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: 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.

GUEST: Mick Karn – The Tooth Mother

18 April 1995

When Richard Barbieri was first introduced to the history constructed in this blog, I thought it would be a good idea to rip through every album he’s done up to Beginning to Melt, to get a sense of context to what he was doing on that album and what Wilson was doing there. Since I was decidedly less than impressed with The Tooth Mother, I figured a similar revisit would help nail down what I was missing…even as the possibility of doing the same for every artist SW collaborates with gives your author the howling fantods.

So, what’s Mick been up to, since Japan collapsed in on itself?

  • First up, Titles. It’s…well, it’s okay. There’s some good stuff here, like Saviour, Are You With Me? and The Sound of Waves, but one nevertheless gets the impression that its modest yet respectable showing on the UK album charts in 1982 was in large part due to ex-Japan curiosity.
  • In 1984 Karn teamed up with Mister Peter “Bauhaus” Murphy and, as Dalis Car, released The Waking Hour. Fact magazine says it’s one of the 20 greatest goth records ever made. Whatever you say, bruv. If you ask me, the most goth this thing gets is on Cornwall Stones, the soundtrack of nerds playing DnD in basements. (As a friend of mine said, “I want to stuff [Murphy] in a locker.” That’s how much Mister Bela Lugosi’s Dead has debased himself here.) The extended improvisation of Artemis, which is basically four and a half minutes of Karn warping his bass back in on itself, is pretty sweet, if you’re into that sort of thing.
  • In 1987, Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters. Naturally, given the title and cover, this’ll be somewhat darker than what we’ve seen up till now. (Certainly more gothic than Waking Hour, I’ll say that much.) The most complete (and, therefore, best) songs here have good old David Sylvian on vocals. When Love Walks In comes especially highly recommended, thanks to those loud, heavily distorted synths in the midsection.
  • 1990 saw a collaboration between Karn, Michael White, Michel Lambert, and David “The Next Day” Torn, called Lonely Universe. This album is a decent enough bit of dark experimental jazz, the sort of thing I imagine university music professors listen to on their downtime.
  • 1993, Bestial Cluster. This was evidently re-released in tandem with The Tooth Mother at some point later on. Of the two, this album is definitely the more complete, polished work, by which I mean the songs sound like songs and not just extended improvisations. The wall of sound that is the title track is a particular standout.
  • In 1994, Karn once again teamed up with David Torn, and this time they tagged in Terry Bozzio for something called Polytown. I would like to emphasize that these are all excellent musicians, some of the best at their craft. However, I have just listened to this album and I remember absolutely nothing about it.

So, what’d I learn? How to pad a blog entry, but that’s about it. If we want to be really mean, I finally understand where Wilson was coming from in that one interview where he says that technically gifted musicians, when left to their own devices, often produce rather boring music. The only non-Japan chunks of what he’d release up to 1995 that I’d recommend in any way are probably Bestial Cluster and some cuts from Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters.

The Tooth Mother is your usual Mick Karn outing: leisurely, vaguely jazzy instrumental jams, peppered with occasional world music influences, that sound like they belong on a 1990s strategy game soundtrack. We’ve been here before, so in that respect it’s a disappointment. Anyway, because most of this album is, quite frankly, a snoozer, here’s are the high points instead:

First, Mick Karn is at best a mediocre singer. Not damning in and of itself, no; no one would ever give awards to Dylan or Springsteen for their singing, but they also make up for it by being two of the greatest lyricists in music history. Karn on The Tooth Mother doesn’t have that level of lyrical prowess, but at the same time he doesn’t strain or warble or do anything particularly embarrassing. His vocals are low and rumbling, as close to spoken world as you can get without actually being spoken word. Think Spiderland without the narrative and you’re about there.

Second, Plaster the Magic Tongue clearly works its magic when it gets ahold of a flute. Dang. You can thank Gary Barnacle for summoning the spirit of Ian Anderson to further accentuate what is already a delightfully goofy, off-kilter song. It’s like the intro to Lampshades On Fire if I didn’t have the uncontrollable urge to punch Isaac Brock in the face every time I heard it.

Third, There Was Not Anything But Nothing sounds a lot like a reworking of JBK’s In the Black of Desire (or is it the other way round?). Makes sense, Karn wrote both.

Fourth, those first two tracks are funk-ay. They sound less like something you’d hear in Age of Empires and more like something you’d hear in a 70s/80s exploitation movie. This is somewhat surprising, given that this never really registered as a mode for any of the ex-Japan guys…but even more surprising is that it’s Wilson, of all people, bringing the funk here.

