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
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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.

Porcupine Tree – Metanoia

December 1998

First, some housekeeping notes. I’m travelling these next few weeks, so the next post on this blog, on IEM’s An Escalator to Christmas, will appear on 22 December. (Natch.)

Second, one of the stops on my little world tour will be the Steven Wilson show in Sayreville, New Jersey, because it would be out of character otherwise. I’ll also be at the signing for Home Invasion at Vintage Vinyl in Fords. If you, too, are there, you’ll know me when you see me. Trust me.

Third, that is a wonderfully bisexual album cover. Now, then. To the goods.

Metanoia is a bundle of transitions and contradictions, starting right there in the name. The title of the album is taken from a psychological term describing the breakdown and reconstruction of one’s psyche…the parallels to their change in sound during this time is irresistible. Wilson and the band are largely secular people and may not think of themselves as witches, but they had to have known what they were doing. One need not believe in witchcraft to be a witch.

Most of this album is improvisations recorded in Cambridge and Henley during 1995 and 1996, and thus serves as the primordial soup from which the songs on Signify emerged. The album itself, though, was the last thing Porcupine Tree would release during the Space Era, aside from a small Polish collection of B-sides prefiguring the Stars Die compilation. Which means its role in the ritual is twofold: it’s the Alternative Era in its most elementary, embryonic form; and it’s the last stand of the Space Era, what a genre-minded Porcupine Tree snob at the time would describe as a “return to form” if it didn’t stem from before they changed their sound.

This is an hour of pure, unfiltered psychedelia right here. A lot of it sounds like a further development of the sort of thing they got up to in Voyage 34 and the Moonloop improvisation, which I think highlights their development as a band: the Metanoia improvisations are more complex than the other two, with Metanoia II in particular standing out with the Patented Steven Wilson Guitar Freakout at the end. And of course, Maitland’s drumming. Maitland was naturally a quite manic drummer, something he’d often have to tone down for the studio recordings, but here and in Coma Divine he goes wild, and it is something to behold.

And yet, and yet, and yet. Despite everything Metanoia represents in terms of where the band is and where they’re going, the improvisations are, in a vacuum, not all that interesting.

Here’s where we take a sharp left turn and talk for a moment about what friend of the blog Emily calls “Fall Out Boy Rules.” Fall Out Boy Rules, which is essentially just one rule, boils down to the following: the goodness of any Fall Out Boy album is, in part, directly proportional to how different it is to the album that came before it. This was, in part, crafted to counter the incessant whining from a certain phalanx of the FOB Faithful that they’re not just remaking Take This To Your Grave over and over again, but it also hits at an essential truth of what makes musician good: they grow and evolve over time. The only band that can get away with churning out the same album ad infinitum is AC/DC, everyone else has to change things up.

This despite the fact that Fall Out Boy Rules are very much not applicable to Porcupine Tree. Lightbulb Sun sounds a lot like Stupid Dream and is great. Deadwing sounds a lot like In Absentia and is also great. Meanwhile, Signify sounds radically different from The Sky Moves Sideways and is PT’s worst album. Ultimately the issue with Porcupine Tree is with them, there’s more weight placed on how the sound changes over how much the sound changes. Lightbulb Sun distills the positive aspects of Stupid Dream. Likewise Deadwing with In Absentia. Both albums are the band growing comfortable with how they changed their sound on the album that came before. So with that in mind, let’s take Metanoia’s direct antecedent as the Moonloop improvisations. What are the differences?

Well, we’ve already established that Metanoia’s more complex, jazzy, and improvised than Moonloop was. This is the band growing more comfortable with each other, knowing what everyone responds to and how they think, musically, so they’re able to take more risks. This should be an improvement. And yet, what made the Moonloop improvisations so compelling was the simplicity, how they managed to move rhythmically along and only change just enough to retain our attention. In contrast, the Metanoia improvisations seem freighted with unnecessary baggage. I stand by my previous statement that this album is an orgasmic psychedelic explosion, but all the same there’s the definite feeling that this is almost a remix of the Moonloop improvisations, and what changes were made overcomplicate things, providing the clearest evidence yet that they’ve essentially hit a dead end with what they could do with the Space Era sound. This ritual is really necessary.

This is a long way of saying that the best thing on the album is a weird almost-hidden-track at the very end, when the guitar freakout closing out Metanoia II deflates and cedes the floor to Milan.

Milan is absolutely bizarre. It was recorded (“recorded”) during the Coma Divine tour, in the eponymous city. It is two and a half minutes of a conversation between Glenn Povey and the band about what to get for dinner. Except Porcupine Tree and Milan are just two great tastes that do not taste great together, as Wilson and Maitland both separately make a mockery of the things Italy’s most important city is famous for. Milan’s known for its food; meanwhile, Steven Wilson is a vegetarian and this particular venue is not, er, friendly to someone with his dietary needs. Milan’s also known for its fashion; meanwhile, Chris Maitland turns out to be comically overdressed for the evening and wants so very desperately to sink into the floor, and Povey can barely keep a straight face at the sight of him.

