Steven Wilson – Tonefloating

27 Feburary 2000
Voyage 31 rerelease, 2019

Let’s pad this thing out a bit by covering what we missed to get here.

First, Spirits Burning’s New World by Design. These guys are pretty interesting, a space rock collective featuring Don Falcone and whoever he felt like collaborating with at the time. This, naturally, means there’s an astronomically long revolving door of members, and Steven Wilson is one of them, contributing guitars for a song on their first album. That song is not the only one from that record on YouTube…that would be Arcturus, which is a short two-and-a-half minute krautrock joint and quite good. The album it’s on, unfortunately, is rare enough that a copy off Amazon Music costs over $150. And that was the only place I could find a copy; the official Spirits Burning website, a charmingly out-of-date affair (hosted by Earthlink, no less!), points interested parties toward a “distributors” page which no longer exists.

Next, Cipher’s No Ordinary Man. This is the first album of a collaboration between Theo Travis and Dave Sturt, featuring Barbieri on keyboards and Wilson on guitar for a few songs. This record is a slab of cold, alienating concrete, the sound of malfunctioning streetlamps and dead drops on the East German border. It’s a ghost story wrapped up in the conventions of a spy movie…so of course Wilson co-produced it.

Finally, and more pertinently for this particular record, what should surface last month but No-Man’s Hit the North recording sessions from 1992. (I suspect my insufficient Google-fu is to blame here; the whole thing happens to be part of a compilation released in 1998 of recording sessions from around that time.) It’s excellent, both as a collaboration with JBK, whose members show up in the usual places and are integral to the way this record sounds (besides Karn’s very distinctive bass, Barbieri’s eerie, haunting keyboards work so well with Ocean Song that the EP version feels bereft without them), and as a reminder of how good No-Man were even in the early days. This is No-Man still in their state of pubescent confusion, yes, when they were still trying to ride One Little Indian’s and trip hop’s coattails into some form of mainstream success, but there’s an energy and vitality to this performance that transcends any cynical triangulation that may have gone into how these songs sound.

And now, speaking of things that have been uncovered recently, Tonefloating. This is a record company promo more than anything else, released as a giveaway for 200 lucky people who attended the Tonefloating concert in Delft in February 2000. After this, it would pretty much disappear until the release earlier this year of Wouter Bessels’ Voyage 31, an ambiguously authorized (website says it isn’t; still has official sanction from SW himself) biography of Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson’s concert history in the Netherlands. This book has a special edition, limited to 1,000 copies, featuring, happily, a repressing of the Tonefloating single.

It’s a split single, featuring demos from Wilson and a homegrown band from Nijmegen called The Use of Ashes. Their contribution would eventually become Rainbird, a song which sounds vaguely Porcupine Tree-like in the sense that it’s a mashup of the Space and Alternative Eras, and whose vocals sound like if Wilson pitched his voice down and layered it over itself a few times.

Wilson himself, meanwhile, contributed an edit of Cure for Optimism. The final version was released on Recordings in 2001 and sounds great. It’s kind of a sparse song, featuring eerie echoing piano accentuated by some rhythmic acoustic guitar, with Wilson singing cryptically about being institutionalized, perhaps involuntarily, picked at and experimented on, insane but not insane. There’s some low, haunting rumble at the beginning and the end, and the way the meat of the song fades in and out from it makes it feel like a rare moment of clarity amid a medically-induced hallucinatory stupor. The version that appears on Tonefloating is pretty similar to what’s on Recordings, but doesn’t have the rumble, instead fading in after about twenty seconds of silence. The lack of bookends gives the sense that our singer hasn’t gone out of his mind, like on Recordings, but that he’s been ruined to the point where he generally experiences no brain activity whatsoever.

This is all based on hindsight, though. Somebody in 2000 wouldn’t have the full version to compare the demo against, and wouldn’t think, hmm, this song is pretty good, but feels incomplete without creepy ambient noises at the beginning and end. Nevertheless, the twenty seconds of anticipatory nothing is pretty haunting, and the slow fade-in at the start still feels like consciousness struggling to rise from the depths. Trouble is, there’s no corresponding silence afterwards, instead ending right after it fades out, implying that this particular bit of clear-headedness continues after the song ends. Consequently, the song’s meaning doesn’t land with quite the same impact that it does on Recordings.

But that’s not why the song is important. Although he’s recorded solo before, it’s always been under an alias (Bass Communion, early Porcupine Tree) and never just as himself, until now. Tonefloating may have been a promo a record company pulled together as an extra goody for people who attended a specific concert, but appropriately for a new millennium and the associated stuff about a new beginning, we have the first record released under the name Steven Wilson. When his acoustic guitar fades in at the start, the faint possibility that he might have a solo career under his own name is released into the universe.

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Bass Communion – Atmospherics

1999

A quick run of shorter posts before we hit Lightbulb Sun and Returning Jesus. [Magical, airy, building in tension.] In the 90s, Steven Wilson made soundtracks for commercials. [Warm, flowing, euphoric.] He lucked into the job through Mike Bennion, a film director, whose sister was Tim Bowness’ ex-girlfriend, and who was quite fond of the work they did on No-Man, and so he and Steve got in touch. [Slow, thoughtful over eerie crackling record.] Bennion would go on to work with Porcupine Tree several times, most notably as the director for the Piano Lessons video and a major player in the aborted Deadwing film. [Gradually creeping, muffled, ominous.] Some of his commercial work would show up later on in Unreleased Electronic Music. [Light, climbing, wondrous.] Atmospherics, obviously, is not that. [Swelling, mysterious pulses.]

