GUEST: Jansen Barbieri Karn – Beginning to Melt

October 1993

“It’s actually been an irritant, not a selling point. We’ve even had clauses in gig contracts to prevent them from saying ‘ex-Japan’.” —Richard Barbieri, Classic Rock magazine

There’s a pun involving a certain visual kei band that’s probably more trouble to make than it’s worth.

But so anyway let’s talk about Richard Barbieri. So far he’s drifted around the edges of what Wilson’s been doing, contributing the odd keyboard part or remix here and there, but he’s going to join the band real soon, so we’ll have to get to his back catalogue eventually. So what better place to do that than an album where he’s one of the main players.

Lots to cover here, so I’ll attempt to be brief. The story goes something like this: besides Porcupine Tree, Barbieri is best known as one of the keyboardists for Japan, a band which sold quite well in Japan. Other personnel: vocalist David Sylvian, bassist Mick Karn, drummer Steve Jansen, guitarist Rob Dean. They released five albums in four years, here summarized:

  • The funk touches in Adolescent Sex made me wish I was listening to actual funk.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Obscure Alternatives is in just about every respect superior to the album that came before it. However. The big reason I’ll probably never listen to it again is Sylvian’s extremely ill-advised n-bomb in Rhodesia, what would otherwise have been the album’s standout track. It was to make a vaguely anti-racist political point, and it was 1978, and a cursory glance at Sylvian’s Twitter feed makes me think it’s not a decision he’d make today, but it still pretty much wrecked the listening experience for me. On the upside, though, The Tenant remains absolutely brilliant, and is a much better indicator of where they’d be going than Life In Tokyo could ever be.
  • Quiet Life is a dark, brooding synthpop masterpiece. The camp yet vaguely punkish sneer Sylvian used in their first two records was a weird mismatch for their music and took me out of the mood fairly often, so his switch to a proto-Gahan baritone was more than welcome. Despair and the cover of All Tomorrow’s Parties are the standouts here.
  • Gentlemen Take Polaroids is a bit more eclectic and experimental than Quiet Life, but the tradeoff is that it’s also more uneven.
  • Tin Drum is, if you’re a Westerner in 1981, exactly what you’d expect a new wave band called Japan to sound like…if by “Japan” you mean “China,” because insulated Europeans hadn’t learned to tell different East Asian countries apart yet. Listening to this album, it’s clear that the issue with Polaroids was that they simply could not find a viable way to push their sound forward. The sumptuous bass and traditional East Asian synth work fill what we now recognize as a void in Polaroids’ earlier noodlings, and we leave this album wondering why they hadn’t thought of this sooner. I’m not entirely sure if it’s Japan’s best album—Quiet Life is still more coherent—but it’s definitely the shot in the arm the band needed at that point in time. It would have been interesting to see where they’d have gone next.

…aaaaand then a year later personal shenanigans involving Mick Karn’s girlfriend would force the band apart. The split wasn’t necessarily acrimonious, the various band members would collaborate with each other regularly into the 90s, but Japan proper would never release another album. (Don’t worry, the comparison to what happened with Porcupine Tree in 2010 has been made already.) Here’s what Barbieri specifically was up to through the end of 1993:

