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.

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