I.E.M. — An Escalator to Christmas

It’s been a while. Steven, New Jersey, New York, Kyoto, and Tokyo were all lovely. More housekeeping notes:

  • This is two days late. Mea culpa. I was, in my defense, traveling. Last Space Era post will be up next weekend, likely on the 30th. After this, a monthlong retrenchment to get ahead of the queue (as I write this I’m at the Bass Communion/Muslimgauze EP and it’s taking forever, as have the past several posts) followed by Stupid Dream.
  • The Auditory Dérive photoblog has wrapped on Tumblr, but will eventually continue elsewhere in the new year, once I figure out where and how. In the meantime, do take a look before the algorithm hoovers it up.

24 January 1999
I.E.M. 1996-1999, October 2005

“A, B, C, D, E, F, G…H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P…Q–”

And now for something completely different.

“…yes, indeed it would, for me to in fact introduce myself. I am Mister B. Cranswick, of the legendary alternative poetry band Boris the Cow. And, er, this cassette is in fact being compiled today, this afternoon, in aid of a certain S. Wilson, who apparently appreciates this particular art medium. Without much further ado, some poetry.”

An Escalator to Christmas is a very odd record. It seems somehow fitting that the next thing Wilson would follow up Metanoia and its subtly freakish closing track with this, a sixteen-minute affair that is completely, unashamedly off in every conceivable way.

For starters, consider how it’s split up into two sides. Side A features the ten-minute Escalator to Christmas mini-suite, and Side B features Headphone Dust in its original habitat.

Side A is less something that flows from beginning to end and more like a strange collage of samples and fragments. Everything’s cut up and jagged and oddly panned, to the point where sometimes it feels like we’re listening not to the original record but instead of somebody’s condensed YouTube Poop remix. The only thing on this suite that feels like a full song is Sign Language, three minutes of what I can only describe as some damn fine krautrock.

But here’s what’s brilliant in all this. Because of all the abrupt changes in mood and tone, from switching from songs and interludes to spoken word samples and studio chatter, Wilson managed to squeeze an entire album experience into the space of ten minutes. There’s even a point where two back-to-back spoken word samples—one from what feels like an old 60s/70s children’s cartoon, another from studio chatter at an orchestra—essentially functions as a halfway mark, the point at which you’re implored to turn the cassette over…even though the whole thing is all on one side.

And that’s the value in something like Escalator to Christmas. It’s a weird little piece of Wilson ephemera, true, and something that he would rarely build upon in the years since, but it does represent an expansion of his capabilities. This is not something we really figured Steven Wilson could do, till now.

“Say, you remember last week when I promised to tell you today how to become a space cadet and get your official class ring and your shoulder patch? Well, we’re not quite ready. I thought we would be, but we’re not. The things we’re getting together for you are really going to be somethin’. So watch for it next week, okay? Okay!”

[Please Turn Me Over]

“Here we go. Just, just…[unintelligible]. Just any note you want, not a harmonic, actual starting…”

—may objectively be the best song on the record, but the most interesting song is Extract From “4 Ways,” which is some discordant jangling guitar followed by a single rubber duck squeak. It’s three seconds long, and as such is probably the shortest song in Wilson’s discography and one of the shortest songs ever recorded. I’m left wondering what 4 Ways itself sounded like.

There’s also the matter of what the quack segues immediately into: B.C. I’m not entirely sure who’s speaking here. I very strongly suspect it’s Wilson himself, with his voice slightly distorted, because Wilson and “Cranswick” share delivery and speech patterns…but at the same time, so do a lot of people. The first time I listened to this, for instance, Cranswick sounded like he shared the speaking style of Eruditorum-adjacent writer/podcaster James Murphy, which isn’t indicative of much beyond the way universes collide. The only reason I suspect it might not be Steven is he once hinted that other people have played on IEM records, but for whatever reason they’ve remained anonymous.

The true identity of the speaker aside, B.C. is also, I think, indicative of the humor this EP displays, a sort of paradoxically disciplined goofiness harkening back to the days of the fake band. It’s something I wish Wilson busted out more often, especially in the aughts and tens, but given how perilously close the proceedings here edge toward “novelty,” there’s probably a reason he doesn’t.

