GUEST: Ange – Culinaire Lingus

November 2001

Nice pun, guys.

My monolingualism strikes again. Ange is a band that’s been active for fifty years and released dozens of albums and is considered one of the titans of seventies prog…but they’re from France, sing in French, and aren’t very well-known within the Anglosphere. This means there are basically zero online sources about the band in English, and very, very few sources that talk about the 70s prog scene in France for more than a few paragraphs. This means that we have a band that we need to invent the universe to make full sense of, but the necessary contours of this universe remains elusive.

There were three different tastemakers in French progressive rock in the early to mid 70s, each of which we’ll talk about in turn to get an idea of precisely where Ange came from. The first is Gong, a collective whose prime mover was Australian expatriate village eccentric par excellence Daevid Allen. Allen had spent the early-to-mid sixties in England, playing in a few bands before finally winding up with Soft Machine and becoming an influential figure in the Canterbury scene, a loose group of musicians who were playing broadly the same kind of music, upbeat psychedelic rock with whimsical lyrics, a sense of exploratory wonder, and the good kind of jazz improvisation. In 1967, Allen was denied re-entry to the UK because of a visa overstay and was exiled to France, bringing the Canterbury sound sensibilities to the Continent with him.

In Paris, he would assemble what would become Gong, an international group of musicians who would play goofy concept albums influenced by Canterbury-style psychedelia and jazz, but with more of a cosmic, transcendent, polysyllabically hippie-spiritual feel to them. The most essential Gong albums are the Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy: three albums (Flying Teapot, Angel’s Egg, and You) released in 1973 and 1974 built around the consciousness-expanding adventures of Zero the Hero, featuring stuff like cats that are actually witches, propeller-headed pixies who fly around in teapots, a massive concert during which everyone’s third eye will be switched on, and the trilogy’s thematic centerpiece: the great Planet Gong, accessible only through mind-expanding Substances, home to the One Invisible Center and the ultimate source of human self-actualization. The words draw heavily from Buddhist themes, not just enlightenment but also the search for self, the denial of absolute reality, and reincarnation, while the music sounds like if someone mashed up The Piper at the Gates of Dawn with a more developed version of Porcupine Tree’s demo tapes.

Allen left Gong a year after the trilogy was released, and the band moved in more of a jazz-fusion direction without him. He would eventually return in 1992 and continue to perform with a reunited Gong (whose revolving door of members would include Theo Travis and Dave Sturt) until his death in 2015. I personally appreciate Gong more than I like them, but the way the band drew from both English and Continental musical traditions cemented their cross-cultural appeal and their legacy as one of the most unique and important progressive rock bands in history. Although their music is not quite to my taste, they’re light and fun and I’m glad they’re around.

In contrast to the unequivocally positive feelings I have about Gong, I’m honestly rather mixed about Magma, which is frustrating because they’re easily the most influential of the three bands we’re surveying here. Magma describe their general sound as “zeuhl,” a term which would eventually describe an entire subgenre drawing from their musical style. Zeuhl is bombastic, symphonic, and theatrical, more or less what would happen if a rock band were commissioned to write an opera (and not, like, a rock opera, but an actual opera). That’s actually kind of appropriate, as Magma albums are all space-opera epics sung in an invented language (think Simlish or Hopelandic) about a group of refugees fleeing a doomed Earth and settling on the planet Kobaïa, and the struggles and conflicts they experience during their time there. Their third album, Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh, is generally regarded as the pinnacle of their musical style and a cornerstone of not just French prog but prog music period.

Would that Christian Vander, Magma’s founder and main creative force, wasn’t a fascist.

To be clear, I’m not drawing this conclusion from the music itself. Yes, the operatic elements are distinctly authoritarian, with all the choruses and militaristic drumbeats and shouted faux-German, so it’s easy to say “they’re fascist because their music sounds fascist” and call it a day, but that’s lazy. Laibach and Rammstein do the same thing, and the former band is satirical and the latter is left-wing. When I say Vander is fascist, I’m talking about what Vander got up to offstage, like having Nazi flags in his bedroom and saying things about black people and Indians so horrifically racist they make Clapton’s infamous “keep Britain white” rant sound level-headed and reasonable.

At least Clapton–who supports Enoch Powell to this day–has just enough self-awareness to pretend he isn’t racist when called on it. When Vander was called on his past he (through his wife) attempted to dodge the question by going on this long spiel about how Magma’s about life and the struggles of life and how horrible it is that these censorious SJWs are attempting to crucify him for things he might have said when the music is brilliant and what actually matters, man. No denials. No retractions. Fuck that noise.

(To those who say Vander couldn’t possibly be fascist because his wife is Jewish and he’s an admirer of John Coltrane; you sound like the people who defend Milo Yiannopoulos because his partner is black. Cut it out.)

Moving on to less bile-inducing waters, Ange themselves. Of the Big Three Of French Prog, these guys, fronted by brothers Chrstian and Francis Décamps, are probably the most conventional, opting for a style of prog more influenced by medieval and folk music than anything more arcane or psychedelic. One listens to Ange and gets the sense that unlike, say, Gong, these are more intellectual musicians who’ve never touched a mind-altering chemical in their lives. As a consequence, they sound more or less like the sort of music Jethro Tull was making–and mocking–at roughly the same time, all mandolins and flutes and violins and classical guitars. That said, they do have one huge trick up their sleeve: Christian Décamps’ pipes. That man can belt and wail and howl like nobody’s business. This elevates what would typically sound like normal wizardshit (which, to be honest, it still does at times) into something with all of Magma’s operatic pretensions but none of the latent authoritarianism. This is music for the theatre, yes, but less the Paris Opéra and more the Globe.

