Porcupine Tree – Stars Die: Rare & Unreleased

February 1999

Here’s an ephemerum for you. This is a Polish cassette anthology entirely unrelated to the Stars Die compilation released in 2002. Given its rarity, and the fact that every song on here can be found elsewhere, it only got its own entry because I’d confused it with its more well-known counterpart. Fortunately, though, some of the songs on here come from the Waiting single, which was folded into the Signify entry and, thanks to that post’s focus on something else entirely, not covered at all. So here’s an excuse to sort them out while we wrap up the Space Era.

The album title is a bit of a misnomer, as all of these songs were previously released in some form or another. Most of Side A is sourced from the Waiting single, with the exception of the live version of Up the Downstair, which comes from Coma Divine II, released the previous month. Side B is basically Insignificance cut down to cassette length. From the Waiting single we have three tracks we’ve not covered before: The Sound of No-One Listening, Colourflow in Mind, and Fuse the Sky.

The Sound of No-One Listening is an eight-minute instrumental that both does and does not sound like an alternate-universe version of The Sky Moves Sideways, in that they sound nothing alike, but they share similar aesthetic sensibilities and an ambient-quiet-loud-quiet-ambient sound structure. After this, Colourflow in Mind, a quintessential slow Space Era song. In the context of the Waiting single it already feels…not quite old, but certainly of a slightly earlier time. In the context of this compilation, and this compilation specifically, it also feels like the Space Era mourning itself.

Fuse the Sky…now here’s an interesting one. We’re already familiar with the alternate demo version of The Sky Moves Sideways, the thirty-five minute single track that feels decidedly unfinished. Fuse the Sky presents a markedly different way to complete it: make it sound a bit like Bass Communion instead. This largely comes from the lone synthesized horn that appears about a minute in and carries us through to the lazy, bubbly guitars that signal the song’s about to actually start. There’s also some other electronic flourishes sprinkled here and there, and the thing starts with the sound of waves breaking on a shore, and it’s all very relaxed and lovely. I’m not sure if this particular remix’s aesthetic could be sustained throughout the whole of The Sky Moves Sideways, but it’s a neat trick nonetheless.

I should probably note here that the mystical significance of Fuse the Sky comes entirely from its status as a reworking of a demo of a landmark song in the band’s discography, and thus the basic satisfaction that comes with reshaping something old into something new. Its placement on this collection therefore serves essentially as a commentary on the ritual now that it’s done. This may pale in comparison to the grand acts of destruction and creation occurring alongside it, but that’s okay. A magical ritual need not have some grand purpose for being carried out. The one I’m writing certainly doesn’t.

Now, as for the magical ritual that does…we’ve already established that Insignificance was an effort to stake out what exactly constitutes the “Space Era” that needs to be destroyed. We’ve also already established that Nine Cats is significant in this whole affair, as a song that has existed both before the Space Era’s beginning and at the Space Era’s end. So, it’s only fitting that here, long after the Space Era’s been destroyed and its ruins are sinking back into the earth, that we find Nine Cats reprised one last time, as the final track on the final Porcupine Tree release before Stupid Dream and the Alternative Era come storming in. The instrumentation remains sparse, the lyrics remain incomprehensible. I still don’t know what all this meant. I still don’t know why I was sent.

I was not sent. I stumbled upon Porcupine Tree by pure happenstance thanks to a Wikipedia-walk that landed on Steven Wilson’s page, and I was bored/curious enough to check his music out. Wilson was not sent. That his demo tape was rescued from the Delerium slush pile instead of anyone else’s can be chalked up to sheer chance. None of this means anything. Alan Duffy’s lyrics exist to communicate a feeling of storybook whimsy, of tangerine trees and marmalade skies, versus anything concrete about his life or the human condition or the world at large. This tape is an entirely insignificant (ayyy) and extraneous entry in Porcupine Tree’s discography, to the point where I’d be surprised if they’d have known about its release had Häberle not mentioned it in his discography and brought it to their attention. In the absence of any external meaning, we’re left to construct our own.

