GUEST: Marillion – marillion.com

18 October 1999

“He’s got such a nice arse.” —Steve Hogarth, on Wilson

SEASONS END: H sounds like D Gilmour with a mullet (or perhaps an 80s soft-rock crooner a la Bryan Adams or the guy from Foreigner). King of Sunset Town has shades of late Police. Transitional record – written before Fish left. Hooks in You sucks like Incommunicado. This Space is properly bombastic.

So. Marillion. Again. There are essentially two Marillions, but not in the same sense that there were, say, two Queensrÿches, existing simultaneously while both bands were suing each other. The first Marillion ran from 1979 to 1988 and was fronted by everyone’s favorite giant Scotsman, Derek Dick. They had a nice run of four albums as pretty much one of the few good prog bands in the 80s before dissolving acrimoniously in a haze of alcohol and swollen egos. The second Marillion was formed in 1989 and remains active today. This band retained the instrumentalists from the first go-round, but their new frontman is Steve Hogarth, who spent much of the 80s playing in smaller pop and new wave bands. (Which is a long way of saying, hope you don’t think Fish’s delivery and lyricism was essential going forward.)

In the ten years since, they released seven albums, including the one which this post is ostensibly about, and saw a steady decline in their fortunes. Each record was less popular than the last. They were dropped from their label. They had to rely on crowdfunding to support a US tour (more on that later, as well). To be fair, they were (and are) doing okay enough that they won’t have to flip burgers to make ends meet, but they won’t be sharing stadium stages with Phil Collins anytime soon, either. Either way, though, Marillion clearly ended the decade at a considerably more modest place than where they started.

HOLIDAYS IN EDEN: Nice wall of sound in Cover My Eyes. Still cheesy, but cheesy in a way better suited to Hogarth’s singing style. (Usually. Still has places where it sounds like Fish.) Many of the songs fade out in a way evocative of a freeze-frame ending. When they try to do dad-tier hard rock it’s embarrassing. Ethereal ending of 100 Nights is amazing.

It’s 18 October 1999. Tom Ewing’s Popular tells me Christina Aguilera is at #1 with Genie in a Bottle. She’s mostly interesting at this point in terms of her rivalry with Britney, and that, in turn, is mostly interesting as an echo of the manufactured shenanigans that went down several years earlier, one of the central events in the history of the collapsed empire we will shortly be surveying.

When Andrew Hickey began his history of rock music in 500 songs, he explicitly defined a cutoff point of 1999. Which makes sense; by this time rock had well and truly ceded the superstardom floor to boy bands and, yes, pop singers like Britney and Christina. There were trends in rock that gained serious popularity after that—the mid-2000s pop punk/emo explosion spearheaded by Fall Out Boy and Panic at the Disco comes immediately to mind—but nothing on the same world-conquering tier as what came round the previous decade.

(I just eyeballed Billboard’s rock charts as I’m writing this, and the top rock song right now is Panic running on fumes, followed by Imagine Dragons running on fumes (which is saying something), and that excruciating lovelytheband song which would be running on fumes if it had fumes to run on. I think that speaks for itself.)

The point is this: despite the occasional bump later on, by the turn of the millennium rock music was in terminal decline. And, in many ways, that decline was echoed and prefigured by Marillion’s own decline in mainstream relevance a decade earlier.

BRAVE: What are the details of this narrative? Use of female perspective–contrast with HCE? Something about the Severn Bridge, and all bridges, as a space between worlds. Last track implies manic pixie dream girl.

Just like how there’s no one place where mainstream rock was well and truly born, there was no one place where mainstream rock well and truly died, either. My own pick for that date is 2013, the year we got the sickening one-two-three punch of George Ezra’s Budapest (laying waste to the stripped-back acoustic balladeers), American Authors’ Best Day of my Life (laying waste to the lo-fi punks and indie kids, think the Strokes or Franz Ferdinand in the previous decade, and the mountain of influential artists they sit on top of), and Bastille’s Pompeii (laying waste to the pretentious, bombastic, high-concept theatrical stuff). But I’m defining the date rock died as the date rock was finished off as a genre with mainstream relevance, and by that point it was on life support for a long time. We’ll have to go farther back.

It’s 1999. Right now the Billboard alternative charts are a post-grunge lovefest, a dalliance between Creed’s Higher (yuck) and Bush’s The Chemicals Between Us (slightly less yuck). Post-grunge itself was, as the name implies, the sanitized remnants of grunge, the long hangover following the death of its avatar in 1994, limping along well into the aughts. Though it’s extremely tempting to paint post-grunge as the death knell of rock (and oh Lord it is, this was the genre that gave us Nickelback), the reality is that 1999 was only the lull between the fall of dweeby alt-rock like Barenaked Ladies and Semisonic and the rise of sweaty, brotastic nu-metal like Limp Bizkit and Papa Roach. Post-grunge was just one in a long string of phases the genre went through as it was thrashing around in denial of its own imminent irrelevance. We’re not done yet.

Rock music has always had the seeds of its own demise baked into it. All genres do. There is a legitimate case to be made that rock music died the instant Elvis released Heartbreak Hotel or when the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. But we’re not looking for the moment when rock’s trajectory from birth to death became clear, we’re looking for the moment when the genre’s fate was sealed and it was only a matter of time. And happily, we only have to go back two more years before we stumble upon the corpse of a dead goddess.

AFRAID OF SUNLIGHT: Ironic that the album that’s about celebrity is the one that saw them dropped from EMI. H’s voice works best as a sort of gothic wailing in the background (e.g. Out of this World). More definitively H-ian lyrics at this point; no longer imitation Fish. Back half has best stuff they made to that point.

We’ve spent entirely too much time focusing on the destructive effects of magic as opposed to the creative effects, but that’s just the way our tale has gone thus far. Stupid Dream, for instance, was that particular variant of magical ritual where all the pieces are patiently and meticulously assembled in the background, and the act of magic itself that brings everything together occurs in an instant. Meanwhile, the Space Era was self-destructing over the course of several albums, so guess which act got more airtime on this old blog. This trend, unfortunately, will continue with this post.

Unrelatedly, if we take seriously the idea that music is magic, then we must also take seriously the idea that magic can occasionally happen accidentally, or can quickly and easily spiral out of the control of its practitioners. Which brings us to Britpop.

Britpop was, in retrospect, a short-lived burst of manufactured music-magazine hype that catapulted a couple of bands to stratospheric levels of fame and, in the process, revealed its own hollowness as a label. The music itself was a goulash of previous trends—psychedelia, shoegaze, and Madchester, most prominently—but which sensibilities predominated and by how much fluctuated so wildly from band to band that the term “Britpop” could reasonably describe any relatively accessible rock group active in the UK in the mid-90s. If Porcupine Tree’s Alternative Era began just a few years earlier, I have no doubt that they, too, could have been Britpop.

This was meant to be a celebration of proper British rock-and-roll, an effort to return fair Albion’s guitar-wielding king to his rightful throne atop the charts once more, an exercise, ultimately, in superficial image. But in the process, though, it elevated a bunch of genuinely interesting bands to the national spotlight. Blur and Suede, for instance, the latter of which the hype machine famously plastered on the cover of Melody Maker before they’d even released an album, functioned as the scene’s twin creator gods with Popscene and The Drowners, and thus created a toehold for other interesting bands and hangers-on to gain a following. And it was good for a while. Despite Britpop’s origins as cynical nationalist marketing, the culture is genuinely richer for having stuff like Dog Man Star and His ‘n’ Hers and Modern Life is Rubbish in it.

And then Oasis came along and ruined everything.

That is an oversimplification. Movements and scenes come and go. Bands evolve. Aesthetics evolve. Britpop is not unique in this. Cobbled together as it was from the detritus of earlier eras, this was always going to be mainstream rock’s last hurrah before fading into irrelevance, like a blowout farewell tour featuring all the hits. Britpop would have died anyway without the aid of the squabbling Gallagher brothers, and that death would have been just as psychically catastrophic. But they’re still here, and replaceable or no, they’re still the two-headed Antichrist for the movement as it exists.