However, the spoken word bits do serve a purpose beyond yuks; they do an excellent job linking together the songs and fragments-of-songs on this suite. B.C.’s role in all this is obvious: we’re being introduced to poetry in the form of Sign Language. Space Cadet and Any Note You Want work as a pair, with a stopping-and-starting duality to them that today comes off like a creative way to segue into a midroll on a mid-2010s internet video review. But the most interesting interlude isn’t actually found on the EP itself, but on the bonus material of the 1996-1999 compilation. I speak, of course, of Interview. It’s a very short one, but its brilliance can be found in—

“Let’s look at the mind for a moment, just as its physical values as a physical organ.”

An earlier draft of this essay had yet another mention of Headphone Dust in the first section and how unlucky it is. The song featured on the CD edition of I.E.M.’s self-titled album, but I didn’t talk about it too much because it wasn’t on the original release and it didn’t fit into the cliff-notes history of krautrock that made up the bulk of that post. Here’s where it originally appeared, and it once again got shafted, in favor of the much more interesting title suite. Nevertheless, this is a song Wilson’s liked enough that he went and named his online store after it, so let’s take a quick peek at it here.

It’s about six minutes of parched acoustickey goodness, pretty much. The shimmering guitars in the background makes me think of something recorded on the front porch of a desert shack, similar to his cover of The Cross. There’s a real Godspeed-esque sense of beauty among the ruins here. And for that reason its success has been quiet and low-key, the sort of thing that suffers when contrasted with louder, flashier, or more experimental work like the Escalator to Christmas suite or Deafman. This should have been a single. That way, the suite can take up Side A and B and be the album-in-a-bottle is so very badly wants to be, and this song can stand on its own the way it was meant to.

“Er, well, I feel the recording quality has a lot to answer for, and I hated the producer at the time…”

In 2005, IEM released the 1996-1999 compilation, featuring both the self-titled album and this EP, and throwing in some bonus material in the form of Interview and the extended mix of this EP’s almost-title track. What was originally a three-and-a-half minute splash of psychedelia has now ballooned into this thirteen-minute monstrosity. The original abruptly cuts off just as it was really starting to gather steam, but here our consciousness has once again been expanded.

At around the four-and-a-half minute mark, the percussion slowly fades out in such a way that it becomes less psychedelic and a bit more industrial, like the song is being performed in a factory after-hours. At five and a half minutes, a flute comes in, playing something low and mournful, serving both as a warning and a celebration of the song’s general aesthetic. And then at nine minutes, the flute is abstracted, and other sounds start swarming and pulsing around, a wham threatening to rumble in in the background, and a single low synth harmonic that at times sounds almost like a Gregorian choir. As we continue toward the song’s ending, and superficialities are further stripped away, the choir reveals itself as such and starts singing slowly and reverentially, implying that we’ve arrived here, far away from the suite’s gentle, buttoned-up lunacy, at the song’s throbbing heart. And fade out.

In a lot of respects, the extended version feels like something esoteric, even occult. It’s almost as if Wilson made a value judgment here. Those with weak or closed minds get the three-minute EP version, because that’s all they can handle. Those who’ve been already initiated get the compilation version, because the compilation version is an experience, a journey deep into a song’s guts, something that might drive lesser people insane.

This does not necessarily constitute a magical ritual in the same sense that his major releases from Signify to Stupid Dream are a magical ritual. But it is at the very least an illustration of one; a demonstration of how a quiet frog-in-boiling-water sensory overload can alter one’s state of consciousness. The effects here are temporary, as the objective of An Escalator to Xmas is only to demonstrate itself. But they still happened, and as such serve as a reminder of the inherent power of music.

Stupid Dream is two months away. Welcome once again to the cult of the Tree.

“–R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z.”

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No-Man – Carolina Skeletons

August 1998

We have by now spent considerable time and mental energy mapping out the magical ritual meant to bring the Alternative Era into being. We still have three more releases to go. But in the meantime something else has been slowly churning away in the background: No-Man finally, finally figuring out what sort of band they want to be. They are, of course, still somewhat inconsistent, and there’s still conflicts between the light and dark elements of their sound even as they form a unified whole, but this time there’s a renewed sense of artistic direction, that No-Man is finally definitely pointing toward something.

We won’t see the fruits of this labor for another three years, with the release of Returning Jesus. But we do get a taste here, and it is gorgeous. Slow, sparse, and beautiful, like a patchily-reconstructed memory from a simpler time. So let’s reconstruct a memory.

