Porcupine Tree – Warszawa

Recorded 6 April 2001
Released January 2004

The period from 2000 to 2002 was for Steven Wilson a tangle of beginnings and endings rivaled in density only by the period surrounding the birth of his solo career. We’ve talked some about the beginnings already: of No-Man settling into the sound that would define its later career, and of the start of Wilson’s long-running partnerships with Mikael Åkerfeldt and Aviv Geffen. Now it’s time to hash out an ending.

Warszawa was recorded in April 2001 for a radio program in the eponymous Polish capital, mixed two months later in the home studio at Wilson’s folks’ house, but wouldn’t be released until 2004 due to contractual issues and a label change. It’s a nice little show, and although it’s a full-band performance, the fact that they’re playing in front of a small studio audience still gives the show a certain intimacy that’s deeply, deeply appealing, helped in no small part through the comparative intimacy of Lightbulb Sun itself. Its focus on shorter, more organic songs make it a perfect album for small shows.

This performance is roughly typical of shows during the Lightbulb Sun tour. We’re far enough into the Alternative Era that many of the songs are from this album and Stupid Dream, with the occasional jarring Space-Era throwback. This isn’t exactly a lament for the Space Era, the stuff they’re making now is just as good as the stuff they made then, but by this time it’s so far removed from what they’re playing now that it’s hard to believe they’re even the same band. That’s how completely they’ve moved on from the Space Era by this point. By now, playing a Space Era song evokes a feeling of nostalgia more than anything else. (And throwing in Signify at the end just emphasizes how much that album was in some respects an awkward false start.)

In addition, the little cosmetic changes that happen to each song when it’s performed live are taking shape. Some of them are pretty good, like the way Wilson shouts “MOTHER I NEED HER” during Slave Called Shiver and “MY HEAD BEATS A BETTER WAY” during Lightbulb Sun. There’s also the squealing, swirling guitar solos in Hatesong and Signify, equal parts heavy and psychedelic. Other changes aren’t quite so beneficial. For instance, at this point, the only major differences to Even Less are the way he draws out “others…were born to stack ssssshhhhhelves” in the second verse and the way the one line is already changed to “I’m a martyr to even less,” reflecting the song’s missing final verse. These don’t exactly add anything, and are oddly distracting given how the rest of the song is pretty much note-perfect. Even this early, it became clear that Even Less was a song that required a certain finesse to pull off live. Some of the permutations of this song on offer in the coming decades are truly horrifying. For right now, though, it still works.

The most important change for our purposes, however, is vital and necessary. Whenever Wilson needed to record backing vocals in studio, he largely preferred to just record them himself and layer them on top of each other. This obviously isn’t workable live, so instead Chris Maitland was commissioned to sing backing vocals when needed. The Alternative Era, meanwhile, brought with it an increased interest in vocal harmonies, so Maitland’s backing vox here, in the Alternative Era’s chronologically earliest live album, are more prominent than they were on previous live releases. John Wesley he isn’t, but he still puts in a very good effort.

Here’s why the drummer’s increased presence on this record is noteworthy: Chris Maitland left Porcupine Tree acrimoniously in early 2002. By this time, Wilson was secure enough financially to devote himself to music full-time, while Maitland still had to support himself through stage acting gigs and drumming classes. This, naturally, led to recurring and frustrating availability issues, which came to a head at the start of the In Absentia recording sessions. There, an argument led to a fight where, the legend goes, Maitland knocked Wilson around the recording studio like a ping-pong ball. There is, in fact, video.

Maitland and Wilson would patch things up relatively quickly afterwards, but the fact of the matter is the drummer’s time in the band is almost up. Although he’ll show up in later things like the Nearfest bootleg and Recordings and Blackfield and a few other compilations, Warszawa remains the chronologically last official thing Chris Maitland would record with Porcupine Tree.

But that’s all in the future. Right now, it’s April 2001, and the band is still whole, and despite whatever tensions that may exist, Maitland is still here pounding away at his drums and singing backing vox and making his presence felt. Let’s enjoy the moment.

