Porcupine Tree – The Nostalgia Factory

1990

“Just like Bart!” —Griffin McElroy, 2016

Rounding out the trilogy of early Porcupine Tree demo tapes is The Nostalgia Factory. This one isn’t composed entirely of new material; the first seven tracks come directly from the previous EP, while the title track and Nine Cats are recognizable, but only just, from Wilson’s Karma days.

In terms of listenability, The Nostalgia Factory is not as much of a chore to sit through as Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm, but neither does it have the same flow and accessibility as the previous EP. Fortunately, one thing it does have going in its favor is its structure; it’s built more or less like a Boards of Canada album, with a rough one-to-one alternation between longer, more structured songs and shorter, more ambient songs. This structure was present in the other two demos, but here it’s refined to the point where it helps move things forward even when it seems like nothing else will.

A short missive from fictionland before we begin: by this time Porcupine Tree’s token real person has become Alan Imaginary Duffy, aka The Person Wot Wrote PT’s Really Early Lyrics, here lovingly credited as the Verse Butcher. Natch. This will also be the last time the whole Fake Band thing is played up with any sort of effort.

The transition from Begonia Seduction Scene, the last bit of familiar territory, to Colours Dance Angels Kiss, the first original song, is fine. It feels like we’re being eased out of familiar confines and into something brave and new. But Colours Dance Angels Kiss itself isn’t very good. It sounds like it was consciously shooting for Linton Samuel Dawson’s general mood, but it’s a bit too minimalist and restrained, the bright pings and bubbly noises come off as forced, and Wilson shifted his vocals to a generic high pitch instead of the echoing Geddy Lee resonance he used in LSD. It’s like he was consciously trying to write Linton Samuel Dawson again, which is the first strike against it because LSD came upon its manic, trippy wonderfulness almost by accident, and it’s the sort of effect you can’t deliberately set out to recreate. If you do, you’ll just get something like this.

Prayer (at 11’44”) is an airy little instrumental that makes me wish Wilson had started consistently using wind instruments in his music earlier than 2011. From here we go to the title track, which only exists online in its edited form from On the Sunday of Life, trimmed by about a minute from the demo tape version. Because I realize I’m not getting the authentic Nostalgia Factory Nostalgia Factory listening experience here, I’ll just say it’s quite good, and deal with it in more detail when we get to On the Sunday of Life. At least that entry will have some more content, then. Same with This Long Silence: also good, also only available in Proper Album Edit form.

Sinatra Rape Scene (at 13’37”) is a short forty-second joint that sounds like someone cut up bits of a lounge song and stretched and distorted them into something strange and disquieting. After this, Hokey Cokey, which I can only describe as literally what the Hokey Pokey sounds like on drugs, because halfway through the ominous drums and guitars and slowed-down conspiratorial voices drop out, revealing what everyone else is hearing. And even then it’s still unsettling, because with the slight reverb it sounds like that old horror movie trope of a gramophone playing a creepy nursery rhyme in an empty haunted house at two in the morning.

So naturally we follow this up with Landscare (at 14’18”), which sounds like what’s going on outside the haunted house in which the Hokey Cokey is playing. Delightful Suicide (at 17’18”) has a broadly similar effect, but—and this is almost certainly my White Person showing—the sitars give it more of a vague new-agey feel that’s like a faint candle in the darkness than anything else.

Literally the only point of connection between the Karma version of Nine Cats and the final version found here are the lyrics. I didn’t know what all this meant, either, so let’s focus on the music. Here’s where the songs’ relative placement on their respective albums is key, because if I encountered the fifteen-minute version on The Nostalgia Factory I’d have gotten fatigued, and if the four-minute version closed out The Joke’s On You I’d have been disappointed.

In addition, both versions are clearly out to do different things. Where Karma!Nine Cats was meant to be a sprawling prog epic, PT!Nine Cats comes in and get things done with a minimum of fuss. It’s clearly a product of completely different circumstances than its earlier incarnation. No movements, no long opening instrumental, only a quick guitar solo. I personally still prefer the Karma version because of a natural preference for longer songs, which in this case translates into Nine Cats having space to breathe, but there remains a certain power in the final version’s almost ruthless efficiency.

Split Image (at 18’25”) is like Sinatra Rape Scene, except our source material is not a lounge tune but (apparently) the strings from Psycho, so now it’s overtly terrifying in a 40s-horror-radio-serial sort of way…except for the inviting shimmery ambient bit that swoops in at the end, offering an escape hatch. So naturally, we close out with It Will Rain For A Million Years. This one’s twice as long as the song of the same name from the previous EP, and in contrast to that song’s feeling of complete mental collapse, here it seems like, even though our journeyman says he’s always found questions but never answers, he still seems to have found some measure of enlightenment and inner peace. He’s embraced the mystery. The flutes are really beautiful, is what I’m trying to say. It sounds like—and this is the inner Whitey showing, again—I’m listening to this in a shrine. And with all the madness and tumult we’ve had to get through to arrive here, letting us peacefully drift back to earth like this is the most emotionally satisfying ending this trilogy of tapes could possibly have. We’ve earned this.

We’re not going to touch Cassette Music 1989-1990 because that’s completely unavailable and we’ve already covered everything on it. Much as I would like to have one, of course. Next week, something a bit less overstuffed.

