GUEST: Ange – Culinaire Lingus

November 2001

Nice pun, guys.

My monolingualism strikes again. Ange is a band that’s been active for fifty years and released dozens of albums and is considered one of the titans of seventies prog…but they’re from France, sing in French, and aren’t very well-known within the Anglosphere. This means there are basically zero online sources about the band in English, and very, very few sources that talk about the 70s prog scene in France for more than a few paragraphs. This means that we have a band that we need to invent the universe to make full sense of, but the necessary contours of this universe remains elusive.

There were three different tastemakers in French progressive rock in the early to mid 70s, each of which we’ll talk about in turn to get an idea of precisely where Ange came from. The first is Gong, a collective whose prime mover was Australian expatriate village eccentric par excellence Daevid Allen. Allen had spent the early-to-mid sixties in England, playing in a few bands before finally winding up with Soft Machine and becoming an influential figure in the Canterbury scene, a loose group of musicians who were playing broadly the same kind of music, upbeat psychedelic rock with whimsical lyrics, a sense of exploratory wonder, and the good kind of jazz improvisation. In 1967, Allen was denied re-entry to the UK because of a visa overstay and was exiled to France, bringing the Canterbury sound sensibilities to the Continent with him.

In Paris, he would assemble what would become Gong, an international group of musicians who would play goofy concept albums influenced by Canterbury-style psychedelia and jazz, but with more of a cosmic, transcendent, polysyllabically hippie-spiritual feel to them. The most essential Gong albums are the Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy: three albums (Flying Teapot, Angel’s Egg, and You) released in 1973 and 1974 built around the consciousness-expanding adventures of Zero the Hero, featuring stuff like cats that are actually witches, propeller-headed pixies who fly around in teapots, a massive concert during which everyone’s third eye will be switched on, and the trilogy’s thematic centerpiece: the great Planet Gong, accessible only through mind-expanding Substances, home to the One Invisible Center and the ultimate source of human self-actualization. The words draw heavily from Buddhist themes, not just enlightenment but also the search for self, the denial of absolute reality, and reincarnation, while the music sounds like if someone mashed up The Piper at the Gates of Dawn with a more developed version of Porcupine Tree’s demo tapes.

Allen left Gong a year after the trilogy was released, and the band moved in more of a jazz-fusion direction without him. He would eventually return in 1992 and continue to perform with a reunited Gong (whose revolving door of members would include Theo Travis and Dave Sturt) until his death in 2015. I personally appreciate Gong more than I like them, but the way the band drew from both English and Continental musical traditions cemented their cross-cultural appeal and their legacy as one of the most unique and important progressive rock bands in history. Although their music is not quite to my taste, they’re light and fun and I’m glad they’re around.

In contrast to the unequivocally positive feelings I have about Gong, I’m honestly rather mixed about Magma, which is frustrating because they’re easily the most influential of the three bands we’re surveying here. Magma describe their general sound as “zeuhl,” a term which would eventually describe an entire subgenre drawing from their musical style. Zeuhl is bombastic, symphonic, and theatrical, more or less what would happen if a rock band were commissioned to write an opera (and not, like, a rock opera, but an actual opera). That’s actually kind of appropriate, as Magma albums are all space-opera epics sung in an invented language (think Simlish or Hopelandic) about a group of refugees fleeing a doomed Earth and settling on the planet Kobaïa, and the struggles and conflicts they experience during their time there. Their third album, Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh, is generally regarded as the pinnacle of their musical style and a cornerstone of not just French prog but prog music period.

Would that Christian Vander, Magma’s founder and main creative force, wasn’t a fascist.

To be clear, I’m not drawing this conclusion from the music itself. Yes, the operatic elements are distinctly authoritarian, with all the choruses and militaristic drumbeats and shouted faux-German, so it’s easy to say “they’re fascist because their music sounds fascist” and call it a day, but that’s lazy. Laibach and Rammstein do the same thing, and the former band is satirical and the latter is left-wing. When I say Vander is fascist, I’m talking about what Vander got up to offstage, like having Nazi flags in his bedroom and saying things about black people and Indians so horrifically racist they make Clapton’s infamous “keep Britain white” rant sound level-headed and reasonable.

At least Clapton–who supports Enoch Powell to this day–has just enough self-awareness to pretend he isn’t racist when called on it. When Vander was called on his past he (through his wife) attempted to dodge the question by going on this long spiel about how Magma’s about life and the struggles of life and how horrible it is that these censorious SJWs are attempting to crucify him for things he might have said when the music is brilliant and what actually matters, man. No denials. No retractions. Fuck that noise.

(To those who say Vander couldn’t possibly be fascist because his wife is Jewish and he’s an admirer of John Coltrane; you sound like the people who defend Milo Yiannopoulos because his partner is black. Cut it out.)

Moving on to less bile-inducing waters, Ange themselves. Of the Big Three Of French Prog, these guys, fronted by brothers Chrstian and Francis Décamps, are probably the most conventional, opting for a style of prog more influenced by medieval and folk music than anything more arcane or psychedelic. One listens to Ange and gets the sense that unlike, say, Gong, these are more intellectual musicians who’ve never touched a mind-altering chemical in their lives. As a consequence, they sound more or less like the sort of music Jethro Tull was making–and mocking–at roughly the same time, all mandolins and flutes and violins and classical guitars. That said, they do have one huge trick up their sleeve: Christian Décamps’ pipes. That man can belt and wail and howl like nobody’s business. This elevates what would typically sound like normal wizardshit (which, to be honest, it still does at times) into something with all of Magma’s operatic pretensions but none of the latent authoritarianism. This is music for the theatre, yes, but less the Paris Opéra and more the Globe.

