Porcupine Tree – Coma:Coda (Rome 1997)

Recorded 26 March 1997
Released 7 May 2020

So Porcupine Tree got a Bandcamp recently, and they’ve been using it to release a whole bunch of rarities and other goodies. With the exception of the Nag’s Head performance previously featured on Spiral Circus, though, thus far they’ve all dated from the late Alternative and Metal Eras, the parts of Porcupine Tree’s career the blog hasn’t reached yet. Until now.

While most of Coma Divine comes from the third night at the Frontiera, this release largely pulls from the second night. Therefore, the setlist is a little different. Most significantly, Cryogenics finally, finally gets an official release. I still don’t care for it–although it doesn’t feel quite as self-indulgently difficult to listen to as it did the first time I heard it, it’s still a track that never really quite locks in–but it still feels as though a great wrong in the universe has been corrected. Here, it functions as an extended intro for Dark Matter, whose introductory soothing hum feels like being bathed in a column of light after three and a half minutes of thundering tension.

What else. The version of Nine Cats here is closest to the stripped-down, unplugged version on Insignificance, but it’s probably worth noting that this live version is much more practiced and effortless than the studio version, with an instinctive understanding of where the song should ebb and flow so it has the most impact. It’s kind of fun that the audience doesn’t twig that Wilson and Maitland are singing a similarly unplugged version of Every Home Is Wired until they actually drop the title. That impromptu drum solo at the end of Dislocated Day is the precise correct use of your Chris Maitland. That showboating that would in a few years start driving Wilson up the wall is what you want him to do live. It was really nice to see them perform Voyage 34 Phase II live, because it’s usually Phase I that gets all the love, and sometimes we need a little reminder that other parts can deliver the goods just as well as the first part can. This is, in general, a fun little companion piece to the main Coma record, and it’s nice that it exists as a way of sort of filling in the details and providing a bit more color to the experience of seeing those three shows in the flesh.

Speaking of which, it’s somewhat well-known that the recording of Coma Divine was riddled with technical problems, and truly herculean amounts of editing and post-production were needed to salvage anything, to the point where a lot of the vox were overdubbed in studio because the recording sounded just that terrible live. With all that in mind, the Bandcamp description for Coma:Coda cautions that what we’re hearing here is basically ripped straight from the soundboard, preemptively apologizes if it sounds wonky, and just generally hangs its head in shame that it’s not up to Porcupine Tree’s usual exacting standards.

It sounds fine.

Maybe it’s just because watching a lot of iPhone live recordings on YouTube means I usually have pretty low standards for what a live recording should sound like, but…whoever wrote that description doth protest too much. The only serious technical goof I picked up on was the very obvious one, that we only got the back half of Dislocated Day, but even then it’s okay because you don’t listen to Coma:Coda!Dislocated Day to listen to Dislocated Day. That’s what the version of the song on the original Coma Divine is there for, and with pristine sound quality, no less. You listen to Coma:Coda!Dislocated Day for Maitland’s awesome drum solo at the end, which is there, in all its glory, in its entirety. That we lost the song’s first half just means we cut out some chaff at the front.

Other than that…yeah, there’s some slightly weird mixing (the spoken word samples are almost inaudible) and Wilson hits a flat note here and there, but those are the occupational hazards of live performance. Big deal. I suspect the only people who’d get hot and bothered about this record’s imperfections are the same people who only spring for the fancypants 5.1 surround sound mixes of Wilson’s albums because if it’s anything else they may as well just pour battery acid into their ears. In a lot of respects, Coma:Coda feels more accurate to what listening to Porcupine Tree perform at the actual Frontiera in actual 1997 probably sounded like.

This says something about the potential value of live recordings. The studio recording as a concept, irrespective of the actual music and how it was influenced by the world around it, exists pretty much in a vacuum, suspended outside of time and space, only having time and space imposed on it through the experiences of the listener. The live recording, meanwhile, is a documentation of an event, anchored to a specific time and place. Therefore, one could argue that when releasing the thing to the world, there’s an incentive to preserve, as much as possible, this event as it actually happened, screwups and all. And there will be screwups. You’re gonna flub a line, or break a guitar string, or hit a wrong note. It’s gonna be mixed oddly. The venue’s acoustics are gonna have their own effects. When the time comes to actually edit the live album together, all those little things are gonna drive you nuts, but it’s unreasonable to demand perfection from a live performance, and in fact, the imperfections can be what make live performance interesting.

Put it to you this way. With Coma Divine your perspective is omniscient and impartial, like this was a professionally-recorded studio album that just happens to have been laid down in front of a live audience. With Coma:Coda the listening experience is more subjective and immersive, like we’ve been placed in the shoes of someone who was there. This means that between these two albums we have the two success modes of the live album: the recording that reflects how we wanted the show to sound, and the recording that reflects how the show actually sounded. Usually we have to rely on fan recordings for the latter, so it’s nice for the band to acknowledge this reality once in a while. In other words, Coma:Coda is a good album entirely because it’s basically an officially-released bootleg.

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.

