Porcupine Tree – Stars Die: The Delerium Years

25 March 2002
1994-1997 box set, February 2016
1991-1993 box set, January 2017

This post comes in two unrelated parts.

A Side

Potentially unpopular opinion time: the worst critics are the ones with opinions that you agree with. You go to a critic for one of two things: to determine if you ought to spend money on a piece of media, or for a perspective on that media that is perpendicular to your own, that offers fresh insights or picks out interesting nuances that you may have missed. No one ever goes to a music critic for the first thing anymore, or at least I don’t. If I want to do something like that, I deliberately seek out the positive reviews, so I’m then motivated to listen to the thing on Spotify, and then if I like what I hear, I’ll go out and buy the record. Although this is how I got into pretty much every musical artist I listened to of my own volition for the past ten years, it’s still based on a fractured understanding of what the critic is doing versus what I want the critic to do.

The second thing is an altogether different beast, and does a better job of justifying the music critic’s existence. The thing that makes a blog like, say, Pushing Ahead of the Dame interesting is not Chris O’Leary’s audacity in covering David Bowie’s discography song by song. It’s that O’Leary has unpopular opinions. The first indication that his blog was gonna be great was the moment where (a) he declared that The Laughing Gnome was actually a good song, and, critically, (b) justified this declaration by appealing to multiple elements of the song’s composition that made it work.

I disagree, of course. I still maintain The Laughing Gnome is a cringefest. But I still learned more about how that song was pulled together than I would have from a million critical reviews going LOL CHIPMUNK VOICES BOWIE CORPSING ISN’T THIS AN EMBARRASSING EPHEMERUM, to which I would have nodded placidly along as they went in one ear and out the other. The point is that the value of a critic is directly tied to their willingness to go against conventional wisdom once in a while.

Tying this back to the blog, I am on record as saying that the worst Porcupine Tree album rankings are the ones that have In Absentia and Stupid Dream and Fear of a Blank Planet on top and On the Sunday of Life and The Incident on bottom, because that’s solid proof that the people responsible for those rankings have never had an original thought about Porcupine Tree in their entire lives. Which then got me wondering what the Ultimate Iconoclastic Porcupine Tree Hot Take would be.

A good starting point would be the contention that an album thought of as Good is actually Bad, or that a Bad album is actually Good. I’ve already done Stupid Dream, so that’s out, and I can’t with a straight face say that In Absentia and Fear of a Blank Planet are bad. (Well, you can with the latter, the lyrics are clearly Steven Wilson yelling at the kids to get off his lawn, but that’s not something I can sell to anyone when that’s the album that got me into Wilson’s music in the first place.) On the flip side, saying The Incident is good is properly incendiary, given its general reputation amongst the faithful, but it’s just enough of a piece with the rest of Porcupine Tree’s discography that such a take wouldn’t be very interesting. We need a true oddball.

This leaves On the Sunday of Life. The first Porcupine Tree album, stitched together from stuff released when we still kept up the fiction that this was an actual band who went gallivanting about Europe on drug-fueled exploits so scandalous and offensive to polite society they’d be near-indistinguishable from Situationist culture-jamming. That weird old thing. In his unauthorized biography of Porcupine Tree, Rick Wilson politely describes it as scattershot, but with potential; the conventional wisdom. It’s long and silly and bizarre, a greatest hits of psychedelic lunacy. Let’s see what we can cough up.

On the Sunday of Life is startlingly unique amongst Porcupine Tree’s discography. It’s the lone studio album in the Space Era that was clearly more influenced by psychedelic rock than space rock (by the time we hit Up the Downstair, Wilson was already deep in The Orb and Ozric Tentacles, and it shows). It’s structured like a Boards of Canada album, with full-length songs like Jupiter Island and Linton Samuel Dawson separated by instrumental interludes like Hymn or Music for the Head. The lyrics are nonsense Alan Duffy-isms. The album has a particular surreal humor about it, from the pitched-up chipmunk voices on Jupiter Island to Wilson’s off-the-rails Geddy Lee impression on Linton Samuel Dawson to the infamous, terminally aggrieved “I want you to put Felix’s penis on me” from And the Swallows Dance Above the Sun. This is Wilson’s own Laughing Gnome, refracted through the sensory-overload uncanny valley fog of a bad LSD trip.

