Porcupine Tree – Lightbulb Sun

22 May 2000

4 Chords that Made a Million, March 2000
Shesmovedon, July 2000
German tour edition, February 2001
Orchidia, 2003
2003 Intro Music, 2003
2CD remaster, April 2008
2LP edition, 8 July 2008
Clear edition, 2017

[And we’re back. This is a guest post by Emily Nejako, who has more to say about this album than I do.]

Considering its distinctly British aesthetics, if Lightbulb Sun had come out five years earlier, it probably would have been a significantly more popular record. Song-by-song, it gets a lot of praise in fan circles, but it’s considered to have the loosest structure and no coherent theme. Except it totally does have a theme.

What is Lightbulb Sun about?

  1. Failed relationships
  2. Nostalgia
  3. Living in a small town
  4. Being real fucking depressed about all of the above

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

At the turn of the millennium, Steven seemed explosively bitter that he wouldn’t be able to break through into the mainstream, expressing these feelings all throughout the 2000s. If it weren’t for his lack of awareness of it in the future, Steven almost could have won the emo crowd over if he kept going on the same tangents from this album. They could have just put Richard in a too-tall shirt and a beanie like Crazy Town did to their drummer. It’s not like Steven was about to be upset about looking too pop — it is very ironic to listen to Steven rant about the evils of shiny, shallow pretty pop stars knowing that he would immediately go out on the road preaching those ideals in low-rise jeans, painted nails, and a crop-top shirt, at his skinniest and squeakiest-clean. I see you, Avril.

If you wanted to draw a direct line from this album to something in the emo canon it’d pretty obviously be From Under The Cork Tree, what with its simultaneous concern about love and failure. Stupid Dream is centered around Steven’s raw desire to be remembered, and the pitfalls therein, but Lightbulb Sun marks when he becomes the most conflicted about specifically wanting to be a famous musician, even if it packs all of that rage into Four Chords That Made A Million.

And maybe it’s that misplaced specificity that knocks the wind out of Lightbulb Sun’s ambitions. In Hatesong, Steven clearly wants to be pointed — it’s one of the angriest songs he’s written, because it has a rollicking solo and a chugging groove that gets you in the brooding mood, but the lyrics are fairly skimpy. Get Busy Living Or Get Busy Dying, on the other hand, is a song that would actually make someone want to sue. Pete is dancing circles around the person he hates, and Patrick sings it in one of the most effective performances of his life. They know it hurts, and it was meant to.

Out of the three extended songs on the album, it’s really Last Chance to Evacuate Earth Before It’s Recycled that fails to stay in people’s minds these days. It’s very good at evoking the sweet, pastoral atmosphere of Winding Shot (its opening passage) but when it leads into the Marshall Applewhite passage…it just falls apart! The sample kind of feels like the sort of Hail Mary someone would try if they were trying to rip off Porcupine Tree without really understanding why Steven references murderers and cults and stuff.

In contrast, Where We Would Be is an all killer no filler approach to the nostalgic concept. It’s just that instead of writing a Fall Out Boy-style title, Steven wrote an Oasis-style song, complete with extravagant guitar noodling and a body-slamming wall of sound mix. It sounds kind of weird that Steven would start the album out picking on Oasis and his other emptier contemporaries and then start totally aping them. Perhaps you could interpret it as him trying to show off how it’s done.

It’s interesting noting that themes are repeated fairly closely within the album with very slight changes in perspective to distinguish them — not quite something Steve would always do, but certainly something From Under The Cork Tree does. Here is a fun table!

Nostalgia/this town Breakups Depression/suicide Angry or catty Being famous Beatles or Britpop pastiche Very long title
Lightbulb Sun X
Our Lawyer Made Us… X X X X
How Is Your Life Today? X X X
Of All The Gin Joints In All The World X X
Four Chords That Made A Million X X X
Dance, Dance X X X
Shesmovedon X X
Sugar, We’re Going Down X X
Last Chance to Evacuate… X Well, I GUESS. X X
Nobody Puts Baby In The Corner X X X
The Rest Will Flow X
I’ve Got A Dark Alley… X X X X X
Hatesong X X X
7 Minutes In Heaven (Ativan Halen) X X
Where We Would Be X X X X
Sophomore Slump Or Comeback Of The Year X X X
Russia On Ice X X X
Champagne For My Real Friends… X X X X
Feel So Low X X
I Slept With Someone In Fall Out Boy… X X X
A Little Less Sixteen Candles… X X X X X
Get Busy Living Or Get Busy Dying X X X X X

Note The Rest Will Flow. Put a pin in that.

