Steven Wilson – Tonefloating

27 Feburary 2000
Voyage 31 rerelease, 2019

Let’s pad this thing out a bit by covering what we missed to get here.

First, Spirits Burning’s New World by Design. These guys are pretty interesting, a space rock collective featuring Don Falcone and whoever he felt like collaborating with at the time. This, naturally, means there’s an astronomically long revolving door of members, and Steven Wilson is one of them, contributing guitars for a song on their first album. That song is not the only one from that record on YouTube…that would be Arcturus, which is a short two-and-a-half minute krautrock joint and quite good. The album it’s on, unfortunately, is rare enough that a copy off Amazon Music costs over $150. And that was the only place I could find a copy; the official Spirits Burning website, a charmingly out-of-date affair (hosted by Earthlink, no less!), points interested parties toward a “distributors” page which no longer exists.

Next, Cipher’s No Ordinary Man. This is the first album of a collaboration between Theo Travis and Dave Sturt, featuring Barbieri on keyboards and Wilson on guitar for a few songs. This record is a slab of cold, alienating concrete, the sound of malfunctioning streetlamps and dead drops on the East German border. It’s a ghost story wrapped up in the conventions of a spy movie…so of course Wilson co-produced it.

Finally, and more pertinently for this particular record, what should surface last month but No-Man’s Hit the North recording sessions from 1992. (I suspect my insufficient Google-fu is to blame here; the whole thing happens to be part of a compilation released in 1998 of recording sessions from around that time.) It’s excellent, both as a collaboration with JBK, whose members show up in the usual places and are integral to the way this record sounds (besides Karn’s very distinctive bass, Barbieri’s eerie, haunting keyboards work so well with Ocean Song that the EP version feels bereft without them), and as a reminder of how good No-Man were even in the early days. This is No-Man still in their state of pubescent confusion, yes, when they were still trying to ride One Little Indian’s and trip hop’s coattails into some form of mainstream success, but there’s an energy and vitality to this performance that transcends any cynical triangulation that may have gone into how these songs sound.

And now, speaking of things that have been uncovered recently, Tonefloating. This is a record company promo more than anything else, released as a giveaway for 200 lucky people who attended the Tonefloating concert in Delft in February 2000. After this, it would pretty much disappear until the release earlier this year of Wouter Bessels’ Voyage 31, an ambiguously authorized (website says it isn’t; still has official sanction from SW himself) biography of Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson’s concert history in the Netherlands. This book has a special edition, limited to 1,000 copies, featuring, happily, a repressing of the Tonefloating single.

It’s a split single, featuring demos from Wilson and a homegrown band from Nijmegen called The Use of Ashes. Their contribution would eventually become Rainbird, a song which sounds vaguely Porcupine Tree-like in the sense that it’s a mashup of the Space and Alternative Eras, and whose vocals sound like if Wilson pitched his voice down and layered it over itself a few times.

Wilson himself, meanwhile, contributed an edit of Cure for Optimism. The final version was released on Recordings in 2001 and sounds great. It’s kind of a sparse song, featuring eerie echoing piano accentuated by some rhythmic acoustic guitar, with Wilson singing cryptically about being institutionalized, perhaps involuntarily, picked at and experimented on, insane but not insane. There’s some low, haunting rumble at the beginning and the end, and the way the meat of the song fades in and out from it makes it feel like a rare moment of clarity amid a medically-induced hallucinatory stupor. The version that appears on Tonefloating is pretty similar to what’s on Recordings, but doesn’t have the rumble, instead fading in after about twenty seconds of silence. The lack of bookends gives the sense that our singer hasn’t gone out of his mind, like on Recordings, but that he’s been ruined to the point where he generally experiences no brain activity whatsoever.