This was recorded delightfully amateurishly, too. Everyone’s talking over each other. There’s a slight echo at certain places. The background noise is almost deafening, drowning out anyone unlucky enough to be too far away from the recording equipment. At one point you can hear muffled scraping noises as the microphone is moved around. If this were made today, it would be recorded on a digital camera, using its built-in mic, and indeed it feels like there’s video to this that we haven’t seen. I wish there was, so we could’ve had an eyeful of Maitland’s amazing dinner-theatre en-sem-bluh. Milan is not particularly daring, it was clearly thrown on for a laugh, but it is unique, and most importantly, it’s interestingly unique, a counterpoint to the structure and polish characterizing most of Porcupine Tree’s discography.

It also serves a purpose in the ritual. The Metanoia improvisations were belched out in ‘95 and ‘96 and were released in ‘98, threatening to escape the confines of the circle entirely. However, Milan again confines this unruly spore to a very specific place and time: the communal kitchen at the Leoncavallo, in that city, on 29 March 1997, conveniently, the same month and country as the shows recorded for Coma Divine. Meanwhile, construction of the Alternative Era continues apace.

It’s December 1998. Porcupine Tree have just signed with Snapper Records to release a new, more song-oriented album. The album itself has already been completed and, happily, just needed a sympathetic and amply-resourced distributor. Everything’s in place; we just have to make our finishing move.

Porcupine Tree – Coma Divine

Editorial prologue the First: that ponytail is adorable.

Editorial prologue the Second: In non-Steve news, I have an article up on Medium about Weezer’s cover of Africa and why it’s an abomination. If that sounds interesting do check it out.


 

October 1997
Coma Divine II, January 1999
Expanded edition, February 2003
Remastered, 2016

DSCN4326

“Grazie.”

It’s the end of an era. No, another era. In the Signify entry I wrote:

“Ultimately, the people who become immortal are the people who get lucky. Either they have connections through family or friends, someone powerful noticed them at exactly the right time and liked what they heard, or what they were doing resonated with the contemporary musical zeitgeist.”

Steven Wilson got lucky. Yes, there’s a case to be made about the ambitious aspiring musician, but in the beginning he got lucky. There were lots of people plugged into the English neo-psychedelia scene in the 80s. There were lots of people just as worthy of superstardom as Wilson was, flinging their tapes at places like Delerium and hoping someone would take notice. But Wilson was the fortunate soul whose tape found its way out of the slush pile, and that was because the Delerium man’s buddy needed driving music and Tarquin’s was fished out at random. And then many years later the fake band became real and released albums and played shows and caught the attention of an extremely powerful record industry man down in Italy, they got played on the radio, and their cachet in the politically unstable boot-shaped country skyrocketed.

Thus, Coma Divine, the fulcrum of the magical ritual to destroy the Space Era and usher in the Alternative Era, and also the point at which Porcupine Tree became too big for Delerium’s britches. Although not the band’s final release with the label—Delerium would still have some unreleased rarities that would float to the surface in the next few years—this is the last thing the band released while they were still actively making music for them. Porcupine Tree would spend most of 1998 without a label, signing a deal in December of that year with Snapper Music, which would eventually, with some input from Wilson himself, branch off into Kscope, the imprint who’d release things like Anathema, North Atlantic Oscillation, The Pineapple Thief…stuff in the general ballpark of what Porcupine Tree would sound like in the Alternative and Metal Eras. So this was a natural switch for them.

Would there be stuff that leaked out afterward? Yes. Metanoia, for instance. The Delerium Years compilation. But those are all contained within the slowly deflating star of Delerium itself, which would fold in 2003. This album belched out a satellite of its own in 1999, which would be subsequently reabsorbed and kept under the Coma Divine umbrella with the expanded edition, also in 2003. For all intents and purposes, here is a decade of history, successfully, albeit barely, bottled within a specific place (the Frontiera in Rome) and time (three nights in late March 1997).

From a certain perspective, though, I’ve managed to do the same thing. I heavily compartmentalize my music based upon a place in the world that feels like whatever it is I’m listening to. Sometimes this is based off life experience, sometimes it isn’t. The music of Burial, for instance, could accurately be described as “an incognito psychogeographic exploration of South London,” but to me the grubby, crusty atmosphere and the way the pitch-shifted vocal samples echo across the sound field also scream “desolate New York subway station at one in the morning.” Pendulum is another example: also based in London, this band specializes in drum-n-bass bangers but which will occasionally venture into something ambient or acoustic (Crush and Out Here are perfect examples). This particular contrast between ultramodern harshness and lush ambience is a dead ringer for Hong Kong, where city streets lined with looming fifty-story apartment towers that inspired Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell sit literally right next to dense wilderness.

For Space-Era Porcupine Tree, I’ve already mentioned a couple of times how the techno tracks Jerry Martin wrote for the 90s Sim games sound a fair bit like stuff from Up the Downstair and The Sky Moves Sideways, particularly in the bass and the keyboards. I’ve also mentioned SimCity 3000 a little as well; a game whose sequel, SimCity 3000 Unlimited, also featured European and Asian building sets. The Asian building set was intended to evoke someplace like Tokyo, a town everyone knows, but the generally stout, boxy architecture actually lands somewhere around the vernacular of Taipei, Taiwan.

