b) that maybe only one song off the album could legitimately be described as “disassembled and reassembled backward.” Discover that chunks of Dry Cleaning Ray pull from releases you haven’t covered yet. This angle ain’t gonna work.

Try to dig up contemporary press—reviews and interviews, that sort of thing—to back up the claim that Wild Opera is widely regarded as the dark album. Come up empty. The only even remotely interesting piece of criticism comes from the sole comment on the album’s AllMusic review, which calls “trip hop” a dirty word. Wonder how that guy feels about iPods.

Feel yourself pulled in ten thousand fruitless directions. At the same time, imagine yourself as Barton Fink, and all that implies, staring at a blank typewriter.

Attempt to continue the essay, this time focusing almost entirely on Wild Opera. Shoehorn something in about how you wouldn’t be surprised if Jerry Martin were listening to this album and Endtroducing… on repeat while composing the SimCity 4 soundtrack, based off that magnificent sax in Radiant City. Observe that Ben Coleman’s absence really is not deeply felt here, and nothing against the man, but anything he could have contributed to the album would have been superfluous.

Try and fail to excise the Housewives / Opera / Dry Cleaning Ray angle from what you’ve already written. Realize you still have quite a lot of things to say about the interplay between dark and light that can’t be squeezed into the essay you have as written, and how it basically doesn’t work. Try to find yet another creative way to say that Bowness’ voice is not very well suited to dark music, and that as good as the trip-hop is they’re still fundamentally uncomfortable with it, and stuff like Flowermouth is better largely because it really does feel like their natural habitat, and including songs like My Revenge on Seattle means they probably know it. Realize with some horror that what you really want out of No-Man is Together We’re Stranger rerecorded and rereleased endlessly, and that demand fundamentally goes against what constitutes good musical artistry and what you value in music that has any business calling itself “progressive.” Recall that based on stuff he said about “progressive” music when you saw him perform in New York back in April, Wilson probably agrees with you.

Bang head against keyboard.

Take Four

Throw hands up. Go trawling for buzz one last time, come up fruitless. Discover the following completely unrelated extract from that 2000 Innerview you quoted the last time you covered a No-Man studio album:

“I think No-Man go through phases of distinctively reflecting the current musical climate such as Lovesighs, Loveblows and Lovecries, Wild Opera and Dry Cleaning Ray, and phases of retreating into ourselves and trying to produce something we consider timeless and meaningful such as Carolina Skeletons and Flowermouth. The new album definitely fits into the latter category. Next time, it’s disco!”

Well, it took seventeen years, and it was only one half of the band, but by God we finally got our bloody disco.

  1. Flowermouth
  2. Wild Opera
  3. Loveblows and Lovecries: A Confession
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I.E.M. – I.E.M.

1996

“Jetzt schalten wir ja das Radio an / Aus dem Lautsprecher klingt es dann…” —Kraftwerk, Autobahn

The Incredible Expanding Mindfuck has a backstory that is not a backstory, and a backstory that is also not a backstory. The first non-backstory comes from how the name of the project comes from another fake band, this one Malcolm Stocks’, complete with its own fake history that was just as deliriously loony as Porcupine Tree’s. I personally am bummed that this fake history—and really, the fake history of both bands—has since been lost, because then I could have spliced it in and wrapped it around the post as it currently exists, so that the two halves would mirror and comment on each other.

The other one, well, let us imagine the universe as a hyperboloid, with the various disparate strands of history coalescing to and exploding outward from one inflection point, endings and beginnings knotting together into a single moment dense with an infinite weight. This particular inflection point varies depending on what slice of history you’re looking at. It might be a self-evidently momentous occasion, like when Alan Moore completed the collected edition of Watchmen. Or, it might be in and of itself something modest and innocuous, its real implications not fully revealing themselves until later, like the Sex Pistols’ show at the Manchester Free Trade Hall.