(I have also been informed in multiple places that Décamps’ lyrics are pretty good, too, but since I haven’t found a place that translates them to English, I’ll just take that on faith.)

In a lot of respects, Ange are a typical progressive rock band. They reached the peak of their popularity with 1974’s Au-Delà Du Délire, which also just so happens to be the fullest realization of their sound at the time. This, coupled with the way their sound went out of its way to be progressive but not alienating, catapulted them to superstardom, becoming the most popular progressive rock band in France. (Of course, because they sung in French, they had trouble breaking into the Anglophone market; their one stab at releasing an album in English flopped horribly.) Then, as the 70s drifted into the 80s and progressive music entered a terminal decline, Ange entered a fallow period, with numerous lineup changes and albums that were, to put it politely, unfavorably compared to what they released in their prime, until they finally limped into a hiatus in 1995.

Something vaguely Ange-like reformed in 1997 as “Christian Décamps et Fils,” with Francis replaced by Christian’s son Tristan and a mostly new (and quite stable!) band lineup, before dropping all pretensions and taking on the name Ange in 1999. This version of the band still tours and records, albeit to a smaller but more devoted audience, and seems to have found a balance between pushing their sound forward but not so forward they’ll alienate the core group of people who know them for what they did in the 70s. (Contrast Wilson, who does what he wants and doesn’t care who he alienates.) This is not a second imperial phase, but it is that period in a prog band’s history where it reassembles itself and finds its footing in a world where the mainstream doesn’t care about them anymore. (e.g. pretty much everything Marillion did after Fish left.)

Here’s where Steven Wilson comes in, tapped to mix two tracks off 2001’s Culinaire Lingus. On this outing at least, Ange’s music has become darker and harsher, to the point where in certain cases (Jusqu’où Iront-ils ?, Cueillir Les Fruits Du Sérail, the title track, Univers Et Nirvana, and parts of Gargantua) it’s practically metal. Décamps, blessed with a vocal style that ages like wine, isn’t theatrically bouncing his vox around the stage as much as he did before, but his voice has compensated by becoming deeper, fuller, and more controlled as he got older.

This doesn’t mean the whole of Culinaire Lingus is doom and gloom, of course. Cueillir Les Fruits Du Sérail crashes into Adrénaline, a jaunty Celtic tune that lays on the fiddle thick and is almost Riverdanceable. Two thirds of Farces Et Attrapes sounds like a children’s song. Intérieur-nuit is a haunting lonely piano ballad. Les Odeurs De Cousine is clearly an excuse for Tristan Décamps to show off on the keyboard. And, of course, Décamps and Caroline Crozat clearly had a lot of fun tag-teaming On Sexe (although given the subject matter I can’t help but imagine them both naked while singing this). Although “heavy” is the album’s baseline, it’s clearly one of those records that’s more interested in showing off the band’s range than sticking to one particular atmosphere.

But, again, Wilson only mixed two tracks from one album out of twenty-two. Ange never shows up again on Wilson’s radar. But they’re worth mentioning not just for completion’s sake, not just because they’re our connection to the parallel universe of French prog, but because they’re one of quite a few connections Wilson has amassed that go off the beaten path a little bit. Yes, it’s cool when Wilson and Fripp or Alex Lifeson or Ian Anderson or some other mainstream prog luminary show up together, because Star Power, but those collaborations are expected. What’s really interesting is when Wilson shows up on the record of someone in a part of the music world we’d think he’d have absolutely no interest in.

This will pay a dividend in two years’ time.

GUEST: Henry Fool – Henry Fool

October 2001

“Ah, British seaside towns. There are three things that connect them all together. One is despair. Two is hepatitis. And three…” –Stuart Ashen

Henry Fool is a group that crystallizes a particular way of thinking about Bowness’ discography, one which forms an interesting contrast to Wilson’s. Wilson’s musical projects are rather discrete; although what he’s doing with one project will inform another, there’s no confusing a Porcupine Tree song with a Blackfield song or a No-Man song or a Bass Communion song. Bowness’ projects, meanwhile, will jumble together into a particular intense, right-brained aesthetic sensibility so completely it’s hard to believe two adjacent albums were technically made by two different groups. A lot of this has to do with the serious personnel cross-pollination between Bowness’ various musical projects; any given major Bowness album is likely to also feature Michael Bearpark, Peter Chilvers, and/or Stephen Bennett, and so having these people together for two different records means they will have a very clear thematic progression between them, even if those two records are released as part of different projects.

That is to say: Henry Fool, a group whose prime movers are the Bowness/Bennett/Bearpark/Chilvers core, released two albums, a self-titled record in 2001, the subject of this post, and a follow-up in 2013. This first record has more in common with the records released on either side of it than it does with its successor.

The self-titled Henry Fool record touts itself as drawing from classic prog and post-punk, but only three songs–Bass Pig, Poppy Z, and The David Warner Wish List–could be described as fitting that label. In practice, Henry Fool is the second album in a loose art-rock trilogy beginning with Samuel Smiles’ World of Bright Futures in 1999 and concluding with the Bowness/Chilvers California, Norfolk collaboration in 2002. Some of the songs carry over in some form or other from one album to the next–Dreamer’s Song, for instance, is slightly rearranged for acoustic guitar on California, Norfolk–but all three records represent the crystallization of a particular quiet sadness that had become Bowness’ main lyrical and instrumental mode in the new century, all ambient moans and twinkling pianos and acoustic guitars and lyrics written largely in the second person mourning slowly disintegrating relationships. This is music to stare wistfully out train windows to.