Which means that once when I had a day-long layover in Taipei on my way from Hong Kong to the US, and I had an opportunity to leave the airport and explore the city, I listened almost exclusively to Jerry Martin and Space-Era Porcupine Tree. The Sky Moves Sideways and Voyage 34 in particular are inseparable from almost falling asleep on the 1819 airport bus somewhere on Highway 1, watching exurban Taiwan’s peculiar jumble of fields, houses, and mid-rise apartment blocks roll by on my way to a sweltering yet vibrant city in a country no one wants to believe officially exists. When I listen to Dislocated Day I’m lost in the enormous underground city beneath Taipei Main Station. Up the Downstair is the soundtrack of dodging mopeds on an impromptu dérive in and around the city’s many, many alleyways. What I have done here, in essence, was to bottle Porcupine Tree’s Space Era into a psychogeo/chronographic brick of my own making: the city of Taipei, as it existed for ten hours on 2 August 2014. Taiwan’s capital on that day is my Frontiera.

But while Taipei is still there, it hasn’t been 2014 for four years now. The Frontiera closed in 2000. Delerium Records folded in 2003. The Space Era is, as of this moment, well and truly dead.

So. What are we building on top of the ruins? Signify itself may have been a stillborn attempt to construct a new sound, but there’s still something here to build on. Enter, for instance, Barbieri’s keyboards. Over in JBK, he’d already been doing something similar to the soundscapes that’d form the backbone of the Alternative and Metal eras since Beginning to Melt, but here’s where that style begins to be introduced to Porcupine Tree in a big way. The band as a whole has also become more comfortable improvising and changing around with certain aspects of the songs they’re playing. They’ve mashed up The Moon Touches Your Shoulder and Always Never. Barbieri’s subtly changed around the keyboards in the former so it sounds just a bit more ominous, while the latter’s got some more horns in the chorus, giving it a more triumphant, early-Marillion feel. Wilson has by this time perfected his Patented Psychedelic Guitar Freakout and lets it rip with full force during The Sky Moves Sideways and Dislocated Day.

And actually, I do want to zero in on Dislocated Day for a second. In the studio, this is one of the loudest, most technical songs Porcupine Tree’s ever made. In Rome, however, the rhythm section is brought forwards and the cacophonic, squealing lead guitar is confined to the one discreet solo in the middle. Wilson’s vocals, more chanted at points than sung, are front and center, to the point where when he sings “I will find a way to make you say the name of your forgiver,” the bass and drums fade out entirely before storming back in for the drop. Somewhat relevant to the narrative we’ve constructed about this point in the band’s history, the overall atmosphere of the song is less (well) dislocated and more…witchy.

That said, though, in March of 1997 we still don’t have a whole lot to build the Alternative Era with. New soundscapes and live performance indulgences are nice, but that’s not sufficient for a whole sound. Our first attempt was stillborn, and Sunsets on Empire is still two months away. But we do have something. By the time the 1997 tour rolled around, Wilson and the band had whacked together a few demos for the new album. One of them was of a song called “Disappear.”

This song has a long and tortured history stretching all the way to Lightbulb Sun, because it fell victim to that weird artist’s curse of obsessively picking at something in the name of Perfection long after they should have stopped. The final version, unceremoniously kicked off Lightbulb Sun and only seeing release on Recordings, sounds very little like the more sprawling early demos—two of which, recorded in February and April of 1997, eventually did get a release—and an awful lot like the first half of Last Chance to Evacuate &c.

But look at what we do have in these early incarnations: sober, deceptively straightforward instrumentation light on the psychedelia. Wilson’s ethereal, almost ghostly backing vocals. Lyrics describing alienation, introversion, and (despite being sung to a lover) isolation. The building blocks of the Alternative Era are all right here, on two demos of a song that was never quite good/thematically appropriate enough to see a studio album release, bracketing the shows in Rome by a month on either side and released as a bonus single in Coma Divine’s expanded edition.

The Space Era is dead. Long live the Alternative Era.

DSCN4362

 

Porcupine Tree – Live at Help

Editorial prologue: let’s peel back the curtain a bit. There’s generally a lag between when I write a post and when it actually goes up on the blog, so I have some time away from it and it’s fresh before I make any final edits. The meat of this post, for example, was pulled together back in May. However, between then and now the subject of this post was yanked from YouTube. I’ll provide a link if it’s ever reuploaded. In the meantime, blame Gavin.

[UPDATE 7/18/19: HERE IT IS, FRIENDS. Thanks to Matt for rediscovering this li’l gem.]


 

28 March 1997

“I don’t remember Porcoopine Tree having the Your Movie Sucks guy as the lead singer, the Alien Ant Farm guy on bass, Robert Palmer of the Cure on the keys, and Some Jerk With A Camera on the drums. What a good band.” —Emily “Annotated Fall Out Boy” Nejako

Yes, we both know Mister The Cure is actually Robert Smith. It’s funnier this way. Please take your pedantry elsewhere.

