Porcupine Tree – Coma:Coda (Rome 1997)

Recorded 26 March 1997
Released 7 May 2020

So Porcupine Tree got a Bandcamp recently, and they’ve been using it to release a whole bunch of rarities and other goodies. With the exception of the Nag’s Head performance previously featured on Spiral Circus, though, thus far they’ve all dated from the late Alternative and Metal Eras, the parts of Porcupine Tree’s career the blog hasn’t reached yet. Until now.

While most of Coma Divine comes from the third night at the Frontiera, this release largely pulls from the second night. Therefore, the setlist is a little different. Most significantly, Cryogenics finally, finally gets an official release. I still don’t care for it–although it doesn’t feel quite as self-indulgently difficult to listen to as it did the first time I heard it, it’s still a track that never really quite locks in–but it still feels as though a great wrong in the universe has been corrected. Here, it functions as an extended intro for Dark Matter, whose introductory soothing hum feels like being bathed in a column of light after three and a half minutes of thundering tension.

What else. The version of Nine Cats here is closest to the stripped-down, unplugged version on Insignificance, but it’s probably worth noting that this live version is much more practiced and effortless than the studio version, with an instinctive understanding of where the song should ebb and flow so it has the most impact. It’s kind of fun that the audience doesn’t twig that Wilson and Maitland are singing a similarly unplugged version of Every Home Is Wired until they actually drop the title. That impromptu drum solo at the end of Dislocated Day is the precise correct use of your Chris Maitland. That showboating that would in a few years start driving Wilson up the wall is what you want him to do live. It was really nice to see them perform Voyage 34 Phase II live, because it’s usually Phase I that gets all the love, and sometimes we need a little reminder that other parts can deliver the goods just as well as the first part can. This is, in general, a fun little companion piece to the main Coma record, and it’s nice that it exists as a way of sort of filling in the details and providing a bit more color to the experience of seeing those three shows in the flesh.

Speaking of which, it’s somewhat well-known that the recording of Coma Divine was riddled with technical problems, and truly herculean amounts of editing and post-production were needed to salvage anything, to the point where a lot of the vox were overdubbed in studio because the recording sounded just that terrible live. With all that in mind, the Bandcamp description for Coma:Coda cautions that what we’re hearing here is basically ripped straight from the soundboard, preemptively apologizes if it sounds wonky, and just generally hangs its head in shame that it’s not up to Porcupine Tree’s usual exacting standards.

It sounds fine.

Maybe it’s just because watching a lot of iPhone live recordings on YouTube means I usually have pretty low standards for what a live recording should sound like, but…whoever wrote that description doth protest too much. The only serious technical goof I picked up on was the very obvious one, that we only got the back half of Dislocated Day, but even then it’s okay because you don’t listen to Coma:Coda!Dislocated Day to listen to Dislocated Day. That’s what the version of the song on the original Coma Divine is there for, and with pristine sound quality, no less. You listen to Coma:Coda!Dislocated Day for Maitland’s awesome drum solo at the end, which is there, in all its glory, in its entirety. That we lost the song’s first half just means we cut out some chaff at the front.

Other than that…yeah, there’s some slightly weird mixing (the spoken word samples are almost inaudible) and Wilson hits a flat note here and there, but those are the occupational hazards of live performance. Big deal. I suspect the only people who’d get hot and bothered about this record’s imperfections are the same people who only spring for the fancypants 5.1 surround sound mixes of Wilson’s albums because if it’s anything else they may as well just pour battery acid into their ears. In a lot of respects, Coma:Coda feels more accurate to what listening to Porcupine Tree perform at the actual Frontiera in actual 1997 probably sounded like.

This says something about the potential value of live recordings. The studio recording as a concept, irrespective of the actual music and how it was influenced by the world around it, exists pretty much in a vacuum, suspended outside of time and space, only having time and space imposed on it through the experiences of the listener. The live recording, meanwhile, is a documentation of an event, anchored to a specific time and place. Therefore, one could argue that when releasing the thing to the world, there’s an incentive to preserve, as much as possible, this event as it actually happened, screwups and all. And there will be screwups. You’re gonna flub a line, or break a guitar string, or hit a wrong note. It’s gonna be mixed oddly. The venue’s acoustics are gonna have their own effects. When the time comes to actually edit the live album together, all those little things are gonna drive you nuts, but it’s unreasonable to demand perfection from a live performance, and in fact, the imperfections can be what make live performance interesting.

Put it to you this way. With Coma Divine your perspective is omniscient and impartial, like this was a professionally-recorded studio album that just happens to have been laid down in front of a live audience. With Coma:Coda the listening experience is more subjective and immersive, like we’ve been placed in the shoes of someone who was there. This means that between these two albums we have the two success modes of the live album: the recording that reflects how we wanted the show to sound, and the recording that reflects how the show actually sounded. Usually we have to rely on fan recordings for the latter, so it’s nice for the band to acknowledge this reality once in a while. In other words, Coma:Coda is a good album entirely because it’s basically an officially-released bootleg.

GUEST: Jansen Barbieri Karn – Playing in a Room with People

September 2001
Bandcamp rerelease, 27 February 2016
LP edition, 5 February 2020

Past

There are three albums that lie between where we last left off with the ex-Japan people and now. The first is Barbieri and Jansen’s Other Worlds in a Small Room, released in 1996. It’s an absolutely delightful ambient record that’s more than a worthy sequel to the similarly-titled album from a decade earlier, encompassing the whole spectrum of emotions that ambient music is really good at articulating. Light Years in particular comes highly recommended.