  • The 1985 Jansen/Barbieri collaboration Worlds in a Small Room is an airy, soothing bit of inimitably 80s ambient goodness commissioned by JVC Victor as a score for some NASA stock footage they intended to release as a film.
  • In 1987 Jansen and Barbieri collaborated again as the Dolphin Brothers, this time releasing something called Catch the Fall. It’s not hard to draw a direct line from late Japan to what they’re doing here…but unfortunately, this sounds like a regression more than anything else, jettisoning the East Asian influences and powerful drums from that period for what is, essentially, Living in a Box on downers. There are occasional moments of brilliance, like Love that You Need or Face to Face, but the album in general sounds an awful lot like something you’d hear as department store muzak.
  • 1991 saw Barbieri involved in two (hoist the signal) ex-Japan projects. The first we’ve arbitrarily defined as Stories Across Borders, yet another collaboration with Steve Jansen. It’s mostly a bunch of haunting, atmospheric instrumental pieces with touches of jazz and industrial and other stuff. It’s also right up my alley the way the sophistipop from last go-round wasn’t.
  • And finally, of course, there was Rain Tree Crow, the Japan reunion that technically wasn’t a Japan reunion. Oh my God. Okay, let’s begin by making one thing clear: this isn’t a new Japan album. There’s no new wave or art pop or any of that to be found here. If there’s any sense of a narrative through-line from Tin Drum to here it’s Sylvian and company finding themselves on the brink of superstardom and deciding, screw this, let’s go make something as experimental and anti-pop as we possibly can. No, this is Rain Tree Crow, a glorious forty-five minute jam session that plays like Graceland mashed up with The Sky Moves Sideways and performed round a Joshua Tree campfire. This is the culmination of everything these four were doing since 1978. The Asian/world elements aren’t just orientalist window dressing and are actually well-integrated into the songs. Jansen’s drums and Karn’s bass have never sounded better. (No seriously, dat bass. I want to make love to it.) This album is a beautiful revelation and you should go listen to it right now. It’s on Spotify. Do it. (And then listen to Sixth Floor off the SimCity 3000 Unlimited soundtrack but you didn’t hear that from me.)

So now we’re finally up to the present, and to the first Jansen/Barbieri/Karn collaboration, Beginning to Melt. Well, okay, let’s not get carried away. It’s not a full-fledged follow-up to Rain Tree Crow, nor are we on the level of, say, Storm Corrosion. Out of the seven songs on this album, three are a true group effort, and the other four are little solo bits they had lying around that needed a home. Some are more interesting than others. Ego Dance is tight and tense. March of the Innocents plays like if Boards of Canada were an alternative band. Meanwhile, Shipwrecks is a snorefest and Human Age is just flat boring. So, you know, it’s about as even as you’d expect an album of dusted-off not-quite-B-sides to be.

We’re here primarily for the first two tracks. The first is the soundtrack to a leisurely wander through a science fictional desert, and as such is the most obviously Rain Tree Crow-like of anything on this album. It’s one of the album’s collaborative songs, and it shows. We’ve got Jansen’s sexy drums and fuzzed-out electric guitar, we’ve got Mick Karn’s even sexier bass…and, most importantly for our purposes, we’ve got Barbieri on the keyboards, tinkering with his synthesizer in ways that would become integral to Porcupine Tree’s sound in the coming years. The other song we’re interested in is The Wilderness, on which Steven Wilson played acoustic guitar.

I wish to emphasize that The Wilderness’ status as the best track on the album and Steven Wilson’s presence on that track is a coincidence. Wilson’s part is pretty simple and mixed pretty far back, involving only some rhythmic strumming that he could probably do in his sleep. I didn’t even know it was there the first time around. The highlight here, instead, is Suzanne Barbieri’s vocals. We’ve heard her before, doing the spoken word bit of Up the Downstair, but here she’s the main event. Even as the instrumentation remains sparse and earthy, emphasizing that the wilderness is not a hospitable place, her downright angelic performance elevates the tale of the Boneshaker into something fantastic, almost mythical.

Two ancillary things before we wrap up. 1) I’m glad Suzanne’s here in the context of this retrospective because this thing has been and largely will be a sausagefest, and 2) there’s a delightfully cheesy symphonic metal cover of this song just waiting to be made.

Going back to her husband now, Richard Barbieri is probably one of the most experienced and virtuosic people Wilson’s ever worked with…and, in some ways, a person whose career with Japan would prefigure Wilson’s own with Porcupine Tree. He would join the band right around the time of this album’s release, and Colin Edwin would follow in a few months’ time. Now all we need is a drummer.

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Porcupine Tree – Up the Downstair

May 1993
2004 Edition, May 2005
Double vinyl edition, 2008

“What you are listening to are musicians performing psychedelic music under the influence of a mind-altering chemical called…”

Linton Samuel Dawson.