Oasis were a vessel of completely unironic testosterone-soaked monosyllabic nostalgia. They possessed none of the Stepford saccharine melancholy of Blur, the sarcasm and sinister subtext of Pulp, or the camp theatricality of Suede. Their music was simple, direct, catchy, and very loud; the Gallaghers sheer forces of irreverent working-class Mancunian volatility; sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll personified. They were a straightforward, uncomplicated rock band, playing the songs that a straightforward, uncomplicated rock band should play. This doesn’t mean the Gallaghers and the people they surrounded themselves with were terrible musicians, but it does mean they knew how to play one thing, and they played that one thing extremely well. The problem is playing one thing extremely well can only get you so far, and while the first two Oasis albums loom large in the consciousness for good reason (mostly)…the third, not so much.

There were, of course, signs of rock music’s looming destruction before Be Here Now. The previous album was a major salvo in the loudness war, and was thus directly responsible for the universally terrible state of music mastering in the years to come, and ultimately, Steven Wilson’s “use your volume knob” rant. That the biggest band in the world, a band that deliberately modeled themselves on the Beatles, had no interest whatsoever in the musical experiments that marked their idols’ later career, while their rivals were getting tired of Britpop and used their new album to go in a different direction. That the biggest band in the world managed to so completely swallow the scene they grew out of that those out of the loop (like, say, Americans) saw Britpop as Oasis and maybe possibly those posh London boys they were always smacktalking. That the biggest band in the world was, perhaps, so big that if they failed they might take their whole scene down with them. But when you’re riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave, you tend to not notice when it starts to break.

And oh, if there ever was an example of magic getting away from the magician, it’s Be Here Now. This was supposed to be a bombastic, celebratory victory lap for the biggest band in the world. If it came from anyone else, we’d have just had a subpar, unremarkable record cockily coasting on its artists’ legacy, but since it’s ~Oasis,~ its release caused Britpop to implode (though it wasn’t clear at the time) and rock music to slowly deflate into irrelevance. This was a bloated, sagging, cocaine-drenched ode to everything wrong with the genre. If Be Here Now was a ritual deliberately crafted to destroy rock music, it would have been perfect.

And the carnage was total: in addition to being the album that beheaded mainstream rock music, this album was also one of the greatest critical misfires in music journalism history: the press fell over themselves showering Be Here Now with rapturous praise. Jeremy Deller was just about spot-on when he described Oasis as ruining British music journalism: thanks to a combination of Britpop’s and Oasis’ sheer momentum, fractured egos after missing (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, and some strong-arming from the band and their management, the hyperbolic, adulatory reviews of Be Here Now were written long before anyone in the press heard a single note of the actual music. “All of rock history has been leading up to this point,” they said, and therein lies the problem. NME and Select and Q and all the rest had built themselves a narrative. And narratives, in this business, are an extremely dangerous thing to construct in the moment, because there’s always a chance you might whiff, and whiff big.

THIS STRANGE ENGINE: Opener is great. H’s voice: if Tim Bowness (or Ben Gibbard) was power metal. The trouble with quick pilgrimages like this: quick glance at album = tough to unearth what might be gained through repeat listens. Old-school blast at the end, there.

As this blog is one long exercise in constructing narratives, I have quite a few whiffs of my own to pull from, but let’s pick one that’s particularly relevant. In October of last year, after three months of gestation, I published a post on Fish’s Sunset on Empire, released the year Oasis killed rock music. That was the first non-ex-Japan Steven Wilson guest contribution album to get its own post, and my policy when encountering one of those is to survey the entire careers of the host artist so I know what they’re about and can be at least somewhat informed when I write about them. The problem was, up until I hit Sunsets on Empire I was writing the post in real time, pretty much as I was listening to the records, and so what went in the post for that album were mostly initial thoughts, which may or may not have held up across multiple listens. And when they didn’t, you can see the graft tissue where the rewrites happened. (In earlier drafts, I didn’t say Script for a Jester’s Tear sucked until I started talking about Fugazi.)

Nowhere is that more clear than the point to where I got to the album, where I spend a not inconsiderable amount of time building up to Sunsets on Empire as a landmark record in Fish’s career, as befitting The One Wot Steve Worked On…and it turns out I was one album off and instead got the one with the racial slur three words in. You can hear the record needle scratch and the furious on-the-fly attempt to course-correct and salvage what was already written. Part of the narrative of this blog has become learning how to write the blog, and while the mistakes are embarrassing they’re still an intermediate step towards something better.

The point is the nature of how I do the blog has been, and to an extent still is, fundamentally antagonistic to what needs to be done to write about an unfamiliar act like Marillion informatively. And Marillion is especially challenging because their discography is so extensive and their post-Fish evolution (up to this point) so rocky. The subheadings before each section of this post are my initial notes as I tried to find a signal in the noise and don’t necessarily reflect my current thoughts as I sit here writing the rest of it.

So we’re back to where we started. What have Marillion been up to in the ten years since acquiring their new vocalist?

RADIATION: More experimental. What is with the mixing (esp. Under the Sun)? What’s the DR? Rights itself somewhat at the end (A Few Words for the Dead). There’s a good album here struggling to get out.

About what you’d expect, all told. Their musical trajectory in the 90s was in broad strokes similar to Fish’s, with dissolution and reconstitution phases as they figure out where to go from here. The first two Hogarth albums, Seasons End and Holidays in Eden, feature quite a few traces of their earlier sound…on the positive side, we have Hogarth negotiating some rather Fish-esque lyrics, and on the negative side, we have quite a few songs right up there with Incommunicado in terms of how they’re held together with spit and twine and sheer force of will.

Later on there’s Afraid of Sunlight and This Strange Engine, firmly post-Fish and thus within Marillion’s reconstitution phase. Would that they didn’t also precipitate the band’s fallow period. Afraid of Sunlight has a very good second half, but the album’s theme of how awful it is to be rich and famous rock stars is rather embarrassing coming from a band who was long past its peak in popularity and was about to be dropped from their label. That goes double when in the last track Hogarth, who wasn’t there when Marillion was at its zenith, earnestly pleads that we unknown people who long for fame can handle its associated pressures and anxieties, as though he and his band are still on top of the world. This Strange Engine, meanwhile, has an excellent, ambitious first track, but after that spends the rest of its runtime attempting to recapture the magic of Man of a Thousand Faces with mixed results. This album hits rock bottom with An Accidental Man and Hope for the Future. The former is Hogarth whining that because he’s male he can’t be in touch with his emotions, which could have been reworked into an interesting take on masculinity if we trusted him to know anything about feminism in 1997; while the latter is the distaff counterpart to Fish’s Emperor’s Song, an exercise in children’s-show bounciness treading perilously close to saccharine We-Are-the-World charity single territory. It’s really a shame the album ends like this, because everything up till then is at least decent (and Estonia is genuinely moving). Also, the less said about Radiation the better.

In the middle of all this, though, is 1994’s Brave, which was the first true post-Fish album and the moment at which it becomes abundantly clear why Marillion slowly declined in popularity through the decade. It’s nothing to do with the album itself, an almost Floydian epic about alienation, isolation, depression, and insanity that in a lot of ways prefigures Fear of a Blank Planet and is generally regarded as the band’s return to form after spending the previous two albums flailing. It’s actually quite good. But let’s be real here; while a lot of bands were writing stuff like that at the time (cough-Parklife-cough), they didn’t couch those themes in the tragic tale of a young amnesiac girl who was found wandering the bridge where Richey James Edwards would ascend to godhood exactly one year after their album’s release.