A year later, Barbieri and Jansen got together with Nobukazu Takemura and released Changing Hands, a little atmospheric record that fits comfortably into the other stuff they were doing at the time. It’s also, quite frankly, rather unmemorable. I listened to it twice now, and each time it went in one ear and out the other, another data point in favor of me just thoroughly bouncing off this particular style of music. (See also: much of Mick Karn’s discography.) At least we’re not sounding like a computer game soundtrack anymore.

1998’s _ism, on the other hand, is probably the best record an ex-Japan collective have ever made, with lots of abrasive guitars over trip-hop-esque drums with heavy layers of electronics and a general noirish atmosphere. It’s not JBK does Mezzanine, exactly, since the two albums were recorded and released at roughly the same time, but since super-dark trip hop was in the air at the time, something like this was inevitable. And thank God. JBK always came off as slightly dated, but once in a while it can be parlayed into something wonderfully dated, and _ism is a perfect example of that.

_ism’s other revelation comes through the particular ways in which it illustrates an optimum for JBK as a project. Or: this thing has vocals. Very nice ones, thanks largely to Zoe Niblett. She elevates whatever she’s doing into complete songs as opposed to, well, playing in a room. Her voice ties the song together, and this suggests that more JBK albums should have had songs amenable to having vocals in them.

From this vantage point, then, we can get a better idea of the arc of JBK’s career, and it’s only occasionally pretty. After Rain Tree Crow comes a post-imperial phase profoundly susceptible to ossification, as much of their 90s work seems like an extended, somewhat meandering jam session more than anything else. There are exceptions, of course– Beginning to Melt, The Wilderness, Sleepers Awake, and so forth–but it was only with _ism that we hit on something definitive that could give an idea of what the group could sound like in the new century.

_ism was also the last collaborative studio release involving more than one ex-Japan person, and Playing in a Room With People is that last original release from the ex-Japan collective period.

Present

The way this bleeds over into JB (and occasionally K)’s live performance is a fraught one, largely because they didn’t perform live all that much. The first signpost here is obviously Lumen, recorded in 1996, released 2015, and apparently thrown up on Spotify when I wasn’t looking. Recorded in Amsterdam, and featuring Steven Wilson on guitar and synethesizer, it’s the only time JB performed live as JB. (Although K did come along for the ride.)

Most of what’s on Lumen comes from the Stories Across Borders album from 1991, their saving throw after the disaster that was The Dolphin Brothers. Maybe it’s the way the album came directly after Dolphin Brothers that elevated my initial perceptions, but Stories Across Borders isn’t exactly successful at distinguishing itself in a vacuum. It’s mid-tier ex-Japan at best, and their live renditions don’t add much, either. The best songs off Lumen are Sleepers Awake and Beginning to Melt, which already sounded amazing in the studio.

Playing in a Room with People, meanwhile, pulls not just from JB’s discography but also from Rain Tree Crow and Mick Karn’s solo work. Interestingly, although they picked more middle-of-the-road stuff to represent JB and Rain Tree Crow, the Karn stuff on display here is actually pretty good, particularly Saday Maday (accentuated with Wilson’s guitar and Theo Travis’ saxophone toward the end) and Plaster the Magic Tongue (Travis again, this time on that wonderful flute solo). The album opener, Walkabout, which appears to be an original Barbieri composition, is also quite good, moody and atmospheric, yet also industrial and abrasive. There should have been a whole album of stuff like that.

As a sendoff, though, Playing in a Room With People works great. Even though it’s far from a complete survey of JB and K’s numerous musical collaborations, it’s still an excellent summation of their post-Japan collaborations. Just like with the parent project, though, there’s still that sense of aborted possibility, that we’re going our separate ways right as we’re about to make a sort of breakthrough, either in terms of popularity or our evolution as musicians.

Future

Since we don’t see much of these people after this, it might be worth taking a quick look at where the individual players went from here. Barbieri would spend the aughts focusing primarily on Porcupine Tree, although he would still release the occasional solo album, some of which we’ll take a look at as we move forward.

Steve Jansen and Mick Karn, meanwhile, would mostly keep to their solo careers after this. The most relevant album in Jansen’s case is his debut solo album, 2007’s Slope, a record that suggests a glitchier, jazzier, more experimental direction that JBK could have taken…in other words, something that sounds like an Anja Garbarek record. That’s kind of fitting, as she guests on this album, along with other familiar names like Theo Travis and David Sylvian.

As for Mick Karn, his first post-JBK records of note is Endless, a 2009 album by Italian prog rock outfit Fjieri. In addition to Karn, who plays bass on two songs, one of which sees him reunite with Richard Barbieri, Endless boasts a guest list that’s a who’s-who of Wilson-adjacent people, like Tim Bowness, Peter Chilvers, and Gavin Harrison. This means the album benefits by-proxy from the incredible chemistry that Porcupine Tree had, as though a chunk of that band broke off and found its way here. This happens whenever two ex-PT members get together and start playing, like when Harrison reunited with Colin Edwin in 2016 for iamthemorning’s Lighthouse, or when Wilson and Barbieri briefly played together during Wilson’s three-night Royal Albert Hall residency in 2018. The song that Karn, Barbieri, and Harrison all play on, Ad Occhi Chiusi, sounds like a spicy Italian remix of a Porcupine Tree song, and is absolutely delightful.

The other Karn album worth mentioning here is what would have been the second full-length collaboration between Karn and Peter Murphy. I say “would have been” because before they were to head into the studio, Karn was diagnosed with an unspecified but aggressive form of cancer. Fundraisers were announced, benefit concerts were organized, and Porcupine Tree would release a live album, with the profits going to Karn’s medical expenses. These appeals allowed Karn, who was living in Cyprus at the time, to move back to London for treatment. Unfortunately the cancer proved too aggressive and Karn died in January of 2011. At the time of his death, Karn and Murphy had recorded five songs from what would have been their latest album, and it was these songs that would be released as InGladAloneness, an EP dedicated to Karn’s memory. So it goes.

