GUEST: Marillion – marillion.com

18 October 1999

“He’s got such a nice arse.” —Steve Hogarth, on Wilson

SEASONS END: H sounds like D Gilmour with a mullet (or perhaps an 80s soft-rock crooner a la Bryan Adams or the guy from Foreigner). King of Sunset Town has shades of late Police. Transitional record – written before Fish left. Hooks in You sucks like Incommunicado. This Space is properly bombastic.

So. Marillion. Again. There are essentially two Marillions, but not in the same sense that there were, say, two Queensrÿches, existing simultaneously while both bands were suing each other. The first Marillion ran from 1979 to 1988 and was fronted by everyone’s favorite giant Scotsman, Derek Dick. They had a nice run of four albums as pretty much one of the few good prog bands in the 80s before dissolving acrimoniously in a haze of alcohol and swollen egos. The second Marillion was formed in 1989 and remains active today. This band retained the instrumentalists from the first go-round, but their new frontman is Steve Hogarth, who spent much of the 80s playing in smaller pop and new wave bands. (Which is a long way of saying, hope you don’t think Fish’s delivery and lyricism was essential going forward.)

In the ten years since, they released seven albums, including the one which this post is ostensibly about, and saw a steady decline in their fortunes. Each record was less popular than the last. They were dropped from their label. They had to rely on crowdfunding to support a US tour (more on that later, as well). To be fair, they were (and are) doing okay enough that they won’t have to flip burgers to make ends meet, but they won’t be sharing stadium stages with Phil Collins anytime soon, either. Either way, though, Marillion clearly ended the decade at a considerably more modest place than where they started.

HOLIDAYS IN EDEN: Nice wall of sound in Cover My Eyes. Still cheesy, but cheesy in a way better suited to Hogarth’s singing style. (Usually. Still has places where it sounds like Fish.) Many of the songs fade out in a way evocative of a freeze-frame ending. When they try to do dad-tier hard rock it’s embarrassing. Ethereal ending of 100 Nights is amazing.

It’s 18 October 1999. Tom Ewing’s Popular tells me Christina Aguilera is at #1 with Genie in a Bottle. She’s mostly interesting at this point in terms of her rivalry with Britney, and that, in turn, is mostly interesting as an echo of the manufactured shenanigans that went down several years earlier, one of the central events in the history of the collapsed empire we will shortly be surveying.

When Andrew Hickey began his history of rock music in 500 songs, he explicitly defined a cutoff point of 1999. Which makes sense; by this time rock had well and truly ceded the superstardom floor to boy bands and, yes, pop singers like Britney and Christina. There were trends in rock that gained serious popularity after that—the mid-2000s pop punk/emo explosion spearheaded by Fall Out Boy and Panic at the Disco comes immediately to mind—but nothing on the same world-conquering tier as what came round the previous decade.

(I just eyeballed Billboard’s rock charts as I’m writing this, and the top rock song right now is Panic running on fumes, followed by Imagine Dragons running on fumes (which is saying something), and that excruciating lovelytheband song which would be running on fumes if it had fumes to run on. I think that speaks for itself.)

The point is this: despite the occasional bump later on, by the turn of the millennium rock music was in terminal decline. And, in many ways, that decline was echoed and prefigured by Marillion’s own decline in mainstream relevance a decade earlier.

BRAVE: What are the details of this narrative? Use of female perspective–contrast with HCE? Something about the Severn Bridge, and all bridges, as a space between worlds. Last track implies manic pixie dream girl.

Just like how there’s no one place where mainstream rock was well and truly born, there was no one place where mainstream rock well and truly died, either. My own pick for that date is 2013, the year we got the sickening one-two-three punch of George Ezra’s Budapest (laying waste to the stripped-back acoustic balladeers), American Authors’ Best Day of my Life (laying waste to the lo-fi punks and indie kids, think the Strokes or Franz Ferdinand in the previous decade, and the mountain of influential artists they sit on top of), and Bastille’s Pompeii (laying waste to the pretentious, bombastic, high-concept theatrical stuff). But I’m defining the date rock died as the date rock was finished off as a genre with mainstream relevance, and by that point it was on life support for a long time. We’ll have to go farther back.

It’s 1999. Right now the Billboard alternative charts are a post-grunge lovefest, a dalliance between Creed’s Higher (yuck) and Bush’s The Chemicals Between Us (slightly less yuck). Post-grunge itself was, as the name implies, the sanitized remnants of grunge, the long hangover following the death of its avatar in 1994, limping along well into the aughts. Though it’s extremely tempting to paint post-grunge as the death knell of rock (and oh Lord it is, this was the genre that gave us Nickelback), the reality is that 1999 was only the lull between the fall of dweeby alt-rock like Barenaked Ladies and Semisonic and the rise of sweaty, brotastic nu-metal like Limp Bizkit and Papa Roach. Post-grunge was just one in a long string of phases the genre went through as it was thrashing around in denial of its own imminent irrelevance. We’re not done yet.