I’ll admit I was a bit surprised when I read last year’s Guardian profile of SW and heard Up the Downstair described as an “opus.” I don’t think of Up the Downstair as an opus. A solid, coherent album, yes, but not Porcupine Tree’s defining masterpiece, the thing they will go down in history for. It’s not even the opus of the Space Era, although Voyage 34 and this album do have a shared history.

It’s pretty common knowledge amongst SW/PT auditorati, I think, that Up the Downstair and Voyage 34 were recorded at about the same time, and Voyage 34 was originally intended to be Up the Downstair’s back half, along the lines of the EP stapled to the end of The Incident. Breaking them up was a pretty smart move. The Incident’s second disc works because the songs are relatively (“relatively”) short and digestible, whereas Voyage 34, even in its primordial two-phase incarnation, would have been punishing to sit through after fifty minutes of psychedelic, spaced-out weirdness.

More importantly, separating the two means Voyage 34 gets to shine on its own, as a singular work. It gets to tell its own discrete story. It gets to have Phases III and IV. It gets to be complete. It gets to be the Space Era’s actual opus.

This is not to say that the separation was entirely clean, of course. There are a few bits and bobs from Voyage 34 that make appearances here. The first narrator from Voyage 34 opens this album with this post’s epigraph. Not Beautiful Anymore features a sample from Miss “I’m just scared, you know?” The album’s title is namechecked at the end of Phase I. It’s not much. If Voyage 34 came right after Up the Downstair, it could be thought of as an expansion of certain themes from this album, but the lack of references between the two would mean that the entire enterprise would have had a very flimsy foundation. Long Final Tracks are meant to serve as a summation or reinterpretation of what came before, a la the bonus title track of Frances the Mute, and this is not something Voyage 34 was meant to do. The way things are now, those samples from Up the Downstair seem less like Chekhov’s guns and more like little asides to something that came before, and both records are better for it.

But now for the album itself. Every Porcupine Tree studio album from Up the Downstair to about Stupid Dream has, to some degree or another, an almost self-conscious we-are-going-to-make-a-proper-album intent about it, largely because each one from that period marked some milestone in their growth as a band. In this case, we’re going to make an album because we’ve re-released all the good stuff from the demo tapes, so now we have to make something original and we have to make it count.

The best way I can describe the result is a tighter, less scattershot version of On the Sunday of Life. Synesthesia and Always Never both sound like something from a demo tape, only cleaned up, refined, and pointed in a specific direction. Monuments Burn Into Moments was ripped directly from The Nostalgia Factory. Small Fish, which we’ll get to, reaches back even farther. There’s also glimpses of the direction the band will go. The trancey title track leans into what they’d get up to in The Sky Moves Sideways, while Fadeaway catapults itself even further into the future, clearing the rest of the Space Era entirely and landing sometime during the Stupid Dream sessions, occasionally even sounding like something off the second disc of The Incident.

Melody Maker’s review specifically mentioned that the album set out to create “a truly Nineties progressive rock soundscape,” and that’s a pretty fair assessment of what the album is doing. There are some 60s/70s embellishments, mostly found in the guitar work of Always Never and the lyrics of Small Fish, but they largely read like a way to introduce electronica to a pretentious rockist audience who’d otherwise be actively hostile to what you’re trying to do. We’re not just on the old hippie drugs anymore. We’re on DMT and ecstasy now and listening to dub and electronica. This is the album you make after coming home from a rave baked out of your mind and winding down (“winding down”) with Wish You Were Here and Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. (Yes, I’m aware Wilson isn’t a drug boy. The effect remains.)

And nowhere is that more clear than on the album’s centerpiece and title track, whose backbone is a synthesized bassline from which hangs electronic samples and guitar work that owe just as much to acid house as it does to David Gilmour. You can’t quite rave to it, but you can come pretty close. It doesn’t quite sound like anything else on this record, but its electronic soundscapes are what sticks in the head long after this album’s over, and what gave Wilson a path forward toward the trancey majesty of The Sky Moves Sideways. But that isn’t why this song appeals to me so much. I fell in love with Up the Downstair because that bassline sounds like the menu music in SimCopter.

