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.

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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 – 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.

No-Man – Lovesighs – An Entertainment

April 1992

This is another collection of stuff from 1990 and 1991, some of which we’ve seen before, some of which we haven’t. Technically not the band’s first EP, if we assume a continuity between No-Man and No Man Is An Island. But we’re stalling.

Let’s get the OK tracks out of the way first. Heartcheat Pop is kind of a generic trip hop thing. The violin’s nice, the Your Woman-esque sample is very nice, but (once again) I’m not entirely sure what Tim’s trying to do with his voice here. It seems like it’s trying to be almost lascivious, especially in the first verse, but Bowness’ voice is fragile and vulnerable, better suited for high notes, so listening to him stick a toe into the lower half of his vocal range, in this context, makes him sound like a kid trying to wear his dad’s clothes. The not-quite-a-remix, Heartcheat Motel, is a bit better, largely because the verses are jettisoned and the instrumentation is given more space to unspool itself. Kiss Me Stupid runs in a similar vein to Heartcheat Pop, but without as much to distinguish itself. And I once again find myself wishing the closer, the Reich mix of Days in the Trees, was two or three times as long as it was.

Now then, the good stuff. First up, the cover of Donovan’s “Colours.” Here No-Man does their civic responsibility as a band in 1992 and makes it sound to a 1992 audience what the original sounded like to an audience in 1965. That is to say, they turned it into a trip hop song. And it sounds great as a trip hop song. The acoustic riff in the original translates surprisingly well to the drum loop in the cover. And Bowness’ voice is actually put to good use here; attempting to give his vocals the same slightly sinister edge as in Heartcheat Pop but here actually succeeding. The video is great, too, largely because we learn that Bowness had Brian May hair in the early 90s and dances like he found himself behind the wheel of a large automobile. The early footage of Wilson intensely but emotionlessly playing guitar in the background doesn’t hurt, either.

And, of course, there’s the Mahler mix of Days in the Trees. In the context of the album, if the first track is the warm-up, the second track is the Statement of Purpose, and there’s no better Statement of Purpose than this brilliant little number. Here’s why.

At this point in No-Man’s career they’re oscillating between two different poles—the ambience of Speak and the trip hop of this album—but not quite feeling comfortable with either. But this song manages to reconcile both sides of their musical personality, and allows them to build on each other. The trip hop gives the ambient side a pulse, and the ambience gives the trip hop side a personality. This right here is the platonic ideal of an early No-Man song. Savor it, for I don’t think we’ll see anything quite like it again. (And, of course, the violin solo at four minutes is still amazing.)

Come to think of it, Days in the Trees actually works better in the context of Lovesighs. On its single of the same name, it functions as a base mold, existing only to be manipulated into different forms. Here, though, it’s with other songs that are trying, with varying degrees of success, to do the same thing. It’s among peers.

If I were to choose between those two sides of No-Man, I definitely prefer the trip hop side, largely because the failure mode of trip hop isn’t a formless mush the way it is with ambient music, so it was welcome to see an album where No-Man pulled together all the things they did in that vein, even if it wasn’t 100% successful. Might also explain my response to what they’d get up to later.

Next up, something we all know.

No-Man – Days in the Trees

July 1991

“A great philosopher once wrote, ‘NAUGHTY NAUGHTY, VERY NAUGHTY.’” —The Shamen, Ebeneezer Goode, 1992

I’d have said something about their cover of Donovan’s “Colours” from November 1990, which has been described as proto-trip-hop, but the only version available online is the Lovesighs version from 1992.

Anyway, Days in the Trees. One song, four mixes. Six if you were in Japan in January 1992. It’s gorgeous.

I was actually kind of surprised, given (here we go again) I’m not into No-Man, but the Mahler mix—which is the first version we hear and is the most conventionally song-like—is incredible. The standout bits here are the piano and Ben Coleman’s violin, lending some serious pastoral brightness that contrasts with and overpowers any artifice inherent in the song’s trip-hoppy skeleton. It’s all very pleasant and soothing, and then four minutes in the shuffling drumbeats drop out and the violin is given free rein to hurl itself toward the clear blue sky. The first time I listened to this I was coming off a really bad day, I was exhausted and stressed out, and I was amazed at how the song seemed to literally wash away all the crap I had been freighted with. It was like some much-needed therapy.

If you were in most of the world, next up would be the Ives mix. If you were in Japan, the Bach mix would be next. Either way, the song that comes on immediately afterward functions almost as an epilogue; a distillation of what made the Mahler mix great. Ives places the violin front and center and lets it cut loose right from the start. Bach may not have a Ben Coleman in it but it ramps up the song’s ambient qualities, resulting in ninety seconds of solid chill-out goodness.

The Arthur Askey mix, from the Japanese release, is another animal entirely. It’s still chilled-out the way the others were, to an extent, but Bowness now sings over some properly 90s bleeps and bloops and a nice crunchy drum machine and hang on a minute.

This was made by the Shamen? No, no, The. Shamen. The guys responsible for “Ebeneezer Goode,” that delightfully demented love letter to ecstasy, one of the most gloriously 1992 dance songs ever written. That Shamen?

Really?

You’re kidding.

I shouldn’t be too surprised. Wilson got Alex Freaking Lifeson and Robert Freaking Fripp to guest on Fear of a Blank Planet. He did a guest vocal on a Pendulum song, of all things. Since this was released in July 1991, I’m willing to bet this was done during that liminal period between the release of En-Tact in November 1990 and the first single off that album and their first big hit, Move Any Mountain, also in July 1991. And, most importantly, No-Man and the Shamen were labelmates. This collaboration makes sense, given where everyone was at the time. But No-Man and the Shamen are nevertheless two groups that I would never have imagined would ever come in contact with each other.

That said, I’m honestly not sure if the Shamen aesthetic works well with what No-Man were doing here. The end result definitely feels like one thing grafted uncomfortably onto another thing and is otherwise uninteresting.

Bartok is a bit better. The sitar, flute, and violin samples better enhance the song’s naturalistic feel, while the trancey bassline gives it both momentum and room to breathe. The last remix, Reich, sounds like it could have been on an ambient music album twenty years later. The instrumentation makes it sound like she’s telling the story while relaxing by the side of a river, under a beautiful canopy of cherry blossoms. It really sounds lovely. But right when she says “it was the first time I fell in love,” right when we expect the song to launch into something more breathtaking and expansive (Chicane’s So Far Out to Sea is instructive), that would communicate both the ecstasy and intimacy of falling in love for the first time…it stops. The song is over. It’s all very frustrating.

That said, the Mahler, Ives, and Bach mixes are all excellent and definitely worth your time.