Porcupine Tree – Coma Divine

Editorial prologue the First: that ponytail is adorable.

Editorial prologue the Second: In non-Steve news, I have an article up on Medium about Weezer’s cover of Africa and why it’s an abomination. If that sounds interesting do check it out.


 

October 1997
Coma Divine II, January 1999
Expanded edition, February 2003
Remastered, 2016

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“Grazie.”

It’s the end of an era. No, another era. In the Signify entry I wrote:

“Ultimately, the people who become immortal are the people who get lucky. Either they have connections through family or friends, someone powerful noticed them at exactly the right time and liked what they heard, or what they were doing resonated with the contemporary musical zeitgeist.”

Steven Wilson got lucky. Yes, there’s a case to be made about the ambitious aspiring musician, but in the beginning he got lucky. There were lots of people plugged into the English neo-psychedelia scene in the 80s. There were lots of people just as worthy of superstardom as Wilson was, flinging their tapes at places like Delerium and hoping someone would take notice. But Wilson was the fortunate soul whose tape found its way out of the slush pile, and that was because the Delerium man’s buddy needed driving music and Tarquin’s was fished out at random. And then many years later the fake band became real and released albums and played shows and caught the attention of an extremely powerful record industry man down in Italy, they got played on the radio, and their cachet in the politically unstable boot-shaped country skyrocketed.

Thus, Coma Divine, the fulcrum of the magical ritual to destroy the Space Era and usher in the Alternative Era, and also the point at which Porcupine Tree became too big for Delerium’s britches. Although not the band’s final release with the label—Delerium would still have some unreleased rarities that would float to the surface in the next few years—this is the last thing the band released while they were still actively making music for them. Porcupine Tree would spend most of 1998 without a label, signing a deal in December of that year with Snapper Music, which would eventually, with some input from Wilson himself, branch off into Kscope, the imprint who’d release things like Anathema, North Atlantic Oscillation, The Pineapple Thief…stuff in the general ballpark of what Porcupine Tree would sound like in the Alternative and Metal Eras. So this was a natural switch for them.

Would there be stuff that leaked out afterward? Yes. Metanoia, for instance. The Delerium Years compilation. But those are all contained within the slowly deflating star of Delerium itself, which would fold in 2003. This album belched out a satellite of its own in 1999, which would be subsequently reabsorbed and kept under the Coma Divine umbrella with the expanded edition, also in 2003. For all intents and purposes, here is a decade of history, successfully, albeit barely, bottled within a specific place (the Frontiera in Rome) and time (three nights in late March 1997).

From a certain perspective, though, I’ve managed to do the same thing. I heavily compartmentalize my music based upon a place in the world that feels like whatever it is I’m listening to. Sometimes this is based off life experience, sometimes it isn’t. The music of Burial, for instance, could accurately be described as “an incognito psychogeographic exploration of South London,” but to me the grubby, crusty atmosphere and the way the pitch-shifted vocal samples echo across the sound field also scream “desolate New York subway station at one in the morning.” Pendulum is another example: also based in London, this band specializes in drum-n-bass bangers but which will occasionally venture into something ambient or acoustic (Crush and Out Here are perfect examples). This particular contrast between ultramodern harshness and lush ambience is a dead ringer for Hong Kong, where city streets lined with looming fifty-story apartment towers that inspired Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell sit literally right next to dense wilderness.

For Space-Era Porcupine Tree, I’ve already mentioned a couple of times how the techno tracks Jerry Martin wrote for the 90s Sim games sound a fair bit like stuff from Up the Downstair and The Sky Moves Sideways, particularly in the bass and the keyboards. I’ve also mentioned SimCity 3000 a little as well; a game whose sequel, SimCity 3000 Unlimited, also featured European and Asian building sets. The Asian building set was intended to evoke someplace like Tokyo, a town everyone knows, but the generally stout, boxy architecture actually lands somewhere around the vernacular of Taipei, Taiwan.

Which means that once when I had a day-long layover in Taipei on my way from Hong Kong to the US, and I had an opportunity to leave the airport and explore the city, I listened almost exclusively to Jerry Martin and Space-Era Porcupine Tree. The Sky Moves Sideways and Voyage 34 in particular are inseparable from almost falling asleep on the 1819 airport bus somewhere on Highway 1, watching exurban Taiwan’s peculiar jumble of fields, houses, and mid-rise apartment blocks roll by on my way to a sweltering yet vibrant city in a country no one wants to believe officially exists. When I listen to Dislocated Day I’m lost in the enormous underground city beneath Taipei Main Station. Up the Downstair is the soundtrack of dodging mopeds on an impromptu dérive in and around the city’s many, many alleyways. What I have done here, in essence, was to bottle Porcupine Tree’s Space Era into a psychogeo/chronographic brick of my own making: the city of Taipei, as it existed for ten hours on 2 August 2014. Taiwan’s capital on that day is my Frontiera.

But while Taipei is still there, it hasn’t been 2014 for four years now. The Frontiera closed in 2000. Delerium Records folded in 2003. The Space Era is, as of this moment, well and truly dead.

So. What are we building on top of the ruins? Signify itself may have been a stillborn attempt to construct a new sound, but there’s still something here to build on. Enter, for instance, Barbieri’s keyboards. Over in JBK, he’d already been doing something similar to the soundscapes that’d form the backbone of the Alternative and Metal eras since Beginning to Melt, but here’s where that style begins to be introduced to Porcupine Tree in a big way. The band as a whole has also become more comfortable improvising and changing around with certain aspects of the songs they’re playing. They’ve mashed up The Moon Touches Your Shoulder and Always Never. Barbieri’s subtly changed around the keyboards in the former so it sounds just a bit more ominous, while the latter’s got some more horns in the chorus, giving it a more triumphant, early-Marillion feel. Wilson has by this time perfected his Patented Psychedelic Guitar Freakout and lets it rip with full force during The Sky Moves Sideways and Dislocated Day.