So, instead of “the” Lightbulb Sun coming out five years earlier and sliding in alongside Oasis, “a” Lightbulb Sun five years later would have done gangbusters if it had been made by much younger (here is where Steven would add “more beautiful”) American guys.

Even though most people usually chalk Lightbulb Sun up as one of the least dark Porcupine Tree albums, its negativity hits a lot harder than say, Signify or In Absentia because its aesthetics skew a little more towards what was popular at the time. A lot of the choices made to appeal to the mainstream that Steven’s ever made are related to Lightbulb Sun, like including Four Chords That Made A Million exclusively so it could be put out as a single, or re-recording Shesmovedon as an American single for Deadwing. Lightbulb Sun is, so to speak, Porcupine Tree flying the closest to the sun, trying its hardest, and falling anyway because they’re trying to put Beatles pastiches and aggressive grooves in the middle of Robert Riding Lawnmower’s Jethro Tull marathon.

Obviously all this fussing puts Steve’s rep in a weird place for the next, oh, twenty years.

There are a lot of angry comments about how Steven’s behavior in the past year or two flies in the face of everything he stood for — which, perhaps it does. The boy band rant Steven anxiously recited over and over during the Lightbulb Sun tour rang in the ears of Porcupine Tree fans for decades, so that’s what people remembered and told others to expect. Predictably, Steven seemingly doing a 180 about pop music and happily playing Permanating pissed people off. But being angry about Steven well and truly falling in love with another human being crosses a line, doesn’t it? Is that really okay to bitch about incessantly on Facebook?

A lot of people have attached their feelings to sad songs, and Steven’s ability to tap into sadness with accuracy is one of his biggest strengths. Therefore we think he’s just as depressed as we are. That assumption has a kernel of truth in that his work at the turn of the millennium, including Lightbulb Sun, feels the most like they were based on his real feelings. There’s almost no artifice to these songs the way there is for In Absentia or Fear Of A Blank Planet. There’s no Porcupine Tree album where Steven’s lyrics are as consistently direct, cutting, and specifically about himself.

Steven Wilson, the Prince of Prog, prime dopamine inhibitor, wet blanket supreme, loving pop music and a beautiful woman and cute little kids, pisses us off because we don’t see an ability to find that happiness within ourselves. It is our depression telling us we could never be that happy, and we thought he couldn’t be that happy either because he’s like us.

A lot of fans will focus on Routine and Raven now, and ignore how his talent in writing about other people’s suffering comes from his talent at expressing his own despair, heartbreak, and anger — as well as his own happiness. The important thing about Steven Wilson isn’t that he’s completely depressed, or even as chipper as he asserts he is in interviews. He is just empathetic, almost to a fault, and his writing understands human feelings in a way that few artists really get to attain. That’s because he understands every facet of himself, and can stretch those attributes out to make art that other people can relate to, whether they’re doing as well as him or not.

This isn’t meant to be another cold “Steve only writes sadboi shit” take. The automatic assumption that Steven’s writing has no depth beyond melancholy and suffering is a serious annoyance that clouds up even his own perception of his work.

Like how he kept saying that The Rest Will Flow is his only happy song, when it’s not even really that happy. It’s actually the most poignant song on the album, specifically because it’s placed in the middle of a shit sandwich, acting as a moment of clarity in a depressive fog. I think somewhere deep down, Steven was able to perceive that, and he always thought to bring it up because it sounds happy in the midst of a sad catalogue. It’s not a happiness-ever-after that provides closure to the album’s story. It is fleeting. Just like any happiness.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t any hope. After many years of proclaiming himself single, childless, and focused on making music in solitude forever, Steven Wilson is finally married to a beautiful woman he isn’t afraid to call the love of his life: Rotem Rom, credited in the liner notes of Lightbulb Sun.

All of the rest will flow.

