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.