Porcupine Tree – Metanoia

December 1998

First, some housekeeping notes. I’m travelling these next few weeks, so the next post on this blog, on IEM’s An Escalator to Christmas, will appear on 22 December. (Natch.)

Second, one of the stops on my little world tour will be the Steven Wilson show in Sayreville, New Jersey, because it would be out of character otherwise. I’ll also be at the signing for Home Invasion at Vintage Vinyl in Fords. If you, too, are there, you’ll know me when you see me. Trust me.

Third, that is a wonderfully bisexual album cover. Now, then. To the goods.

Metanoia is a bundle of transitions and contradictions, starting right there in the name. The title of the album is taken from a psychological term describing the breakdown and reconstruction of one’s psyche…the parallels to their change in sound during this time is irresistible. Wilson and the band are largely secular people and may not think of themselves as witches, but they had to have known what they were doing. One need not believe in witchcraft to be a witch.

Most of this album is improvisations recorded in Cambridge and Henley during 1995 and 1996, and thus serves as the primordial soup from which the songs on Signify emerged. The album itself, though, was the last thing Porcupine Tree would release during the Space Era, aside from a small Polish collection of B-sides prefiguring the Stars Die compilation. Which means its role in the ritual is twofold: it’s the Alternative Era in its most elementary, embryonic form; and it’s the last stand of the Space Era, what a genre-minded Porcupine Tree snob at the time would describe as a “return to form” if it didn’t stem from before they changed their sound.

This is an hour of pure, unfiltered psychedelia right here. A lot of it sounds like a further development of the sort of thing they got up to in Voyage 34 and the Moonloop improvisation, which I think highlights their development as a band: the Metanoia improvisations are more complex than the other two, with Metanoia II in particular standing out with the Patented Steven Wilson Guitar Freakout at the end. And of course, Maitland’s drumming. Maitland was naturally a quite manic drummer, something he’d often have to tone down for the studio recordings, but here and in Coma Divine he goes wild, and it is something to behold.

And yet, and yet, and yet. Despite everything Metanoia represents in terms of where the band is and where they’re going, the improvisations are, in a vacuum, not all that interesting.

Here’s where we take a sharp left turn and talk for a moment about what friend of the blog Emily calls “Fall Out Boy Rules.” Fall Out Boy Rules, which is essentially just one rule, boils down to the following: the goodness of any Fall Out Boy album is, in part, directly proportional to how different it is to the album that came before it. This was, in part, crafted to counter the incessant whining from a certain phalanx of the FOB Faithful that they’re not just remaking Take This To Your Grave over and over again, but it also hits at an essential truth of what makes musician good: they grow and evolve over time. The only band that can get away with churning out the same album ad infinitum is AC/DC, everyone else has to change things up.

This despite the fact that Fall Out Boy Rules are very much not applicable to Porcupine Tree. Lightbulb Sun sounds a lot like Stupid Dream and is great. Deadwing sounds a lot like In Absentia and is also great. Meanwhile, Signify sounds radically different from The Sky Moves Sideways and is PT’s worst album. Ultimately the issue with Porcupine Tree is with them, there’s more weight placed on how the sound changes over how much the sound changes. Lightbulb Sun distills the positive aspects of Stupid Dream. Likewise Deadwing with In Absentia. Both albums are the band growing comfortable with how they changed their sound on the album that came before. So with that in mind, let’s take Metanoia’s direct antecedent as the Moonloop improvisations. What are the differences?

Well, we’ve already established that Metanoia’s more complex, jazzy, and improvised than Moonloop was. This is the band growing more comfortable with each other, knowing what everyone responds to and how they think, musically, so they’re able to take more risks. This should be an improvement. And yet, what made the Moonloop improvisations so compelling was the simplicity, how they managed to move rhythmically along and only change just enough to retain our attention. In contrast, the Metanoia improvisations seem freighted with unnecessary baggage. I stand by my previous statement that this album is an orgasmic psychedelic explosion, but all the same there’s the definite feeling that this is almost a remix of the Moonloop improvisations, and what changes were made overcomplicate things, providing the clearest evidence yet that they’ve essentially hit a dead end with what they could do with the Space Era sound. This ritual is really necessary.