This sensibility is further refined on California, Norfolk. This is Bowness’ version of Lightbulb Sun, a raw, almost visceral dive into the way depression affects people and the way they interact with the world and each other. Many of the songs are sad snapshots of gray people stuck in gray existences by the gray East Anglia seaside, drifting through life without meaning or purpose. These are people trapped by circumstance, with no power to affect their immediate surroundings; they don’t make things happen as much as passively allow things to happen to them. They’re unable to connect or communicate with others to the point that whatever relationships they do have are in a perpetual slow-motion collapse. They are afflicted with an alienation so severe they’re practically catatonic. It’s brutal and heartbreaking and a worthy culmination of the themes explored on World of Bright Futures and Henry Fool.

Men Singing, the second Henry Fool record, sounds nothing like that. It’s a considerably jazzier, more upbeat album than its predecessor, notably featuring no vocals and a lot of what sound like improvisational passages. It doesn’t even sound like the Bowness albums (Warm Winter, with Giancarlo Erra, and Abandoned Dancehall Dreams) that are on either side of it. Some of the proggier songs on the last album gesture toward a throughline between that record and this one, but that’s the extent of the connection between them. I’m not sure how I feel about it. One the one hand, I very much prefer their self-titled album, because it’s cozy and intimate in a way that Men Singing isn’t, and I’m not into that sort of prog at all, but on the other hand, I also realize that my perception of Men Singing is colored by how little it sounds like the first record, and it might rate a bit higher once I listen to it in a vacuum.

Wilson’s entire contribution to the Henry Fool oeuvre is mixing two rather unremarkable songs on the self-titled album. But here’s the thing: a blog about Steven Wilson, by its very nature, isn’t going to be a blog solely about Steven Wilson, because he’s actually a very collaborative artist. Many of his main projects were collaborations with another person (No-Man, Storm Corrosion) or full bands (Porcupine Tree, Blackfield). Even when he’s exercising dictatorial control over a project (Porcupine Tree at times, his solo work) and writing all the songs and performing most of the instruments, much of the time there’s still an outside influence that comes in to make the songs complete. Theo Travis is the lynchpin of the Drugged suite. Porcupine Tree wouldn’t be Porcupine Tree without the unique contributions of the other members. Wilson went out of his way to describe The Raven that Refused to Sing as a band record instead of a solo record.

In reality, the story of Steven Wilson is just one of many, colliding and intersecting with the stories of other musicians as they collaborate and influence each other. Some, like the subject of the next post, flit in and out only briefly but have extensive backstories of their own. Others, like Tim Bowness, are so intertwined that it’s neither possible nor desirable to fully extricate them from each other. In fact, Wilson himself has said multiple times that he doesn’t rate himself all that well as a musician or a vocalist, but his real talent comes from the production side of things, from taking the different parts that he and other musicians recorded in studio and creating something amazing out of them.

In other words, to paraphrase Travis Scott, who put this shit together, he’s the glue.

GUEST: Jansen Barbieri Karn – Playing in a Room with People

September 2001
Bandcamp rerelease, 27 February 2016
LP edition, 5 February 2020

Past

There are three albums that lie between where we last left off with the ex-Japan people and now. The first is Barbieri and Jansen’s Other Worlds in a Small Room, released in 1996. It’s an absolutely delightful ambient record that’s more than a worthy sequel to the similarly-titled album from a decade earlier, encompassing the whole spectrum of emotions that ambient music is really good at articulating. Light Years in particular comes highly recommended.

A year later, Barbieri and Jansen got together with Nobukazu Takemura and released Changing Hands, a little atmospheric record that fits comfortably into the other stuff they were doing at the time. It’s also, quite frankly, rather unmemorable. I listened to it twice now, and each time it went in one ear and out the other, another data point in favor of me just thoroughly bouncing off this particular style of music. (See also: much of Mick Karn’s discography.) At least we’re not sounding like a computer game soundtrack anymore.

1998’s _ism, on the other hand, is probably the best record an ex-Japan collective have ever made, with lots of abrasive guitars over trip-hop-esque drums with heavy layers of electronics and a general noirish atmosphere. It’s not JBK does Mezzanine, exactly, since the two albums were recorded and released at roughly the same time, but since super-dark trip hop was in the air at the time, something like this was inevitable. And thank God. JBK always came off as slightly dated, but once in a while it can be parlayed into something wonderfully dated, and _ism is a perfect example of that.

_ism’s other revelation comes through the particular ways in which it illustrates an optimum for JBK as a project. Or: this thing has vocals. Very nice ones, thanks largely to Zoe Niblett. She elevates whatever she’s doing into complete songs as opposed to, well, playing in a room. Her voice ties the song together, and this suggests that more JBK albums should have had songs amenable to having vocals in them.

From this vantage point, then, we can get a better idea of the arc of JBK’s career, and it’s only occasionally pretty. After Rain Tree Crow comes a post-imperial phase profoundly susceptible to ossification, as much of their 90s work seems like an extended, somewhat meandering jam session more than anything else. There are exceptions, of course– Beginning to Melt, The Wilderness, Sleepers Awake, and so forth–but it was only with _ism that we hit on something definitive that could give an idea of what the group could sound like in the new century.

_ism was also the last collaborative studio release involving more than one ex-Japan person, and Playing in a Room With People is that last original release from the ex-Japan collective period.

Present

The way this bleeds over into JB (and occasionally K)’s live performance is a fraught one, largely because they didn’t perform live all that much. The first signpost here is obviously Lumen, recorded in 1996, released 2015, and apparently thrown up on Spotify when I wasn’t looking. Recorded in Amsterdam, and featuring Steven Wilson on guitar and synethesizer, it’s the only time JB performed live as JB. (Although K did come along for the ride.)