And actually, I do want to zero in on Dislocated Day for a second. In the studio, this is one of the loudest, most technical songs Porcupine Tree’s ever made. In Rome, however, the rhythm section is brought forwards and the cacophonic, squealing lead guitar is confined to the one discreet solo in the middle. Wilson’s vocals, more chanted at points than sung, are front and center, to the point where when he sings “I will find a way to make you say the name of your forgiver,” the bass and drums fade out entirely before storming back in for the drop. Somewhat relevant to the narrative we’ve constructed about this point in the band’s history, the overall atmosphere of the song is less (well) dislocated and more…witchy.

That said, though, in March of 1997 we still don’t have a whole lot to build the Alternative Era with. New soundscapes and live performance indulgences are nice, but that’s not sufficient for a whole sound. Our first attempt was stillborn, and Sunsets on Empire is still two months away. But we do have something. By the time the 1997 tour rolled around, Wilson and the band had whacked together a few demos for the new album. One of them was of a song called “Disappear.”

This song has a long and tortured history stretching all the way to Lightbulb Sun, because it fell victim to that weird artist’s curse of obsessively picking at something in the name of Perfection long after they should have stopped. The final version, unceremoniously kicked off Lightbulb Sun and only seeing release on Recordings, sounds very little like the more sprawling early demos—two of which, recorded in February and April of 1997, eventually did get a release—and an awful lot like the first half of Last Chance to Evacuate &c.

But look at what we do have in these early incarnations: sober, deceptively straightforward instrumentation light on the psychedelia. Wilson’s ethereal, almost ghostly backing vocals. Lyrics describing alienation, introversion, and (despite being sung to a lover) isolation. The building blocks of the Alternative Era are all right here, on two demos of a song that was never quite good/thematically appropriate enough to see a studio album release, bracketing the shows in Rome by a month on either side and released as a bonus single in Coma Divine’s expanded edition.

The Space Era is dead. Long live the Alternative Era.

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GUEST: Saro Cosentino – Ones and Zeroes

1997
Reloaded reissue, 2014

In the 1984 Eurovision Song Contest, Italy’s entry was “I Treni di Tozeur,” a melancholy, romantic number about love and longing in the Tunisian frontier, sung by Franco Battiato and Alice. Mostly Alice. Franco is apparently one of Italy’s biggest singer-songwriters, but Alice’s singing and stage presence is so powerful that Franco is reduced to a gawky Adrien Brody lookalike figuratively checking his watch in the background. And, of course, the three mezzo-sopranos belting out Mozart toward the end blow them both out of the water. It’s pretty much perfect as a cheesy karaoke number. It came in fifth.

One of the cowriters for that song was Mr Saro Cosentino, a musician and composer about whom I know very little beyond that he mostly does film soundtracks these days, who released an album called Ones and Zeroes in 1997. It sounds pleasantly like something from JBK or Indigo Falls. Karen Eden in particular does an excellent Suzanne Barbieri impression on Real Life, Bite the Bullet, and Behind the Glass. Tim Bowness sings on Days of Flaming Youth, and the result sounds like one of the better songs off of Flame.

Steven Wilson’s entire contribution to the recording of this album was setting up Tim Bowness’ microphone.

But that means he worked on this album in some small capacity, and that means the King of Prog is one degree of separation from the the hallowed realm of Terry Wogan, Lordi, Dchinghis Khan, Conchita Wurst, and Jedward. I doubt he’s chafing at the association near as much as you think he is.

In other words, this entry exists entirely to troll the King Crimson shirt brigade. Coma Divine tomorrow.

GUEST: Fish – Sunsets on Empire

May 1997

“Something…is gonna happen…”

So. Marillion. One of the bands that kept progressive music going during the fallow eighties. They’re from Aylesbury, half an hour from Hemel Hempstead. They’ve been active since Wilson was eleven. There’s a lot to get through here, so let’s begin.

1. A knight for Embankment folds his newspaper castle…

The music of Marillion up to Sunsets on Empire can be split into three phases. The first encompasses Script for a Jester’s Tear and Fugazi, and is primarily of importance to us in the way it intersects with Steven Wilson’s early music career. The former album, for instance, was released in February 1983. Karma released The Joke’s On You in October 1983. This is not a coincidence. The entire time I was listening to it, all I heard was the original version of Nine Cats, as sung by Derek William “Fish” Dick, a gentleman who was created in a lab to be the ultimate progressive rock vocalist. This guy has the vocal cords of Peter Gabriel, the range of Jon Anderson, and the theatrical penchant of Ian Anderson. And as long as we’re talking about Karma as a blatant Marillion ripoff, I challenge you to imagine Wilson yelping and whooping on The Joke’s On You the way Fish does here.

The problem is Script for a Jester’s Tear isn’t very good, although Fish is trying his damnedest to elevate instrumentation that’s 75% Mark Kelly engaging in psychosexual congress with the horn setting on his synthesizer. I.e.; fun for him, not quite so much for us. Fugazi, meanwhile, gives the Script sound a particular energy it had previously lacked, albeit through sounding pretty much like an extremely progressive-oriented arena rock band. In other words, this album lays on the eighties cheese thick and it’s wonderful. I can totally imagine an alternate universe in which the standard elements of the middle-aged white guy wardrobe included a Marillion tour shirt alongside Queen and Boston and Journey. (They’d certainly get the chart numbers worthy of such an honor.)