This is all based on hindsight, though. Somebody in 2000 wouldn’t have the full version to compare the demo against, and wouldn’t think, hmm, this song is pretty good, but feels incomplete without creepy ambient noises at the beginning and end. Nevertheless, the twenty seconds of anticipatory nothing is pretty haunting, and the slow fade-in at the start still feels like consciousness struggling to rise from the depths. Trouble is, there’s no corresponding silence afterwards, instead ending right after it fades out, implying that this particular bit of clear-headedness continues after the song ends. Consequently, the song’s meaning doesn’t land with quite the same impact that it does on Recordings.

But that’s not why the song is important. Although he’s recorded solo before, it’s always been under an alias (Bass Communion, early Porcupine Tree) and never just as himself, until now. Tonefloating may have been a promo a record company pulled together as an extra goody for people who attended a specific concert, but appropriately for a new millennium and the associated stuff about a new beginning, we have the first record released under the name Steven Wilson. When his acoustic guitar fades in at the start, the faint possibility that he might have a solo career under his own name is released into the universe.

Steven Wilson – Tape Experiments 1985-1986

Recorded 1985-86, Released 29 November 2010

“Steven made an ASMR video!” -YouTube commenter Wesley de Wit, 2016

Here’s the difference between prog-improvisation and electronic improvisation, and why I like one and not the other. ELP-style progressive rock improvisation comes off much like an extended jam session that, paradoxically, often goes nowhere. There’s a jarring feeling of simultaneous movement and stasis that makes it extremely difficult for me to appreciate the technical wizardry going on. Electronic improvisation, meanwhile, although there may (may) not be much variation in the music itself, still gives a feeling of pushing at boundaries and going into uncharted territory. Tape Experiments 1985-1986 may not strictly be an improvised album, but the sense of emergence and exploration is still there. It’s what the scientist is doing when they go “Hmm, that’s funny” and stumble upon something great.

I managed to dig up three tracks from Tape Experiments online: Cries of Lucia, The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, and Seen. All three are not so much songs as they are soundscapes, layered experiments in collage and texture that would eventually mutate into projects like Bass Communion. This is obvious from the name of the album; you don’t pick up something called “Tape Experiments” and expect it to be something you can karaoke to.

The tracks, then. Cries of Lucia is basically ten minutes of Steven messing with his voice, alternately whispering, sighing, clicking, and droning such that he sounds less like a human and more like the call of some forest cryptid. Chunks of this experiment would eventually be sampled on Hymn from Love, Death, & Mussolini and The Gospel According to the I.E.M., and we’ll get to the effect it has on those respective songs when we get there, but on its own it sounds very much like we had a run-in with some mushrooms in a field on a foggy autumn night. Very eerie.

The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud is something else entirely, a four-minute musique concrete collage that sounds alternately like home movies in a mad scientist’s laboratory and flipping between TV channels showing old science fiction movies while on acid. Seen, meanwhile, is four minutes of layered guitars fed through a tape machine. Wilson has speculated it was probably influenced by John Martyn’s “Small Hours,” but where Martyn used the guitar-and-tape-delay effect to create something serene and nostalgic and faintly melancholy and which quite honestly gives me a serious case of the warm fuzzies, Wilson’s version initially seems pleasant and serene, but pick at it a little bit and there’s this vaguely disquieting undercurrent drifting just below the surface. It’s like Wilson took Small Hours out of the fridge and left it out in the open air for a day or two, leaving it to curdle and rot. I personally prefer the Martyn version for that reason but then Small Hours was also the work of an artist at a more advanced stage in his career.

These are only three tracks out of seven, barely half the album, but I think we can reasonably assume that the other four are just as experimental and slightly off-kilter. Tape Experiments as a whole, then, is another chunk of Wilson’s early discography that’s primarily interesting because it’s Wilson’s early discography, and all the ways stuff off here would be used in songs that came later. But this particular piece of Wilson’s early discography comes at a transitional period. In 1986 Karma would break up. Also in 1986 he’d form what was initially a solo project called No Man Is An Island (Except The Isle Of Man), and 1987 would see a little joke project with Malcolm Stocks, a hoax prog rock band called Porcupine Tree.