We, or at least I, or at least the mental construction I have of the man’s Anglophone audience, have mentally imprisoned Steven Wilson in a box. We think of Wilson almost exclusively as a maker of Dour Prog Songs. This when he’s said countless times that he doesn’t think of himself in those terms and actually has a considerably wider range of influences than something like The Raven that Refused to Sing lets on. This when he’s made drone music as Bass Communion, krautrock as I.E.M. and on Signify, dream pop and ambient music with No-Man, and, most critically for our purposes, pop music with Blackfield and on To the Bone. The existence of a song like Permanating should have put paid to the idea that he’s comfortable being the Dour Prog Man, and that in reality he’s just as influenced by Prince as he is by, say, Pink Floyd. You know, Prince. The artist whose songs he’s covered on multiple occasions, dating back to the old Porcupine Tree demo tapes. The artist whose name is, was, and is again, Prince. And who is funky. That guy.

In that context, that funky wah guitar he threw in Thundergirl Mutation and Plaster the Magic Tongue becomes much more explicable. Just because he doesn’t bust out that part of his personality very often doesn’t mean it’s not there.

GUEST: Jansen Barbieri Karn — Seed

October 1994

“While pretty much every trend of the early 90s now seems horribly dated, the hip-hop-influenced R&B genre called new jack swing now seems wonderfully dated!” —Todd “in the Shadows” Nathanson, 2015

Seed is not a new jack swing album, nor do I particularly want to see these three release a new jack swing album. Let’s put that out there right now and move on.

However. I distinctly recall the first thought I had when I listened to this little mini-album for the first time. I queued it up on my phone, hit play and WHAM. Full nineties. Right in the face.

Growing up in the 90s, my musical DNA consisted of a few disparate strands that don’t necessarily mesh well. Wilson has spoken many times about how his family was one in which Pink Floyd coexisted with Donna Summer. My family was not like that, but if we take Donna Summer as a synecdoche for whatever music was popular in our respective preadolescence, then her role is filled mostly with video game soundtracks. This album sounds more or less what the soundtrack to SimCity 3000 (ayyy) would have been like if the video game was actually set in the year 3000, and I therefore can’t help but love it.

The standout here is self-evidently the first track, an unashamedly trip-hoppy remix of Beginning to Melt that slowly unfolds over the course of eleven minutes. Well, okay, it’s only a remix in the most superficial sense of the word. They took the original song and threw on slapped on a seriously groovy bassline and programmed drum loop. You can’t help but bob your head rhythmically while listening to it. The effect is to pull the song from its original timeless void (one of the few JBK songs up to this point about which this can legitimately be said) and situate it solidly within John Major’s Prime Ministership. And, to be clear, when vaguely downtempo-y music is pretty firmly embedded in your DNA, the sudden temporal grounding works in the song’s favor. If someone made a video for this song, it would probably overflow with every cheesy fish-eyed oversaturated video effect in vogue at the time and it would be wonderful.

The other three tracks are considerably more electronic and chilled-out than the opener, and there’s a direct correlation between how good they are and if all three worked together on them. This, then, means that The Insect Tribe is the most successful; a song in which we get to experience in real time the hesitant feeling out of new sonic territory and then growing comfortable within it. The transition is marked with the introduction of Mick Karn’s bass. He only plays two notes in the song, repeated at critical points, but those two notes are powerful. They’re not so much heard as felt, the sort of bass that makes your bones vibrate. They give the song a depth that it had previously lacked…and are, since it’s Mick Karn, sexy as all hell.

In the Black of Desire and Prey are both strictly Jansen/Barbieri collaborations and sound appropriately chrome and futuristic. Wilson once again has a minor part in the latter, here contributing some electric guitar that’s about as close to funk as you can get without actually being funky, and does a pretty good job of giving the song some punch.

How appropriate that we round out 1994 with an album that screams 1994 from its every pore. While Jansen and Barbieri would collaborate again the next year, as would Barbieri with Karn, both times with Wilson tagging along, the three men wouldn’t release another album as JBK until 1999. This is a bit of a shame, but Barbieri’s been a little preoccupied lately.

GUEST: Richard Barbieri and Tim Bowness – Flame

29 August 1994

This is not a big album. There’s not a whole lot in the way of big moments or expansive soundscapes. This is the result when two acquaintances get together and jam for a little bit.1 Flame is a modest record with modest ambitions,2 and in many respects, this is of a piece to the sort of albums that Barbieri worked on with Jansen and (occasionally) Karn at about this time: some small, simple melodic noodlings,3 with a little help from their friends.4 The musical personalities of the two men at the center do show though in the music; through his vocals, Bowness injects a particular delicacy and vulnerability into Barbieri’s darker, more dispassionate synths and keyboards.5 Beyond that, though, there’s not a whole lot to recommend here.6