I.E.M. – Have Come For Your Children

September 2001
Untitled (Complete IEM), June 2010

“I think by the time I’d done I.E.M. I realised there were a whole lot of other people who were doing it a whole lot better, because I didn’t have the time or the inclination to really commit myself fully to it. […] But I suppose I.E.M., because it was all done in the spirit of fun, was never going to be anything particularly substantial to me.” –Steven Wilson

“Yeah, it had some nice moments.”

We have arrived at yet another ending. Apart from a pair of compilations and box sets released in 2005 and 2010, this will be the last original IEM record. As this album and Arcadia Son were recorded at the same time and form a sort of diptych, it’s probably worth comparing the two side-by-side.

Arcadia Son is the more diverse record, building as it does on Escalator to Christmas’ mishmash of krautrock, pure psychedelia, and spoken-word samples. As such, its main strength is its diversity and willingness to careen abruptly from one idea to another and to experiment with all sorts of different genres, sounds, moods, and textures. Have Come For Your Children, meanwhile, sticks mostly to doing one thing. Every piece on this album, with the possible exception of the untitled hammered dulcimer/mellotron choir piece at the end, is much more interested in a very particular gloomy, rhythmic atmosphere and stretching it out and abstracting it as much as possible…to the point where it’s practically of a piece with what Bass Communion is doing. In fact, Have Come For Your Children goes a long way toward explaining why Bass Communion would become Wilson’s primary weird/experimental musical outlet after this. Even though it doesn’t sound like Bass Communion at all, as there’s still percussion and a sense of rhythm, that project still represents a natural and attractive endpoint for the sort of thing IEM is doing on this record.

In that respect, then, Have Come For Your Children is honestly a huge disappointment. The sense of infinite possibility that Arcadia Son represented has been closed off, the opportunities for Wilson to go in new and bizarre directions have not been taken, and instead we get something that sounds more or less like what he’s already been doing. There’s no uniqueness to Have Come For Your Children the way there was with Arcadia Son or An Escalator to Christmas, and as such there’s also no corresponding sense of fun and wonder. This, more than anything else, is a funeral dirge.

Some of this is inherent in endings as a concept. Part of the reason endings are so tough to do in more narrative-based mediums is you are foreclosing on that wealth of possibilities that the story could have gone. It’s why many of the best story endings still have a sense of ambiguity about them. Bands don’t have that luxury, not only because it’s not (necessarily) a narrative-based medium but also because most albums aren’t meant to be The Last Ones. They just record an album, and go on hiatus, and sometimes that hiatus becomes permanent. Oops. To the extent this affects IEM, which has already established itself as a fractal clusterfuck of a project, the obvious way to wrap this thing up would be to disintegrate completely, to be such a jarring, abrasive goulash of styles and genres that it’s practically unlistenable. This didn’t happen.

What we do have is well-made, of course. This was culled from some improvisations that were recorded around the same time as Arcadia Son, the sort of extended jam session that produces things like Moonloop and Metanoia. All pieces are untitled. The first one is thirty-five minutes long, and is measured and tightly structured, almost ritualistic, ebbing and flowing hypnotically like the tides. Untitled 2 continues in a similar vein, providing the raw material for much of the rest of the album, with each successive piece piling on more and more jazz and noise elements until we get Untitled 5, a glorious, cacophonic sensory barrage unlike anything Wilson had ever made up to that point. This is what the whole rest of the album should have sounded like.

For as much as Untitled 5 is the best thing on the album, it also demonstrates the limits of Moonloop-esque improvisations as a source of good Steven Wilson music. Moonloop itself was a masterpiece. Metanoia and Have Come For Your Children feel like retreads. This is troubling, because a return to the Moonloop well suggests that he took IEM as far as he felt it could have gone in the Escalator/Arcadia mode, as if he didn’t have any further interest in exploring the outer reaches of krautrock or harsh noise or proto-vaporwave or whatever other oddball out-of-character idea popped into his head this week.

What makes it even worse is there’s no aspect of IEM that continues after the project’s demise. Most other concluded Steven Wilson projects contain the seeds of the future within them. IEM itself is the product of the experiments Teen Wilson did as Altamont. Karma, easily Wilson’s worst band, recorded really early versions of Small Fish and Nine Cats. Porcupine Tree transitions shockingly well into Wilson’s solo career. When No-Man went on a decade-long hiatus, it found a spiritual successor in Tim Bowness’ solo albums. In addition, when Wilson is working on multiple projects simultaneously, the results tend to bleed into each other. His work producing Opeth informs every Porcupine Tree record from In Absentia onward. Grace for Drowning forms a loose trilogy with Heritage and Storm Corrosion. A good way of figuring out what a new Steven Wilson record will sound like is seeing what albums he’s been remixing lately. Just about everything Wilson records has some sort of connection with something else.

IEM, meanwhile, just stops. There’s no legacy for it to carry on, nothing within it that informed anything Wilson did after this. With this album, everything IEM could have become was reduced to the sort of thing Bass Communion was already doing anyway. All we have after this are a few compilations, and that’s it. Have Come For Your Children doesn’t just feel like a foreclosing of IEM’s possibilities, it feels like a foreclosing of an entire chunk of Steven Wilson’s personality. Whether he realizes it or not, he needs something like IEM to play around with. I miss it tremendously.