So, when the time came for Karma to pull together that second album, they had two options: sound like Embryonic Porcupine Tree, or throw in mainstream hard rock influences and sound like Fugazi. They did neither, turning their collective nose up at this album’s more streamlined musicianship and hoping lightning would strike twice…and thus we got Last Man to Laugh and the band’s breakup the next year.

2. Hotel lobbies padding dawn’s hollow corridors…

Marillion’s second phase is its imperial phase, comprising Misplaced Childhood and Clutching at Straws. The former is relevant for Wilson-adjacent purposes, as he remixed that album in 2017. And really, if you’re going to remix one Marillion album, it’s that one, because what a record. Yes, yes, it’s one of Marillion’s more accessible offerings this decade. Yes, we’re edging dangerously close to sounding like sellout-era Genesis (!) during the year of Live Aid (!!). But the prog is far from gone; it’s just actually digestible. A band that abandoned prog entirely would not have produced the Bitter Suite. And quite frankly, if your definition of what constitutes good prog is that it’s so intricate and complex it’s impenetrable to the average listener, you’re part of the reason Wilson’s distanced himself from the label and finds prog music irreparably ossified and self-contradictory. Get over yourself.

Also, Fish is a brilliant lyricist, in every song unspooling this string of lines that’re at once wordy and evocative. “Do you remember dancing in stilettos in the snow?”, for example, is typical, but he really shines at that point at least once each album when he’s allowed to be properly leftish and go to town painting these nightmarish visions of Thatcherite Britain (the title track of Fugazi comes immediately to mind).

Which brings us to Kayleigh. Marillion’s biggest hit is a baroque, deliriously cheesy masterpiece that hit #2 on the UK Singles chart. In so doing, it effectively brought the name “Kayleigh” into existence (one of the actual exes that inspired the song was named Kay Lee, the name was altered to protect the innocent). It’s killer, especially that powerful solo that bursts onstage after the first chorus, Exhibit A for Wilson’s contention that simplicity in the name of emotional immediacy is inherently better than technical wizardry for its own sake. Kayleigh would reach its definitive form in 1988, at an anti-apartheid benefit concert held at Wembley Stadium to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday. There, Fish appeared onstage to belt out this song accompanied by (a) a horn section and (b) Phil Collins on drums…in other words, the way the song was meant to be performed.

Moving on to Clutching at Straws, I pretty much toe the critical line that it’s not quite as good as its predecessor. To elaborate, I’d say that this album is kind of a tough one to get a serious critical read on, as the quality of the individual songs oscillate wildly between absolutely brilliant and sheer torture, and look there’s no way of sugarcoating it Incommunicado was the worst thing Fish wrote in the 80s. Marillion during this era never quite tipped into the worst trends of sellout-era Genesis…except here, with all those synthesized horn flourishes and that overexuberant vocal delivery and tempo that’s just slightly too fast. I know what they were shooting for, a sort of modernized throwback to the first two albums, but the result sounds like a band that’s jacked up Turn It On Again on all the steroids in the hopes that some of the cheddar that song produced would drift their way. Somewhat ironically for a song where they’re bragging about how famous they’ve become, the end result sounds like it was written out of contractual obligation. Also, Fish should never use the word “rootin’-tootin’” in a song ever again.

On the upside, Fish’s brogue. People have complained once in a while about Fish’s vocal delivery and how it sounds a bit too much like Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel, but they forget one thing: Derek Dick is extremely Scottish. He is one of the Scottiest Scotsmen that’ve ever Scotted. And boy does it show in this album, where he often drops any pretense of vocal neutrality and lets the Saltire in his voice fly. In addition, despite its unevenness, Clutching at Straws still has probably the densest concentration of highlights from the Fish era, like the burnt-out, desperate bombast of That Time of the Night, the tense, dystopian White Russian (repeating “Uzis on a street corner” like a madness mantra), and the majestic The Last Straw. Especially The Last Straw. The sudden Tessa Niles in the last minute is simply heavenly. It feels like a definitive summation of not just the themes behind Clutching at Straws but Marillion’s entire career up to that point. The album couldn’t have ended on a higher note.

3. They bury a wasteland deep in the wilderness…

And the in October 1988 something weird happened: the case of the Famous Egos that collectively afflicted Marillion hit a breaking point and Fish proceeded to fire everyone else and rename the band after himself. Thus do we hit the third phase: Fish’s solo career. This phase, like most nascent solo careers, comes in two parts: an exorcism, and a self-discovery.

The exorcism comes in Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors, recorded and released while No-Man were flogging their earliest demos and Wilson’s ostentatious fake band were cobbling together their early EP trilogy. The long-ish form explanation for the way this sounds is as follows: after a certain point the band develops a clearly recognizable sound, and then the frontman feels strangled by the expectation of what a band album should sound like. When the tension becomes too great, the frontman abandons the band for a solo career and the first album after the split will often sound like the frontman’s unfiltered head contents. This album will feel scattershot and uneven, but on the upside, that attitude got us Fish bustin’ out the pipes right in the expansive, cinematic banger of a first track.

But at least it’s all out now and Fish can move forward. If only he knew how. Fortunately, at this point we do have a germ of an idea: Fish is, lest we forget, oh so very Scottish. He’s just returned to the old country after spending the past decade in England, and it’s great to reconnect with where you came from. Let’s see what that gets us.

Internal Exile, apparently, released roughly the same time as Days in the Trees, and exactly the sort of thing Fish could not have got away with if he were still with Marillion. This is a folk-tinged concept album centering largely around Scottish nationalism and how proud he is to be Scottish…and yet, the best thing off the album doesn’t actually have anything to do with any of that. Yes, the title track is fantastic, pure, unfiltered, boisterous folk, but: have you considered his cover of Something in the Air, which I can only describe as something performed at an abandoned warehouse rave in Leith.