Most of what’s on Lumen comes from the Stories Across Borders album from 1991, their saving throw after the disaster that was The Dolphin Brothers. Maybe it’s the way the album came directly after Dolphin Brothers that elevated my initial perceptions, but Stories Across Borders isn’t exactly successful at distinguishing itself in a vacuum. It’s mid-tier ex-Japan at best, and their live renditions don’t add much, either. The best songs off Lumen are Sleepers Awake and Beginning to Melt, which already sounded amazing in the studio.

Playing in a Room with People, meanwhile, pulls not just from JB’s discography but also from Rain Tree Crow and Mick Karn’s solo work. Interestingly, although they picked more middle-of-the-road stuff to represent JB and Rain Tree Crow, the Karn stuff on display here is actually pretty good, particularly Saday Maday (accentuated with Wilson’s guitar and Theo Travis’ saxophone toward the end) and Plaster the Magic Tongue (Travis again, this time on that wonderful flute solo). The album opener, Walkabout, which appears to be an original Barbieri composition, is also quite good, moody and atmospheric, yet also industrial and abrasive. There should have been a whole album of stuff like that.

As a sendoff, though, Playing in a Room With People works great. Even though it’s far from a complete survey of JB and K’s numerous musical collaborations, it’s still an excellent summation of their post-Japan collaborations. Just like with the parent project, though, there’s still that sense of aborted possibility, that we’re going our separate ways right as we’re about to make a sort of breakthrough, either in terms of popularity or our evolution as musicians.

Future

Since we don’t see much of these people after this, it might be worth taking a quick look at where the individual players went from here. Barbieri would spend the aughts focusing primarily on Porcupine Tree, although he would still release the occasional solo album, some of which we’ll take a look at as we move forward.

Steve Jansen and Mick Karn, meanwhile, would mostly keep to their solo careers after this. The most relevant album in Jansen’s case is his debut solo album, 2007’s Slope, a record that suggests a glitchier, jazzier, more experimental direction that JBK could have taken…in other words, something that sounds like an Anja Garbarek record. That’s kind of fitting, as she guests on this album, along with other familiar names like Theo Travis and David Sylvian.

As for Mick Karn, his first post-JBK records of note is Endless, a 2009 album by Italian prog rock outfit Fjieri. In addition to Karn, who plays bass on two songs, one of which sees him reunite with Richard Barbieri, Endless boasts a guest list that’s a who’s-who of Wilson-adjacent people, like Tim Bowness, Peter Chilvers, and Gavin Harrison. This means the album benefits by-proxy from the incredible chemistry that Porcupine Tree had, as though a chunk of that band broke off and found its way here. This happens whenever two ex-PT members get together and start playing, like when Harrison reunited with Colin Edwin in 2016 for iamthemorning’s Lighthouse, or when Wilson and Barbieri briefly played together during Wilson’s three-night Royal Albert Hall residency in 2018. The song that Karn, Barbieri, and Harrison all play on, Ad Occhi Chiusi, sounds like a spicy Italian remix of a Porcupine Tree song, and is absolutely delightful.

The other Karn album worth mentioning here is what would have been the second full-length collaboration between Karn and Peter Murphy. I say “would have been” because before they were to head into the studio, Karn was diagnosed with an unspecified but aggressive form of cancer. Fundraisers were announced, benefit concerts were organized, and Porcupine Tree would release a live album, with the profits going to Karn’s medical expenses. These appeals allowed Karn, who was living in Cyprus at the time, to move back to London for treatment. Unfortunately the cancer proved too aggressive and Karn died in January of 2011. At the time of his death, Karn and Murphy had recorded five songs from what would have been their latest album, and it was these songs that would be released as InGladAloneness, an EP dedicated to Karn’s memory. So it goes.

Coda: Far Future

Finally, there’s the elephant in the room. Playing in a Room with People was released the month of 9/11. This album, like any album released that month, has nothing to do with 9/11, except that it too sits right on the fulcrum between a known past and an unknown future. JBK will not exist after this record. Neither will a lot of people’s understanding of the international order. These two things aren’t even remotely equivalent, but since they still happened simultaneously there’s still a temptation, however wrongheaded, to connect them somehow.

9/11 will not have a serious impact on Steven Wilson’s story for a few years, as its repercussions on politics and culture ripple outward and reach endpoints that are even more horrific than the act itself. Nevertheless, here we are now, in real time, as it’s happening, as a civilization convulses in great collective trauma, and we begin to understand that the familiar world of the nineties is truly dead and gone, and although it may not have been peaceful it sure as hell is going to feel like it compared to what’s coming, and now is the time of monsters.

It is the first day of April 2020, and I am writing this in the middle of a pandemic. My county is on lockdown. It is illegal for me to leave my house except to go to work or to go grocery shopping. Hospitals are overwhelmed, small businesses are collapsing, and state and local governments will soon have to amputate entire limbs for spare change. Current projections place the eventual American death toll at anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions. The Hungarian parliament voted to allow its fascist tyrant of a Prime Minister to rule by decree indefinitely. More nations may follow. The governor of Idaho signed legislation severely restricting the rights of trans people. It won’t be the last. The barbarisms of the new decade are becoming clearer by the day, and they are terrifying.

And from this whirlwind emerges the same sense of existential fear and anxiety that was in the air after 9/11, the climate in which Playing in a Room with People suddenly found itself. What should have been a nice little live album celebrating the collective discography of three men about to go their separate ways has instead been marked out prematurely as an artifact from an earlier age, a reminder of precisely what we’re losing.

GUEST: Theo Travis – Heart of the Sun

August 2001

I don’t get jazz.