  1. Arcadia Son
  2. I.E.M.
  3. Have Come For Your Children

Porcupine Tree – Live at Nearfest

green day 100% pure uncut rock23 June 2001

“The boy bands have won.” –Chumbawamaba

The third annual North East Art Rock Festival was held at its usual location in the Zoellner Arts Center, on the campus of Lehigh University in Bethlehem. Nearfest was a progressive rock festival that ran from 1999 to 2012, mostly in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. Porcupine Tree performed on the first day. These are all mundane details, but together they make my head explode because I live pretty close to the Lehigh Valley, and was up there fairly often as a kid, so I’m retroactively wondering why Porcupine Tree did a show near where I live and no one thought to tell nine-year-old me, who was listening mostly to boy bands and 1970s classic rock, and wouldn’t have known what a Porcupine Tree was, and wouldn’t have appreciated anything they were playing anyway.

As for what it was they were playing, it is surprising to learn that Porcupine Tree occasionally made extremely boneheaded decisions about how to adapt some of their songs to a live setting. We’ve encountered this before; Up the Downstair’s bass, for instance, is done no favors when Edwin’s playing it. It’s not quite synthetic enough; it feels like it should be something Barbieri constructs and then throws on a loop so he can focus on more involved soundscapes. (Nice that it gives Edwin something to do, though.) At Nearfest, the main victim is Even Less, a song that Wilson has only ever barely managed to get a handle on playing live. Here, the song plunges into that weird uncanny valley that live performances can occasionally fall into where it’s tremendously faithful to the studio version but the differences are just prominent enough that the whole performance sounds off, somehow. In this case, it’s the guitar’s odd tuning and the way it doesn’t sound quite crisp enough, although that might be flaws in the recording itself. Combined with that weird warble thing Wilson’s voice occasionally did at the time where he sounded twice his age, the intervention is toxic.

(The one really good live version of Even Less was performed during soundcheck in Los Angeles during the Incident tour (and possibly elsewhere; but the LA performance is what we have video evidence of). There, we had Wilson on vox and acoustic backing guitar, with Jordan Rudess playing the main guitar part on the piano, in that full grand Steinway mode he’s really good at, with the pastoral, flowery flourishes and bone-shattering low end and everything. It sounds amazing. This was then butchered into what appears on Home Invasion, where Wilson essentially is trying to play an acoustic arrangement of the song on an electric guitar, and the result sounds like it should be a discarded demo more than anything else…doubly frustrating because Adam Holzman could have replicated Rudess’ piano without too much trouble.)

Most of the time, though, the Nearfest gig doesn’t do that. The performance is pretty decent, if you’re into generally note-perfect renditions souped up here and there by the slightly looser dynamics of the live setting, Barbieri’s correctly rated and Maitland’s criminally underrated ability to bring space and atmosphere to a song, Edwin’s unflappable island time energy, and Wilson’s prowess at busting out some killer solos when called upon to do so. It’s not their best, but at this stage in their career “their best” is something they’re still working toward.

That said, there are some interesting facets of the band dynamics at the time that the Nearfest performance brings out. Toward the end of Shesmovedon, for instance, the camera lingers on Maitland and Edwin for a bit, marveling at the contrast between the two musicians. Maitland is improvising a spectacular drum solo and is going at it like a maniac, while Edwin picks at his bass the same way a middle-class office worker picks at a cocktail while sprawled out on a lounge chair at a Bahamas all-inclusive resort, and just looks happy to be there. Wilson, meanwhile, is still trying to construct a stage presence, and 2001 finds him wearing crop tops, cargo pants, and little hippie sunglasses, looking for all the world like a teenager for whom this is an after-school side gig. He’s still not fully comfortable onstage; whenever he has to speak to the audience he sounds like he’s about to die of stage fright.

This leads us neatly into what everything up there was a preamble for: before the band dives into Hatesong, Wilson steps up to the microphone and says the following:

“I don’t know how closely you guys follow the news, what’s going on in the United Kingdom at the moment, or in fact recently. We’ve had a pretty terrible disease sweeping the country, sweeping the nation, you know about that?”

Muted “yeah!” response from an audience conditioned Pavlovly to respond that way to any question posed by a musician onstage.

“Yeah, I am of course talking about boy bands and girl bands.”

Applause.

“It is a fucking disease. And showing no signs of slowing up, either. The infection keeps spreading. And I know you have a particular problem with this disease in the United States as well, and in fact, you’ve sent your disease over to us as well! Thanks!”

Laughter.

“So, what we’re gonna do for you now is a song which is kind of our antidote to the likes of Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, ‘N-Sync, Christine Agwilera [sic], &c. &c. &c. And the thing about all these…musicians…”

Wilson highlights the word “musicians” with giant air quotes.

“…about these ‘artists,’ is that they purport to perform ‘love’ ‘songs,’ and they don’t make me feel very romantic somehow. So this is Porcupine Tree’s antidote to all of those pointless love songs, and this is called HATEsong.”

So obviously there’s a lot going on here. On the kneejerk surface-text level, Wilson is grossly overgeneralizing. Boy bands like Backstreet Boys and “girl bands” (WTF?) like Britney Spears don’t make “love songs” (although they do make those) as much as they do “songs about love.” Something like Oops I Did It Again isn’t meant to make the listener feel romantic because it’s a much more cynical (yet simultaneously empowering!) approach to the whole business of romance, an approach that works entirely because it trades on the song’s (and genre’s) sense of artifice and Spears’ own image as a (not that–) innocent teenybopper pop princess.

