Porcupine Tree – Moonloop EP

October 1994
Transmission IV, December 2001

We aren’t going to talk a whole lot about the Moonloop EP in the post we’ve explicitly dedicated to the Moonloop EP because the EP itself is not all that interesting. It’s got two tracks: Stars Die and Moonloop, both of which can be found in some capacity on some version of The Sky Moves Sideways. We are instead going to talk about the song that gave the EP its name.

But first, Stars Die, because this is technically the song’s canonical appearance in Porcupine Tree’s discography (it only shows up on The Sky Moves Sideways’ American release). It’s one of the Space Era’s signature songs, popular enough to name a 2002 compilation album, the American release of this EP, and a preeminent PT/SW fansite, back in the day. I rate it highly. It is indeed a chilled-out space-rock tune that crystallizes the more ethereal aspects of PT’s sound at the time. I feel like I’m at peace, calmly floating in a warm void when I listen to it. But it still isn’t the best thing Porcupine Tree had made up to that point.

No, the real standout of the late Space Era is Moonloop. On 28 June 1994, Wilson, Edwin, Maitland, and special guests Rick Edwards and Markus Butler marched into the Doghouse recording studio outside of Henley and pounded out forty solid minutes of gold, which Wilson then banged into shape two days later at the home recording studio he carved out of his childhood bedroom. Chunks of the result would be released piecemeal for the rest of the 90s until the fan club release of Transmission IV in 2001.

If Voyage 34 is the best thing Space-Era Porcupine Tree released period, the full Moonloop improvisation is the best thing Space-Era Porcupine Tree released as a band. Most of us are already familiar with the cut that shows up on The Sky Moves Sideways, a nice spot of jazzy, trancey space rock that leisurely builds and releases over Edwin’s bass and Edwards’ percussion, and which fades out to archive audio of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. (Hence the name.) It’s great. And, critically, it forms a complete song on its own that fits right in with the atmosphere The Sky Moves Sideways is going for. If the whole forty-minute improvisation showed up on the album it would have overpowered everything else. But just this movement…perfect.

No, the whole schmeer is meant to be enjoyed on its own. The Sky Moves Sideways version fades out after the moon landing, but the Transmission IV version follows that sample up with Richard “Dingbat” Nixon’s phone call to the astronauts, the one that would find a home on Stars Die. This may partially explain why that song stayed off The Sky Moves Sideways’ UK release; two songs in a row ending with audio from the moon landing is probably only appropriate when they’re the only two songs in an EP about the moon landing. But anyway, after the second moon landing sample we move into the song’s second movement, which is basically similar to the first movement except the trancey elements are switched out for something bluesier and funkier, accentuated with harmonica, organ, and chunks of the moon landing sample buried so far back in the mix it sounds like the guitar at first listen. While the bass in the first movement was deliberate and methodical and repetitive, allowing for a template upon which the guitar can squeal however it wants, the bass in the second movement joins in the fun, skipping and jumping and clearly enjoying its newfound freedom…while at the same time remaining the song’s rhythmic backbone. The overall effect is eye-opening. We’re amazed that this was something the song was capable of doing, while at the same time wondering where this had been for the past seven years.

After that, an ambient segue into the song’s third and final movement, a coda in the “traditional-rock-freakout” subgenre. Think the last part of Godspeed’s Providence or Pendulum’s The Tempest and you’re about there. This bit would eventually evolve into the coda found on the 2-CD edition of The Sky Moves Sideways, and in many ways the version there is superior, but what we have here gels better with the song it’s ending, so I can’t complain too much.

In many respects, Moonloop, both song and EP, are pretty good indications of where Wilson and co were headed going into The Sky Moves Sideways; bringing back those Voyage 34 influences (there it is again) and producing something more jazzy and trancey than what we got up till now. And out of it we got the band proper’s first masterpiece and the signature song of the Space Era. This is also the point where Porcupine Tree finally, finally completely severed all links to its joke-band past. Both songs were a full-band endeavor. Both songs were new compositions instead of something dusted off after lying around for a few years. And neither song has lyrics by Alan Duffy.

