No-Man – Returning Jesus

26 February 2001

Lighthouse (1994 Demo), May 2001
Complete Sessions, June 2006
Double CD reissue, 3 November 2007

No-Man will release a new studio album next month, their first in over a decade. Wilson describes it on his website as “a return to [their] synth-pop roots, albeit with the conceptual sweep of [their] more recent albums.” The album’s centerpiece is an idea they’ve spent pretty much their entire time together whacking into shape. The narrative writes itself: a dialectical synthesis of their 90s and 00s work, or, more audaciously, the culmination of No-Man’s entire history, a definitive statement of what No-Man is supposed to sound like.

We know what happens with narratives that haven’t been written yet. The new joint could be brilliant, it could be a stinker, all we have right now is a short preview on Instagram, so we’re acknowledging the whole “magnum opus” idea right now so it doesn’t clog up the post when the time comes to actually write it. Let’s instead content ourselves with what we currently know: the new thing will open a new era in the band’s sound. Convenient, then, that we’re now at an earlier album that did something similar.

That’s not quite true. The style that No-Man was known for in the 00s actually begins with Carolina Skeletons in 1998, and the faded-memory songs off that EP inform the general atmosphere of many of the songs on this album. Here, though, is where the style first explored in Carolina Skeletons reaches maturity. No Defence, for instance, feels like combing through the ruins of an abandoned googie-style building, haunted by the ghosts of everyone who ever set foot inside its doors. All That You Are has a similar effect. We know what to do when we encounter ghosts of the past. Time for an exorcism.

It’s February of 2001. I am now nine. My mom is about to become pregnant with my sister. My dad is becoming increasingly disenchanted at his job, and comes home each day talking about issues with the management that go over my head. (I’ve come to his work once in a while, and there’s a fundamental disconnect between what I see and what he tells us. Everything seems okay…but then I spend all my time on whatever computer was vacant at the time, so I’m not really paying attention.)

More critically, there’s a new President. There’s nothing that poisons your understanding of American democracy quite like (a) having the 2000 election be the first one you have any memories of, and (b) supporting Al Gore. I knew basically nothing about what Bush or Gore actually stood for—I remember something vague about Bush supporting tax cuts, but that’s it, not even Gore’s whole “I invented the internet” thing managed to penetrate my head—but I wanted Gore to win because he was Clinton’s vice president and was a Known Quantity. So I sit down to watch the election and things in Florida promptly go off the rails in a drama that would extend for far too long. Your first election should be something like 1996 that was relatively painless, a demonstration of how elections should take place, not whatever this was. Either way, the end result was this: the wrong guy is in the White House and we’re stuck with him.

The news stories I remember from around this time would have related to the USS Cole bombing and the impending execution of Timothy McVeigh. My parents spent the early months of the Bush administration largely complaining about his environmental policy. We are about to tip over into a recession. And, of course, there’s the unspeakable earth-shattering horror looming a little over half a year away. The world is slowly eating away at my isolated bubble, and the way it slowly dribbled in led me to believe these were isolated incidents and not a part of some greater unraveling. Ignorant of the context of what was happening, I would naively believe that these would all be temporary interruptions and we’d soon go back to normal. Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, the 21st century’s first act was to slowly strangle the end of history.

The people who were making art at the time knew what was coming. Consider some albums: Kid A, released in 2000, too blitzed out on millennial anxiety to even form coherent sentences. Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, also from 2000, a sprawling, nightmarish monument to the imminent eschaton. Lateralus, from May 2001, a paranoia-soaked descent into a spiralling spiritual hypercube, at once liberating and suffocating. Toxicity, released a week before 9/11, a sketch of the 21st century’s looming imperial horrors. Outside music, of course, there’s House of Leaves. Released in 2000, an infinite nesting structure of unreliable narrators and secret codes and other ergodic adventures, a millennial cosmic horror ostensibly about a shapeshifting, malevolent house that’s slightly bigger on the inside (hey!), but which is actually about the point just behind your head, where you are most vulnerable, and the fourth wall will not protect you. The only place where the Minotaur inarguably exists is in your mind, where it is real beyond refute, in all its grandeur and monstrosity. In video games, Deus Ex caught a whiff of the unfolding horror, as technical problems meant the skybox depicting New York City conspicuously omitted the World Trade Center.