This, instead, is a collection of very short two-to-three-minute pieces, some of which are extracts and remixes of other Bass Communion tracks, meant for use in TV and radio programs. [Sinister, underwater pressure.] In other words, the same kind of thing as what he was doing on adverts. [Calm, ethereal, steadily rising.] This compilation’s existence also makes sense in another way, as Wilson’s music has always had a particular cinematic bent to it, and the work of Bass Communion is always particularly evocative. [Jungle at night, echoing noises.] Very often, Bass Communion sounds like the soundtrack to the sort of creepy, unsettling, dream-logic film Wilson would just love, so why not take the obvious step and hook up with a library music company and make that music available for actual creepy, unsettling, dream-logic TV shows? [Soft, slowly progressing mystery.] (I find myself wondering which shows do in fact have a Bass Communion sample thrumming ominously in the background, now.) [Sober, uneasy, surreal.]

As befits an album sold to production companies for BGM purposes (as anyone who listened to those really early Two Steps From Hell trailer music compilations would know), this is definitively not an album meant to be listened to from beginning to end. [Tranquil, spreading waves.] So there’s very little point in looking at this the same way we’d look at, say, Bass Communion II. [Quietly threatening, danger approaching.] This is more like a catalogue, something to thumb through to find a specific sample that serves a specific purpose in the story (an intention reinforced thanks to the 60- and 30-second samples of each track that make up the album’s back half). [Gentle, tentative progression.] And indeed, that’s the exact effect Atmospherics gives, of a disjointed hopping from soundscape to soundscape, some familiar, some not, in a sort of sonic buffet. [Eerie minimalism.] This isn’t something for you or me. [Smooth gliding motion, increasing in pressure.] But the value in an album like Atmospherics comes in the way familiar songs are recontextualized, and in this case what we get is Bass Communion’s Greatest Hits For The Discerning Studio Soundtrack Decision Maker. [Spooky late night restlessness.] Completely commercial, yes, but as anyone who’s listened to Two Steps From Hell will also tell you, just because it’s commercial doesn’t mean there isn’t artistry there, even if some of the artistry in question was sometimes pulled from elsewhere. [Haunting desolation.] We want to hear more of what was featured here, and that, infuriatingly, goes double for the pieces original to this collection.

Bass Communion – Bass Communion V Muslimgauze

September 1999
Bass Communion V Muslimgauze EP, July 2000

Hooboy.

Bryn “Muslimgauze” Jones is one of those guys who probably should have a song-by-song retrospective written about his work, ideally by some underground music nerd who’s written a dissertation on recent Middle Eastern history. Over the course of his twenty-year career he’d release well over a hundred studio albums, mostly atmospheric loop-based electronic pieces (swinging between ambient and dub and noise and everywhere in between) with vocal samples and traditional Middle Eastern instruments thrown in, all laser-focused on conflict in the Muslim world. The music of Muslimgauze, and the way it interacts with the person who created it, is full of apparent contradictions, and is worth engaging with because of them.

Let us, then, engage. Famously, Jones himself was a nonreligious white guy from Manchester who never visited the Mideast on the grounds that it was (and is) occupied territory. His impetus for starting the project was the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and over the next seventeen years he’d develop an encyclopedic knowledge of Middle Eastern politics and history, but his perspective on that history never progressed beyond “aggressively woke Tumblr teenager.” Even more bizarrely, outside of his strident opposition to Western imperialism and adventurism in the Mideast, his politics were apparently wildly incoherent, to the point where the creator of an album titled Fuck Israel happened to also be, of all things, a Thatcher supporter.

This is actually perfectly ideologically consistent. The mistake here is assuming that an anti-imperialist position is exclusively leftist when it’s not hard to come up with counterexamples. (To pick one immediately to hand, Khomeini. He may have called the US the Great Satan but that doesn’t mean his post-revolution goal was a secular, moneyless, propertyless utopia.) This myopia can be partially explained through Jones’ nationality: he lived in a country whose late empire remains lamented amongst its right wing. Meanwhile, in a country that was the victim of empire, it’s not hard for a conservative nationalist anti-imperialism to develop, perhaps centering around an idealized vision of how the land was before the Westerners started marching in with their tanks and their decadence and their arbitrarily drawn lines.

(Tangent 1: So it’s clear that leftist and rightist anti-imperialisms can bleed into each other pretty easily. Going back to Iran, for instance, both socialists and theocrats had a hand in toppling the Shah in 1979. That said, it’s probably best to leave the question of how to deal with the uncomfortable ways left and right intersect here to those actually on the ground.)

(Tangent 2: And that, by the way, is how Ostalgie-riddled ex-Communist East Germany fell hard for the AfD.)

(Tangent 3: That for all his militancy Jones was apparently very awkward and introverted in real life should also not be surprising, as anyone who actually knows militant Internet people can testify.)

It is this sort of conservative anti-imperialism that the music of Muslimgauze easily lends itself to. Many of the album and song titles—when they’re not referencing a specific person or event or blasting a nation complicit in the systematic oppression of Muslim people—reference a traditional aspect of Islamic society and culture. The field recordings and use of traditional instruments paint a picture of a traditional society that has had modernity—in the form of oil-thirsty empire—imposed on it from outside and which is suffering for it.

(Tangent 4: The most immediate critique—the West ≠ modernity—is obvious and essential. This conflation we can probably chalk up to the way Britain thought of its empire as a civilizing force instead of the destructive force it actually was.)

If we’re being unkind, we might even call this a fetishization of Middle Eastern culture, and speculate that Jones’ refusal to actually visit the Mideast might also have been subconsciously fueled by a desire to not have this very intricate idea of the Muslim world, silted into existence over years and years of research and music production, collapse in on itself after coming into contact with reality. That’s a fair critique. It certainly reads that way to someone like me whose mental image of the Mideast is less Hebron and more Dubai. Either way, though, there’s extremely little in the way of any broader anti-capitalist sentiment here.

Nevertheless, the field recordings are evocative, the dronework unsettling, the electronics abrasive and challenging. The questionable politics are there, yes, but they’re questionable in very specific and idiosyncratic ways that demand polysyllabic engagement. This remains, fundamentally, very well-made music.