Fortunately, we’ve already built a small legendarium around this portion of Porcupine Tree’s history. In addition, the ritual to destroy the Space Era and replace it with the Alternative Era is basically complete, as all we need to do with Stupid Dream is actually release the damn thing. Now what.

Let’s try this. The reinvocation of Nine Cats, here amongst the ruins, serves a twofold purpose. The first is to contain the ritual within itself. This was necessary, as the ritual to destroy the Space Era required a Space Era to draw its individual elements from. Essentially, Wilson made the Space Era destroy itself, and this was a way to tie everything off. The second is a corollary to the first: reinvoking Nine Cats here changes the song’s purpose within the ritual. Alan Duffy’s nonsense lyrics are no longer just the landmark through which we sketch out the borders of this thing called the “Space Era.” They’re now the incantation through which its bloated, twitching corpse is finally cremated, allowing the Alternative Era to rise from its ashes. It is, in essence, the mechanism through which we create a rupture.

We are going to build a new world, and we are going to build it wrong.

Happy New Year. Catalogue. Preserve. Amass. will return in February.

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Porcupine Tree – Metanoia

December 1998

First, some housekeeping notes. I’m travelling these next few weeks, so the next post on this blog, on IEM’s An Escalator to Christmas, will appear on 22 December. (Natch.)

Second, one of the stops on my little world tour will be the Steven Wilson show in Sayreville, New Jersey, because it would be out of character otherwise. I’ll also be at the signing for Home Invasion at Vintage Vinyl in Fords. If you, too, are there, you’ll know me when you see me. Trust me.

Third, that is a wonderfully bisexual album cover. Now, then. To the goods.

Metanoia is a bundle of transitions and contradictions, starting right there in the name. The title of the album is taken from a psychological term describing the breakdown and reconstruction of one’s psyche…the parallels to their change in sound during this time is irresistible. Wilson and the band are largely secular people and may not think of themselves as witches, but they had to have known what they were doing. One need not believe in witchcraft to be a witch.

Most of this album is improvisations recorded in Cambridge and Henley during 1995 and 1996, and thus serves as the primordial soup from which the songs on Signify emerged. The album itself, though, was the last thing Porcupine Tree would release during the Space Era, aside from a small Polish collection of B-sides prefiguring the Stars Die compilation. Which means its role in the ritual is twofold: it’s the Alternative Era in its most elementary, embryonic form; and it’s the last stand of the Space Era, what a genre-minded Porcupine Tree snob at the time would describe as a “return to form” if it didn’t stem from before they changed their sound.

This is an hour of pure, unfiltered psychedelia right here. A lot of it sounds like a further development of the sort of thing they got up to in Voyage 34 and the Moonloop improvisation, which I think highlights their development as a band: the Metanoia improvisations are more complex than the other two, with Metanoia II in particular standing out with the Patented Steven Wilson Guitar Freakout at the end. And of course, Maitland’s drumming. Maitland was naturally a quite manic drummer, something he’d often have to tone down for the studio recordings, but here and in Coma Divine he goes wild, and it is something to behold.

And yet, and yet, and yet. Despite everything Metanoia represents in terms of where the band is and where they’re going, the improvisations are, in a vacuum, not all that interesting.

Here’s where we take a sharp left turn and talk for a moment about what friend of the blog Emily calls “Fall Out Boy Rules.” Fall Out Boy Rules, which is essentially just one rule, boils down to the following: the goodness of any Fall Out Boy album is, in part, directly proportional to how different it is to the album that came before it. This was, in part, crafted to counter the incessant whining from a certain phalanx of the FOB Faithful that they’re not just remaking Take This To Your Grave over and over again, but it also hits at an essential truth of what makes musician good: they grow and evolve over time. The only band that can get away with churning out the same album ad infinitum is AC/DC, everyone else has to change things up.