During the Signify era, Porcupine Tree got big in Italy. There, they had a superfan in Nick Vannini, who just so happened to own a musical distribution company, and who thus had the necessary cachet to give the band serious radio play down there. And the gambit worked, to the point where playing in Italy meant experiencing uniquely large, rapturous, sold-out venues, and, most importantly, a glimpse of what it was like to be a rock star and not just a jobbing musician. Coma Divine was recorded there for a reason.

Of course, with the rock-star adulation they enjoyed in Italy comes rock-star drudgery. Photoshoots. Interviews. Talk show appearances. I’m not going to exhaustively cover bootlegs and TV appearances in this space…but I think we can make an exception here, because ye freaking gods. Their appearance on Help was a trainwreck visible from space.

It’s not the language barrier. Wilson and PT have had plenty of good interviews with people whose English wasn’t perfect. But this show and this band were nevertheless such a colossal mismatch I’m left wondering if either party had heard of the other before they came crashing together.

I’m working off of very incomplete information. I surmise that Help was a videomusic program, filmed in Bologna, whose format, if this episode is representative, involved live band performances separated by short interview segments. The show ran from 1996 to 2000 for the similarly relatively short-lived TMC 2. The host is Gabriele “Red Ronnie” Ansaloni, who’s been a professional music nerd in some capacity or other since the late 70s and by the time Wilson and company showed up had been presenting for radio and TV for fourteen years. That’s literally all I got.

I need (heh) help. So, I’ve tagged in my friend Emily Nejako of the Annotated Fall Out Boy blog, who kindly provided the epigraph for this post. What follows is a heavily abridged but otherwise lightly edited transcript of the Discord chat we had while we were attempting to make sense of what we were watching:

EN: “is it troo that you are more famous in italy than in your own count-rey”
TD: at that time, yes
EN: this is concurrent with oasis and the spice girls
TD: YEP

N.b. Although I want to stress once again that the language barrier wasn’t the issue, we nevertheless roundly mocked Red Ronnie’s fractured and heavily accented English throughout the show. Because I love you, I spared you most of the snark, but this one stayed because it’s an example of the sort of ridiculously softball questions he typically lobbed at Steven.

EN: [walking very slowly over to steven]
TD: guuHHHH
EN: he’s so scared
TD: i would be too
EN: “you seem to have roots in the 70s”
EN: what did the host just look at his hair
TD: I GUESS
EN: [steven stares into camera like he’s on the office]

EN: “why are the songs long” “because they’re long”
EN: good job

N.b. This was an exchange between Red Ronnie and Chris Maitland that’s another example of the sort of questions the band typically got on this show. One does wonder what sort of answer Ronnie was expecting out of Maitland here.

TD: oh god
TD: richard
TD: we’re already off on the wrong foot because he started with ex-japan
EN: i’m crying
EN: “is this the thing you played in japan”
EN: “pac-man?”
EN: PLEASE DON’T TOUCH HIS EQUIPMENT
TD: yep
TD: HE’S STILL TALKING ABOUT JAPAN
EN: WHY
EN: i feel his suffering

N.b. Ron thought it’d be a good idea to play with Richard’s old synthesizer for a bit. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to understand why this is Not Done. Ron would make Barbieri deeply uncomfortable throughout the show.

EN: i want to hear more porcupine tree so to simulate it i’m blowing into my beer bottle
EN: he’s like curling up into a ball
TD: yes!
EN: the next time he approaches him he’s gonna be rocking back and forth in a fetal position
TD: oh aye
EN: shut up about japan
EN: what about MY waifu, italy

N.b. Ronnie’s interrogating Barbieri about his relationships with Sylvian, Jansen, and Karn. It’s worth mentioning here that Ronnie uncritically repeated the [untrue] myth that Sylvian was voted Sexiest Man in the World and that it contributed to him, to put it politely, developing an ego later on.

EN: HELP
EN: call the help line
EN: do you need
EN: help
TD: i think they need help
EN: “why do you want to destroy?”
EN: i want to destroy his ass

N.b. Ronnie, on Wilson’s request, read from the lyrics to Radioactive Toy, and interpreted the line “give me the freedom to destroy” as “give me, Steven, who is on this show right now, the freedom to destroy.”

TD: ohgod
TD: he’s talking to barbieri again
TD: AND
TD: HE’S TALKING ABOUT JAPAN AGAIN
EN: SHUT UP ABOUT JAPAN

N.b. Barbieri finally lost patience with Ronnie’s constant badgering about his time with Japan and explained that he’s not there as an ex-Japan member and he would really like to be looking forward instead of backward, so could we please focus on what he’s doing now.

TD: wilson gets all the pedal geekery and richard gets an inquisition about his time with japan
EN: god
TD: all richard got about his equipment was a quick thing about how old his one synth was
EN: depressing

N.b. Ronnie and Wilson had a moment, stemming from another awkward question about how he always goes barefoot, where they mutually geeked out over Wilson’s pedals and how they altered his guitar sound. Notably, Ronnie keeps a respectful distance from Wilson and doesn’t try to play with his toys. This is, in essence, the one moment where we get a glimpse of how the show is supposed to work.

EN: WHOWOWOOO
TD: AWKWARRD
EN: WOOWOOWOOO HERE COMES THE CRINGY MUSIC SHOW POLICE
TD: DINGDINGDINGYEP

N.b. I have no words to describe precisely what Ronnie does here. You just gotta see it.