(I have also been informed in multiple places that Décamps’ lyrics are pretty good, too, but since I haven’t found a place that translates them to English, I’ll just take that on faith.)

In a lot of respects, Ange are a typical progressive rock band. They reached the peak of their popularity with 1974’s Au-Delà Du Délire, which also just so happens to be the fullest realization of their sound at the time. This, coupled with the way their sound went out of its way to be progressive but not alienating, catapulted them to superstardom, becoming the most popular progressive rock band in France. (Of course, because they sung in French, they had trouble breaking into the Anglophone market; their one stab at releasing an album in English flopped horribly.) Then, as the 70s drifted into the 80s and progressive music entered a terminal decline, Ange entered a fallow period, with numerous lineup changes and albums that were, to put it politely, unfavorably compared to what they released in their prime, until they finally limped into a hiatus in 1995.

Something vaguely Ange-like reformed in 1997 as “Christian Décamps et Fils,” with Francis replaced by Christian’s son Tristan and a mostly new (and quite stable!) band lineup, before dropping all pretensions and taking on the name Ange in 1999. This version of the band still tours and records, albeit to a smaller but more devoted audience, and seems to have found a balance between pushing their sound forward but not so forward they’ll alienate the core group of people who know them for what they did in the 70s. (Contrast Wilson, who does what he wants and doesn’t care who he alienates.) This is not a second imperial phase, but it is that period in a prog band’s history where it reassembles itself and finds its footing in a world where the mainstream doesn’t care about them anymore. (e.g. pretty much everything Marillion did after Fish left.)

Here’s where Steven Wilson comes in, tapped to mix two tracks off 2001’s Culinaire Lingus. On this outing at least, Ange’s music has become darker and harsher, to the point where in certain cases (Jusqu’où Iront-ils ?, Cueillir Les Fruits Du Sérail, the title track, Univers Et Nirvana, and parts of Gargantua) it’s practically metal. Décamps, blessed with a vocal style that ages like wine, isn’t theatrically bouncing his vox around the stage as much as he did before, but his voice has compensated by becoming deeper, fuller, and more controlled as he got older.

This doesn’t mean the whole of Culinaire Lingus is doom and gloom, of course. Cueillir Les Fruits Du Sérail crashes into Adrénaline, a jaunty Celtic tune that lays on the fiddle thick and is almost Riverdanceable. Two thirds of Farces Et Attrapes sounds like a children’s song. Intérieur-nuit is a haunting lonely piano ballad. Les Odeurs De Cousine is clearly an excuse for Tristan Décamps to show off on the keyboard. And, of course, Décamps and Caroline Crozat clearly had a lot of fun tag-teaming On Sexe (although given the subject matter I can’t help but imagine them both naked while singing this). Although “heavy” is the album’s baseline, it’s clearly one of those records that’s more interested in showing off the band’s range than sticking to one particular atmosphere.

But, again, Wilson only mixed two tracks from one album out of twenty-two. Ange never shows up again on Wilson’s radar. But they’re worth mentioning not just for completion’s sake, not just because they’re our connection to the parallel universe of French prog, but because they’re one of quite a few connections Wilson has amassed that go off the beaten path a little bit. Yes, it’s cool when Wilson and Fripp or Alex Lifeson or Ian Anderson or some other mainstream prog luminary show up together, because Star Power, but those collaborations are expected. What’s really interesting is when Wilson shows up on the record of someone in a part of the music world we’d think he’d have absolutely no interest in.

This will pay a dividend in two years’ time.

GUEST: Henry Fool – Henry Fool

October 2001

“Ah, British seaside towns. There are three things that connect them all together. One is despair. Two is hepatitis. And three…” –Stuart Ashen

Henry Fool is a group that crystallizes a particular way of thinking about Bowness’ discography, one which forms an interesting contrast to Wilson’s. Wilson’s musical projects are rather discrete; although what he’s doing with one project will inform another, there’s no confusing a Porcupine Tree song with a Blackfield song or a No-Man song or a Bass Communion song. Bowness’ projects, meanwhile, will jumble together into a particular intense, right-brained aesthetic sensibility so completely it’s hard to believe two adjacent albums were technically made by two different groups. A lot of this has to do with the serious personnel cross-pollination between Bowness’ various musical projects; any given major Bowness album is likely to also feature Michael Bearpark, Peter Chilvers, and/or Stephen Bennett, and so having these people together for two different records means they will have a very clear thematic progression between them, even if those two records are released as part of different projects.

That is to say: Henry Fool, a group whose prime movers are the Bowness/Bennett/Bearpark/Chilvers core, released two albums, a self-titled record in 2001, the subject of this post, and a follow-up in 2013. This first record has more in common with the records released on either side of it than it does with its successor.

The self-titled Henry Fool record touts itself as drawing from classic prog and post-punk, but only three songs–Bass Pig, Poppy Z, and The David Warner Wish List–could be described as fitting that label. In practice, Henry Fool is the second album in a loose art-rock trilogy beginning with Samuel Smiles’ World of Bright Futures in 1999 and concluding with the Bowness/Chilvers California, Norfolk collaboration in 2002. Some of the songs carry over in some form or other from one album to the next–Dreamer’s Song, for instance, is slightly rearranged for acoustic guitar on California, Norfolk–but all three records represent the crystallization of a particular quiet sadness that had become Bowness’ main lyrical and instrumental mode in the new century, all ambient moans and twinkling pianos and acoustic guitars and lyrics written largely in the second person mourning slowly disintegrating relationships. This is music to stare wistfully out train windows to.