After this there was a detour into coverland with Songs from the Mirror, released the same time Porcupine Tree was pulling together Up the Downstair. It’s decent, albeit unremarkable. Although I would like to state for the record that like the last album, any time he goes full-on traditionally Scottish, like with Solo and Caledonia, is simply heavenly.

The next year, though, between the release of Porcupine Tree’s first live album and the marathon improvisational session that would produce Moonloop, Fish would return to original material with Suits. Now, let’s address something real quick: Marillion have been called a poor man’s Genesis for basically the whole time they’ve been popular. I don’t think that’s a strike against the band—The Gaslight Anthem ripped off Bruce Springsteen wholesale and they’re amazing—but that’s largely because Genesis is a band worth ripping off. You can do things with their sound and make it your own. The problem is this: when Phil Collins left Genesis, his solo career was already sinking rapidly into an easy-listening quicksand pit. So when your band is often compared to Genesis and you leave to form a solo career, the danger is that your solo work will be on roughly the same level as Collins’. This has loomed over Fish’s solo career the whole time he’s had one, and nowhere does this danger present itself more explicitly than on this record, a soft rock album wrapped in several layers of neo-prog.

As a consequence, Suits can be sickeningly cheesy. Emperor’s Song in particular sits comfortably in that vaguely worldbeatish triangle with Graceland on the left, So on the right, and We Are the World at the apex; the sort of song whose music video is the band performing in a savannah somewhere surrounded by photogenic African children; the sort of song that encapsulates the detritus of the decade that brought us Live Aid-esque grandiose white guilt. Fortunes of War is a less positive example, a mess of beige slop whose music video’s defining image is Fish earnestly contemplating a bullet to make the point that Armed Conflict Is Bad, Mmmkay? It’s Fish at his most embarrassing, possibly topping Incommunicado as the worst song he’s ever written, and a big flashing-light illustration of the failure mode of his solo career.

But that’s not to say the album isn’t completely without merits. Since the cover of Something in the Air we’ve been seeing more and more electronic influences creep in, and nowhere is that quite more evident in No Dummy, this weird reggae-ish thing that has some very nineties keyboard work and a saxophone that wouldn’t sound out of place on Under the Table and Dreaming. This song also features some of the most bone-shatteringly deep bass work in Fish’s career thus far, of the sort that made me wish he and Mick Karn got together in the studio at least once. That said, like with the Scottish folk of Internal Exile and Songs from the Mirror before it, there’s still the sense that Fish is trying on hats that don’t quite fit. These are, ultimately, experiments. Some of them are successful, some of them aren’t. The result, unfortunately, is a solo career that is frustratingly uneven. This is unsustainable. We’ll have to try something a little different.

4. Your next allotted twenty-four hour slice of destiny…

So now it’s May of 1997. We’re entering a weird liminal period. I am five years old and discovering that the world extends far beyond the mountains that surround my hometown. On TV, for instance, there’s a white-haired man in a suit who’s always someplace stately, so that means he must be the President. Meanwhile, Tony Blair becomes Prime Minister, Deep Blue defeats Garry Kasparov, and the Spice Girls perform for the British royal family. Next month Richard Ashcroft will walk down a street in Hoxton, and Radiohead will release the first of several quietly nightmarish, Ballardianly anxious magnum opuses. In two months Hong Kong will switch from being a British colony to a Chinese colony. In three months Princess Di will have a fateful spiritual experience in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris, and Oasis will release Be Here Now and kill Britpop for good. No-Man are burning off the remnants of Wild Opera and will soon pull together what will become Returning Jesus. Porcupine Tree are deep in a magical ritual to kill off the Space Era. And Steven Wilson gets together with Fish and releases Sunsets on Empire.

Which I then listen to and like fifteen seconds in there’s a record needle scratch in my head.

Before we go any further, we must address this, and I hate that I have to address this, but… betwixt Dick and Wilson, who are credited as co-writers, whose bright idea was it to throw in the n-word right in the first line of the first track? The line for white musicians throwing in slurs to make a satirical political point (like here; the song is partially about the Balkans during the wars and the first couple lines are meant to be what society tells people who’re about to be ethnically cleansed) and/or make it clear the viewpoint character is a horrible person stands at In The Flesh, off The Wall, and it is a bar no song since has yet cleared, including this one. Sorry if that wrecked it for you; it came perilously close to wrecking it for me (the offending lyrics were altered for the US release, which…well, they do get the point across clearer), and to be honest once I’m done writing this post I will never listen to this song ever again.

There’s also been some other stuff that hasn’t aged well either, unfortunately. Brother 52, for instance. I could not find any further background on the story the song’s centered around, and maybe when you’re a Scotsman in the spring of ‘97 the concept of “gun nuts with enormous quantities of firearms find themselves under siege Waco-style” doesn’t have the same implications it does today, but…well, let’s cut to the chase here. This Doc dude’s a Second-Amendment nutcase and I’d be genuinely surprised if the story happened as it was told. “Anybody that’s stockpiling firearms and ammunitions is a threat to the government, so the government wages war against us,” the guy says. Baloney. To paraphrase, Bubba was not coming for your guns. In fact, from the vantage point of 2018, anyone with an enormous gun stockpile is probably not a freedom fighter but a terminally aggrieved white man who believes women shouldn’t have autonomy and/or people of color shouldn’t exist. So this is a cause that I’m…kind of surprised to see Fish, who’s farther left than most, take up and champion here. I neither know nor care how he feels about it now, but I, at least, would be trying my hardest to forget this song ever existed.