(I would, of course, be remiss if I didn’t mention here that “songs about love” is a spectacularly broad label and includes not just what was on the pop charts in 2001 but over half of Lightbulb Sun–including, in its own sick, twisted way, Hatesong. Pot, kettle, &c.)

Speaking of artifice, we’ve gone briefly over the issue with authenticity in pop music w/r/t popularity and the ethics of “selling out” and participating in the exploitative meat grinder that is the recording industry back in the Stupid Dream post, but Wilson’s roast of boy bands here introduces a new wrinkle: the trouble with pop music is that it’s shallow and manufactured lovey-dovey fluff. This implies there’s a music that serves as a counterpoint in its depth and authenticity. Music like, say, Porcupine Tree, who proudly write not love songs but Hatesongs. Never mind that he’s currently wearing a crop top and touring his most obviously please-make-me-famous record to date and the fandom tore him a new asshole for apparently selling out with the last album two years ago, Steven Wilson is the real deal. Honest.

Here’s the issue, though: if we take it as a truth that any artist sells out the instant they’re able to have complete strangers listen to their music, then artists who claim to value authenticity don’t actually value authenticity but the appearance of authenticity. They’re saying “we’re not trying to sell you something, man” while shamelessly trying to sell us something, and the people who get huffy about authenticity in music (aka “suckers”) bought the lie look line and sinker. Any music that claims it’s “real” is lying to you. Pop music is fake, too, of course, but it doesn’t care, and so is more preoccupied with other things. The true value of pop music, and music in general, lies elsewhere, in the meaning it creates for the listener.

This is, in microcosm, the deeper engagement with the boy band rant, which hits one of the defining fault lines in music criticism: rockism versus poptimism. Kieron Gillen has an excellent (and charitable) definition of the former, stating that “Rockism is the belief that some forms of music are more authentic and real than other forms of music and authenticity and realness are virtues in and of themselves,” leaving pregnantly unspoken the implication that the more “authentic” and “real” forms of music happen to feature white men with electric guitars. Poptimism, meanwhile, is a celebration of music in all its forms, deemphasizing concerns about authenticity through recognizing that music is an expansive, multifaceted thing, containing within it all sorts of multitudes and innovations and dynamisms…even the stuff that appears on the pop charts. There are nuances, contradictions, and fuzzy borders, of course, but in broad strokes that’s where the lines are drawn.

It should be pretty obvious where I stand. Rockism is fundamentally a regressive, reactionary position because treating that old time rock ‘n roll as the pinnacle of what music can offer completely ignores the other musical currents that were brewing in the 60s, 70s, and 80s: stuff like synthpop and punk and funk and soul and hip hop. These genres all had just as much youthful energy and innovative spirit as anything that would become standards on classic rock radio in the following decades. In addition…let’s be honest. Rockism also ignores that most classic rock is unlistenable dreck. Rockist snobbery is the only possible explanation for why artists like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bad Company and Steve Miller and the Allman Brothers still have cachet in this year of our Lord 2020. It is a celebration of bland white mediocrity as the peak of the musical art form, and a disparagement of anything that fails to worship at its feet. It’s Morrissey saying reggae is vile. It’s Bohemian Rhapsody’s Best Picture nomination. It is a school of thought that has no business existing in contemporary music criticism.

Steven Wilson, meanwhile, isn’t quite either a rockist or a poptimist. He’s absolutely without question a rock musician, and those are the traditions he holds in highest esteem…but he also has an appreciation for pop music healthy enough that it resulted in Blackfield and To the Bone and Billie Eilish showing up on last year’s year-end recommendations list. His attitude toward music criticism could best be illustrated through his onstage banter during the To The Bone Tour, where on one hand we get the rant about how millennials don’t know what an electric guitar is, while on the other hand we get the rant about how people who turn their nose up at pop music should really get over themselves. We could probably describe Wilson’s attitudes toward music as a particular synthesis of rockism and poptimism, where the snobbery is largely displaced away from rock music (although not gone away entirely, see his withering comments about Greta Van Fleet, for instance) and toward pop music. When he’s criticising boy bands, he’s not using boy bands as a synecdoche for all pop music and saying pop music sucks, he’s saying boy bands make bad pop music.

Though I staunchly disagree, that’s at least a defensible position. Here, though, is where his approach runs into trouble: Steven Wilson may have grown up with both Pink Floyd and Donna Summer, and he may be musically omnivorous and take inspiration from all sorts of genres, but he is not a pop musician. He’s a rock musician. Therefore, any criticisms of pop music he makes will be perceived as coming from an outsider…and all the troubling dynamics that implies when Wilson is a white man, working in a genre dominated by white men, casting aspersions on a genre that’s considerably less dominated by white men and typically looked down upon by white men. It is perfectly reasonable to listen to Wilson ranting about boy bands and think he’s a rockist snob saying all pop music is terrible. This means that when Steven Wilson goes onstage and says Backstreet Boys suck, whatever nuances are lent to this argument from his particular relationship with pop music will sail right over the heads of everyone in the audience, generally rockist snobs themselves, and anything he says will register as “durr pop music bad.” Oopsie.