It’s not hard to cast these elements of Porcupine Tree’s sound as essential. If you’re going to have a Porcupine Tree album, it should be unfiltered, overstuffed, trippy, incomprehensible, and subtly funny. So then we get to Up the Downstair and excuse me what’s this trance crap doing in my psychedelia? Hopping on trends, are you, like you’re doing with your other band? This feels so workmanlike, too. The last album crackled with so much energy and life; this one feels like they dragged Wilson to the studio at gunpoint. He’s even managed to ruin his own songs, no less; this version of Small Fish feels like it was recorded while he was doped up on Xanax. The only good part of this album is the first track’s transition from the spooky ambient noises to the dryly snarky voiceover, everything else is garbage.

Don’t even get me started on The Sky Moves Sideways or [shudder] Stupid Dream.

Thus do we arrive at the ultimate Porcupine Tree hot take: not only is On the Sunday of Life a good Porcupine Tree album, it’s the only good Porcupine Tree album.

This is not a good take for a blog to adopt for a few reasons. First, it precipitates a conceptual collapse. The blog blows its load early and spends the rest of its meager existence whining. It’s an extreme variant of whenever someone complains about a band not having produced anything good for however many-odd decades. (Also why, going back to Chris O’Leary, why we’re all very grateful he didn’t go with his original choice of blog subject and do Pete Townshend song by song.) Slogging through so many years of mediocrity is taxing on the author and taxing on the reader and just isn’t a worthwhile endeavor for anyone.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Todd in the Shadows’ retrospective of Madonna’s filmography and Seb Patrick’s posts on Weezer come immediately to mind. However, Cinemadonna is working with a medium primed to pick apart terrible bodies of work, and Weezerology would be considerably less pleasant to read if Everything Will Be Alright in the End didn’t exist. The lessons from those projects can’t be ported to one about Porcupine Tree, who would dive back into the Sunday aesthetic well extremely rarely.

The second reason that take ruins a blog is it reveals something troubling about the tastes of the blogger. Porcupine Tree, and Wilson’s post-PT solo work more broadly, had a diverse and eclectic sound that evolved along with Wilson’s tastes and influences. There’s something to appreciate in every era, and which period of their discography you prefer says more about you than it does them. A blogger who straight-up declares that Sunday is the only good Porcupine Tree album clearly demands that Steven Wilson rerecord Sunday again and again till he dies of excessive coerced jollity.

B Side

The Space Era may be properly dead and buried, but that doesn’t mean we can’t reminisce and memorialize. Stars Die: the Delirium Years, Porcupine Tree’s only strict compilation album, is a fairly straightforward record: a double album that is meant to serve as an introduction to Porcupine Tree’s 90s work.

The album is arranged in strict chronological order, with the first disc covering 1991-1993 and the second covering 1994-1997. Disc One is self-evidently stronger, with a good balance between short and long songs and material from Sunday and Up the Downstair. Disc Two is much less so, with only three songs from The Sky Moves Sideways era and the rest coming from the Signify era. This might have something to do with how the former is, of all Porcupine Tree’s albums, the one most hostile to being split up into its constituent parts. There just aren’t very many songs on that album that wouldn’t ruin a compilation album. Disc Two’s unevenness might also have something to do with how the Signify era is the band’s weakest, and about half of those songs are from the Waiting single, itself the weakest portion of that era. Right up until it hits Signify, though, Stars Die is an excellent survey of Porcupine Tree’s Space-Era work, clearly showcasing the band’s evolution throughout the nineties. I’d unreservedly recommend it to anyone whose knowledge of Porcupine Tree’s discography goes back to the seeming hard-reset of Stupid Dream and no further.

But anyway, the new stuff. Stars Die features a couple of songs (and alternate remixes) that were previously only available through file-sharing or a seriously rare deluxe edition pressing or something. Disc One has Phantoms and the extended version of Synesthesia, while Disc Two has Men of Wood and Signify II. First, Phantoms. This song is an outtake from Up the Downstair, available only through metaphorical tape-circulation before it showed up here. It’s basically a very trippy unplugged song, with Wilson’s vox and mainly lethargic acoustic guitar serving as an anchor as creepy tape loop noises and fuzzed-out electric guitars swirl around him. Of the previously-unreleased songs on this compilation, this one’s probably the worst. Wilson strums his guitar like it’s strictly out of contractual obligation. About a minute and a half in, right when most of the instrumentation drops out as Wilson sings “I’m sorry I treat you this way,” the song hits a brick wall and has to spend a few excruciating seconds recovering. It’s an early, half-formed attempt at something more songwriterly, and it’s obvious why (a) he eventually moved more organically into this more personal lyrical mode, and (b) it took him until the late 90s to actually do it. Whatever fruits came out of Phantoms were not immediately obvious at the time of writing, whereas The Sky Moves Sideways was right there, ready to be born. (And thank God, because The Sky Moves Sideways is much more interesting.) Basically, it gave him something to work with once the space well ran dry around the time of Signify. For all that Phantoms itself is unremarkable, it allows Disappear and the Alternative Era to exist.