Now for the good stuff. First, the spoken word bits. They’ve been rolling around in the background for Fish’s discography since the Marillion days, but most of the time they’ve been pulled into the background, like the ones in Dark Side of the Moon. The conversation between Dr Finlay and Torch in Torch Song is representative. But Sunsets on Empire represents the point where the spoken word bits become the centerpiece of the songs they’re featured on. It helps that Fish’s natural speaking voice is this deep Scottish rumble that’s at once soothing and authoritative and very, very well suited to this sort of thing.

As are, of course, the words themselves. Fish has always been a very good lyricist, but the spoken word interludes let him be self-indulgent in the one place where self-indulgence works great in prog. Check out this little bit from Jungle Ride:

“The glazed eyes of porcelain clowns stare skywards at clouds of goldfish madly circling their own silent plastic worlds, high above the children who stuff ping pong balls like pills in the mouths of slowly rotating heads…”

Beautiful. Like The Mars Volta by way of the Weaver. He’s a bit more direct than that most of the time, but boy can he get evocative when he wants to be. This is one of the things that distinguishes Derek Dick from most other prog boys; he’s always thought of himself as a poet who sings, and has thus been most comfortable constructing songs around words than around instrumental improvisation.

Fish’s words also help the instrumentation out tremendously. He’s been dancing around what he achieves here throughout his solo career, but this is probably the first time since leaving Marillion that he’s managed to strike the perfect balance between technical complexity and emotional resonance. For the first time since Clutching at Straws the words consistently give the music a particular focus that a lot of prog lacks. We’re mainly concerned with what the song is about here (whether it be things like Bosnia, the inadequacy of religion, or Fish’s daughter), as opposed to using the song’s ostensible themes as an excuse for the musicians to show off.

In essence, with Sunsets on Empire, Fish has finally found his footing as a solo musician. The result sounds a fair bit like what Marillion would have sounded like in the 90s if he’d stayed on as frontman. We could describe this as a regression thanks to the lack of folk or electronica or anything else that made his earlier solo work stand out, and it is, but it is an exceptionally well-made regression, and is the reason the next album’s progression is as successful as it is. Because in this album, he consistently brought forward the album’s emotional center, and that’s infinitely more rewarding than any amount of technical brilliance could ever be.

Sound familiar?

We said earlier that Porcupine Tree is at this time in the middle of a magical ritual to kill off the Space Era and usher in something different. But what that something different is going to be is as yet unknown. For all that krautrock is a fine musical tradition, the way everything came together in Signify was clearly a non-starter. The band is working on demos right now, but it’s not clear that these efforts will bear fruit either. So now what.

Well, as it happens, Goldfish and Clowns and The Perception of Johnny Punter sound very much like oddly bent Porcupine Tree songs…specifically, the sort of Porcupine Tree song they’d make from Stupid Dream onward. It’s not that Fish now sounds like Porcupine Tree, it’s that Porcupine Tree decided to sound like Fish. The corollary to this is it’s pretty easy to imagine Wilson singing some of these songs, or even rearrange and cover them at his shows…even the ones he didn’t write. (Similarly, it’s pretty easy to imagine a No-Man cover of Say It With Flowers.) Essentially, in recording this album, Derek William Dick birthed the Alternative Era.

So we have a path forward. Now what do we do with the detritus of the old, because not only do we have to fully burn off the Space Era, we have to deal with the wreckage that is Signify. The latter, fortunately, has only managed a brief, comparatively stillborn existence compared to the Space Era’s eight-year-deep musical density and heft, and so is pretty easy to dispatch. And that is what Fish does here with What Colour is God?, a song that puts religion on blast in a very Signify-esque manner, right down to the psychotic preacher samples that could have been ripped directly from Sever itself. He even managed to inhale, Kirby-like, Porcupine Tree’s primary lyrical mode up to this point in that spoken-word bit in Jungle Ride up there, an easy feat since “bad LSD trip” is already not far from his own lyrical style to begin with. The rest of the Space Era, though, is still a bear to get rid of, a big enough monster that not even a giant, burly Scot can expect to take it on single-handedly. There is still more work to be done.

No-Man – Lost Songs, Vol. 1

Recorded 1991-1997
Released July 2001

Hello, my name is Ted (hiiii Teeeed) and after three albums and God only knows how many EPs, singles, and compilations I still have no idea what it is I want out of No-Man.

It’s pretty well established at this point that thus far there’s been a particular tension between No-Man’s natural, ambient side and their synthetic, electronic side. Up to and through Loveblows and Lovecries, I had a clear preference for the electronic elements of their music, on the grounds that the ambient stuff was easier to screw up. Then, following a marathon listen of all their studio albums, I decided I actually preferred the ambient stuff, because they actually did knock it out of the park in Flowermouth and Together We’re Stranger. This would persist through the Wild Opera era, even to the point that I would declare that what I want out of No-Man is Together We’re Stranger rereleased ad infinitum. This would continue right up until last week, where I said the electronic bits of Dry Cleaning Ray worked because they tried to do something different with them. This when I had completely missed a more fundamental realization: the electronic bits were actually working again at all.

And…oh yes. The one song I couldn’t find off of Heaven Taste, the 1995 update of Bleed. During the course of writing this review, I found it, and holy crap, they made it work. It’s dark and ominous and unsettling in all the best ways, all taut and tense for the first five minutes before exploding into this furious, absolutely brutal wall of sound that’s the closest these guys will probably ever come to straight-up harsh noise. This new version of Bleed is one of the best songs No-Man have ever written, and it’s composed entirely of stuff I thought I hated about their sound.

And then I come to this compilation of castoffs and demos, and my understanding of what No-Man is and should be is thrown into the air again.

As befits a collection of castoffs and demos, this album is an eclectic survey of every conceivable side of No-Man’s musical personality, and if any of my assumptions about what they were good at held water, I’d be able to tell pretty easily which songs would be good and which wouldn’t. But instead it turns out pretty much everything here is consistently excellent.

