No-Man – Heaven Taste

September 1995
Remastered 1998 and 2002

*sharp, frustrated inhale*

This is a compilation of five songs they did in the early 90s. Of those five, I could only find four. So while we’re here let’s talk about some of the other partially lost goodies of 1995, shall we?

That year, Wilson contributed keyboards to two songs off Coltsfoot’s A Winter Harvest and produced Psychomuzak’s The Extasie. We’ll start with Coltsfoot. I have no idea what Action at a Distance sounded like apart from that one song, so I’m not sure if this is really true, but from my very limited frame of reference, A Winter Harvest—or, more accurately, the five songs from that album hosted on the band’s official YouTube page—sounds like they found what their schtick was going to be: “medieval English fairyland.” Specifically, and here we go again, medieval English fairyland as rendered in a nineties video game. Seriously, these synths are MIDI tier sometimes. I don’t know how embarrassed the band is about that now, but they shouldn’t be. To someone who has fond memories of mid-90s video games its sets off the nostalgia buttons hardcore. It’s geeky and cheesy in that way Zeppelin was when they referenced Lord of the Rings before it was cool, and I love it to pieces.

Of those five songs, the one Wilson contributed keyboards to is Wood for the Trees. The best song is Lammastide, which I listened to with battle footage from Age of Empires II playing in another tab and it fits perfectly. After that, I listened to some symphonic metal, because it seemed appropriate.

Now for Psychomuzak, evidently Dean Carter’s psychedelic / krautrock project. I say “evidently” because only two songs of theirs (“theirs”) exist on YouTube, and one of those songs is incomplete. Fortunately, that’s also the one that can be streamed in full on Spotify, and it’s the title track of the album Wilson produced. To me, at least, it sounds less like krautrock and more like the psytrance he was adjacent to and absorbing during the One Little Indian days, so naturally I like it a lot. (For what it’s worth, their other song available on YouTube, Keep Breathing, is pretty good, too.)

There. That’s them sorted. Now for what I could dig up from Heaven Taste. Long Day Fall isn’t anything special. It sounds like a chunk of the Speak sessions that broke off and drifted into July 1992, where it was rediscovered and spruced up a bit.

Babyship Blue is pretty interesting in that it sounds like what would happen if someone mashed-up a Wild Opera-era No-Man song with something from The Sky Moves Sideways. The only version of Bleed I could find was the really old, slightly embarrassing version from 1989. The title track is a twenty-one (or thereabouts) minute instrumental monster that sounds exactly like what you’d think a No-Man/JBK collaboration would sound like. If it wasn’t for the song immediately preceding it, it’d be the album’s highlight.

Let’s talk Road, then, the Nick Drake cover. This song is amazing. Like with Pink Moon, they switched out the simple acoustic guitar for something more ethereal, except here it’s not ambient swells that move the song forward but a powerful echoing piano, accentuated with a simple guitar riff buried deep in the mix that sounds like if Jonny Buckland made new age music.

This version somehow manages to be both more melancholy and optimistic than the original. The way the lyrics repeat in the No-Man version (“to see, to see, to see, to see me through…”) make it sound like the singer is desperately trying to convince himself that, even though it won’t lead to superstardom, the path he’s chosen will, in fact, keep his head above water. We in the future know it didn’t; Drake would overdose on antidepressants five months after his twenty-sixth birthday, after a long bout of severe depression that isolated him from his loved ones. But we in the future also know his music still managed to survive, so the brighter instrumentation in the cover points toward his legacy, to Solid Air and Life in a Northern Town, to Robert Smith, Peter Buck, and (yes) David Sylvian, and all the people they in turn influenced, right up to Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson themselves. And at the very end, as the song is fading out, Bowness quietly sings “Heyyyyy” several times, as if he’s reaching out to the spirit of Nick Drake himself to express No-Man’s gratitude for his body of work, and to try and show him Vincent-and-the-Doctor-style what his music would mean to so many people in the decades that followed. It’s absolutely beautiful.

I don’t know if he could have completed that fourth album. I doubt it would have sold well if he did, if only because his uptick in popularity amongst musicians didn’t start to kick in until, at the absolute earliest, 1979. I doubt that would have been enough to keep him going. Depression screws with your head like that. But all the same, oh how I wish he could have lived long enough to see this.

Intro to the Space Era: 1989-1999

Here’s where the disparate strands of Wilson’s musical DNA finally start coming together. The Space Era is named for Porcupine Tree’s predominant aesthetic sensibility—a spacey psychedelia—from its inception to the release of Stupid Dream in 1999. In the meantime, what did we miss, because your author couldn’t find much of this stuff online?

  • In 1986 Wilson participated heavily in Coltsfoot’s demo tape Action at a Distance, performing on some tracks and producing others. The tape would be released in 1988.
  • No Man Is An Island released a single in 1987 called “From a Toyshop Window,” which Wikipedia describes as a hybrid of progressive rock and synthpop.
  • Also in 1987, Wilson was briefly the keyboardist for Pride of Passion / Blazing Apostles (they rebranded and renamed themselves right around when he was there).
  • 1989 saw two No Man Is An Island EPs, The Girl from Missouri and Swagger. Wikipedia describes the title track of The Girl from Missouri as a “waltz time ballad” that would later be disowned, and Swagger as “aggressive synth-pop,” indicating a band (befitting, considering the relative turbulence its lineup was experiencing at the time) that didn’t quite know what it wanted to do yet. Evidently once No-Man stabilized they felt that some of the stuff off these two EPs were good enough to be re-recorded and re-released, and we’ll get to those versions eventually.

I couldn’t find a whole lot from anything up there. From Blazing Apostles, all I could dig up from the two songs he played on were their live renditions at the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden in 1987. They sound a lot like A Flock of Seagulls.

From Coltsfoot there’s In The Hour Between, which is a perfectly serviceable prog ballad. The tape it’s on is mostly important as the first thing Wilson’s produced for a band of which he was not himself a member, and it sounds exactly like how you’d expect it to sound in 1988. That’s a roundabout way of saying it owes more to Altamont/Karma than anything he did later.

As for No-Man, first up is Forest Almost Burning, off The Girl from Missouri, which has some properly twitchy violin work. It has the distinct air of a band, from its precarious perch in 1989, gesturing toward a sound still under construction…which makes sense, considering No-Man would become influenced by trip hop and Blue Lines wouldn’t be released for another two years. The other one was Bleed, from Swagger, which sounds all right. The percussion is nice, the guitar work is proper heavy, but it’s…very strange listening to Tim Bowness alternate between his usual vaguely Bowie-esque croon and that weird, uncomfortable growl/snarl thing he does at the chorus. Can also understand why we don’t hear much of his climactic bellowing after this, too. If both songs are representative of their output at about this time, then these EPs are clearly the work of a band who are still trying to figure themselves out.

Should probably also mention that I am not a particularly huge fan of No-Man myself, but they nevertheless feature prominently at this stage in Wilson’s musical history, so we’ll see how much I can look past that and be objective.