Contrast with Misplaced Childhood and Kayleigh. This was a very accessible prog album with a few theatrical stadium anthems, released in a year when vaguely prog-inflected stadium anthems were A Thing, especially when sung by people who sounded quite, er, Fishy. The year after Misplaced Childhood would see the release of both So and Invisible Touch, so if anything Marillion were the beneficiaries of a brief, happy moment where the music they made converged with the tastes of the record-buying public. Thus, Fish onstage with Phil Collins.

Problem is, when you get lucky in that particular way, that level of fame is unsustainable, because the music you make after that brief collision will slowly fall out of sync with what’s popular. So of course Afraid of Sunlight and This Strange Engine didn’t do as well; the former was released right before the Battle of Britpop and the latter was released after Oasis swallowed mainstream rock whole and remade it in their own image. (And Radiation, meanwhile, was unequivocally a stinker, although a lot of that could be chalked up to lousy mixing. That said, even the 2013 remaster struggles to distinguish itself from the albums on either side of it.) Even if those two albums were as good as Brave, it still wouldn’t have arrested their decline.

M A R I L L I O N . C O M

And now we arrive back at 18 October 1999. Tom Ewing’s Popular tells me Christina Aguilera is at #1 with Genie in a Bottle, duking it out with Britney in a distant ripple of the Oasis-Blur rivalry. Topping the Rock Singles chart is Def Leppard with Goodbye, a long holdover from the hair metal days. Marillion are four years gone from being dropped by EMI, are on their third self-released album via a distributor that by all accounts aren’t doing them right, and are stuck with a label that couldn’t cough up the money for a North America tour. They still manage to release an album, about half of which Steven Wilson co-produces. This record barely grazes the charts and doesn’t even come close to reaching the UK Top 40.

I don’t often comment on the stuff on the album that’s not the actual music, but…just look at that album art. A long-exposure photograph of a girl holding a computer in the middle of a busy city intersection at twilight. The exact adjective I used upon encountering the album art for the first time was “Oasis-ass.” And that title, too. From the perspective of twenty years later, having a title like that feels like the musical equivalent of stodgy old Peter Mannion protesting that he’s “modern.” So I’m already of a mind to think of this thing in terms of “is this Britpop?”

So, is it? Not really. The music in general owes more to Radiation and This Strange Engine and Marillion’s evolution as a band than any trends that were in the air at the time. That said, like Alternative-Era Porcupine Tree, if they wrote something like Rich or Built-in Bastard Radar or Tumble Down the Years five years earlier, and released it as a single, there’s a nonzero chance that lightning would have struck twice and the press would have had a few words to spare for the band’s “reinvention” and sudden swing back to hipness.

Instead, we get an album generally regarded as one of Marillion’s weaker efforts. I question this stance somewhat. marillion.com doesn’t have the conceptual sweep of Brave, or even the more modest thematic ambitions of Afraid of Sunlight, but neither does it have the stumbling of their first two Hogarth albums or the truly atrocious production of Radiation. From the perspective of 1999, this is mid-tier Marillion more than anything else, about what you’d expect when a progressive rock band makes an album full of songs with more of a modern pop sensibility. These are, at root, good pop songs with a slight progressive sheen on them, and from that perspective it makes sense why this album would have a cool reception amongst the more prog-oriented faithful.

But then we get to the final two tracks. The last song on the album, House, is a stab at trip hop that sounds less like straight trip hop and more like very minimalist trip hop-inflected jazz, and the only song on marillion.com that explicitly nods to any current trends (the previous year saw the release of Massive Attack’s Mezzanine and Portishead’s Roseland NYC Live). The trumpet and the echoing pianos in particular are quite chill and lovely, the whole song a rather unprecedented stab at pure atmosphere. It’s probably my favorite on the album.

The other song is Interior Lulu, which is your typical Long Marillion Song/Suite, and would be otherwise uninteresting for our purposes but for one line. Toward the end there’s a line that goes “thank God for the internet,” with a particular ironic/skeptical inflection. But those five words were an incantation if there ever was one.

Back again we go to 1997 and the North America tour that might not happen. Enter Jeff Pelletier, a Massachusetts optical engineer, who organized a fundraising drive on Marillion’s message boards (on which keyboardist Mark Kelly was a regular) to bring the band across the pond when their US label couldn’t. The goal was $30,000. They made almost twice that.

Clearly, then, despite Interior Lulu’s blather about how technology turns people into alienated zombies, this was a band that was very well aware of the positive potential of the internet (exhibit B: that they even had message boards in 1997). This successful experiment in crowdfunding before it was crowdfunding must have been rolling around in their heads after they fulfilled their contract with their distributor and once again found themselves adrift.

So when the time came to make a new record, the band went to their fans once again and asked who’d preorder an unrecorded album, and fortunately, quite a lot of them did. Another crowdfunding campaign started, and the money it raised got the album recorded, and brought them back into EMI’s good books. Although the result, Anoraknophobia, is clearly inferior to its predecessor and shows the limits of their sound more than it moves anything forward, it still was a landmark in its own way, in that it gave the heretofore financially floundering band a way to exist in the new century. Marillion would go on to crowdfund the majority of their albums in the following years. Thank God for the internet, indeed.

Advertisements

Bass Communion – Bass Communion V Muslimgauze

September 1999
Bass Communion V Muslimgauze EP, July 2000

Hooboy.

Bryn “Muslimgauze” Jones is one of those guys who probably should have a song-by-song retrospective written about his work, ideally by some underground music nerd who’s written a dissertation on recent Middle Eastern history. Over the course of his twenty-year career he’d release well over a hundred studio albums, mostly atmospheric loop-based electronic pieces (swinging between ambient and dub and noise and everywhere in between) with vocal samples and traditional Middle Eastern instruments thrown in, all laser-focused on conflict in the Muslim world. The music of Muslimgauze, and the way it interacts with the person who created it, is full of apparent contradictions, and is worth engaging with because of them.

Let us, then, engage. Famously, Jones himself was a nonreligious white guy from Manchester who never visited the Mideast on the grounds that it was (and is) occupied territory. His impetus for starting the project was the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and over the next seventeen years he’d develop an encyclopedic knowledge of Middle Eastern politics and history, but his perspective on that history never progressed beyond “aggressively woke Tumblr teenager.” Even more bizarrely, outside of his strident opposition to Western imperialism and adventurism in the Mideast, his politics were apparently wildly incoherent, to the point where the creator of an album titled Fuck Israel happened to also be, of all things, a Thatcher supporter.

This is actually perfectly ideologically consistent. The mistake here is assuming that an anti-imperialist position is exclusively leftist when it’s not hard to come up with counterexamples. (To pick one immediately to hand, Khomeini. He may have called the US the Great Satan but that doesn’t mean his post-revolution goal was a secular, moneyless, propertyless utopia.) This myopia can be partially explained through Jones’ nationality: he lived in a country whose late empire remains lamented amongst its right wing. Meanwhile, in a country that was the victim of empire, it’s not hard for a conservative nationalist anti-imperialism to develop, perhaps centering around an idealized vision of how the land was before the Westerners started marching in with their tanks and their decadence and their arbitrarily drawn lines.

(Tangent 1: So it’s clear that leftist and rightist anti-imperialisms can bleed into each other pretty easily. Going back to Iran, for instance, both socialists and theocrats had a hand in toppling the Shah in 1979. That said, it’s probably best to leave the question of how to deal with the uncomfortable ways left and right intersect here to those actually on the ground.)

(Tangent 2: And that, by the way, is how Ostalgie-riddled ex-Communist East Germany fell hard for the AfD.)

(Tangent 3: That for all his militancy Jones was apparently very awkward and introverted in real life should also not be surprising, as anyone who actually knows militant Internet people can testify.)

It is this sort of conservative anti-imperialism that the music of Muslimgauze easily lends itself to. Many of the album and song titles—when they’re not referencing a specific person or event or blasting a nation complicit in the systematic oppression of Muslim people—reference a traditional aspect of Islamic society and culture. The field recordings and use of traditional instruments paint a picture of a traditional society that has had modernity—in the form of oil-thirsty empire—imposed on it from outside and which is suffering for it.