Ted’s ranking:

  1. The Sky Moves Sideways
  2. Lightbulb Sun
  3. Up the Downstair
  4. Stupid Dream
  5. On the Sunday of Life
  6. Signify

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…”


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

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

Porcupine Tree — The Sky Moves Sideways

February 1995

Moonloop (part 2), January 2001
2-CD Edition, November 2003
Remastered vinyl edition, November 2004
Delirium Years remaster, 2016
2-CD Remaster, 2017

I. Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V)

The first Porcupine Tree album I listened to was Fear of a Blank Planet, and from there I slowly worked through their discography in loose reverse chronological order. Which means The Sky Moves Sideways was the first album from the Space Era I listened to. I had an idea of what to expect: something more psychedelic, more interested in textures and soundscapes than anything with a conventional “rock” sensibility. I was not expecting the sudden blast of techno in the title track’s third movement. It slowly dissolves into more familiar territory as it continues, but the initial transition is shocking, as though we were pulled from our leisurely acid trip in the sky and unceremoniously dropped in the middle of an old-fashioned rave in an abandoned warehouse. Those of us who listened to Up the Downstair first wouldn’t be as surprised, but those of us going through their discography backward would think, hang on, this is not what a progressive rock band’s supposed to sound like.

Now, take the third movement of the first track, and stretch its effect across an entire song, and you have Dislocated Day, a song that communicates its title quite clearly. It is one of the loudest, most cacophonic songs in Porcupine Tree’s discography, a five-minute waking nightmare that sounds like someone mashed up an embryonic Mars Volta song with a dubstep drop. I’ve said a few times that I don’t like anything jazzy in my prog, I find it pretentious and meandering, but here it works because the drums and the bass provide a rhythmic framework upon which the guitars can churn and squeal to their heart’s content. This is an aspect of Wilson’s musical personality that he touches on quite rarely, and wouldn’t release something quite in this vein for another sixteen years, which I honestly was okay with. But like most deviations from The Stuff Wot Wilson Normally Writes, it was a grower, and I’m glad it’s here.

Much of the rest of the album trends more toward space rock (the other movements of The Sky Moves Sideways, The Moon Touches Your Shoulder) or trance (Moonloop). But the point is this: The Sky Moves Sideways is the perfect introduction to what Porcupine Tree was about in the Space Era: expansive and (ostensibly) drug-soaked, yet refreshingly lean, deliberate, and light on the self-indulgence. There’s only six tracks, and only one of them is particularly complex, but the simplicity (for prog, anyway) of these songs still carries a particular emotive heft that cannot be ignored.

It’s not quite true that the PT/SW albums with the fewest number of tracks are automatically better—in that situation, one or two stinkers can sink an album—but the feeling one gets with The Sky Moves Sideways is a precisely calibrated clockwork that is exactly as long as it needs to be, with individual songs that do exactly what they need to do. And when your album has only six tracks, that’s exactly what has to be done. While Porcupine Tree would go on to make albums that are stronger in other respects, this is easily the best thing they’d make in the nineties.

II. Welcome to the Machine

…and honestly, I kind of wish the band saw it the same way. Wilson and Barbieri have both been critical of the album, either because it (allegedly) sounded too much like Pink Floyd (we’ll get to that) and/or because this was The First Proper Band Album (yes, it was) and so there was this obvious pressure for it to sound like a Proper Band Album.

And, yes, this is a Proper Band Album, even if the proper band doesn’t play on the whole thing. This is the first time Barbieri, Edwin, and Maitland all performed as part of something called Porcupine Tree instead of adjacent to something called Porcupine Tree, and the music sounds substantially better for it. I cannot imagine Phase One without Maitland’s conga solo or Barbieri’s electronic swells. Nor can I imagine Moonloop without Edwin’s inimitable bass, or Phase Two without Suzanne Barbieri’s lovely guest vocal. The chemistry we saw in Spiral Circus is here in all its glory: the addition of Barbieri, Edwin, and Maitland as full band members produces a fuller, more complete sound than Wilson could ever have mustered on his own. This is Porcupine Tree, fully realized, for the first time, and for that alone this album is revolutionary.

Or: Barbieri might think that Up the Downstair is superior, but in actuality this is the better album simply because there’s more of Barbieri in it.