EN: why are they giving out candy
EN: is this payment for them suffering through this
EN: “You Don’t Know This Kind oF Food?”
TD: craig ferguson use to joke on the late late show “we give the audience free candy”
EN: omg
TD: this is an innovation
TD: we give the band free candy too
TD: AND THAT’S IT
EN: yay we lived
TD: yay
EN: I CAN’T BELIEVE I ATE THE WHOLE THING

I can’t believe we ate the whole thing, either.

This should not have gone as disastrously as it did. Ronnie’s been presenting for as long as Wilson’s been releasing music, and has been in the music business for about as long as Barbieri’s been releasing music. The man clearly knows his stuff. We should, by all rights, have had a show that was just as engrossing throughout as it was those precious few minutes when Wilson was showing off his pedals. And yet, somehow, the combination of Gabriele Ansaloni and Porcupine Tree produced nothing but industrial-strength awkward and some of the worst interview questions Emily or I have ever heard.

But at least it’s not the Jason interview.

Porcupine Tree – Insignificance

March 1997

Oh yes, that reference to the parent album is quite oblique, isn’t it? Ehhhh?

Before we begin, a summary of what I had to skip over.

First: Mike Heron’s Where the Mystics Swim. Mister Heron is most well-known as a member of the Incredible String Band, a pioneering psychedelic folk group active in the 60s and 70s. I’d have used this post as an excuse to document the history of his most well-known musical project, with, naturally, a particular focus on how they plunged headfirst into Scientology right as the high and beautiful wave broke and the attendant effects it had on their music. Problem is, I have no idea if the Steven Wilson who engineered this album is our Steven Wilson. I can totally see our Wilson taking on a project like this with the hero of another musical story, but the only source I could find was Discogs, which can be, er, unreliable with the attribution sometimes.

Second: Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri’s Lumen, a live album recorded in November 1996 but not released until 2015. Wilson’s a guest performer. I’d have taken the opportunity to revisit the songs on this album and see if I could still stand by my initial opinion of them, but I can’t seem to find the damn thing.

Thus, to Insignificance, our happy little collection of demos and b-sides from the Signify sessions and Part Two of our attempt to usher in the Alternative Era. This boy comes in two versions. The first is the cassette released in 1997, and the second was the version released as the second disc of Signify for its 2-CD remaster in 2003. The 2003 version kicked out two tracks included in Metanoia, split another, and added a second. The changes are relatively minor and don’t seriously affect the listening experience until the very end.

Our best move here is probably separating all the tracks on this album into two parts—the originals unique to this album and the demos—and take them one at a time.

THE OLD

Hallogallo/Signify: These two were split up in the 2003 rerelease, but really, if you’re gonna smoosh ‘em together like this, you treat ‘em as one thing. Which they are. Because playing them back to back like this only reinforces that one grew out of the other.

Waiting: This is a seven-minute version of the finished album’s two-part not-quite-centerpiece. Phase One is not Signify’s best song, but it was the only song on the album that could be said to chart a path forward for the band, as pretty much everything else represents either their current sound’s death rattle or a flailing attempt to try something different. The Insignificance demo is pretty close to what we eventually got with Phase One. (Well, okay, the guitar solo is a bit less elaborate.) The expansion of Phase Two into its own thing on the full album, however, was unquestionably the right choice.

Sever Tomorrow: Definitely prefer the album version. The lyrics flow a little better there, especially the “America calls” line. Also, the demo has those pitched-up, distorted voices from more whimsical days, and they risk defusing what is otherwise a very tense atmosphere.

Dark Origins: WHEE MORE FUN WITH TITLES AMIRITE? This is clearly an early version of Dark Matter. It’s just as polished as the album version, but only the rhythm section is complete, so it sounds the way a house looks when the left side is fully built and furnished and hooked up to the relevant utilities and ready to move in, but the right side is still a hole in the ground. Those vocalizations in particular just scream “I have no idea what we’re doing here but let’s throw this in to fill space.” We need that ethereal acoustic guitar and Wilson singing about how bored he is on the tour van. We need that snazzy instrumental section filling up the song’s back half. It’s disquietingly incomplete otherwise.

THE NEW

Wake As Gun I & II: Technically two songs, the first opens the album, the second is plopped in the middle as a reprise, and I honestly don’t think it was impactful enough the first time to really demand one. (Contrast Breathe from everyone’s favorite Pink Floyd album. Although I’m not really sure what I’d do with the freakout at the end of II…) First one’s nice enough on its own, though. And, yes, my ears did prick up upon hearing the “bloodless and inspired” line.

Smiling Not Smiling: It’s considerably more lo-fi and unpolished than everything else on the album, and I don’t know if it’s supposed to be like that or if the band soured on the song really early in the recording process. Despite the sweet slide guitar, this is probably my least favorite song on the album, and I don’t know if its clearly work-in-progress nature has anything to do with it.

Neural Rust: This sounds, in parts, vaguely similar to The Sky Moves Sideways (Phase Two). Oh dear.

Door to the River: Definitely fits better in Metanoia than it ever possibly could on Signify.