And finally, preceding and anticipating them all, Alan Moore’s 1999 spoken-word masterpiece Snakes and Ladders, a Kabbalistic ascent to enlightenment, and all the beauty and terror that flows from it. This is what was in the air at the time, numerous artists seized with the curse of prophecy, speaking in tongues and codes about looming futures too alien and terrifying to ever plainly articulate. After this, the wreckage, and a brave new world, and Boards of Canada writing cryptically about numerology and cult suicides.

If you had an awareness of the world between Princess Di’s death and 9/11, millennial anxiety would eventually filter down to you in some fashion, even if it was as small as momentarily freaking out about the Y2K bug. In 2000/2001, it trickled down to Fish and John Wesley, who were inspired to write A Pilgrim’s Address, about wars gone by and wars yet to come. And at the same time, it also reached Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness, who found themselves with the back half (and especially title track) of Returning Jesus, whose title is clearly reminiscent of a certain key facet of Christian eschatology. In fact, The Second Coming of Christ is a concept so loaded that, once invoked, it immediately collapses the faith into a mystical death cult endlessly chanting apocalyptic prayers and spells within its garish, cavernous halls. (Recall that evangelicals vociferously support the State of Israel entirely because it’s a key player in their end-times rituals.) Perfect for 2001.

According to Tim, the lyrics gesture toward an ignored Messiah, with lyrics like “Follow me down to where I’ll always be” rendered in a delivery that the character believes is inviting but belies a particular lack of confidence, as if they’re questioning whether they’re any sort of savior at all. Set against the desolate instrumentation and the character’s pleading to “slow it all down, it always moves too fast,” the effect is of a character crudely wrenched out of time and space and into an isolating, alienating new world. The past colliding with the present.

And that’s where we are. The period of unease and uncertainty as one era bleeds into another. Broadly, as the 90s give way to the 2000s. More specifically, as I develop a more complete understanding of the outside world. And even more specifically, as No-Man completes its transition from the relatively accessible trip-hop through which they tried to gain a wider audience toward the ambient-inflected art rock that would define their sound in the new century.

I personally am kind of sad to see the funkier (“funkier”) elements of No-Man’s sound go. It lent their music a particular eclecticism and versatility that made their rarities so interesting to listen to. Now it feels like they’re beginning to wall off parts of themselves in an attempt to sound more like one thing instead of many things.

However, and this is important, I don’t want them to return to their old sound. Although I’ve developed more of an appreciation for their 90s material as I’ve gone through it for this blog, for them to return to that sound would nevertheless constitute a regression, even if the music itself was more to my liking. What I want out of No-Man going forward, especially as they prepare to release their newest album, is to be just as varied and interesting as they were in the 90s, but in a completely different way, to push their sounds in directions they haven’t explored yet. Put another way, I may love Dry Cleaning Ray to pieces, but that doesn’t mean they should have spent their entire subsequent career rereleasing Dry Cleaning Ray over and over. Bands need to grow and evolve, and hopefully with Love You To Bits they’ll push their music in a new and exciting direction. Based on the previews we have, it sounds like they will, but we won’t know for certain until the whole thing drops four weeks from now.

  1. Flowermouth
  2. Returning Jesus
  3. Wild Opera
  4. Loveblows and Lovecries: A Confession

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.

