Porcupine Tree – Stars Die: The Delerium Years

25 March 2002
1994-1997 box set, February 2016
1991-1993 box set, January 2017

This post comes in two unrelated parts.

A Side

Potentially unpopular opinion time: the worst critics are the ones with opinions that you agree with. You go to a critic for one of two things: to determine if you ought to spend money on a piece of media, or for a perspective on that media that is perpendicular to your own, that offers fresh insights or picks out interesting nuances that you may have missed. No one ever goes to a music critic for the first thing anymore, or at least I don’t. If I want to do something like that, I deliberately seek out the positive reviews, so I’m then motivated to listen to the thing on Spotify, and then if I like what I hear, I’ll go out and buy the record. Although this is how I got into pretty much every musical artist I listened to of my own volition for the past ten years, it’s still based on a fractured understanding of what the critic is doing versus what I want the critic to do.

The second thing is an altogether different beast, and does a better job of justifying the music critic’s existence. The thing that makes a blog like, say, Pushing Ahead of the Dame interesting is not Chris O’Leary’s audacity in covering David Bowie’s discography song by song. It’s that O’Leary has unpopular opinions. The first indication that his blog was gonna be great was the moment where (a) he declared that The Laughing Gnome was actually a good song, and, critically, (b) justified this declaration by appealing to multiple elements of the song’s composition that made it work.

I disagree, of course. I still maintain The Laughing Gnome is a cringefest. But I still learned more about how that song was pulled together than I would have from a million critical reviews going LOL CHIPMUNK VOICES BOWIE CORPSING ISN’T THIS AN EMBARRASSING EPHEMERUM, to which I would have nodded placidly along as they went in one ear and out the other. The point is that the value of a critic is directly tied to their willingness to go against conventional wisdom once in a while.

Tying this back to the blog, I am on record as saying that the worst Porcupine Tree album rankings are the ones that have In Absentia and Stupid Dream and Fear of a Blank Planet on top and On the Sunday of Life and The Incident on bottom, because that’s solid proof that the people responsible for those rankings have never had an original thought about Porcupine Tree in their entire lives. Which then got me wondering what the Ultimate Iconoclastic Porcupine Tree Hot Take would be.

A good starting point would be the contention that an album thought of as Good is actually Bad, or that a Bad album is actually Good. I’ve already done Stupid Dream, so that’s out, and I can’t with a straight face say that In Absentia and Fear of a Blank Planet are bad. (Well, you can with the latter, the lyrics are clearly Steven Wilson yelling at the kids to get off his lawn, but that’s not something I can sell to anyone when that’s the album that got me into Wilson’s music in the first place.) On the flip side, saying The Incident is good is properly incendiary, given its general reputation amongst the faithful, but it’s just enough of a piece with the rest of Porcupine Tree’s discography that such a take wouldn’t be very interesting. We need a true oddball.

This leaves On the Sunday of Life. The first Porcupine Tree album, stitched together from stuff released when we still kept up the fiction that this was an actual band who went gallivanting about Europe on drug-fueled exploits so scandalous and offensive to polite society they’d be near-indistinguishable from Situationist culture-jamming. That weird old thing. In his unauthorized biography of Porcupine Tree, Rick Wilson politely describes it as scattershot, but with potential; the conventional wisdom. It’s long and silly and bizarre, a greatest hits of psychedelic lunacy. Let’s see what we can cough up.

On the Sunday of Life is startlingly unique amongst Porcupine Tree’s discography. It’s the lone studio album in the Space Era that was clearly more influenced by psychedelic rock than space rock (by the time we hit Up the Downstair, Wilson was already deep in The Orb and Ozric Tentacles, and it shows). It’s structured like a Boards of Canada album, with full-length songs like Jupiter Island and Linton Samuel Dawson separated by instrumental interludes like Hymn or Music for the Head. The lyrics are nonsense Alan Duffy-isms. The album has a particular surreal humor about it, from the pitched-up chipmunk voices on Jupiter Island to Wilson’s off-the-rails Geddy Lee impression on Linton Samuel Dawson to the infamous, terminally aggrieved “I want you to put Felix’s penis on me” from And the Swallows Dance Above the Sun. This is Wilson’s own Laughing Gnome, refracted through the sensory-overload uncanny valley fog of a bad LSD trip.