Coda: Far Future

Finally, there’s the elephant in the room. Playing in a Room with People was released the month of 9/11. This album, like any album released that month, has nothing to do with 9/11, except that it too sits right on the fulcrum between a known past and an unknown future. JBK will not exist after this record. Neither will a lot of people’s understanding of the international order. These two things aren’t even remotely equivalent, but since they still happened simultaneously there’s still a temptation, however wrongheaded, to connect them somehow.

9/11 will not have a serious impact on Steven Wilson’s story for a few years, as its repercussions on politics and culture ripple outward and reach endpoints that are even more horrific than the act itself. Nevertheless, here we are now, in real time, as it’s happening, as a civilization convulses in great collective trauma, and we begin to understand that the familiar world of the nineties is truly dead and gone, and although it may not have been peaceful it sure as hell is going to feel like it compared to what’s coming, and now is the time of monsters.

It is the first day of April 2020, and I am writing this in the middle of a pandemic. My county is on lockdown. It is illegal for me to leave my house except to go to work or to go grocery shopping. Hospitals are overwhelmed, small businesses are collapsing, and state and local governments will soon have to amputate entire limbs for spare change. Current projections place the eventual American death toll at anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions. The Hungarian parliament voted to allow its fascist tyrant of a Prime Minister to rule by decree indefinitely. More nations may follow. The governor of Idaho signed legislation severely restricting the rights of trans people. It won’t be the last. The barbarisms of the new decade are becoming clearer by the day, and they are terrifying.

And from this whirlwind emerges the same sense of existential fear and anxiety that was in the air after 9/11, the climate in which Playing in a Room with People suddenly found itself. What should have been a nice little live album celebrating the collective discography of three men about to go their separate ways has instead been marked out prematurely as an artifact from an earlier age, a reminder of precisely what we’re losing.

Porcupine Tree – Live at Nearfest

green day 100% pure uncut rock23 June 2001

“The boy bands have won.” –Chumbawamaba

The third annual North East Art Rock Festival was held at its usual location in the Zoellner Arts Center, on the campus of Lehigh University in Bethlehem. Nearfest was a progressive rock festival that ran from 1999 to 2012, mostly in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. Porcupine Tree performed on the first day. These are all mundane details, but together they make my head explode because I live pretty close to the Lehigh Valley, and was up there fairly often as a kid, so I’m retroactively wondering why Porcupine Tree did a show near where I live and no one thought to tell nine-year-old me, who was listening mostly to boy bands and 1970s classic rock, and wouldn’t have known what a Porcupine Tree was, and wouldn’t have appreciated anything they were playing anyway.

As for what it was they were playing, it is surprising to learn that Porcupine Tree occasionally made extremely boneheaded decisions about how to adapt some of their songs to a live setting. We’ve encountered this before; Up the Downstair’s bass, for instance, is done no favors when Edwin’s playing it. It’s not quite synthetic enough; it feels like it should be something Barbieri constructs and then throws on a loop so he can focus on more involved soundscapes. (Nice that it gives Edwin something to do, though.) At Nearfest, the main victim is Even Less, a song that Wilson has only ever barely managed to get a handle on playing live. Here, the song plunges into that weird uncanny valley that live performances can occasionally fall into where it’s tremendously faithful to the studio version but the differences are just prominent enough that the whole performance sounds off, somehow. In this case, it’s the guitar’s odd tuning and the way it doesn’t sound quite crisp enough, although that might be flaws in the recording itself. Combined with that weird warble thing Wilson’s voice occasionally did at the time where he sounded twice his age, the intervention is toxic.

(The one really good live version of Even Less was performed during soundcheck in Los Angeles during the Incident tour (and possibly elsewhere; but the LA performance is what we have video evidence of). There, we had Wilson on vox and acoustic backing guitar, with Jordan Rudess playing the main guitar part on the piano, in that full grand Steinway mode he’s really good at, with the pastoral, flowery flourishes and bone-shattering low end and everything. It sounds amazing. This was then butchered into what appears on Home Invasion, where Wilson essentially is trying to play an acoustic arrangement of the song on an electric guitar, and the result sounds like it should be a discarded demo more than anything else…doubly frustrating because Adam Holzman could have replicated Rudess’ piano without too much trouble.)

Most of the time, though, the Nearfest gig doesn’t do that. The performance is pretty decent, if you’re into generally note-perfect renditions souped up here and there by the slightly looser dynamics of the live setting, Barbieri’s correctly rated and Maitland’s criminally underrated ability to bring space and atmosphere to a song, Edwin’s unflappable island time energy, and Wilson’s prowess at busting out some killer solos when called upon to do so. It’s not their best, but at this stage in their career “their best” is something they’re still working toward.

That said, there are some interesting facets of the band dynamics at the time that the Nearfest performance brings out. Toward the end of Shesmovedon, for instance, the camera lingers on Maitland and Edwin for a bit, marveling at the contrast between the two musicians. Maitland is improvising a spectacular drum solo and is going at it like a maniac, while Edwin picks at his bass the same way a middle-class office worker picks at a cocktail while sprawled out on a lounge chair at a Bahamas all-inclusive resort, and just looks happy to be there. Wilson, meanwhile, is still trying to construct a stage presence, and 2001 finds him wearing crop tops, cargo pants, and little hippie sunglasses, looking for all the world like a teenager for whom this is an after-school side gig. He’s still not fully comfortable onstage; whenever he has to speak to the audience he sounds like he’s about to die of stage fright.