No-Man – Carolina Skeletons

August 1998

We have by now spent considerable time and mental energy mapping out the magical ritual meant to bring the Alternative Era into being. We still have three more releases to go. But in the meantime something else has been slowly churning away in the background: No-Man finally, finally figuring out what sort of band they want to be. They are, of course, still somewhat inconsistent, and there’s still conflicts between the light and dark elements of their sound even as they form a unified whole, but this time there’s a renewed sense of artistic direction, that No-Man is finally definitely pointing toward something.

We won’t see the fruits of this labor for another three years, with the release of Returning Jesus. But we do get a taste here, and it is gorgeous. Slow, sparse, and beautiful, like a patchily-reconstructed memory from a simpler time. So let’s reconstruct a memory.

All of us, I suspect, have a moment in our childhoods where there is some sort of rupture. It isn’t necessarily the hyperboloidal moment that the past converges to and the future springs from, but, and I use this word neutrally, it should be traumatic. It may be a birth, a death, a marriage or divorce. It may also be a relocation or a revelation. The corny line to bust out here would be to tie it to puberty and spin a ton of metaphors about coming of age, but that doesn’t conform to my lived experience and is otherwise beside the point. Ultimately, this rupture represents the point at which the world became wrong.

You’ll notice the solipsism inherent in this analysis. The Good Old Days were never good, and they were never real, they were just your memories from when you believed everything was in its right place, and everything was only in its right place because back then you were young and your world was small and fuzzy and you didn’t have the insight to be aware that this wasn’t actually true. To long for the good old days is, ultimately, to long for ignorance. I grew up in the 90s, and the only reason I have fond memories of the 90s was that I was too stupid and sheltered to know any better.

So let’s filter this down to August 1998, before my own rupture moment. I have just recently turned seven. My mom was pregnant with my brother. I’d wanted a sibling for some time, and I understood that this was a part of the Normal Childhood that I felt entitled to. To prepare for the arrival of my brother, we would at the time have been finishing up renovating the attic of our house so it’d become my room. I would frequently go up there with a pencil and draw pictures on the drywall as it was being installed. We didn’t have a video game system in our house, so I mostly played at friends’ houses or on our computer, when it was unoccupied. We didn’t have cable, so TV was typically whatever was on PBS (Bill Nye and Arthur stick out, because of course they do.), plus Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune in the evening. On Saturdays I’d go fifteen minutes up the road and spend the afternoon at my grandmother’s, time I mostly spent, regrettably, vegging out on cartoons I couldn’t watch at home, whilst elbow-deep in a big can of cheese balls. Either that or make ample use of the sidewalk chalk, because we didn’t have a sidewalk at home, either, and grandma had more sidewalk than I knew what to do with. This was the routine. This was how the world worked. This was how the world ought to have worked.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Clinton was about to get impeached and Kosovo was tearing itself apart.

We have similar ruptures in adulthood, as well. I’ve followed a few expatriates on various social media platforms, and whenever they talk about a memory from when they still lived in their country of birth it feels like prehistory. And those are the sorts of memories that Carolina Skeletons captures so well. Not when life was necessarily better or uncomplicated, but when it was different, and the strange, complex sense of nostalgia that comes from reminiscing about times that were different.

I should probably talk about the EP a bit more, then. Carolina Skeletons has four tracks, each of which communicates that feeling spectacularly, but the highlight here comes at the very end. This is, of course, Carolina Reprise, which strips back the title track into something almost as minimal as what we covered last week. This is a lonely echoing piano piece of the sort that intimately conveys the inherent tragedy (despite everything) of not being able to return to the Before Times, and indeed the knowledge that this memory, like all memories, will fade and distort as the years wear on and we’re cruelly plunged deeper into the future. It’s the best thing on the EP, and probably, based on my half-informed guesswork as I write this, the best thing No-Man would release during the Returning Jesus era.

I don’t remember caring much for Returning Jesus itself when I listened to it all the way through the last time. I probably won’t give it another listen until I actually get to it for this blog. But hopefully this little preview will have helped alleviate whatever misgivings I had about it. Only one way to find out.