Let me back up. In the late 90s and early aughts I was a big fan of the Maxis/EA Sim games, mostly of SimCity 2000, SimCity 3000, and the various games based off of them, like Streets of SimCity and SimCopter. Those latter two games hold a special place in my heart solely because of the novelty of being able to take a city that I built and drive a car or fly a helicopter through it. (If SimCopter means anything to you, it’s probably either because of the horrific graphics or that infamous easter egg involving tons and tons of scantily-clad gay couples.) Anyway, most Sim games from the era had soundtracks composed by Jerry Martin, whose specialty was jazz and techno music. His techno tracks from the late 90s and early 00s always had a distinct house/trance vibe…and, critically for our purposes, a general sensibility that matches surprisingly well with what Steven Wilson, his influences, and his collaborators were doing just a few years earlier.

This will come up from time to time until we hit about 2000, but here it manifests in SimCopter’s menu music, a twenty-six-second loop with a bassline that sounds enough like the one in Up the Downstair that the first time I heard it I did a double-take…and then immediately took to Skype and told a friend of mine straight-up, “Jerry Martin listened to early Porcupine Tree.” That probably isn’t true, but it is interesting how parts of your personal universe that you once thought were discreet can crash together sometimes and hit your nostalgia buttons hard.

The other song worth pointing out here is Small Fish, a ten-year anniversary update of the same song off of the first Karma album, and as such becomes Up the Downstair’s only substantial link to the more 60s-tinged psychedelia Porcupine Tree grew out of. The 1993 version is about half as long as the 1983 version. The instrumentation is simpler and the production is more polished, which here gives the impression that this is the same bad trip we experienced a decade ago, but with an added clarity.  It makes about as much logical sense to us now as it did ten years ago, of course, but the effect it has on the narrator is clear. With that clarity comes vocals that are somehow more defeated and morose than before, as our narrator has the mental agility necessary to fully process precisely the implications of the surreal horror laid out before him. It’s also worth noting that the Karma version of the song faded out to farm sounds, implying the trip ends and all is well, whereas the Porcupine Tree fades out to car sounds, and then fades back in to Burning Sky, named after Small Fish’s final lyric, implying that there will be no reprieve for the narrator this time.

The abrupt switch from spacey, nightmarish synth effects to happy elevator music in What You Are Listening To is exquisite.

Porcupine Tree albums follow a distinct pattern, alternating between Statement Records (The Sky Moves Sideways, Stupid Dream, In Absentia, Fear of a Blank Planet) that establish a particular sound, and Transitional Records (Signify, Lightbulb Sun, Deadwing, The Incident) that tinker with certain aspects of that sound to push it forward. This doesn’t say anything about their relative quality, just what they set out to do. Up the Downstair is definitely a Transitional Record, existing at the uncomfortable middle point between On the Sunday of Life and Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape (Synesthesia, Small Fish) and The Sky Moves Sideways (the title track), but even if it isn’t the opus of the Space Era the way some people think it is, it is still a giant step forward. Not least because it’s the first album featuring Colin Edwin and, in a non-remix capacity, Richard Barbieri. The various disparate tendrils of the Porcupine Tree we’re familiar with continue to come together.

  1. Up the Downstair
  2. On the Sunday of Life

No-Man – Loveblows and Lovecries: A Confession

May 1993; US Edition, May 1994

Sweetheart Raw, January 1993
Only Baby, March 1993
Painting Paradise, June 1993
Taking it Like a Man, April 1994

Couldn’t find the Hit the North session recording from 1992. Mea culpa.

This is not visible to you, the reader, but this one comes after Two. Solid. Months. of stalling because (a) lots of travelling bollixed up my writing steez for basically all of that time (Amsterdam and New York were both wonderful, though), and (b) I quite simply could not get a read on this thing. Even as this post goes live, a month and a half after I wrote it, I’m still not entirely certain I have the first No-Man album nailed down.