(Tangent 5: Besides, if I only listened to music that aligned with my specific politics I’d only listen to anarchist crust punk recorded in squats, and that’s no way to go through life.)

(Tangent 6: And no, I have no idea how you’d make an explicitly leftist counterpoint to Muslimgauze. Perhaps ask someone who’s actually from the Mideast.)

Steven Wilson has a longstanding policy of not caring about an artist’s politics, so long as the music is good. (Not unrelatedly, Steven Wilson is a cisgender white man.) And this music is extremely good, and more importantly, extremely good in an off-kilter left-field way that’s right up his alley. So, when Wilson discovered Bryn Jones and his considerable discography, he wrote to him, they met, and he gave Jones some of his own music, which Jones then heavily edited to fit his own style and sent back.

The two of them would fling remixes and remixes of remixes back and forth until an album emerged. The result is something that would be a lighter Muslimgauze offering if it didn’t sound like Muslimgauze run [further] through the William S. Burroughs cut-up method. There’s not much in the way of Jones’ usual trademarks, like the vocal samples or the percussion, but there’s a lot of distortion and artistic brickwalling. It’s like if someone dunked the Muslimgauze machine in water and then let it rip. As for Bass Communion, their (“their”) more pronounced contributions generally show up toward the back, with Moonloop leftovers showing up in Four and Six, and their penchant for slow, incremental change (not, critically, a Muslimgauze staple) appearing in Five.

In general, though, this collaboration still feels like a watering down of each artists’ respective strengths. As I write this I still find myself drawn to the punchier stuff Jones released solo instead of what this collaboration produced. Bass Communion fares slightly better, but that may have more to do with the way their identity is less subsumed into the collective muck than anything. In that respect, this EP feels somewhat unbalanced, and one would expect a months-long remix and re-remix effort to eventually produce something that both retained each artist’s individual identity and molded them together into something distinctive. That didn’t quite happen.

It’s probably inaccurate to say it’s a “missed opportunity.” That would imply there’s some ideal way for a Bass Communion/Muslimgauze collaboration to sound, and given the two projects approach ambient and experimental music from perpendicular directions (loosely: BC plays up the alien-ness of its soundscapes, whereas Muslimgauze is firmly rooted in the real world), if there is one, this is probably it. But it doesn’t really matter, because the two artists wouldn’t have the chance to collaborate again. Bryn Jones died of a rare blood disease in 1999, leaving behind a Tupac-sized mountain of unreleased work that took over fifteen years to fully sift through. (Fortunately, it’s all on Spotify. My personal recommendation is to start with Gun Aramaic and work your way outwards from there.) Wilson, meanwhile, would go on to collaborate with multiple Israeli artists (one of whom is related to Moshe Dayan), have a second home in Tel Aviv, and describe other musicians’ support of BDS as performative ego-stroking. Go figure.

Bass Communion – Bass Communion II

July 1999

  • Advert. Like an advert, except with beeps. (When did he stop doing these?)
  • 16 Second Swarm. Melancholy horns over static fuzz. More reconstructed memories (what was happening in 1999?). Not a memory—a ghost (do the Hokey Cokey). Record scratch fades out, ambient shimmers fade in. 6’00” in…violins. Cellos. (A mourning.) Ágætis byrjun, abstracted. A call of alien animals across the highland hills.
  • Grammatic Oil. Thumping, thrumming, all-consuming low humming. Not quite JBK-tribal but close. Electronic echolocation. All blends together into a coalescing, oppressive wall of noise. Which then fades out to alien whispering distant alien shrieking.
  • Drugged III. Back to the shoreline saxophonic well. Intro feels like a tension-riddled Japanese tea ceremony. Ambient swells kick in early. (Kyoto—outside of time—akin to the timeless London whose Thames bridge Gull jumped off in From Hell’s penultimate chapter. (A memory of an imaginary city.)) Sax from before, accentuated with guitar (see above). Fades out in favor of soundscapes and whalesong, the suite collapsing in on itself and reconstituting. Travis’ sax becomes disembodied from itself, as we drift slowly upward.
  • Dwarf Artillery. Twitchy, glitchy, and full of radar. Voyage 34, Phase IV, if Brian was a conspiracy nut. (This time the paranoia is palpable.) (It has direction.) Distorted guitar ambience in the background in the midsection.
  • Wide Open Killingfeld. Wind above metal shacks. Future civilization camping in amongst the ruins of ours—communicating in song (sounds like birds). Abstracted seagull calls. First part sounds the way a Lasse Hoile photograph looks. Radio static, rusted flagpoles. After this, only the mood.

————

A central concept of the first volume of Phonogram, the Gillen/McKelvie not-quite-love-letter to music nerdery, is the memory kingdom. It’s exactly what it says on the tin, a scene, something like Swinging London or Madchester or Britpop, as it exists in the culture’s collective memory.

Entering a memory kingdom isn’t shown to be exceptionally difficult, as it’s the natural extension of the sort of things people do when they listen to a ton of music that they associate with a particular time and place (eg. Burial and New York, Pendulum and Hong Kong, Space-Era Porcupine Tree and Taipei). There’s some ceremonial set and setting stuff that needs to be done in the beginning, but the core of the whole process is this: listen to something of that time and get into it. Everybody does that.

Bass Communion II presents itself as an invitation to do something similar. The transition point is pretty clearly the moment on the second track where the record static fades out and the barrier between the listener and the soundscape has been shattered, and we spend the rest of the album wandering aimlessly around a strange new world.

The kingdom we’ve entered, though, isn’t a collective memory, or even Wilson’s memory specifically. This is an oblique heterotopia; green England’s fields turned upside-down and inside-out, an ominous hellscape populated with bird-men and glitch-dogs and other, more alien creatures that hum and drone beyond the horizon. They go about their dark work not even knowing or caring you’re there, safe in the knowledge that if a tourist were to pierce the separation between worlds and stumble into theirs, you’d have no idea what they’re doing and would be too scared/dumbfounded to ask. You are a dream, wandering a world of dreams made real.