Rock music has always had the seeds of its own demise baked into it. All genres do. There is a legitimate case to be made that rock music died the instant Elvis released Heartbreak Hotel or when the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. But we’re not looking for the moment when rock’s trajectory from birth to death became clear, we’re looking for the moment when the genre’s fate was sealed and it was only a matter of time. And happily, we only have to go back two more years before we stumble upon the corpse of a dead goddess.

AFRAID OF SUNLIGHT: Ironic that the album that’s about celebrity is the one that saw them dropped from EMI. H’s voice works best as a sort of gothic wailing in the background (e.g. Out of this World). More definitively H-ian lyrics at this point; no longer imitation Fish. Back half has best stuff they made to that point.

We’ve spent entirely too much time focusing on the destructive effects of magic as opposed to the creative effects, but that’s just the way our tale has gone thus far. Stupid Dream, for instance, was that particular variant of magical ritual where all the pieces are patiently and meticulously assembled in the background, and the act of magic itself that brings everything together occurs in an instant. Meanwhile, the Space Era was self-destructing over the course of several albums, so guess which act got more airtime on this old blog. This trend, unfortunately, will continue with this post.

Unrelatedly, if we take seriously the idea that music is magic, then we must also take seriously the idea that magic can occasionally happen accidentally, or can quickly and easily spiral out of the control of its practitioners. Which brings us to Britpop.

Britpop was, in retrospect, a short-lived burst of manufactured music-magazine hype that catapulted a couple of bands to stratospheric levels of fame and, in the process, revealed its own hollowness as a label. The music itself was a goulash of previous trends—psychedelia, shoegaze, and Madchester, most prominently—but which sensibilities predominated and by how much fluctuated so wildly from band to band that the term “Britpop” could reasonably describe any relatively accessible rock group active in the UK in the mid-90s. If Porcupine Tree’s Alternative Era began just a few years earlier, I have no doubt that they, too, could have been Britpop.

This was meant to be a celebration of proper British rock-and-roll, an effort to return fair Albion’s guitar-wielding king to his rightful throne atop the charts once more, an exercise, ultimately, in superficial image. But in the process, though, it elevated a bunch of genuinely interesting bands to the national spotlight. Blur and Suede, for instance, the latter of which the hype machine famously plastered on the cover of Melody Maker before they’d even released an album, functioned as the scene’s twin creator gods with Popscene and The Drowners, and thus created a toehold for other interesting bands and hangers-on to gain a following. And it was good for a while. Despite Britpop’s origins as cynical nationalist marketing, the culture is genuinely richer for having stuff like Dog Man Star and His ‘n’ Hers and Modern Life is Rubbish in it.

And then Oasis came along and ruined everything.

That is an oversimplification. Movements and scenes come and go. Bands evolve. Aesthetics evolve. Britpop is not unique in this. Cobbled together as it was from the detritus of earlier eras, this was always going to be mainstream rock’s last hurrah before fading into irrelevance, like a blowout farewell tour featuring all the hits. Britpop would have died anyway without the aid of the squabbling Gallagher brothers, and that death would have been just as psychically catastrophic. But they’re still here, and replaceable or no, they’re still the two-headed Antichrist for the movement as it exists.

Oasis were a vessel of completely unironic testosterone-soaked monosyllabic nostalgia. They possessed none of the Stepford saccharine melancholy of Blur, the sarcasm and sinister subtext of Pulp, or the camp theatricality of Suede. Their music was simple, direct, catchy, and very loud; the Gallaghers sheer forces of irreverent working-class Mancunian volatility; sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll personified. They were a straightforward, uncomplicated rock band, playing the songs that a straightforward, uncomplicated rock band should play. This doesn’t mean the Gallaghers and the people they surrounded themselves with were terrible musicians, but it does mean they knew how to play one thing, and they played that one thing extremely well. The problem is playing one thing extremely well can only get you so far, and while the first two Oasis albums loom large in the consciousness for good reason (mostly)…the third, not so much.

There were, of course, signs of rock music’s looming destruction before Be Here Now. The previous album was a major salvo in the loudness war, and was thus directly responsible for the universally terrible state of music mastering in the years to come, and ultimately, Steven Wilson’s “use your volume knob” rant. That the biggest band in the world, a band that deliberately modeled themselves on the Beatles, had no interest whatsoever in the musical experiments that marked their idols’ later career, while their rivals were getting tired of Britpop and used their new album to go in a different direction. That the biggest band in the world managed to so completely swallow the scene they grew out of that those out of the loop (like, say, Americans) saw Britpop as Oasis and maybe possibly those posh London boys they were always smacktalking. That the biggest band in the world was, perhaps, so big that if they failed they might take their whole scene down with them. But when you’re riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave, you tend to not notice when it starts to break.