The extended version of Synesthesia is generally similar to the studio version, but the goofy What You Are Listening To intro switched out for something more contextually appropriate where the main riff eases its way in as opposed to bursting onstage after cutting off the guy describing psychedelic music played while on LSD. I can sort of understand why this decision was made, the What You Are Listening To intro works best when opening an album, and that’s what Synesthesia isn’t doing anymore. But at the same time, literally the only representative of Porcupine Tree’s goofy early work on Stars Die is And The Swallows Put Felix’s Penis On Me, so replacing What You Are Listening To with something more in-character, especially in a world with Have Come For Your Children in it, feels like they’re treating that part of themselves the way a millennial thinks of their embarrassing scene kid phase.

Speaking of which, Men of Wood. Of all of Porcupine Tree’s songs featuring Alan Duffy’s lyrics in some capacity (he’s credited as a co-writer along with Wilson), this one is chronologically the latest. Like Disappear, this is one of those songs that knocked around the studio across multiple album cycles but was always too different from the atmosphere of the albums themselves to see a major studio release. In this song’s case, it almost made it on The Sky Moves Sideways, showing up on promo cassettes but not on the final release. It’s an interesting holdover from when Wilson was edging out of Sunday weirdness and into Downstair trancery. Between it and stuff like Linton Samuel Dawson, Access Denied, Escalator to Christmas, and How Big the Space, there might be enough material for a separate compilation for all the light, goofy songs Wilson’s done throughout his career. The normies who want him to be a brooding emo boy would hate it, of course, wondering why we’re celebrating what they feel are Wilson’s mediocrities, but there’s still artistry here, and more importantly, anything that irritates the normies is inherently worth doing.

This leaves Signify II. It’s a fairly standard krautrock song, yet more proof that the direction Porcupine Tree were attempting to go in for Signify was a dead end. My immediate reaction toward this song (and OG Signify, for that matter) was that it wasn’t good because it didn’t sound like Porcupine Tree. But that couldn’t be it; they’ve released lots of songs where they’re trying to be something they’re not (e.g. Access Denied) and they sound great. Nor is the issue that other bands have done straight-no-chaser krautrock better than they have; Wilson himself submitted a masterful entry in that genre with the self-titled I.E.M. album.

And then we reach Signify II’s religious mix, available on the expanded version of this compilation. If it made it onto Signify it would have been another anti-religious song in the same vein as Sever and Intermediate Jesus, but for whatever reason it didn’t. Years later, Wilson offered the possibility that the religious mix was left off Signify because it was just a bit too heavy-handed. There’s certainly some truth to that; the samples in this case came from a young hotshot televangelist who, when he’s not celebrating his flock of suckers’ destruction of their old Satanic secular music, gleefully tells anyone who calls in they’re insufficiently Christian and God hates them and they’re going to Hell.

I’m actually kind of glad it was left off; it would have ended the album, and Dark Matter honestly makes a perfect closer on its own. Signify II would have been superfluous. If it went anywhere on Signify, it should have replaced the title track, because Signify II works much better as a statement of the album’s themes instead of as a summation. It would have also made a pretty good segue into The Sleep Of No Dreaming, which focuses on Wilson’s rejection of all that garbage.

However. Those samples are what make Signify II unique. They’re what elevate the song from a transparent Hallogallo ripoff to something truly special. The samples and the instrumentation play off each other perfectly, with each one reinforcing the other. Of particular note here is the moment after the preacher asks if a caller really wants to accept Jesus into their life, and the music drops out completely for him to ask, “Why,” on some level inviting the listener to wonder why they should do the same, if this is what mainstream Christianity has to offer. The secular mix of Signify II is transparently bog-standard, but the religious mix is one of the best songs Porcupine Tree released during the Signify era. (Not exactly high praise coming from me, yes, but I’ll take what I can get from this point in their history.)