This is part of why music is magic. You may not be able to physically reach out and touch the glitch-beasts in the last track on the second disc, and they may not have existed in any meaningful sense before July of 1999, but there they are, to quote Alan Moore, real beyond refute, in all their grandeur and monstrosity. Steven Wilson sketched an entire world and packed it into 87 minutes of music, and you have filled in the details. A, uh, communion, if you will, between musician and listener.

But here’s the thing: there’s nothing inherent about Wilson’s soundscapes in this album, or even about Wilson as a musician, that allows this to happen. This is just an example of the magical properties of an aesthetic. Listen to a song, ideally one that carries a particular weight for you, and you’ll find this exact thing happening again. I’m doing it right now, with a different record, as I write this.

In other words, everybody does that.

  1. Bass Communion II
  2. Bass Communion I

————

  • A Grapefruit in the World of Park. Based on Robert Fripp soundscape. Oscillating burbles come in so loud they make the surrounding radio antennas hum. Music which has a concrete effect upon the world. Metallic hum resolves to cello. Individual elements slowly stretched apart.
  • Snakebird. Square Root of Sub remix. Spiritual sequel to Sleep, &c. Airships above a bog. At the center, a crystal shimmering. Mesmerizing. Drawing all in. Drugged reprise. Splashing, bitcrushed howling. Glitchy. Distorted beyond all recognition. Artificial, but very real and very threatening. But the brightness remains, beckoning. Something about the light’s true nature?

Porcupine Tree – Stupid Dream

March 1999

Piano Lessons, April 1999
Stranger by the Minute, October 1999
Pure Narcotic, November 1999
London, September 2000
Expanded 2CD edition, 15 May 2006

A body is washed up on a Norfolk beach…”

Kaboom.

To understand Stupid Dream, we have to return to the unfortunate misfire that was Porcupine Tree’s previous album. Signify is an odd duck in Porcupine Tree’s back catalogue, one that is clearly tired of the conventions of the Space Era, but as the conventions of the Alternative Era were just barely sketched out, instead finds itself struggling for something, anything, to build a sound on. Unfortunately, straight Neu-esque krautrock, heretofore the most promising candidate, didn’t get them very far; it barely sustained them for one song. Nevertheless, the futile grasping at a new sound did inspire some more fruitful experiments as 1996 crashed into 1997 and the future slowly but dispassionately advanced.

Of those early demos, the one that holds the most in the way of any mystical significance was Disappear, endlessly recorded and rerecorded amidst the white swirling heat coalescing around the Italy tour and Coma Divine. We’ve talked about it in that entry mostly in terms of its position in history and what it prefigured, how it was the Alternative Era sound in its most unpolished form. But we neglected to touch on something more salient: yes, the lyrics are the usual stuff about alienation and isolation, a well Wilson’d return to again and again as the decades wear on, but let’s look at the way this song interprets those themes. They’re sung to a lover, a poet, an individual more extroverted and more willing to take chances than the narrator. The narrator’s wish is that she grow and blossom and take on the world, while he fades into the background and, yes, disappears. One thing retreats, while at the same time another advances. Likewise, the Space and Alternative Eras.

It could be argued that the power of this song directly comes from the band’s inability to figure out how to make the song work, as many of the other demos are significant primarily in relation to what they would (or wouldn’t) mutate into later. I Fail, for instance, the very very first demo recorded for the Stupid Dream sessions, has no significance to the ritual whatsoever because this whole three-year process technically kicked off with Signify. We’re already in the thick of it when I Fail first appears, and so its role in this thing is to be the source from which Wilson could gank some of the lyrics for Buying New Soul. Likewise, London, which is just an extremely early version of Don’t Hate Me. The 1997 version of Even Less is essentially yet another attack on religion (“and Jesus was crucified for doing nothing, and God is worshipped for even less”), which after an album that was partially about bashing religion would have just been beating a dead horse. The more oblique and thematically complex versions we find on Stupid Dream and Recordings are vastly superior. All of these songs are primarily defined in relation to something else, so there’s not much of interest to be found here for our purposes beyond the start of a new sound.

Moving deeper into 1997, we find Sunsets on Empire, the Alternative Era’s midwife. This is a record that has not benefited from hindsight, as its strengths are quiet and subtle and its missteps (the first few lines of The Perception of Johnny Punter, the entire concept of Brother 52) are massive and glaring. But it did serve two very important purposes in Fish and Wilson’s respective careers. First, it gave Derek Dick a general aesthetic that he could settle into and build on for his masterpiece of a follow-up. And second, it conclusively demonstrated that a sound similar to what would define the Alternative Era could indeed be sustained across an entire album, that the demos Wilson and the band were kicking around at the time could indeed become something polished and complete.

And so here we are, the building blocks of the Alternative Era in place, and how we just have to spend 1998 assembling them into something worth calling a big-A Album. We sign a record deal at the end of that year, and in March of 1999, as the cultural zeitgeist of the decade ossifies, curdles, and ultimately flames out in ways both constructive (The Matrix) and destructive (Columbine), we get Stupid Dream, a sell-out album about the horrors of selling out.

This is a provocative way of putting it, yes, but lest we forget how obsessed we were in the 90s about authenticity, man. Even the big iconoclastic, stridently anticapitalist band of the decade, Rage Against the Machine, got flak because they belonged to a major label. This was stupid. It was stupid then, it’s extremely stupid now. As Wilson will tell you, and has told interviewers during the press rigmarole surrounding the release of Stupid Dream, the role of the musician in the record industry is to be exploited. It’s to have your singular vision twisted into something commercial and marketable. Even if the people Steve Albini once memorably described as “front office bulletheads” don’t touch a single note of what you’ve created, they’re still working overtime to figure out how to extract as much money from your product—and it is a product—as possible. This is their job. This is their role in the structures of capitalism. This is how your label is going to operate. Forget your own agenda, get ready to be sold.