(Tangent 4: The most immediate critique—the West ≠ modernity—is obvious and essential. This conflation we can probably chalk up to the way Britain thought of its empire as a civilizing force instead of the destructive force it actually was.)

If we’re being unkind, we might even call this a fetishization of Middle Eastern culture, and speculate that Jones’ refusal to actually visit the Mideast might also have been subconsciously fueled by a desire to not have this very intricate idea of the Muslim world, silted into existence over years and years of research and music production, collapse in on itself after coming into contact with reality. That’s a fair critique. It certainly reads that way to someone like me whose mental image of the Mideast is less Hebron and more Dubai. Either way, though, there’s extremely little in the way of any broader anti-capitalist sentiment here.

Nevertheless, the field recordings are evocative, the dronework unsettling, the electronics abrasive and challenging. The questionable politics are there, yes, but they’re questionable in very specific and idiosyncratic ways that demand polysyllabic engagement. This remains, fundamentally, very well-made music.

(Tangent 5: Besides, if I only listened to music that aligned with my specific politics I’d only listen to anarchist crust punk recorded in squats, and that’s no way to go through life.)

(Tangent 6: And no, I have no idea how you’d make an explicitly leftist counterpoint to Muslimgauze. Perhaps ask someone who’s actually from the Mideast.)

Steven Wilson has a longstanding policy of not caring about an artist’s politics, so long as the music is good. (Not unrelatedly, Steven Wilson is a cisgender white man.) And this music is extremely good, and more importantly, extremely good in an off-kilter left-field way that’s right up his alley. So, when Wilson discovered Bryn Jones and his considerable discography, he wrote to him, they met, and he gave Jones some of his own music, which Jones then heavily edited to fit his own style and sent back.

The two of them would fling remixes and remixes of remixes back and forth until an album emerged. The result is something that would be a lighter Muslimgauze offering if it didn’t sound like Muslimgauze run [further] through the William S. Burroughs cut-up method. There’s not much in the way of Jones’ usual trademarks, like the vocal samples or the percussion, but there’s a lot of distortion and artistic brickwalling. It’s like if someone dunked the Muslimgauze machine in water and then let it rip. As for Bass Communion, their (“their”) more pronounced contributions generally show up toward the back, with Moonloop leftovers showing up in Four and Six, and their penchant for slow, incremental change (not, critically, a Muslimgauze staple) appearing in Five.

In general, though, this collaboration still feels like a watering down of each artists’ respective strengths. As I write this I still find myself drawn to the punchier stuff Jones released solo instead of what this collaboration produced. Bass Communion fares slightly better, but that may have more to do with the way their identity is less subsumed into the collective muck than anything. In that respect, this EP feels somewhat unbalanced, and one would expect a months-long remix and re-remix effort to eventually produce something that both retained each artist’s individual identity and molded them together into something distinctive. That didn’t quite happen.

It’s probably inaccurate to say it’s a “missed opportunity.” That would imply there’s some ideal way for a Bass Communion/Muslimgauze collaboration to sound, and given the two projects approach ambient and experimental music from perpendicular directions (loosely: BC plays up the alien-ness of its soundscapes, whereas Muslimgauze is firmly rooted in the real world), if there is one, this is probably it. But it doesn’t really matter, because the two artists wouldn’t have the chance to collaborate again. Bryn Jones died of a rare blood disease in 1999, leaving behind a Tupac-sized mountain of unreleased work that took over fifteen years to fully sift through. (Fortunately, it’s all on Spotify. My personal recommendation is to start with Gun Aramaic and work your way outwards from there.) Wilson, meanwhile, would go on to collaborate with multiple Israeli artists (one of whom is related to Moshe Dayan), have a second home in Tel Aviv, and describe other musicians’ support of BDS as performative ego-stroking. Go figure.

GUEST: Fish – Raingods with Zippos

19 April 1999

Fellini Days

The concept of the “imperial phase” is generally not useful for outlining the general trends of an artist’s discography. It’s too limited; by invoking the concept you’re fitting everything the artist has ever done into exactly three periods: the period during which they achieved the greatest critical and commercial acclaim, and the period on either side. Bowie, for instance. His imperial phase lasted roughly from Space Oddity to about Dancing in the Street. Staking out those singles as both sides of a distinct era says very little about what he was doing with either song, and the way he’d evolved as an artist during that period. Steven Wilson’s imperial phase, meanwhile, begins with In Absentia and ends with The Incident, and that point in his career says more about what people expect from him than what he himself was actually up to. This taxonomy is fundamentally more about people’s reactions to the music than about the music itself. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try for a quick salvage job.

The imperial phase is generally something built up to and expanded outward from. You can, in retrospect, tell that the man responsible for The Laughing Gnome would eventually go on to write Space Oddity. Likewise, it’s also clear that the man who unleashed Linton Samuel Dawson upon the world would grow and evolve to the point where he’d also give us Blackest Eyes. Those two songs definitely existed in their respective artists’ ideaspaces when they were just starting out, albeit formless and void, low on the horizon. They just needed to be whacked into shape, a process largely facilitated not by conscious thought but through the particular ways in which their careers would take shape over the years, through their influences and life experiences.

The post-imperial phase, meanwhile, can go one of two ways: the sound can either ossify or diversify. Sellout-era Genesis and Phil Collins’ solo career together represent a notorious example of the former. Bowie was fortunate enough to have the latter; his post-imperial discography includes gems such as I’m Afraid of Americans, his collaborations with Placebo and Arcade Fire, and, of course, the Thomas Ligotti fever dream that is Blackstar. A diversified artist’s post-imperial work may not be as consistently good as their imperial work, but it is often just as interesting, if not more so.

(This is related, though distinct, to the universe-is-a-hyperboloid concept tossed around earlier, as a good candidate for a musician’s inflection point is the moment their imperial phase ends. The subject of this post, for example, has one sometime in October 1988.)

Field of Crows

Fish, then. His imperial phase consists of his last two albums with Marillion, the ones that gave us Kayleigh and The Last Straw and multiple UK Top 40 singles and the associated megastardom. His post-imperial phase consists of his entire solo career. Everything he produced from when he left Marillion up to this album could be adequately described as Fish Figuring Out Himself, expelling everything he couldn’t do with Marillion, trying on different styles, and finally stripping himself back to rediscover what made him a great musician in the first place. The results are uneven, but Fish’s evolution as a solo artist is clear and we still got some excellent songs out of it.

Hence, Raingods With Zippos, the best album of Fish’s solo career. In some ways it’s a counterpoint to Stupid Dream. Where Stupid Dream starts out strong and begins to flounder about halfway through, Raingods starts out rocky (Tumbledown is one of those songs that has a spectacular intro—in this case a beautiful piano piece—but when it actually kicks in it’s such a step down that you feel you’re the victim of a bait-and-switch; fortunately the piano returns at the end of Rites of Passage) but two or three songs in it finds its footing and we get, all in a row, the low thrum of Incomplete, the folk-inflected masochism tango of Tilted Cross, and the demented, off-kilter Faith Healer and its twitchy violin solo.

Which brings us to the Plague of Ghosts suite. Out of everything here, it’s probably the most…forward-thinking, as it took all the electronic experiments from his previous albums and brought them to their natural conclusion. The point of progressive music is to progress, and here’s Fish taking his music in a direction that might not be traditionally progressive, and may have 1999 written all over it, but here he does something interesting with it. Here’s 90s No-Man-inflected trip-hop in Digging Deep, burbling ambience in Chocolate Frogs, and a transition to a frenetic drum-n-bass beat in Waving at Stars, a bridge between the psychedelia-soaked origins of electronic music and its present. It’s only with the piano-driven Raingods Dancing and Wake-Up Call that we’re brought back to more familiar territory. This is Fish showing off the new stuff he’s learned in this vein over the past decade, and it’s great. It’s science fair presentations like this that are the bread and butter of a proper post-imperial phase.