This is largely for the same reason I don’t get a lot of metal: I already bounce off a lot of the conventions of the genre, so while I like stuff that incorporates elements of jazz (to a point, anyway), when I listen to the straight dope I very rarely get anything out of it beyond an intellectual appreciation for the musicianship and the improvisation and the way the individual members of the band play off each other. And that’s nice, but I generally don’t listen to music to appreciate it intellectually. I listen to music to feel things, and–again, generally–when I listen to jazz I don’t feel things.

The one exception is when it’s background noise and I’m doing something else. That’s a big reason why the jazz in, say, the SimCity soundtrack managed to stick when a lot of other jazz doesn’t: I’ve associated it with very particular and very fond memories of playing the game. That’s also why, to me, literally every Theo Travis solo album up to Heart of the Sun sounds like this. That is my primary reference point for a lot of the jazz I’ve been listening to, and the thing against which I compare any jazz I listen to that isn’t, say, New York, New York. (I realize that’s unfair to jazz as a whole, whose history is as complex and multifaceted as any other genre, but it is what it is.)

So this one was always going to be tough to get through, because the fact of the matter is Theo Travis is right up there with Tim Bowness and Mikael Akerfeldt as one of the most important people in Steven Wilson’s musical circles. He’s already showed up in a lot of places: Stupid Dream and all three Bass Communion releases thus far, most importantly, but also on:

  • Recordings (sax on Ambulance Chasing)
  • Returning Jesus (sax on Slow It All Down, flute on Lighthouse)
  • Lost Songs, Vol. 1 (sax and flute on Gothgirl Killer and Samaritan Snare)
  • No Ordinary Man, his collaboration with Dave Sturt as Cipher
  • Indigo Falls (soprano sax on Falling Into Years)
  • Smiling and Waving (sax on Big Mouth)

 

…and that’s what we’ve covered here in some capacity. He’s also worked with JBK (_ism), Steve Jansen and Yukihiro Takahashi (Pulse), and Japan associate Masami Tsuchiya (Forest People). It was inevitable that Wilson would eventually show up on one of his solo albums.

To this decidedly non-jazz-head, Heart of the Sun, his fourth solo album and the first one Wilson was directly involved in, is the best of his solo albums thus far…or at least the one most successful at delivering a musical palette more varied than the usual “Manhattan at night” mode he operates in. When you don’t get jazz, this is a godsend.

Heart of the Sun loosely alternates between pieces that are straight jazz and pieces that are shaped vaguely like more familiar progressive rock. Northern Lights, for instance, has a distinct ambient bent to it, while Barking Dogs and Caravans starts out in typical Travis jazz fashion but about six minutes in the sax drops out and in comes David Gordon’s piano and Mark Wood’s guitar, delivering a tension-addled solo that wouldn’t be out of place on a Porcupine Tree album. That Old Smile does something similar; here the piano and guitar are skittering and frantic, threatening to dissolve the song almost completely, before Travis’ sax comes back to restore some sense of sanity and cohesion. Last Flight From Tinwood is barely jazz at all, built instead around Wood’s squealing, echoing guitar; with Palle Mikkelborg’s swirling trumpet coming in to accentuate certain key moments.

This probably says something about the nature of progressive rock in general. Prog’s main thing is the way it absorbs and assimilates other genres, taking cues from folk, classical, and (yes) jazz. There is a very strong case to be made that Last Flight From Tinwood is fundamentally a rock song. A profoundly avant-garde rock song, yes, but a rock song nevertheless. The boundary between rock music and jazz music can be rather porous, and a big reason progressive rock collapses into jazz-fusion as often as it does is the way jazz emphasizes the sort of virtuosity that prog musicians are really good at.

Unfortunately, to someone like me who lacks the musical vocabulary necessary to get what jazz musicians are doing when they reel off really long improvisational solos, this can be profoundly alienating. At its most extreme, this registers as a distinct sense that heavily improvisational music is fundamentally antithetical to the guitar-keyboards-bass-drums setup of the typical rock band, and the real value in progressive rock comes when it pushes against the boundaries of how rock is defined in ways that retain a fundamental underlying structure. In other words, the apotheosis of progressive rock is the sort of tightly-wound Swiss-watch compositions that happens to be Porcupine Tree’s bread and butter.

Of all the different periods Wilson’s career has drifted in and out of, the one running from Grace for Drowning through is probably my least favorite, because it’s the one that leans closest into the sort of jazz-fusion abyss that represents progressive rock’s well-publicized failure mode. That this is also the portion of his career that most heavily features Theo Travis isn’t exactly a coincidence. Nevertheless, Travis is definitely not a harbinger of doom, where his presence automatically means what an Extremely Online proghead might call “wizardshit.” Before we hit Wilson’s solo career proper, he’s gonna show up on No-Man, Bass Communion (again), and in collaboration with Robert Fripp and one other very unlikely artist. But the fact remains that to a pleb like me, the concept of fusing jazz and rock works better when the fusion is based on the former instead of the latter, and Heart of the Sun is a perfect example of that.

GUEST: Anja Garbarek – Smiling and Waving

March 2001

You know that stock character in horror movies, based off the Grady twins in The Shining? The really creepy kid who exhibits vaguely sociopathic tendencies and likes to kill time by singing slowed-down nursery rhymes in a minor key and who in general gives these vibes that she’s actually a vessel for some unspeakable evil? That kid grew up and had a music career.

That’s probably unfair to Anja Garbarek as a person, but it says quite a lot about the persona put forward during her music career. Garbarek’s music exists as a deliberately uncomfortable symbiosis between experimental jazz (or jazzy experimentation, depending on the album) and glitchy, abrasive electronics. Which element of her sound predominates fluctuates slightly from album to album, but for Smiling and Waving, her third album and second in English, the jazz is brought forward while the electronics are pulled back, sprinkled like a garnish across the whole record.