Insignificance: Another instrumental that’s a bit too spacey for this album, but that bass. Oh man, that bass. It’s Karn tier. I love it. Four for you, Colin.

THE BORROWED

Cryogenics: Unreleased and sporadically performed in 1995 and 1997. Grew out of what would eventually appear on Metanoia, but covering it in the Metanoia entry, with how I plan to write about it, just seems like an intrusion. So it’s here instead. I do not like it. I think it sounds cacophonic and self-indulgent. I totally understand why it was left off the live album it was intended for. I also understand why it was stripped for spare parts when writing The Creator Has A Mastertape.

THE BLUE

Nine Cats: Well now. Welcome back. I was having lunch while listening to this album for the first time, and when the vocals kicked in I distinctly remember dropping my fork in shock upon discovering precisely what I was hearing.

This is a fully acoustic solo arrangement of Nine Cats, recorded at Chez Mama and Papa Wilson in 1995. Since this is the third version of this song we’ve encountered thus far, Nine Cats now feels like something with a fully developed arc, slowly moving from the psychedelic version we first experienced with Karma in 1983, to the stripped-back but still electric version we heard in 1991, finally culminating with the fully unplugged version we have today in 1997.

There’s a music video that plays in my head when I hear this version. I imagine Wilson in 1997, alone on an anonymous bare stage, sitting on a stool with an acoustic guitar. No audience. He starts playing the song. While he’s singing the second verse, Wilson from 1991 walks on with an acoustic guitar and a stool of his own, and sets up to his right. When the third verse begins, 1991!SW joins in, and Wilson from 1983 walks on with his own guitar and stool, and sets up to 1997!Wilson’s left. Starting with the instrumental section following the third verse, they all play together.

Once the fourth verse ends, 1991!Wilson gets off his stool and leaves. 1983!Wilson follows after the fifth verse. Ultimately, the Wilson of 1997 is left alone again onstage to finish the song. Once he’s done, he too gets up and leaves, leaving three empty stools on which the camera lingers for a few seconds before fading out.

Cheesy? Probably. But I think it illustrates the song’s significance as a musical thread pulling together these three different periods in Wilson’s musical evolution. And, naturally, its inclusion in Insignificance is a big part of why everything Porcupine Tree released between Signify and Stupid Dream could be described as a magical ritual to kickstart the Alternative Era. Signify vaguely suggested a way forward, but to fully develop the new sound we have to do something about the old sound. And to do that, we have to nail down precisely what it is we’re destroying. We gotta sketch out the territory.

Porcupine Tree – Signify

30 September 1996

Waiting, May 1996
2-CD edition, July 2003
Remastered 2-LP edition, May 2004
Delerium Years remaster, 2017

“You’ve just had a heavy session of electroshock therapy, and you’re more relaxed than you’ve been in weeks! All those childhood traumas magically wiped away, along with most of your personality!”

“The brainwashed do not know they are brainwashed.”

You’re Not As Messed Up As You Think You Are

I was brought up evangelical. Like most people who were brought up evangelical, after a certain point you realize that no God worth worshipping would mandate the brainwashing/oppression/extermination of queer people. Like most people who were brought up evangelical, after a certain point you realize that the institutional edifice[s] propping up middle-class American Protestant Christianity are fundamentally, systematically rotten from top to bottom. Middle-class American Christianity is not a belief system that survives any sustained contact with the beauty and diversity of the outside world that we were told God loathes (and somehow loves) so much.

And, like most people who were brought up evangelical, I ran facefirst into the outside world right around my eighteenth birthday, and you can probably guess how things would eventually shake loose afterward.

I should probably be very specific about what it is that so fundamentally bothers me about religion. Of course, when I talk about “religion,” I am going to primarily reference the one I was raised in, but I’m pretty sure a lot of these same issues are universal. For starters, one person or group of people quite simply has no business holding formal authority over people’s spirituality…especially when aforesaid person/group of people are primarily white men who’re middle-aged or older. In fact, an individual or a church’s collective spirituality is just too important to be trusted to anything that has any sort of implicit or explicit hierarchical structure.

Because with that power, naturally, comes abuse. The mountain of sex abuse scandals emanating from within Christianity speaks for itself and is a more damning indictment of the faith and of religious authority than Christ himself ever came up with. But it’s not just that, it’s also spiritual abuse. It’s rooting out anyone who dares question the stranglehold you have over your audience. It’s about projecting your own prejudices onto a messy collection of books written thousands of years ago in a time and place that, unless you’re Palestinian, is not yours, and which already have their own prejudices baked in. It’s hell, a concept that suddenly becomes horrifying if even a modicum of thought is applied to it. It’s teaching women that they’re lesser than men. It’s teaching people they shouldn’t have sex until marriage or they should remain in abusive relationships, and all the emotional damage that follows. It’s teaching queer people that they should be “converted” to a compulsory cisgenderness or heterosexuality. It’s a sick, twisted white supremacist nationalism—God, guns, and Trump—that in America has a robust history dating all the way back to when these very same preachers were defending (and, in at least once case, advocating for the imposition of) slavery. Say the right vaguely churchy words in the right order once in a while and the suckers just come rolling in.