It’s not hard to cast these elements of Porcupine Tree’s sound as essential. If you’re going to have a Porcupine Tree album, it should be unfiltered, overstuffed, trippy, incomprehensible, and subtly funny. So then we get to Up the Downstair and excuse me what’s this trance crap doing in my psychedelia? Hopping on trends, are you, like you’re doing with your other band? This feels so workmanlike, too. The last album crackled with so much energy and life; this one feels like they dragged Wilson to the studio at gunpoint. He’s even managed to ruin his own songs, no less; this version of Small Fish feels like it was recorded while he was doped up on Xanax. The only good part of this album is the first track’s transition from the spooky ambient noises to the dryly snarky voiceover, everything else is garbage.

Don’t even get me started on The Sky Moves Sideways or [shudder] Stupid Dream.

Thus do we arrive at the ultimate Porcupine Tree hot take: not only is On the Sunday of Life a good Porcupine Tree album, it’s the only good Porcupine Tree album.

This is not a good take for a blog to adopt for a few reasons. First, it precipitates a conceptual collapse. The blog blows its load early and spends the rest of its meager existence whining. It’s an extreme variant of whenever someone complains about a band not having produced anything good for however many-odd decades. (Also why, going back to Chris O’Leary, why we’re all very grateful he didn’t go with his original choice of blog subject and do Pete Townshend song by song.) Slogging through so many years of mediocrity is taxing on the author and taxing on the reader and just isn’t a worthwhile endeavor for anyone.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Todd in the Shadows’ retrospective of Madonna’s filmography and Seb Patrick’s posts on Weezer come immediately to mind. However, Cinemadonna is working with a medium primed to pick apart terrible bodies of work, and Weezerology would be considerably less pleasant to read if Everything Will Be Alright in the End didn’t exist. The lessons from those projects can’t be ported to one about Porcupine Tree, who would dive back into the Sunday aesthetic well extremely rarely.

The second reason that take ruins a blog is it reveals something troubling about the tastes of the blogger. Porcupine Tree, and Wilson’s post-PT solo work more broadly, had a diverse and eclectic sound that evolved along with Wilson’s tastes and influences. There’s something to appreciate in every era, and which period of their discography you prefer says more about you than it does them. A blogger who straight-up declares that Sunday is the only good Porcupine Tree album clearly demands that Steven Wilson rerecord Sunday again and again till he dies of excessive coerced jollity.

B Side

The Space Era may be properly dead and buried, but that doesn’t mean we can’t reminisce and memorialize. Stars Die: the Delirium Years, Porcupine Tree’s only strict compilation album, is a fairly straightforward record: a double album that is meant to serve as an introduction to Porcupine Tree’s 90s work.

The album is arranged in strict chronological order, with the first disc covering 1991-1993 and the second covering 1994-1997. Disc One is self-evidently stronger, with a good balance between short and long songs and material from Sunday and Up the Downstair. Disc Two is much less so, with only three songs from The Sky Moves Sideways era and the rest coming from the Signify era. This might have something to do with how the former is, of all Porcupine Tree’s albums, the one most hostile to being split up into its constituent parts. There just aren’t very many songs on that album that wouldn’t ruin a compilation album. Disc Two’s unevenness might also have something to do with how the Signify era is the band’s weakest, and about half of those songs are from the Waiting single, itself the weakest portion of that era. Right up until it hits Signify, though, Stars Die is an excellent survey of Porcupine Tree’s Space-Era work, clearly showcasing the band’s evolution throughout the nineties. I’d unreservedly recommend it to anyone whose knowledge of Porcupine Tree’s discography goes back to the seeming hard-reset of Stupid Dream and no further.

But anyway, the new stuff. Stars Die features a couple of songs (and alternate remixes) that were previously only available through file-sharing or a seriously rare deluxe edition pressing or something. Disc One has Phantoms and the extended version of Synesthesia, while Disc Two has Men of Wood and Signify II. First, Phantoms. This song is an outtake from Up the Downstair, available only through metaphorical tape-circulation before it showed up here. It’s basically a very trippy unplugged song, with Wilson’s vox and mainly lethargic acoustic guitar serving as an anchor as creepy tape loop noises and fuzzed-out electric guitars swirl around him. Of the previously-unreleased songs on this compilation, this one’s probably the worst. Wilson strums his guitar like it’s strictly out of contractual obligation. About a minute and a half in, right when most of the instrumentation drops out as Wilson sings “I’m sorry I treat you this way,” the song hits a brick wall and has to spend a few excruciating seconds recovering. It’s an early, half-formed attempt at something more songwriterly, and it’s obvious why (a) he eventually moved more organically into this more personal lyrical mode, and (b) it took him until the late 90s to actually do it. Whatever fruits came out of Phantoms were not immediately obvious at the time of writing, whereas The Sky Moves Sideways was right there, ready to be born. (And thank God, because The Sky Moves Sideways is much more interesting.) Basically, it gave him something to work with once the space well ran dry around the time of Signify. For all that Phantoms itself is unremarkable, it allows Disappear and the Alternative Era to exist.