For me, at least, the most immediate point of comparison is Sicknote, the No-Man ephemerum. In that song, the foreground is slow and minimalist and not too sinister but the background is complexly and existentially terrifying. Something similar is happening here, with Smiling and Waving, but here the horror is not external but internal. Garbarek often sounds buttoned-up and robotic, trying valiantly to sublimate impulses that us lesser humans would describe as “malevolent.”

Consider how many of the songs in Smiling and Waving are composed. Garbarek’s vocals front and center most of the time, and much of the instrumentation is minimalist enough that these songs are almost spoken-word pieces. The music here exists to complement and occasionally comment on the vocals, and reveal things on their own only sparingly.

For instance, Her Room, the opener. We find the narrator in her room. She explains that this is her room now, that someone lived there previously but doesn’t anymore, and she doesn’t know how she got there, and there’s a man who comes by every night for unexplained reasons. Although she’s clearly an adult–as demonstrated by the smoking habit–her high-pitched, innocent vocals and her use of short, simple sentences makes it seem like she still has a child’s understanding of the world. To her, and therefore to us, her circumstances are surreal and inexplicable. Then we get to the punchline: “Her death…was she already dead when I came? I mean enough to bury…” And so we learn the fate of the previous occupant of this strange room, the narrator questioning if she was alive when she arrived obliquely implying that she in fact killed her, possibly assumed her identity, and somehow repressed the memory of doing any of those things.

Closely related are the personae she assumes in The Gown and The Diver. In the former, she asks someone named Robby to make her a nice dress so she can return to a hazily-defined garden and “do all things.” The song clearly operates on a sort of dream logic suggesting that we adults would find the garden and the “cuddly tiger” to which she wants to return absolutely freaking terrifying, but that’s not something she knows or cares about. In The Diver, Garbarek and Robert Wyatt tag-team an ironic tale about the world’s greatest diver. They sound like they’re in genuine awe of the diver’s skill and grace as he arcs through the air and hits the water…and then rhapsodize about his inability to swim, implying that they’re similarly awestruck at his skill and grace in drowning (ayyy) and completely fail to grasp that they should feel shocked or sad when someone straight-up dies in front of them.

There are, of course, exceptions. That’s All is heavier on the orchestral swells and almost trip hop-esque glitches and beats, and tells a tale of a mysterious man who might not be a man, who rises from the water and seeks help from a nurse. I Won’t Hurt You, meanwhile, is based around a mathematically precise beat and Steven Wilson’s muted guitar. And finally, there’s Blinking Blocks of Light, which features dissonant noises and samples (occasionally reversed) swirling around a pounding industrial drum loop. In these songs, the effect is less trying to temper some internal demons and more trying to stay afloat in a Thomas Doyle diorama, the ones depicting a world so actively hostile to humans that the ground swallows houses whole without warning.

Actually, let’s pick at that for a second. Part of the power in a Thomas Doyle diorama comes from its discreteness. We see some sort of cataclysm, whether it’s an inexplicably sunken house or people buried alive or someone trapped in a giant snow globe, and that cataclysm encompasses the whole of the universe. There’s very little suggesting there might be anything beyond the confines of the diorama itself. In addition, many of these pieces are stuck under glass, wrenched out of time and space and suspended in a higher astral plane for us higher beings to observe. There is only this moment, in an endless loop forever, and it’s only when multiple pieces are viewed at once do we get an idea of how utterly nightmarish Doyleworld really is.

The power of Smiling and Waving comes from a similar place. There is nothing connecting the tale of Her Room to the tale of The Gown to the tale of The Diver, but collectively all these songs create a world deep in the uncanny valley, where the people we encounter aren’t people as much as they are monsters in malfunctioning people suits, and for that achievement Garbarek earned herself a Spellemannsprisen, Norway’s version of a Grammy. Not bad at all.

(PS: as for what she’s up to today, after a lull of about twelve years, she released a new album last year called The Road is Just a Surface, a concept album about a man warehoused in a psychiatric facility who’s gone completely mad. As befitting a record whose concept is more sharp-edged and clinical, it leans more heavily on sinister electronics than her previous albums, and is probably her best work.)

GUEST: Opeth – Blackwater Park

27 February 2001

“Yes, Steven Wilson is a real person, not just a legend told to easily frightened children by the fire.” –Mikael Åkerfeldt

Opeth, as anyone familiar with Steven Wilson knows, are a progressive metal band from Stockholm. Their primary creative force is Mikael Åkerfeldt, a man with a sweet stache and an even sweeter voice. They’ve been around since 1989, and the prospect of covering them here makes me extremely nervous.

I’ve always had a fraught relationship with metal. For instance, when I first learned metal was a thing, I instinctively rejected the genre because I thought it was Satanic (recall I’m exvangelical). In retrospect, this was pretty stupid. No one in metal actually worships Satan the same way your average Christian worships the God of Abraham. At worst you have people like King Diamond who appreciate Satan as a concept. Most of the time it’s a bunch of guys who like to play up the Dark and Evil aesthetic because they think it’s cool and it pisses off uptight religious people. Whatever. I’m listening to some black metal as I write this, and it doesn’t sound like there’s anything actually occult going on here (beyond, you know, anything intrinsic about the act of creation), just something that wants to fool the listener into thinking that’s what’s happening. That’s fine. People listen to black metal because it’s dark and creepy and extreme and iconoclastic, the Satanic stuff is there for window dressing, but I just don’t think any of it’s shocking anymore.