This sensibility is further refined on California, Norfolk. This is Bowness’ version of Lightbulb Sun, a raw, almost visceral dive into the way depression affects people and the way they interact with the world and each other. Many of the songs are sad snapshots of gray people stuck in gray existences by the gray East Anglia seaside, drifting through life without meaning or purpose. These are people trapped by circumstance, with no power to affect their immediate surroundings; they don’t make things happen as much as passively allow things to happen to them. They’re unable to connect or communicate with others to the point that whatever relationships they do have are in a perpetual slow-motion collapse. They are afflicted with an alienation so severe they’re practically catatonic. It’s brutal and heartbreaking and a worthy culmination of the themes explored on World of Bright Futures and Henry Fool.

Men Singing, the second Henry Fool record, sounds nothing like that. It’s a considerably jazzier, more upbeat album than its predecessor, notably featuring no vocals and a lot of what sound like improvisational passages. It doesn’t even sound like the Bowness albums (Warm Winter, with Giancarlo Erra, and Abandoned Dancehall Dreams) that are on either side of it. Some of the proggier songs on the last album gesture toward a throughline between that record and this one, but that’s the extent of the connection between them. I’m not sure how I feel about it. One the one hand, I very much prefer their self-titled album, because it’s cozy and intimate in a way that Men Singing isn’t, and I’m not into that sort of prog at all, but on the other hand, I also realize that my perception of Men Singing is colored by how little it sounds like the first record, and it might rate a bit higher once I listen to it in a vacuum.

Wilson’s entire contribution to the Henry Fool oeuvre is mixing two rather unremarkable songs on the self-titled album. But here’s the thing: a blog about Steven Wilson, by its very nature, isn’t going to be a blog solely about Steven Wilson, because he’s actually a very collaborative artist. Many of his main projects were collaborations with another person (No-Man, Storm Corrosion) or full bands (Porcupine Tree, Blackfield). Even when he’s exercising dictatorial control over a project (Porcupine Tree at times, his solo work) and writing all the songs and performing most of the instruments, much of the time there’s still an outside influence that comes in to make the songs complete. Theo Travis is the lynchpin of the Drugged suite. Porcupine Tree wouldn’t be Porcupine Tree without the unique contributions of the other members. Wilson went out of his way to describe The Raven that Refused to Sing as a band record instead of a solo record.

In reality, the story of Steven Wilson is just one of many, colliding and intersecting with the stories of other musicians as they collaborate and influence each other. Some, like the subject of the next post, flit in and out only briefly but have extensive backstories of their own. Others, like Tim Bowness, are so intertwined that it’s neither possible nor desirable to fully extricate them from each other. In fact, Wilson himself has said multiple times that he doesn’t rate himself all that well as a musician or a vocalist, but his real talent comes from the production side of things, from taking the different parts that he and other musicians recorded in studio and creating something amazing out of them.

In other words, to paraphrase Travis Scott, who put this shit together, he’s the glue.

I.E.M. – Have Come For Your Children

September 2001
Untitled (Complete IEM), June 2010

“I think by the time I’d done I.E.M. I realised there were a whole lot of other people who were doing it a whole lot better, because I didn’t have the time or the inclination to really commit myself fully to it. […] But I suppose I.E.M., because it was all done in the spirit of fun, was never going to be anything particularly substantial to me.” –Steven Wilson

“Yeah, it had some nice moments.”

We have arrived at yet another ending. Apart from a pair of compilations and box sets released in 2005 and 2010, this will be the last original IEM record. As this album and Arcadia Son were recorded at the same time and form a sort of diptych, it’s probably worth comparing the two side-by-side.

Arcadia Son is the more diverse record, building as it does on Escalator to Christmas’ mishmash of krautrock, pure psychedelia, and spoken-word samples. As such, its main strength is its diversity and willingness to careen abruptly from one idea to another and to experiment with all sorts of different genres, sounds, moods, and textures. Have Come For Your Children, meanwhile, sticks mostly to doing one thing. Every piece on this album, with the possible exception of the untitled hammered dulcimer/mellotron choir piece at the end, is much more interested in a very particular gloomy, rhythmic atmosphere and stretching it out and abstracting it as much as possible…to the point where it’s practically of a piece with what Bass Communion is doing. In fact, Have Come For Your Children goes a long way toward explaining why Bass Communion would become Wilson’s primary weird/experimental musical outlet after this. Even though it doesn’t sound like Bass Communion at all, as there’s still percussion and a sense of rhythm, that project still represents a natural and attractive endpoint for the sort of thing IEM is doing on this record.

In that respect, then, Have Come For Your Children is honestly a huge disappointment. The sense of infinite possibility that Arcadia Son represented has been closed off, the opportunities for Wilson to go in new and bizarre directions have not been taken, and instead we get something that sounds more or less like what he’s already been doing. There’s no uniqueness to Have Come For Your Children the way there was with Arcadia Son or An Escalator to Christmas, and as such there’s also no corresponding sense of fun and wonder. This, more than anything else, is a funeral dirge.