No-Man – Lost Songs, Vol. 1

Recorded 1991-1997
Released July 2001

Hello, my name is Ted (hiiii Teeeed) and after three albums and God only knows how many EPs, singles, and compilations I still have no idea what it is I want out of No-Man.

It’s pretty well established at this point that thus far there’s been a particular tension between No-Man’s natural, ambient side and their synthetic, electronic side. Up to and through Loveblows and Lovecries, I had a clear preference for the electronic elements of their music, on the grounds that the ambient stuff was easier to screw up. Then, following a marathon listen of all their studio albums, I decided I actually preferred the ambient stuff, because they actually did knock it out of the park in Flowermouth and Together We’re Stranger. This would persist through the Wild Opera era, even to the point that I would declare that what I want out of No-Man is Together We’re Stranger rereleased ad infinitum. This would continue right up until last week, where I said the electronic bits of Dry Cleaning Ray worked because they tried to do something different with them. This when I had completely missed a more fundamental realization: the electronic bits were actually working again at all.

And…oh yes. The one song I couldn’t find off of Heaven Taste, the 1995 update of Bleed. During the course of writing this review, I found it, and holy crap, they made it work. It’s dark and ominous and unsettling in all the best ways, all taut and tense for the first five minutes before exploding into this furious, absolutely brutal wall of sound that’s the closest these guys will probably ever come to straight-up harsh noise. This new version of Bleed is one of the best songs No-Man have ever written, and it’s composed entirely of stuff I thought I hated about their sound.

And then I come to this compilation of castoffs and demos, and my understanding of what No-Man is and should be is thrown into the air again.

As befits a collection of castoffs and demos, this album is an eclectic survey of every conceivable side of No-Man’s musical personality, and if any of my assumptions about what they were good at held water, I’d be able to tell pretty easily which songs would be good and which wouldn’t. But instead it turns out pretty much everything here is consistently excellent.

Some highlights. Samaritan Snare, which basically does the Dry Cleaning Ray bluesy noir schtick but with added Theo Travis. The version of Soft Shoulder dusted off here, yet another reason I’m just straight-up confused about what I want out of No-Man because here they took the weakest point of that song and not only placed it front and center but actually made it work. Amateurwahwah, with its simple yet powerful keyboards and booming drums that could almost have been recorded by John Bonham himself. The closing track, Coming Through Slaughter, which sounds like No-Man coming into contact with a chunk of Hand. Cannot. Erase. that broke off and drifted about twenty years into the past.

Now for the highlights featuring Wilson in more than the usual capacity: All The Reasons is generic No-Man, yes, but it’s especially well-done generic No-Man, and it’s got Wilson on backing vocals. Never mind that he’s just going “maybe in time~” or something like that and it’s buried relatively far back in the mix, it’s still amazing. Likewise, Love Among the White Trash, which is probably the closest thing these two irreligious men will ever get to writing a gospel song. Paradub is a little something Wilson seems to have banged out during an improvisational session and it sounds great.

I could go on. But ultimately, there is not a dud amongst these songs. Not one. This was kind of surprising to me considering it’s (a) No-Man, a chunk of Wilson’s musical history that only becomes more opaque the deeper I dive into it, and (b) it’s a castoff album. These are not songs that are supposed to be good. Wilson’s own reflection on recording these songs sound like he was trying to turn a turd into a hamburger but was only partially successful. And yet, here we are.

But there is some solace to be found here. Throughout much of the 90s No-Man was pinging between trip hop and synthpop and art rock and dream pop, caught between the zeitgeist, a residual concern of the One Little Indian days bubbling up even now, and their own understanding of what would be meaningful music. A truly definite No-Man “sound” would not fully coalesce until Returning Jesus, four years later. So while I may not know what I want out of No-Man anymore, it’s somewhat heartening to know that No-Man really didn’t, either.