This leads us neatly into what everything up there was a preamble for: before the band dives into Hatesong, Wilson steps up to the microphone and says the following:

“I don’t know how closely you guys follow the news, what’s going on in the United Kingdom at the moment, or in fact recently. We’ve had a pretty terrible disease sweeping the country, sweeping the nation, you know about that?”

Muted “yeah!” response from an audience conditioned Pavlovly to respond that way to any question posed by a musician onstage.

“Yeah, I am of course talking about boy bands and girl bands.”

Applause.

“It is a fucking disease. And showing no signs of slowing up, either. The infection keeps spreading. And I know you have a particular problem with this disease in the United States as well, and in fact, you’ve sent your disease over to us as well! Thanks!”

Laughter.

“So, what we’re gonna do for you now is a song which is kind of our antidote to the likes of Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, ‘N-Sync, Christine Agwilera [sic], &c. &c. &c. And the thing about all these…musicians…”

Wilson highlights the word “musicians” with giant air quotes.

“…about these ‘artists,’ is that they purport to perform ‘love’ ‘songs,’ and they don’t make me feel very romantic somehow. So this is Porcupine Tree’s antidote to all of those pointless love songs, and this is called HATEsong.”

So obviously there’s a lot going on here. On the kneejerk surface-text level, Wilson is grossly overgeneralizing. Boy bands like Backstreet Boys and “girl bands” (WTF?) like Britney Spears don’t make “love songs” (although they do make those) as much as they do “songs about love.” Something like Oops I Did It Again isn’t meant to make the listener feel romantic because it’s a much more cynical (yet simultaneously empowering!) approach to the whole business of romance, an approach that works entirely because it trades on the song’s (and genre’s) sense of artifice and Spears’ own image as a (not that–) innocent teenybopper pop princess.

(I would, of course, be remiss if I didn’t mention here that “songs about love” is a spectacularly broad label and includes not just what was on the pop charts in 2001 but over half of Lightbulb Sun–including, in its own sick, twisted way, Hatesong. Pot, kettle, &c.)

Speaking of artifice, we’ve gone briefly over the issue with authenticity in pop music w/r/t popularity and the ethics of “selling out” and participating in the exploitative meat grinder that is the recording industry back in the Stupid Dream post, but Wilson’s roast of boy bands here introduces a new wrinkle: the trouble with pop music is that it’s shallow and manufactured lovey-dovey fluff. This implies there’s a music that serves as a counterpoint in its depth and authenticity. Music like, say, Porcupine Tree, who proudly write not love songs but Hatesongs. Never mind that he’s currently wearing a crop top and touring his most obviously please-make-me-famous record to date and the fandom tore him a new asshole for apparently selling out with the last album two years ago, Steven Wilson is the real deal. Honest.

Here’s the issue, though: if we take it as a truth that any artist sells out the instant they’re able to have complete strangers listen to their music, then artists who claim to value authenticity don’t actually value authenticity but the appearance of authenticity. They’re saying “we’re not trying to sell you something, man” while shamelessly trying to sell us something, and the people who get huffy about authenticity in music (aka “suckers”) bought the lie look line and sinker. Any music that claims it’s “real” is lying to you. Pop music is fake, too, of course, but it doesn’t care, and so is more preoccupied with other things. The true value of pop music, and music in general, lies elsewhere, in the meaning it creates for the listener.

This is, in microcosm, the deeper engagement with the boy band rant, which hits one of the defining fault lines in music criticism: rockism versus poptimism. Kieron Gillen has an excellent (and charitable) definition of the former, stating that “Rockism is the belief that some forms of music are more authentic and real than other forms of music and authenticity and realness are virtues in and of themselves,” leaving pregnantly unspoken the implication that the more “authentic” and “real” forms of music happen to feature white men with electric guitars. Poptimism, meanwhile, is a celebration of music in all its forms, deemphasizing concerns about authenticity through recognizing that music is an expansive, multifaceted thing, containing within it all sorts of multitudes and innovations and dynamisms…even the stuff that appears on the pop charts. There are nuances, contradictions, and fuzzy borders, of course, but in broad strokes that’s where the lines are drawn.

It should be pretty obvious where I stand. Rockism is fundamentally a regressive, reactionary position because treating that old time rock ‘n roll as the pinnacle of what music can offer completely ignores the other musical currents that were brewing in the 60s, 70s, and 80s: stuff like synthpop and punk and funk and soul and hip hop. These genres all had just as much youthful energy and innovative spirit as anything that would become standards on classic rock radio in the following decades. In addition…let’s be honest. Rockism also ignores that most classic rock is unlistenable dreck. Rockist snobbery is the only possible explanation for why artists like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bad Company and Steve Miller and the Allman Brothers still have cachet in this year of our Lord 2020. It is a celebration of bland white mediocrity as the peak of the musical art form, and a disparagement of anything that fails to worship at its feet. It’s Morrissey saying reggae is vile. It’s Bohemian Rhapsody’s Best Picture nomination. It is a school of thought that has no business existing in contemporary music criticism.

