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 And that was the only place I could find a copy; the official Spirits Burning website, a charmingly out-of-date affair (hosted by Earthlink, no less!), points interested parties toward a “distributors” page which no longer exists.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.

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Porcupine Tree – Voyage 34

Phases I and II, November 1992
Phases III and IV, November 1993
The Complete Trip, June 2000
Remastered, October 2004
Delirium Years Edition, 2016

“Does Porcupine Tree cause hallucinations?” —The album notes, a riff on the backmatter of Timothy Leary’s LSD album, indicating that we’re clearly not in Kansas anymore.

Before we begin, a note on categorization: Wikipedia lists Voyage 34 as a compilation album, other sources list it as an EP. I’m calling it a single, because it isn’t one of PT’s main releases and I think of it as one big song split into four thematically linked phases.

But anyway here we are; the apotheosis of Space-Era Porcupine Tree. We’ll get to how it interacts with Up the Downstair when we actually get to Up the Downstair, so for now let’s treat it as its own thing. What we have here is a seventy-minute monster that is a distillation of Porcupine Tree’s sound up to that point and the jumping-off point for their subsequent musical endeavors for the rest of the Space Era.

Wilson said in a 2012 interview that Voyage 34 was supposed to be “a one-off experiment in a particular genre in which I knew I wouldn’t be staying for very long.” This when it turns out Voyage 34’s more spacey, trancey approach to psychedelia would see echoes in Up the Downstair (natch), The Sky Moves Sideways, and even Signify, to an extent.

And, most impressively, it doesn’t feel like seventy minutes. Even though the individual movements are allowed to unspool at their leisure, there’s a sense of purpose—of progression—to them that wasn’t quite there on any of the earlier Porcupine Tree Long Songs.

We’ll dive in with a short note on structure. Voyage 34 is a song about a young man named Brian who went on an LSD trip that went pear-shaped, and comes in two halves. Phases I and II were what was originally intended for the aborted second album of Up the Downstair. Phases III and IV are remixes of the first half, Phase III by Astralasia, Phase IV by Wilson and Richard Barbieri. As for how the two halves relate to each other, Phase II famously ends with “Is this trip really necessary?” hanging pregnantly over everything we just witnessed. Unfortunately, this question comes after we spent the past thirty minutes listening to something that sounds like if David Gilmour made trance music, with only the occasional low atmospheric drone reminding us that this particular trip is not a good one. So it almost feels like we must be watching what’s going on from the outside, because if this is what the trip felt like to Brian then why on earth are we talking about how psychologically damaging it was? If we take Phase I and II as the full song, that question loses quite a bit of its effectiveness.

In the context of the full 70-minute song, however, “Is this trip really necessary?” functions instead as a signpost saying, prepare yourself, here’s where things get really messed up. And indeed, the unease of Phase III and the overwhelming throb of Phase IV give us a better idea of what exactly was happening in Brian’s head during his twelve-hour nightmare. Phase III itself underscores this by beginning with “Is this trip really necessary?” echoing expectantly around Brian’s acid-addled cranium, soon to be joined by all the other spoken-word samples the first half laid out before us, all blended together in a dark soup that would come to encapsulate Brian’s fears and anxieties in that moment.

Those spoken word bits are important as they’re the primary vector through which the song’s concept is communicated. There’s the dry, facts-on-the-ground narration of Brian’s bad trip itself, yes, but that’s all neatly contained in the first half. After that, the song focuses on the ripples and contexts of Brian’s bad trip, through what is presented as excerpts from interviews of drug users and drug experts (the latter of which, especially the Timothy Leary samples, could be seen as a riff on whenever an artist connected to UK rave culture samples, say, Terence McKenna). Some noteworthy ones, in no particular order:

“They may be severely depressed, with suicidal tendencies, or may be very serious suicide attempts…” After about fifty minutes of experts and users glorifying LSD use, about its effects upon the consciousness, about its potential uses to combat unrest, about how those who use LSD could even be considered a “new indigenous religion,” and right in the middle of the pounding hangover headache that is Phase IV, here comes this punch in the gut. It says, no, Brian is not the only one traumatized by a very bad trip, that there are many other Brians shuffling zombie-like around our streets and our cities, and in fact, Brian should consider himself lucky he managed 33 trips before having a bummer.