No-Man – Dry Cleaning Ray

May 1997

Seeing as how they’re made up of, well, what they’re made of, B-side/remix EPs are generally a bit more eclectic and experimental than the albums they follow up. Sometimes this means the songs are inconsistent and the record scattershot, but not here. The inherent experimental nature of Dry Cleaning Ray works in its favor because the Wild Opera era is already supposed to be No-Man at their most experimental. As it happens, a lot of the experiments here are pretty dark and noir-influenced…which means that Dry Cleaning Ray consistently hits the atmospheric notes that Wild Opera, which was ultimately afraid of the darkness it was hesitantly probing, reached only on occasion. Put another way: I said in the Wild Opera post that that album was afraid to make the plunge into the abyss. Dry Cleaning Ray understands there’s no point in half-measures and dives in headfirst.

Incidentally, Dry Cleaning Ray is another data point in favor of No-Man’s ultimate abandonment of trip-hop. Consider a song like Jack the Sax, which takes the guitar from Wake As Gun, back in Insignificance, and wraps a song around it that sounds like something Beth Gibbons should really cover someday. Despite the early-Portishead comparison in that last sentence, there is no trip-hop on this song whatsoever, instead sounding like something the femme fatale in a noir movie would sing in a smoky club lounge in the middle of the night…and because of that it works much better than many of the songs in Wild Opera, which now feel as though the trip-hop elements were actively holding them back.

(This doesn’t mean all the trip-hop songs on this album are terrible—Diet Mothers and Urban Disco are great counterexamples—but like I’ve said before it’s pretty easy to tell with No-Man when the trip-hop is perfunctory and when it’s the genre the song demands to be in.)

(There’s no good place anywhere to weave this in, but I was also really impressed with Punished for Being Born, in which Bryn “Muslimgauze” Jones, who we’ll get to in considerably more detail once we hit his collaboration with Bass Communion, takes Housewives Hooked on Heroin, pulls it apart, and reconstructs it into something unrecognizably abrasive and nightmarish.)

But of course the highlight of the album is Sicknote. This song is not overtly menacing, necessarily. There’s some nice guitar work in the front, accentuated with a tinkly, slightly off-key music box. However. About three minutes in an extremely distorted, fuzzed-out guitar bursts in the left channel and goes berserk in the background for about two minutes. After that, the song brings in some creepy reversed tape loops. Throughout, Bowness sings in his usual manner, but the fragility and vulnerability in his voice here turns him into someone experiencing sheer existential terror and is trying valiantly to hold it together for appearances. I’m writing this on Thursday evening, June 14, 2018. Saturday marks three years since a certain stupefyingly racist New York landlord with a spray tan, a bad toupee, and delusions of grandeur descended the escalator of his Manhattan fortress and announced his candidacy for President of the United States. I’m editing this on Sunday evening, October 7, 2018. Yesterday, the Senate narrowly confirmed for the Supreme Court a volatile, nakedly authoritarian justice nominated specifically to further entrench fascism in the US and endanger the rights of anyone not of the herrenvolk. We know what existential terror feels like.

Speaking of which, the rumble. Throughout the entirety of Sicknote there is a very low, ominous rumble churning away, very far back in the mix. You might forget it’s there in the middle of the song, when more interesting things are happening up front, but it’s there. Never getting closer or louder, just…biding its time. It provides some clarification of what precisely Bowness is so scared of, while leaving just enough unanswered that we fill in the blanks ourselves, where it’s sure to be even more terrifying.

In some ways, Sicknote feels like an embryonic incarnation of Rabbits, David Lynch’s surreal “sitcom” that takes the superficial tropes and conventions of the genre and plunges them straight into the uncanny valley. The rumble in the song serves a similar purpose to the rain and low cello drones in the background of the miniseries. The squealing guitar halfway through calls forward to the burning cigarette hole that appears in a few episodes. And both have that very particular unsettling, vaguely menacing air about them that instinctively causes the viewer or listener to back away slightly. And in that respect, Sicknote really is a sick song, subtly visceral in tone, and the one song that most completely captures the atmosphere the Wild Opera era was shooting for. Dry Cleaning Ray is what Wild Opera should have been, and Sicknote is how Wild Opera should have ended.