This despite the fact that Fall Out Boy Rules are very much not applicable to Porcupine Tree. Lightbulb Sun sounds a lot like Stupid Dream and is great. Deadwing sounds a lot like In Absentia and is also great. Meanwhile, Signify sounds radically different from The Sky Moves Sideways and is PT’s worst album. Ultimately the issue with Porcupine Tree is with them, there’s more weight placed on how the sound changes over how much the sound changes. Lightbulb Sun distills the positive aspects of Stupid Dream. Likewise Deadwing with In Absentia. Both albums are the band growing comfortable with how they changed their sound on the album that came before. So with that in mind, let’s take Metanoia’s direct antecedent as the Moonloop improvisations. What are the differences?

Well, we’ve already established that Metanoia’s more complex, jazzy, and improvised than Moonloop was. This is the band growing more comfortable with each other, knowing what everyone responds to and how they think, musically, so they’re able to take more risks. This should be an improvement. And yet, what made the Moonloop improvisations so compelling was the simplicity, how they managed to move rhythmically along and only change just enough to retain our attention. In contrast, the Metanoia improvisations seem freighted with unnecessary baggage. I stand by my previous statement that this album is an orgasmic psychedelic explosion, but all the same there’s the definite feeling that this is almost a remix of the Moonloop improvisations, and what changes were made overcomplicate things, providing the clearest evidence yet that they’ve essentially hit a dead end with what they could do with the Space Era sound. This ritual is really necessary.

This is a long way of saying that the best thing on the album is a weird almost-hidden-track at the very end, when the guitar freakout closing out Metanoia II deflates and cedes the floor to Milan.

Milan is absolutely bizarre. It was recorded (“recorded”) during the Coma Divine tour, in the eponymous city. It is two and a half minutes of a conversation between Glenn Povey and the band about what to get for dinner. Except Porcupine Tree and Milan are just two great tastes that do not taste great together, as Wilson and Maitland both separately make a mockery of the things Italy’s most important city is famous for. Milan’s known for its food; meanwhile, Steven Wilson is a vegetarian and this particular venue is not, er, friendly to someone with his dietary needs. Milan’s also known for its fashion; meanwhile, Chris Maitland turns out to be comically overdressed for the evening and wants so very desperately to sink into the floor, and Povey can barely keep a straight face at the sight of him.

This was recorded delightfully amateurishly, too. Everyone’s talking over each other. There’s a slight echo at certain places. The background noise is almost deafening, drowning out anyone unlucky enough to be too far away from the recording equipment. At one point you can hear muffled scraping noises as the microphone is moved around. If this were made today, it would be recorded on a digital camera, using its built-in mic, and indeed it feels like there’s video to this that we haven’t seen. I wish there was, so we could’ve had an eyeful of Maitland’s amazing dinner-theatre en-sem-bluh. Milan is not particularly daring, it was clearly thrown on for a laugh, but it is unique, and most importantly, it’s interestingly unique, a counterpoint to the structure and polish characterizing most of Porcupine Tree’s discography.

It also serves a purpose in the ritual. The Metanoia improvisations were belched out in ‘95 and ‘96 and were released in ‘98, threatening to escape the confines of the circle entirely. However, Milan again confines this unruly spore to a very specific place and time: the communal kitchen at the Leoncavallo, in that city, on 29 March 1997, conveniently, the same month and country as the shows recorded for Coma Divine. Meanwhile, construction of the Alternative Era continues apace.

It’s December 1998. Porcupine Tree have just signed with Snapper Records to release a new, more song-oriented album. The album itself has already been completed and, happily, just needed a sympathetic and amply-resourced distributor. Everything’s in place; we just have to make our finishing move.

No-Man – Lost Songs, Vol. 1

Recorded 1991-1997
Released July 2001

Hello, my name is Ted (hiiii Teeeed) and after three albums and God only knows how many EPs, singles, and compilations I still have no idea what it is I want out of No-Man.