Scaling up from the individual church level, it’s terrorist attacks on Planned Parenthood clinics. It’s missionaries tromping around the Third World reenacting the quest of their imperialist ancestors from two centuries previous to Bring Civilization To The Savage Peoples. It’s the Crusades, and the associated deep-rooted anti-Semitism and Islamophobia that leeched onto and sprung from them. It’s the teachings of an insignificant nomadic prophet, corralled into the service of innumerable bloodthirsty empires since at least the conversion of Constantine. It’s, fundamentally, the belief that anyone who’s not Christian ought to be brainwashed, intellectually lobotomized, or killed. Kant had a rare moment of lucidity if he did indeed say something like “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest,” because Christianity is fundamentally Satanic.

Moving on to the freakish assemblage of texts that spawned this faith, the Bible. Nothing in the Bible really happened except possibly a few of the Pauline epistles. Much of the Old Testament exists specifically to advance particular political agendas. That we got the four Gospels we have today can be chalked up to historical accident, and none of them are factually accurate accounts of the life of Jesus…a figure about whom we know nothing beyond that he was almost certainly a real person.

And even beyond historical inaccuracy, there’s a ton of stuff in the Bible that is legitimately horrifying. People center around those long lists of things that deserve the death penalty in Leviticus and Deuteronomy for good reason, but check out how God himself behaves in the Bible if you really want to send a chill down your spine. And in the New Testament, Paul himself is a real piece of work, to the point where one suspects that his conversion experience didn’t change a whole lot besides his religious affiliation.

But here’s the fun part: a lot of what I just said about the Bible is what people learn in their first few weeks at seminary. This is literally Christianity 101. So the appropriate Christian reaction to a New Atheist type bloviating about how the Bible is false is “well…duh.”

And, of course, let’s not forget that despite Christianity’s long and storied relationship with white supremacy, it’s not like atheism’s much better. For every atheist whose rejection of a supreme being also serves as a rejection of divinely supported oppressive power structures, you’ve got an atheist whose rejection of a supreme being serves as an excuse to justify keeping their blessedly secular Europe free of muddle-headed Muslims. And really, that’s frustrating. Atheism is awful, and has been awful for a very long time, because in the West it too, like Christianity, has been co-opted to serve the whims of empire, and has been since the days of the Enlightenment. The only reasons atheism can’t be considered As Bad as Christianity is (a) the predominant tradition has only been around for about four or five hundred years, and (b) there’s still a strand of atheism that’s legitimately liberatory.

You can thank the anarchists for that. You know the slogan: no gods, no masters. But it is an anarchistic atheism, an atheism that includes within it critiques of not just religion but also racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic power structures and of capitalism, authoritarianism, and authority in general. Give me an atheism whose denial of God is based on rejecting the divine right of kings any day over a monosyllabic atheism that sits in its own drool saying “invisible sky fairy” over and over. And this is just as important as rejecting God, because an atheism that rejects the worst impulses of Christianity only replicates them when it fails to interrogate anything else. Just ask Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or their intellectual forebear H. L. Mencken.

But, really, this is a level of intellectual complexity that’s beyond Western atheism, whose avatar is the cisgender heterosexual white guy who’s never quite gotten past that zeal of the deconverted phase where he constantly gets himself off over how he’s outgrown such silly superstitions. And, really, if there’s one thing Western atheists need to not do, it’s be impressed with themselves for learning there’s no God or afterlife and we’re only a cosmic dust mite winking briefly in and out of existence and life has no inherent meaning beyond what we invest in it from our own experiences and desires. Like, it may seem like it is in whatever one-horse cult you’ve managed to escape from, but this is not esoteric, revealed knowledge. So you think you’re special? Coming down from the mountain with the new Ten Commandments from The God Delusion etched in stone tablets? Well, good job in learning what the rest of us did a long time ago.

Thus, to Signify, the album that more or less describes that moment when you’ve joined the rest of the human race and wondering what to do now. It’s also the only Porcupine Tree record I don’t like.

She’s Not As Pretty As She Thinks She Is

I mentioned in the Up the Downstair review that Porcupine Tree records generally come in pairs, where the first album changes the band’s sound and the second refines it. This schema comes the closest to breaking entirely with The Sky Moves Sideways and Signify, because both albums represent a pretty substantial sonic shift, and in completely different directions: The Sky Moves Sideways expands the music’s psychedelic elements to territories not seen since Voyage 34, whereas Signify is the point at which we start putting the Space Era to bed.

The Space Era’s far from over, mind. Most of the tracks on this album retain the sensibilities that Porcupine Tree is known for, most notably The Sleep of No Dreaming, Sever, Every Home is Wired, Intermediate Jesus, and Dark Matter. Moving into the Alternative Era will ultimately be a three-year process involving the Insignificance demos and a final orgasmic explosion of pure psychedelia in Metanoia, but it’s pretty clear from what we have here that we’ve reached the limit of what we can do with our currently-established sound and we have to try something different. That and we’re gelling more and more as a studio band, so we’re creating more band-oriented tracks, and those will be a bit shorter and less spaced-out than what we’re known for. Also our frontman’s still listening to loads of krautrock and that’s gonna bleed over, too. (Check out that spectacular motorik in the title track.)