GUEST: Anja Garbarek – Smiling and Waving

March 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bass Communion – Bass Communion III

March 2001
2-CD reissue, 2008

AMPHEAD: The most minimalist fog sounds we’ve heard yet, here resolving to something closer to radio white noise. Think the more ambient sections of Godspeed’s Lift Your Skinny Fists, &c. This is a desolate Ballardia, a land of isolated radio towers and public housing blocks, sprouting like weeds amongst an overgrown grass-scape. As it gets louder it starts clipping, becoming something that both is and is not a contemporary information overload.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: the third Bass Communion album is the weakest so far. As for why we say it’s the third studio release instead of the fourth, Atmospherics doesn’t really count as a studio album because it was contracted out to a library music company and not meant for public consumption. This one barely counts as a release itself; according to its Bandcamp page, it was originally intended as an on-demand CDR from the Burning Shed website before it was reissued as a bonus disc with Bass Communion II. 

SONAR / LINA ROMAY / GRAMMATIC FOG: Three tracks, each roughly three minutes long, in contrast to the entire rest of the album, which features pieces averaging a little over ten minutes. Sonar is a low throbbing overlaid with melancholy strings and what almost sounds like rusted machinery trying hesitantly to function. Lina Romay is darker and swampier. Some of the mechanical whalesong samples are reminiscent of The Howling Wind, a thing Jerry Martin did for the SC3K Unlimited soundtrack. He’s still haunting this project, it seems. Grammatic Fog has more of a vague noir tinge to it. 

A lot of its comparative weakness as an album comes from its history. This is, ultimately, a castoff album. Most of the songs were recorded between 1995 and 1999, at the same recording sessions for the first two Bass Communion albums. The rest were a few cuts lifted from Atmospherics. Sometimes, like with Recordings, it’s just that those songs don’t fit with the general atmosphere of the album they were originally meant for, but in the case of III the soundscapes really are less interesting and evocative in general than the ones we got on I and II. There’s a real sense that we’re going through familiar territory here, and in the intervening time it’s become wetter and muckier and more of a slog.

SLUT 2.1: Sounds like a deconstruction of a mid-90s JBK song. Lots of sounds reminiscent of surveillance, things like fuzzy CRT monitors, rapidly unspooling tape reels, microphone feedback, and echoing recorded voices. The most intersting thing here is that trip-hop inflected drumbeat and bassline. Gives this one a sense of deliberate motion, of gears turning and slotting into place.

This doesn’t mean that there are no innovations, of course. The drums and bass in Slut 2.1 and Sickness, for instance, push them away from the realm of textural experiments and closer to actual songs. That said, that increased sense of structure means Slut 2.1 is a bit of an odd duck in Bass Communion’s discography, as it’s pretty clear it points toward a direction that, if we want to litigate such a thing, Bass Communion has no business going in. If we wanted to get an idea of what the next proper album would sound like, we’d best look elsewhere.

43553E9.01: You know this one. Even if you’ve never heard this one, you know this one. This is the vaguely East-Asian background/introduction to Lips of Ashes, off In Absentia. All the echoing shamisen and piano noises make this feel like a shrine or a temple tucked deep in the mountains somewhere. Music to spiritually contemplate the natural world to.

Recycling is actually quite important when going through Steven Wilson’s discography, albeit one that we’ve not covered much here until now. The thesis, though, is as follows: once Steven Wilson hits upon a particular sound or riff or sample or whatever, he will extract as much value for it as he possibly can. There is, for example, a fair bit of cross-pollination between No-Man and Porcupine Tree. The melody for Days in the Trees shares its melody with Porcupine Tree’s Mute. Jack the Sax and Wake as Gun share a guitar progression. And so forth.

In this case, 43553E9.01’s status as a sample source for Lips of Ashes pretty firmly positions this album, constructed as it is from the leftovers from the first two, as inhabiting yet one more liminal space between past and future, and an echo of the more important one this era of Bass Communion inhabits in general.

