“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.