All of us, I suspect, have a moment in our childhoods where there is some sort of rupture. It isn’t necessarily the hyperboloidal moment that the past converges to and the future springs from, but, and I use this word neutrally, it should be traumatic. It may be a birth, a death, a marriage or divorce. It may also be a relocation or a revelation. The corny line to bust out here would be to tie it to puberty and spin a ton of metaphors about coming of age, but that doesn’t conform to my lived experience and is otherwise beside the point. Ultimately, this rupture represents the point at which the world became wrong.

You’ll notice the solipsism inherent in this analysis. The Good Old Days were never good, and they were never real, they were just your memories from when you believed everything was in its right place, and everything was only in its right place because back then you were young and your world was small and fuzzy and you didn’t have the insight to be aware that this wasn’t actually true. To long for the good old days is, ultimately, to long for ignorance. I grew up in the 90s, and the only reason I have fond memories of the 90s was that I was too stupid and sheltered to know any better.

So let’s filter this down to August 1998, before my own rupture moment. I have just recently turned seven. My mom was pregnant with my brother. I’d wanted a sibling for some time, and I understood that this was a part of the Normal Childhood that I felt entitled to. To prepare for the arrival of my brother, we would at the time have been finishing up renovating the attic of our house so it’d become my room. I would frequently go up there with a pencil and draw pictures on the drywall as it was being installed. We didn’t have a video game system in our house, so I mostly played at friends’ houses or on our computer, when it was unoccupied. We didn’t have cable, so TV was typically whatever was on PBS (Bill Nye and Arthur stick out, because of course they do.), plus Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune in the evening. On Saturdays I’d go fifteen minutes up the road and spend the afternoon at my grandmother’s, time I mostly spent, regrettably, vegging out on cartoons I couldn’t watch at home, whilst elbow-deep in a big can of cheese balls. Either that or make ample use of the sidewalk chalk, because we didn’t have a sidewalk at home, either, and grandma had more sidewalk than I knew what to do with. This was the routine. This was how the world worked. This was how the world ought to have worked.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Clinton was about to get impeached and Kosovo was tearing itself apart.

We have similar ruptures in adulthood, as well. I’ve followed a few expatriates on various social media platforms, and whenever they talk about a memory from when they still lived in their country of birth it feels like prehistory. And those are the sorts of memories that Carolina Skeletons captures so well. Not when life was necessarily better or uncomplicated, but when it was different, and the strange, complex sense of nostalgia that comes from reminiscing about times that were different.

I should probably talk about the EP a bit more, then. Carolina Skeletons has four tracks, each of which communicates that feeling spectacularly, but the highlight here comes at the very end. This is, of course, Carolina Reprise, which strips back the title track into something almost as minimal as what we covered last week. This is a lonely echoing piano piece of the sort that intimately conveys the inherent tragedy (despite everything) of not being able to return to the Before Times, and indeed the knowledge that this memory, like all memories, will fade and distort as the years wear on and we’re cruelly plunged deeper into the future. It’s the best thing on the EP, and probably, based on my half-informed guesswork as I write this, the best thing No-Man would release during the Returning Jesus era.

I don’t remember caring much for Returning Jesus itself when I listened to it all the way through the last time. I probably won’t give it another listen until I actually get to it for this blog. But hopefully this little preview will have helped alleviate whatever misgivings I had about it. Only one way to find out.

No-Man – Heaven Taste

September 1995
Remastered 1998 and 2002

*sharp, frustrated inhale*

This is a compilation of five songs they did in the early 90s. Of those five, I could only find four. So while we’re here let’s talk about some of the other partially lost goodies of 1995, shall we?

That year, Wilson contributed keyboards to two songs off Coltsfoot’s A Winter Harvest and produced Psychomuzak’s The Extasie. We’ll start with Coltsfoot. I have no idea what Action at a Distance sounded like apart from that one song, so I’m not sure if this is really true, but from my very limited frame of reference, A Winter Harvest—or, more accurately, the five songs from that album hosted on the band’s official YouTube page—sounds like they found what their schtick was going to be: “medieval English fairyland.” Specifically, and here we go again, medieval English fairyland as rendered in a nineties video game. Seriously, these synths are MIDI tier sometimes. I don’t know how embarrassed the band is about that now, but they shouldn’t be. To someone who has fond memories of mid-90s video games its sets off the nostalgia buttons hardcore. It’s geeky and cheesy in that way Zeppelin was when they referenced Lord of the Rings before it was cool, and I love it to pieces.