1 The obvious comparison to Storm Corrosion is both accurate and inaccurate. Accurate in the sense that you should probably expect a one-off collaboration between two progressive-minded musicians to be a jam session, and inaccurate in that people—rightly or wrongly—were expecting Storm Corrosion to be something completely different, and that the album Wilson and Åkerfeldt actually produced is still pretty good.
2 Spoiler alert: I don’t like Flame all that much. But let me be clear, I’m not knocking Flame for being a modest record. Worlds in a Small Room is a modest record and it’s fantastic. So’s Lightbulb Sun, when we get to it. The problem is in the execution, not the concept, and here the execution is…considerably less than the sum of its parts.
3 I feel like if you’re gonna make a modest record, what it lacks in terms of ambition it should make up for with mood, and here they’re only partially successful. In other words, when Flame falters, it falters in the same way acoustic coffeeshop covers of pop songs falter.
4 This round the friends include common denominator Steven Wilson, Steve Jansen, Mick Karn, both Chris Maitland and Gavin Harrison, and Michael Bearpark. Wilson contributes some appropriately spacey guitars to Flame and Song of Love and Everything. And, just like last time, I didn’t notice that was him at first listen. That’s not a strike against his work at all, it just means it fits.
5 In other words: this is an album that only could have been made by these two people in particular. I will be honest, this combination is only partially successful. Bowness’ voice is better suited for songs that are brighter and airier than the stuff Barbieri & co compose for this record. It’s not a coincidence that the song featuring Bowness’ best performance, Brightest Blue, is also the album’s, er, least dark song. But all the same it’s an interesting experiment.
6 I lied. That sax in Time Flown is pretty cool.

GUEST: Jansen Barbieri Karn – Beginning to Melt

October 1993

“It’s actually been an irritant, not a selling point. We’ve even had clauses in gig contracts to prevent them from saying ‘ex-Japan’.” —Richard Barbieri, Classic Rock magazine

There’s a pun involving a certain visual kei band that’s probably more trouble to make than it’s worth.

But so anyway let’s talk about Richard Barbieri. So far he’s drifted around the edges of what Wilson’s been doing, contributing the odd keyboard part or remix here and there, but he’s going to join the band real soon, so we’ll have to get to his back catalogue eventually. So what better place to do that than an album where he’s one of the main players.

Lots to cover here, so I’ll attempt to be brief. The story goes something like this: besides Porcupine Tree, Barbieri is best known as one of the keyboardists for Japan, a band which sold quite well in Japan. Other personnel: vocalist David Sylvian, bassist Mick Karn, drummer Steve Jansen, guitarist Rob Dean. They released five albums in four years, here summarized:

  • The funk touches in Adolescent Sex made me wish I was listening to actual funk.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Obscure Alternatives is in just about every respect superior to the album that came before it. However. The big reason I’ll probably never listen to it again is Sylvian’s extremely ill-advised n-bomb in Rhodesia, what would otherwise have been the album’s standout track. It was to make a vaguely anti-racist political point, and it was 1978, and a cursory glance at Sylvian’s Twitter feed makes me think it’s not a decision he’d make today, but it still pretty much wrecked the listening experience for me. On the upside, though, The Tenant remains absolutely brilliant, and is a much better indicator of where they’d be going than Life In Tokyo could ever be.
  • Quiet Life is a dark, brooding synthpop masterpiece. The camp yet vaguely punkish sneer Sylvian used in their first two records was a weird mismatch for their music and took me out of the mood fairly often, so his switch to a proto-Gahan baritone was more than welcome. Despair and the cover of All Tomorrow’s Parties are the standouts here.
  • Gentlemen Take Polaroids is a bit more eclectic and experimental than Quiet Life, but the tradeoff is that it’s also more uneven.
  • Tin Drum is, if you’re a Westerner in 1981, exactly what you’d expect a new wave band called Japan to sound like…if by “Japan” you mean “China,” because insulated Europeans hadn’t learned to tell different East Asian countries apart yet. Listening to this album, it’s clear that the issue with Polaroids was that they simply could not find a viable way to push their sound forward. The sumptuous bass and traditional East Asian synth work fill what we now recognize as a void in Polaroids’ earlier noodlings, and we leave this album wondering why they hadn’t thought of this sooner. I’m not entirely sure if it’s Japan’s best album—Quiet Life is still more coherent—but it’s definitely the shot in the arm the band needed at that point in time. It would have been interesting to see where they’d have gone next.