Some highlights. Samaritan Snare, which basically does the Dry Cleaning Ray bluesy noir schtick but with added Theo Travis. The version of Soft Shoulder dusted off here, yet another reason I’m just straight-up confused about what I want out of No-Man because here they took the weakest point of that song and not only placed it front and center but actually made it work. Amateurwahwah, with its simple yet powerful keyboards and booming drums that could almost have been recorded by John Bonham himself. The closing track, Coming Through Slaughter, which sounds like No-Man coming into contact with a chunk of Hand. Cannot. Erase. that broke off and drifted about twenty years into the past.

Now for the highlights featuring Wilson in more than the usual capacity: All The Reasons is generic No-Man, yes, but it’s especially well-done generic No-Man, and it’s got Wilson on backing vocals. Never mind that he’s just going “maybe in time~” or something like that and it’s buried relatively far back in the mix, it’s still amazing. Likewise, Love Among the White Trash, which is probably the closest thing these two irreligious men will ever get to writing a gospel song. Paradub is a little something Wilson seems to have banged out during an improvisational session and it sounds great.

I could go on. But ultimately, there is not a dud amongst these songs. Not one. This was kind of surprising to me considering it’s (a) No-Man, a chunk of Wilson’s musical history that only becomes more opaque the deeper I dive into it, and (b) it’s a castoff album. These are not songs that are supposed to be good. Wilson’s own reflection on recording these songs sound like he was trying to turn a turd into a hamburger but was only partially successful. And yet, here we are.

But there is some solace to be found here. Throughout much of the 90s No-Man was pinging between trip hop and synthpop and art rock and dream pop, caught between the zeitgeist, a residual concern of the One Little Indian days bubbling up even now, and their own understanding of what would be meaningful music. A truly definite No-Man “sound” would not fully coalesce until Returning Jesus, four years later. So while I may not know what I want out of No-Man anymore, it’s somewhat heartening to know that No-Man really didn’t, either.

No-Man – Dry Cleaning Ray

May 1997

Seeing as how they’re made up of, well, what they’re made of, B-side/remix EPs are generally a bit more eclectic and experimental than the albums they follow up. Sometimes this means the songs are inconsistent and the record scattershot, but not here. The inherent experimental nature of Dry Cleaning Ray works in its favor because the Wild Opera era is already supposed to be No-Man at their most experimental. As it happens, a lot of the experiments here are pretty dark and noir-influenced…which means that Dry Cleaning Ray consistently hits the atmospheric notes that Wild Opera, which was ultimately afraid of the darkness it was hesitantly probing, reached only on occasion. Put another way: I said in the Wild Opera post that that album was afraid to make the plunge into the abyss. Dry Cleaning Ray understands there’s no point in half-measures and dives in headfirst.

Incidentally, Dry Cleaning Ray is another data point in favor of No-Man’s ultimate abandonment of trip-hop. Consider a song like Jack the Sax, which takes the guitar from Wake As Gun, back in Insignificance, and wraps a song around it that sounds like something Beth Gibbons should really cover someday. Despite the early-Portishead comparison in that last sentence, there is no trip-hop on this song whatsoever, instead sounding like something the femme fatale in a noir movie would sing in a smoky club lounge in the middle of the night…and because of that it works much better than many of the songs in Wild Opera, which now feel as though the trip-hop elements were actively holding them back.

(This doesn’t mean all the trip-hop songs on this album are terrible—Diet Mothers and Urban Disco are great counterexamples—but like I’ve said before it’s pretty easy to tell with No-Man when the trip-hop is perfunctory and when it’s the genre the song demands to be in.)

(There’s no good place anywhere to weave this in, but I was also really impressed with Punished for Being Born, in which Bryn “Muslimgauze” Jones, who we’ll get to in considerably more detail once we hit his collaboration with Bass Communion, takes Housewives Hooked on Heroin, pulls it apart, and reconstructs it into something unrecognizably abrasive and nightmarish.)

But of course the highlight of the album is Sicknote. This song is not overtly menacing, necessarily. There’s some nice guitar work in the front, accentuated with a tinkly, slightly off-key music box. However. About three minutes in an extremely distorted, fuzzed-out guitar bursts in the left channel and goes berserk in the background for about two minutes. After that, the song brings in some creepy reversed tape loops. Throughout, Bowness sings in his usual manner, but the fragility and vulnerability in his voice here turns him into someone experiencing sheer existential terror and is trying valiantly to hold it together for appearances. I’m writing this on Thursday evening, June 14, 2018. Saturday marks three years since a certain stupefyingly racist New York landlord with a spray tan, a bad toupee, and delusions of grandeur descended the escalator of his Manhattan fortress and announced his candidacy for President of the United States. I’m editing this on Sunday evening, October 7, 2018. Yesterday, the Senate narrowly confirmed for the Supreme Court a volatile, nakedly authoritarian justice nominated specifically to further entrench fascism in the US and endanger the rights of anyone not of the herrenvolk. We know what existential terror feels like.

Speaking of which, the rumble. Throughout the entirety of Sicknote there is a very low, ominous rumble churning away, very far back in the mix. You might forget it’s there in the middle of the song, when more interesting things are happening up front, but it’s there. Never getting closer or louder, just…biding its time. It provides some clarification of what precisely Bowness is so scared of, while leaving just enough unanswered that we fill in the blanks ourselves, where it’s sure to be even more terrifying.