Of those five songs, the one Wilson contributed keyboards to is Wood for the Trees. The best song is Lammastide, which I listened to with battle footage from Age of Empires II playing in another tab and it fits perfectly. After that, I listened to some symphonic metal, because it seemed appropriate.

Now for Psychomuzak, evidently Dean Carter’s psychedelic / krautrock project. I say “evidently” because only two songs of theirs (“theirs”) exist on YouTube, and one of those songs is incomplete. Fortunately, that’s also the one that can be streamed in full on Spotify, and it’s the title track of the album Wilson produced. To me, at least, it sounds less like krautrock and more like the psytrance he was adjacent to and absorbing during the One Little Indian days, so naturally I like it a lot. (For what it’s worth, their other song available on YouTube, Keep Breathing, is pretty good, too.)

There. That’s them sorted. Now for what I could dig up from Heaven Taste. Long Day Fall isn’t anything special. It sounds like a chunk of the Speak sessions that broke off and drifted into July 1992, where it was rediscovered and spruced up a bit.

Babyship Blue is pretty interesting in that it sounds like what would happen if someone mashed-up a Wild Opera-era No-Man song with something from The Sky Moves Sideways. The only version of Bleed I could find was the really old, slightly embarrassing version from 1989. The title track is a twenty-one (or thereabouts) minute instrumental monster that sounds exactly like what you’d think a No-Man/JBK collaboration would sound like. If it wasn’t for the song immediately preceding it, it’d be the album’s highlight.

Let’s talk Road, then, the Nick Drake cover. This song is amazing. Like with Pink Moon, they switched out the simple acoustic guitar for something more ethereal, except here it’s not ambient swells that move the song forward but a powerful echoing piano, accentuated with a simple guitar riff buried deep in the mix that sounds like if Jonny Buckland made new age music.

This version somehow manages to be both more melancholy and optimistic than the original. The way the lyrics repeat in the No-Man version (“to see, to see, to see, to see me through…”) make it sound like the singer is desperately trying to convince himself that, even though it won’t lead to superstardom, the path he’s chosen will, in fact, keep his head above water. We in the future know it didn’t; Drake would overdose on antidepressants five months after his twenty-sixth birthday, after a long bout of severe depression that isolated him from his loved ones. But we in the future also know his music still managed to survive, so the brighter instrumentation in the cover points toward his legacy, to Solid Air and Life in a Northern Town, to Robert Smith, Peter Buck, and (yes) David Sylvian, and all the people they in turn influenced, right up to Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson themselves. And at the very end, as the song is fading out, Bowness quietly sings “Heyyyyy” several times, as if he’s reaching out to the spirit of Nick Drake himself to express No-Man’s gratitude for his body of work, and to try and show him Vincent-and-the-Doctor-style what his music would mean to so many people in the decades that followed. It’s absolutely beautiful.

I don’t know if he could have completed that fourth album. I doubt it would have sold well if he did, if only because his uptick in popularity amongst musicians didn’t start to kick in until, at the absolute earliest, 1979. I doubt that would have been enough to keep him going. Depression screws with your head like that. But all the same, oh how I wish he could have lived long enough to see this.

Porcupine Tree – Moonloop EP

October 1994
Transmission IV, December 2001

We aren’t going to talk a whole lot about the Moonloop EP in the post we’ve explicitly dedicated to the Moonloop EP because the EP itself is not all that interesting. It’s got two tracks: Stars Die and Moonloop, both of which can be found in some capacity on some version of The Sky Moves Sideways. We are instead going to talk about the song that gave the EP its name.

But first, Stars Die, because this is technically the song’s canonical appearance in Porcupine Tree’s discography (it only shows up on The Sky Moves Sideways’ American release). It’s one of the Space Era’s signature songs, popular enough to name a 2002 compilation album, the American release of this EP, and a preeminent PT/SW fansite, back in the day. I rate it highly. It is indeed a chilled-out space-rock tune that crystallizes the more ethereal aspects of PT’s sound at the time. I feel like I’m at peace, calmly floating in a warm void when I listen to it. But it still isn’t the best thing Porcupine Tree had made up to that point.

No, the real standout of the late Space Era is Moonloop. On 28 June 1994, Wilson, Edwin, Maitland, and special guests Rick Edwards and Markus Butler marched into the Doghouse recording studio outside of Henley and pounded out forty solid minutes of gold, which Wilson then banged into shape two days later at the home recording studio he carved out of his childhood bedroom. Chunks of the result would be released piecemeal for the rest of the 90s until the fan club release of Transmission IV in 2001.