Let’s begin with first impressions. I was surprised at how not-that-bad it was. So surprised, in fact, that I had to go back and listen to all of No-Man’s albums and make sure that my initial negative impression of No-Man from way back in 2011 was artificially produced. And it turns out…it kind of was.

I probably shouldn’t have started back then with Schoolyard Ghosts, which (spoilers) I still think is a weak album. I also probably should have found a better way to listen to the albums than track-by-individual-track on YouTube, which seriously broke up their flow and forced me to think of them as a bunch of tracks all in a row, as opposed to coherent wholes. And—let’s be honest—part of it was me, and the expectations I had for what a Steven Wilson Thing should sound like.

So, some more spoilers. There’s good stuff here. They recovered pretty well from losing Ben Coleman, to the point where Together We’re Stranger is probably their best album. (Although this opinion may change by the time we actually get there.) Their shift away from trip-hop in the late-90s / early-00s was unequivocally a good idea, because if they were still trying to bring back the spirit of the early-mid 90s in 2003, it wouldn’t have gone over well. No-Man is still my least favorite of SW’s four biggest projects, and many of their songs still feel either unambitious or unsuccessful attempts at eclecticism, but I’m not nearly as dismissive of them as I was.

Also, Days in the Trees remains the best thing they’ve ever done.

Now, to the album. This is in many ways a stylistic continuation (I won’t say maturation) of what they were doing in Lovesighs – An Entertainment, in that much of this album is that slightly awkward mishmash of ambient music and trip-hop, only this time with not as much violin to save them when they flounder. This means that its high points are when it does something different. For instance: once in a while you can hear the occasional Porcupine Tree flourish, like in Sweetheart Raw, with the raw (heh) guitar work, the occasional sample lifted from Voyage 34, and that sweet solo at the end. The Voyage 34 samples return briefly in Beautiful and Cruel, and while they don’t exactly salvage what is easily the album’s worst song, they do give it a point in its favor.

Some other examples: Only Baby, the best song off the UK release, sounds like a slightly new-age version of Ebeneezer Goode, to the point where it seems like the song’s message is that the ecstasy of love is just as potent and revolutionary as actual ecstasy. Tulip has a fantastic flute solo. Break Heaven’s chorus is incredible. The US release brings back Days in the Trees yet again, at last giving it the stature and exposure it deserves. The thing is, though, the high points of an album ought to be when you’re taking the general aesthetic you’re going for and either pushing it to new heights, expanding it, or pulling it back and letting it breathe; not when you’re pushing it aside to let something else come in and perform for a bit.

There was some ancillary stuff released about the same time as the album; a few singles, a few remixes. I wasn’t all that impressed with what I could find. The Only Baby single release, for instance, can be streamed on Spotify. I feel like I’m talking about a favorite child when I bring up Days in the Trees again, but it seems like that EP spoiled us by how radically it reworked that song, several times over, bringing forward overlooked facets of the song or just using bits and pieces of its melody and dramatically recontextualizing them. In so doing it apparently set the bar extremely high for what a No-Man remix should look like.

In contrast, three-fourths of Only Baby is the same song cut up and rearranged, with sections added and removed, as if by a mechanical arm at an automated workstation. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—there’s a stretched-out mix of Perfect Life on the Hand. Cannot. Erase. Blu-ray that’s just as powerful as the original—but here I don’t get the sense that any new angles of the song were illuminated. I don’t think we gain anything from these different versions of the song beyond a temporary indecision on the part of Steven and Tim as to which version was definitive. It’s just there.

In that way, the Only Baby single could be treated as a synecdoche for the album itself, really: it’s there, it’s a decent way to kill some time, and it certainly isn’t as bad as I remember, but I don’t think it’s something that I’ll be coming back to very often.

  1. Loveblows & Lovecries: A Confession