(Opeth’s first album gestured in similar directions, of course, but Åkerfeldt, who’s an atheist, was always up-front about the artifice oand moved away from the cheesy hail-Satan stuff pretty early. It’s also not a coincidence that Åkerfeldt was only twenty-one when Orchid was released.)

Nowadays, of course, my beef with metal comes from not whether they’re Satanist but whether they’re fascist or otherwise have deeply disquieting politics. Going back to Mayhem, Varg needs no introduction, but let’s not pretend his Nazism existed in a vacuum. Bard “Faust” Eithun and Jon Nödtveidt are both responsible for hate crimes. Hellhammer has explicitly said black metal’s for white people. Darkthrone have released songs with anti-Semitic lyrics. Watain’s first demo was titled Go Fuck Your Jewish God. This even filters down to more mainstream artists. Kerry King has a history of homophobia, and Phil Anselmo was busted throwing the white power salute. And you’ll excuse me if I remain deeply suspicious of Lemmy and Jeff Hanneman thanks to their massive collections of Nazi memorabilia. (By the way, I don’t believe anyone who pulls that shit and when called on it protests they’re trolling or apolitical.) The point is, every time I discover a new metal band, I have to seriously wonder if they’re connected to the far right somehow, and that’s not a good look for a scene.

(Åkerfeldt, for the record, self-IDs as a social democrat.)

Between these two poles, a decently long but shallow metal phase that coincides roughly with my college years. When I say “shallow,” I mean in both senses, in that I only ever listened to the less heavy genres (power metal, progressive metal, folk metal, symphonic metal, that sort of thing), and I never really listened to much beyond a few of the most popular bands. To the extent that I listened to Opeth, I gave this album and Watershed a few spins and didn’t really explore their back catalogue much further.

All this means I’m a bit wary of covering Opeth in this space, because death metal isn’t really my thing and I don’t really have the language to parse the band’s evolution across time. I’m not going to do the band justice. But we may as well try.

Over the course of Opeth’s career they’ve released three landmark albums, and Blackwater Park is not one of them. (Note: “landmark” is not equivalent to “best.”) Their first, and only one released when this album dropped, is My Arms, Your Hearse. Before that album, Opeth’s sound had some pretty substantial black metal influences. The first two albums, Orchid and Morningrise, largely sounded either like the march of the pale horse of death or like being trapped in a house haunted by malevolent spirits. Åkerfeldt’s harsh vox hadn’t yet resolved into the bellow he’s known for, but instead resembled the raspy, bloodcurdling shriek typical of black metal (which probably goes a long way toward explaining why his death growls don’t fall into the Cookie Monster abyss). The production was harsher and more lo-fi, sounding in retrospect like it was recorded in a cave. (And that goes double for the bonus tracks.) Still, even this early there’s still the sense that Opeth were never content to just be a black metal band, and once other bands started ripping them off that provided the impetus for them to move in a different direction.

The period from My Arms, Your Hearse to Heritage represents what could be described as Classic Flavor Opeth. Sure, you got your death growls and heavily distorted guitars and other superficial genre trappings, but this is a band that’s considerably more baroque, delicate, and gothic than the label “death metal” lets on. These guys are all about technically complex songs with long acoustic interludes and clean vocals, and the contrast and interplay between the two. (Which, by the way, Åkerfeldt is a serious contender for the best vocalist in metal, able to switch between powerful and operatic, smooth and crooning, and that unbelievable fucking roar at the drop of a hat. Listen to Godhead’s Lament once for a full demonstration of his range.) They don’t sound like they’re recording in a cave or an abattoir or wherever anymore; My Arms, Your Hearse and Still Life are (ironically) music to fill out cathedrals to…at least, when they’re not invoking that particular chill you get on a winter’s night when it’s freezing and raining and you’re knee-deep in snow and the wind is going right through you.

Blackwater Park follows naturally from their previous two albums: the production (courtesy Steven Wilson) is cleaner and is better suited for Opeth’s more theatrical tendencies, but there’s not much here that’s a radical departure from what they were doing previously, or that would challenge their audience at first listen. If you liked Still Life, you’ll like Blackwater Park, because it’s is basically Still Life, but better. No wonder people think this is Opeth’s magnum opus: this is the band at their most refined, but before they spent the rest of their classic period picking their sound apart. It’s a great record, indeed one of the best of Opeth’s career, but there’s little in the way of advancement here. This album may have launched the band’s imperial phase, but when it comes to the evolution of your sound, that alone does not a landmark record make.

(Here’s as good a place to talk about this as any: Wilson gives it the ole college try in front of the microphone on Bleak, but set next to Åkerfeldt’s sheer virtuosity it feels like he’s out of his depth more than anything else. He does better when he’s in the background, harmonizing.)

That said, although Blackwater Park actually isn’t a landmark album in Opeth’s discography, it is a landmark album in Steven Wilson’s discography. To wit: we’ve talked a bit before about the idea that the universe is a hyperboloid, centering around an event so thickly knotted with conclusions and implications that divides a particular chunk of history into distinct “before” and “after” phases. Reductive, yes, but all narratives are reductive.

Steven Wilson’s musical career has several potential hyperbolodial moments. The obvious one is in 1987. Like rock music in general, there’s no one date where Porcupine Tree began. Instead, it just sort of grew throughout Wilson’s teenage years into something we would vaguely recognize as Porcupine Tree. 1987, though, was a milestone year in Wilson’s musical history, as that was the year Radioactive Toy was written, and represents the point at which all the individual elements recognizable as “Porcupine Tree” definitively came together.