This probably doesn’t reflect the actual experience of taking LSD. The sample was cribbed from something Wilson has described as “propaganda,” after all. But in this case, this doesn’t change the impact on the listener at all.

“In 15 years, the high school and college students who are experimenting with LSD will be running our institutions and guiding public policy…” Fifteen years out from 1967, we arrive at 1982, at which point those same high school and college students who’d experimented with LSD turned around and happily pulled the lever for Reagan and Thatcher and their joint reign of neoliberal terror. Fifteen years out from 1992, we arrive at 2007, at which point those same high school and college students happily cosigned “humanitarian interventions” in Afghanistan and Iraq, and gave us such wondrous life-changing gifts as Guantanamo, Abu Grahib, mass surveillance, and the Military Commissions Act. It’s almost as if, once a particular [privileged] sort of person reaches a particular stage in their life, they’ll have systematic incentives to abandon their previous radical ideals and mold themselves neatly into the box white supremacist capitalist patriarchy has set aside for them. And why wouldn’t they? It’s lucrative.

Although politically Steven’s much closer to the center than I am, it’s not hard to imagine him also shaking his head at the atomized legacy of what seemed at first to be so revolutionary…if it ever was revolutionary to begin with.

“I don’t like what’s going on in the world, I’m scared of that. […] I’m just… I’m just scared, you know?” The Palahniukian chorus underscoring the whole song, the one sample used more often than any other, in multiple instances spread across three phases. It functions both as a diagnosis of why The Youngs are using LSD (and I say The Youngs knowing full well Wilson was younger than I am when he made this) and why Brian’s trip went so poorly (why’s set and setting important, again?).

This one sample and its prominent placement in Phase IV is why, although I love this song to pieces, I have a very hard time listening to it all the way through. It hits just slightly too close to home for an anxiety-riddled political person for whom the question of humanity’s future is an endless yawning chasm of existential dread. I first listened to Voyage 34 in 2011, right around when Occupy Wall Street was in high gear and simultaneously when it was dawning on me precisely how serious and intractable the problem of climate change was. And listening to Voyage 34 in 2018, well…Brexit and Trump. You do the math. It’s a message that has serious staying power, no matter when you listen to it. There’s always something going on in the world to be scared of.

No-Man – Ocean Song

September 1992

Gotta say, after covering a little Porcupine Tree after three No-Man posts in a row, coming back to No-Man feels like coming home, in a weird way. Ocean Song is a three-track single thingy, so this joint is gonna be a bit shorter.

The single’s structured beautifully. You have the main event right front and center, and then after that is a shortish ambient interlude, and then the B-side. So, first up, title track. Ocean Song is based off the melody of Donovan’s “Turquoise.” This is literally the only thing the two songs have in common. I listened to Ocean Song and Turquoise back-to-back and I can only faintly hear Leitch’s influence, probably because the bits from Turquoise are so radically altered from their original context (60s folk vs. 90s trip-hop) that they may as well be original to No-Man. (This is in contrast to Colours, where more of the original’s essence was retained in the transition.) The song itself is quite good; turns out that if you don’t have an ambient expanse to give your song a soul, a few acoustic guitar bits and Ben Coleman’s violin will do almost as well.

The ambient interlude, Back to the Burning Shed, is small and sweet and gets the job done. The B-side is Swirl, an eight-minute wander that is decidedly not single-worthy. Much of it proceeds in typical No-Man fashion, but this time with some decidedly Porcupine Tree touches like the guitar solo in the first half and the feedback swells accentuating the “let it all hang out” spoken word piece at the end. And actually, suddenly throwing PT in there like that was a bit jarring. 90s No-Man sounds very little like anything else Wilson’s done, and at this point I’m so used to the two bands’ sounds being so different and—more importantly—discrete, that I have to consciously remember that Wilson isn’t just there to look pretty.

But the song’s high point, once again, is the violin that kicks in at four minutes. Honestly, in a typical No-Man song the violin is doing quite a bit of the work; Ben Coleman has the superhuman ability to salvage a terrible song and kick a good No-Man song into the upper atmosphere. He is, at this stage, the glue holding No-Man’s artistic output together, and I think I’m going to sorely miss him once he’s gone.

But of course the absolutely best part of this record is the drag queen on the cover. How could it not be.