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.”

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I.E.M. – I.E.M.

1996

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. I.E.M.