Another one comes around 2010. This one’s attractive because the period between The Incident and Grace for Drowning coincides not just with a shift in Wilson’s musical priorities (Porcupine Tree → solo career) but also a transition between two eras (Metal Era → Jazz Era) and the start of Wilson’s remix work. Still another occurs in the early 90s, the one alluded to in Kneel and Disconnect, the point at which Wilson felt comfortable giving up his day job and committing himself to music full-time.

Finally, there’s the one related to this album, which occurs around 2000 and whose implications we’ll explore in more detail as we move through 2001 and 2002. Points in its favor: it coincides neatly with the millennium, and the point where No-Man’s change in sound was fully realized. This was also the year Aviv Geffen invited Porcupine Tree to perform in Israel, an event that leads neatly into the creation of Blackfield. And finally, this was the year where Steven Wilson and Mikael Åkerfeldt met for dinner in Camden Town and struck up a close and long-running musical partnership.

One era trips over into another when the new sound is fully realized, and for the Metal Era that’s Fear of a Blank Planet. Although in retrospect there was always a Metal Era growing within the Alternative Era—the solo in Slave Called Shiver comes immediately to mind—Wilson’s production of Blackwater Park was the point at which those inclinations were given full airtime and it became clear that’s where they were going. By the time Wilson met Åkerfeldt, he’d already been following extreme metal for some time—bands like Meshuggah and Katatonia and Mastodon and (yes) Opeth—as they were a natural synthesis of the more mainstream metal he listened to as a teenager and his more varied tastes now. They were what sounded interesting. (And, not coincidentally, hitching himself to the metal wagon seemed like an easier gateway to stardom than through recording pop music.) In addition, the story goes, Opeth were already fans of Porcupine Tree, and so Åkerfeldt slipped Wilson a copy of Still Life through a French journalist. Wilson loved it, they got in touch, and finally met in Camden Town, whereupon the next fifteen years of Wilson’s life suddenly unfurled before him with blinding, radiant clarity.

For Opeth, though, it was Tuesday.

GUEST: Arlo Bigazzi, Claudio Chianura, & Lance Henson – The Wolf and the Moon – Drop 6

4 March 2000

We typically don’t talk about Various Artists compilations in this space largely because so (a) so few of them are available, and (b) they rarely feature any songs that can’t be found elsewhere. With No-Man, though, there are a couple of unique edits and remixes sprinkled across several compilations. There was, for example, a Donovan tribute album released in 1992 that featured a No-Man cover of Turquoise. The next year, there was a One Little Indian compilation featuring a demo of Taking It Like A Man. The Mix magazine released a compilation in 1994 featuring an alternate mix of Simple. And so on, and so on. Besides the ostensible subject of this post, the other interesting compilation here is 1999’s The Sky Goes All The Way Home, released as part of a fundraiser for Down’s Syndrome, which I mostly mention here because I did a double take upon noticing that one of the artists featured here is, in fact, the same Troy Donockley who’d go on to play Uilleann pipes for Nightwish. Funny how worlds collide. No-Man contributed a reconstructed version of Close Your Eyes.

Now, then. The source material for this compilation is a collaboration between Arlo Bigazzi, Claudio Chianura, and Lance Henson called Another Train Ride. Lance Henson is an interesting character, a Cheyenne poet from Oklahoma who typically uses naturalistic and traditional Native imagery to draw attention to the struggles facing indigenous and oppressed peoples around the world. Many of his works are sparse and freeform, with a McCarthy-esque aversion to capitals and punctuation. Although Henson’s delivery on this album is practiced, measured, and contemplative, low-key to the point of sounding like a text-to-speech program, there remains through the words themselves the potent mix of compassion, empathy, and fury that animates him to write these things in the first place.

Meanwhile, as is common for spoken word, Bigazzi and Chianura’s instrumentation are ambient, mostly-electronic pieces that keep a respectful distance from Henson’s words, attempting primarily to accentuate his points. In this they are partially successful. The music chosen for Revolutionary Song, for instance, gestures toward a pastoral melancholy, but is ultimately just a bit too upbeat and bubbly for what is honestly a rather sad poem. Some more successful examples, perhaps. Another Border, which sounds like Muslimgauze if Bryn Jones was actually Palestinian. The Abandoned Piano, in which an actual piano chimes in to offer a flicker of light and warmth in amongst the desolation. And, of course, The Raven Poems, in which the music is defined primarily by its absence, communicating less a wasteland and more the absence of a land to waste, a no thing, a surreal all-consuming almost Ligotti-esque hellscape where the few scraps of the material universe that remain suspended in the astral void are at once dead and poisoned.

Thus do we arrive at The Wolf and The Moon – Drop 6, a collection of remixes and reconstructions featuring names big and small. Roger Eno contributed to My Heart is Traveling, the English version of Na Shi Ne. Richard Barbieri contributed to a remix of Revolutionary Song. And No-Man contributed a reconstruction of The Raven Poems.

This reconstruction retains little of the all-consuming minimalism that permeated the original track, instead opting for something more trancelike, vaguely evocative of the One Little Indian days. There’s a flute that comes in toward the end, performing a swirling, soaring melody as Henson repeats “bird shadow, wolf, and moon” over a muffling effect.

Many of the other songs are similar to this one, with the backing tracks reworked so they were faster and punchier, sounding like a goulash of trip hop, drum-n-bass, what a 90s computer game would think is a new jack swing, and, in one case, plunderphonics. But that’s part of the problem with this album: the backing tracks feel like they’re trying to upstage the words…and that’s easier to do when the words themselves have been cut up and distorted and filtered, and in some cases removed entirely. The poetry becomes just another instrument, and any meaning is subsumed into an aesthetic. Henson is apparently happy enough with the album that it’s featured on his website, but treating the words in this way still feels, er, troubling. It’s well-made, yes, but the fact remains that this is a record that probably should not exist.