No-Man – Wild Opera

September 1996

Housewives Hooked on Heroin, May 1996
2-CD edition, May 2010

Take One

The process is as follows:

Listen to the subject of the post—in this case, the Housewives Hooked on Heroin EP—several times, in an attempt to generate an interesting angle on the music or the lyrics.

Best you can come up with is something to the effect of “the title track is pretty terrible but the EP itself is redeemed somewhat thanks to Urban Disco and Where I’m Calling From. Also the Scanners remix of the title track is actually some pretty good chilled-out DnB, kind of prefigures early Pendulum in a sense. I know Wilson hates it but then Wilson hates a lot of things. What you gonna do.” After that, something something prelude to Wild Opera. This is not enough for a single post, especially when Wild Opera itself comes right after.

At that moment, realize the EP works best as a prelude to Wild Opera and surmise that the supplementary EP, Dry Cleaning Ray, will be similar. Get an idea.

Listen to Wild Opera.

Take Two

Three at once, this week. We’re obviously focusing on Wild Opera, but we’ve also got the two supplementary releases orbiting around it like moons, Housewives Hooked on Heroin and Dry Cleaning Ray. These three are quite closely linked, and for that reason it’s worth examining them as a single unit representing where No-Man’s collective head was at entering the decade’s back half.

First up is Housewives Hooked on Heroin, released four months prior to Wild Opera and thus serving as an introduction to what they’d be doing on the main release. One can imagine the No-Man fandom faithful stumbling upon this joint and its radical change in sound—especially the glitchy, staccato Hit the Ceiling—and reacting roughly as charitably as certain portions of Wilson’s solo fandom did upon hearing Permanating for the first time. It’s, well, it’s decent enough on its own. The title track really doesn’t live up to that incredible name. Urban Disco is pretty good, though.

If we arrange these three releases chronologically and establish a narrative through-line between them, then Wild Opera represents a refinement of the musical concepts first explored in Housewives Hooked on Heroin. This is No-Man’s “dark” album, and while it is their heaviest and most abrasive release, let’s not forget what their default mode is. Nothing on here is sufficiently dark for a patented Jess Cope nightmare-inducing tour visual, for instance. In addition, most of the time the primary influence is not straight trip-hop, hence why whenever those influences showed through up to this point it always sounded generic and watered down. This actually dovetails nicely with something I wrote in the Flowermouth entry:

“However, in listening to this album it becomes quite clear that the trip hop sound didn’t come from their heart as much as their attempt to mold themselves in One Little Indian’s image in the hopes they’d sell more records.”

Compare with what Bowness said on his blog about Wild Opera:

“If Flowermouth was gleefully oblivious to fashion, on a purely instinctive level, Wild Opera was the sound of No-Man heeding the musical signs of the times.”

So, basically, they’re no longer trying to satisfy One Little Indian, but emulate the musical zeitgeist of 1996….and yet it miraculously doesn’t sound like they’ve sold out. This is because the trip-hop here is of a more jazzy and orchestral bent, where the lonely streetlamps are in front of the embassy of an Eastern European nation instead of in, say, Brixton. In other words, they wanted to sound like Portishead.

This is key. Because it approaches the genre at an odd angle and through John Le Carre-tinted glasses, the Portishead flavor of trip hop actively resists being watered down, and thus retains more of its…authenticity, for lack of a better word. So even when No-Man tries to sound like Portishead, they land not at Portishead full stop but Portishead filtered through No-Man’s fractured history. Not a bad place to be, all told, although that does mean I start to wish they’d have had the guts to get real dark and dive into the abyss headfirst, to the point where something like My Revenge on Seattle would have been better served on a castoff EP released several months later.