It is genuinely irritating whenever mainstream people talk about Porcupine Tree but either don’t talk about the Space Era or discount it for whatever reason. I’d typically chalk this up to the normies just wanting Steve to be this mopey depressed dude, but it’s slightly deeper than that. It probably has more to do with them, and we’ve talked about this before, putting him into a box. Not only is it an incomplete understanding of what Steven Wilson is about, but a demand that Wilson spend his life solely writing emo anthems for people who were too cool for actual emo.

Furthermore, Porcupine Tree were doing space rock longer than they did anything else. The Space Era is full of masterpieces, from Voyage 34 to all the funny stuff on Sunday to the title tracks of Up the Downstair and The Sky Moves Sideways. It’s a chunk of Porcupine Tree’s history that’s every bit as varied and multiplicitous as what they’d do later, and it’s done a great disservice when it’s treated as a footnote. The Stars Die compilation is essential largely because it’s a reminder that it isn’t, even as it’s radically different to what they’re doing now. What you think of the Space Era, ultimately, says more about you than it does about it, and if you believe the Space Era has little to offer compared to the other half of Porcupine Tree’s discography, then maybe Stars Die can change that a little.

Porcupine Tree – Recordings

May 2001

I’m mildly irritated by people who regard Recordings as a studio album in spirit, the way Lightbulb Sun and In Absentia are. It clearly isn’t, not just because it’s obviously a castoff album, pulled together from early Alt-era stuff that didn’t make it on Stupid Dream or Lightbulb Sun for whatever reason. The trouble is that when people say Recordings is a studio album, they mean Recordings is good enough to be a studio album, and there’s a particular odd not-quite-chauvinism inherent in that statement.

It’s like there’s a hierarchy. The good songs are on the studio records, and the okay songs go on the singles and the castoff-compilations like this one. So we expect Recordings will just be a bunch of songs that weren’t good enough for any of the big albums, but instead we get Buying New Soul and that slow, heavenly organ riff, a song that’s clearly every bit as good as anything they’ve put on a studio album, and compilation albums can’t have really good songs like Buying New Soul on them, so that must mean it’s not a compilation album after all.

This logic is how you get reviews that praise the quality of the songs but also point out that it’s not as well-put-together as their other albums, which, well, duh. It’s a castoff album. It’s not meant to flow the same way Lightbulb Sun flows. This is still Porcupine Tree cleaning out their collective mental attic before In Absentia and preserving whatever they found up there that was salvageable. Here’s the thing, though, a thing that feels like it’s overlooked more often than it probably should be: when a band doesn’t release a song as an album cut, kicks it off the album entirely, or whatever, it’s not always because the song is bad. It could be, and this is especially true of Porcupine Tree, that the song doesn’t mesh with how they want the album as a whole to sound. Porcupine Tree recorded a lot of good songs around the time of Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun, but not all of them sounded like something that belongs on Stupid Dream or Lightbulb Sun, so they were cut. This means that when the time came to dust the best ones off and string them together into one big compilation, they had a bunch of songs that all sounded very different from each other. There is no universe in which an album that has both Buying New Soul and Access Denied on it could ever be described as coherent. Nor, honestly, do I think Recordings even wants to be coherent. Better to pick at the album on its own terms instead of the terms imposed upon it.

The songs themselves, from worst to best:

In Formaldehyde: Let’s just say there’s a pretty good reason this was left off Lightbulb Sun. It’s a bit too slow and a bit too unremarkable, and it would have struggled to distinguish itself amongst the other songs on that album.

Oceans Have No Memory: Recordings suffers from the same thing Stupid Dream had where most of the good songs are in the front and the meh songs are in the back, and that’s an issue that afflicts Oceans Have No Memory as well. It’s a decent little acoustic thing that’s pleasant enough on its own and as an album closer meant to ease the listener back to earth. But beyond that, it struggles to stick in the memory in any capacity, and I mostly know it now as the source of that koan-ish thing the Hand Cannot Erase protagonist’s foster sister liked so much.