The problem is Signify hit at basically the worst possible time in the bands evolution: the point where it’s pretty clear that the current sound is netting them diminishing returns, but the new sound is still very much under construction. The title track is nice enough, but it grew out of a cover of Hallogallo and it shows. Probably the only song that reaches the heights we’re used to from Porcupine Tree is Dark Matter. All the other spacey songs are pretty clearly the band returning to the same wells they’ve plumbed before, only this time with samples of some unhinged preacher types thrown in for thematic flavour.

Speaking of lyrics and sonic elements that’re still under construction, this is the first time Wilson’s actually consistently had lyrics that were something besides mouth noises or random words pulled from a hat Kid A-style. (Usually. Sever still has some of that old bad-trip magic.) And, well…

He’s Not As Clever As He Likes To Think

Okay, I’m going to be polite here, and then I won’t. I’m generally neutral-to-positive on Wilson’s lyrics. He’s pretty good at putting words in a particular order (“as the world in my TV leaked on to my shoes” is a killer line, for instance), but in my book his style has consistently been better than his substance. What’s more, there are very few subjects less fruitful for Babby’s First Stab At Comprehensibility than the first time it fully sinks in that you’re gonna die.

I don’t know how much of this is me writing from my temporal vantage point. I don’t know how picked-over this topic actually was in 1996. But really…there just are not very many places to go with this particular subject. So, life is finite. You will one day cease to exist. All signs point to this life being all there is. Now what.

You might, if we use a godawful New Atheist line, stick your head in the sand and say there really is something after death. Only way to survive is on your knees, after all. You might instead turn to the hedonism of drugs or sex, or this weird new thing called the Internet wiring every home. Or you might try and create something that you hope and pray (“pray”) will outlast you, and if the drudgery of schlepping from no-name English town to no-name English town on a bus while playing to fifty people in miserable, dank, sweaty bar basements is what we need to do to get the job done, then so bloody be it.

Here’s where the anxiety over leaving a legacy comes from. You might say that religious people who long for a heaven are denying the finitude of existence, but if you’re concerned that a chunk of you will somehow remain after you’re gone…you’re worrying about the same thing, mate. It may not be a literal afterlife you seek, but it’s an afterlife nonetheless.

If you’re a creative person, and you define your legacy as something you make that lives on after you die, the pitfalls are everywhere. If the path to an afterlife is popularity, there’s more pressure to appeal to what’s popular (which rarely if ever works). If the path to an afterlife is making something that sticks out, then it’s a crapshoot because it might not reach enough people. Ultimately, the people who become immortal are the people who get lucky. Either they have connections through family or friends, someone powerful noticed them at exactly the right time and liked what they heard, or what they were doing resonated with the contemporary musical zeitgeist. And even if you manage to Get Big, records and CDs scratch. Tapes warp. Storage media decay. Some works have somehow managed to last hundreds of years but ultimately no catalog is permanent. The product is sold, the memory fades. There’s no escape hatch forthcoming here.

I’m Not As Awesome As This Song Makes Out

At least not yet. There’s another English bloke wot’s good at the wordsmithing who twelve years later short-circuited this entire conversation without even realizing it. In 2008, ex-Million Dead boy Frank Turner released folk-punk masterpiece Love, Ire & Song, whose second track, Reasons Not To Be An Idiot, is a cheery dope-slap for everyone caught Wilsonly within their own thoughts.

In the song, Turner surveys a series of people (including himself and the listener) who’ve become neurotically obsessed over themselves, their appearance, their intellect, whatever, and shakes them around a bit to remind them that they (and, by extension, we) are not freighted with any uniquely insurmountable woes and that “deep down, you’re just like everybody else.” The last person he addresses is someone called Amy, who’s gotten sucked into all sorts of superficial faux-spiritual gobbledygook because “she’s scared that life won’t leave any traces.” Sound familiar?

His prescription is simple. Right after describing Amy’s situation he cuts the entire Gordian knot both she and Signify got themselves stuck in with five little words: “That’s not the point anyway.” All you really need in life is right there in the album’s title–love, ire, and song–and notice that immortality and leaving a legacy are conspicuously not mentioned among them. It’s nice out. Enjoy some fresh air. Go for a pint. See some friends. For once in your life, get your head out of your ass and relax.

(It’s probably also worth pointing out that Wilson and Turner are both cisgender white men from solidly middle-class English backgrounds—Wilson’s father was an electronic engineer at Philips, Turner’s father was an investment banker—which itself speaks volumes about who has the wherewithal to tie themselves into knots like this, thinking about whether they’ll leave behind anything that will last.)

Which brings us back around to, what do you do upon discovering that life is finite and has no inherent meaning? If you’re western, and don’t have an actual degree in philosophy, there are two ways this conversation can go: a simplistic nihilism, or a corny be-excellent-to-each-other pop platitudinism. Both these routes invite nothing in the way of nuance or complexity, and are just flat boring. This is not a conversation in which anyone comes away enlightened. Instead, realize that worrying about this crap is bourgeois faux-intellectual masturbation, and get up, get down, and get outside.

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