(This is a broader issue than one would think. When Todd Nathanson started reviewing pop songs we automatically assumed that, like most Internet Males of a Certain Age, he came out of the rockist tradition and bashed pop songs because he hated pop songs, even after we had annual best-of lists and his repeated protests, in detail, that he loved pop music. It was only after One-Hit Wonderland started and he got to regularly show off his knowledge of pop history that the idea of Todd Nathanson, Pop Music Lover finally landed.)

As an unfortunate consequence, every rockist snob at Nearfest now thinks of Wilson as one of their own, even when he isn’t. This wasn’t a perception Wilson would seriously push back on for over a decade and a half, instead choosing to yammer on about iPods and music streaming and other such things that record store owners in Rush t-shirts could nod dumbly along to. Thus does the Wilson-as-rockist-snob meme grow and metastasize until 2017, when Permanating is released and half his audience starts screaming betrayal at the top of their lungs. The backlash was a self-own, yes, but if they were to think a little bit about Wilson’s musical background, they would have at least seen it coming and recognized Wilson for who he is: a man with better and wider taste in music than they will ever have.

Porcupine Tree – Recordings

May 2001

I’m mildly irritated by people who regard Recordings as a studio album in spirit, the way Lightbulb Sun and In Absentia are. It clearly isn’t, not just because it’s obviously a castoff album, pulled together from early Alt-era stuff that didn’t make it on Stupid Dream or Lightbulb Sun for whatever reason. The trouble is that when people say Recordings is a studio album, they mean Recordings is good enough to be a studio album, and there’s a particular odd not-quite-chauvinism inherent in that statement.

It’s like there’s a hierarchy. The good songs are on the studio records, and the okay songs go on the singles and the castoff-compilations like this one. So we expect Recordings will just be a bunch of songs that weren’t good enough for any of the big albums, but instead we get Buying New Soul and that slow, heavenly organ riff, a song that’s clearly every bit as good as anything they’ve put on a studio album, and compilation albums can’t have really good songs like Buying New Soul on them, so that must mean it’s not a compilation album after all.

This logic is how you get reviews that praise the quality of the songs but also point out that it’s not as well-put-together as their other albums, which, well, duh. It’s a castoff album. It’s not meant to flow the same way Lightbulb Sun flows. This is still Porcupine Tree cleaning out their collective mental attic before In Absentia and preserving whatever they found up there that was salvageable. Here’s the thing, though, a thing that feels like it’s overlooked more often than it probably should be: when a band doesn’t release a song as an album cut, kicks it off the album entirely, or whatever, it’s not always because the song is bad. It could be, and this is especially true of Porcupine Tree, that the song doesn’t mesh with how they want the album as a whole to sound. Porcupine Tree recorded a lot of good songs around the time of Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun, but not all of them sounded like something that belongs on Stupid Dream or Lightbulb Sun, so they were cut. This means that when the time came to dust the best ones off and string them together into one big compilation, they had a bunch of songs that all sounded very different from each other. There is no universe in which an album that has both Buying New Soul and Access Denied on it could ever be described as coherent. Nor, honestly, do I think Recordings even wants to be coherent. Better to pick at the album on its own terms instead of the terms imposed upon it.

The songs themselves, from worst to best:

In Formaldehyde: Let’s just say there’s a pretty good reason this was left off Lightbulb Sun. It’s a bit too slow and a bit too unremarkable, and it would have struggled to distinguish itself amongst the other songs on that album.

Oceans Have No Memory: Recordings suffers from the same thing Stupid Dream had where most of the good songs are in the front and the meh songs are in the back, and that’s an issue that afflicts Oceans Have No Memory as well. It’s a decent little acoustic thing that’s pleasant enough on its own and as an album closer meant to ease the listener back to earth. But beyond that, it struggles to stick in the memory in any capacity, and I mostly know it now as the source of that koan-ish thing the Hand Cannot Erase protagonist’s foster sister liked so much.

Ambulance Chasing: Of the three full instrumentals on Recordings, this one stands out the most…at first. This is mostly thanks to the booming drums, the eerie synth riff in the background early on, and Theo Travis’ unbelievable doctored saxophone solo, still more proof of how central he is to basically anything he and Wilson work together on. Trouble is, after repeated listens it becomes clear that the whole is lesser than the sum of its parts.

Untitled: Here’s the point where we hit songs that I’ll still listen to of my own volition after I’m done writing this post. This was recorded during the same improvisation that produced Buying New Soul, and it shows. In contrast to Ambulance Chasing, this one steadily reveals new facets of itself on repeated listens, as over the course of its nine-minute unfolding it steadily branches in different, more abstract directions than its more structured counterpart, concerning itself entirely with the sense of atmosphere that Buying New Soul was only partially interested in. Untitled creates a universe for Buying New Soul to exist in, and although that song is still the better of the two, this song remains important for that reason. I want–and I want to emphasize this is a feeling I haven’t had in a while–to hear the whole improvisation this sprung out of.