This is a long way of saying that the best thing on the album is a weird almost-hidden-track at the very end, when the guitar freakout closing out Metanoia II deflates and cedes the floor to Milan.

Milan is absolutely bizarre. It was recorded (“recorded”) during the Coma Divine tour, in the eponymous city. It is two and a half minutes of a conversation between Glenn Povey and the band about what to get for dinner. Except Porcupine Tree and Milan are just two great tastes that do not taste great together, as Wilson and Maitland both separately make a mockery of the things Italy’s most important city is famous for. Milan’s known for its food; meanwhile, Steven Wilson is a vegetarian and this particular venue is not, er, friendly to someone with his dietary needs. Milan’s also known for its fashion; meanwhile, Chris Maitland turns out to be comically overdressed for the evening and wants so very desperately to sink into the floor, and Povey can barely keep a straight face at the sight of him.

This was recorded delightfully amateurishly, too. Everyone’s talking over each other. There’s a slight echo at certain places. The background noise is almost deafening, drowning out anyone unlucky enough to be too far away from the recording equipment. At one point you can hear muffled scraping noises as the microphone is moved around. If this were made today, it would be recorded on a digital camera, using its built-in mic, and indeed it feels like there’s video to this that we haven’t seen. I wish there was, so we could’ve had an eyeful of Maitland’s amazing dinner-theatre en-sem-bluh. Milan is not particularly daring, it was clearly thrown on for a laugh, but it is unique, and most importantly, it’s interestingly unique, a counterpoint to the structure and polish characterizing most of Porcupine Tree’s discography.

It also serves a purpose in the ritual. The Metanoia improvisations were belched out in ‘95 and ‘96 and were released in ‘98, threatening to escape the confines of the circle entirely. However, Milan again confines this unruly spore to a very specific place and time: the communal kitchen at the Leoncavallo, in that city, on 29 March 1997, conveniently, the same month and country as the shows recorded for Coma Divine. Meanwhile, construction of the Alternative Era continues apace.

It’s December 1998. Porcupine Tree have just signed with Snapper Records to release a new, more song-oriented album. The album itself has already been completed and, happily, just needed a sympathetic and amply-resourced distributor. Everything’s in place; we just have to make our finishing move.

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No-Man – Carolina Skeletons

August 1998

We have by now spent considerable time and mental energy mapping out the magical ritual meant to bring the Alternative Era into being. We still have three more releases to go. But in the meantime something else has been slowly churning away in the background: No-Man finally, finally figuring out what sort of band they want to be. They are, of course, still somewhat inconsistent, and there’s still conflicts between the light and dark elements of their sound even as they form a unified whole, but this time there’s a renewed sense of artistic direction, that No-Man is finally definitely pointing toward something.

We won’t see the fruits of this labor for another three years, with the release of Returning Jesus. But we do get a taste here, and it is gorgeous. Slow, sparse, and beautiful, like a patchily-reconstructed memory from a simpler time. So let’s reconstruct a memory.

All of us, I suspect, have a moment in our childhoods where there is some sort of rupture. It isn’t necessarily the hyperboloidal moment that the past converges to and the future springs from, but, and I use this word neutrally, it should be traumatic. It may be a birth, a death, a marriage or divorce. It may also be a relocation or a revelation. The corny line to bust out here would be to tie it to puberty and spin a ton of metaphors about coming of age, but that doesn’t conform to my lived experience and is otherwise beside the point. Ultimately, this rupture represents the point at which the world became wrong.

You’ll notice the solipsism inherent in this analysis. The Good Old Days were never good, and they were never real, they were just your memories from when you believed everything was in its right place, and everything was only in its right place because back then you were young and your world was small and fuzzy and you didn’t have the insight to be aware that this wasn’t actually true. To long for the good old days is, ultimately, to long for ignorance. I grew up in the 90s, and the only reason I have fond memories of the 90s was that I was too stupid and sheltered to know any better.