Ours has two poles that occurred at roughly the same time. The first is the initial Big Bang, the Internationale Essener Songtage, held in West Germany in September 1968 amid the ruins of a stillborn revolution. Here was the wider world’s first experience with a particular combination of psychedelic rock, art rock, electronic music, and jazz, with a distinct minimalistic sensibility and rhythm, that would become known as krautrock. The second was the formation of our new world’s elementary particles at the Zodiak Free Arts Lab, a West Berlin live music venue and krautrock incubator that boomed in and out of existence for a few precious months in late 1968 and early 1969. The most immediate ripples of these two events were the formation and solidification of two bands: Kraftwerk in Düsseldorf, not far from where the IEST was held, and Tangerine Dream in West Berlin, the closest thing Zodiak had to a house band. Tangerine Dream’s most direct impact on our particular tale would come through the release of Zeit in 1972, an unsettling ambient record Wilson often cites as a favorite, but through the 70s and 80s would go on to influence the development of his musical personality in less immediate ways as well.

Kraftwerk, meanwhile, have a more tangential role here. They first formed in 1969 as Organisation and released one album under that name, a quietly experimental affair called Tone Float. Between their formation and the mid-70s the band would experience numerous lineup changes as their sound shifted from the krautrock indicative of the scene they sprung from to the electronic music they would pioneer. One gentleman who would drift in and out during this time was Klaus Dinger, who’s responsible for the percussion on some of their first album. Dinger would leave Kraftwerk in 1971, a year after he joined, allegedly because of personality differences with Florian Schneider (I would be remiss here if I didn’t mention that in the future Dinger would look vaguely like Alan Moore and Schneider would look vaguely like Grant Morrison, mostly in the follicular department, but that’s a footnote), and would take guitarist Michael Rother with him.

These two would form Neu!, a seminal krautrock band who have probably the most direct role in spawning the I.E.M. Their primary innovation was solidifying the motorik, a steady, repetitive beat pattern which, as the name implies, mimics the experience of driving down a highway. It is—and there’s a reason you’ve heard this before—the skeleton that propels the song forward and provides a framework for guitar and synth improvisations.

I.E.M. has four tracks (five, if you’re listening to the 1998 CD version), two of which owe a direct influence to Neu! and the motorik: Deafman and The Gospel According to the I.E.M. They’re both fantastic. Driving music par excellence. It wouldn’t be unreasonable, upon giving the former a listen, to think hang on a minute, Steven’s gone and made his own Hallogallo…and then later that year he one-upped himself on Signify and actually did. That leaves The Last Will and Testament of Emma Peel, Fie Kesh, and Headphone Dust. That last one is a simple acoustic number and is unremarkable for our purposes. Emma Peel, meanwhile, is a decidedly ambient joint in the vein of Tangerine Dream. Thus, the second half of our inflection point.

Now here’s where things get interesting. Some of Tangerine Dream’s work in the mid-70s and 80s would go on to influence the development of trance music (which, as a subgenre of electronic music, also owes a lot to Kraftwerk for being able to exist at all), and thus a substantial chunk of what Porcupine Tree would release in Voyage 34, Up the Downstair, and The Sky Moves Sideways. And, as it happens, Fie Kesh sounds very much like an expansion of some ideas explored in the Moonloop improvisation. This, then, makes I.E.M. the album (and thus the project) sound like a missive from a path not taken, where instead of moving in a more accessible, alternative-influenced direction they remained as experimental as ever, a peek into a world where the Space Era never quite ended, albeit at the expense of Porcupine Tree dissolving about ten years earlier.

But the point is this: everything Porcupine Tree has made in some form up to this point owes at least a little to what those German guys were doing back in the 70s, and the self-titled I.E.M. album is not just some damn good krautrock but a distillation of those influences. Strip Porcupine Tree’s music down to its skeleton and you’d have something like what we’re listening to here. And the influence continues beyond 1996. Even as we move into the Alternative and Metal Eras, notice what characterizes Porcupine Tree’s more overtly progressive elements: an emphasis on motion, rhythm, and repetition over technical wizardry. (And, of course, Wilson’s ephemera is often released on Tonefloat Records.) If we’re talking about placing Porcupine Tree in a musical tradition originating in the late 60s and emphasizing experimentation and boundary-pushing, then what we have here, ultimately, is not a prog band for the 90s. No, Porcupine Tree is actually a krautrock band for the 90s.