Several times over the course of this retrospective we’ve come back to the idea of a record representing a window into a potential evolution in a project’s sound that never quite came to be…but that analogy doesn’t quite work here. Although this is a serious effort to do something a bit more beat-driven, it’s also clear that trip hop itself was a dead end in the band’s progress, as future albums would owe more to Flowermouth than this one. However, that doesn’t mean this experiment was a complete failure. Bowness and Wilson both knew the darker atmosphere present in Wild Opera still had potential. If Flowermouth and Wild Opera represent the band’s sound from Lovecries splitting in two, then every album from Returning Jesus onward represent those two halves coming together again, but differently.

Speaking of things disassembled and reassembled backward, Dry Cleaning Ray.

Take Three


Realize (a) that Dry Cleaning Ray is mostly outtakes from the Wild Opera sessions instead of remixes, and (b) that maybe only one song off the album could legitimately be described as “disassembled and reassembled backward.” Discover that chunks of Dry Cleaning Ray pull from releases you haven’t covered yet. This angle ain’t gonna work.

Try to dig up contemporary press—reviews and interviews, that sort of thing—to back up the claim that Wild Opera is widely regarded as the dark album. Come up empty. The only even remotely interesting piece of criticism comes from the sole comment on the album’s AllMusic review, which calls “trip hop” a dirty word. Wonder how that guy feels about iPods.

Feel yourself pulled in ten thousand fruitless directions. At the same time, imagine yourself as Barton Fink, and all that implies, staring at a blank typewriter.

Attempt to continue the essay, this time focusing almost entirely on Wild Opera. Shoehorn something in about how you wouldn’t be surprised if Jerry Martin were listening to this album and Endtroducing… on repeat while composing the SimCity 4 soundtrack, based off that magnificent sax in Radiant City. Observe that Ben Coleman’s absence really is not deeply felt here, and nothing against the man, but anything he could have contributed to the album would have been superfluous.

Try and fail to excise the Housewives / Opera / Dry Cleaning Ray angle from what you’ve already written. Realize you still have quite a lot of things to say about the interplay between dark and light that can’t be squeezed into the essay you have as written, and how it basically doesn’t work. Try to find yet another creative way to say that Bowness’ voice is not very well suited to dark music, and that as good as the trip-hop is they’re still fundamentally uncomfortable with it, and stuff like Flowermouth is better largely because it really does feel like their natural habitat, and including songs like My Revenge on Seattle means they probably know it. Realize with some horror that what you really want out of No-Man is Together We’re Stranger rerecorded and rereleased endlessly, and that demand fundamentally goes against what constitutes good musical artistry and what you value in music that has any business calling itself “progressive.” Recall that based on stuff he said about “progressive” music when you saw him perform in New York back in April, Wilson probably agrees with you.

Bang head against keyboard.

Take Four

Throw hands up. Go trawling for buzz one last time, come up fruitless. Discover the following completely unrelated extract from that 2000 Innerview you quoted the last time you covered a No-Man studio album:

“I think No-Man go through phases of distinctively reflecting the current musical climate such as Lovesighs, Loveblows and Lovecries, Wild Opera and Dry Cleaning Ray, and phases of retreating into ourselves and trying to produce something we consider timeless and meaningful such as Carolina Skeletons and Flowermouth. The new album definitely fits into the latter category. Next time, it’s disco!”

Well, it took seventeen years, and it was only one half of the band, but by God we finally got our bloody disco.

  1. Flowermouth
  2. Wild Opera
  3. Loveblows and Lovecries: A Confession

No-Man – Heaven Taste

September 1995
Remastered 1998 and 2002

*sharp, frustrated inhale*

This is a compilation of five songs they did in the early 90s. Of those five, I could only find four. So while we’re here let’s talk about some of the other partially lost goodies of 1995, shall we?