III. Have a Cigar

Another big reason the band themselves are lukewarm about The Sky Moves Sideways is quite simply that the album was a chore to make. The original concept behind the album was that it’d be a single 50-minute song. Ye gods, would that have been a terrible idea. This isn’t The Incident, whose first disc floats halfway between one nearly hour-long track and fourteen shorter, more digestible tracks. Nor is this Voyage 34, which could get away with one 70-minute song split into four movements because it was essentially a house/trance song performed with rock instruments. The Sky Moves Sideways is a space rock song that is structured in a very particular way, and that very particular way means it can’t be fifty minutes long without some serious padding. Thank God Wilson abandoned that idea early.

Somewhat less tractable was the problem that every creative person runs into sooner or later: the impossibility of birthing your vision in exactly the way it appears in your head. In those early days, before Porcupine Tree became a band and before that horrible 50-minute single-song idea was abandoned, Wilson found himself hamstrung by the technical limitations of his recording equipment, and so production moved along in fits and starts. Quoth the man himself, “It’s like putting a jigsaw puzzle together… What is the most satisfying way to sequence these parts that tells a satisfying story? But let’s just say one of the reasons I’m not so proud of The Sky Moves Sideways is that not all of it did work. Because it was tape, it was kind of stuck with this form.”

The issue with this, of course, is that we the audience don’t definitively know how the song plays out in the artist’s head, and ultimately what we see is the artist comparing the version that exists to a hypothetical version that doesn’t. We just have what we hear, and what we hear is very good. So, to phrase this rudely, we don’t care. This is not to say that the vision doesn’t matter. The vision represents something to aspire to. But if what’s actually released doesn’t conform to what’s in your head, the world will continue spinning.

Breaking the fourth wall for a moment, I should point out that this post has also been a nightmare to write, because in an attempt to do something slightly outside my wheelhouse I may have overextended myself more than usual.

IIIS. Prepare Yourself

Miscellaneum the First: that inexplicable red phone booth on the album cover really should be a TARDIS. Community fans, don’t @ me.

Miscellaneum the Second: those swells in the first movement of Phase One remind me of some of the more ambient God Mode songs in SimCity 4, which basically meant I was hooked at first listen.

IV. Wish You Were Here

Reports that The Sky Moves Sideways sounds too much like Pink Floyd are greatly exaggerated. If I had to guess, the people making those comparisons are the same shallow music reviewers whose immediate frame of reference for the stuff Porcupine Tree have been doing up to this point was freaking Ride. (I can’t really judge too hardly, considering my frame of reference is Jerry Freaking Martin of all people…but Jerry Freaking Martin is not a Name to the music press the way Ride was, and I’m at least willing to admit the connection is purely personal.) That is to say, these guys saw the big long psychedelic/progressive track bookending The Sky Moves Sideways, the big long psychedelic/progressive track bookending Wish You Were Here, and went for the obvious comparison, because although those two songs are somewhat similar, they are literally the only thing these two albums have in common.

(…and even then the conceit is not entirely accurate, because the underlying assumption here is that, like Wish You Were Here, The Sky Moves Sideways is structured such that there are two very long songs at the beginning and end and several shorter songs in the middle. The second longest track on The Sky Moves Sideways is Moonloop.)

I mean, we can pick this apart. If we propose that The Sky Moves Sideways is a parallel to Shine On You Crazy Diamond, what’s the parallel to, say, Welcome to the Machine? The obvious candidate would be Dislocated Day, the album’s heaviest track, but that song is technical and disorienting while Welcome to the Machine is clinical and industrial. You might, if you squint and turn your head sideways, draw a line from Have a Cigar to The Moon Touches Your Shoulder, but that song’s mostly off up in space, while Have a Cigar is bolted firmly to the ground. In addition, that means the song that maps to Wish You Were Here’s title track is either Moonloop or this dinky two-minute affair that exists solely for the listener to catch their breath before launching into the next long song.

Besides, even if we aren’t looking to explicit song-by-song parallels, the music in general still has a lot more influence from trance and contemporary space rock than from Floyd. It’s much more fruitful (and interesting!) to see The Sky Moves Sideways as a thematic progression and culmination of the musical inclinations expressed in Up the Downstair, which means you’re better off looking at bands like The Orb to see what Wilson was going for here. Invoking the Floyd comparison is evidence of miniscule reference pools more than anything else.

