Porcupine Tree – Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm

1989

“Ah yes, the seminal Peter Cushing’s Kelp Commune.” —Victoria “No Relation” Wilson

Explanation for the title? The “Tarquin” is evidently Sir Tarquin Underspoon, one of Porcupine Tree’s many, many fictional band members, and he has a seaweed farm. Pretty straightforward, really.

Some backstory to cover before we hit the main event. Between 1989 and 1994 Porcupine Tree released two and a half demo tapes with original material, and then half a demo tape and two albums with that same material rereleased and occasionally rerecorded. When we come across a release that features music we’ve covered before (such as how the first seven tracks of 1990’s The Nostalgia Factory come directly from the slightly earlier Love, Death, and Mussolini), we’ll only really stop to talk about them in their new context or, if they’ve been rerecorded, what the new version sounds like. This means that the entries for On the Sunday of Life and Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape could potentially be quite short indeed.

Now for the tape itself. If you’re reading this you probably know that Porcupine Tree was, in its very earliest form, a parody psychedelic/progressive rock band, complete with a relatively fleshed-out backstory and a zillion fake band members with colorful Spinal-Tap-esque [stage?] names who you just know looked like they stepped out of the Summer of Love and into a Holi festival, with the mountain of hallucinatory drugs to match. The frontperson called themself “The Porcupine Tree,” and they played guitar, flute, and a few other things. Why Wilson elected to give his frontperson the name “The Porcupine Tree,” we’ll never know. (If I had to guess I’d say it’s for the same reason David Lynch called his one movie “Inland Empire,” he simply liked how it sounded.) But it’s clear that in-universe The Porcupine Tree is the one making most of the creative decisions, because guess who the band is named after. By the way the parallel to Wilson’s post-2010 solo career is irresistible.

The cover art itself is of three simple black-and-white balloons, which belies the music’s complexity but gives a pretty good idea of where erstwhile lyricist Alan Duffy’s head was and where we’ll be going on this 76-minute trip, ahyuck.

Side A, the Studio LP, eases us into the proceedings with Music for the Head (Here), an ominous, abstract flutey soundscape that segues rather abruptly into Jupiter Island, our first taste of what this tape is about: nonsensical lyrics, psychedelic musicianship, and Steven’s distorted vocals (here pitched slightly higher), and the general sense that something is slightly but disquietingly off-kilter but no one seems to notice. One gets the sense that Jupiter Island isn’t an actual terrestrial island but a resort planet accessible only through Substances, and that Wilson’s performing on Phloston Paradise while chattering imps a foot and a half tall are dancing in time around him. The fear that something’s just a bit wrong is proved true when the song collapses in on itself before drifting into Nun’s Cleavage (Left), which is what I imagine freeform jazz sounds like on acid. Clarinet Vignette is exactly what it says on the tin, a short breather before diving into the extended drum solo that is Nun’s Cleavage (Right).

That’s the first cycle of songs done. Up next is Space Transmission, a transmission from space, not quite an SOS message, from an imprisoned creature with an unsettling ASMR whisper voice who may or may not be a god (or, the God). At the end of the track, God vows that upon his release he will have his revenge…and apparently that revenge constitutes triggering a turnip to self-destruct and kickstart the apocalypse in Radioactive Toy.

Radioactive Toy is seminal, a gloomy, hazy look at the life of the only survivor of a nuclear war. Our smart kid’s monotone vocal inflections in this song are ambiguous; he’s either so traumatized by his radically altered landscape that he’s dead inside, or he’s become so accustomed to it that what is horrifying and alien to us is normal to him. Or perhaps both; he’s clearly got enough brains to know this shouldn’t be normal, but he also sounds like he’s done all these things a zillion times before. The instrumentation is plodding and dirgelike, running on a sophisticated autopilot, keeping calm and carrying on despite the wailing siren in the background making it very clear that something has gone horribly wrong. And now here we are, and we have to muddle through and make some sense of what happened and where we go from here. And right now that means focusing on a routine to bring some superficial sense of normality and stability to the smart kid’s fractured, traumatized mind.

Two breaks, now. First up, Towel, another jazzy, chaotic instrumental followed up by Wastecoat, a collage of cut-up and reversed improvisations that bleep and bounce and wobble and sproing at random. After that, Mute, a song in three parts. The first part is dominated by some low thrumming that sounds like a hulking flying car that’s idling about ten feet above your head. The second part is considerably sunnier, with lots of bright looped guitar bits and some solos and improvisations that sound like they’re just happy to be there. So of course there’s a weird spoken word bit in the middle going on about the horrors of progress, which then segues into part three, which retains many of the same elements from part two but also features a really sweet guitar solo. And then Mute fades out and Music for the Head (There) fades in with a reprise that, with the weight of experience behind it, is somehow slightly more creaking, dissonant, and desolate than when we heard it the first time. Thus endeth the Studio LP.

Side B, the Live EP, is structurally a different beast altogether, and not necessarily in a good way. Where side A had twelve shorter songs, side B has five songs, four of which are over six minutes long.