Some of this is inherent in endings as a concept. Part of the reason endings are so tough to do in more narrative-based mediums is you are foreclosing on that wealth of possibilities that the story could have gone. It’s why many of the best story endings still have a sense of ambiguity about them. Bands don’t have that luxury, not only because it’s not (necessarily) a narrative-based medium but also because most albums aren’t meant to be The Last Ones. They just record an album, and go on hiatus, and sometimes that hiatus becomes permanent. Oops. To the extent this affects IEM, which has already established itself as a fractal clusterfuck of a project, the obvious way to wrap this thing up would be to disintegrate completely, to be such a jarring, abrasive goulash of styles and genres that it’s practically unlistenable. This didn’t happen.

What we do have is well-made, of course. This was culled from some improvisations that were recorded around the same time as Arcadia Son, the sort of extended jam session that produces things like Moonloop and Metanoia. All pieces are untitled. The first one is thirty-five minutes long, and is measured and tightly structured, almost ritualistic, ebbing and flowing hypnotically like the tides. Untitled 2 continues in a similar vein, providing the raw material for much of the rest of the album, with each successive piece piling on more and more jazz and noise elements until we get Untitled 5, a glorious, cacophonic sensory barrage unlike anything Wilson had ever made up to that point. This is what the whole rest of the album should have sounded like.

For as much as Untitled 5 is the best thing on the album, it also demonstrates the limits of Moonloop-esque improvisations as a source of good Steven Wilson music. Moonloop itself was a masterpiece. Metanoia and Have Come For Your Children feel like retreads. This is troubling, because a return to the Moonloop well suggests that he took IEM as far as he felt it could have gone in the Escalator/Arcadia mode, as if he didn’t have any further interest in exploring the outer reaches of krautrock or harsh noise or proto-vaporwave or whatever other oddball out-of-character idea popped into his head this week.

What makes it even worse is there’s no aspect of IEM that continues after the project’s demise. Most other concluded Steven Wilson projects contain the seeds of the future within them. IEM itself is the product of the experiments Teen Wilson did as Altamont. Karma, easily Wilson’s worst band, recorded really early versions of Small Fish and Nine Cats. Porcupine Tree transitions shockingly well into Wilson’s solo career. When No-Man went on a decade-long hiatus, it found a spiritual successor in Tim Bowness’ solo albums. In addition, when Wilson is working on multiple projects simultaneously, the results tend to bleed into each other. His work producing Opeth informs every Porcupine Tree record from In Absentia onward. Grace for Drowning forms a loose trilogy with Heritage and Storm Corrosion. A good way of figuring out what a new Steven Wilson record will sound like is seeing what albums he’s been remixing lately. Just about everything Wilson records has some sort of connection with something else.

IEM, meanwhile, just stops. There’s no legacy for it to carry on, nothing within it that informed anything Wilson did after this. With this album, everything IEM could have become was reduced to the sort of thing Bass Communion was already doing anyway. All we have after this are a few compilations, and that’s it. Have Come For Your Children doesn’t just feel like a foreclosing of IEM’s possibilities, it feels like a foreclosing of an entire chunk of Steven Wilson’s personality. Whether he realizes it or not, he needs something like IEM to play around with. I miss it tremendously.

  1. Arcadia Son
  2. I.E.M.
  3. Have Come For Your Children

GUEST: Theo Travis – Heart of the Sun

August 2001

I don’t get jazz.

This is largely for the same reason I don’t get a lot of metal: I already bounce off a lot of the conventions of the genre, so while I like stuff that incorporates elements of jazz (to a point, anyway), when I listen to the straight dope I very rarely get anything out of it beyond an intellectual appreciation for the musicianship and the improvisation and the way the individual members of the band play off each other. And that’s nice, but I generally don’t listen to music to appreciate it intellectually. I listen to music to feel things, and–again, generally–when I listen to jazz I don’t feel things.

The one exception is when it’s background noise and I’m doing something else. That’s a big reason why the jazz in, say, the SimCity soundtrack managed to stick when a lot of other jazz doesn’t: I’ve associated it with very particular and very fond memories of playing the game. That’s also why, to me, literally every Theo Travis solo album up to Heart of the Sun sounds like this. That is my primary reference point for a lot of the jazz I’ve been listening to, and the thing against which I compare any jazz I listen to that isn’t, say, New York, New York. (I realize that’s unfair to jazz as a whole, whose history is as complex and multifaceted as any other genre, but it is what it is.)

So this one was always going to be tough to get through, because the fact of the matter is Theo Travis is right up there with Tim Bowness and Mikael Akerfeldt as one of the most important people in Steven Wilson’s musical circles. He’s already showed up in a lot of places: Stupid Dream and all three Bass Communion releases thus far, most importantly, but also on:

  • Recordings (sax on Ambulance Chasing)
  • Returning Jesus (sax on Slow It All Down, flute on Lighthouse)
  • Lost Songs, Vol. 1 (sax and flute on Gothgirl Killer and Samaritan Snare)
  • No Ordinary Man, his collaboration with Dave Sturt as Cipher
  • Indigo Falls (soprano sax on Falling Into Years)
  • Smiling and Waving (sax on Big Mouth)

 

…and that’s what we’ve covered here in some capacity. He’s also worked with JBK (_ism), Steve Jansen and Yukihiro Takahashi (Pulse), and Japan associate Masami Tsuchiya (Forest People). It was inevitable that Wilson would eventually show up on one of his solo albums.