Wilson takes more of a step back with this one, this time playing guitar on about half the album. With the exception of the more funky touches he brings to Digging Deep, much of his guitar work makes the suite feel like Fish’s own interpretation of The Sky Moves Sideways, Phase I. It’s a nice effect, giving the Plague of Ghosts suite a solid psychedelic foundation for Fish to play around with.

Postscript: yes, that Rick Astley co-wrote Mission Statement.

13th Star

Going forward, well, most of Fish’s direct collaborations with Wilson this century involve bear hugs in bars and that’s about it. Nevertheless, Fish’s and Wilson’s stories would intersect two more times.

Sometime between Lightbulb Sun and In Absentia, as Wilson was winding down I.E.M., Fish would release Fellini Days. This was a darker and less baroque record than its predecessor, with Fish himself depending more on his lower register, continually straying further from the superficial light poppiness that early critics had saddled him with. The track from this album that sticks in my head the most is The Pilgrim’s Address, in which Fish positions himself as a not-entirely-naive war veteran faux-innocently making a mockery of his commander-in-chief by turning his own empty patriotism and hollow invocation of American Values back on him. He knows the wars he fought were in the service of unchecked greed and imperialist aggression more than anything else, but what he wants is a public acknowledgement that Mister President realizes this on some level as well.

Here’s why this song works: whenever Wilson plays a character in a song it’s always at somewhat of a remove, like he’s more interested in psychoanalyzing than acting. This is fine for what he’s setting out to do, for the record, as most of his characters are rather repulsive people; a rogue’s gallery of terrorists, serial killers, cult leaders, shut-ins, and various other creeps and weirdos. Fish’s characters, meanwhile, are generally innocent people who’ve fallen victim to circumstance in some fashion, whether it be something as small as a breakup or as large as a war. We’re invited to place ourselves in their shoes and sympathize with them, and the effect is palpable. The Pilgrim’s Address is the rawest song on Fellini Days, and upon realizing precisely how much power he’s tapped in to with this particular lyricism, Fish would eventually start doing the same trick at least once an album. Where in the World off 13th Star, the central suite of A Feast of Consequences, and Waverley Steps off Weltschmerz are especially gut-punching.

So how’s Wilson involved in all this? He isn’t. At least, not directly. However, as it happens, during this time Fish had cultivated a nice working relationship with a gentleman who’d opened for him on several world tours, and who would co-write and play guitar on this album. This is, of course, Mr John Wesley, the same gentleman who’d soon become a touring member of and occasional studio presence with Porcupine Tree.

Wilson’s most recent intersection with Fish’s world comes through his remix of Misplaced Childhood in 2017, which, as it’s also the earliest album of his that he’s directly, materially interacted with, feels like the closing of a circle.

A Feast of Consequences

Fish is retiring from music. He’s hit sixty now, and he’s been having some health problems, and he’s been spending a lot of time tending to his garden, and besides he thinks of himself more as a writer who sings than a singer and it’s Just Time. The current plan is one last tour and one last album, and then he’s done for good. He’s released a preview EP, A Parley with Angels, and what’s there sounds like an evolution of what’s appeared on 13th Star and A Field of Consequences. I’m cautiously optimistic about how the finished product will sound, especially since during the recording process it’s apparently spiraled out of control and become a double album.

It’s not quite accurate to say that a double album is a tricky beast to pull off. An album is as long as it needs to be, after all. But creating a double album does present two unique and not unrelated challenges: the ability to make it cohere such that it doesn’t seem like a scattershot braindump with no quality control, and the ability to consistently hold the listener’s attention. From what I’ve heard, it sounds like the result will land anywhere from “particularly good late Derek Dick” to “bloated hot mess.” It’ll probably be a little of both. Fish wants this to be the defining record of his career, but “overstuffed” was never a mode he really operated in before now. This will be new and exciting for both artist and listener.

The current date to tie everything off is 2020. Once he retires, I imagine he may pop up for little one-off gigs here and there, but mostly he’ll be puttering away out at the greenhouse.

Weltschmerz

Honestly, though, I’m not sure a final album necessarily needs to be a Defining Statement. The chunks of Weltschmerz released on Parley with Angels doesn’t sound like a transcendently beautiful statement of purpose that sums up not just the musical career but in fact the very essence of the man called Derek Dick, but that’s okay. Neither was Blackstar or Tim Drum or Clutching at Straws. A final album only needs to be, in the words of Kieron Gillen, a full stop with ideas above its station.

Besides, Fish’s already written his magnum opus. Much of the front half of Raingods with Zippos sounds like something from Fish’s earlier solo career, while the back half—from about Faith Healer on—sounds like Fish discovering where he wants to go from there. As a result, Raingods encapsulates Fish’s solo career more completely than Weltschmerz ever could. The album’s overall effect is of a man walking audibly from the past to the future, and as the final song fades out on Nicola King’s repeated “we can make it happen,” we too are left behind as we move into a different future of our own making.

GUEST: Saro Cosentino – Ones and Zeroes

1997
Reloaded reissue, 2014

In the 1984 Eurovision Song Contest, Italy’s entry was “I Treni di Tozeur,” a melancholy, romantic number about love and longing in the Tunisian frontier, sung by Franco Battiato and Alice. Mostly Alice. Franco is apparently one of Italy’s biggest singer-songwriters, but Alice’s singing and stage presence is so powerful that Franco is reduced to a gawky Adrien Brody lookalike figuratively checking his watch in the background. And, of course, the three mezzo-sopranos belting out Mozart toward the end blow them both out of the water. It’s pretty much perfect as a cheesy karaoke number. It came in fifth.

One of the cowriters for that song was Mr Saro Cosentino, a musician and composer about whom I know very little beyond that he mostly does film soundtracks these days, who released an album called Ones and Zeroes in 1997. It sounds pleasantly like something from JBK or Indigo Falls. Karen Eden in particular does an excellent Suzanne Barbieri impression on Real Life, Bite the Bullet, and Behind the Glass. Tim Bowness sings on Days of Flaming Youth, and the result sounds like one of the better songs off of Flame.

Steven Wilson’s entire contribution to the recording of this album was setting up Tim Bowness’ microphone.

But that means he worked on this album in some small capacity, and that means the King of Prog is one degree of separation from the the hallowed realm of Terry Wogan, Lordi, Dchinghis Khan, Conchita Wurst, and Jedward. I doubt he’s chafing at the association near as much as you think he is.

In other words, this entry exists entirely to troll the King Crimson shirt brigade. Coma Divine tomorrow.

GUEST: Fish – Sunsets on Empire

May 1997

“Something…is gonna happen…”

So. Marillion. One of the bands that kept progressive music going during the fallow eighties. They’re from Aylesbury, half an hour from Hemel Hempstead. They’ve been active since Wilson was eleven. There’s a lot to get through here, so let’s begin.

1. A knight for Embankment folds his newspaper castle…

The music of Marillion up to Sunsets on Empire can be split into three phases. The first encompasses Script for a Jester’s Tear and Fugazi, and is primarily of importance to us in the way it intersects with Steven Wilson’s early music career. The former album, for instance, was released in February 1983. Karma released The Joke’s On You in October 1983. This is not a coincidence. The entire time I was listening to it, all I heard was the original version of Nine Cats, as sung by Derek William “Fish” Dick, a gentleman who was created in a lab to be the ultimate progressive rock vocalist. This guy has the vocal cords of Peter Gabriel, the range of Jon Anderson, and the theatrical penchant of Ian Anderson. And as long as we’re talking about Karma as a blatant Marillion ripoff, I challenge you to imagine Wilson yelping and whooping on The Joke’s On You the way Fish does here.