Ambulance Chasing: Of the three full instrumentals on Recordings, this one stands out the most…at first. This is mostly thanks to the booming drums, the eerie synth riff in the background early on, and Theo Travis’ unbelievable doctored saxophone solo, still more proof of how central he is to basically anything he and Wilson work together on. Trouble is, after repeated listens it becomes clear that the whole is lesser than the sum of its parts.

Untitled: Here’s the point where we hit songs that I’ll still listen to of my own volition after I’m done writing this post. This was recorded during the same improvisation that produced Buying New Soul, and it shows. In contrast to Ambulance Chasing, this one steadily reveals new facets of itself on repeated listens, as over the course of its nine-minute unfolding it steadily branches in different, more abstract directions than its more structured counterpart, concerning itself entirely with the sense of atmosphere that Buying New Soul was only partially interested in. Untitled creates a universe for Buying New Soul to exist in, and although that song is still the better of the two, this song remains important for that reason. I want–and I want to emphasize this is a feeling I haven’t had in a while–to hear the whole improvisation this sprung out of.

Disappear: Here it is in its almost-final form, I guess. The song that charted an immediate path forward for Porcupine Tree post-Signify but otherwise spent a little too much time in the oven, and so the band could never quite figure out what to do with it. The version that shows up here is has a first half that feels more like a demo than a finished song (with “I erase myself again” in the chorus feeling particularly like a placeholder), but the back half with the full band is inspired, particularly the “I’m here, you’re never standing still” backing vocals. Ultimately, though, it’s probably for the best that the song’s ultimate fate was as raw material for Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled. The February 1997 version remains definitive.

Cure For Optimism: I’ve pretty much said everything I have to say about this one in the Tonefloating entry. It’s a good song, but switching it out for Four Chords That Made A Million was a good idea.

Even Less: It probably says something about the respective quality of the songs on Stupid Dream and Recordings that the full version of Even Less would have been by a substantial margin the best song on the former but only cracks the top three on the latter. This is the Stupid Dream opener in its complete form, featuring a long textured instrumental section that leads into some thundering drums, squealing guitars, and one of the greatest F-bomb drops in music history, a gloriously profane singsong mockery of people who think their faith will save them from the inevitability of death.

Hearing the whole thing also clarifies why it didn’t make it on Stupid Dream uncut. The back half has the narrator admit that his dream was stupid, which is a bit shocking when the front half trades on its arrogance. It’s the trajectory of the album in miniature, and if it was featured in full on Stupid Dream then everything from Piano Lessons onward would have been recast as How We Got Here, which clearly isn’t what they were going for.

I swore I wouldn’t complain too much about track placement on Recordings, but it is kind of strange that a song that so clearly demands to open an album finds itself instead as the penultimate track. However, it is nice the album has a really good song to anchor its second half, and what Wilson did have planned for the album’s beginning was much more interesting anyway. Speaking of which…

Buying New Soul: I think we can all agree that this is one of the best songs that Porcupine Tree ever made. And I mean Porcupine Tree the band; the haunting organ riff that Barbieri bookends the song with, along with the way Edwin plays his double bass like a cello and Maitland accentuates the rest of the instrumentation with his simple, yet jazzy percussion, simply define the song. We also get some of Wilson’s most intriguing and enigmatic lyrics, with lines like “I still wave at the dots on the shore” and “Woke up and I had a big idea: to buy a new soul at the start of every year,” rendered in melancholy, contemplative tones.

Thematically, this song bridges the themes of Signify and Stupid Dream through grappling with the potential impact selling out (or not!) might have on his livelihood and ability to leave behind something that’ll be remembered. It’s the same double-bind he’s still trapped in: stay true to your artistic integrity and toil in obscurity, or sell out and become filthy rich and immortal, but at a steep cost. Ultimately, he had a stupid dream that he could change things, but he’s a martyr to even less.

This meant, of course, that although Buying New Soul was recorded in 2000, it had no business being on an album that was recorded in 2000. This sounds like something that should belong on Stupid Dream, not Lightbulb Sun or whatever the new album’s going to be. Put this song on a new record and it’ll sound like Steven Wilson’s beating a dead horse. This would always be destined for a castoff album, but in the process would redefine what a castoff album could really do, even if no one realized it.