  1. I.E.M.

GUEST: Steve Jansen/Richard Barbieri – Stone to Flesh

October 1995

  • The following was written before listening to the album in question:

I’m officially at the point El Sandifer was at in the Nintendo Project when she was like, “Oh God not another racing game, how am I going to squeeze an interesting entry out of this.” That is to say, oh God not another ex-Japan collab, I know what to expect here, sparse instrumentals that give me jack to work with. And, oh yes, Steven’ll contribute some minor part in the background. Writing this post will be like pulling teeth.

Here’s the problem with listening to an album to write about it versus listening to an album just to listen to it: I begin to dislike the album simply because I can’t come up with anything interesting to say about it, and that’s not a good reason to hate something. Meanwhile, if I listen to the album just to listen to it, I’m then freed from any obligation to describe what I’m hearing and can actually kick back and enjoy the stupid thing. (There’s a reason my name’s not on any music mag mastheads.)

The upshot in my case, though, is that I suspect nondescript racing games are distributed pretty evenly across the alphabetized NES library, whereas a quick look at the SW discography I threw together tells me the ex-Japan stuff will peter out as we inch toward the millennium.

…and will be swiftly replaced with I.E.M. and Bass Communion. God help me.

Oh.

Oh.

Oh my.

Well, that was a pleasant surprise. I was dead wrong about pretty much everything.

In retrospect, part of my trepidation coming into this joint was the sheer frustration I had with Flame and The Tooth Mother, because they both represented…not necessarily the failure mode of the ex-Japan schtick, but its baseline, what it collapses into if left to its own devices. That is the abyss the guys have to make a conscious effort to make sure their music doesn’t fall into, and every album I listen to from Jansen, Barbieri, or Karn I now approach worrying about how successful they’ll be.

This is not a concern I should reasonably have. Jansen and Barbieri are both excellent musicians. When these guys get together and jam they do make an effort to make the result sound good. Beginning to Melt had The Wilderness. Seed had its delightful onslaught of peak nineties. I know they’ll do something great, but I also know what happens if they don’t. So I worry.

So it was a huge relief to discover that Stone to Flesh is pretty good. The album’s pleasant surprise kicks in about three minutes into the first track, when we hear the beginnings of what would blossom into a blistering harmonica solo, and goodness does this harmonica in particular sound familiar, and a quick trip to Discogs confirms that, yes, that is the very same Mark Feltham that would appear on To the Bone over twenty years later. He shows up again on the last track in a more subdued, almost mournful capacity, as befitting a slow, quiet song named Everything Ends in Darkness.

Speaking of Wilson, the corny line to deploy here would be “the album should be credited to Jansen / Barbieri / Wilson because Mr Porcupine Tree is in as many tracks as the other two.” This is technically true; of the seven songs on the album, Jansen, Barbieri, and Wilson all play on four apiece. And, Wilson’s contributions are much more prominent here than they are on Jansen and Barbieri’s previous records. However, implying that Wilson is on an equal footing to the other two here still overstates his role on this album. First off, Jansen and Barbieri actually wrote all the songs. Also, Wilson is strictly a supporting player, using his guitar to fill out a song instead of propelling it forward.

As for things that do, though, Jansen and Barbieri’s collective keyboard work. The best way I could describe Stone to Flesh’s atmosphere is clearly synthetic, yet not dispassionate. We’re still in “sounds like a video game soundtrack” territory, but here the aesthetic has been refined and crystallized. Picture a stealthy atmospheric cyberpunk something-or-other and you’re about there. Picture sneaking around in an artificially lit, aggressively polygonal environment where the buildings and objects don’t quite scale properly and all the text is rendered bright green and monospaced, Matrix-style, and you’re about there. The bubbling swells of Sleepers Awake and the metallic scraping of Ringing the Bell Backwards, Pt. 2 are the standouts here, but ultimately most of the tracks have something going for them.

But yes, this is a great album, and I probably shouldn’t have been so worried about how it’d turn out. So, naturally, this means now I’ll project my concerns onto their next effort.