To this decidedly non-jazz-head, Heart of the Sun, his fourth solo album and the first one Wilson was directly involved in, is the best of his solo albums thus far…or at least the one most successful at delivering a musical palette more varied than the usual “Manhattan at night” mode he operates in. When you don’t get jazz, this is a godsend.

Heart of the Sun loosely alternates between pieces that are straight jazz and pieces that are shaped vaguely like more familiar progressive rock. Northern Lights, for instance, has a distinct ambient bent to it, while Barking Dogs and Caravans starts out in typical Travis jazz fashion but about six minutes in the sax drops out and in comes David Gordon’s piano and Mark Wood’s guitar, delivering a tension-addled solo that wouldn’t be out of place on a Porcupine Tree album. That Old Smile does something similar; here the piano and guitar are skittering and frantic, threatening to dissolve the song almost completely, before Travis’ sax comes back to restore some sense of sanity and cohesion. Last Flight From Tinwood is barely jazz at all, built instead around Wood’s squealing, echoing guitar; with Palle Mikkelborg’s swirling trumpet coming in to accentuate certain key moments.

This probably says something about the nature of progressive rock in general. Prog’s main thing is the way it absorbs and assimilates other genres, taking cues from folk, classical, and (yes) jazz. There is a very strong case to be made that Last Flight From Tinwood is fundamentally a rock song. A profoundly avant-garde rock song, yes, but a rock song nevertheless. The boundary between rock music and jazz music can be rather porous, and a big reason progressive rock collapses into jazz-fusion as often as it does is the way jazz emphasizes the sort of virtuosity that prog musicians are really good at.

Unfortunately, to someone like me who lacks the musical vocabulary necessary to get what jazz musicians are doing when they reel off really long improvisational solos, this can be profoundly alienating. At its most extreme, this registers as a distinct sense that heavily improvisational music is fundamentally antithetical to the guitar-keyboards-bass-drums setup of the typical rock band, and the real value in progressive rock comes when it pushes against the boundaries of how rock is defined in ways that retain a fundamental underlying structure. In other words, the apotheosis of progressive rock is the sort of tightly-wound Swiss-watch compositions that happens to be Porcupine Tree’s bread and butter.

Of all the different periods Wilson’s career has drifted in and out of, the one running from Grace for Drowning through is probably my least favorite, because it’s the one that leans closest into the sort of jazz-fusion abyss that represents progressive rock’s well-publicized failure mode. That this is also the portion of his career that most heavily features Theo Travis isn’t exactly a coincidence. Nevertheless, Travis is definitely not a harbinger of doom, where his presence automatically means what an Extremely Online proghead might call “wizardshit.” Before we hit Wilson’s solo career proper, he’s gonna show up on No-Man, Bass Communion (again), and in collaboration with Robert Fripp and one other very unlikely artist. But the fact remains that to a pleb like me, the concept of fusing jazz and rock works better when the fusion is based on the former instead of the latter, and Heart of the Sun is a perfect example of that.

I.E.M. – Arcadia Son

May 2001

“Tell me when, now?”

The end is near. Well, sort of.

“My name is Beth Krasky. I sell magazines, winning at contests, and I play guitar, drums, and keyboard. I mostly like the rock and roll hippie music of the old days. When I…about four years ago I used to have really bright pink and purple neon hair. That was when I was a freak. [laughs] Dude, I got to be up in the front row and I got a pair of Ozzy’s drumsticks. One of…his fuckin’ drummer was sittin’ there throwin’ ‘em out and I got to shake the drummers hand! He gave me two pairs of his drumsticks, I was like ‘Yeah!’ It was awesome!”

This is the point where reality hits and we realize this is a project whose musical evolution might have been artificially foreshortened. I.E.M. was always the red-headed stepchild of Wilson’s non-formative musical projects, and there’s the sense that if he was in a position to give it the same level of attention that he did, say, Bass Communion, it would have been something more than an afterthought.

So what we’re essentially in with I.E.M. is a purge phase, as Wilson gets out everything he can get out before moving on to potentially more fruitful waters. (Recall that as Arcadia Son and …Have Come for Your Children were being pulled together, Blackfield were mapping out their first EP, which would eventually mutate into a full-length album.) In terms of approaching Arcadia Son specifically, we have a record which could not exist without An Escalator to Christmas from two years ago. In a lot of respects, that EP serves as a trial run for this album. The two records have broadly similar components, with broadly experimental music interspersed with lighter spoken-word pieces.

“I am in awe at what we have achieved on this planet. Civilization has spread like a virus. In the blink of an eye, the universe has taken one breath in a billion years. We are not alone.

There are the vestiges of other civilizations underneath your feet. We will walk in their footsteps. They will never leave us. They watch us from the outer reaches of space, light-years away, on another piece of splintered rock. Cast out, I stop.

Our sun will disintegrate in two million years. We have this much time to find another home in the outer reaches of space.

Look into the stars, do you see your new home? Are the lights on? Did you forget to switch off the gas? Are the lights on? We are not alone. We are not alone. We are not alone. We are not alone. We are not alone. We are not alone. We are not alone. We are not alone. We are not alone. We are not alone…”

There are two introductory tracks. The first is Wreck, a minute and a half of heavily abstracted jazz punctuated with guitar squeals that edge perilously close to straight harsh noise. Then we cut to Beth Krasky, which is composed of snippets from an interview with Miss Krasky where she reminisces about wilder times and gushes about getting a pair of Ozzy’s drumsticks. The parallel to B. Cranswick introducing us to alternative poetry in the measured tones of an NPR presenter is irresistible. After this, about forty minutes of weirdness.