In that sense, then, knowing what will come later, it makes more sense to think of the first three Bass Communion studio albums as a trilogy, working with broadly similar conceptual themes (to the extent the albums have them, of course). These albums represent the discovery phase of the Bass Communion sound as Wilson feels around and forms a universe that the project can operate in, and then everything from Ghosts on Magnetic Tape onward represents the project fully formed as it morphs and evolves and different aspects are brought forward. (Not unlike the early Space Era for Porcupine Tree, come to think of it.)

SICKNESS: Low bass, sparse kick drum. Speaker static fades in and out behind a landscape similar to the one we discovered in Amphead, but with the odd retro inflection reminiscent of an alternate German Expressionist fifties. Percussion not as distinctive as Slut 2.1, but it is there.

Unfortunately, that means that this particular album is awkwardly suspended between two poles. II was a masterpiece, early Bass Communion at its most fully realized. Ghosts on Magnetic Tape, meanwhile, is the project taken to its most conceptual and minimalist frontier yet, not quite a radical reimagining of what Bass Communion could sound like but a more substantial and fruitful evolution of their (“their”) sound than anything we’ve seen before. But we’re not there yet, and so we have this, an album that threatens to prematurely mark II out as Bass Communion’s peak. The course-correction that Ghosts represents was sorely needed.

REFORMAT SPIDERS: Deeply minimalist in the way most noir films are minimalist. Background brass is reminiscent of swarming insects. Theo Travis is here once again on sax. His presence is hugely important here, largely because he spends much of this song without any backing, and his part is very reminiscent of his more atmospheric contributions to the Jazz Era.

In a lot of respects, then, III represents an even fuller realization of the idea that it sits in a liminal space. Theo Travis’ work on this track is yet another long tail reaching back from the Jazz Era. We know through Tonefloating that Steven Wilson will eventually have a solo career under his own name. Now we know, thanks not just to Travis’ work on this album but also his continued presence in the background of a considerable chunk of Wilson’s discography up till now, what that solo career might look like.

Here, though, is the little secret behind the liminal space as a concept. When dealing with someone like Steven Wilson, whose discography unfolds less as an abrupt lurching from era to era as much as a steady evolution from genre to genre (usually), you could stake out an arbitrary start and end point and declare the intervening period a liminal space. II could be described as a transition between I and III just as much as III is a transition between II and Ghosts. In our history, every space is liminal, and carries the electrifying sense of infinite possibility that comes with it. This is true even for III, an album that feels like the possibilities contained within it are being rapidly foreclosed upon; they just aren’t found in obvious places like Slut 2.1. It’s in the reverb-soaked shamisen of 43553E9.01, the extreme minimalism of Amphead, or the saxophone of this song. And that’s why, even though the album itself is the weakest Bass Communion has released so far, it still contains within it the seeds of its own redemption.

  1. Bass Communion II
  2. Bass Communion I
  3. Bass Communion III

GUEST: Opeth – Blackwater Park

27 February 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Opeth, though, it was Tuesday.

No-Man – Returning Jesus

26 February 2001

Lighthouse (1994 Demo), May 2001
Complete Sessions, June 2006
Double CD reissue, 3 November 2007

No-Man will release a new studio album next month, their first in over a decade. Wilson describes it on his website as “a return to [their] synth-pop roots, albeit with the conceptual sweep of [their] more recent albums.” The album’s centerpiece is an idea they’ve spent pretty much their entire time together whacking into shape. The narrative writes itself: a dialectical synthesis of their 90s and 00s work, or, more audaciously, the culmination of No-Man’s entire history, a definitive statement of what No-Man is supposed to sound like.

We know what happens with narratives that haven’t been written yet. The new joint could be brilliant, it could be a stinker, all we have right now is a short preview on Instagram, so we’re acknowledging the whole “magnum opus” idea right now so it doesn’t clog up the post when the time comes to actually write it. Let’s instead content ourselves with what we currently know: the new thing will open a new era in the band’s sound. Convenient, then, that we’re now at an earlier album that did something similar.