…aaaaand then a year later personal shenanigans involving Mick Karn’s girlfriend would force the band apart. The split wasn’t necessarily acrimonious, the various band members would collaborate with each other regularly into the 90s, but Japan proper would never release another album. (Don’t worry, the comparison to what happened with Porcupine Tree in 2010 has been made already.) Here’s what Barbieri specifically was up to through the end of 1993:

  • The 1985 Jansen/Barbieri collaboration Worlds in a Small Room is an airy, soothing bit of inimitably 80s ambient goodness commissioned by JVC Victor as a score for some NASA stock footage they intended to release as a film.
  • In 1987 Jansen and Barbieri collaborated again as the Dolphin Brothers, this time releasing something called Catch the Fall. It’s not hard to draw a direct line from late Japan to what they’re doing here…but unfortunately, this sounds like a regression more than anything else, jettisoning the East Asian influences and powerful drums from that period for what is, essentially, Living in a Box on downers. There are occasional moments of brilliance, like Love that You Need or Face to Face, but the album in general sounds an awful lot like something you’d hear as department store muzak.
  • 1991 saw Barbieri involved in two (hoist the signal) ex-Japan projects. The first we’ve arbitrarily defined as Stories Across Borders, yet another collaboration with Steve Jansen. It’s mostly a bunch of haunting, atmospheric instrumental pieces with touches of jazz and industrial and other stuff. It’s also right up my alley the way the sophistipop from last go-round wasn’t.
  • And finally, of course, there was Rain Tree Crow, the Japan reunion that technically wasn’t a Japan reunion. Oh my God. Okay, let’s begin by making one thing clear: this isn’t a new Japan album. There’s no new wave or art pop or any of that to be found here. If there’s any sense of a narrative through-line from Tin Drum to here it’s Sylvian and company finding themselves on the brink of superstardom and deciding, screw this, let’s go make something as experimental and anti-pop as we possibly can. No, this is Rain Tree Crow, a glorious forty-five minute jam session that plays like Graceland mashed up with The Sky Moves Sideways and performed round a Joshua Tree campfire. This is the culmination of everything these four were doing since 1978. The Asian/world elements aren’t just orientalist window dressing and are actually well-integrated into the songs. Jansen’s drums and Karn’s bass have never sounded better. (No seriously, dat bass. I want to make love to it.) This album is a beautiful revelation and you should go listen to it right now. It’s on Spotify. Do it. (And then listen to Sixth Floor off the SimCity 3000 Unlimited soundtrack but you didn’t hear that from me.)

So now we’re finally up to the present, and to the first Jansen/Barbieri/Karn collaboration, Beginning to Melt. Well, okay, let’s not get carried away. It’s not a full-fledged follow-up to Rain Tree Crow, nor are we on the level of, say, Storm Corrosion. Out of the seven songs on this album, three are a true group effort, and the other four are little solo bits they had lying around that needed a home. Some are more interesting than others. Ego Dance is tight and tense. March of the Innocents plays like if Boards of Canada were an alternative band. Meanwhile, Shipwrecks is a snorefest and Human Age is just flat boring. So, you know, it’s about as even as you’d expect an album of dusted-off not-quite-B-sides to be.

We’re here primarily for the first two tracks. The first is the soundtrack to a leisurely wander through a science fictional desert, and as such is the most obviously Rain Tree Crow-like of anything on this album. It’s one of the album’s collaborative songs, and it shows. We’ve got Jansen’s sexy drums and fuzzed-out electric guitar, we’ve got Mick Karn’s even sexier bass…and, most importantly for our purposes, we’ve got Barbieri on the keyboards, tinkering with his synthesizer in ways that would become integral to Porcupine Tree’s sound in the coming years. The other song we’re interested in is The Wilderness, on which Steven Wilson played acoustic guitar.

I wish to emphasize that The Wilderness’ status as the best track on the album and Steven Wilson’s presence on that track is a coincidence. Wilson’s part is pretty simple and mixed pretty far back, involving only some rhythmic strumming that he could probably do in his sleep. I didn’t even know it was there the first time around. The highlight here, instead, is Suzanne Barbieri’s vocals. We’ve heard her before, doing the spoken word bit of Up the Downstair, but here she’s the main event. Even as the instrumentation remains sparse and earthy, emphasizing that the wilderness is not a hospitable place, her downright angelic performance elevates the tale of the Boneshaker into something fantastic, almost mythical.

Two ancillary things before we wrap up. 1) I’m glad Suzanne’s here in the context of this retrospective because this thing has been and largely will be a sausagefest, and 2) there’s a delightfully cheesy symphonic metal cover of this song just waiting to be made.

Going back to her husband now, Richard Barbieri is probably one of the most experienced and virtuosic people Wilson’s ever worked with…and, in some ways, a person whose career with Japan would prefigure Wilson’s own with Porcupine Tree. He would join the band right around the time of this album’s release, and Colin Edwin would follow in a few months’ time. Now all we need is a drummer.