Now for the words, and here the comparison is even less sensical. Wish You Were Here is famously about Pink Floyd’s complicated relationship with the record industry and the hairless ruin that once was Syd Barrett. Meanwhile, Porcupine Tree’s broadside against the record industry was still two albums away, and their only major personnel change—replacing Maitland with Gavin Harrison—wouldn’t happen for another seven years. Wish You Were Here is an album borne out of traumas both past and present. The Sky Moves Sideways demonstrably isn’t. (As for what The Sky Moves Sideways actually is about, well…let’s pull some vaguely spacey words out of a hat and see what sticks, eh? I cannot wait until Wilson overcomes this particular Kid-A-esque writers’ block and actually writes some freaking lyrics next album.)

No, The Sky Moves Sideways and Wish You Were Here are two albums that are clearly out to do two different things, and implying the two are in any way similar is only useful as a way to structure a retrospective essay on the former. (Winky face.) So, in essence, it’s perfectly understandable why Wilson & co. are annoyed by the Floyd comparisons, and also why they started moving away from space rock with their next album.

V. Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts VI-IX)

The Sky Moves Sideways, despite its tautness, is nevertheless a fractured record. Either due to record label shenanigans or Wilson’s perpetual dissatisfaction with the track listing (which, in case it wasn’t already clear, I emphatically do not share) or the album’s troubled, halting production, the album exists in several very different versions.

The first is the UK CD version, which I regard, for obvious reasons, as definitive. (The UK vinyl version is slightly different, in that it leaves out Moonloop.) The second is the US version, which is a butchery. First of all, they hacked the title track into its separate movements. Uh, no. I say again, this isn’t The Incident. You can listen to, say, The Blind House or Time Flies on their own without it affecting the listening experience, but you can’t say the same for The Colour of Air or Wire the Drum (okay, maybe Is…Not, but in that respect it’s an aberration), and how dare you imply that’s the case.

Second of all, they bollixed up the track order. Dislocated Day is positioned where it is to show off the full range of what the band is capable of. In America it was kicked to the album’s second half, where it feels like an intrusion by a completely different band. Stars Die performs…okay in its place, but coming right after the majesty of Phase One its status as the signature song of the Space Era becomes even less explicable than it was before. (And worst of all, Moonloop was cut in half.) And just in general, the whole thing feels like it was jumbled up by someone who doesn’t realize that maybe, just maybe, albums aren’t glorified compilations of songs, and someone who’s championed the album as a concept might have a particular investment in the order the songs are strung together. But nope, this was apparently SW’s doing, which probably speaks to how difficult it was to pull this album together in the first place.

The third version is the 2-CD remaster, which is faithful to the UK vinyl release, which means Moonloop was ripped out of the first disc and relegated to the second. I’m not a fan of this decision, because Prepare Yourself should prepare ourselves (ayy) for something long and complex that emphatically isn’t the final track, and now the first disc feels artificially shortened. But at least it isn’t the US release.

The second disc consists of the following, in this order: an early work-in-progress version of The Sky Moves Sideways, Stars Die, Moonloop, and the Moonloop coda. Let’s begin at the beginning. The best adjective I can come up with to describe this 35-minute brick of a title track is “primitive.” The lyrics haven’t been fully hashed out yet. Some parts are missing. Others are clearly placeholders meant to fill out the song temporarily. Still others are timed a bit wonky. And it’s pretty clear why splitting the song in two was a good idea. This version is nowhere near as successful as the final result, but at the same time I can still see it doing okay if this more or less was what eventually wound up on the album.

Stars Die suffers once again from having to follow up The Sky Moves Sideways, but that song’s under-construction inferiority means this song comes off a little better. This Moonloop is basically the same version we all know and love, but that coda. Mmmm. Bellissimo. A proper rock-out epilogue to that epic saga of manned spaceflight.