That’s not quite true. The style that No-Man was known for in the 00s actually begins with Carolina Skeletons in 1998, and the faded-memory songs off that EP inform the general atmosphere of many of the songs on this album. Here, though, is where the style first explored in Carolina Skeletons reaches maturity. No Defence, for instance, feels like combing through the ruins of an abandoned googie-style building, haunted by the ghosts of everyone who ever set foot inside its doors. All That You Are has a similar effect. We know what to do when we encounter ghosts of the past. Time for an exorcism.

It’s February of 2001. I am now nine. My mom is about to become pregnant with my sister. My dad is becoming increasingly disenchanted at his job, and comes home each day talking about issues with the management that go over my head. (I’ve come to his work once in a while, and there’s a fundamental disconnect between what I see and what he tells us. Everything seems okay…but then I spend all my time on whatever computer was vacant at the time, so I’m not really paying attention.)

More critically, there’s a new President. There’s nothing that poisons your understanding of American democracy quite like (a) having the 2000 election be the first one you have any memories of, and (b) supporting Al Gore. I knew basically nothing about what Bush or Gore actually stood for—I remember something vague about Bush supporting tax cuts, but that’s it, not even Gore’s whole “I invented the internet” thing managed to penetrate my head—but I wanted Gore to win because he was Clinton’s vice president and was a Known Quantity. So I sit down to watch the election and things in Florida promptly go off the rails in a drama that would extend for far too long. Your first election should be something like 1996 that was relatively painless, a demonstration of how elections should take place, not whatever this was. Either way, the end result was this: the wrong guy is in the White House and we’re stuck with him.

The news stories I remember from around this time would have related to the USS Cole bombing and the impending execution of Timothy McVeigh. My parents spent the early months of the Bush administration largely complaining about his environmental policy. We are about to tip over into a recession. And, of course, there’s the unspeakable earth-shattering horror looming a little over half a year away. The world is slowly eating away at my isolated bubble, and the way it slowly dribbled in led me to believe these were isolated incidents and not a part of some greater unraveling. Ignorant of the context of what was happening, I would naively believe that these would all be temporary interruptions and we’d soon go back to normal. Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, the 21st century’s first act was to slowly strangle the end of history.

The people who were making art at the time knew what was coming. Consider some albums: Kid A, released in 2000, too blitzed out on millennial anxiety to even form coherent sentences. Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, also from 2000, a sprawling, nightmarish monument to the imminent eschaton. Lateralus, from May 2001, a paranoia-soaked descent into a spiralling spiritual hypercube, at once liberating and suffocating. Toxicity, released a week before 9/11, a sketch of the 21st century’s looming imperial horrors. Outside music, of course, there’s House of Leaves. Released in 2000, an infinite nesting structure of unreliable narrators and secret codes and other ergodic adventures, a millennial cosmic horror ostensibly about a shapeshifting, malevolent house that’s slightly bigger on the inside (hey!), but which is actually about the point just behind your head, where you are most vulnerable, and the fourth wall will not protect you. The only place where the Minotaur inarguably exists is in your mind, where it is real beyond refute, in all its grandeur and monstrosity. In video games, Deus Ex caught a whiff of the unfolding horror, as technical problems meant the skybox depicting New York City conspicuously omitted the World Trade Center.

And finally, preceding and anticipating them all, Alan Moore’s 1999 spoken-word masterpiece Snakes and Ladders, a Kabbalistic ascent to enlightenment, and all the beauty and terror that flows from it. This is what was in the air at the time, numerous artists seized with the curse of prophecy, speaking in tongues and codes about looming futures too alien and terrifying to ever plainly articulate. After this, the wreckage, and a brave new world, and Boards of Canada writing cryptically about numerology and cult suicides.