If Voyage 34 is the best thing Space-Era Porcupine Tree released period, the full Moonloop improvisation is the best thing Space-Era Porcupine Tree released as a band. Most of us are already familiar with the cut that shows up on The Sky Moves Sideways, a nice spot of jazzy, trancey space rock that leisurely builds and releases over Edwin’s bass and Edwards’ percussion, and which fades out to archive audio of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. (Hence the name.) It’s great. And, critically, it forms a complete song on its own that fits right in with the atmosphere The Sky Moves Sideways is going for. If the whole forty-minute improvisation showed up on the album it would have overpowered everything else. But just this movement…perfect.

No, the whole schmeer is meant to be enjoyed on its own. The Sky Moves Sideways version fades out after the moon landing, but the Transmission IV version follows that sample up with Richard “Dingbat” Nixon’s phone call to the astronauts, the one that would find a home on Stars Die. This may partially explain why that song stayed off The Sky Moves Sideways’ UK release; two songs in a row ending with audio from the moon landing is probably only appropriate when they’re the only two songs in an EP about the moon landing. But anyway, after the second moon landing sample we move into the song’s second movement, which is basically similar to the first movement except the trancey elements are switched out for something bluesier and funkier, accentuated with harmonica, organ, and chunks of the moon landing sample buried so far back in the mix it sounds like the guitar at first listen. While the bass in the first movement was deliberate and methodical and repetitive, allowing for a template upon which the guitar can squeal however it wants, the bass in the second movement joins in the fun, skipping and jumping and clearly enjoying its newfound freedom…while at the same time remaining the song’s rhythmic backbone. The overall effect is eye-opening. We’re amazed that this was something the song was capable of doing, while at the same time wondering where this had been for the past seven years.

After that, an ambient segue into the song’s third and final movement, a coda in the “traditional-rock-freakout” subgenre. Think the last part of Godspeed’s Providence or Pendulum’s The Tempest and you’re about there. This bit would eventually evolve into the coda found on the 2-CD edition of The Sky Moves Sideways, and in many ways the version there is superior, but what we have here gels better with the song it’s ending, so I can’t complain too much.

In many respects, Moonloop, both song and EP, are pretty good indications of where Wilson and co were headed going into The Sky Moves Sideways; bringing back those Voyage 34 influences (there it is again) and producing something more jazzy and trancey than what we got up till now. And out of it we got the band proper’s first masterpiece and the signature song of the Space Era. This is also the point where Porcupine Tree finally, finally completely severed all links to its joke-band past. Both songs were a full-band endeavor. Both songs were new compositions instead of something dusted off after lying around for a few years. And neither song has lyrics by Alan Duffy.

But we’re still warming up. The true masterpiece is yet to come.

Porcupine Tree – Staircase Infinities

December 1994
Remastered 2004

We’re gonna step out of time for a second here. Technically, the next release after Flame should be the Moonloop E.P., released October 1994, but that’s a not-really-preview of The Sky Moves Sideways, and I don’t want to go on before tying off the last little bits of the Up the Downstair era with a neat little bow.

Once in a while, following an album, Porcupine Tree will release a supplemental EP consisting of some worthy leftovers from the album sessions. Futile followed In Absentia, for example, Nil Recurring followed Fear of a Blank Planet, and The Incident has its second disc. Up the Downstair has Staircase Infinities, which was originally supposed to be the album’s other other back half, and yes we do ~geddit~, with the title, you can stop nudging me now.

There’s five tracks. Cloud Zero, the opener, is an interesting little number, in that it opens and closes with these weird haunting strings and synth noises, with a breezy guitar jam in the middle. Normally those two aspects of the song would clash, but the way the jam fades in in the beginning makes it seem like a very literal definition of escapism.

It’s pretty clear why The Joke’s On You was ultimately left off Up the Downstair: in the same album as Always Never, it would come off as a bit repetitive. But its real antecedent isn’t that song or the otherwise unrelated Karma misfire that gave the song its name, but (of all things) Footprints. The structure is similar: verses sung in the lower register with acoustic backing, while the choruses are more psychedelic and not sung so much as wailed. But here—and like with Small Fish, a lot of this can be attributed to the more polished production—it is as though we’ve rejoined our journeyman from Footprints after an absence of several years, during which time he’s sobered up and matured. It’s like he’s reflecting upon his drug-addled youth, mostly shaking his head at his attempt to find an enlightenment that he now realizes wasn’t there…but at the same time he still feels a twinge of nostalgia for those days and some of the things he’s experienced along the way. There was no destination, but some of the memories are still worth salvaging. I’d say something corny here about where the true enlightenment lies but it’s pretty clear that despite the occasional flashes of light and radiance it was all rather crap.