The point is, the people who pitched a fit at the supposed inauthenticity of major-label stars Rage Against the Machine shouldn’t have got pissy at Zack and Tom for signing with Sony. They should have instead directed their anger at Sony for existing.

(Tangent the first: I’d be remiss here if I didn’t mention the packaging for Godspeed’s Yanqui U.X.O., which featured a chart showing the various connections between the Big Four record labels and various arms manufacturers.)

(Tangent the second: Zack is legit, by the way. Just wanted to make that clear.)

But it was the 90s. A breather decade between Cold War lunacy on one end and War on Terror lunacy on the other. (That this was also the decade that gave us such happy fun times as Rodney King, welfare reform, the DMCA, the Yugoslav Wars, and the Rwandan Genocide should give you an idea of just how absolutely insane the 1980s and the 2000s were.) The general narrative was that We Had It Good in the 90s. We are, of course, aware that implicit in this recollection is the “We” here refers to, all together now, middle-class cisgender heterosexual white men, but we’ll leave the truly ghastly implications of that to one side for now. We have a privileged class who were sitting particularly pretty this decade, buffeted by an economic situation that benefited them, and since the Cold War and the sense of Purpose that naturally sprung from it was over, they’re now left with something missing and are cast adrift. So how do we fill that hole?

With stuff. Thanks, Reagan.

Consumerism, then. A culture and society built entirely around spending all your money on things you don’t need under the false promise that all this fancy stuff will make you happy. Your life revolves not around self-growth or building relationships with other humans, but your stuff. That’s what keeps the economy going, after all. This is a philosophy that, in our understanding of the word, could best be described with that famously pithy line from Fight Club: “the things you own end up owning you.”

We are exceptionally close to arriving at a decent critique of capitalism here. We need only decenter the consumer in this whole system and focus instead on the worker. Who’s making all that stuff you don’t need? What are their working conditions? Bringing it closer to home, what about your working conditions? You, presumably, if you can afford all this stuff, are an anonymous white-collar drone working in an anonymous cube in an anonymous edge-city office building. You’re no longer human, but a number plugged into the system, defined entirely by your value to your bosses. Extrapolate this to every worker in every industry and boom. Instant radicalization.

Here’s the problem: we are trapped in our own myopia. Although we are alienated and exploited workers, we still have a decent house in a decent neighborhood, and, well…look at all this stuff we have! We are benefiting from capitalism in some small way, so that can’t possibly be the problem. Surely my experience as a worker isn’t in some way applicable to every worker in every industry. The thing that’s hollowing out our society and our experience of the world and reducing everything to dollar signs isn’t something so overarching as capitalism. That would mean the alternative is living under Stalin’s bootheel, and look how that turned out. No, this is a wart that we need to freeze off, and once that’s done everything will be A-OK.

Thus does the main critique of consumerism become not that it perpetuates the capitalist meat grinder but that it’s inauthentic. We are not a “woke” people in the 90s, far from it, but we have enough sense rattling around in our coddled skulls that corporations primarily exist to make money. Anything produced by a corporation primarily exists to make money, and any warmth and personal connection offered by that thing is what David Foster Wallace would describe as a “professional smile,” the insincere, plastered-on rictus people give you when they want something from you.

Let’s slowly circle back and narrow this down to music. Record labels, like any other corporation, primarily exist to make money. So with that in mind, what sort of music was big in the late 90s? Tons and tons of manufactured, plastic pop music. Think the Spice Girls or the Backstreet Boys: music that’s catchy, accessible, and ultimately disposable. Made to sell units, not to communicate any genuine emotions. (And, tangentially, a clearly unworthy inheritor of the throne vacated by grunge and britpop.) This was the sort of thing we were absolutely terrified of our faves settling into. And what could be a more perfect first step down the slippery slope than signing to a major label or releasing music that dared to be a little more accessible. Because accessible = commercial, and commercial = bad.

Hence, the knives come out for Rage Against the Machine since they signed to a major label. And while Stupid Dream was extremely well received, one can very easily imagine a certain contingent of the fandom faithful bringing out knives of their own because the band released a record considerably less psychedelic and abstract and more songwriter-oriented than what they were known for. Here, though, is the catch: just as there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, there is no authentic consumption under capitalism, either. It’s not just the major-label records that are fundamentally inauthentic. Every record ever released exists on some level to make money. Even if it was pushed out by some ramshackle indie vanity label run out of somebody’s bedroom, where the budget is so shoestring that no one can cough up the money for color packaging or a pressing greater than 100 units and the greatest business expenses are weed and cheap alcohol. Even if it’s released for free or pay-what-you-want. Even if 100% of the proceeds are donated to charity. An album like Stupid Dream couldn’t be evidence of Wilson selling out because he sold out the instant people he didn’t personally know started listening to his music. What’s more, at around this time, our precious, ostensibly commercially untainted psychedelic prog god literally had a side job making music meant to be used in advertisements. In other words: he sold his soul to make a record, dipshit, and you bought one.

But what about that record? Well…it’s fine.

This isn’t me turning around and being a massive hypocrite about accessible music. My favorite of Wilson’s solo albums is To the Bone, for God’s sake. The issue here is twofold. First, pacing. We start off with a solid run of great songs: Even Less, Piano Lessons, Pure Narcotic. But then we hit Slave Called Shiver and the album starts to sputter. After that the album is distractingly uneven, with what seems like an eternity between Don’t Hate Me and A Smart Kid, the two best songs after that point. And we close out with Stop Swimming, which, Wilson likes to say that the saddest songs are the most beautiful, but like all statements about quality that privilege substance over style, he’s only occasionally correct. Good sad songs can be transcendently beautiful (Feel So Low, for example), but Stop Swimming is not one of those.