Disappear: Here it is in its almost-final form, I guess. The song that charted an immediate path forward for Porcupine Tree post-Signify but otherwise spent a little too much time in the oven, and so the band could never quite figure out what to do with it. The version that shows up here is has a first half that feels more like a demo than a finished song (with “I erase myself again” in the chorus feeling particularly like a placeholder), but the back half with the full band is inspired, particularly the “I’m here, you’re never standing still” backing vocals. Ultimately, though, it’s probably for the best that the song’s ultimate fate was as raw material for Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled. The February 1997 version remains definitive.

Cure For Optimism: I’ve pretty much said everything I have to say about this one in the Tonefloating entry. It’s a good song, but switching it out for Four Chords That Made A Million was a good idea.

Even Less: It probably says something about the respective quality of the songs on Stupid Dream and Recordings that the full version of Even Less would have been by a substantial margin the best song on the former but only cracks the top three on the latter. This is the Stupid Dream opener in its complete form, featuring a long textured instrumental section that leads into some thundering drums, squealing guitars, and one of the greatest F-bomb drops in music history, a gloriously profane singsong mockery of people who think their faith will save them from the inevitability of death.

Hearing the whole thing also clarifies why it didn’t make it on Stupid Dream uncut. The back half has the narrator admit that his dream was stupid, which is a bit shocking when the front half trades on its arrogance. It’s the trajectory of the album in miniature, and if it was featured in full on Stupid Dream then everything from Piano Lessons onward would have been recast as How We Got Here, which clearly isn’t what they were going for.

I swore I wouldn’t complain too much about track placement on Recordings, but it is kind of strange that a song that so clearly demands to open an album finds itself instead as the penultimate track. However, it is nice the album has a really good song to anchor its second half, and what Wilson did have planned for the album’s beginning was much more interesting anyway. Speaking of which…

Buying New Soul: I think we can all agree that this is one of the best songs that Porcupine Tree ever made. And I mean Porcupine Tree the band; the haunting organ riff that Barbieri bookends the song with, along with the way Edwin plays his double bass like a cello and Maitland accentuates the rest of the instrumentation with his simple, yet jazzy percussion, simply define the song. We also get some of Wilson’s most intriguing and enigmatic lyrics, with lines like “I still wave at the dots on the shore” and “Woke up and I had a big idea: to buy a new soul at the start of every year,” rendered in melancholy, contemplative tones.

Thematically, this song bridges the themes of Signify and Stupid Dream through grappling with the potential impact selling out (or not!) might have on his livelihood and ability to leave behind something that’ll be remembered. It’s the same double-bind he’s still trapped in: stay true to your artistic integrity and toil in obscurity, or sell out and become filthy rich and immortal, but at a steep cost. Ultimately, he had a stupid dream that he could change things, but he’s a martyr to even less.

This meant, of course, that although Buying New Soul was recorded in 2000, it had no business being on an album that was recorded in 2000. This sounds like something that should belong on Stupid Dream, not Lightbulb Sun or whatever the new album’s going to be. Put this song on a new record and it’ll sound like Steven Wilson’s beating a dead horse. This would always be destined for a castoff album, but in the process would redefine what a castoff album could really do, even if no one realized it.

Access Denied: …and nowhere do we get a clearer picture of what Recordings specifically is about than when Buying New Soul crashes into this, a jaunty, upbeat, vaguely psychedelic bop depicting Golders Green as this quaint idyllic little world with subtle Mod touches, where everything’s in its right place and everyone gets on and there aren’t any serious structural problems…at least not on the surface. When you have these two songs right up next to each other as the first two songs on your album, it’s a very clear sign that you’re much more interested in showing off your range as a musician than any sort of thematic cohesion.

Wilson wanted this song on Lightbulb Sun, but the rest of the band vetoed him. On the one hand, I get it. I can’t think of anywhere for this song to go where it wouldn’t be wildly out of place. On the other hand…fuck you, this song is awesome. Just listen to it: the way he pounds on the piano on the intro like he can’t contain his excitement, the WOWIE WOWIE WOW noises the guitar makes once the singer greets the lucky man who’s just returned from wondrous, exotic adventures in East Asia, the not-quite-out-of-nowhere reference to the Railway Series of all things when he says Sir Topham Hatt doesn’t realize he’s Wilson’s biggest fan. So much of Access Denied radiates a joy and exuberance that’s just downright infectious, and anyone who hates this song really needs to get over themselves. It may be a piece of fluff, but it’s still the best song on the album, and a reminder that maybe, just maybe, Steven Wilson isn’t the mopey, depressed mall goth you think he is…or want him to be.

I.E.M. – Arcadia Son

May 2001

“Tell me when, now?”

The end is near. Well, sort of.

“My name is Beth Krasky. I sell magazines, winning at contests, and I play guitar, drums, and keyboard. I mostly like the rock and roll hippie music of the old days. When I…about four years ago I used to have really bright pink and purple neon hair. That was when I was a freak. [laughs] Dude, I got to be up in the front row and I got a pair of Ozzy’s drumsticks. One of…his fuckin’ drummer was sittin’ there throwin’ ‘em out and I got to shake the drummers hand! He gave me two pairs of his drumsticks, I was like ‘Yeah!’ It was awesome!”