So let’s filter this down to August 1998, before my own rupture moment. I have just recently turned seven. My mom was pregnant with my brother. I’d wanted a sibling for some time, and I understood that this was a part of the Normal Childhood that I felt entitled to. To prepare for the arrival of my brother, we would at the time have been finishing up renovating the attic of our house so it’d become my room. I would frequently go up there with a pencil and draw pictures on the drywall as it was being installed. We didn’t have a video game system in our house, so I mostly played at friends’ houses or on our computer, when it was unoccupied. We didn’t have cable, so TV was typically whatever was on PBS (Bill Nye and Arthur stick out, because of course they do.), plus Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune in the evening. On Saturdays I’d go fifteen minutes up the road and spend the afternoon at my grandmother’s, time I mostly spent, regrettably, vegging out on cartoons I couldn’t watch at home, whilst elbow-deep in a big can of cheese balls. Either that or make ample use of the sidewalk chalk, because we didn’t have a sidewalk at home, either, and grandma had more sidewalk than I knew what to do with. This was the routine. This was how the world worked. This was how the world ought to have worked.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Clinton was about to get impeached and Kosovo was tearing itself apart.

We have similar ruptures in adulthood, as well. I’ve followed a few expatriates on various social media platforms, and whenever they talk about a memory from when they still lived in their country of birth it feels like prehistory. And those are the sorts of memories that Carolina Skeletons captures so well. Not when life was necessarily better or uncomplicated, but when it was different, and the strange, complex sense of nostalgia that comes from reminiscing about times that were different.

I should probably talk about the EP a bit more, then. Carolina Skeletons has four tracks, each of which communicates that feeling spectacularly, but the highlight here comes at the very end. This is, of course, Carolina Reprise, which strips back the title track into something almost as minimal as what we covered last week. This is a lonely echoing piano piece of the sort that intimately conveys the inherent tragedy (despite everything) of not being able to return to the Before Times, and indeed the knowledge that this memory, like all memories, will fade and distort as the years wear on and we’re cruelly plunged deeper into the future. It’s the best thing on the EP, and probably, based on my half-informed guesswork as I write this, the best thing No-Man would release during the Returning Jesus era.

I don’t remember caring much for Returning Jesus itself when I listened to it all the way through the last time. I probably won’t give it another listen until I actually get to it for this blog. But hopefully this little preview will have helped alleviate whatever misgivings I had about it. Only one way to find out.

Bass Communion – Bass Communion I

April 1998

Oh ho ho, Hoity Toity Retrospective Person, you say, you confidently and triumphantly declared the Space Era dead last week, so why haven’t you posted an intro to the Alternative Era yet?

Because dead things leave corpses that need to be disposed of…and this particular corpse is still twitching. (We’ll get to that in a few weeks.) We’re in a transitional period, at the moment. The Alternative Era is still under construction, and won’t be completed and ready for showtime until the release of Stupid Dream next year.

That bit of housekeeping done, Bass Communion. The old line is “one can measure a circle starting anywhere,” and when it came time to kill the Space Era, Wilson’s circle started at Nine Cats. First released in 1983 as a gleefully monstrous sixties-psychedelia-by-way-of-Marillion behemoth on the good half of Karma’s The Joke’s On You. Shrunken and stripped down for 1991’s The Nostalgia Factory and shuffled into 1992’s On the Sunday of Life. Reached its final form in a fully acoustic rendition for 1997’s Insignificance. A perfect synecdoche for both the Space Era in all its glory and also, in the end, a harbinger of what would supplant it.

So what’s missing? What did the circle skip over that allows a project like this to slink into existence?