Personally if we could have (this would have been impossible if we wanted to have the same track listing for the CD and vinyl editions), I’d have kept Moonloop on the first disc and inserted the coda between the proper Moonloop and Phase Two, where it belongs. The second disc I’d have flipped the songs around so that Stars Die kicks things off and it has a chance to shine on its own, and after that go into the old version of The Sky Moves Sideways, similar to the Moonloop EP. (I don’t care about Men of Wood. That song, which sounds halfway between something from one of the demos and something from the Alternative Era, has no business being anywhere near this album.) This would upset the rough runtime balance the two discs have, and there might be space issues with a first disc that clocks in at over 70 minutes, but at least we’re not pretending that the second disc is anything but stuff we left off the first one for whatever reason.

UK version, though? Absolutely brilliant.

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

PS: Many, many thanks to Neural Rust for the behind-the-scenes info relayed here.

Porcupine Tree – Up the Downstair

May 1993
2004 Edition, May 2005
Double vinyl edition, 2008

“What you are listening to are musicians performing psychedelic music under the influence of a mind-altering chemical called…”

Linton Samuel Dawson.

I’ll admit I was a bit surprised when I read last year’s Guardian profile of SW and heard Up the Downstair described as an “opus.” I don’t think of Up the Downstair as an opus. A solid, coherent album, yes, but not Porcupine Tree’s defining masterpiece, the thing they will go down in history for. It’s not even the opus of the Space Era, although Voyage 34 and this album do have a shared history.

It’s pretty common knowledge amongst SW/PT auditorati, I think, that Up the Downstair and Voyage 34 were recorded at about the same time, and Voyage 34 was originally intended to be Up the Downstair’s back half, along the lines of the EP stapled to the end of The Incident. Breaking them up was a pretty smart move. The Incident’s second disc works because the songs are relatively (“relatively”) short and digestible, whereas Voyage 34, even in its primordial two-phase incarnation, would have been punishing to sit through after fifty minutes of psychedelic, spaced-out weirdness.

More importantly, separating the two means Voyage 34 gets to shine on its own, as a singular work. It gets to tell its own discrete story. It gets to have Phases III and IV. It gets to be complete. It gets to be the Space Era’s actual opus.

This is not to say that the separation was entirely clean, of course. There are a few bits and bobs from Voyage 34 that make appearances here. The first narrator from Voyage 34 opens this album with this post’s epigraph. Not Beautiful Anymore features a sample from Miss “I’m just scared, you know?” The album’s title is namechecked at the end of Phase I. It’s not much. If Voyage 34 came right after Up the Downstair, it could be thought of as an expansion of certain themes from this album, but the lack of references between the two would mean that the entire enterprise would have had a very flimsy foundation. Long Final Tracks are meant to serve as a summation or reinterpretation of what came before, a la the bonus title track of Frances the Mute, and this is not something Voyage 34 was meant to do. The way things are now, those samples from Up the Downstair seem less like Chekhov’s guns and more like little asides to something that came before, and both records are better for it.

But now for the album itself. Every Porcupine Tree studio album from Up the Downstair to about Stupid Dream has, to some degree or another, an almost self-conscious we-are-going-to-make-a-proper-album intent about it, largely because each one from that period marked some milestone in their growth as a band. In this case, we’re going to make an album because we’ve re-released all the good stuff from the demo tapes, so now we have to make something original and we have to make it count.

The best way I can describe the result is a tighter, less scattershot version of On the Sunday of Life. Synesthesia and Always Never both sound like something from a demo tape, only cleaned up, refined, and pointed in a specific direction. Monuments Burn Into Moments was ripped directly from The Nostalgia Factory. Small Fish, which we’ll get to, reaches back even farther. There’s also glimpses of the direction the band will go. The trancey title track leans into what they’d get up to in The Sky Moves Sideways, while Fadeaway catapults itself even further into the future, clearing the rest of the Space Era entirely and landing sometime during the Stupid Dream sessions, occasionally even sounding like something off the second disc of The Incident.

Melody Maker’s review specifically mentioned that the album set out to create “a truly Nineties progressive rock soundscape,” and that’s a pretty fair assessment of what the album is doing. There are some 60s/70s embellishments, mostly found in the guitar work of Always Never and the lyrics of Small Fish, but they largely read like a way to introduce electronica to a pretentious rockist audience who’d otherwise be actively hostile to what you’re trying to do. We’re not just on the old hippie drugs anymore. We’re on DMT and ecstasy now and listening to dub and electronica. This is the album you make after coming home from a rave baked out of your mind and winding down (“winding down”) with Wish You Were Here and Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. (Yes, I’m aware Wilson isn’t a drug boy. The effect remains.)