Steven Wilson, meanwhile, isn’t quite either a rockist or a poptimist. He’s absolutely without question a rock musician, and those are the traditions he holds in highest esteem…but he also has an appreciation for pop music healthy enough that it resulted in Blackfield and To the Bone and Billie Eilish showing up on last year’s year-end recommendations list. His attitude toward music criticism could best be illustrated through his onstage banter during the To The Bone Tour, where on one hand we get the rant about how millennials don’t know what an electric guitar is, while on the other hand we get the rant about how people who turn their nose up at pop music should really get over themselves. We could probably describe Wilson’s attitudes toward music as a particular synthesis of rockism and poptimism, where the snobbery is largely displaced away from rock music (although not gone away entirely, see his withering comments about Greta Van Fleet, for instance) and toward pop music. When he’s criticising boy bands, he’s not using boy bands as a synecdoche for all pop music and saying pop music sucks, he’s saying boy bands make bad pop music.

Though I staunchly disagree, that’s at least a defensible position. Here, though, is where his approach runs into trouble: Steven Wilson may have grown up with both Pink Floyd and Donna Summer, and he may be musically omnivorous and take inspiration from all sorts of genres, but he is not a pop musician. He’s a rock musician. Therefore, any criticisms of pop music he makes will be perceived as coming from an outsider…and all the troubling dynamics that implies when Wilson is a white man, working in a genre dominated by white men, casting aspersions on a genre that’s considerably less dominated by white men and typically looked down upon by white men. It is perfectly reasonable to listen to Wilson ranting about boy bands and think he’s a rockist snob saying all pop music is terrible. This means that when Steven Wilson goes onstage and says Backstreet Boys suck, whatever nuances are lent to this argument from his particular relationship with pop music will sail right over the heads of everyone in the audience, generally rockist snobs themselves, and anything he says will register as “durr pop music bad.” Oopsie.

(This is a broader issue than one would think. When Todd Nathanson started reviewing pop songs we automatically assumed that, like most Internet Males of a Certain Age, he came out of the rockist tradition and bashed pop songs because he hated pop songs, even after we had annual best-of lists and his repeated protests, in detail, that he loved pop music. It was only after One-Hit Wonderland started and he got to regularly show off his knowledge of pop history that the idea of Todd Nathanson, Pop Music Lover finally landed.)

As an unfortunate consequence, every rockist snob at Nearfest now thinks of Wilson as one of their own, even when he isn’t. This wasn’t a perception Wilson would seriously push back on for over a decade and a half, instead choosing to yammer on about iPods and music streaming and other such things that record store owners in Rush t-shirts could nod dumbly along to. Thus does the Wilson-as-rockist-snob meme grow and metastasize until 2017, when Permanating is released and half his audience starts screaming betrayal at the top of their lungs. The backlash was a self-own, yes, but if they were to think a little bit about Wilson’s musical background, they would have at least seen it coming and recognized Wilson for who he is: a man with better and wider taste in music than they will ever have.

Porcupine Tree – Warszawa

Recorded 6 April 2001
Released January 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steven Wilson – Tonefloating

27 Feburary 2000
Voyage 31 rerelease, 2019

Let’s pad this thing out a bit by covering what we missed to get here.

First, Spirits Burning’s New World by Design. These guys are pretty interesting, a space rock collective featuring Don Falcone and whoever he felt like collaborating with at the time. This, naturally, means there’s an astronomically long revolving door of members, and Steven Wilson is one of them, contributing guitars for a song on their first album. That song is not the only one from that record on YouTube…that would be Arcturus, which is a short two-and-a-half minute krautrock joint and quite good. The album it’s on, unfortunately, is rare enough that a copy off Amazon Music costs over $150. And that was the only place I could find a copy; the official Spirits Burning website, a charmingly out-of-date affair (hosted by Earthlink, no less!), points interested parties toward a “distributors” page which no longer exists.

Next, Cipher’s No Ordinary Man. This is the first album of a collaboration between Theo Travis and Dave Sturt, featuring Barbieri on keyboards and Wilson on guitar for a few songs. This record is a slab of cold, alienating concrete, the sound of malfunctioning streetlamps and dead drops on the East German border. It’s a ghost story wrapped up in the conventions of a spy movie…so of course Wilson co-produced it.

Finally, and more pertinently for this particular record, what should surface last month but No-Man’s Hit the North recording sessions from 1992. (I suspect my insufficient Google-fu is to blame here; the whole thing happens to be part of a compilation released in 1998 of recording sessions from around that time.) It’s excellent, both as a collaboration with JBK, whose members show up in the usual places and are integral to the way this record sounds (besides Karn’s very distinctive bass, Barbieri’s eerie, haunting keyboards work so well with Ocean Song that the EP version feels bereft without them), and as a reminder of how good No-Man were even in the early days. This is No-Man still in their state of pubescent confusion, yes, when they were still trying to ride One Little Indian’s and trip hop’s coattails into some form of mainstream success, but there’s an energy and vitality to this performance that transcends any cynical triangulation that may have gone into how these songs sound.

And now, speaking of things that have been uncovered recently, Tonefloating. This is a record company promo more than anything else, released as a giveaway for 200 lucky people who attended the Tonefloating concert in Delft in February 2000. After this, it would pretty much disappear until the release earlier this year of Wouter Bessels’ Voyage 31, an ambiguously authorized (website says it isn’t; still has official sanction from SW himself) biography of Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson’s concert history in the Netherlands. This book has a special edition, limited to 1,000 copies, featuring, happily, a repressing of the Tonefloating single.

It’s a split single, featuring demos from Wilson and a homegrown band from Nijmegen called The Use of Ashes. Their contribution would eventually become Rainbird, a song which sounds vaguely Porcupine Tree-like in the sense that it’s a mashup of the Space and Alternative Eras, and whose vocals sound like if Wilson pitched his voice down and layered it over itself a few times.