Second: Stupid Dream is only almost a concept album. It’s probably worth picking at what is and isn’t a concept album here. The Wall is self-evidently a concept album, a self-exorcism in which a Roger Waters stand-in mentally isolates himself from the world and thus becomes a monster. Thick as a Brick is a concept album, albeit one lampooning concept albums, and like any great parody, it managed to anticipate the genre becoming a parody of itself. Sergeant Pepper’s, meanwhile, only pretends to be a concept album, as the pretense that the whole album is a performance by the eponymous fictional band is effectively abandoned around the third track. OK Computer is accidentally a concept album. Yorke and the band have always sworn up and down it isn’t one—largely because anyone who made a concept album in 1997 would be a pretentious git—but thanks to the way the tracks collectively paint an eschatologically nightmarish picture of what really awaited Britain at the dawn of New Labour, that’s how things shook loose anyway.

This level of thematic and narrative unity is largely absent from Stupid Dream. For all that the album is ostensibly about the music industry, only Piano Lessons and Stop Swimming unequivocally have the titular stupid dream as a subject; everything else has to be bent to fit the theme. Sometimes it doesn’t take a lot of work. Even Less may originally have been yet another broadside against religion, but in the end the narrator believes himself to be wasting his life pursuing stardom as much as the believers he sneers at. (This comes through better in the extended version that shows up on Recordings, whose essential final verse features the line “and I had a stupid dream that I could change things, but I’m a martyr to even less.”) You could take A Smart Kid, on the surface a quasi-sequel and resolution to Radioactive Toy, and turn it into another metaphor about alienation and isolation. But good luck trying to do the same with This Is No Rehearsal (about the murder of James Bulger) or Stranger by the Minute (which sounds like it belongs on In Absentia). Folding Slave Called Shiver (despite the “I’ll have more followers than Jesus Christ” line) and Don’t Hate Me into the album concept requires treating the frankly creepy and entitled narrator of those songs as the same as the one singing Even Less and Piano Lessons…and that’s an approach that runs into trouble when we hit Baby Dream in Cellophane, which is 90s rebellion taken to a natural conclusion: a song about a rebellious baby.

The point is, this album doesn’t quite cohere. It often seems like there are multiple concept albums jostling for space in here—one about the music industry, one about twisted, fractured relationships, and one about modern society in general—with none fully winning out and giving the album a sense of purpose.

This was, and occasionally still is, an issue with Steven Wilson “concept albums.” Very often it feels as though there just aren’t enough songs to fully flesh out the concept, and thus we have songs thrown in almost as filler. In fact, for as much as Wilson attempts to create fully realized concept albums, he wouldn’t actually be successful in that endeavor until Fear of a Blank Planet. This is far from the sole metric of how good a Steven Wilson album is—Lightbulb Sun, which has no concept as such, is the best Porcupine Tree album of the Alternative Era—but a complete concept does have the potential to rescue an album that’s meh in other respects. Usually.

In the case of Stupid Dream, this is a consequence of Wilson’s newly-rearranged songwriting process. Where much of Porcupine Tree’s Space Era work focused more on the album as a whole, and thus emphasized sounds and textures, here was Wilson’s first serious stab at writing actual songs. With a shift that massive, it’s only natural that there’s an overcorrection, and thus we have an album with quite a few great individual songs that don’t quite string together properly.

But on the flip side, we got quite a few great songs out of it. Even Less, even in its current form, cruelly hacked in half with numbers station footage stapled on to cover up the wound, remains a deliciously arrogant statement of purpose, the cocky spring from which the rest of the Alternative Era flows. Piano Lessons is an effective salvo for a reason, weaponizing the conventions of the four-minute pop song and turning an industry focused on profit, packaging, and disposability above artistic expression against itself (and that video!). Pure Narcotic has that lovely pastoral piano and Edwin’s modest yet booming bass kicking in after the first chorus. Don’t Hate Me has Theo Travis’ unbelievable saxophone. A Smart Kid was and is a fan favorite for a reason, thanks especially to the desolate instrumentation and the muted two-note chime accentuating certain verses and piano parts. The live version from ’03 with Mikael Akerfeldt singing the first verse is particularly interesting, especially because it’s the first halting instance of that recurring thing with PT/SW covers where having someone else sing the verses complicates the meaning of the song.

All of this pushes Stupid Dream slightly higher in the ranking than that extended slagging off up there would suggest. It may not fully work as an album, but of Porcupine Tree’s 90s material it’s still one of the ones I come back to the most, which is in some respects a better suggestion of how good the album actually is than an objective assessment of its positives and negatives. It won’t save it from sinking in the rankings as Porcupine Tree finds more of a balance between songwriting and conceptual unity, but it’s not a bad start.

  1. The Sky Moves Sideways
  2. Up the Downstair
  3. Stupid Dream
  4. On the Sunday of Life
  5. Signify

Porcupine Tree – Stars Die: Rare & Unreleased

February 1999

Here’s an ephemerum for you. This is a Polish cassette anthology entirely unrelated to the Stars Die compilation released in 2002. Given its rarity, and the fact that every song on here can be found elsewhere, it only got its own entry because I’d confused it with its more well-known counterpart. Fortunately, though, some of the songs on here come from the Waiting single, which was folded into the Signify entry and, thanks to that post’s focus on something else entirely, not covered at all. So here’s an excuse to sort them out while we wrap up the Space Era.

The album title is a bit of a misnomer, as all of these songs were previously released in some form or another. Most of Side A is sourced from the Waiting single, with the exception of the live version of Up the Downstair, which comes from Coma Divine II, released the previous month. Side B is basically Insignificance cut down to cassette length. From the Waiting single we have three tracks we’ve not covered before: The Sound of No-One Listening, Colourflow in Mind, and Fuse the Sky.

The Sound of No-One Listening is an eight-minute instrumental that both does and does not sound like an alternate-universe version of The Sky Moves Sideways, in that they sound nothing alike, but they share similar aesthetic sensibilities and an ambient-quiet-loud-quiet-ambient sound structure. After this, Colourflow in Mind, a quintessential slow Space Era song. In the context of the Waiting single it already feels…not quite old, but certainly of a slightly earlier time. In the context of this compilation, and this compilation specifically, it also feels like the Space Era mourning itself.