Navigator is a decent little instrumental that would have been one instrumental too many if it were included on the album. The one big thing Rainy Taxi has going for it is its mood—the title is very appropriate—and one of the earliest appearances of the Patented Porcupine Tree Heavy Vocoder Voice, here repeating “this rainy taxi” or somesuch like a malfunctioning numbers station.

And, of course, there’s Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape. Part of me doesn’t believe this song was ever seriously considered for Up the Downstair because there’s no earthly way it could be included on that album and not cause severe whiplash. Yes, some stuff has changed—there’s a bit more atmospherics, and the on-stage banter is now so distorted it’s unintelligible—but this is in general the same song we remember from Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm. Including the applause. Just like with The Joke’s On You, it’s like we’re checking back in on the fake band after a few years, this time discovering that they’ve graduated from mid-size venues to stadiums. We’re proud of them.

Here’s a nugget. Staircase Infinities was recorded between February 1992 and May 1993. Porcupine Tree became a proper, fully formed band in December 1993, in the middle of recording The Sky Moves Sideways. Between Staircase Infinities and The Sky Moves Sideways only one other thing would be recorded under the Porcupine Tree name: the final two phases, technically remixes, of Voyage 34. Therefore, one could argue that this update of Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape, recorded as it was at this particular fulcrum of the band’s career, released as the final track on the final record Porcupine Tree would make strictly as a solo project, suddenly harkening back to the Fake Band Days long after those pretenses were dropped, was in fact a magical ritual meant to transform Porcupine Tree into a real band.

Yes, Wilson’s not a magical thinker. Neither am I, really. But sometimes you don’t know your own strength.

No-Man – Lovesighs – An Entertainment

April 1992

This is another collection of stuff from 1990 and 1991, some of which we’ve seen before, some of which we haven’t. Technically not the band’s first EP, if we assume a continuity between No-Man and No Man Is An Island. But we’re stalling.

Let’s get the OK tracks out of the way first. Heartcheat Pop is kind of a generic trip hop thing. The violin’s nice, the Your Woman-esque sample is very nice, but (once again) I’m not entirely sure what Tim’s trying to do with his voice here. It seems like it’s trying to be almost lascivious, especially in the first verse, but Bowness’ voice is fragile and vulnerable, better suited for high notes, so listening to him stick a toe into the lower half of his vocal range, in this context, makes him sound like a kid trying to wear his dad’s clothes. The not-quite-a-remix, Heartcheat Motel, is a bit better, largely because the verses are jettisoned and the instrumentation is given more space to unspool itself. Kiss Me Stupid runs in a similar vein to Heartcheat Pop, but without as much to distinguish itself. And I once again find myself wishing the closer, the Reich mix of Days in the Trees, was two or three times as long as it was.

Now then, the good stuff. First up, the cover of Donovan’s “Colours.” Here No-Man does their civic responsibility as a band in 1992 and makes it sound to a 1992 audience what the original sounded like to an audience in 1965. That is to say, they turned it into a trip hop song. And it sounds great as a trip hop song. The acoustic riff in the original translates surprisingly well to the drum loop in the cover. And Bowness’ voice is actually put to good use here; attempting to give his vocals the same slightly sinister edge as in Heartcheat Pop but here actually succeeding. The video is great, too, largely because we learn that Bowness had Brian May hair in the early 90s and dances like he found himself behind the wheel of a large automobile. The early footage of Wilson intensely but emotionlessly playing guitar in the background doesn’t hurt, either.

And, of course, there’s the Mahler mix of Days in the Trees. In the context of the album, if the first track is the warm-up, the second track is the Statement of Purpose, and there’s no better Statement of Purpose than this brilliant little number. Here’s why.