There will be no spoken-word samples breaking up the weirdness until the very final track, Goldilocks Age 4, featuring a prim but precocious Babby Steven retelling the story of the three bears at some sort of party in 1972. The recording cuts off right when he hits the reveal that Goldilocks is still sleeping in Baby Bear’s bed.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, one of the great things about An Escalator to Christmas was the way things were broken up, how every spoken-word piece in that suite functioned as a breather and a transition from one song to another, like a radio DJ. Here, though, after Beth Krasky we’re plunged into the deep end and expected to keep up as we lurch from trippy psychedelia to flutes over tribalesque drumming to what sounds almost like a remix of Queen Quotes Crowley to frenetic drums and ringing over a mellotron choir, and it can get exhausting. On the other hand, this implies a certain maturation, that on Arcadia Son Wilson trusts that we’re able to follow along on his flights of experimental fancy and he doesn’t need to hold our hands.

As this album and …Have Come for Your Children are the last two records I.E.M. made when it was active, it’s worth speculating where they could have gone from here. Of the two records, this one has the more eclectic and fruitful spread. The obvious potential source of inspiration is Shadow of a Twisted Hand Across My House, which swings from harsh noise at the start to frenetic drum loops and mellotron choirs in the middle to what sounds like literal tubular bells toward the end. It feels like a medley of songs that don’t exist.

There’s also We Are Not Alone, a very psychedelic number that sounds like an Alex Gray illustration, featuring voices, pitched up and down as though they were a diverse cross-section of people, reciting a sort of bizarre poetry stating that we on Earth are being observed, haunted, by the ghosts of past civilizations. The Lance Henson-esque monotone delivery gives their words a particular urgent gravitas, reinforced when it devolves into “we are not alone” repeated ad infinitum like a skipping record, as if whatever magical force that’s allowing the Legion to possess their bodies to communicate this message to us is deteriorating.

Finally, there’s Politician, the only one-minute respite in the middle of the album, which sounds like filtered intermission muzak, over which we have the sounds of a woman masturbating. This is probably the track with the most interesting sense of implication surrounding it, because, in case that description didn’t make it clear, Steven Wilson made a vaporwave song over a decade before vaporwave was even a thing. I.E.M. contains numerous alternate futures within it, but the one unlocked through this song is one of the most intriguing: a world in which Steven Wilson becomes a pioneering vaporwave artist, pushing the genre in new and interesting directions. (And hey, since he’s hinted he’s released stuff with zero publicity under pseudonyms Richard D James-style, there’s a chance it might actually still be true.)

Wilson never really gave this project the same level of attention that he gave his other ones, and that’s honestly a shame because this is probably the most unique project out of everything he’s ever done. Most of the other stuff Wilson’s done has been very deliberate and mannered, but I.E.M. is much more experimental, goofy, and playful, often sounding like he’s messing around with whatever silly idea popped into his head that day and experiencing the joy and thrill of discovery right along with us. This is a part of Wilson we don’t see very often, and as such I always treasure it when he pours his id directly on tape like this.

In other words, Arcadia Son reminds us that Steven Wilson makes music because it’s fun. There’s a particular omnivorous curiosity to I.E.M., a project vibrating with possibility, wanting to go everywhere and do everything all at the same time. Like Babby Wilson’s story at the end of this album, though, the evolution of I.E.M. remains unfinished. That said, there’s still the sense that what we got out of it during its brief life is the purest, most unfiltered expression of Wilson’s musical personality we’ve seen to date.

“—mean time the three bears were coming back. And, and when they came back, they saw that, that, erm, they, they said, in a big voice, the first one said, ‘Who’s been eating my porridge?’ And then the second one, ‘Who’s been eating my porridge?’ And then the little one, he said, in a very light voice, ‘Who’s been eating my porridge, and they’ve eaten it all up!’

Then they went to see the chairs to sit on them, then Father Bear said, ‘Who’s been sitting in my chair?’ Then the medium-sized one said ‘Who’s been sitting in my chair?’ Then the little one said, ‘Who’s been sitting in my chair and broken it all up!’

Then they went up to bed, erm, and then Big Father Bear said, ‘Who’s been lay–lying in my bed?’ Then the second one said, ‘Who’s been lying in my bed?’ Then the little one said, ‘Who’s been lying in—’”

  1. Arcadia Son
  2. I.E.M.

GUEST: Anja Garbarek – Smiling and Waving

March 2001

You know that stock character in horror movies, based off the Grady twins in The Shining? The really creepy kid who exhibits vaguely sociopathic tendencies and likes to kill time by singing slowed-down nursery rhymes in a minor key and who in general gives these vibes that she’s actually a vessel for some unspeakable evil? That kid grew up and had a music career.

That’s probably unfair to Anja Garbarek as a person, but it says quite a lot about the persona put forward during her music career. Garbarek’s music exists as a deliberately uncomfortable symbiosis between experimental jazz (or jazzy experimentation, depending on the album) and glitchy, abrasive electronics. Which element of her sound predominates fluctuates slightly from album to album, but for Smiling and Waving, her third album and second in English, the jazz is brought forward while the electronics are pulled back, sprinkled like a garnish across the whole record.