Wilson himself, meanwhile, contributed an edit of Cure for Optimism. The final version was released on Recordings in 2001 and sounds great. It’s kind of a sparse song, featuring eerie echoing piano accentuated by some rhythmic acoustic guitar, with Wilson singing cryptically about being institutionalized, perhaps involuntarily, picked at and experimented on, insane but not insane. There’s some low, haunting rumble at the beginning and the end, and the way the meat of the song fades in and out from it makes it feel like a rare moment of clarity amid a medically-induced hallucinatory stupor. The version that appears on Tonefloating is pretty similar to what’s on Recordings, but doesn’t have the rumble, instead fading in after about twenty seconds of silence. The lack of bookends gives the sense that our singer hasn’t gone out of his mind, like on Recordings, but that he’s been ruined to the point where he generally experiences no brain activity whatsoever.

This is all based on hindsight, though. Somebody in 2000 wouldn’t have the full version to compare the demo against, and wouldn’t think, hmm, this song is pretty good, but feels incomplete without creepy ambient noises at the beginning and end. Nevertheless, the twenty seconds of anticipatory nothing is pretty haunting, and the slow fade-in at the start still feels like consciousness struggling to rise from the depths. Trouble is, there’s no corresponding silence afterwards, instead ending right after it fades out, implying that this particular bit of clear-headedness continues after the song ends. Consequently, the song’s meaning doesn’t land with quite the same impact that it does on Recordings.

But that’s not why the song is important. Although he’s recorded solo before, it’s always been under an alias (Bass Communion, early Porcupine Tree) and never just as himself, until now. Tonefloating may have been a promo a record company pulled together as an extra goody for people who attended a specific concert, but appropriately for a new millennium and the associated stuff about a new beginning, we have the first record released under the name Steven Wilson. When his acoustic guitar fades in at the start, the faint possibility that he might have a solo career under his own name is released into the universe.

Porcupine Tree – Coma Divine

Editorial prologue the First: that ponytail is adorable.

Editorial prologue the Second: In non-Steve news, I have an article up on Medium about Weezer’s cover of Africa and why it’s an abomination. If that sounds interesting do check it out.


 

October 1997
Coma Divine II, January 1999
Expanded edition, February 2003
Remastered, 2016

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“Grazie.”

It’s the end of an era. No, another era. In the Signify entry I wrote:

“Ultimately, the people who become immortal are the people who get lucky. Either they have connections through family or friends, someone powerful noticed them at exactly the right time and liked what they heard, or what they were doing resonated with the contemporary musical zeitgeist.”

Steven Wilson got lucky. Yes, there’s a case to be made about the ambitious aspiring musician, but in the beginning he got lucky. There were lots of people plugged into the English neo-psychedelia scene in the 80s. There were lots of people just as worthy of superstardom as Wilson was, flinging their tapes at places like Delerium and hoping someone would take notice. But Wilson was the fortunate soul whose tape found its way out of the slush pile, and that was because the Delerium man’s buddy needed driving music and Tarquin’s was fished out at random. And then many years later the fake band became real and released albums and played shows and caught the attention of an extremely powerful record industry man down in Italy, they got played on the radio, and their cachet in the politically unstable boot-shaped country skyrocketed.

Thus, Coma Divine, the fulcrum of the magical ritual to destroy the Space Era and usher in the Alternative Era, and also the point at which Porcupine Tree became too big for Delerium’s britches. Although not the band’s final release with the label—Delerium would still have some unreleased rarities that would float to the surface in the next few years—this is the last thing the band released while they were still actively making music for them. Porcupine Tree would spend most of 1998 without a label, signing a deal in December of that year with Snapper Music, which would eventually, with some input from Wilson himself, branch off into Kscope, the imprint who’d release things like Anathema, North Atlantic Oscillation, The Pineapple Thief…stuff in the general ballpark of what Porcupine Tree would sound like in the Alternative and Metal Eras. So this was a natural switch for them.

Would there be stuff that leaked out afterward? Yes. Metanoia, for instance. The Delerium Years compilation. But those are all contained within the slowly deflating star of Delerium itself, which would fold in 2003. This album belched out a satellite of its own in 1999, which would be subsequently reabsorbed and kept under the Coma Divine umbrella with the expanded edition, also in 2003. For all intents and purposes, here is a decade of history, successfully, albeit barely, bottled within a specific place (the Frontiera in Rome) and time (three nights in late March 1997).

From a certain perspective, though, I’ve managed to do the same thing. I heavily compartmentalize my music based upon a place in the world that feels like whatever it is I’m listening to. Sometimes this is based off life experience, sometimes it isn’t. The music of Burial, for instance, could accurately be described as “an incognito psychogeographic exploration of South London,” but to me the grubby, crusty atmosphere and the way the pitch-shifted vocal samples echo across the sound field also scream “desolate New York subway station at one in the morning.” Pendulum is another example: also based in London, this band specializes in drum-n-bass bangers but which will occasionally venture into something ambient or acoustic (Crush and Out Here are perfect examples). This particular contrast between ultramodern harshness and lush ambience is a dead ringer for Hong Kong, where city streets lined with looming fifty-story apartment towers that inspired Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell sit literally right next to dense wilderness.

For Space-Era Porcupine Tree, I’ve already mentioned a couple of times how the techno tracks Jerry Martin wrote for the 90s Sim games sound a fair bit like stuff from Up the Downstair and The Sky Moves Sideways, particularly in the bass and the keyboards. I’ve also mentioned SimCity 3000 a little as well; a game whose sequel, SimCity 3000 Unlimited, also featured European and Asian building sets. The Asian building set was intended to evoke someplace like Tokyo, a town everyone knows, but the generally stout, boxy architecture actually lands somewhere around the vernacular of Taipei, Taiwan.