Back again we go to Steven Wilson’s Home Movies. The narrative is that Bass Communion sprung, indirectly, from Altamont, and anyone who’s actually listened to Prayer for the Soul would be justified in doing a double take here. Altamont was experimental in the two-kids-screwing-around-with-homemade-recording-equipment sense, not the tape-loops-of-field-recordings sense. It’s only upon reading an old interview of Wilson’s where he says that Bass Communion and Altamont share the same set of influences that things click into place. Altamont is Babby Steven and Babby Simon ripping off the Alte Deutsche Meister wholesale, whereas Bass Communion is Adult Steven abstractly picking at what made them worth ripping off wholesale fifteen years ago in the first place.

So here we are, Bass Communion’s been quietly rolling out new soundscapes for four years and we finally have a debut album. Five tracks, most of them long. We dive in with Shopping, the only short song, serving as a slightly snarky introduction to the project. (Toccata and Fugue kicks in about a second before the song ends.) And after this, the goods.

The other four songs are ambient droney numbers that generally start out with a sample or a field recording and let sounds naturally silt into something coherent. Orphan Coal is instructive. Starts with a JBK-esque drum loop, overlaid with, in order, short female vocal samples, reversed tape loops, quietly unsettling Jonny Greenwood-esque strings, dissonant choruses, some rumbly Mick Karn-esque bass work, and finally some additional eerie synth work spread on top. The song it’s most similar to is Boards of Canada’s Jacquard Causeway, in the way every new element is at first introduced prominently and then slowly integrated into the song as a whole to make room for the next new element, ultimately making the song conclude at a completely different place from where it started. In Orphan Coal’s case, it started grubby and earthy, but ended somewhere creepy but airy. The other songs on this album are like this, too, but here is where the structure—and thus Wilson’s objective of abstracting music as much as possible—is most apparent.

Pulling apart a song like this has its own advantages in the particular mental images they evoke in the listener. Here, we turn instead to Sleep, Etc, the dystopian, quietly surreal adventure immediately preceding Orphan Coal. My notes for this song, verbatim:

  • beginning at least: burbling, discordant
  • like someone trying to evade the secret police by tromping through a swamp in a thunderstorm
  • droning police airships with searchlights overhead
    • (they’re getting closer)
    • (and they’re armed)
    • (they move like giant mechanical jellyfish)

Pure paranoia fuel, right here. And that’s something slower, more ambient music has typically been good at. What’s scary isn’t the giant clown monster with fangs and cracked makeup, cackling madly in your face. What’s scary is what’s implied to lurk just out of frame, the things about which we cannot speak. The clown can be killed. The ghosts in your peripheral vision can’t. (cf. Sicknote)

But all of this is prelude to the album’s centerpiece, the first two-thirds of the Drugged suite, the centerpieces of which are some seriously airy keyboard work and Theo Travis’ incredible soprano sax. And, oh yes, here’s where Theo Travis is formally introduced to the blog and begins with Wilson what would become a very fruitful two-decade collaboration. He is characteristically excellent here, beginning with what feels like lonely whalesong. But then more sax samples are laid on top, along with some lovely synth organ in the background, and everything resolves into something more melodic, tranquil yet oddly tumultuous, and deeply, thickly nostalgic. It is, if we may be trite for a second, the music of nature. And then at about eleven minutes some distorted, fuzzed-out electric guitars fade in, and for a moment they sound like breaking waves, and everything clicked into place.

Once in a while my family will go to South Carolina for vacation. It’s rare that I tag along, because I usually have obligations. I don’t remember what they were for this particular trip, I suspect it had something to do with college, but either way I wasn’t there. But this one particular time they came back with a story: they were relaxing on the beach, and they hear this music. And some distance away there’s this guy standing on the beach with a trombone. He’s facing the water and playing something wistful and melancholy, similar, I imagine, to what Travis is doing here, and it sounded absolutely beautiful. But no one wanted to go up to him and tell him that, because it was also very clear that why he was there and why he was playing that music was something deeply and profoundly personal to him, and interrupting him would have ruined the moment.

It feels like something similar happened with the Drugged suite. On all three parts, but especially on the first, it feels like we have seen, in some oblique way, a chunk of Steven Wilson’s soul. We’ve borne witness to something uniquely special here, and all told, that’s not a bad way to kick a project off.

  1. Bass Communion I