This is the point where reality hits and we realize this is a project whose musical evolution might have been artificially foreshortened. I.E.M. was always the red-headed stepchild of Wilson’s non-formative musical projects, and there’s the sense that if he was in a position to give it the same level of attention that he did, say, Bass Communion, it would have been something more than an afterthought.

So what we’re essentially in with I.E.M. is a purge phase, as Wilson gets out everything he can get out before moving on to potentially more fruitful waters. (Recall that as Arcadia Son and …Have Come for Your Children were being pulled together, Blackfield were mapping out their first EP, which would eventually mutate into a full-length album.) In terms of approaching Arcadia Son specifically, we have a record which could not exist without An Escalator to Christmas from two years ago. In a lot of respects, that EP serves as a trial run for this album. The two records have broadly similar components, with broadly experimental music interspersed with lighter spoken-word pieces.

“I am in awe at what we have achieved on this planet. Civilization has spread like a virus. In the blink of an eye, the universe has taken one breath in a billion years. We are not alone.

There are the vestiges of other civilizations underneath your feet. We will walk in their footsteps. They will never leave us. They watch us from the outer reaches of space, light-years away, on another piece of splintered rock. Cast out, I stop.

Our sun will disintegrate in two million years. We have this much time to find another home in the outer reaches of space.

Look into the stars, do you see your new home? Are the lights on? Did you forget to switch off the gas? Are the lights on? We are not alone. We are not alone. We are not alone. We are not alone. We are not alone. We are not alone. We are not alone. We are not alone. We are not alone. We are not alone…”

There are two introductory tracks. The first is Wreck, a minute and a half of heavily abstracted jazz punctuated with guitar squeals that edge perilously close to straight harsh noise. Then we cut to Beth Krasky, which is composed of snippets from an interview with Miss Krasky where she reminisces about wilder times and gushes about getting a pair of Ozzy’s drumsticks. The parallel to B. Cranswick introducing us to alternative poetry in the measured tones of an NPR presenter is irresistible. After this, about forty minutes of weirdness.

There will be no spoken-word samples breaking up the weirdness until the very final track, Goldilocks Age 4, featuring a prim but precocious Babby Steven retelling the story of the three bears at some sort of party in 1972. The recording cuts off right when he hits the reveal that Goldilocks is still sleeping in Baby Bear’s bed.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, one of the great things about An Escalator to Christmas was the way things were broken up, how every spoken-word piece in that suite functioned as a breather and a transition from one song to another, like a radio DJ. Here, though, after Beth Krasky we’re plunged into the deep end and expected to keep up as we lurch from trippy psychedelia to flutes over tribalesque drumming to what sounds almost like a remix of Queen Quotes Crowley to frenetic drums and ringing over a mellotron choir, and it can get exhausting. On the other hand, this implies a certain maturation, that on Arcadia Son Wilson trusts that we’re able to follow along on his flights of experimental fancy and he doesn’t need to hold our hands.

As this album and …Have Come for Your Children are the last two records I.E.M. made when it was active, it’s worth speculating where they could have gone from here. Of the two records, this one has the more eclectic and fruitful spread. The obvious potential source of inspiration is Shadow of a Twisted Hand Across My House, which swings from harsh noise at the start to frenetic drum loops and mellotron choirs in the middle to what sounds like literal tubular bells toward the end. It feels like a medley of songs that don’t exist.

There’s also We Are Not Alone, a very psychedelic number that sounds like an Alex Gray illustration, featuring voices, pitched up and down as though they were a diverse cross-section of people, reciting a sort of bizarre poetry stating that we on Earth are being observed, haunted, by the ghosts of past civilizations. The Lance Henson-esque monotone delivery gives their words a particular urgent gravitas, reinforced when it devolves into “we are not alone” repeated ad infinitum like a skipping record, as if whatever magical force that’s allowing the Legion to possess their bodies to communicate this message to us is deteriorating.

Finally, there’s Politician, the only one-minute respite in the middle of the album, which sounds like filtered intermission muzak, over which we have the sounds of a woman masturbating. This is probably the track with the most interesting sense of implication surrounding it, because, in case that description didn’t make it clear, Steven Wilson made a vaporwave song over a decade before vaporwave was even a thing. I.E.M. contains numerous alternate futures within it, but the one unlocked through this song is one of the most intriguing: a world in which Steven Wilson becomes a pioneering vaporwave artist, pushing the genre in new and interesting directions. (And hey, since he’s hinted he’s released stuff with zero publicity under pseudonyms Richard D James-style, there’s a chance it might actually still be true.)

Wilson never really gave this project the same level of attention that he gave his other ones, and that’s honestly a shame because this is probably the most unique project out of everything he’s ever done. Most of the other stuff Wilson’s done has been very deliberate and mannered, but I.E.M. is much more experimental, goofy, and playful, often sounding like he’s messing around with whatever silly idea popped into his head that day and experiencing the joy and thrill of discovery right along with us. This is a part of Wilson we don’t see very often, and as such I always treasure it when he pours his id directly on tape like this.