That year, Wilson contributed keyboards to two songs off Coltsfoot’s A Winter Harvest and produced Psychomuzak’s The Extasie. We’ll start with Coltsfoot. I have no idea what Action at a Distance sounded like apart from that one song, so I’m not sure if this is really true, but from my very limited frame of reference, A Winter Harvest—or, more accurately, the five songs from that album hosted on the band’s official YouTube page—sounds like they found what their schtick was going to be: “medieval English fairyland.” Specifically, and here we go again, medieval English fairyland as rendered in a nineties video game. Seriously, these synths are MIDI tier sometimes. I don’t know how embarrassed the band is about that now, but they shouldn’t be. To someone who has fond memories of mid-90s video games its sets off the nostalgia buttons hardcore. It’s geeky and cheesy in that way Zeppelin was when they referenced Lord of the Rings before it was cool, and I love it to pieces.

Of those five songs, the one Wilson contributed keyboards to is Wood for the Trees. The best song is Lammastide, which I listened to with battle footage from Age of Empires II playing in another tab and it fits perfectly. After that, I listened to some symphonic metal, because it seemed appropriate.

Now for Psychomuzak, evidently Dean Carter’s psychedelic / krautrock project. I say “evidently” because only two songs of theirs (“theirs”) exist on YouTube, and one of those songs is incomplete. Fortunately, that’s also the one that can be streamed in full on Spotify, and it’s the title track of the album Wilson produced. To me, at least, it sounds less like krautrock and more like the psytrance he was adjacent to and absorbing during the One Little Indian days, so naturally I like it a lot. (For what it’s worth, their other song available on YouTube, Keep Breathing, is pretty good, too.)

There. That’s them sorted. Now for what I could dig up from Heaven Taste. Long Day Fall isn’t anything special. It sounds like a chunk of the Speak sessions that broke off and drifted into July 1992, where it was rediscovered and spruced up a bit.

Babyship Blue is pretty interesting in that it sounds like what would happen if someone mashed-up a Wild Opera-era No-Man song with something from The Sky Moves Sideways. The only version of Bleed I could find was the really old, slightly embarrassing version from 1989. The title track is a twenty-one (or thereabouts) minute instrumental monster that sounds exactly like what you’d think a No-Man/JBK collaboration would sound like. If it wasn’t for the song immediately preceding it, it’d be the album’s highlight.

Let’s talk Road, then, the Nick Drake cover. This song is amazing. Like with Pink Moon, they switched out the simple acoustic guitar for something more ethereal, except here it’s not ambient swells that move the song forward but a powerful echoing piano, accentuated with a simple guitar riff buried deep in the mix that sounds like if Jonny Buckland made new age music.

This version somehow manages to be both more melancholy and optimistic than the original. The way the lyrics repeat in the No-Man version (“to see, to see, to see, to see me through…”) make it sound like the singer is desperately trying to convince himself that, even though it won’t lead to superstardom, the path he’s chosen will, in fact, keep his head above water. We in the future know it didn’t; Drake would overdose on antidepressants five months after his twenty-sixth birthday, after a long bout of severe depression that isolated him from his loved ones. But we in the future also know his music still managed to survive, so the brighter instrumentation in the cover points toward his legacy, to Solid Air and Life in a Northern Town, to Robert Smith, Peter Buck, and (yes) David Sylvian, and all the people they in turn influenced, right up to Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson themselves. And at the very end, as the song is fading out, Bowness quietly sings “Heyyyyy” several times, as if he’s reaching out to the spirit of Nick Drake himself to express No-Man’s gratitude for his body of work, and to try and show him Vincent-and-the-Doctor-style what his music would mean to so many people in the decades that followed. It’s absolutely beautiful.

I don’t know if he could have completed that fourth album. I doubt it would have sold well if he did, if only because his uptick in popularity amongst musicians didn’t start to kick in until, at the absolute earliest, 1979. I doubt that would have been enough to keep him going. Depression screws with your head like that. But all the same, oh how I wish he could have lived long enough to see this.