For me, at least, the most immediate point of comparison is Sicknote, the No-Man ephemerum. In that song, the foreground is slow and minimalist and not too sinister but the background is complexly and existentially terrifying. Something similar is happening here, with Smiling and Waving, but here the horror is not external but internal. Garbarek often sounds buttoned-up and robotic, trying valiantly to sublimate impulses that us lesser humans would describe as “malevolent.”

Consider how many of the songs in Smiling and Waving are composed. Garbarek’s vocals front and center most of the time, and much of the instrumentation is minimalist enough that these songs are almost spoken-word pieces. The music here exists to complement and occasionally comment on the vocals, and reveal things on their own only sparingly.

For instance, Her Room, the opener. We find the narrator in her room. She explains that this is her room now, that someone lived there previously but doesn’t anymore, and she doesn’t know how she got there, and there’s a man who comes by every night for unexplained reasons. Although she’s clearly an adult–as demonstrated by the smoking habit–her high-pitched, innocent vocals and her use of short, simple sentences makes it seem like she still has a child’s understanding of the world. To her, and therefore to us, her circumstances are surreal and inexplicable. Then we get to the punchline: “Her death…was she already dead when I came? I mean enough to bury…” And so we learn the fate of the previous occupant of this strange room, the narrator questioning if she was alive when she arrived obliquely implying that she in fact killed her, possibly assumed her identity, and somehow repressed the memory of doing any of those things.

Closely related are the personae she assumes in The Gown and The Diver. In the former, she asks someone named Robby to make her a nice dress so she can return to a hazily-defined garden and “do all things.” The song clearly operates on a sort of dream logic suggesting that we adults would find the garden and the “cuddly tiger” to which she wants to return absolutely freaking terrifying, but that’s not something she knows or cares about. In The Diver, Garbarek and Robert Wyatt tag-team an ironic tale about the world’s greatest diver. They sound like they’re in genuine awe of the diver’s skill and grace as he arcs through the air and hits the water…and then rhapsodize about his inability to swim, implying that they’re similarly awestruck at his skill and grace in drowning (ayyy) and completely fail to grasp that they should feel shocked or sad when someone straight-up dies in front of them.

There are, of course, exceptions. That’s All is heavier on the orchestral swells and almost trip hop-esque glitches and beats, and tells a tale of a mysterious man who might not be a man, who rises from the water and seeks help from a nurse. I Won’t Hurt You, meanwhile, is based around a mathematically precise beat and Steven Wilson’s muted guitar. And finally, there’s Blinking Blocks of Light, which features dissonant noises and samples (occasionally reversed) swirling around a pounding industrial drum loop. In these songs, the effect is less trying to temper some internal demons and more trying to stay afloat in a Thomas Doyle diorama, the ones depicting a world so actively hostile to humans that the ground swallows houses whole without warning.

Actually, let’s pick at that for a second. Part of the power in a Thomas Doyle diorama comes from its discreteness. We see some sort of cataclysm, whether it’s an inexplicably sunken house or people buried alive or someone trapped in a giant snow globe, and that cataclysm encompasses the whole of the universe. There’s very little suggesting there might be anything beyond the confines of the diorama itself. In addition, many of these pieces are stuck under glass, wrenched out of time and space and suspended in a higher astral plane for us higher beings to observe. There is only this moment, in an endless loop forever, and it’s only when multiple pieces are viewed at once do we get an idea of how utterly nightmarish Doyleworld really is.

The power of Smiling and Waving comes from a similar place. There is nothing connecting the tale of Her Room to the tale of The Gown to the tale of The Diver, but collectively all these songs create a world deep in the uncanny valley, where the people we encounter aren’t people as much as they are monsters in malfunctioning people suits, and for that achievement Garbarek earned herself a Spellemannsprisen, Norway’s version of a Grammy. Not bad at all.

(PS: as for what she’s up to today, after a lull of about twelve years, she released a new album last year called The Road is Just a Surface, a concept album about a man warehoused in a psychiatric facility who’s gone completely mad. As befitting a record whose concept is more sharp-edged and clinical, it leans more heavily on sinister electronics than her previous albums, and is probably her best work.)

Bass Communion – Bass Communion III

March 2001
2-CD reissue, 2008

AMPHEAD: The most minimalist fog sounds we’ve heard yet, here resolving to something closer to radio white noise. Think the more ambient sections of Godspeed’s Lift Your Skinny Fists, &c. This is a desolate Ballardia, a land of isolated radio towers and public housing blocks, sprouting like weeds amongst an overgrown grass-scape. As it gets louder it starts clipping, becoming something that both is and is not a contemporary information overload.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: the third Bass Communion album is the weakest so far. As for why we say it’s the third studio release instead of the fourth, Atmospherics doesn’t really count as a studio album because it was contracted out to a library music company and not meant for public consumption. This one barely counts as a release itself; according to its Bandcamp page, it was originally intended as an on-demand CDR from the Burning Shed website before it was reissued as a bonus disc with Bass Communion II. 

SONAR / LINA ROMAY / GRAMMATIC FOG: Three tracks, each roughly three minutes long, in contrast to the entire rest of the album, which features pieces averaging a little over ten minutes. Sonar is a low throbbing overlaid with melancholy strings and what almost sounds like rusted machinery trying hesitantly to function. Lina Romay is darker and swampier. Some of the mechanical whalesong samples are reminiscent of The Howling Wind, a thing Jerry Martin did for the SC3K Unlimited soundtrack. He’s still haunting this project, it seems. Grammatic Fog has more of a vague noir tinge to it. 