Which means that once when I had a day-long layover in Taipei on my way from Hong Kong to the US, and I had an opportunity to leave the airport and explore the city, I listened almost exclusively to Jerry Martin and Space-Era Porcupine Tree. The Sky Moves Sideways and Voyage 34 in particular are inseparable from almost falling asleep on the 1819 airport bus somewhere on Highway 1, watching exurban Taiwan’s peculiar jumble of fields, houses, and mid-rise apartment blocks roll by on my way to a sweltering yet vibrant city in a country no one wants to believe officially exists. When I listen to Dislocated Day I’m lost in the enormous underground city beneath Taipei Main Station. Up the Downstair is the soundtrack of dodging mopeds on an impromptu dérive in and around the city’s many, many alleyways. What I have done here, in essence, was to bottle Porcupine Tree’s Space Era into a psychogeo/chronographic brick of my own making: the city of Taipei, as it existed for ten hours on 2 August 2014. Taiwan’s capital on that day is my Frontiera.

But while Taipei is still there, it hasn’t been 2014 for four years now. The Frontiera closed in 2000. Delerium Records folded in 2003. The Space Era is, as of this moment, well and truly dead.

So. What are we building on top of the ruins? Signify itself may have been a stillborn attempt to construct a new sound, but there’s still something here to build on. Enter, for instance, Barbieri’s keyboards. Over in JBK, he’d already been doing something similar to the soundscapes that’d form the backbone of the Alternative and Metal eras since Beginning to Melt, but here’s where that style begins to be introduced to Porcupine Tree in a big way. The band as a whole has also become more comfortable improvising and changing around with certain aspects of the songs they’re playing. They’ve mashed up The Moon Touches Your Shoulder and Always Never. Barbieri’s subtly changed around the keyboards in the former so it sounds just a bit more ominous, while the latter’s got some more horns in the chorus, giving it a more triumphant, early-Marillion feel. Wilson has by this time perfected his Patented Psychedelic Guitar Freakout and lets it rip with full force during The Sky Moves Sideways and Dislocated Day.

And actually, I do want to zero in on Dislocated Day for a second. In the studio, this is one of the loudest, most technical songs Porcupine Tree’s ever made. In Rome, however, the rhythm section is brought forwards and the cacophonic, squealing lead guitar is confined to the one discreet solo in the middle. Wilson’s vocals, more chanted at points than sung, are front and center, to the point where when he sings “I will find a way to make you say the name of your forgiver,” the bass and drums fade out entirely before storming back in for the drop. Somewhat relevant to the narrative we’ve constructed about this point in the band’s history, the overall atmosphere of the song is less (well) dislocated and more…witchy.

That said, though, in March of 1997 we still don’t have a whole lot to build the Alternative Era with. New soundscapes and live performance indulgences are nice, but that’s not sufficient for a whole sound. Our first attempt was stillborn, and Sunsets on Empire is still two months away. But we do have something. By the time the 1997 tour rolled around, Wilson and the band had whacked together a few demos for the new album. One of them was of a song called “Disappear.”

This song has a long and tortured history stretching all the way to Lightbulb Sun, because it fell victim to that weird artist’s curse of obsessively picking at something in the name of Perfection long after they should have stopped. The final version, unceremoniously kicked off Lightbulb Sun and only seeing release on Recordings, sounds very little like the more sprawling early demos—two of which, recorded in February and April of 1997, eventually did get a release—and an awful lot like the first half of Last Chance to Evacuate &c.

But look at what we do have in these early incarnations: sober, deceptively straightforward instrumentation light on the psychedelia. Wilson’s ethereal, almost ghostly backing vocals. Lyrics describing alienation, introversion, and (despite being sung to a lover) isolation. The building blocks of the Alternative Era are all right here, on two demos of a song that was never quite good/thematically appropriate enough to see a studio album release, bracketing the shows in Rome by a month on either side and released as a bonus single in Coma Divine’s expanded edition.

The Space Era is dead. Long live the Alternative Era.

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Porcupine Tree – Live at Help

Editorial prologue: let’s peel back the curtain a bit. There’s generally a lag between when I write a post and when it actually goes up on the blog, so I have some time away from it and it’s fresh before I make any final edits. The meat of this post, for example, was pulled together back in May. However, between then and now the subject of this post was yanked from YouTube. I’ll provide a link if it’s ever reuploaded. In the meantime, blame Gavin.

[UPDATE 7/18/19: HERE IT IS, FRIENDS. Thanks to Matt for rediscovering this li’l gem.]


 

28 March 1997

“I don’t remember Porcoopine Tree having the Your Movie Sucks guy as the lead singer, the Alien Ant Farm guy on bass, Robert Palmer of the Cure on the keys, and Some Jerk With A Camera on the drums. What a good band.” —Emily “Annotated Fall Out Boy” Nejako

Yes, we both know Mister The Cure is actually Robert Smith. It’s funnier this way. Please take your pedantry elsewhere.

During the Signify era, Porcupine Tree got big in Italy. There, they had a superfan in Nick Vannini, who just so happened to own a musical distribution company, and who thus had the necessary cachet to give the band serious radio play down there. And the gambit worked, to the point where playing in Italy meant experiencing uniquely large, rapturous, sold-out venues, and, most importantly, a glimpse of what it was like to be a rock star and not just a jobbing musician. Coma Divine was recorded there for a reason.

Of course, with the rock-star adulation they enjoyed in Italy comes rock-star drudgery. Photoshoots. Interviews. Talk show appearances. I’m not going to exhaustively cover bootlegs and TV appearances in this space…but I think we can make an exception here, because ye freaking gods. Their appearance on Help was a trainwreck visible from space.