It’s pretty well established at this point that thus far there’s been a particular tension between No-Man’s natural, ambient side and their synthetic, electronic side. Up to and through Loveblows and Lovecries, I had a clear preference for the electronic elements of their music, on the grounds that the ambient stuff was easier to screw up. Then, following a marathon listen of all their studio albums, I decided I actually preferred the ambient stuff, because they actually did knock it out of the park in Flowermouth and Together We’re Stranger. This would persist through the Wild Opera era, even to the point that I would declare that what I want out of No-Man is Together We’re Stranger rereleased ad infinitum. This would continue right up until last week, where I said the electronic bits of Dry Cleaning Ray worked because they tried to do something different with them. This when I had completely missed a more fundamental realization: the electronic bits were actually working again at all.

And…oh yes. The one song I couldn’t find off of Heaven Taste, the 1995 update of Bleed. During the course of writing this review, I found it, and holy crap, they made it work. It’s dark and ominous and unsettling in all the best ways, all taut and tense for the first five minutes before exploding into this furious, absolutely brutal wall of sound that’s the closest these guys will probably ever come to straight-up harsh noise. This new version of Bleed is one of the best songs No-Man have ever written, and it’s composed entirely of stuff I thought I hated about their sound.

And then I come to this compilation of castoffs and demos, and my understanding of what No-Man is and should be is thrown into the air again.

As befits a collection of castoffs and demos, this album is an eclectic survey of every conceivable side of No-Man’s musical personality, and if any of my assumptions about what they were good at held water, I’d be able to tell pretty easily which songs would be good and which wouldn’t. But instead it turns out pretty much everything here is consistently excellent.

Some highlights. Samaritan Snare, which basically does the Dry Cleaning Ray bluesy noir schtick but with added Theo Travis. The version of Soft Shoulder dusted off here, yet another reason I’m just straight-up confused about what I want out of No-Man because here they took the weakest point of that song and not only placed it front and center but actually made it work. Amateurwahwah, with its simple yet powerful keyboards and booming drums that could almost have been recorded by John Bonham himself. The closing track, Coming Through Slaughter, which sounds like No-Man coming into contact with a chunk of Hand. Cannot. Erase. that broke off and drifted about twenty years into the past.

Now for the highlights featuring Wilson in more than the usual capacity: All The Reasons is generic No-Man, yes, but it’s especially well-done generic No-Man, and it’s got Wilson on backing vocals. Never mind that he’s just going “maybe in time~” or something like that and it’s buried relatively far back in the mix, it’s still amazing. Likewise, Love Among the White Trash, which is probably the closest thing these two irreligious men will ever get to writing a gospel song. Paradub is a little something Wilson seems to have banged out during an improvisational session and it sounds great.

I could go on. But ultimately, there is not a dud amongst these songs. Not one. This was kind of surprising to me considering it’s (a) No-Man, a chunk of Wilson’s musical history that only becomes more opaque the deeper I dive into it, and (b) it’s a castoff album. These are not songs that are supposed to be good. Wilson’s own reflection on recording these songs sound like he was trying to turn a turd into a hamburger but was only partially successful. And yet, here we are.

But there is some solace to be found here. Throughout much of the 90s No-Man was pinging between trip hop and synthpop and art rock and dream pop, caught between the zeitgeist, a residual concern of the One Little Indian days bubbling up even now, and their own understanding of what would be meaningful music. A truly definite No-Man “sound” would not fully coalesce until Returning Jesus, four years later. So while I may not know what I want out of No-Man anymore, it’s somewhat heartening to know that No-Man really didn’t, either.

No-Man – Dry Cleaning Ray

May 1997

Seeing as how they’re made up of, well, what they’re made of, B-side/remix EPs are generally a bit more eclectic and experimental than the albums they follow up. Sometimes this means the songs are inconsistent and the record scattershot, but not here. The inherent experimental nature of Dry Cleaning Ray works in its favor because the Wild Opera era is already supposed to be No-Man at their most experimental. As it happens, a lot of the experiments here are pretty dark and noir-influenced…which means that Dry Cleaning Ray consistently hits the atmospheric notes that Wild Opera, which was ultimately afraid of the darkness it was hesitantly probing, reached only on occasion. Put another way: I said in the Wild Opera post that that album was afraid to make the plunge into the abyss. Dry Cleaning Ray understands there’s no point in half-measures and dives in headfirst.