The extended version of Synesthesia is generally similar to the studio version, but the goofy What You Are Listening To intro switched out for something more contextually appropriate where the main riff eases its way in as opposed to bursting onstage after cutting off the guy describing psychedelic music played while on LSD. I can sort of understand why this decision was made, the What You Are Listening To intro works best when opening an album, and that’s what Synesthesia isn’t doing anymore. But at the same time, literally the only representative of Porcupine Tree’s goofy early work on Stars Die is And The Swallows Put Felix’s Penis On Me, so replacing What You Are Listening To with something more in-character, especially in a world with Have Come For Your Children in it, feels like they’re treating that part of themselves the way a millennial thinks of their embarrassing scene kid phase.

Speaking of which, Men of Wood. Of all of Porcupine Tree’s songs featuring Alan Duffy’s lyrics in some capacity (he’s credited as a co-writer along with Wilson), this one is chronologically the latest. Like Disappear, this is one of those songs that knocked around the studio across multiple album cycles but was always too different from the atmosphere of the albums themselves to see a major studio release. In this song’s case, it almost made it on The Sky Moves Sideways, showing up on promo cassettes but not on the final release. It’s an interesting holdover from when Wilson was edging out of Sunday weirdness and into Downstair trancery. Between it and stuff like Linton Samuel Dawson, Access Denied, Escalator to Christmas, and How Big the Space, there might be enough material for a separate compilation for all the light, goofy songs Wilson’s done throughout his career. The normies who want him to be a brooding emo boy would hate it, of course, wondering why we’re celebrating what they feel are Wilson’s mediocrities, but there’s still artistry here, and more importantly, anything that irritates the normies is inherently worth doing.

This leaves Signify II. It’s a fairly standard krautrock song, yet more proof that the direction Porcupine Tree were attempting to go in for Signify was a dead end. My immediate reaction toward this song (and OG Signify, for that matter) was that it wasn’t good because it didn’t sound like Porcupine Tree. But that couldn’t be it; they’ve released lots of songs where they’re trying to be something they’re not (e.g. Access Denied) and they sound great. Nor is the issue that other bands have done straight-no-chaser krautrock better than they have; Wilson himself submitted a masterful entry in that genre with the self-titled I.E.M. album.

And then we reach Signify II’s religious mix, available on the expanded version of this compilation. If it made it onto Signify it would have been another anti-religious song in the same vein as Sever and Intermediate Jesus, but for whatever reason it didn’t. Years later, Wilson offered the possibility that the religious mix was left off Signify because it was just a bit too heavy-handed. There’s certainly some truth to that; the samples in this case came from a young hotshot televangelist who, when he’s not celebrating his flock of suckers’ destruction of their old Satanic secular music, gleefully tells anyone who calls in they’re insufficiently Christian and God hates them and they’re going to Hell.

I’m actually kind of glad it was left off; it would have ended the album, and Dark Matter honestly makes a perfect closer on its own. Signify II would have been superfluous. If it went anywhere on Signify, it should have replaced the title track, because Signify II works much better as a statement of the album’s themes instead of as a summation. It would have also made a pretty good segue into The Sleep Of No Dreaming, which focuses on Wilson’s rejection of all that garbage.

However. Those samples are what make Signify II unique. They’re what elevate the song from a transparent Hallogallo ripoff to something truly special. The samples and the instrumentation play off each other perfectly, with each one reinforcing the other. Of particular note here is the moment after the preacher asks if a caller really wants to accept Jesus into their life, and the music drops out completely for him to ask, “Why,” on some level inviting the listener to wonder why they should do the same, if this is what mainstream Christianity has to offer. The secular mix of Signify II is transparently bog-standard, but the religious mix is one of the best songs Porcupine Tree released during the Signify era. (Not exactly high praise coming from me, yes, but I’ll take what I can get from this point in their history.)