In some ways, Sicknote feels like an embryonic incarnation of Rabbits, David Lynch’s surreal “sitcom” that takes the superficial tropes and conventions of the genre and plunges them straight into the uncanny valley. The rumble in the song serves a similar purpose to the rain and low cello drones in the background of the miniseries. The squealing guitar halfway through calls forward to the burning cigarette hole that appears in a few episodes. And both have that very particular unsettling, vaguely menacing air about them that instinctively causes the viewer or listener to back away slightly. And in that respect, Sicknote really is a sick song, subtly visceral in tone, and the one song that most completely captures the atmosphere the Wild Opera era was shooting for. Dry Cleaning Ray is what Wild Opera should have been, and Sicknote is how Wild Opera should have ended.

GUEST: Indigo Falls – Indigo Falls

1997

Two of the many diverse things that have happened over the past 6 months or so: I got a couple of hefty PPI payouts and got husband into Die Antwoord. He’s since been known to stand outside the bathroom door when I’m inside, singing ‘You’re a reech beetch’ to me.

I am currently a reech beetch. So champagne for my real friends; real pain for my sham friends.” —Suzanne Barbieri

Last time I held forth about the failure mode of the typical ex-Japan project and why it’s relatively easy to stumble into, and I feel like it needs a little expanding before we dive into the collaboration between Suzanne Barbieri and her husband Richard.

The issue with what I’d call Generic ex-Japan is ultimately that it feels unfinished, either like we’re listening to a skeleton of a song instead of an actual song, or the instrumental improvisations from which a song will eventually form. I should again stress that Generic ex-Japan is not the majority of what Jansen, Barbieri, and Karn have released at least since Rain Tree Crow (Barbieri in particular is adept at avoiding falling into this particular self-indulgence), and indeed Indigo Falls does sidestep many of the issues that a typical ex-Japan record risks having.

I’ll freely admit that I’m part of the problem here, in that I spend way too much time obsessing over when ex-Japan sucks versus when ex-Japan is good. I’m starting to think that’s because I’m putting forth unrealistic expectations for these albums, and should probably approach them a bit differently from how I have been lately. These are explorations, not statements, and treating them as the latter is going to inevitably lead to disappointment. A recalibration is in order.

But anyway, this album is great and a lot of the credit for this goes to Suzanne.

This is largely because her vocals, in addition to being characteristically excellent, give the songs a framework for Richard to wrap his soundscapes around. Quite a few times throughout the album I got the sense that the instrumental versions of these songs actually would be Generic ex-Japan, so I was often grateful that she was there. I get the sense that what she and her husband were attempting to do here is take the atmosphere of The Wilderness and give it the breadth and variety necessary to sustain an entire album, and by and large they were successful. Most of the time this means the music has a distinctly new-age twinge to it, thanks to Suzanne singing like a wood elf about the ambiguously-defined spirituality she was into at the time. But once in a while you get something like Feed the Fire or Towards the Light that gets a bit darker and more abrasive, as though to acknowledge that genuine spiritual enlightenment is not the empty-headed hippity-dippity brightness people think it is.

(Funny thing is Suzanne would eventually realize “hippity-dippity brightness” more or less was what she was being spoon-fed by the people she was paying attention to at the time and subsequently became more tempered and skeptical in her outlook. Prosperity gospel is a helluva persistent drug, even when it isn’t strictly packaged as “gospel.”)

Moving on to guest musicians. Wilson is basically a nonentity on this album. He shows up once again to strum his way through The Wilderness, and that’s about it. The much more considerable presence, and for our purposes much more important, is Theo Travis on soprano sax. Yes, that Theo Travis, the same one who delivered that blistering saxophone solo for Don’t Hate Me, and who would become integral to the Steven Wilson Band’s sound during the Jazz Era. Wilson himself would begin to directly collaborate with him when he appears on Bass Communion next year, but this is the first time he appears in this retrospective. And, well, he’s always welcome wherever he goes. He adds a lot to the atmosphere of both of the songs he’s on. (It’s cool to see Steve Jansen and Jakko Jakszyk here, too.)

This is the last we’ll see Suzanne until 2008’s Stranger Inside, and is the only time over the course of this blog that she takes center stage, so I figure we’ll talk a little about what she did after this. She continues to record and release music to this day, and a lot of it’s quite good. Her most notable work after this one is this interesting little concept album about the Betty and Barney Hill alien abduction called From Indian Head to Ashland, which listens in a lot of ways like if the Reich remix of Days in the Trees were stretched out to album length. A sampler’s available on her SoundCloud, along with a bunch of other songs. Do give them a listen.

Porcupine Tree – Live at Help

Editorial prologue: let’s peel back the curtain a bit. There’s generally a lag between when I write a post and when it actually goes up on the blog, so I have some time away from it and it’s fresh before I make any final edits. The meat of this post, for example, was pulled together back in May. However, between then and now the subject of this post was yanked from YouTube. I’ll provide a link if it’s ever reuploaded. In the meantime, blame Gavin.


 

28 March 1997

“I don’t remember Porcoopine Tree having the Your Movie Sucks guy as the lead singer, the Alien Ant Farm guy on bass, Robert Palmer of the Cure on the keys, and Some Jerk With A Camera on the drums. What a good band.” —Emily “Annotated Fall Out Boy” Nejako

Yes, we both know Mister The Cure is actually Robert Smith. It’s funnier this way. Please take your pedantry elsewhere.

During the Signify era, Porcupine Tree got big in Italy. There, they had a superfan in Nick Vannini, who just so happened to own a musical distribution company, and who thus had the necessary cachet to give the band serious radio play down there. And the gambit worked, to the point where playing in Italy meant experiencing uniquely large, rapturous, sold-out venues, and, most importantly, a glimpse of what it was like to be a rock star and not just a jobbing musician. Coma Divine was recorded there for a reason.

Of course, with the rock-star adulation they enjoyed in Italy comes rock-star drudgery. Photoshoots. Interviews. Talk show appearances. I’m not going to exhaustively cover bootlegs and TV appearances in this space…but I think we can make an exception here, because ye freaking gods. Their appearance on Help was a trainwreck visible from space.

