Porcupine Tree – Voyage 34

Phases I and II, November 1992
Phases III and IV, November 1993
The Complete Trip, June 2000
Remastered, October 2004
Delirium Years Edition, 2016

“Does Porcupine Tree cause hallucinations?” —The album notes, a riff on the backmatter of Timothy Leary’s LSD album, indicating that we’re clearly not in Kansas anymore.

Before we begin, a note on categorization: Wikipedia lists Voyage 34 as a compilation album, other sources list it as an EP. I’m calling it a single, because it isn’t one of PT’s main releases and I think of it as one big song split into four thematically linked phases.

But anyway here we are; the apotheosis of Space-Era Porcupine Tree. We’ll get to how it interacts with Up the Downstair when we actually get to Up the Downstair, so for now let’s treat it as its own thing. What we have here is a seventy-minute monster that is a distillation of Porcupine Tree’s sound up to that point and the jumping-off point for their subsequent musical endeavors for the rest of the Space Era.

Wilson said in a 2012 interview that Voyage 34 was supposed to be “a one-off experiment in a particular genre in which I knew I wouldn’t be staying for very long.” This when it turns out Voyage 34’s more spacey, trancey approach to psychedelia would see echoes in Up the Downstair (natch), The Sky Moves Sideways, and even Signify, to an extent.

And, most impressively, it doesn’t feel like seventy minutes. Even though the individual movements are allowed to unspool at their leisure, there’s a sense of purpose—of progression—to them that wasn’t quite there on any of the earlier Porcupine Tree Long Songs.

We’ll dive in with a short note on structure. Voyage 34 is a song about a young man named Brian who went on an LSD trip that went pear-shaped, and comes in two halves. Phases I and II were what was originally intended for the aborted second album of Up the Downstair. Phases III and IV are remixes of the first half, Phase III by Astralasia, Phase IV by Wilson and Richard Barbieri. As for how the two halves relate to each other, Phase II famously ends with “Is this trip really necessary?” hanging pregnantly over everything we just witnessed. Unfortunately, this question comes after we spent the past thirty minutes listening to something that sounds like if David Gilmour made trance music, with only the occasional low atmospheric drone reminding us that this particular trip is not a good one. So it almost feels like we must be watching what’s going on from the outside, because if this is what the trip felt like to Brian then why on earth are we talking about how psychologically damaging it was? If we take Phase I and II as the full song, that question loses quite a bit of its effectiveness.

In the context of the full 70-minute song, however, “Is this trip really necessary?” functions instead as a signpost saying, prepare yourself, here’s where things get really messed up. And indeed, the unease of Phase III and the overwhelming throb of Phase IV give us a better idea of what exactly was happening in Brian’s head during his twelve-hour nightmare. Phase III itself underscores this by beginning with “Is this trip really necessary?” echoing expectantly around Brian’s acid-addled cranium, soon to be joined by all the other spoken-word samples the first half laid out before us, all blended together in a dark soup that would come to encapsulate Brian’s fears and anxieties in that moment.

Those spoken word bits are important as they’re the primary vector through which the song’s concept is communicated. There’s the dry, facts-on-the-ground narration of Brian’s bad trip itself, yes, but that’s all neatly contained in the first half. After that, the song focuses on the ripples and contexts of Brian’s bad trip, through what is presented as excerpts from interviews of drug users and drug experts (the latter of which, especially the Timothy Leary samples, could be seen as a riff on whenever an artist connected to UK rave culture samples, say, Terence McKenna). Some noteworthy ones, in no particular order:

“They may be severely depressed, with suicidal tendencies, or may be very serious suicide attempts…” After about fifty minutes of experts and users glorifying LSD use, about its effects upon the consciousness, about its potential uses to combat unrest, about how those who use LSD could even be considered a “new indigenous religion,” and right in the middle of the pounding hangover headache that is Phase IV, here comes this punch in the gut. It says, no, Brian is not the only one traumatized by a very bad trip, that there are many other Brians shuffling zombie-like around our streets and our cities, and in fact, Brian should consider himself lucky he managed 33 trips before having a bummer.

This probably doesn’t reflect the actual experience of taking LSD. The sample was cribbed from something Wilson has described as “propaganda,” after all. But in this case, this doesn’t change the impact on the listener at all.

“In 15 years, the high school and college students who are experimenting with LSD will be running our institutions and guiding public policy…” Fifteen years out from 1967, we arrive at 1982, at which point those same high school and college students who’d experimented with LSD turned around and happily pulled the lever for Reagan and Thatcher and their joint reign of neoliberal terror. Fifteen years out from 1992, we arrive at 2007, at which point those same high school and college students happily cosigned “humanitarian interventions” in Afghanistan and Iraq, and gave us such wondrous life-changing gifts as Guantanamo, Abu Grahib, mass surveillance, and the Military Commissions Act. It’s almost as if, once a particular [privileged] sort of person reaches a particular stage in their life, they’ll have systematic incentives to abandon their previous radical ideals and mold themselves neatly into the box white supremacist capitalist patriarchy has set aside for them. And why wouldn’t they? It’s lucrative.

Although politically Steven’s much closer to the center than I am, it’s not hard to imagine him also shaking his head at the atomized legacy of what seemed at first to be so revolutionary…if it ever was revolutionary to begin with.

“I don’t like what’s going on in the world, I’m scared of that. […] I’m just… I’m just scared, you know?” The Palahniukian chorus underscoring the whole song, the one sample used more often than any other, in multiple instances spread across three phases. It functions both as a diagnosis of why The Youngs are using LSD (and I say The Youngs knowing full well Wilson was younger than I am when he made this) and why Brian’s trip went so poorly (why’s set and setting important, again?).

This one sample and its prominent placement in Phase IV is why, although I love this song to pieces, I have a very hard time listening to it all the way through. It hits just slightly too close to home for an anxiety-riddled political person for whom the question of humanity’s future is an endless yawning chasm of existential dread. I first listened to Voyage 34 in 2011, right around when Occupy Wall Street was in high gear and simultaneously when it was dawning on me precisely how serious and intractable the problem of climate change was. And listening to Voyage 34 in 2018, well…Brexit and Trump. You do the math. It’s a message that has serious staying power, no matter when you listen to it. There’s always something going on in the world to be scared of.