No Reason To Live, No Reason To Die kicks things off, with the same funereal air of Radioactive Toy, but here it either sounds pre-apocalyptic or that now we’re just wordlessly following the smart kid around as he goes about his business, since he’s already said his piece. As the song goes on, the tempo gradually quickens and the drums start tripping over themselves to keep up, finally coalescing in a hellish droning crescendo that fades out to slightly more pleasant guitar feedback and the occasional cat discovering how pianos work.

As No Reason, &c. fades out, Daughters In Excess rumbles in, at first twitchy and frenetic before exploding in a wall of crashing drums and wailing guitars that sound like a seance gone wrong in an abandoned factory. It’s a fine song on its own, but this was the point where I began to feel seriously fatigued.

The Cross (and its coda, Hole) starts out as a light, acoustic cover of the Prince song, the sort of thing that you can imagine him playing while lounging on the front porch next to a beer, wearing that doofy Stetson he showed off a few times on Instagram. Eventually, though, it becomes a tumbleweed Katamari, sparse and raw, leisurely rolling down the desert plain slowly picking up new instruments as the guitar and drum bits become more technical. There’s power and energy, yes, but unlike with Daughters In Excess there’s not as much tension. It’s a natural buildup.

Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape, the closer, is really the only song off the Live EP that sounds like something Porcupine Tree would have actually played live. The band plays something probably like what Tool was doing around that time, low and ominous, while Solomon St Jermaine leads the audience in meditation before introducing the band one by one. The Porcupine Tree, as the frontperson, is naturally last, and once they’re introduced, they launch into a powerful Floydian solo that the fictitious audience, now primed to let the music flow through them, must have found spiritually transformational. And thus, the audience left the show reborn, baptized into the cult of The Tree, and, really, so have we.

This demo tape is long, and not just in the conventional sense that it’s one of the longest releases in Porcupine Tree’s discography. It’s long in that particular way where you have a ton of songs lying around and want to cram them all together into one Thing. Unfortunately, because side B’s songs are generally twice as long as side A’s, we’re not primed for what’s going to happen in side B, so despite the merit of the individual songs, the tape’s back half becomes a slog to sit through. Tarquin’s would have probably worked better as two tapes, or a double tape similar to The Incident. It’s much easier to listen to when mentally split up that way.

Fortunately, the next tape will be easier to sit through. Also I’m now disgusted with myself that I called the band “The Tree.”

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Intro to the Space Era: 1989-1999

Here’s where the disparate strands of Wilson’s musical DNA finally start coming together. The Space Era is named for Porcupine Tree’s predominant aesthetic sensibility—a spacey psychedelia—from its inception to the release of Stupid Dream in 1999. In the meantime, what did we miss, because your author couldn’t find much of this stuff online?

  • In 1986 Wilson participated heavily in Coltsfoot’s demo tape Action at a Distance, performing on some tracks and producing others. The tape would be released in 1988.
  • No Man Is An Island released a single in 1987 called “From a Toyshop Window,” which Wikipedia describes as a hybrid of progressive rock and synthpop.
  • Also in 1987, Wilson was briefly the keyboardist for Pride of Passion / Blazing Apostles (they rebranded and renamed themselves right around when he was there).
  • 1989 saw two No Man Is An Island EPs, The Girl from Missouri and Swagger. Wikipedia describes the title track of The Girl from Missouri as a “waltz time ballad” that would later be disowned, and Swagger as “aggressive synth-pop,” indicating a band (befitting, considering the relative turbulence its lineup was experiencing at the time) that didn’t quite know what it wanted to do yet. Evidently once No-Man stabilized they felt that some of the stuff off these two EPs were good enough to be re-recorded and re-released, and we’ll get to those versions eventually.

I couldn’t find a whole lot from anything up there. From Blazing Apostles, all I could dig up from the two songs he played on were their live renditions at the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden in 1987. They sound a lot like A Flock of Seagulls.

From Coltsfoot there’s In The Hour Between, which is a perfectly serviceable prog ballad. The tape it’s on is mostly important as the first thing Wilson’s produced for a band of which he was not himself a member, and it sounds exactly like how you’d expect it to sound in 1988. That’s a roundabout way of saying it owes more to Altamont/Karma than anything he did later.

As for No-Man, first up is Forest Almost Burning, off The Girl from Missouri, which has some properly twitchy violin work. It has the distinct air of a band, from its precarious perch in 1989, gesturing toward a sound still under construction…which makes sense, considering No-Man would become influenced by trip hop and Blue Lines wouldn’t be released for another two years. The other one was Bleed, from Swagger, which sounds all right. The percussion is nice, the guitar work is proper heavy, but it’s…very strange listening to Tim Bowness alternate between his usual vaguely Bowie-esque croon and that weird, uncomfortable growl/snarl thing he does at the chorus. Can also understand why we don’t hear much of his climactic bellowing after this, too. If both songs are representative of their output at about this time, then these EPs are clearly the work of a band who are still trying to figure themselves out.

Should probably also mention that I am not a particularly huge fan of No-Man myself, but they nevertheless feature prominently at this stage in Wilson’s musical history, so we’ll see how much I can look past that and be objective.