And nowhere is that more clear than on the album’s centerpiece and title track, whose backbone is a synthesized bassline from which hangs electronic samples and guitar work that owe just as much to acid house as it does to David Gilmour. You can’t quite rave to it, but you can come pretty close. It doesn’t quite sound like anything else on this record, but its electronic soundscapes are what sticks in the head long after this album’s over, and what gave Wilson a path forward toward the trancey majesty of The Sky Moves Sideways. But that isn’t why this song appeals to me so much. I fell in love with Up the Downstair because that bassline sounds like the menu music in SimCopter.

Let me back up. In the late 90s and early aughts I was a big fan of the Maxis/EA Sim games, mostly of SimCity 2000, SimCity 3000, and the various games based off of them, like Streets of SimCity and SimCopter. Those latter two games hold a special place in my heart solely because of the novelty of being able to take a city that I built and drive a car or fly a helicopter through it. (If SimCopter means anything to you, it’s probably either because of the horrific graphics or that infamous easter egg involving tons and tons of scantily-clad gay couples.) Anyway, most Sim games from the era had soundtracks composed by Jerry Martin, whose specialty was jazz and techno music. His techno tracks from the late 90s and early 00s always had a distinct house/trance vibe…and, critically for our purposes, a general sensibility that matches surprisingly well with what Steven Wilson, his influences, and his collaborators were doing just a few years earlier.

This will come up from time to time until we hit about 2000, but here it manifests in SimCopter’s menu music, a twenty-six-second loop with a bassline that sounds enough like the one in Up the Downstair that the first time I heard it I did a double-take…and then immediately took to Skype and told a friend of mine straight-up, “Jerry Martin listened to early Porcupine Tree.” That probably isn’t true, but it is interesting how parts of your personal universe that you once thought were discreet can crash together sometimes and hit your nostalgia buttons hard.

The other song worth pointing out here is Small Fish, a ten-year anniversary update of the same song off of the first Karma album, and as such becomes Up the Downstair’s only substantial link to the more 60s-tinged psychedelia Porcupine Tree grew out of. The 1993 version is about half as long as the 1983 version. The instrumentation is simpler and the production is more polished, which here gives the impression that this is the same bad trip we experienced a decade ago, but with an added clarity.  It makes about as much logical sense to us now as it did ten years ago, of course, but the effect it has on the narrator is clear. With that clarity comes vocals that are somehow more defeated and morose than before, as our narrator has the mental agility necessary to fully process precisely the implications of the surreal horror laid out before him. It’s also worth noting that the Karma version of the song faded out to farm sounds, implying the trip ends and all is well, whereas the Porcupine Tree fades out to car sounds, and then fades back in to Burning Sky, named after Small Fish’s final lyric, implying that there will be no reprieve for the narrator this time.

The abrupt switch from spacey, nightmarish synth effects to happy elevator music in What You Are Listening To is exquisite.

Porcupine Tree albums follow a distinct pattern, alternating between Statement Records (The Sky Moves Sideways, Stupid Dream, In Absentia, Fear of a Blank Planet) that establish a particular sound, and Transitional Records (Signify, Lightbulb Sun, Deadwing, The Incident) that tinker with certain aspects of that sound to push it forward. This doesn’t say anything about their relative quality, just what they set out to do. Up the Downstair is definitely a Transitional Record, existing at the uncomfortable middle point between On the Sunday of Life and Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape (Synesthesia, Small Fish) and The Sky Moves Sideways (the title track), but even if it isn’t the opus of the Space Era the way some people think it is, it is still a giant step forward. Not least because it’s the first album featuring Colin Edwin and, in a non-remix capacity, Richard Barbieri. The various disparate tendrils of the Porcupine Tree we’re familiar with continue to come together.