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Porcupine Tree – Love, Death & Mussolini

1990

“This is known as ‘value for money’. In the music industry it is known as ‘marketing’. Do your accounting to the sound of Porcupine Tree.” —The front cover of the EP’s booklet, which legit sounds like an ad from Streets of SimCity.

I’m not defending that title.

Clearly in the intervening year between the last tape and this one, “Porcupine Tree” experienced some personnel turbulence, because five of the band members on Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm didn’t play on this one. Maybe Porcupine Tree has the same problem Spinal Tap has with its drummers, only expanded to everyone without any serious creative influence. Either that or The Porcupine Tree is an absolutely wretched leader.

Probably the rarest single Thing in Porcupine Tree’s discography, with only ten copies made. I’m not even entirely convinced the version on YouTube is completely authentic, because eight-ninths of the tape can be found on releases that are somewhat easier to find. Nevertheless, it’s what’s most commonly available (Because, really, do you have an authentic copy buried somewhere in your hard drive? Thought not.), so it’s what we have to make do with.

Side one of the tape is the Extended Player, which begins with Hymn, which is only a hymn in the loosest sense of the word. It takes Cries of Lucia as a background and fills the rest of the space with sped-up and slowed-down voices and strange, ominous drones; foregrounding [even more] and amplifying the base track’s already creepy atmosphere. Or: the cryptid is back, and this time he brought friends.

The tape really kicks off with Footprints, which seems like it describes a bad trip but not the sort of bad trip you’re probably thinking of. Yeah, it’s dark and creepy, but not in a surreal sort of way. We’re not in hell, we’re just…adrift in a gray void. The chorus is just Wilson repeating lyrics from Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, wailing distantly into a reverberating ether, desperately searching for an enlightenment that isn’t coming.

Linton Samuel Dawson (ayyy) is a dark horse in the Porcupine Tree discography; trippy, sure, but bright and poppy, with Alan Duffy’s typically weird lyrics sung in a voice pitched up enough that it’s pretty clear someone was listening to a fair bit of Rush at the time. (And then it’s pitched up even further, to the baby talk noises you make when you’re giving your cat belly rubs. Or is that just me?) It’s fun and bouncy and goofy and without question the best song off the EP, which is amazing because it could just as easily have been Wilson’s Laughing Gnome moment (or if you’re some people it might be anyway). I don’t think he’d write a song this unequivocally upbeat for twenty-seven years. For that alone it’s worth treasuring.

I know by this time it was a spare name lying around that had some notable initials, but in-universe I’m also wondering what happened to the “real” Linton Samuel Dawson that Porcupine Tree gave him a whole song of his own after he left the band. (The real answer is more prosaic, of course, he never existed in the first place, and neither did the rest of them, but indulge me.)

After that all-too-brief bit of levity comes And The Swallows Dance Above The Sun, a moody little synth-poppy thing that sounds like Pet Shop Boys collided with Primitive Radio Gods and threw in an absolutely phenomenal bassline. Part of the reason, spoilers, I’m not interested in comparisons to Pink Floyd is that even in their early period there’s stuff like this that could only have come from 1990. Not sure why Wilson decided to throw in quotes like “I want you to put Felix’s penis on me,” though. Kinda ruins the moment.

Queen Quotes Crowley isn’t quite what it says on the tin. If uptight super-religious moral guardians were A Thing in the UK in 1990, this is what they’d have thought the Queen quoting Crowley would sound like, with drones and distortion and people talking backwards all sinister-like, with a properly claustrophobic bassline thrumming away robotically in the background, as if to say, you are trapped here, what you are seeing is right and necessary, and there is no escape. Thus endeth the Extended Player.

But, since we’ve “taken advantage of the cassette medium,” as the booklet says, we have another side, the Long Player, which kicks off with a shimmery, circusey tune called No Luck With Rabbits. After this, Begonia Seduction Scene, which is indeed a seduction scene, but ripe and curdled.

The final two tracks on the album, Out and It Will Rain For A Million Years, are where the tape really shines. Out features a nice heavy IEM-ish guitar riff over which is laid other guitar, drum, and synth parts and Wilson futilely pleading for the “darkness” to “get out of [his] head.” Even though Out is an eight minute progressive-rock jam, it actually sounds like it’s moving toward something with a sense of purpose (the riff helps a lot) instead of running in circles, something that would become one of Porcupine Tree’s greatest strengths as its career goes on. Out then transitions to It Will Rain For A Million Years, a song that’s structured similarly, but half as long and with a crescendo to a tense, cacophonic wall of sound. This song is a fantastic closer to the EP, and it’s a shame it can’t be found anywhere else. (The song of the same title on On the Sunday of Life is completely different.)

This EP is a considerably easier listen than Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm, largely because it’s only forty minutes and there’s a nice balance between short songs and long songs. This isn’t a blanket condemnation of long, bloated albums, I’ve listened to a few that I really enjoy, but the sort of music that Space Era Porcupine Tree produced wasn’t all that conducive to anything over seventy minutes long. Also these are demo tapes, we (or at least I) don’t really expect demo tapes to go on that long. This EP, in contrast, is much leaner, and thus takes better advantage of the EP format, and is an early demonstration of the sort of effortless flow that would characterize Porcupine Tree’s music from here on out. It’s probably the best of the three.