Porcupine Tree – Stars Die: The Delerium Years

25 March 2002
1994-1997 box set, February 2016
1991-1993 box set, January 2017

This post comes in two unrelated parts.

A Side

Potentially unpopular opinion time: the worst critics are the ones with opinions that you agree with. You go to a critic for one of two things: to determine if you ought to spend money on a piece of media, or for a perspective on that media that is perpendicular to your own, that offers fresh insights or picks out interesting nuances that you may have missed. No one ever goes to a music critic for the first thing anymore, or at least I don’t. If I want to do something like that, I deliberately seek out the positive reviews, so I’m then motivated to listen to the thing on Spotify, and then if I like what I hear, I’ll go out and buy the record. Although this is how I got into pretty much every musical artist I listened to of my own volition for the past ten years, it’s still based on a fractured understanding of what the critic is doing versus what I want the critic to do.

The second thing is an altogether different beast, and does a better job of justifying the music critic’s existence. The thing that makes a blog like, say, Pushing Ahead of the Dame interesting is not Chris O’Leary’s audacity in covering David Bowie’s discography song by song. It’s that O’Leary has unpopular opinions. The first indication that his blog was gonna be great was the moment where (a) he declared that The Laughing Gnome was actually a good song, and, critically, (b) justified this declaration by appealing to multiple elements of the song’s composition that made it work.

I disagree, of course. I still maintain The Laughing Gnome is a cringefest. But I still learned more about how that song was pulled together than I would have from a million critical reviews going LOL CHIPMUNK VOICES BOWIE CORPSING ISN’T THIS AN EMBARRASSING EPHEMERUM, to which I would have nodded placidly along as they went in one ear and out the other. The point is that the value of a critic is directly tied to their willingness to go against conventional wisdom once in a while.

Tying this back to the blog, I am on record as saying that the worst Porcupine Tree album rankings are the ones that have In Absentia and Stupid Dream and Fear of a Blank Planet on top and On the Sunday of Life and The Incident on bottom, because that’s solid proof that the people responsible for those rankings have never had an original thought about Porcupine Tree in their entire lives. Which then got me wondering what the Ultimate Iconoclastic Porcupine Tree Hot Take would be.

A good starting point would be the contention that an album thought of as Good is actually Bad, or that a Bad album is actually Good. I’ve already done Stupid Dream, so that’s out, and I can’t with a straight face say that In Absentia and Fear of a Blank Planet are bad. (Well, you can with the latter, the lyrics are clearly Steven Wilson yelling at the kids to get off his lawn, but that’s not something I can sell to anyone when that’s the album that got me into Wilson’s music in the first place.) On the flip side, saying The Incident is good is properly incendiary, given its general reputation amongst the faithful, but it’s just enough of a piece with the rest of Porcupine Tree’s discography that such a take wouldn’t be very interesting. We need a true oddball.

This leaves On the Sunday of Life. The first Porcupine Tree album, stitched together from stuff released when we still kept up the fiction that this was an actual band who went gallivanting about Europe on drug-fueled exploits so scandalous and offensive to polite society they’d be near-indistinguishable from Situationist culture-jamming. That weird old thing. In his unauthorized biography of Porcupine Tree, Rick Wilson politely describes it as scattershot, but with potential; the conventional wisdom. It’s long and silly and bizarre, a greatest hits of psychedelic lunacy. Let’s see what we can cough up.

On the Sunday of Life is startlingly unique amongst Porcupine Tree’s discography. It’s the lone studio album in the Space Era that was clearly more influenced by psychedelic rock than space rock (by the time we hit Up the Downstair, Wilson was already deep in The Orb and Ozric Tentacles, and it shows). It’s structured like a Boards of Canada album, with full-length songs like Jupiter Island and Linton Samuel Dawson separated by instrumental interludes like Hymn or Music for the Head. The lyrics are nonsense Alan Duffy-isms. The album has a particular surreal humor about it, from the pitched-up chipmunk voices on Jupiter Island to Wilson’s off-the-rails Geddy Lee impression on Linton Samuel Dawson to the infamous, terminally aggrieved “I want you to put Felix’s penis on me” from And the Swallows Dance Above the Sun. This is Wilson’s own Laughing Gnome, refracted through the sensory-overload uncanny valley fog of a bad LSD trip.

It’s not hard to cast these elements of Porcupine Tree’s sound as essential. If you’re going to have a Porcupine Tree album, it should be unfiltered, overstuffed, trippy, incomprehensible, and subtly funny. So then we get to Up the Downstair and excuse me what’s this trance crap doing in my psychedelia? Hopping on trends, are you, like you’re doing with your other band? This feels so workmanlike, too. The last album crackled with so much energy and life; this one feels like they dragged Wilson to the studio at gunpoint. He’s even managed to ruin his own songs, no less; this version of Small Fish feels like it was recorded while he was doped up on Xanax. The only good part of this album is the first track’s transition from the spooky ambient noises to the dryly snarky voiceover, everything else is garbage.