  1. Up the Downstair
  2. On the Sunday of Life

Porcupine Tree – On the Sunday of Life

July 1992

Here we go. Even though we’ve heard 90% of this before in some form or other, this remains the first proper Porcupine Tree joint. For this compilation, the first three tapes have been cut up and rearranged as follows:

  • Tracks 1 and 2: Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm
  • Track 3: Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm, renamed
  • Track 4: Two from Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm, combined and renamed
  • Track 5: The Nostalgia Factory, re-recorded
  • Tracks 6 and 7: Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm
  • Track 8: Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm, expanded and re-recorded
  • Track 9: The Nostalgia Factory
  • Tracks 10 – 16: Love, Death, & Mussolini
  • Track 17 and 18: The Nostalgia Factory

In a lot of ways, this is a transitional record for the “band.” I say “band” because this is the last time the Psychedelic Spinal Tap facade is kept up with any degree of effort whatsoever (some parts are credited to two fake band members and one pseudonymous real band member alongside Steven Wilson). I also say “band” because, let’s be real here, this is at this point a Steven Wilson solo project, although in the coming years various musicians would start to drift in and find a home here, and a band would eventually solidify. This is the moment Porcupine Tree outgrew its parodic origins and became an Actual Concern.

Differences between the demo tape versions and the album version. Music for the Head (Here) has the last parenthetical dropped from its title, as (There) only appears on Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape. It’s also mixed louder, which helps bring out the composition’s more ominous elements, giving us a better idea of what we’re in for. The two Nun’s Cleavage drum jams are decoupled from each other (one renamed, another combined with the track before), and thus no longer serve as bookends for Clarinet Vignette.

Now for The Nostalgia Factory. I’m glad it’s here. On Tarquin’s there were five tracks’ worth of jamming and instrumental vignettes between Jupiter Island and the next proper song, Radioactive Toy, and while far from damning in and of itself it does contribute to the weird lopsidedness that makes the tape’s back half a chore to sit through. Here, though, there’s only two or three (depending on how you count) between Jupiter Island and this thing, helping to balance the album out a bit more.

The track itself is great too. Although (once again) it uses half the old lyrics from the Karma version of Nine Cats, that’s where the similarities end. This song doesn’t have the same efficiency that PT!9C has, but the increased pace and almost galloping instrumentation lends it a certain urgency missing from the Karma version. And when you have two tracks of instrumental noodling separating you from actual songs on both sides it’s an urgency that’s sorely, sorely needed.

Skipping merrily (“merrily”) along here, the version of Radioactive Toy here is twice as long as the version that’s on Tarquin’s. The second half is mostly a guitar solo based off the main riff of the first half, which when your other option is launching straight into Towel is not unwelcome. Instead, we’re eased into Nine Cats, and thence seven-ninths of Love, Death, & Mussolini, in all its tight, loopy glory.

This Long Silence itself is a welcome addition here, as its general sound and placement in the album makes it come across like a darker reprise of Jupiter Island, giving us the impression that we’ve finally come back home again after the second half of Radioactive Toy launched us into uncharted territory. Ominous, yes, but it’s the sort of ominousness we’re used to. And, of course, It Will Rain For A Million Years once again functions as a great outro to the weirdness that came before, making sure that we land back on Earth on two feet. (Even if its former role closing out three EPs worth of material makes it seem like this trip was artificially shortened, in comparison.)

Even if you hadn’t listened to the demo tapes first, it’s clear that On the Sunday of Life is a Franken-album, a monstrous thing sutured together from the corpses of demo tapes past, here cleaned up and presented as a proper thing for the public. This is what our first exposure to Porcupine Tree should have been, as people more than two degrees of separation from the man. And, well, that was honestly a good decision. Yes, it’s clear the source material for the first and second halves are different, but there’s not much to be done about that beyond rerecording everything. It’s still clear there was more thought given to how the tracks interact with each other than there was on any of the demo tapes they came from, because the balance of long actual songs and short instrumental experiments makes for a more even listening experience. This album is not a complete chore to sit through, and what fatigue we do experience can be chalked up to sheer length (76 minutes) as opposed to shoving all the long songs to the back where we’re least prepared for them.

I’m told it’s traditional to rank full releases, so here we go. I have a feeling the [still] patchwork nature of this album will push it further down as we go, but it is what it is.

  1. On the Sunday of Life