It is genuinely irritating whenever mainstream people talk about Porcupine Tree but either don’t talk about the Space Era or discount it for whatever reason. I’d typically chalk this up to the normies just wanting Steve to be this mopey depressed dude, but it’s slightly deeper than that. It probably has more to do with them, and we’ve talked about this before, putting him into a box. Not only is it an incomplete understanding of what Steven Wilson is about, but a demand that Wilson spend his life solely writing emo anthems for people who were too cool for actual emo.

Furthermore, Porcupine Tree were doing space rock longer than they did anything else. The Space Era is full of masterpieces, from Voyage 34 to all the funny stuff on Sunday to the title tracks of Up the Downstair and The Sky Moves Sideways. It’s a chunk of Porcupine Tree’s history that’s every bit as varied and multiplicitous as what they’d do later, and it’s done a great disservice when it’s treated as a footnote. The Stars Die compilation is essential largely because it’s a reminder that it isn’t, even as it’s radically different to what they’re doing now. What you think of the Space Era, ultimately, says more about you than it does about it, and if you believe the Space Era has little to offer compared to the other half of Porcupine Tree’s discography, then maybe Stars Die can change that a little.

Porcupine Tree – Recordings

May 2001

I’m mildly irritated by people who regard Recordings as a studio album in spirit, the way Lightbulb Sun and In Absentia are. It clearly isn’t, not just because it’s obviously a castoff album, pulled together from early Alt-era stuff that didn’t make it on Stupid Dream or Lightbulb Sun for whatever reason. The trouble is that when people say Recordings is a studio album, they mean Recordings is good enough to be a studio album, and there’s a particular odd not-quite-chauvinism inherent in that statement.

It’s like there’s a hierarchy. The good songs are on the studio records, and the okay songs go on the singles and the castoff-compilations like this one. So we expect Recordings will just be a bunch of songs that weren’t good enough for any of the big albums, but instead we get Buying New Soul and that slow, heavenly organ riff, a song that’s clearly every bit as good as anything they’ve put on a studio album, and compilation albums can’t have really good songs like Buying New Soul on them, so that must mean it’s not a compilation album after all.

This logic is how you get reviews that praise the quality of the songs but also point out that it’s not as well-put-together as their other albums, which, well, duh. It’s a castoff album. It’s not meant to flow the same way Lightbulb Sun flows. This is still Porcupine Tree cleaning out their collective mental attic before In Absentia and preserving whatever they found up there that was salvageable. Here’s the thing, though, a thing that feels like it’s overlooked more often than it probably should be: when a band doesn’t release a song as an album cut, kicks it off the album entirely, or whatever, it’s not always because the song is bad. It could be, and this is especially true of Porcupine Tree, that the song doesn’t mesh with how they want the album as a whole to sound. Porcupine Tree recorded a lot of good songs around the time of Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun, but not all of them sounded like something that belongs on Stupid Dream or Lightbulb Sun, so they were cut. This means that when the time came to dust the best ones off and string them together into one big compilation, they had a bunch of songs that all sounded very different from each other. There is no universe in which an album that has both Buying New Soul and Access Denied on it could ever be described as coherent. Nor, honestly, do I think Recordings even wants to be coherent. Better to pick at the album on its own terms instead of the terms imposed upon it.

The songs themselves, from worst to best:

In Formaldehyde: Let’s just say there’s a pretty good reason this was left off Lightbulb Sun. It’s a bit too slow and a bit too unremarkable, and it would have struggled to distinguish itself amongst the other songs on that album.

Oceans Have No Memory: Recordings suffers from the same thing Stupid Dream had where most of the good songs are in the front and the meh songs are in the back, and that’s an issue that afflicts Oceans Have No Memory as well. It’s a decent little acoustic thing that’s pleasant enough on its own and as an album closer meant to ease the listener back to earth. But beyond that, it struggles to stick in the memory in any capacity, and I mostly know it now as the source of that koan-ish thing the Hand Cannot Erase protagonist’s foster sister liked so much.

Ambulance Chasing: Of the three full instrumentals on Recordings, this one stands out the most…at first. This is mostly thanks to the booming drums, the eerie synth riff in the background early on, and Theo Travis’ unbelievable doctored saxophone solo, still more proof of how central he is to basically anything he and Wilson work together on. Trouble is, after repeated listens it becomes clear that the whole is lesser than the sum of its parts.