Fuse the Sky…now here’s an interesting one. We’re already familiar with the alternate demo version of The Sky Moves Sideways, the thirty-five minute single track that feels decidedly unfinished. Fuse the Sky presents a markedly different way to complete it: make it sound a bit like Bass Communion instead. This largely comes from the lone synthesized horn that appears about a minute in and carries us through to the lazy, bubbly guitars that signal the song’s about to actually start. There’s also some other electronic flourishes sprinkled here and there, and the thing starts with the sound of waves breaking on a shore, and it’s all very relaxed and lovely. I’m not sure if this particular remix’s aesthetic could be sustained throughout the whole of The Sky Moves Sideways, but it’s a neat trick nonetheless.

I should probably note here that the mystical significance of Fuse the Sky comes entirely from its status as a reworking of a demo of a landmark song in the band’s discography, and thus the basic satisfaction that comes with reshaping something old into something new. Its placement on this collection therefore serves essentially as a commentary on the ritual now that it’s done. This may pale in comparison to the grand acts of destruction and creation occurring alongside it, but that’s okay. A magical ritual need not have some grand purpose for being carried out. The one I’m writing certainly doesn’t.

Now, as for the magical ritual that does…we’ve already established that Insignificance was an effort to stake out what exactly constitutes the “Space Era” that needs to be destroyed. We’ve also already established that Nine Cats is significant in this whole affair, as a song that has existed both before the Space Era’s beginning and at the Space Era’s end. So, it’s only fitting that here, long after the Space Era’s been destroyed and its ruins are sinking back into the earth, that we find Nine Cats reprised one last time, as the final track on the final Porcupine Tree release before Stupid Dream and the Alternative Era come storming in. The instrumentation remains sparse, the lyrics remain incomprehensible. I still don’t know what all this meant. I still don’t know why I was sent.

I was not sent. I stumbled upon Porcupine Tree by pure happenstance thanks to a Wikipedia-walk that landed on Steven Wilson’s page, and I was bored/curious enough to check his music out. Wilson was not sent. That his demo tape was rescued from the Delerium slush pile instead of anyone else’s can be chalked up to sheer chance. None of this means anything. Alan Duffy’s lyrics exist to communicate a feeling of storybook whimsy, of tangerine trees and marmalade skies, versus anything concrete about his life or the human condition or the world at large. This tape is an entirely insignificant (ayyy) and extraneous entry in Porcupine Tree’s discography, to the point where I’d be surprised if they’d have known about its release had Häberle not mentioned it in his discography and brought it to their attention. In the absence of any external meaning, we’re left to construct our own.

Fortunately, we’ve already built a small legendarium around this portion of Porcupine Tree’s history. In addition, the ritual to destroy the Space Era and replace it with the Alternative Era is basically complete, as all we need to do with Stupid Dream is actually release the damn thing. Now what.

Let’s try this. The reinvocation of Nine Cats, here amongst the ruins, serves a twofold purpose. The first is to contain the ritual within itself. This was necessary, as the ritual to destroy the Space Era required a Space Era to draw its individual elements from. Essentially, Wilson made the Space Era destroy itself, and this was a way to tie everything off. The second is a corollary to the first: reinvoking Nine Cats here changes the song’s purpose within the ritual. Alan Duffy’s nonsense lyrics are no longer just the landmark through which we sketch out the borders of this thing called the “Space Era.” They’re now the incantation through which its bloated, twitching corpse is finally cremated, allowing the Alternative Era to rise from its ashes. It is, in essence, the mechanism through which we create a rupture.

We are going to build a new world, and we are going to build it wrong.

Happy New Year. Catalogue. Preserve. Amass. will return in February.

I.E.M. — An Escalator to Christmas

It’s been a while. Steven, New Jersey, New York, Kyoto, and Tokyo were all lovely. More housekeeping notes:

  • This is two days late. Mea culpa. I was, in my defense, traveling. Last Space Era post will be up next weekend, likely on the 30th. After this, a monthlong retrenchment to get ahead of the queue (as I write this I’m at the Bass Communion/Muslimgauze EP and it’s taking forever, as have the past several posts) followed by Stupid Dream.
  • The Auditory Dérive photoblog has wrapped on Tumblr, but will eventually continue elsewhere in the new year, once I figure out where and how. In the meantime, do take a look before the algorithm hoovers it up.

24 January 1999
I.E.M. 1996-1999, October 2005

“A, B, C, D, E, F, G…H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P…Q–”

And now for something completely different.

“…yes, indeed it would, for me to in fact introduce myself. I am Mister B. Cranswick, of the legendary alternative poetry band Boris the Cow. And, er, this cassette is in fact being compiled today, this afternoon, in aid of a certain S. Wilson, who apparently appreciates this particular art medium. Without much further ado, some poetry.”

An Escalator to Christmas is a very odd record. It seems somehow fitting that the next thing Wilson would follow up Metanoia and its subtly freakish closing track with this, a sixteen-minute affair that is completely, unashamedly off in every conceivable way.

For starters, consider how it’s split up into two sides. Side A features the ten-minute Escalator to Christmas mini-suite, and Side B features Headphone Dust in its original habitat.

Side A is less something that flows from beginning to end and more like a strange collage of samples and fragments. Everything’s cut up and jagged and oddly panned, to the point where sometimes it feels like we’re listening not to the original record but instead of somebody’s condensed YouTube Poop remix. The only thing on this suite that feels like a full song is Sign Language, three minutes of what I can only describe as some damn fine krautrock.