At this point in No-Man’s career they’re oscillating between two different poles—the ambience of Speak and the trip hop of this album—but not quite feeling comfortable with either. But this song manages to reconcile both sides of their musical personality, and allows them to build on each other. The trip hop gives the ambient side a pulse, and the ambience gives the trip hop side a personality. This right here is the platonic ideal of an early No-Man song. Savor it, for I don’t think we’ll see anything quite like it again. (And, of course, the violin solo at four minutes is still amazing.)

Come to think of it, Days in the Trees actually works better in the context of Lovesighs. On its single of the same name, it functions as a base mold, existing only to be manipulated into different forms. Here, though, it’s with other songs that are trying, with varying degrees of success, to do the same thing. It’s among peers.

If I were to choose between those two sides of No-Man, I definitely prefer the trip hop side, largely because the failure mode of trip hop isn’t a formless mush the way it is with ambient music, so it was welcome to see an album where No-Man pulled together all the things they did in that vein, even if it wasn’t 100% successful. Might also explain my response to what they’d get up to later.

Next up, something we all know.

No-Man – Days in the Trees

July 1991

“A great philosopher once wrote, ‘NAUGHTY NAUGHTY, VERY NAUGHTY.’” —The Shamen, Ebeneezer Goode, 1992

I’d have said something about their cover of Donovan’s “Colours” from November 1990, which has been described as proto-trip-hop, but the only version available online is the Lovesighs version from 1992.

Anyway, Days in the Trees. One song, four mixes. Six if you were in Japan in January 1992. It’s gorgeous.

I was actually kind of surprised, given (here we go again) I’m not into No-Man, but the Mahler mix—which is the first version we hear and is the most conventionally song-like—is incredible. The standout bits here are the piano and Ben Coleman’s violin, lending some serious pastoral brightness that contrasts with and overpowers any artifice inherent in the song’s trip-hoppy skeleton. It’s all very pleasant and soothing, and then four minutes in the shuffling drumbeats drop out and the violin is given free rein to hurl itself toward the clear blue sky. The first time I listened to this I was coming off a really bad day, I was exhausted and stressed out, and I was amazed at how the song seemed to literally wash away all the crap I had been freighted with. It was like some much-needed therapy.

If you were in most of the world, next up would be the Ives mix. If you were in Japan, the Bach mix would be next. Either way, the song that comes on immediately afterward functions almost as an epilogue; a distillation of what made the Mahler mix great. Ives places the violin front and center and lets it cut loose right from the start. Bach may not have a Ben Coleman in it but it ramps up the song’s ambient qualities, resulting in ninety seconds of solid chill-out goodness.

The Arthur Askey mix, from the Japanese release, is another animal entirely. It’s still chilled-out the way the others were, to an extent, but Bowness now sings over some properly 90s bleeps and bloops and a nice crunchy drum machine and hang on a minute.

This was made by the Shamen? No, no, The. Shamen. The guys responsible for “Ebeneezer Goode,” that delightfully demented love letter to ecstasy, one of the most gloriously 1992 dance songs ever written. That Shamen?

Really?

You’re kidding.

I shouldn’t be too surprised. Wilson got Alex Freaking Lifeson and Robert Freaking Fripp to guest on Fear of a Blank Planet. He did a guest vocal on a Pendulum song, of all things. Since this was released in July 1991, I’m willing to bet this was done during that liminal period between the release of En-Tact in November 1990 and the first single off that album and their first big hit, Move Any Mountain, also in July 1991. And, most importantly, No-Man and the Shamen were labelmates. This collaboration makes sense, given where everyone was at the time. But No-Man and the Shamen are nevertheless two groups that I would never have imagined would ever come in contact with each other.

That said, I’m honestly not sure if the Shamen aesthetic works well with what No-Man were doing here. The end result definitely feels like one thing grafted uncomfortably onto another thing and is otherwise uninteresting.

Bartok is a bit better. The sitar, flute, and violin samples better enhance the song’s naturalistic feel, while the trancey bassline gives it both momentum and room to breathe. The last remix, Reich, sounds like it could have been on an ambient music album twenty years later. The instrumentation makes it sound like she’s telling the story while relaxing by the side of a river, under a beautiful canopy of cherry blossoms. It really sounds lovely. But right when she says “it was the first time I fell in love,” right when we expect the song to launch into something more breathtaking and expansive (Chicane’s So Far Out to Sea is instructive), that would communicate both the ecstasy and intimacy of falling in love for the first time…it stops. The song is over. It’s all very frustrating.

That said, the Mahler, Ives, and Bach mixes are all excellent and definitely worth your time.