If you had an awareness of the world between Princess Di’s death and 9/11, millennial anxiety would eventually filter down to you in some fashion, even if it was as small as momentarily freaking out about the Y2K bug. In 2000/2001, it trickled down to Fish and John Wesley, who were inspired to write A Pilgrim’s Address, about wars gone by and wars yet to come. And at the same time, it also reached Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness, who found themselves with the back half (and especially title track) of Returning Jesus, whose title is clearly reminiscent of a certain key facet of Christian eschatology. In fact, The Second Coming of Christ is a concept so loaded that, once invoked, it immediately collapses the faith into a mystical death cult endlessly chanting apocalyptic prayers and spells within its garish, cavernous halls. (Recall that evangelicals vociferously support the State of Israel entirely because it’s a key player in their end-times rituals.) Perfect for 2001.

According to Tim, the lyrics gesture toward an ignored Messiah, with lyrics like “Follow me down to where I’ll always be” rendered in a delivery that the character believes is inviting but belies a particular lack of confidence, as if they’re questioning whether they’re any sort of savior at all. Set against the desolate instrumentation and the character’s pleading to “slow it all down, it always moves too fast,” the effect is of a character crudely wrenched out of time and space and into an isolating, alienating new world. The past colliding with the present.

And that’s where we are. The period of unease and uncertainty as one era bleeds into another. Broadly, as the 90s give way to the 2000s. More specifically, as I develop a more complete understanding of the outside world. And even more specifically, as No-Man completes its transition from the relatively accessible trip-hop through which they tried to gain a wider audience toward the ambient-inflected art rock that would define their sound in the new century.

I personally am kind of sad to see the funkier (“funkier”) elements of No-Man’s sound go. It lent their music a particular eclecticism and versatility that made their rarities so interesting to listen to. Now it feels like they’re beginning to wall off parts of themselves in an attempt to sound more like one thing instead of many things.

However, and this is important, I don’t want them to return to their old sound. Although I’ve developed more of an appreciation for their 90s material as I’ve gone through it for this blog, for them to return to that sound would nevertheless constitute a regression, even if the music itself was more to my liking. What I want out of No-Man going forward, especially as they prepare to release their newest album, is to be just as varied and interesting as they were in the 90s, but in a completely different way, to push their sounds in directions they haven’t explored yet. Put another way, I may love Dry Cleaning Ray to pieces, but that doesn’t mean they should have spent their entire subsequent career rereleasing Dry Cleaning Ray over and over. Bands need to grow and evolve, and hopefully with Love You To Bits they’ll push their music in a new and exciting direction. Based on the previews we have, it sounds like they will, but we won’t know for certain until the whole thing drops four weeks from now.

  1. Flowermouth
  2. Returning Jesus
  3. Wild Opera
  4. Loveblows and Lovecries: A Confession

Porcupine Tree – Lightbulb Sun

22 May 2000

4 Chords that Made a Million, March 2000
Shesmovedon, July 2000
German tour edition, February 2001
Orchidia, 2003
2003 Intro Music, 2003
2CD remaster, April 2008
2LP edition, 8 July 2008
Clear edition, 2017

[And we’re back. This is a guest post by Emily Nejako, who has more to say about this album than I do.]

Considering its distinctly British aesthetics, if Lightbulb Sun had come out five years earlier, it probably would have been a significantly more popular record. Song-by-song, it gets a lot of praise in fan circles, but it’s considered to have the loosest structure and no coherent theme. Except it totally does have a theme.

What is Lightbulb Sun about?

  1. Failed relationships
  2. Nostalgia
  3. Living in a small town
  4. Being real fucking depressed about all of the above

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

At the turn of the millennium, Steven seemed explosively bitter that he wouldn’t be able to break through into the mainstream, expressing these feelings all throughout the 2000s. If it weren’t for his lack of awareness of it in the future, Steven almost could have won the emo crowd over if he kept going on the same tangents from this album. They could have just put Richard in a too-tall shirt and a beanie like Crazy Town did to their drummer. It’s not like Steven was about to be upset about looking too pop — it is very ironic to listen to Steven rant about the evils of shiny, shallow pretty pop stars knowing that he would immediately go out on the road preaching those ideals in low-rise jeans, painted nails, and a crop-top shirt, at his skinniest and squeakiest-clean. I see you, Avril.