The problem is Script for a Jester’s Tear isn’t very good, although Fish is trying his damnedest to elevate instrumentation that’s 75% Mark Kelly engaging in psychosexual congress with the horn setting on his synthesizer. I.e.; fun for him, not quite so much for us. Fugazi, meanwhile, gives the Script sound a particular energy it had previously lacked, albeit through sounding pretty much like an extremely progressive-oriented arena rock band. In other words, this album lays on the eighties cheese thick and it’s wonderful. I can totally imagine an alternate universe in which the standard elements of the middle-aged white guy wardrobe included a Marillion tour shirt alongside Queen and Boston and Journey. (They’d certainly get the chart numbers worthy of such an honor.)

So, when the time came for Karma to pull together that second album, they had two options: sound like Embryonic Porcupine Tree, or throw in mainstream hard rock influences and sound like Fugazi. They did neither, turning their collective nose up at this album’s more streamlined musicianship and hoping lightning would strike twice…and thus we got Last Man to Laugh and the band’s breakup the next year.

2. Hotel lobbies padding dawn’s hollow corridors…

Marillion’s second phase is its imperial phase, comprising Misplaced Childhood and Clutching at Straws. The former is relevant for Wilson-adjacent purposes, as he remixed that album in 2017. And really, if you’re going to remix one Marillion album, it’s that one, because what a record. Yes, yes, it’s one of Marillion’s more accessible offerings this decade. Yes, we’re edging dangerously close to sounding like sellout-era Genesis (!) during the year of Live Aid (!!). But the prog is far from gone; it’s just actually digestible. A band that abandoned prog entirely would not have produced the Bitter Suite. And quite frankly, if your definition of what constitutes good prog is that it’s so intricate and complex it’s impenetrable to the average listener, you’re part of the reason Wilson’s distanced himself from the label and finds prog music irreparably ossified and self-contradictory. Get over yourself.

Also, Fish is a brilliant lyricist, in every song unspooling this string of lines that’re at once wordy and evocative. “Do you remember dancing in stilettos in the snow?”, for example, is typical, but he really shines at that point at least once each album when he’s allowed to be properly leftish and go to town painting these nightmarish visions of Thatcherite Britain (the title track of Fugazi comes immediately to mind).

Which brings us to Kayleigh. Marillion’s biggest hit is a baroque, deliriously cheesy masterpiece that hit #2 on the UK Singles chart. In so doing, it effectively brought the name “Kayleigh” into existence (one of the actual exes that inspired the song was named Kay Lee, the name was altered to protect the innocent). It’s killer, especially that powerful solo that bursts onstage after the first chorus, Exhibit A for Wilson’s contention that simplicity in the name of emotional immediacy is inherently better than technical wizardry for its own sake. Kayleigh would reach its definitive form in 1988, at an anti-apartheid benefit concert held at Wembley Stadium to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday. There, Fish appeared onstage to belt out this song accompanied by (a) a horn section and (b) Phil Collins on drums…in other words, the way the song was meant to be performed.

Moving on to Clutching at Straws, I pretty much toe the critical line that it’s not quite as good as its predecessor. To elaborate, I’d say that this album is kind of a tough one to get a serious critical read on, as the quality of the individual songs oscillate wildly between absolutely brilliant and sheer torture, and look there’s no way of sugarcoating it Incommunicado was the worst thing Fish wrote in the 80s. Marillion during this era never quite tipped into the worst trends of sellout-era Genesis…except here, with all those synthesized horn flourishes and that overexuberant vocal delivery and tempo that’s just slightly too fast. I know what they were shooting for, a sort of modernized throwback to the first two albums, but the result sounds like a band that’s jacked up Turn It On Again on all the steroids in the hopes that some of the cheddar that song produced would drift their way. Somewhat ironically for a song where they’re bragging about how famous they’ve become, the end result sounds like it was written out of contractual obligation. Also, Fish should never use the word “rootin’-tootin’” in a song ever again.

On the upside, Fish’s brogue. People have complained once in a while about Fish’s vocal delivery and how it sounds a bit too much like Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel, but they forget one thing: Derek Dick is extremely Scottish. He is one of the Scottiest Scotsmen that’ve ever Scotted. And boy does it show in this album, where he often drops any pretense of vocal neutrality and lets the Saltire in his voice fly. In addition, despite its unevenness, Clutching at Straws still has probably the densest concentration of highlights from the Fish era, like the burnt-out, desperate bombast of That Time of the Night, the tense, dystopian White Russian (repeating “Uzis on a street corner” like a madness mantra), and the majestic The Last Straw. Especially The Last Straw. The sudden Tessa Niles in the last minute is simply heavenly. It feels like a definitive summation of not just the themes behind Clutching at Straws but Marillion’s entire career up to that point. The album couldn’t have ended on a higher note.

3. They bury a wasteland deep in the wilderness…

And the in October 1988 something weird happened: the case of the Famous Egos that collectively afflicted Marillion hit a breaking point and Fish proceeded to fire everyone else and rename the band after himself. Thus do we hit the third phase: Fish’s solo career. This phase, like most nascent solo careers, comes in two parts: an exorcism, and a self-discovery.

The exorcism comes in Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors, recorded and released while No-Man were flogging their earliest demos and Wilson’s ostentatious fake band were cobbling together their early EP trilogy. The long-ish form explanation for the way this sounds is as follows: after a certain point the band develops a clearly recognizable sound, and then the frontman feels strangled by the expectation of what a band album should sound like. When the tension becomes too great, the frontman abandons the band for a solo career and the first album after the split will often sound like the frontman’s unfiltered head contents. This album will feel scattershot and uneven, but on the upside, that attitude got us Fish bustin’ out the pipes right in the expansive, cinematic banger of a first track.

But at least it’s all out now and Fish can move forward. If only he knew how. Fortunately, at this point we do have a germ of an idea: Fish is, lest we forget, oh so very Scottish. He’s just returned to the old country after spending the past decade in England, and it’s great to reconnect with where you came from. Let’s see what that gets us.

Internal Exile, apparently, released roughly the same time as Days in the Trees, and exactly the sort of thing Fish could not have got away with if he were still with Marillion. This is a folk-tinged concept album centering largely around Scottish nationalism and how proud he is to be Scottish…and yet, the best thing off the album doesn’t actually have anything to do with any of that. Yes, the title track is fantastic, pure, unfiltered, boisterous folk, but: have you considered his cover of Something in the Air, which I can only describe as something performed at an abandoned warehouse rave in Leith.

After this there was a detour into coverland with Songs from the Mirror, released the same time Porcupine Tree was pulling together Up the Downstair. It’s decent, albeit unremarkable. Although I would like to state for the record that like the last album, any time he goes full-on traditionally Scottish, like with Solo and Caledonia, is simply heavenly.

The next year, though, between the release of Porcupine Tree’s first live album and the marathon improvisational session that would produce Moonloop, Fish would return to original material with Suits. Now, let’s address something real quick: Marillion have been called a poor man’s Genesis for basically the whole time they’ve been popular. I don’t think that’s a strike against the band—The Gaslight Anthem ripped off Bruce Springsteen wholesale and they’re amazing—but that’s largely because Genesis is a band worth ripping off. You can do things with their sound and make it your own. The problem is this: when Phil Collins left Genesis, his solo career was already sinking rapidly into an easy-listening quicksand pit. So when your band is often compared to Genesis and you leave to form a solo career, the danger is that your solo work will be on roughly the same level as Collins’. This has loomed over Fish’s solo career the whole time he’s had one, and nowhere does this danger present itself more explicitly than on this record, a soft rock album wrapped in several layers of neo-prog.

As a consequence, Suits can be sickeningly cheesy. Emperor’s Song in particular sits comfortably in that vaguely worldbeatish triangle with Graceland on the left, So on the right, and We Are the World at the apex; the sort of song whose music video is the band performing in a savannah somewhere surrounded by photogenic African children; the sort of song that encapsulates the detritus of the decade that brought us Live Aid-esque grandiose white guilt. Fortunes of War is a less positive example, a mess of beige slop whose music video’s defining image is Fish earnestly contemplating a bullet to make the point that Armed Conflict Is Bad, Mmmkay? It’s Fish at his most embarrassing, possibly topping Incommunicado as the worst song he’s ever written, and a big flashing-light illustration of the failure mode of his solo career.