In other words, Arcadia Son reminds us that Steven Wilson makes music because it’s fun. There’s a particular omnivorous curiosity to I.E.M., a project vibrating with possibility, wanting to go everywhere and do everything all at the same time. Like Babby Wilson’s story at the end of this album, though, the evolution of I.E.M. remains unfinished. That said, there’s still the sense that what we got out of it during its brief life is the purest, most unfiltered expression of Wilson’s musical personality we’ve seen to date.

“—mean time the three bears were coming back. And, and when they came back, they saw that, that, erm, they, they said, in a big voice, the first one said, ‘Who’s been eating my porridge?’ And then the second one, ‘Who’s been eating my porridge?’ And then the little one, he said, in a very light voice, ‘Who’s been eating my porridge, and they’ve eaten it all up!’

Then they went to see the chairs to sit on them, then Father Bear said, ‘Who’s been sitting in my chair?’ Then the medium-sized one said ‘Who’s been sitting in my chair?’ Then the little one said, ‘Who’s been sitting in my chair and broken it all up!’

Then they went up to bed, erm, and then Big Father Bear said, ‘Who’s been lay–lying in my bed?’ Then the second one said, ‘Who’s been lying in my bed?’ Then the little one said, ‘Who’s been lying in—’”

  1. Arcadia Son
  2. I.E.M.

Porcupine Tree – Warszawa

Recorded 6 April 2001
Released January 2004

The period from 2000 to 2002 was for Steven Wilson a tangle of beginnings and endings rivaled in density only by the period surrounding the birth of his solo career. We’ve talked some about the beginnings already: of No-Man settling into the sound that would define its later career, and of the start of Wilson’s long-running partnerships with Mikael Åkerfeldt and Aviv Geffen. Now it’s time to hash out an ending.

Warszawa was recorded in April 2001 for a radio program in the eponymous Polish capital, mixed two months later in the home studio at Wilson’s folks’ house, but wouldn’t be released until 2004 due to contractual issues and a label change. It’s a nice little show, and although it’s a full-band performance, the fact that they’re playing in front of a small studio audience still gives the show a certain intimacy that’s deeply, deeply appealing, helped in no small part through the comparative intimacy of Lightbulb Sun itself. Its focus on shorter, more organic songs make it a perfect album for small shows.

This performance is roughly typical of shows during the Lightbulb Sun tour. We’re far enough into the Alternative Era that many of the songs are from this album and Stupid Dream, with the occasional jarring Space-Era throwback. This isn’t exactly a lament for the Space Era, the stuff they’re making now is just as good as the stuff they made then, but by this time it’s so far removed from what they’re playing now that it’s hard to believe they’re even the same band. That’s how completely they’ve moved on from the Space Era by this point. By now, playing a Space Era song evokes a feeling of nostalgia more than anything else. (And throwing in Signify at the end just emphasizes how much that album was in some respects an awkward false start.)

In addition, the little cosmetic changes that happen to each song when it’s performed live are taking shape. Some of them are pretty good, like the way Wilson shouts “MOTHER I NEED HER” during Slave Called Shiver and “MY HEAD BEATS A BETTER WAY” during Lightbulb Sun. There’s also the squealing, swirling guitar solos in Hatesong and Signify, equal parts heavy and psychedelic. Other changes aren’t quite so beneficial. For instance, at this point, the only major differences to Even Less are the way he draws out “others…were born to stack ssssshhhhhelves” in the second verse and the way the one line is already changed to “I’m a martyr to even less,” reflecting the song’s missing final verse. These don’t exactly add anything, and are oddly distracting given how the rest of the song is pretty much note-perfect. Even this early, it became clear that Even Less was a song that required a certain finesse to pull off live. Some of the permutations of this song on offer in the coming decades are truly horrifying. For right now, though, it still works.

The most important change for our purposes, however, is vital and necessary. Whenever Wilson needed to record backing vocals in studio, he largely preferred to just record them himself and layer them on top of each other. This obviously isn’t workable live, so instead Chris Maitland was commissioned to sing backing vocals when needed. The Alternative Era, meanwhile, brought with it an increased interest in vocal harmonies, so Maitland’s backing vox here, in the Alternative Era’s chronologically earliest live album, are more prominent than they were on previous live releases. John Wesley he isn’t, but he still puts in a very good effort.

Here’s why the drummer’s increased presence on this record is noteworthy: Chris Maitland left Porcupine Tree acrimoniously in early 2002. By this time, Wilson was secure enough financially to devote himself to music full-time, while Maitland still had to support himself through stage acting gigs and drumming classes. This, naturally, led to recurring and frustrating availability issues, which came to a head at the start of the In Absentia recording sessions. There, an argument led to a fight where, the legend goes, Maitland knocked Wilson around the recording studio like a ping-pong ball. There is, in fact, video.

Maitland and Wilson would patch things up relatively quickly afterwards, but the fact of the matter is the drummer’s time in the band is almost up. Although he’ll show up in later things like the Nearfest bootleg and Recordings and Blackfield and a few other compilations, Warszawa remains the chronologically last official thing Chris Maitland would record with Porcupine Tree.

But that’s all in the future. Right now, it’s April 2001, and the band is still whole, and despite whatever tensions that may exist, Maitland is still here pounding away at his drums and singing backing vox and making his presence felt. Let’s enjoy the moment.