If you wanted to draw a direct line from this album to something in the emo canon it’d pretty obviously be From Under The Cork Tree, what with its simultaneous concern about love and failure. Stupid Dream is centered around Steven’s raw desire to be remembered, and the pitfalls therein, but Lightbulb Sun marks when he becomes the most conflicted about specifically wanting to be a famous musician, even if it packs all of that rage into Four Chords That Made A Million.

And maybe it’s that misplaced specificity that knocks the wind out of Lightbulb Sun’s ambitions. In Hatesong, Steven clearly wants to be pointed — it’s one of the angriest songs he’s written, because it has a rollicking solo and a chugging groove that gets you in the brooding mood, but the lyrics are fairly skimpy. Get Busy Living Or Get Busy Dying, on the other hand, is a song that would actually make someone want to sue. Pete is dancing circles around the person he hates, and Patrick sings it in one of the most effective performances of his life. They know it hurts, and it was meant to.

Out of the three extended songs on the album, it’s really Last Chance to Evacuate Earth Before It’s Recycled that fails to stay in people’s minds these days. It’s very good at evoking the sweet, pastoral atmosphere of Winding Shot (its opening passage) but when it leads into the Marshall Applewhite passage…it just falls apart! The sample kind of feels like the sort of Hail Mary someone would try if they were trying to rip off Porcupine Tree without really understanding why Steven references murderers and cults and stuff.

In contrast, Where We Would Be is an all killer no filler approach to the nostalgic concept. It’s just that instead of writing a Fall Out Boy-style title, Steven wrote an Oasis-style song, complete with extravagant guitar noodling and a body-slamming wall of sound mix. It sounds kind of weird that Steven would start the album out picking on Oasis and his other emptier contemporaries and then start totally aping them. Perhaps you could interpret it as him trying to show off how it’s done.

It’s interesting noting that themes are repeated fairly closely within the album with very slight changes in perspective to distinguish them — not quite something Steve would always do, but certainly something From Under The Cork Tree does. Here is a fun table!

Nostalgia/this town Breakups Depression/suicide Angry or catty Being famous Beatles or Britpop pastiche Very long title
Lightbulb Sun X
Our Lawyer Made Us… X X X X
How Is Your Life Today? X X X
Of All The Gin Joints In All The World X X
Four Chords That Made A Million X X X
Dance, Dance X X X
Shesmovedon X X
Sugar, We’re Going Down X X
Last Chance to Evacuate… X Well, I GUESS. X X
Nobody Puts Baby In The Corner X X X
The Rest Will Flow X
I’ve Got A Dark Alley… X X X X X
Hatesong X X X
7 Minutes In Heaven (Ativan Halen) X X
Where We Would Be X X X X
Sophomore Slump Or Comeback Of The Year X X X
Russia On Ice X X X
Champagne For My Real Friends… X X X X
Feel So Low X X
I Slept With Someone In Fall Out Boy… X X X
A Little Less Sixteen Candles… X X X X X
Get Busy Living Or Get Busy Dying X X X X X
XO X X

Note The Rest Will Flow. Put a pin in that.

So, instead of “the” Lightbulb Sun coming out five years earlier and sliding in alongside Oasis, “a” Lightbulb Sun five years later would have done gangbusters if it had been made by much younger (here is where Steven would add “more beautiful”) American guys.

Even though most people usually chalk Lightbulb Sun up as one of the least dark Porcupine Tree albums, its negativity hits a lot harder than say, Signify or In Absentia because its aesthetics skew a little more towards what was popular at the time. A lot of the choices made to appeal to the mainstream that Steven’s ever made are related to Lightbulb Sun, like including Four Chords That Made A Million exclusively so it could be put out as a single, or re-recording Shesmovedon as an American single for Deadwing. Lightbulb Sun is, so to speak, Porcupine Tree flying the closest to the sun, trying its hardest, and falling anyway because they’re trying to put Beatles pastiches and aggressive grooves in the middle of Robert Riding Lawnmower’s Jethro Tull marathon.

