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.


 

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.

Porcupine Tree – Live at Den Bosch

10 February 1995

There are two other live bootlegs before this one, both recorded in 1994 in Uden, Netherlands, one at Club Nieuwe Pul in January, one at the Planet Pul festival in July. On YouTube, the only chunks of the January show within easy Googling distance are Burning Sky, Radioactive Toy, and incomplete audio of Voyage 34. The person who posted the last thing says the quality stinks—and indeed, it sounds like something very obviously recorded on home equipment in 1994—but it still holds up better than similar footage recorded on an iPhone.

Don’t some of you start now.

The July performance exists in its entirety, fortunately, but beyond the novelty of holy crap they’ve been on the road like what six months and already they’re at a freaking festival, it isn’t something we haven’t heard before. (And yes, I am going to say it, why on earth can’t we see Wilson’s tootsies?) Also…PT, especially Space Era PT, and festivals? Not a good match. When they’re outside they look as if the sun, even filtered through rain and a thick layer of clouds, will burn them alive.

Now the Den Bosch show, here’s Porcupine Tree in its natural habitat. Themselves, in a dark room, bathed in reds, greens, blues, and purples, playing the sort of prog a raver would make and watching it reverberate back and forth across Willem Twee’s sacred sonic cavern. Let the music flow through you, indeed. Wilson himself is withdrawn and slightly uncomfortable, hiding behind an oversized striped shirt (same one he wore at Planet Pul, interestingly) and a vaguely Shannon-Hoon-esque mane of hair, more worried about putting the right notes in the right order than any sort of theatrics. His voice is barely audible at times, drowned out by the music. But there he remains, delivering the goods like nobody’s business.

Let’s now talk about an early manifestation of something that would become inescapable and insufferable: the Male Steven Wilson Fan. When Wilson asks the audience who has Up the Downstair, there’s this one gentleman who overenthusiastically shouts YEAH and starts shouting for Burning Sky the way people at other concerts shout for Freebird. It would transpire over the course of the video that there are others like him in the audience, gleefully making their presence known over the people everyone else actually came to see.

Disclaimer for the butthurt: of course not all SW fans who happen to identify as male. If you’re not part of the problem, you’re not part of the problem. But oh Lord do I hate the people who are. Put it to you this way: I don’t like recording concerts on iPhones, for the reasons most people don’t. Yeah, you want to preserve a moment and be able to relive it at your leisure. I get that. However, in so doing you’re pulling yourself out of the concert experience, and the moment you’re trying to capture now doesn’t and can’t exist. I’ve only ever recorded any concert anything once, and that was to share a particular song with someone not at the show who really likes that one song…but that meant I couldn’t enjoy the song myself.

If I’m at a show, I would rather be stuck behind ten serial concert recorders than one Male Steven Wilson Fan. The serial concert recorders are only hurting themselves and should be left alone (and, of course, their sacrifice gives us concert footage on YouTube, which is a bonus). The Male Steven Wilson Fans are hurting everyone else. They are loud, drunk, and obnoxious, the musical fandom equivalent of football hooligans or Philadelphia Eagles fans. I realize Wilson isn’t the only artist to attract these sorts of people, and I’m sure it’s worse with other artists, but with him there’s a Type. The gentlemen who got all shouty after Always Never would over the years grow more weirdly obsessive and sycophantic. You know the guy whose favorite SW solo album is The Raven that Refused to Sing, who swears up and down that Wilson was the only good thing about Blackfield, and who harbors a particular and entirely disproportionate hatred for iPods? That’s him.

These people need to get a life. The person chronicling Steven Wilson’s discography album by album is telling a chunk of his fandom to get a life. That’s where we’re at here. Take up knitting. Read a good book. Push against the artifice of gender. For once, do something other than sit in a dark room where the only light comes in cool hues from an artfully lit stage where four men play psychedelic music. You should not be what you consume. Now please, go forth and contain multitudes.

Porcupine Tree – Spiral Circus

April 1994

Editorial prologue: it is around noon on April 28, 2018. I’m in Union Square in New York on what is by all accounts a lovely green spring day. I’m sitting under a bright pink flowering tree, mooching off city wifi, giving this entry a final passthrough before posting. In about six hours I will make my way to the PlayStation Theater in Times Square, where I will see Steven Wilson live for the third time in five years.

This both is and is not a coincidence.


“The principle behind the project is to drag progressive rock kicking and screaming into the nineties.” —Steven Wilson

“And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar and say, ‘Man, what are you doing here?’” —Billy Joel

Just a little over twenty years after the release of Porcupine Tree’s first live album, on my way home from the then-final Blackfield concert in New York City, I had the distinct good fortune to share my bus with a few people who’d come from the same show. I never encounter any Steven Wilson Fans in real life, so it was nice to geek out for a bit while we were all momentarily stranded within Port Authority’s decaying bowels. One of the other people on the bus had mentioned that she’d been following Steven Wilson up and down the East Coast for literal decades, and talked about how back in the early days the man had basically zero stage presence.

To which my immediate response was “Uhhhh…”

steven wilson in a dress

I honestly wish performing in a dress was something he still did from time to time. For one thing, he and Nick Beggs could be twinsies. For another, although we can’t see how he carries himself in the first Porcupine Tree live album, his mumbling, taciturn demeanor between songs gives us a pretty good idea of what the outfits were meant to compensate for.

I do kind of respect the minimalism in that sort of stage presence, though. Get up, do your thing, get down. No theatrics. No fuss. Let the music speak for itself. And honestly, when you’re playing expansive, psychedelic music in a small venue such as Borderline or The Nag’s Head, that gets the job done. You’re allowed to be unpolished. When you’re playing prog metal at a sold-out Royal Albert Hall, however…not so much.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It is December 1993, and we have a band now, so we can go on tour and play these songs properly. Thus, Spiral Circus, their first live album, showcasing their first live performances, and the first steps toward becoming the formidable live act we’d see in Anesthetize and Octane Twisted.

First thing to probably mention is that these guys aren’t like wet behind the ears when it comes to live performance or anything. Wilson’s been performing live in some capacity or other for about a decade by this point, Barbieri even longer. Statuesque stage presence or no, the Tree boys already know how to recreate something perfectly in a live setting. We only say it’s early days because it’s early for this particular project, which wasn’t anyone’s first.

Piggybacking off of that, thing two: the performances may be excellent, but the audio quality on this album is atrocious. There’s pops, there’s hiss, there’s distortion, the sound feels expansive and brickwalled at the same time…that sort of thing. There is some fluctuation thanks to the different recording equipment used in different places, but in general we’re roughly where we were during Tarquin’s freaking Seaweed Farm. That bad.

Third thing to mention is the contribution of the other band members. It irritates me to no end when people think of Steven Wilson as the sole reason the projects he’s involved in are great, which is why I try and bend over backward to highlight the contributions of others when they contribute something great too. For instance: Colin Edwin’s bass, which to me is consistently the greatest thing about Porcupine Tree in the 90s. Boy howdy does that man know his way around the low end. Maitland’s drumming and Barbieri’s keyboards are no slouches either. Wilson may write the songs, but it’s the band that performs them and makes them their own. And even in these first three shows it’s clear that Barbieri, Edwin, and Maitland’s little flourishes have all given something to these songs that we didn’t know they were missing until just now.

And that alone makes this album worth listening to. These are their first three live performances as a band, and already it’s clear they have unbelievable chemistry. These aren’t seeds of promise we’re listening to here. We’re already great, we just have to wait for the rest of the world to catch up…and give us some live recording equipment that isn’t garbage.