But that’s not to say the album isn’t completely without merits. Since the cover of Something in the Air we’ve been seeing more and more electronic influences creep in, and nowhere is that quite more evident in No Dummy, this weird reggae-ish thing that has some very nineties keyboard work and a saxophone that wouldn’t sound out of place on Under the Table and Dreaming. This song also features some of the most bone-shatteringly deep bass work in Fish’s career thus far, of the sort that made me wish he and Mick Karn got together in the studio at least once. That said, like with the Scottish folk of Internal Exile and Songs from the Mirror before it, there’s still the sense that Fish is trying on hats that don’t quite fit. These are, ultimately, experiments. Some of them are successful, some of them aren’t. The result, unfortunately, is a solo career that is frustratingly uneven. This is unsustainable. We’ll have to try something a little different.

4. Your next allotted twenty-four hour slice of destiny…

So now it’s May of 1997. We’re entering a weird liminal period. I am five years old and discovering that the world extends far beyond the mountains that surround my hometown. On TV, for instance, there’s a white-haired man in a suit who’s always someplace stately, so that means he must be the President. Meanwhile, Tony Blair becomes Prime Minister, Deep Blue defeats Garry Kasparov, and the Spice Girls perform for the British royal family. Next month Richard Ashcroft will walk down a street in Hoxton, and Radiohead will release the first of several quietly nightmarish, Ballardianly anxious magnum opuses. In two months Hong Kong will switch from being a British colony to a Chinese colony. In three months Princess Di will have a fateful spiritual experience in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris, and Oasis will release Be Here Now and kill Britpop for good. No-Man are burning off the remnants of Wild Opera and will soon pull together what will become Returning Jesus. Porcupine Tree are deep in a magical ritual to kill off the Space Era. And Steven Wilson gets together with Fish and releases Sunsets on Empire.

Which I then listen to and like fifteen seconds in there’s a record needle scratch in my head.

Before we go any further, we must address this, and I hate that I have to address this, but… betwixt Dick and Wilson, who are credited as co-writers, whose bright idea was it to throw in the n-word right in the first line of the first track? The line for white musicians throwing in slurs to make a satirical political point (like here; the song is partially about the Balkans during the wars and the first couple lines are meant to be what society tells people who’re about to be ethnically cleansed) and/or make it clear the viewpoint character is a horrible person stands at In The Flesh, off The Wall, and it is a bar no song since has yet cleared, including this one. Sorry if that wrecked it for you; it came perilously close to wrecking it for me (the offending lyrics were altered for the US release, which…well, they do get the point across clearer), and to be honest once I’m done writing this post I will never listen to this song ever again.

There’s also been some other stuff that hasn’t aged well either, unfortunately. Brother 52, for instance. I could not find any further background on the story the song’s centered around, and maybe when you’re a Scotsman in the spring of ‘97 the concept of “gun nuts with enormous quantities of firearms find themselves under siege Waco-style” doesn’t have the same implications it does today, but…well, let’s cut to the chase here. This Doc dude’s a Second-Amendment nutcase and I’d be genuinely surprised if the story happened as it was told. “Anybody that’s stockpiling firearms and ammunitions is a threat to the government, so the government wages war against us,” the guy says. Baloney. To paraphrase, Bubba was not coming for your guns. In fact, from the vantage point of 2018, anyone with an enormous gun stockpile is probably not a freedom fighter but a terminally aggrieved white man who believes women shouldn’t have autonomy and/or people of color shouldn’t exist. So this is a cause that I’m…kind of surprised to see Fish, who’s farther left than most, take up and champion here. I neither know nor care how he feels about it now, but I, at least, would be trying my hardest to forget this song ever existed.

Now for the good stuff. First, the spoken word bits. They’ve been rolling around in the background for Fish’s discography since the Marillion days, but most of the time they’ve been pulled into the background, like the ones in Dark Side of the Moon. The conversation between Dr Finlay and Torch in Torch Song is representative. But Sunsets on Empire represents the point where the spoken word bits become the centerpiece of the songs they’re featured on. It helps that Fish’s natural speaking voice is this deep Scottish rumble that’s at once soothing and authoritative and very, very well suited to this sort of thing.

As are, of course, the words themselves. Fish has always been a very good lyricist, but the spoken word interludes let him be self-indulgent in the one place where self-indulgence works great in prog. Check out this little bit from Jungle Ride:

“The glazed eyes of porcelain clowns stare skywards at clouds of goldfish madly circling their own silent plastic worlds, high above the children who stuff ping pong balls like pills in the mouths of slowly rotating heads…”

Beautiful. Like The Mars Volta by way of the Weaver. He’s a bit more direct than that most of the time, but boy can he get evocative when he wants to be. This is one of the things that distinguishes Derek Dick from most other prog boys; he’s always thought of himself as a poet who sings, and has thus been most comfortable constructing songs around words than around instrumental improvisation.

Fish’s words also help the instrumentation out tremendously. He’s been dancing around what he achieves here throughout his solo career, but this is probably the first time since leaving Marillion that he’s managed to strike the perfect balance between technical complexity and emotional resonance. For the first time since Clutching at Straws the words consistently give the music a particular focus that a lot of prog lacks. We’re mainly concerned with what the song is about here (whether it be things like Bosnia, the inadequacy of religion, or Fish’s daughter), as opposed to using the song’s ostensible themes as an excuse for the musicians to show off.

In essence, with Sunsets on Empire, Fish has finally found his footing as a solo musician. The result sounds a fair bit like what Marillion would have sounded like in the 90s if he’d stayed on as frontman. We could describe this as a regression thanks to the lack of folk or electronica or anything else that made his earlier solo work stand out, and it is, but it is an exceptionally well-made regression, and is the reason the next album’s progression is as successful as it is. Because in this album, he consistently brought forward the album’s emotional center, and that’s infinitely more rewarding than any amount of technical brilliance could ever be.

Sound familiar?

We said earlier that Porcupine Tree is at this time in the middle of a magical ritual to kill off the Space Era and usher in something different. But what that something different is going to be is as yet unknown. For all that krautrock is a fine musical tradition, the way everything came together in Signify was clearly a non-starter. The band is working on demos right now, but it’s not clear that these efforts will bear fruit either. So now what.

Well, as it happens, Goldfish and Clowns and The Perception of Johnny Punter sound very much like oddly bent Porcupine Tree songs…specifically, the sort of Porcupine Tree song they’d make from Stupid Dream onward. It’s not that Fish now sounds like Porcupine Tree, it’s that Porcupine Tree decided to sound like Fish. The corollary to this is it’s pretty easy to imagine Wilson singing some of these songs, or even rearrange and cover them at his shows…even the ones he didn’t write. (Similarly, it’s pretty easy to imagine a No-Man cover of Say It With Flowers.) Essentially, in recording this album, Derek William Dick birthed the Alternative Era.

So we have a path forward. Now what do we do with the detritus of the old, because not only do we have to fully burn off the Space Era, we have to deal with the wreckage that is Signify. The latter, fortunately, has only managed a brief, comparatively stillborn existence compared to the Space Era’s eight-year-deep musical density and heft, and so is pretty easy to dispatch. And that is what Fish does here with What Colour is God?, a song that puts religion on blast in a very Signify-esque manner, right down to the psychotic preacher samples that could have been ripped directly from Sever itself. He even managed to inhale, Kirby-like, Porcupine Tree’s primary lyrical mode up to this point in that spoken-word bit in Jungle Ride up there, an easy feat since “bad LSD trip” is already not far from his own lyrical style to begin with. The rest of the Space Era, though, is still a bear to get rid of, a big enough monster that not even a giant, burly Scot can expect to take it on single-handedly. There is still more work to be done.