Obviously all this fussing puts Steve’s rep in a weird place for the next, oh, twenty years.

There are a lot of angry comments about how Steven’s behavior in the past year or two flies in the face of everything he stood for — which, perhaps it does. The boy band rant Steven anxiously recited over and over during the Lightbulb Sun tour rang in the ears of Porcupine Tree fans for decades, so that’s what people remembered and told others to expect. Predictably, Steven seemingly doing a 180 about pop music and happily playing Permanating pissed people off. But being angry about Steven well and truly falling in love with another human being crosses a line, doesn’t it? Is that really okay to bitch about incessantly on Facebook?

A lot of people have attached their feelings to sad songs, and Steven’s ability to tap into sadness with accuracy is one of his biggest strengths. Therefore we think he’s just as depressed as we are. That assumption has a kernel of truth in that his work at the turn of the millennium, including Lightbulb Sun, feels the most like they were based on his real feelings. There’s almost no artifice to these songs the way there is for In Absentia or Fear Of A Blank Planet. There’s no Porcupine Tree album where Steven’s lyrics are as consistently direct, cutting, and specifically about himself.

Steven Wilson, the Prince of Prog, prime dopamine inhibitor, wet blanket supreme, loving pop music and a beautiful woman and cute little kids, pisses us off because we don’t see an ability to find that happiness within ourselves. It is our depression telling us we could never be that happy, and we thought he couldn’t be that happy either because he’s like us.

A lot of fans will focus on Routine and Raven now, and ignore how his talent in writing about other people’s suffering comes from his talent at expressing his own despair, heartbreak, and anger — as well as his own happiness. The important thing about Steven Wilson isn’t that he’s completely depressed, or even as chipper as he asserts he is in interviews. He is just empathetic, almost to a fault, and his writing understands human feelings in a way that few artists really get to attain. That’s because he understands every facet of himself, and can stretch those attributes out to make art that other people can relate to, whether they’re doing as well as him or not.

This isn’t meant to be another cold “Steve only writes sadboi shit” take. The automatic assumption that Steven’s writing has no depth beyond melancholy and suffering is a serious annoyance that clouds up even his own perception of his work.

Like how he kept saying that The Rest Will Flow is his only happy song, when it’s not even really that happy. It’s actually the most poignant song on the album, specifically because it’s placed in the middle of a shit sandwich, acting as a moment of clarity in a depressive fog. I think somewhere deep down, Steven was able to perceive that, and he always thought to bring it up because it sounds happy in the midst of a sad catalogue. It’s not a happiness-ever-after that provides closure to the album’s story. It is fleeting. Just like any happiness.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t any hope. After many years of proclaiming himself single, childless, and focused on making music in solitude forever, Steven Wilson is finally married to a beautiful woman he isn’t afraid to call the love of his life: Rotem Rom, credited in the liner notes of Lightbulb Sun.

All of the rest will flow.

Ted’s ranking:

  1. The Sky Moves Sideways
  2. Lightbulb Sun
  3. Up the Downstair
  4. Stupid Dream
  5. On the Sunday of Life
  6. Signify

God – Panic Underneath the Arches

Recorded 1987 and 1993
Released 27 September 2019

When working on a project like this, there’s always the inevitability that some old unknown rarity or something might reappear, long after the blog has passed when the old thing was actually recorded. My gut instinct is usually to splice it in somewhere on the next post that goes online, like, “oh hey, before we start, here’s something we missed but is now available, let’s talk about it now.” This, though, requires a bit more than just an offhand comment in a post that’s about something else.