But we’re still warming up. The true masterpiece is yet to come.

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Porcupine Tree – Staircase Infinities

December 1994
Remastered 2004

We’re gonna step out of time for a second here. Technically, the next release after Flame should be the Moonloop E.P., released October 1994, but that’s a not-really-preview of The Sky Moves Sideways, and I don’t want to go on before tying off the last little bits of the Up the Downstair era with a neat little bow.

Once in a while, following an album, Porcupine Tree will release a supplemental EP consisting of some worthy leftovers from the album sessions. Futile followed In Absentia, for example, Nil Recurring followed Fear of a Blank Planet, and The Incident has its second disc. Up the Downstair has Staircase Infinities, which was originally supposed to be the album’s other other back half, and yes we do ~geddit~, with the title, you can stop nudging me now.

There’s five tracks. Cloud Zero, the opener, is an interesting little number, in that it opens and closes with these weird haunting strings and synth noises, with a breezy guitar jam in the middle. Normally those two aspects of the song would clash, but the way the jam fades in in the beginning makes it seem like a very literal definition of escapism.

It’s pretty clear why The Joke’s On You was ultimately left off Up the Downstair: in the same album as Always Never, it would come off as a bit repetitive. But its real antecedent isn’t that song or the otherwise unrelated Karma misfire that gave the song its name, but (of all things) Footprints. The structure is similar: verses sung in the lower register with acoustic backing, while the choruses are more psychedelic and not sung so much as wailed. But here—and like with Small Fish, a lot of this can be attributed to the more polished production—it is as though we’ve rejoined our journeyman from Footprints after an absence of several years, during which time he’s sobered up and matured. It’s like he’s reflecting upon his drug-addled youth, mostly shaking his head at his attempt to find an enlightenment that he now realizes wasn’t there…but at the same time he still feels a twinge of nostalgia for those days and some of the things he’s experienced along the way. There was no destination, but some of the memories are still worth salvaging. I’d say something corny here about where the true enlightenment lies but it’s pretty clear that despite the occasional flashes of light and radiance it was all rather crap.

Navigator is a decent little instrumental that would have been one instrumental too many if it were included on the album. The one big thing Rainy Taxi has going for it is its mood—the title is very appropriate—and one of the earliest appearances of the Patented Porcupine Tree Heavy Vocoder Voice, here repeating “this rainy taxi” or somesuch like a malfunctioning numbers station.

And, of course, there’s Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape. Part of me doesn’t believe this song was ever seriously considered for Up the Downstair because there’s no earthly way it could be included on that album and not cause severe whiplash. Yes, some stuff has changed—there’s a bit more atmospherics, and the on-stage banter is now so distorted it’s unintelligible—but this is in general the same song we remember from Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm. Including the applause. Just like with The Joke’s On You, it’s like we’re checking back in on the fake band after a few years, this time discovering that they’ve graduated from mid-size venues to stadiums. We’re proud of them.

Here’s a nugget. Staircase Infinities was recorded between February 1992 and May 1993. Porcupine Tree became a proper, fully formed band in December 1993, in the middle of recording The Sky Moves Sideways. Between Staircase Infinities and The Sky Moves Sideways only one other thing would be recorded under the Porcupine Tree name: the final two phases, technically remixes, of Voyage 34. Therefore, one could argue that this update of Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape, recorded as it was at this particular fulcrum of the band’s career, released as the final track on the final record Porcupine Tree would make strictly as a solo project, suddenly harkening back to the Fake Band Days long after those pretenses were dropped, was in fact a magical ritual meant to transform Porcupine Tree into a real band.

Yes, Wilson’s not a magical thinker. Neither am I, really. But sometimes you don’t know your own strength.