GUEST: Indigo Falls – Indigo Falls

1997

Two of the many diverse things that have happened over the past 6 months or so: I got a couple of hefty PPI payouts and got husband into Die Antwoord. He’s since been known to stand outside the bathroom door when I’m inside, singing ‘You’re a reech beetch’ to me.

I am currently a reech beetch. So champagne for my real friends; real pain for my sham friends.” —Suzanne Barbieri

Last time I held forth about the failure mode of the typical ex-Japan project and why it’s relatively easy to stumble into, and I feel like it needs a little expanding before we dive into the collaboration between Suzanne Barbieri and her husband Richard.

The issue with what I’d call Generic ex-Japan is ultimately that it feels unfinished, either like we’re listening to a skeleton of a song instead of an actual song, or the instrumental improvisations from which a song will eventually form. I should again stress that Generic ex-Japan is not the majority of what Jansen, Barbieri, and Karn have released at least since Rain Tree Crow (Barbieri in particular is adept at avoiding falling into this particular self-indulgence), and indeed Indigo Falls does sidestep many of the issues that a typical ex-Japan record risks having.

I’ll freely admit that I’m part of the problem here, in that I spend way too much time obsessing over when ex-Japan sucks versus when ex-Japan is good. I’m starting to think that’s because I’m putting forth unrealistic expectations for these albums, and should probably approach them a bit differently from how I have been lately. These are explorations, not statements, and treating them as the latter is going to inevitably lead to disappointment. A recalibration is in order.

But anyway, this album is great and a lot of the credit for this goes to Suzanne.

This is largely because her vocals, in addition to being characteristically excellent, give the songs a framework for Richard to wrap his soundscapes around. Quite a few times throughout the album I got the sense that the instrumental versions of these songs actually would be Generic ex-Japan, so I was often grateful that she was there. I get the sense that what she and her husband were attempting to do here is take the atmosphere of The Wilderness and give it the breadth and variety necessary to sustain an entire album, and by and large they were successful. Most of the time this means the music has a distinctly new-age twinge to it, thanks to Suzanne singing like a wood elf about the ambiguously-defined spirituality she was into at the time. But once in a while you get something like Feed the Fire or Towards the Light that gets a bit darker and more abrasive, as though to acknowledge that genuine spiritual enlightenment is not the empty-headed hippity-dippity brightness people think it is.

(Funny thing is Suzanne would eventually realize “hippity-dippity brightness” more or less was what she was being spoon-fed by the people she was paying attention to at the time and subsequently became more tempered and skeptical in her outlook. Prosperity gospel is a helluva persistent drug, even when it isn’t strictly packaged as “gospel.”)

Moving on to guest musicians. Wilson is basically a nonentity on this album. He shows up once again to strum his way through The Wilderness, and that’s about it. The much more considerable presence, and for our purposes much more important, is Theo Travis on soprano sax. Yes, that Theo Travis, the same one who delivered that blistering saxophone solo for Don’t Hate Me, and who would become integral to the Steven Wilson Band’s sound during the Jazz Era. Wilson himself would begin to directly collaborate with him when he appears on Bass Communion next year, but this is the first time he appears in this retrospective. And, well, he’s always welcome wherever he goes. He adds a lot to the atmosphere of both of the songs he’s on. (It’s cool to see Steve Jansen and Jakko Jakszyk here, too.)

This is the last we’ll see Suzanne until 2008’s Stranger Inside, and is the only time over the course of this blog that she takes center stage, so I figure we’ll talk a little about what she did after this. She continues to record and release music to this day, and a lot of it’s quite good. Her most notable work after this one is this interesting little concept album about the Betty and Barney Hill alien abduction called From Indian Head to Ashland, which listens in a lot of ways like if the Reich remix of Days in the Trees were stretched out to album length. A sampler’s available on her SoundCloud, along with a bunch of other songs. Do give them a listen.

GUEST: Steve Jansen/Richard Barbieri – Stone to Flesh

October 1995

  • The following was written before listening to the album in question:

I’m officially at the point El Sandifer was at in the Nintendo Project when she was like, “Oh God not another racing game, how am I going to squeeze an interesting entry out of this.” That is to say, oh God not another ex-Japan collab, I know what to expect here, sparse instrumentals that give me jack to work with. And, oh yes, Steven’ll contribute some minor part in the background. Writing this post will be like pulling teeth.

Here’s the problem with listening to an album to write about it versus listening to an album just to listen to it: I begin to dislike the album simply because I can’t come up with anything interesting to say about it, and that’s not a good reason to hate something. Meanwhile, if I listen to the album just to listen to it, I’m then freed from any obligation to describe what I’m hearing and can actually kick back and enjoy the stupid thing. (There’s a reason my name’s not on any music mag mastheads.)

The upshot in my case, though, is that I suspect nondescript racing games are distributed pretty evenly across the alphabetized NES library, whereas a quick look at the SW discography I threw together tells me the ex-Japan stuff will peter out as we inch toward the millennium.

…and will be swiftly replaced with I.E.M. and Bass Communion. God help me.

Oh.

Oh.

Oh my.

Well, that was a pleasant surprise. I was dead wrong about pretty much everything.

In retrospect, part of my trepidation coming into this joint was the sheer frustration I had with Flame and The Tooth Mother, because they both represented…not necessarily the failure mode of the ex-Japan schtick, but its baseline, what it collapses into if left to its own devices. That is the abyss the guys have to make a conscious effort to make sure their music doesn’t fall into, and every album I listen to from Jansen, Barbieri, or Karn I now approach worrying about how successful they’ll be.

This is not a concern I should reasonably have. Jansen and Barbieri are both excellent musicians. When these guys get together and jam they do make an effort to make the result sound good. Beginning to Melt had The Wilderness. Seed had its delightful onslaught of peak nineties. I know they’ll do something great, but I also know what happens if they don’t. So I worry.

So it was a huge relief to discover that Stone to Flesh is pretty good. The album’s pleasant surprise kicks in about three minutes into the first track, when we hear the beginnings of what would blossom into a blistering harmonica solo, and goodness does this harmonica in particular sound familiar, and a quick trip to Discogs confirms that, yes, that is the very same Mark Feltham that would appear on To the Bone over twenty years later. He shows up again on the last track in a more subdued, almost mournful capacity, as befitting a slow, quiet song named Everything Ends in Darkness.

Speaking of Wilson, the corny line to deploy here would be “the album should be credited to Jansen / Barbieri / Wilson because Mr Porcupine Tree is in as many tracks as the other two.” This is technically true; of the seven songs on the album, Jansen, Barbieri, and Wilson all play on four apiece. And, Wilson’s contributions are much more prominent here than they are on Jansen and Barbieri’s previous records. However, implying that Wilson is on an equal footing to the other two here still overstates his role on this album. First off, Jansen and Barbieri actually wrote all the songs. Also, Wilson is strictly a supporting player, using his guitar to fill out a song instead of propelling it forward.

As for things that do, though, Jansen and Barbieri’s collective keyboard work. The best way I could describe Stone to Flesh’s atmosphere is clearly synthetic, yet not dispassionate. We’re still in “sounds like a video game soundtrack” territory, but here the aesthetic has been refined and crystallized. Picture a stealthy atmospheric cyberpunk something-or-other and you’re about there. Picture sneaking around in an artificially lit, aggressively polygonal environment where the buildings and objects don’t quite scale properly and all the text is rendered bright green and monospaced, Matrix-style, and you’re about there. The bubbling swells of Sleepers Awake and the metallic scraping of Ringing the Bell Backwards, Pt. 2 are the standouts here, but ultimately most of the tracks have something going for them.

But yes, this is a great album, and I probably shouldn’t have been so worried about how it’d turn out. So, naturally, this means now I’ll project my concerns onto their next effort.