A lot of its comparative weakness as an album comes from its history. This is, ultimately, a castoff album. Most of the songs were recorded between 1995 and 1999, at the same recording sessions for the first two Bass Communion albums. The rest were a few cuts lifted from Atmospherics. Sometimes, like with Recordings, it’s just that those songs don’t fit with the general atmosphere of the album they were originally meant for, but in the case of III the soundscapes really are less interesting and evocative in general than the ones we got on I and II. There’s a real sense that we’re going through familiar territory here, and in the intervening time it’s become wetter and muckier and more of a slog.

SLUT 2.1: Sounds like a deconstruction of a mid-90s JBK song. Lots of sounds reminiscent of surveillance, things like fuzzy CRT monitors, rapidly unspooling tape reels, microphone feedback, and echoing recorded voices. The most intersting thing here is that trip-hop inflected drumbeat and bassline. Gives this one a sense of deliberate motion, of gears turning and slotting into place.

This doesn’t mean that there are no innovations, of course. The drums and bass in Slut 2.1 and Sickness, for instance, push them away from the realm of textural experiments and closer to actual songs. That said, that increased sense of structure means Slut 2.1 is a bit of an odd duck in Bass Communion’s discography, as it’s pretty clear it points toward a direction that, if we want to litigate such a thing, Bass Communion has no business going in. If we wanted to get an idea of what the next proper album would sound like, we’d best look elsewhere.

43553E9.01: You know this one. Even if you’ve never heard this one, you know this one. This is the vaguely East-Asian background/introduction to Lips of Ashes, off In Absentia. All the echoing shamisen and piano noises make this feel like a shrine or a temple tucked deep in the mountains somewhere. Music to spiritually contemplate the natural world to.

Recycling is actually quite important when going through Steven Wilson’s discography, albeit one that we’ve not covered much here until now. The thesis, though, is as follows: once Steven Wilson hits upon a particular sound or riff or sample or whatever, he will extract as much value for it as he possibly can. There is, for example, a fair bit of cross-pollination between No-Man and Porcupine Tree. The melody for Days in the Trees shares its melody with Porcupine Tree’s Mute. Jack the Sax and Wake as Gun share a guitar progression. And so forth.

In this case, 43553E9.01’s status as a sample source for Lips of Ashes pretty firmly positions this album, constructed as it is from the leftovers from the first two, as inhabiting yet one more liminal space between past and future, and an echo of the more important one this era of Bass Communion inhabits in general.

In that sense, then, knowing what will come later, it makes more sense to think of the first three Bass Communion studio albums as a trilogy, working with broadly similar conceptual themes (to the extent the albums have them, of course). These albums represent the discovery phase of the Bass Communion sound as Wilson feels around and forms a universe that the project can operate in, and then everything from Ghosts on Magnetic Tape onward represents the project fully formed as it morphs and evolves and different aspects are brought forward. (Not unlike the early Space Era for Porcupine Tree, come to think of it.)

SICKNESS: Low bass, sparse kick drum. Speaker static fades in and out behind a landscape similar to the one we discovered in Amphead, but with the odd retro inflection reminiscent of an alternate German Expressionist fifties. Percussion not as distinctive as Slut 2.1, but it is there.

Unfortunately, that means that this particular album is awkwardly suspended between two poles. II was a masterpiece, early Bass Communion at its most fully realized. Ghosts on Magnetic Tape, meanwhile, is the project taken to its most conceptual and minimalist frontier yet, not quite a radical reimagining of what Bass Communion could sound like but a more substantial and fruitful evolution of their (“their”) sound than anything we’ve seen before. But we’re not there yet, and so we have this, an album that threatens to prematurely mark II out as Bass Communion’s peak. The course-correction that Ghosts represents was sorely needed.

REFORMAT SPIDERS: Deeply minimalist in the way most noir films are minimalist. Background brass is reminiscent of swarming insects. Theo Travis is here once again on sax. His presence is hugely important here, largely because he spends much of this song without any backing, and his part is very reminiscent of his more atmospheric contributions to the Jazz Era.

In a lot of respects, then, III represents an even fuller realization of the idea that it sits in a liminal space. Theo Travis’ work on this track is yet another long tail reaching back from the Jazz Era. We know through Tonefloating that Steven Wilson will eventually have a solo career under his own name. Now we know, thanks not just to Travis’ work on this album but also his continued presence in the background of a considerable chunk of Wilson’s discography up till now, what that solo career might look like.

Here, though, is the little secret behind the liminal space as a concept. When dealing with someone like Steven Wilson, whose discography unfolds less as an abrupt lurching from era to era as much as a steady evolution from genre to genre (usually), you could stake out an arbitrary start and end point and declare the intervening period a liminal space. II could be described as a transition between I and III just as much as III is a transition between II and Ghosts. In our history, every space is liminal, and carries the electrifying sense of infinite possibility that comes with it. This is true even for III, an album that feels like the possibilities contained within it are being rapidly foreclosed upon; they just aren’t found in obvious places like Slut 2.1. It’s in the reverb-soaked shamisen of 43553E9.01, the extreme minimalism of Amphead, or the saxophone of this song. And that’s why, even though the album itself is the weakest Bass Communion has released so far, it still contains within it the seeds of its own redemption.

  1. Bass Communion II
  2. Bass Communion I
  3. Bass Communion III