Access Denied: …and nowhere do we get a clearer picture of what Recordings specifically is about than when Buying New Soul crashes into this, a jaunty, upbeat, vaguely psychedelic bop depicting Golders Green as this quaint idyllic little world with subtle Mod touches, where everything’s in its right place and everyone gets on and there aren’t any serious structural problems…at least not on the surface. When you have these two songs right up next to each other as the first two songs on your album, it’s a very clear sign that you’re much more interested in showing off your range as a musician than any sort of thematic cohesion.

Wilson wanted this song on Lightbulb Sun, but the rest of the band vetoed him. On the one hand, I get it. I can’t think of anywhere for this song to go where it wouldn’t be wildly out of place. On the other hand…fuck you, this song is awesome. Just listen to it: the way he pounds on the piano on the intro like he can’t contain his excitement, the WOWIE WOWIE WOW noises the guitar makes once the singer greets the lucky man who’s just returned from wondrous, exotic adventures in East Asia, the not-quite-out-of-nowhere reference to the Railway Series of all things when he says Sir Topham Hatt doesn’t realize he’s Wilson’s biggest fan. So much of Access Denied radiates a joy and exuberance that’s just downright infectious, and anyone who hates this song really needs to get over themselves. It may be a piece of fluff, but it’s still the best song on the album, and a reminder that maybe, just maybe, Steven Wilson isn’t the mopey, depressed mall goth you think he is…or want him to be.

Bass Communion – Atmospherics

1999

A quick run of shorter posts before we hit Lightbulb Sun and Returning Jesus. [Magical, airy, building in tension.] In the 90s, Steven Wilson made soundtracks for commercials. [Warm, flowing, euphoric.] He lucked into the job through Mike Bennion, a film director, whose sister was Tim Bowness’ ex-girlfriend, and who was quite fond of the work they did on No-Man, and so he and Steve got in touch. [Slow, thoughtful over eerie crackling record.] Bennion would go on to work with Porcupine Tree several times, most notably as the director for the Piano Lessons video and a major player in the aborted Deadwing film. [Gradually creeping, muffled, ominous.] Some of his commercial work would show up later on in Unreleased Electronic Music. [Light, climbing, wondrous.] Atmospherics, obviously, is not that. [Swelling, mysterious pulses.]

This, instead, is a collection of very short two-to-three-minute pieces, some of which are extracts and remixes of other Bass Communion tracks, meant for use in TV and radio programs. [Sinister, underwater pressure.] In other words, the same kind of thing as what he was doing on adverts. [Calm, ethereal, steadily rising.] This compilation’s existence also makes sense in another way, as Wilson’s music has always had a particular cinematic bent to it, and the work of Bass Communion is always particularly evocative. [Jungle at night, echoing noises.] Very often, Bass Communion sounds like the soundtrack to the sort of creepy, unsettling, dream-logic film Wilson would just love, so why not take the obvious step and hook up with a library music company and make that music available for actual creepy, unsettling, dream-logic TV shows? [Soft, slowly progressing mystery.] (I find myself wondering which shows do in fact have a Bass Communion sample thrumming ominously in the background, now.) [Sober, uneasy, surreal.]

As befits an album sold to production companies for BGM purposes (as anyone who listened to those really early Two Steps From Hell trailer music compilations would know), this is definitively not an album meant to be listened to from beginning to end. [Tranquil, spreading waves.] So there’s very little point in looking at this the same way we’d look at, say, Bass Communion II. [Quietly threatening, danger approaching.] This is more like a catalogue, something to thumb through to find a specific sample that serves a specific purpose in the story (an intention reinforced thanks to the 60- and 30-second samples of each track that make up the album’s back half). [Gentle, tentative progression.] And indeed, that’s the exact effect Atmospherics gives, of a disjointed hopping from soundscape to soundscape, some familiar, some not, in a sort of sonic buffet. [Eerie minimalism.] This isn’t something for you or me. [Smooth gliding motion, increasing in pressure.] But the value in an album like Atmospherics comes in the way familiar songs are recontextualized, and in this case what we get is Bass Communion’s Greatest Hits For The Discerning Studio Soundtrack Decision Maker. [Spooky late night restlessness.] Completely commercial, yes, but as anyone who’s listened to Two Steps From Hell will also tell you, just because it’s commercial doesn’t mean there isn’t artistry there, even if some of the artistry in question was sometimes pulled from elsewhere. [Haunting desolation.] We want to hear more of what was featured here, and that, infuriatingly, goes double for the pieces original to this collection.

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.

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.