It’s not the language barrier. Wilson and PT have had plenty of good interviews with people whose English wasn’t perfect. But this show and this band were nevertheless such a colossal mismatch I’m left wondering if either party had heard of the other before they came crashing together.

I’m working off of very incomplete information. I surmise that Help was a videomusic program, filmed in Bologna, whose format, if this episode is representative, involved live band performances separated by short interview segments. The show ran from 1996 to 2000 for the similarly relatively short-lived TMC 2. The host is Gabriele “Red Ronnie” Ansaloni, who’s been a professional music nerd in some capacity or other since the late 70s and by the time Wilson and company showed up had been presenting for radio and TV for fourteen years. That’s literally all I got.

I need (heh) help. So, I’ve tagged in my friend Emily Nejako of the Annotated Fall Out Boy blog, who kindly provided the epigraph for this post. What follows is a heavily abridged but otherwise lightly edited transcript of the Discord chat we had while we were attempting to make sense of what we were watching:

EN: “is it troo that you are more famous in italy than in your own count-rey”
TD: at that time, yes
EN: this is concurrent with oasis and the spice girls
TD: YEP

N.b. Although I want to stress once again that the language barrier wasn’t the issue, we nevertheless roundly mocked Red Ronnie’s fractured and heavily accented English throughout the show. Because I love you, I spared you most of the snark, but this one stayed because it’s an example of the sort of ridiculously softball questions he typically lobbed at Steven.

EN: [walking very slowly over to steven]
TD: guuHHHH
EN: he’s so scared
TD: i would be too
EN: “you seem to have roots in the 70s”
EN: what did the host just look at his hair
TD: I GUESS
EN: [steven stares into camera like he’s on the office]

EN: “why are the songs long” “because they’re long”
EN: good job

N.b. This was an exchange between Red Ronnie and Chris Maitland that’s another example of the sort of questions the band typically got on this show. One does wonder what sort of answer Ronnie was expecting out of Maitland here.

TD: oh god
TD: richard
TD: we’re already off on the wrong foot because he started with ex-japan
EN: i’m crying
EN: “is this the thing you played in japan”
EN: “pac-man?”
EN: PLEASE DON’T TOUCH HIS EQUIPMENT
TD: yep
TD: HE’S STILL TALKING ABOUT JAPAN
EN: WHY
EN: i feel his suffering

N.b. Ron thought it’d be a good idea to play with Richard’s old synthesizer for a bit. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to understand why this is Not Done. Ron would make Barbieri deeply uncomfortable throughout the show.

EN: i want to hear more porcupine tree so to simulate it i’m blowing into my beer bottle
EN: he’s like curling up into a ball
TD: yes!
EN: the next time he approaches him he’s gonna be rocking back and forth in a fetal position
TD: oh aye
EN: shut up about japan
EN: what about MY waifu, italy

N.b. Ronnie’s interrogating Barbieri about his relationships with Sylvian, Jansen, and Karn. It’s worth mentioning here that Ronnie uncritically repeated the [untrue] myth that Sylvian was voted Sexiest Man in the World and that it contributed to him, to put it politely, developing an ego later on.

EN: HELP
EN: call the help line
EN: do you need
EN: help
TD: i think they need help
EN: “why do you want to destroy?”
EN: i want to destroy his ass

N.b. Ronnie, on Wilson’s request, read from the lyrics to Radioactive Toy, and interpreted the line “give me the freedom to destroy” as “give me, Steven, who is on this show right now, the freedom to destroy.”

TD: ohgod
TD: he’s talking to barbieri again
TD: AND
TD: HE’S TALKING ABOUT JAPAN AGAIN
EN: SHUT UP ABOUT JAPAN

N.b. Barbieri finally lost patience with Ronnie’s constant badgering about his time with Japan and explained that he’s not there as an ex-Japan member and he would really like to be looking forward instead of backward, so could we please focus on what he’s doing now.

TD: wilson gets all the pedal geekery and richard gets an inquisition about his time with japan
EN: god
TD: all richard got about his equipment was a quick thing about how old his one synth was
EN: depressing

N.b. Ronnie and Wilson had a moment, stemming from another awkward question about how he always goes barefoot, where they mutually geeked out over Wilson’s pedals and how they altered his guitar sound. Notably, Ronnie keeps a respectful distance from Wilson and doesn’t try to play with his toys. This is, in essence, the one moment where we get a glimpse of how the show is supposed to work.

EN: WHOWOWOOO
TD: AWKWARRD
EN: WOOWOOWOOO HERE COMES THE CRINGY MUSIC SHOW POLICE
TD: DINGDINGDINGYEP

N.b. I have no words to describe precisely what Ronnie does here. You just gotta see it.

EN: why are they giving out candy
EN: is this payment for them suffering through this
EN: “You Don’t Know This Kind oF Food?”
TD: craig ferguson use to joke on the late late show “we give the audience free candy”
EN: omg
TD: this is an innovation
TD: we give the band free candy too
TD: AND THAT’S IT
EN: yay we lived
TD: yay
EN: I CAN’T BELIEVE I ATE THE WHOLE THING

I can’t believe we ate the whole thing, either.

This should not have gone as disastrously as it did. Ronnie’s been presenting for as long as Wilson’s been releasing music, and has been in the music business for about as long as Barbieri’s been releasing music. The man clearly knows his stuff. We should, by all rights, have had a show that was just as engrossing throughout as it was those precious few minutes when Wilson was showing off his pedals. And yet, somehow, the combination of Gabriele Ansaloni and Porcupine Tree produced nothing but industrial-strength awkward and some of the worst interview questions Emily or I have ever heard.

But at least it’s not the Jason interview.