On 14 August 2019, the Steve vault coughed up one heckuva juvenilium: God. Not, in fact, Kevin Martin’s industrial ensemble active at around the same time; but instead one of those little on-off side projects that never went anywhere, just Steven Wilson and some dude stage name Ford last name Leggott farting around in the studio in their off time. This would have been in the late 80s and early 90s, when No-Man and Porcupine Tree were both ramping up, and if I may lean into trite conventional narratives for a second, when you’re juggling so many projects it’s inevitable one will fall by the wayside. That it was this one became all the more attractive upon realizing that this Ford fella was focusing on acting at the same time, with all the associated scheduling issues. They never toured or had any official releases, but before Wilson and Ford went their separate ways, they still left behind a small corpus of material recorded in 1987 and 1993, from which was culled the three tracks that appear on Panic Underneath the Arches.

God claims inspiration mostly from new wave pop such as Talking Heads, Japan, and Magazine. Naturally, then, City and Bad Dreams, the songs from the ‘93 session, both sound a lot like if early No-Man was a bit noisier. In fact, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine Tim Bowness blowing out his voice trying to howl “WELCOMMME TO GROOVYTOWN” during City’s chorus. Ford’s delivery, though, is very different from Bowness’, dripping with cocky, swaggering, almost Gallagher-esque arrogance that serves him well here. He’s a jerk, and he knows it, and he wants you to know it, and we believe him.

This can be problematic when the song calls for not being a jerk. Love, the sole offering from the ‘87 session, is clearly the product of an earlier age. The production is rough in the way a lot of Wilson’s 80s work is rough, sounding more obviously like a cleaned-up demo, and the way the reverb is slathered across the guitar and Ford’s vox gives it a very…of its time atmosphere. This is also the one place where Ford’s delivery falters, as this is a slow story-of-misfortune song of the sort Tim Bowness would fine-tune a decade later, the sort of thing that needs the tenderness and empathy that he can deliver in spades. Ford, meanwhile, tries his best to present himself as that sort of person in this song, but his chronic lack of vocal range betrays the facade for what it is. He’s much more at home with the funky, fast-paced, city-timelapse-in-long-exposure material from the ‘93 session.

I’m not quite sure where God falls in the pantheon of old Wilson oddities. I like what I’m hearing well enough, but at the same time I’m not exactly itching to hear more from this project, especially when Loveblows and Lovecries exists and does much of what God sets out to do, but better. Ultimately, what makes God worthwhile is not what it represents in and of itself but what it says about what animates one of the people who recorded it.

Some pertinent chunks of Wilson’s history. Much of No-Man’s output in the 90s is a tug-of-war between writing accessible pop music (Loveblows and Lovecries) and artier niche music (Flowermouth). Consider that Wilson and Bowness felt it was worth spending three years paying attention to music industry trends and demands at all. God’s music is partially inspired by Japan, and here at the same time City and Bad Dreams were recorded Wilson was in the formative stages of a working relationship with someone who was actually in the band. The touring band Wilson formed after Porcupine Tree dissolved prominently features a guy who scored a #1 new wave hit in 1983. Wilson’s password to Livingston Studios during the making of Deadwing was “international pop star.” He’s collaborated with not one but two big names in the Israeli pop music world. Stupid Dream and To the Bone exist. And now here we are, looking at newly-unearthed pop music, some of which was recorded the same year that No-Man and Porcupine Tree first became something recognizable as themselves.

For as much as Wilson has animosity toward the mainstream music industry, as much as he despairs at the state of contemporary pop music, as much as he talks a good game about doing what he wants and not caring what other people think, and as much as the King Crimson T-shirt portion of his fanbase may want that to be true (because that obviously means more dense 70s prog, right?), there’s clearly still a part of him that really, really wants to be a pop superstar. There is a tension between the part of him that wants to make pop music accessible to everyone and the part of him that wants to make weird, bizarre music that maybe only two people would “get.” What we learn with the release of Panic Underneath the Arches is that this tension goes all the way back to when music first became a serious concern for him, and is, in fact, foundational to our understanding of Steven Wilson as a musician. This is going to come up again.