Incidentally, Dry Cleaning Ray is another data point in favor of No-Man’s ultimate abandonment of trip-hop. Consider a song like Jack the Sax, which takes the guitar from Wake As Gun, back in Insignificance, and wraps a song around it that sounds like something Beth Gibbons should really cover someday. Despite the early-Portishead comparison in that last sentence, there is no trip-hop on this song whatsoever, instead sounding like something the femme fatale in a noir movie would sing in a smoky club lounge in the middle of the night…and because of that it works much better than many of the songs in Wild Opera, which now feel as though the trip-hop elements were actively holding them back.

(This doesn’t mean all the trip-hop songs on this album are terrible—Diet Mothers and Urban Disco are great counterexamples—but like I’ve said before it’s pretty easy to tell with No-Man when the trip-hop is perfunctory and when it’s the genre the song demands to be in.)

(There’s no good place anywhere to weave this in, but I was also really impressed with Punished for Being Born, in which Bryn “Muslimgauze” Jones, who we’ll get to in considerably more detail once we hit his collaboration with Bass Communion, takes Housewives Hooked on Heroin, pulls it apart, and reconstructs it into something unrecognizably abrasive and nightmarish.)

But of course the highlight of the album is Sicknote. This song is not overtly menacing, necessarily. There’s some nice guitar work in the front, accentuated with a tinkly, slightly off-key music box. However. About three minutes in an extremely distorted, fuzzed-out guitar bursts in the left channel and goes berserk in the background for about two minutes. After that, the song brings in some creepy reversed tape loops. Throughout, Bowness sings in his usual manner, but the fragility and vulnerability in his voice here turns him into someone experiencing sheer existential terror and is trying valiantly to hold it together for appearances. I’m writing this on Thursday evening, June 14, 2018. Saturday marks three years since a certain stupefyingly racist New York landlord with a spray tan, a bad toupee, and delusions of grandeur descended the escalator of his Manhattan fortress and announced his candidacy for President of the United States. I’m editing this on Sunday evening, October 7, 2018. Yesterday, the Senate narrowly confirmed for the Supreme Court a volatile, nakedly authoritarian justice nominated specifically to further entrench fascism in the US and endanger the rights of anyone not of the herrenvolk. We know what existential terror feels like.

Speaking of which, the rumble. Throughout the entirety of Sicknote there is a very low, ominous rumble churning away, very far back in the mix. You might forget it’s there in the middle of the song, when more interesting things are happening up front, but it’s there. Never getting closer or louder, just…biding its time. It provides some clarification of what precisely Bowness is so scared of, while leaving just enough unanswered that we fill in the blanks ourselves, where it’s sure to be even more terrifying.

In some ways, Sicknote feels like an embryonic incarnation of Rabbits, David Lynch’s surreal “sitcom” that takes the superficial tropes and conventions of the genre and plunges them straight into the uncanny valley. The rumble in the song serves a similar purpose to the rain and low cello drones in the background of the miniseries. The squealing guitar halfway through calls forward to the burning cigarette hole that appears in a few episodes. And both have that very particular unsettling, vaguely menacing air about them that instinctively causes the viewer or listener to back away slightly. And in that respect, Sicknote really is a sick song, subtly visceral in tone, and the one song that most completely captures the atmosphere the Wild Opera era was shooting for. Dry Cleaning Ray is what Wild Opera should have been, and Sicknote is how Wild Opera should have ended.

Porcupine Tree – Insignificance

March 1997

Oh yes, that reference to the parent album is quite oblique, isn’t it? Ehhhh?

Before we begin, a summary of what I had to skip over.

First: Mike Heron’s Where the Mystics Swim. Mister Heron is most well-known as a member of the Incredible String Band, a pioneering psychedelic folk group active in the 60s and 70s. I’d have used this post as an excuse to document the history of his most well-known musical project, with, naturally, a particular focus on how they plunged headfirst into Scientology right as the high and beautiful wave broke and the attendant effects it had on their music. Problem is, I have no idea if the Steven Wilson who engineered this album is our Steven Wilson. I can totally see our Wilson taking on a project like this with the hero of another musical story, but the only source I could find was Discogs, which can be, er, unreliable with the attribution sometimes.