Untitled: Here’s the point where we hit songs that I’ll still listen to of my own volition after I’m done writing this post. This was recorded during the same improvisation that produced Buying New Soul, and it shows. In contrast to Ambulance Chasing, this one steadily reveals new facets of itself on repeated listens, as over the course of its nine-minute unfolding it steadily branches in different, more abstract directions than its more structured counterpart, concerning itself entirely with the sense of atmosphere that Buying New Soul was only partially interested in. Untitled creates a universe for Buying New Soul to exist in, and although that song is still the better of the two, this song remains important for that reason. I want–and I want to emphasize this is a feeling I haven’t had in a while–to hear the whole improvisation this sprung out of.

Disappear: Here it is in its almost-final form, I guess. The song that charted an immediate path forward for Porcupine Tree post-Signify but otherwise spent a little too much time in the oven, and so the band could never quite figure out what to do with it. The version that shows up here is has a first half that feels more like a demo than a finished song (with “I erase myself again” in the chorus feeling particularly like a placeholder), but the back half with the full band is inspired, particularly the “I’m here, you’re never standing still” backing vocals. Ultimately, though, it’s probably for the best that the song’s ultimate fate was as raw material for Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled. The February 1997 version remains definitive.

Cure For Optimism: I’ve pretty much said everything I have to say about this one in the Tonefloating entry. It’s a good song, but switching it out for Four Chords That Made A Million was a good idea.

Even Less: It probably says something about the respective quality of the songs on Stupid Dream and Recordings that the full version of Even Less would have been by a substantial margin the best song on the former but only cracks the top three on the latter. This is the Stupid Dream opener in its complete form, featuring a long textured instrumental section that leads into some thundering drums, squealing guitars, and one of the greatest F-bomb drops in music history, a gloriously profane singsong mockery of people who think their faith will save them from the inevitability of death.

Hearing the whole thing also clarifies why it didn’t make it on Stupid Dream uncut. The back half has the narrator admit that his dream was stupid, which is a bit shocking when the front half trades on its arrogance. It’s the trajectory of the album in miniature, and if it was featured in full on Stupid Dream then everything from Piano Lessons onward would have been recast as How We Got Here, which clearly isn’t what they were going for.

I swore I wouldn’t complain too much about track placement on Recordings, but it is kind of strange that a song that so clearly demands to open an album finds itself instead as the penultimate track. However, it is nice the album has a really good song to anchor its second half, and what Wilson did have planned for the album’s beginning was much more interesting anyway. Speaking of which…

Buying New Soul: I think we can all agree that this is one of the best songs that Porcupine Tree ever made. And I mean Porcupine Tree the band; the haunting organ riff that Barbieri bookends the song with, along with the way Edwin plays his double bass like a cello and Maitland accentuates the rest of the instrumentation with his simple, yet jazzy percussion, simply define the song. We also get some of Wilson’s most intriguing and enigmatic lyrics, with lines like “I still wave at the dots on the shore” and “Woke up and I had a big idea: to buy a new soul at the start of every year,” rendered in melancholy, contemplative tones.

Thematically, this song bridges the themes of Signify and Stupid Dream through grappling with the potential impact selling out (or not!) might have on his livelihood and ability to leave behind something that’ll be remembered. It’s the same double-bind he’s still trapped in: stay true to your artistic integrity and toil in obscurity, or sell out and become filthy rich and immortal, but at a steep cost. Ultimately, he had a stupid dream that he could change things, but he’s a martyr to even less.

This meant, of course, that although Buying New Soul was recorded in 2000, it had no business being on an album that was recorded in 2000. This sounds like something that should belong on Stupid Dream, not Lightbulb Sun or whatever the new album’s going to be. Put this song on a new record and it’ll sound like Steven Wilson’s beating a dead horse. This would always be destined for a castoff album, but in the process would redefine what a castoff album could really do, even if no one realized it.

Access Denied: …and nowhere do we get a clearer picture of what Recordings specifically is about than when Buying New Soul crashes into this, a jaunty, upbeat, vaguely psychedelic bop depicting Golders Green as this quaint idyllic little world with subtle Mod touches, where everything’s in its right place and everyone gets on and there aren’t any serious structural problems…at least not on the surface. When you have these two songs right up next to each other as the first two songs on your album, it’s a very clear sign that you’re much more interested in showing off your range as a musician than any sort of thematic cohesion.