Don’t even get me started on The Sky Moves Sideways or [shudder] Stupid Dream.

Thus do we arrive at the ultimate Porcupine Tree hot take: not only is On the Sunday of Life a good Porcupine Tree album, it’s the only good Porcupine Tree album.

This is not a good take for a blog to adopt for a few reasons. First, it precipitates a conceptual collapse. The blog blows its load early and spends the rest of its meager existence whining. It’s an extreme variant of whenever someone complains about a band not having produced anything good for however many-odd decades. (Also why, going back to Chris O’Leary, why we’re all very grateful he didn’t go with his original choice of blog subject and do Pete Townshend song by song.) Slogging through so many years of mediocrity is taxing on the author and taxing on the reader and just isn’t a worthwhile endeavor for anyone.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Todd in the Shadows’ retrospective of Madonna’s filmography and Seb Patrick’s posts on Weezer come immediately to mind. However, Cinemadonna is working with a medium primed to pick apart terrible bodies of work, and Weezerology would be considerably less pleasant to read if Everything Will Be Alright in the End didn’t exist. The lessons from those projects can’t be ported to one about Porcupine Tree, who would dive back into the Sunday aesthetic well extremely rarely.

The second reason that take ruins a blog is it reveals something troubling about the tastes of the blogger. Porcupine Tree, and Wilson’s post-PT solo work more broadly, had a diverse and eclectic sound that evolved along with Wilson’s tastes and influences. There’s something to appreciate in every era, and which period of their discography you prefer says more about you than it does them. A blogger who straight-up declares that Sunday is the only good Porcupine Tree album clearly demands that Steven Wilson rerecord Sunday again and again till he dies of excessive coerced jollity.

B Side

The Space Era may be properly dead and buried, but that doesn’t mean we can’t reminisce and memorialize. Stars Die: the Delirium Years, Porcupine Tree’s only strict compilation album, is a fairly straightforward record: a double album that is meant to serve as an introduction to Porcupine Tree’s 90s work.

The album is arranged in strict chronological order, with the first disc covering 1991-1993 and the second covering 1994-1997. Disc One is self-evidently stronger, with a good balance between short and long songs and material from Sunday and Up the Downstair. Disc Two is much less so, with only three songs from The Sky Moves Sideways era and the rest coming from the Signify era. This might have something to do with how the former is, of all Porcupine Tree’s albums, the one most hostile to being split up into its constituent parts. There just aren’t very many songs on that album that wouldn’t ruin a compilation album. Disc Two’s unevenness might also have something to do with how the Signify era is the band’s weakest, and about half of those songs are from the Waiting single, itself the weakest portion of that era. Right up until it hits Signify, though, Stars Die is an excellent survey of Porcupine Tree’s Space-Era work, clearly showcasing the band’s evolution throughout the nineties. I’d unreservedly recommend it to anyone whose knowledge of Porcupine Tree’s discography goes back to the seeming hard-reset of Stupid Dream and no further.

But anyway, the new stuff. Stars Die features a couple of songs (and alternate remixes) that were previously only available through file-sharing or a seriously rare deluxe edition pressing or something. Disc One has Phantoms and the extended version of Synesthesia, while Disc Two has Men of Wood and Signify II. First, Phantoms. This song is an outtake from Up the Downstair, available only through metaphorical tape-circulation before it showed up here. It’s basically a very trippy unplugged song, with Wilson’s vox and mainly lethargic acoustic guitar serving as an anchor as creepy tape loop noises and fuzzed-out electric guitars swirl around him. Of the previously-unreleased songs on this compilation, this one’s probably the worst. Wilson strums his guitar like it’s strictly out of contractual obligation. About a minute and a half in, right when most of the instrumentation drops out as Wilson sings “I’m sorry I treat you this way,” the song hits a brick wall and has to spend a few excruciating seconds recovering. It’s an early, half-formed attempt at something more songwriterly, and it’s obvious why (a) he eventually moved more organically into this more personal lyrical mode, and (b) it took him until the late 90s to actually do it. Whatever fruits came out of Phantoms were not immediately obvious at the time of writing, whereas The Sky Moves Sideways was right there, ready to be born. (And thank God, because The Sky Moves Sideways is much more interesting.) Basically, it gave him something to work with once the space well ran dry around the time of Signify. For all that Phantoms itself is unremarkable, it allows Disappear and the Alternative Era to exist.