Second: Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri’s Lumen, a live album recorded in November 1996 but not released until 2015. Wilson’s a guest performer. I’d have taken the opportunity to revisit the songs on this album and see if I could still stand by my initial opinion of them, but I can’t seem to find the damn thing.

Thus, to Insignificance, our happy little collection of demos and b-sides from the Signify sessions and Part Two of our attempt to usher in the Alternative Era. This boy comes in two versions. The first is the cassette released in 1997, and the second was the version released as the second disc of Signify for its 2-CD remaster in 2003. The 2003 version kicked out two tracks included in Metanoia, split another, and added a second. The changes are relatively minor and don’t seriously affect the listening experience until the very end.

Our best move here is probably separating all the tracks on this album into two parts—the originals unique to this album and the demos—and take them one at a time.

THE OLD

Hallogallo/Signify: These two were split up in the 2003 rerelease, but really, if you’re gonna smoosh ‘em together like this, you treat ‘em as one thing. Which they are. Because playing them back to back like this only reinforces that one grew out of the other.

Waiting: This is a seven-minute version of the finished album’s two-part not-quite-centerpiece. Phase One is not Signify’s best song, but it was the only song on the album that could be said to chart a path forward for the band, as pretty much everything else represents either their current sound’s death rattle or a flailing attempt to try something different. The Insignificance demo is pretty close to what we eventually got with Phase One. (Well, okay, the guitar solo is a bit less elaborate.) The expansion of Phase Two into its own thing on the full album, however, was unquestionably the right choice.

Sever Tomorrow: Definitely prefer the album version. The lyrics flow a little better there, especially the “America calls” line. Also, the demo has those pitched-up, distorted voices from more whimsical days, and they risk defusing what is otherwise a very tense atmosphere.

Dark Origins: WHEE MORE FUN WITH TITLES AMIRITE? This is clearly an early version of Dark Matter. It’s just as polished as the album version, but only the rhythm section is complete, so it sounds the way a house looks when the left side is fully built and furnished and hooked up to the relevant utilities and ready to move in, but the right side is still a hole in the ground. Those vocalizations in particular just scream “I have no idea what we’re doing here but let’s throw this in to fill space.” We need that ethereal acoustic guitar and Wilson singing about how bored he is on the tour van. We need that snazzy instrumental section filling up the song’s back half. It’s disquietingly incomplete otherwise.

THE NEW

Wake As Gun I & II: Technically two songs, the first opens the album, the second is plopped in the middle as a reprise, and I honestly don’t think it was impactful enough the first time to really demand one. (Contrast Breathe from everyone’s favorite Pink Floyd album. Although I’m not really sure what I’d do with the freakout at the end of II…) First one’s nice enough on its own, though. And, yes, my ears did prick up upon hearing the “bloodless and inspired” line.

Smiling Not Smiling: It’s considerably more lo-fi and unpolished than everything else on the album, and I don’t know if it’s supposed to be like that or if the band soured on the song really early in the recording process. Despite the sweet slide guitar, this is probably my least favorite song on the album, and I don’t know if its clearly work-in-progress nature has anything to do with it.

Neural Rust: This sounds, in parts, vaguely similar to The Sky Moves Sideways (Phase Two). Oh dear.

Door to the River: Definitely fits better in Metanoia than it ever possibly could on Signify.

Insignificance: Another instrumental that’s a bit too spacey for this album, but that bass. Oh man, that bass. It’s Karn tier. I love it. Four for you, Colin.

THE BORROWED

Cryogenics: Unreleased and sporadically performed in 1995 and 1997. Grew out of what would eventually appear on Metanoia, but covering it in the Metanoia entry, with how I plan to write about it, just seems like an intrusion. So it’s here instead. I do not like it. I think it sounds cacophonic and self-indulgent. I totally understand why it was left off the live album it was intended for. I also understand why it was stripped for spare parts when writing The Creator Has A Mastertape.