But here’s what’s brilliant in all this. Because of all the abrupt changes in mood and tone, from switching from songs and interludes to spoken word samples and studio chatter, Wilson managed to squeeze an entire album experience into the space of ten minutes. There’s even a point where two back-to-back spoken word samples—one from what feels like an old 60s/70s children’s cartoon, another from studio chatter at an orchestra—essentially functions as a halfway mark, the point at which you’re implored to turn the cassette over…even though the whole thing is all on one side.

And that’s the value in something like Escalator to Christmas. It’s a weird little piece of Wilson ephemera, true, and something that he would rarely build upon in the years since, but it does represent an expansion of his capabilities. This is not something we really figured Steven Wilson could do, till now.

“Say, you remember last week when I promised to tell you today how to become a space cadet and get your official class ring and your shoulder patch? Well, we’re not quite ready. I thought we would be, but we’re not. The things we’re getting together for you are really going to be somethin’. So watch for it next week, okay? Okay!”

[Please Turn Me Over]

“Here we go. Just, just…[unintelligible]. Just any note you want, not a harmonic, actual starting…”

—may objectively be the best song on the record, but the most interesting song is Extract From “4 Ways,” which is some discordant jangling guitar followed by a single rubber duck squeak. It’s three seconds long, and as such is probably the shortest song in Wilson’s discography and one of the shortest songs ever recorded. I’m left wondering what 4 Ways itself sounded like.

There’s also the matter of what the quack segues immediately into: B.C. I’m not entirely sure who’s speaking here. I very strongly suspect it’s Wilson himself, with his voice slightly distorted, because Wilson and “Cranswick” share delivery and speech patterns…but at the same time, so do a lot of people. The first time I listened to this, for instance, Cranswick sounded like he shared the speaking style of Eruditorum-adjacent writer/podcaster James Murphy, which isn’t indicative of much beyond the way universes collide. The only reason I suspect it might not be Steven is he once hinted that other people have played on IEM records, and said outright that a full band was there for Arcadia Son and …Have Come For Your Children, which were recorded not long after the release of this EP.
The true identity of the speaker aside, B.C. is also, I think, indicative of the humor this EP displays, a sort of paradoxically disciplined goofiness harkening back to the days of the fake band. It’s something I wish Wilson busted out more often, especially in the aughts and tens, but given how perilously close the proceedings here edge toward “novelty,” there’s probably a reason he doesn’t.

However, the spoken word bits do serve a purpose beyond yuks; they do an excellent job linking together the songs and fragments-of-songs on this suite. B.C.’s role in all this is obvious: we’re being introduced to poetry in the form of Sign Language. Space Cadet and Any Note You Want work as a pair, with a stopping-and-starting duality to them that today comes off like a creative way to segue into a midroll on a mid-2010s internet video review. But the most interesting interlude isn’t actually found on the EP itself, but on the bonus material of the 1996-1999 compilation. I speak, of course, of Interview. It’s a very short one, but its brilliance can be found in—

“Let’s look at the mind for a moment, just as its physical values as a physical organ.”

An earlier draft of this essay had yet another mention of Headphone Dust in the first section and how unlucky it is. The song featured on the CD edition of I.E.M.’s self-titled album, but I didn’t talk about it too much because it wasn’t on the original release and it didn’t fit into the cliff-notes history of krautrock that made up the bulk of that post. Here’s where it originally appeared, and it once again got shafted, in favor of the much more interesting title suite. Nevertheless, this is a song Wilson’s liked enough that he went and named his online store after it, so let’s take a quick peek at it here.

It’s about six minutes of parched acoustickey goodness, pretty much. The shimmering guitars in the background makes me think of something recorded on the front porch of a desert shack, similar to his cover of The Cross. There’s a real Godspeed-esque sense of beauty among the ruins here. And for that reason its success has been quiet and low-key, the sort of thing that suffers when contrasted with louder, flashier, or more experimental work like the Escalator to Christmas suite or Deafman. This should have been a single. That way, the suite can take up Side A and B and be the album-in-a-bottle is so very badly wants to be, and this song can stand on its own the way it was meant to.

“Er, well, I feel the recording quality has a lot to answer for, and I hated the producer at the time…”

In 2005, IEM released the 1996-1999 compilation, featuring both the self-titled album and this EP, and throwing in some bonus material in the form of Interview and the extended mix of this EP’s almost-title track. What was originally a three-and-a-half minute splash of psychedelia has now ballooned into this thirteen-minute monstrosity. The original abruptly cuts off just as it was really starting to gather steam, but here our consciousness has once again been expanded.

At around the four-and-a-half minute mark, the percussion slowly fades out in such a way that it becomes less psychedelic and a bit more industrial, like the song is being performed in a factory after-hours. At five and a half minutes, a flute comes in, playing something low and mournful, serving both as a warning and a celebration of the song’s general aesthetic. And then at nine minutes, the flute is abstracted, and other sounds start swarming and pulsing around, a wham threatening to rumble in in the background, and a single low synth harmonic that at times sounds almost like a Gregorian choir. As we continue toward the song’s ending, and superficialities are further stripped away, the choir reveals itself as such and starts singing slowly and reverentially, implying that we’ve arrived here, far away from the suite’s gentle, buttoned-up lunacy, at the song’s throbbing heart. And fade out.

In a lot of respects, the extended version feels like something esoteric, even occult. It’s almost as if Wilson made a value judgment here. Those with weak or closed minds get the three-minute EP version, because that’s all they can handle. Those who’ve been already initiated get the compilation version, because the compilation version is an experience, a journey deep into a song’s guts, something that might drive lesser people insane.

This does not necessarily constitute a magical ritual in the same sense that his major releases from Signify to Stupid Dream are a magical ritual. But it is at the very least an illustration of one; a demonstration of how a quiet frog-in-boiling-water sensory overload can alter one’s state of consciousness. The effects here are temporary, as the objective of An Escalator to Xmas is only to demonstrate itself. But they still happened, and as such serve as a reminder of the inherent power of music.

Stupid Dream is two months away. Welcome once again to the cult of the Tree.

“–R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z.”