The extended version of Synesthesia is generally similar to the studio version, but the goofy What You Are Listening To intro switched out for something more contextually appropriate where the main riff eases its way in as opposed to bursting onstage after cutting off the guy describing psychedelic music played while on LSD. I can sort of understand why this decision was made, the What You Are Listening To intro works best when opening an album, and that’s what Synesthesia isn’t doing anymore. But at the same time, literally the only representative of Porcupine Tree’s goofy early work on Stars Die is And The Swallows Put Felix’s Penis On Me, so replacing What You Are Listening To with something more in-character, especially in a world with Have Come For Your Children in it, feels like they’re treating that part of themselves the way a millennial thinks of their embarrassing scene kid phase.

Speaking of which, Men of Wood. Of all of Porcupine Tree’s songs featuring Alan Duffy’s lyrics in some capacity (he’s credited as a co-writer along with Wilson), this one is chronologically the latest. Like Disappear, this is one of those songs that knocked around the studio across multiple album cycles but was always too different from the atmosphere of the albums themselves to see a major studio release. In this song’s case, it almost made it on The Sky Moves Sideways, showing up on promo cassettes but not on the final release. It’s an interesting holdover from when Wilson was edging out of Sunday weirdness and into Downstair trancery. Between it and stuff like Linton Samuel Dawson, Access Denied, Escalator to Christmas, and How Big the Space, there might be enough material for a separate compilation for all the light, goofy songs Wilson’s done throughout his career. The normies who want him to be a brooding emo boy would hate it, of course, wondering why we’re celebrating what they feel are Wilson’s mediocrities, but there’s still artistry here, and more importantly, anything that irritates the normies is inherently worth doing.

This leaves Signify II. It’s a fairly standard krautrock song, yet more proof that the direction Porcupine Tree were attempting to go in for Signify was a dead end. My immediate reaction toward this song (and OG Signify, for that matter) was that it wasn’t good because it didn’t sound like Porcupine Tree. But that couldn’t be it; they’ve released lots of songs where they’re trying to be something they’re not (e.g. Access Denied) and they sound great. Nor is the issue that other bands have done straight-no-chaser krautrock better than they have; Wilson himself submitted a masterful entry in that genre with the self-titled I.E.M. album.

And then we reach Signify II’s religious mix, available on the expanded version of this compilation. If it made it onto Signify it would have been another anti-religious song in the same vein as Sever and Intermediate Jesus, but for whatever reason it didn’t. Years later, Wilson offered the possibility that the religious mix was left off Signify because it was just a bit too heavy-handed. There’s certainly some truth to that; the samples in this case came from a young hotshot televangelist who, when he’s not celebrating his flock of suckers’ destruction of their old Satanic secular music, gleefully tells anyone who calls in they’re insufficiently Christian and God hates them and they’re going to Hell.

I’m actually kind of glad it was left off; it would have ended the album, and Dark Matter honestly makes a perfect closer on its own. Signify II would have been superfluous. If it went anywhere on Signify, it should have replaced the title track, because Signify II works much better as a statement of the album’s themes instead of as a summation. It would have also made a pretty good segue into The Sleep Of No Dreaming, which focuses on Wilson’s rejection of all that garbage.

However. Those samples are what make Signify II unique. They’re what elevate the song from a transparent Hallogallo ripoff to something truly special. The samples and the instrumentation play off each other perfectly, with each one reinforcing the other. Of particular note here is the moment after the preacher asks if a caller really wants to accept Jesus into their life, and the music drops out completely for him to ask, “Why,” on some level inviting the listener to wonder why they should do the same, if this is what mainstream Christianity has to offer. The secular mix of Signify II is transparently bog-standard, but the religious mix is one of the best songs Porcupine Tree released during the Signify era. (Not exactly high praise coming from me, yes, but I’ll take what I can get from this point in their history.)

It is genuinely irritating whenever mainstream people talk about Porcupine Tree but either don’t talk about the Space Era or discount it for whatever reason. I’d typically chalk this up to the normies just wanting Steve to be this mopey depressed dude, but it’s slightly deeper than that. It probably has more to do with them, and we’ve talked about this before, putting him into a box. Not only is it an incomplete understanding of what Steven Wilson is about, but a demand that Wilson spend his life solely writing emo anthems for people who were too cool for actual emo.

Furthermore, Porcupine Tree were doing space rock longer than they did anything else. The Space Era is full of masterpieces, from Voyage 34 to all the funny stuff on Sunday to the title tracks of Up the Downstair and The Sky Moves Sideways. It’s a chunk of Porcupine Tree’s history that’s every bit as varied and multiplicitous as what they’d do later, and it’s done a great disservice when it’s treated as a footnote. The Stars Die compilation is essential largely because it’s a reminder that it isn’t, even as it’s radically different to what they’re doing now. What you think of the Space Era, ultimately, says more about you than it does about it, and if you believe the Space Era has little to offer compared to the other half of Porcupine Tree’s discography, then maybe Stars Die can change that a little.

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