Altamont – Prayer for the Soul

September 1983

Not when we have stuff that goes even farther back. Unless someone recorded his childhood guitar lessons, this is likely the earliest tape of Wilson’s in circulation in some form, dating from when he was fifteen. Wilson himself is on record as comparing these early works to “nursery school paint blots,” which I guess is fair—lord knows I’m unimpressed by what I did creatively when I was fifteen—but the impression I get from this tape, thanks to the crackles and pops and warps from age and countless rips till it finally got to me, is less embarrassing fingerpaints and more embarrassing home movies. It’s like someone’s dad stumbled in on Steven and [occasionally] Si Vockings noodling around with their instruments, decided to bust out the Super 8, and like an old Doctor Who serial the video has long since been erased but the audio has somehow survived.

And noodle they do. Altamont, the first track, isn’t so much a song as it is a wander. It sounds like the work of two young men with inviting synthesizers and Blade Runner on the brain, and it’s better than anything you or I would have done at that age. Only in its final minute and a half does it sound anything like what was going through the heads of everyone at Altamont when the hippie dream went up in metaphorical smoke in front of them, but the bad-trip feeling still permeates almost everything else.

From there we go to Watching Statues, which actually sounds like something from 1969, mostly thanks to the acoustic guitars and Wilson’s distant, muffled, reverb-soaked vocals, and also this is the first time we hear him sing and he sounds almost exactly the same as he does now. After this, The Tell Tale Heart, a pleasant little number featuring a bright, flute-y synth motif that you could fall asleep to were it not for the loud, startling explosion thirty seconds from the end.

Split Image is another wander, this one more guitar focused. This song has a lot in common with a Porcupine Tree solo, with the particular way it layers and builds and finally crescendos, (this isn’t original to Porcupine Tree, of course, the “Würm” movement of Yes’ Starship Trooper also does this) but is only particularly interesting as a suggestion of where he might go in the future.

The first and third movements of the final track also sound like something out of the ‘60s, for the same reason Watching Statues does. There’s guitars and fuzz and reverb and Steven singing once again. His vocals are measured, cautious, somewhat unpracticed. He doesn’t realize he can hit high notes yet. The middle instrumental section morphs into something shimmery and decidedly un-sixties, and yet the song’s two facets lace together seamlessly. No fifteen-year-old has any business being this musically talented. Although I suppose if you are, the question is not if you’ll be selling out the Royal Albert Hall, but when.

It is a cliche to say that the early works of an artist show their “potential,” but although that is legitimately true here, it’s also a bit of a mischaracterization. To say something has “potential” means that the thing might not be good, but the artist behind the thing has good stuff in them. The songs on this tape may be somewhat raw and oddly mixed, but they are legitimately good on their own. Steven himself might not think especially highly of them (they’ve been deleted from Acid Tapes’ catalogue at his request), and they might not hold a candle to some of his more professional work, but there’s still value in seeing what happens when you’re just at home mucking about with a tape recorder, and in this case it’s still kind of a shame that the result’s been relegated to a curiosity whose value is based solely on its novelty as The First.

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