THE BLUE

Nine Cats: Well now. Welcome back. I was having lunch while listening to this album for the first time, and when the vocals kicked in I distinctly remember dropping my fork in shock upon discovering precisely what I was hearing.

This is a fully acoustic solo arrangement of Nine Cats, recorded at Chez Mama and Papa Wilson in 1995. Since this is the third version of this song we’ve encountered thus far, Nine Cats now feels like something with a fully developed arc, slowly moving from the psychedelic version we first experienced with Karma in 1983, to the stripped-back but still electric version we heard in 1991, finally culminating with the fully unplugged version we have today in 1997.

There’s a music video that plays in my head when I hear this version. I imagine Wilson in 1997, alone on an anonymous bare stage, sitting on a stool with an acoustic guitar. No audience. He starts playing the song. While he’s singing the second verse, Wilson from 1991 walks on with an acoustic guitar and a stool of his own, and sets up to his right. When the third verse begins, 1991!SW joins in, and Wilson from 1983 walks on with his own guitar and stool, and sets up to 1997!Wilson’s left. Starting with the instrumental section following the third verse, they all play together.

Once the fourth verse ends, 1991!Wilson gets off his stool and leaves. 1983!Wilson follows after the fifth verse. Ultimately, the Wilson of 1997 is left alone again onstage to finish the song. Once he’s done, he too gets up and leaves, leaving three empty stools on which the camera lingers for a few seconds before fading out.

Cheesy? Probably. But I think it illustrates the song’s significance as a musical thread pulling together these three different periods in Wilson’s musical evolution. And, naturally, its inclusion in Insignificance is a big part of why everything Porcupine Tree released between Signify and Stupid Dream could be described as a magical ritual to kickstart the Alternative Era. Signify vaguely suggested a way forward, but to fully develop the new sound we have to do something about the old sound. And to do that, we have to nail down precisely what it is we’re destroying. We gotta sketch out the territory.

Porcupine Tree – Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape

Recorded 1989-1991, Released 1994, Remastered 2013

INTERVIEWER!SW: “You did mention recently in an interview in New Musical Express that you were considering issuing a box of unreleased demos and–”

MUSICIAN!SW: “Well, the thing at the moment, the way the money’s going, I think the box will be as far as we get, an empty box.”

[Ten solid seconds of laughter]

INTERVIEWER!SW: “I see.”

There’s a lot of stuff that happened between the release of On the Sunday of Life and this thing, don’t think we’ve forgotten, but this thing consists of most of what didn’t make it on Sunday, so we may as well knock this out while we’re here.

Most of what was relegated to Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape are some of the more ambient/experimental tracks from Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm and The Nostalgia Factory, aka the ones primarily responsible for wrecking their flow and causing them to drag. This is not to say that the songs, when considered in a vacuum, are terrible. Mute, for instance, is very good and performs spectacularly in its role as album opener. An Empty Box, The Cross, and the title track are also excellent. But (a) it’s no coincidence that those three are some of the more structured songs on the album, and (b) I have a very hard time finding a place to slot them in on Sunday. So here they are.

Furthermore, even though this album contains some of the more filler-y entries from Tarquin’s and Nostalgia Factory, care has been taken to make sure things progress smoothly. The more ambient tracks fade into each other. They do the same thing they did on Sunday where some balance is struck, structurally, between shorter ambient intermissions and longer Actual Songs. Having the title track be the second to last song on the album as opposed to the closer allows Music for the Head to function as a sort of epilogue that allows us to catch our breath after the thundering wall of sound has abated. The improvement here is considerable.

Other random notes. Listening to these songs again in their new context got me to pick up on certain things I didn’t notice the first time around. For instance: No Reason To Live, No Reason To Die has audience applause and chatter spliced in; so before where I thought it functioned as a sort of spiritual sequel to Radioactive Toy, it now feels like a real song the fake band is actually performing live in all its technicolor glory. Radioactive Toy itself, now that the ten-minute version exists, feels incomplete if it’s not closed out with a five-minute solo (although the fuzz effect over the vocals lends a particular air of desperation to the smart kid’s situation, as it makes it sound like his equipment is dying). Colours Dance Ang—er, “Track 11”—is able to do more to justify its existence when divorced from Linton Samuel Dawson. Hokey Cokey becomes considerably creepier when it’s called “Execution of the Will of the Marquis de Sade,” as the effect is less “haunted house phonograph on LSD” and more “sadomasochistic torture chamber on LSD.”