It’s not the language barrier. Wilson and PT have had plenty of good interviews with people whose English wasn’t perfect. But this show and this band were nevertheless such a colossal mismatch I’m left wondering if either party had heard of the other before they came crashing together.

I’m working off of very incomplete information. I surmise that Help was a videomusic program, filmed in Bologna, whose format, if this episode is representative, involved live band performances separated by short interview segments. The show ran from 1996 to 2000 for the similarly relatively short-lived TMC 2. The host is Gabriele “Red Ronnie” Ansaloni, who’s been a professional music nerd in some capacity or other since the late 70s and by the time Wilson and company showed up had been presenting for radio and TV for fourteen years. That’s literally all I got.

I need (heh) help. So, I’ve tagged in my friend Emily Nejako of the Annotated Fall Out Boy blog, who kindly provided the epigraph for this post. What follows is a heavily abridged but otherwise lightly edited transcript of the Discord chat we had while we were attempting to make sense of what we were watching:

EN: “is it troo that you are more famous in italy than in your own count-rey”
TD: at that time, yes
EN: this is concurrent with oasis and the spice girls
TD: YEP

N.b. Although I want to stress once again that the language barrier wasn’t the issue, we nevertheless roundly mocked Red Ronnie’s fractured and heavily accented English throughout the show. Because I love you, I spared you most of the snark, but this one stayed because it’s an example of the sort of ridiculously softball questions he typically lobbed at Steven.

EN: [walking very slowly over to steven]
TD: guuHHHH
EN: he’s so scared
TD: i would be too
EN: “you seem to have roots in the 70s”
EN: what did the host just look at his hair
TD: I GUESS
EN: [steven stares into camera like he’s on the office]

EN: “why are the songs long” “because they’re long”
EN: good job

N.b. This was an exchange between Red Ronnie and Chris Maitland that’s another example of the sort of questions the band typically got on this show. One does wonder what sort of answer Ronnie was expecting out of Maitland here.

TD: oh god
TD: richard
TD: we’re already off on the wrong foot because he started with ex-japan
EN: i’m crying
EN: “is this the thing you played in japan”
EN: “pac-man?”
EN: PLEASE DON’T TOUCH HIS EQUIPMENT
TD: yep
TD: HE’S STILL TALKING ABOUT JAPAN
EN: WHY
EN: i feel his suffering

N.b. Ron thought it’d be a good idea to play with Richard’s old synthesizer for a bit. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to understand why this is Not Done. Ron would make Barbieri deeply uncomfortable throughout the show.

EN: i want to hear more porcupine tree so to simulate it i’m blowing into my beer bottle
EN: he’s like curling up into a ball
TD: yes!
EN: the next time he approaches him he’s gonna be rocking back and forth in a fetal position
TD: oh aye
EN: shut up about japan
EN: what about MY waifu, italy

N.b. Ronnie’s interrogating Barbieri about his relationships with Sylvian, Jansen, and Karn. It’s worth mentioning here that Ronnie uncritically repeated the [untrue] myth that Sylvian was voted Sexiest Man in the World and that it contributed to him, to put it politely, developing an ego later on.

EN: HELP
EN: call the help line
EN: do you need
EN: help
TD: i think they need help
EN: “why do you want to destroy?”
EN: i want to destroy his ass

N.b. Ronnie, on Wilson’s request, read from the lyrics to Radioactive Toy, and interpreted the line “give me the freedom to destroy” as “give me, Steven, who is on this show right now, the freedom to destroy.”

TD: ohgod
TD: he’s talking to barbieri again
TD: AND
TD: HE’S TALKING ABOUT JAPAN AGAIN
EN: SHUT UP ABOUT JAPAN

N.b. Barbieri finally lost patience with Ronnie’s constant badgering about his time with Japan and explained that he’s not there as an ex-Japan member and he would really like to be looking forward instead of backward, so could we please focus on what he’s doing now.

TD: wilson gets all the pedal geekery and richard gets an inquisition about his time with japan
EN: god
TD: all richard got about his equipment was a quick thing about how old his one synth was
EN: depressing

N.b. Ronnie and Wilson had a moment, stemming from another awkward question about how he always goes barefoot, where they mutually geeked out over Wilson’s pedals and how they altered his guitar sound. Notably, Ronnie keeps a respectful distance from Wilson and doesn’t try to play with his toys. This is, in essence, the one moment where we get a glimpse of how the show is supposed to work.

EN: WHOWOWOOO
TD: AWKWARRD
EN: WOOWOOWOOO HERE COMES THE CRINGY MUSIC SHOW POLICE
TD: DINGDINGDINGYEP

N.b. I have no words to describe precisely what Ronnie does here. You just gotta see it.

EN: why are they giving out candy
EN: is this payment for them suffering through this
EN: “You Don’t Know This Kind oF Food?”
TD: craig ferguson use to joke on the late late show “we give the audience free candy”
EN: omg
TD: this is an innovation
TD: we give the band free candy too
TD: AND THAT’S IT
EN: yay we lived
TD: yay
EN: I CAN’T BELIEVE I ATE THE WHOLE THING

I can’t believe we ate the whole thing, either.

This should not have gone as disastrously as it did. Ronnie’s been presenting for as long as Wilson’s been releasing music, and has been in the music business for about as long as Barbieri’s been releasing music. The man clearly knows his stuff. We should, by all rights, have had a show that was just as engrossing throughout as it was those precious few minutes when Wilson was showing off his pedals. And yet, somehow, the combination of Gabriele Ansaloni and Porcupine Tree produced nothing but industrial-strength awkward and some of the worst interview questions Emily or I have ever heard.

But at least it’s not the Jason interview.