Wilson wanted this song on Lightbulb Sun, but the rest of the band vetoed him. On the one hand, I get it. I can’t think of anywhere for this song to go where it wouldn’t be wildly out of place. On the other hand…fuck you, this song is awesome. Just listen to it: the way he pounds on the piano on the intro like he can’t contain his excitement, the WOWIE WOWIE WOW noises the guitar makes once the singer greets the lucky man who’s just returned from wondrous, exotic adventures in East Asia, the not-quite-out-of-nowhere reference to the Railway Series of all things when he says Sir Topham Hatt doesn’t realize he’s Wilson’s biggest fan. So much of Access Denied radiates a joy and exuberance that’s just downright infectious, and anyone who hates this song really needs to get over themselves. It may be a piece of fluff, but it’s still the best song on the album, and a reminder that maybe, just maybe, Steven Wilson isn’t the mopey, depressed mall goth you think he is…or want him to be.

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 – 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 – Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape

Recorded 1989-1991, Released 1994, Remastered 2013

INTERVIEWER!SW: “You did mention recently in an interview in New Musical Express that you were considering issuing a box of unreleased demos and–”

MUSICIAN!SW: “Well, the thing at the moment, the way the money’s going, I think the box will be as far as we get, an empty box.”

[Ten solid seconds of laughter]

INTERVIEWER!SW: “I see.”

There’s a lot of stuff that happened between the release of On the Sunday of Life and this thing, don’t think we’ve forgotten, but this thing consists of most of what didn’t make it on Sunday, so we may as well knock this out while we’re here.

Most of what was relegated to Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape are some of the more ambient/experimental tracks from Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm and The Nostalgia Factory, aka the ones primarily responsible for wrecking their flow and causing them to drag. This is not to say that the songs, when considered in a vacuum, are terrible. Mute, for instance, is very good and performs spectacularly in its role as album opener. An Empty Box, The Cross, and the title track are also excellent. But (a) it’s no coincidence that those three are some of the more structured songs on the album, and (b) I have a very hard time finding a place to slot them in on Sunday. So here they are.

Furthermore, even though this album contains some of the more filler-y entries from Tarquin’s and Nostalgia Factory, care has been taken to make sure things progress smoothly. The more ambient tracks fade into each other. They do the same thing they did on Sunday where some balance is struck, structurally, between shorter ambient intermissions and longer Actual Songs. Having the title track be the second to last song on the album as opposed to the closer allows Music for the Head to function as a sort of epilogue that allows us to catch our breath after the thundering wall of sound has abated. The improvement here is considerable.

Other random notes. Listening to these songs again in their new context got me to pick up on certain things I didn’t notice the first time around. For instance: No Reason To Live, No Reason To Die has audience applause and chatter spliced in; so before where I thought it functioned as a sort of spiritual sequel to Radioactive Toy, it now feels like a real song the fake band is actually performing live in all its technicolor glory. Radioactive Toy itself, now that the ten-minute version exists, feels incomplete if it’s not closed out with a five-minute solo (although the fuzz effect over the vocals lends a particular air of desperation to the smart kid’s situation, as it makes it sound like his equipment is dying). Colours Dance Ang—er, “Track 11”—is able to do more to justify its existence when divorced from Linton Samuel Dawson. Hokey Cokey becomes considerably creepier when it’s called “Execution of the Will of the Marquis de Sade,” as the effect is less “haunted house phonograph on LSD” and more “sadomasochistic torture chamber on LSD.”

Now for the two songs that weren’t on the first and last tapes. The first is Out, which only shows up on the vinyl version, replacing the Prince cover for probably obvious reasons. I…honestly prefer seeing The Cross there. It’s a better fit, and also, quite frankly, a better song, probably the best from this point in Wilson’s musical career. Out belongs on a much tighter record, like the one it was yanked from. Speaking of Love, Death, & Mussolini, it’s also pretty obvious why that version of It Will Rain For A Million Years, good as it is, can’t be found anywhere else: it doesn’t fit anywhere else.

The second is An Empty Box, which has somewhat of the opposite problem of It Will Rain For A Million Years, in that it clearly didn’t fit in any of the demo tapes, but its thundering drums and wailing, squealing guitars work great here.

And that’s it. That’s the detritus of the early era dusted off and released. Most of it’s filler, but there are some serious gems here that shouldn’t be overlooked. Now the ghosts of the past have been dealt with and Porcupine Tree can finally move on as a proper band. This was, after all, released not long after Barbieri, Edwin, and Maitland formally joined and Porcupine Tree ceased functioning as a Steven Wilson solo project.