Now for the two songs that weren’t on the first and last tapes. The first is Out, which only shows up on the vinyl version, replacing the Prince cover for probably obvious reasons. I…honestly prefer seeing The Cross there. It’s a better fit, and also, quite frankly, a better song, probably the best from this point in Wilson’s musical career. Out belongs on a much tighter record, like the one it was yanked from. Speaking of Love, Death, & Mussolini, it’s also pretty obvious why that version of It Will Rain For A Million Years, good as it is, can’t be found anywhere else: it doesn’t fit anywhere else.

The second is An Empty Box, which has somewhat of the opposite problem of It Will Rain For A Million Years, in that it clearly didn’t fit in any of the demo tapes, but its thundering drums and wailing, squealing guitars work great here.

And that’s it. That’s the detritus of the early era dusted off and released. Most of it’s filler, but there are some serious gems here that shouldn’t be overlooked. Now the ghosts of the past have been dealt with and Porcupine Tree can finally move on as a proper band. This was, after all, released not long after Barbieri, Edwin, and Maitland formally joined and Porcupine Tree ceased functioning as a Steven Wilson solo project.

No-Man – Speak

Recorded 1989-1991, remixed and released 1999

As the recording information makes clear, this album exists in two places at once, chronologically. The original recordings of all these songs were done in in the late 80s and early 90s, and released on cassette tapes that are no longer readily available. Then, almost ten years later, Wilson and Bowness dusted off all those old songs, remixed and rerecorded them, and released them in their current forms. Nevertheless, enough of the material on this record dates back to the early 90s that I’m comfortable covering it now.

Ambient music is a deceptively tricky beast. Done right it can be contemplative, expansive, even spiritual; something that’s able to crystallize broad swathes of emotion and experience into a few notes, washes, and textures. Done wrong it can be a dull and lifeless chore to sit through, made even worse by this feeling that we should be feeling something in this moment but aren’t. There’s not a lot of room between the two. Some of the tracks on Speak do manage to reach those sorts of heights, but as the album goes on, most of them collapse into a vaguely pink taffy mush.

For instance, the title track, first song off the album. The violin, the singing, and the bass (especially the bass), all lovely. Or Pink Moon, the Nick Drake cover, which switches out the acoustic guitar for something more meditative, and chops up and reverses the original’s piano bits and sends them gently floating down to earth, like snow. It’s also a minute longer, allowing the ambient swells to take center stage and nudge the song forward. Thing is, those are the only two songs I’d unambiguously recommend off this album.

Songs like Iris Murdoch Cut Me Down, though, don’t work quite as well. In that one, for instance, the instrumentation doesn’t really go anywhere, and the vocals sound like they came from a completely different song. Curtain Dream seems half-finished (ironic, considering that was one of the ones completely re-recorded in ‘99). The instrumentation in River Song is identical to the original, with the same ominously pastoral atmosphere, but the No-Man vocals don’t have the same punches and harmonies that Donovan’s do. The Ballet Beast is just kind of…there. Death and Dodgson’s Dreamchild doesn’t cohere at all.

I get what No-Man are going for here. This is supposed to be a record that documents small, quiet moments both positive and negative. And many of the songs do have moments that capture that sort of feeling. For instance: the harmonica in Heaven’s Break; the violin in French Free Terror Suspect, and Night Sky Sweet Earth (god bless Ben Coleman); and the piano in Riverrun and Life With Picasso. But those are all moments. Otherwise, much of Speak seems oddly half-finished, like they were a collection of sketches more than actual songs (which would have been fine if that’s how it was advertised), and pale especially in comparison to the more developed stuff they’d release later on.