And oh, if there ever was an example of magic getting away from the magician, it’s Be Here Now. This was supposed to be a bombastic, celebratory victory lap for the biggest band in the world. If it came from anyone else, we’d have just had a subpar, unremarkable record cockily coasting on its artists’ legacy, but since it’s ~Oasis,~ its release caused Britpop to implode (though it wasn’t clear at the time) and rock music to slowly deflate into irrelevance. This was a bloated, sagging, cocaine-drenched ode to everything wrong with the genre. If Be Here Now was a ritual deliberately crafted to destroy rock music, it would have been perfect.

And the carnage was total: in addition to being the album that beheaded mainstream rock music, this album was also one of the greatest critical misfires in music journalism history: the press fell over themselves showering Be Here Now with rapturous praise. Jeremy Deller was just about spot-on when he described Oasis as ruining British music journalism: thanks to a combination of Britpop’s and Oasis’ sheer momentum, fractured egos after missing (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, and some strong-arming from the band and their management, the hyperbolic, adulatory reviews of Be Here Now were written long before anyone in the press heard a single note of the actual music. “All of rock history has been leading up to this point,” they said, and therein lies the problem. NME and Select and Q and all the rest had built themselves a narrative. And narratives, in this business, are an extremely dangerous thing to construct in the moment, because there’s always a chance you might whiff, and whiff big.

THIS STRANGE ENGINE: Opener is great. H’s voice: if Tim Bowness (or Ben Gibbard) was power metal. The trouble with quick pilgrimages like this: quick glance at album = tough to unearth what might be gained through repeat listens. Old-school blast at the end, there.

As this blog is one long exercise in constructing narratives, I have quite a few whiffs of my own to pull from, but let’s pick one that’s particularly relevant. In October of last year, after three months of gestation, I published a post on Fish’s Sunset on Empire, released the year Oasis killed rock music. That was the first non-ex-Japan Steven Wilson guest contribution album to get its own post, and my policy when encountering one of those is to survey the entire careers of the host artist so I know what they’re about and can be at least somewhat informed when I write about them. The problem was, up until I hit Sunsets on Empire I was writing the post in real time, pretty much as I was listening to the records, and so what went in the post for that album were mostly initial thoughts, which may or may not have held up across multiple listens. And when they didn’t, you can see the graft tissue where the rewrites happened. (In earlier drafts, I didn’t say Script for a Jester’s Tear sucked until I started talking about Fugazi.)

Nowhere is that more clear than the point to where I got to the album, where I spend a not inconsiderable amount of time building up to Sunsets on Empire as a landmark record in Fish’s career, as befitting The One Wot Steve Worked On…and it turns out I was one album off and instead got the one with the racial slur three words in. You can hear the record needle scratch and the furious on-the-fly attempt to course-correct and salvage what was already written. Part of the narrative of this blog has become learning how to write the blog, and while the mistakes are embarrassing they’re still an intermediate step towards something better.

The point is the nature of how I do the blog has been, and to an extent still is, fundamentally antagonistic to what needs to be done to write about an unfamiliar act like Marillion informatively. And Marillion is especially challenging because their discography is so extensive and their post-Fish evolution (up to this point) so rocky. The subheadings before each section of this post are my initial notes as I tried to find a signal in the noise and don’t necessarily reflect my current thoughts as I sit here writing the rest of it.

So we’re back to where we started. What have Marillion been up to in the ten years since acquiring their new vocalist?

RADIATION: More experimental. What is with the mixing (esp. Under the Sun)? What’s the DR? Rights itself somewhat at the end (A Few Words for the Dead). There’s a good album here struggling to get out.

About what you’d expect, all told. Their musical trajectory in the 90s was in broad strokes similar to Fish’s, with dissolution and reconstitution phases as they figure out where to go from here. The first two Hogarth albums, Seasons End and Holidays in Eden, feature quite a few traces of their earlier sound…on the positive side, we have Hogarth negotiating some rather Fish-esque lyrics, and on the negative side, we have quite a few songs right up there with Incommunicado in terms of how they’re held together with spit and twine and sheer force of will.

Later on there’s Afraid of Sunlight and This Strange Engine, firmly post-Fish and thus within Marillion’s reconstitution phase. Would that they didn’t also precipitate the band’s fallow period. Afraid of Sunlight has a very good second half, but the album’s theme of how awful it is to be rich and famous rock stars is rather embarrassing coming from a band who was long past its peak in popularity and was about to be dropped from their label. That goes double when in the last track Hogarth, who wasn’t there when Marillion was at its zenith, earnestly pleads that we unknown people who long for fame can handle its associated pressures and anxieties, as though he and his band are still on top of the world. This Strange Engine, meanwhile, has an excellent, ambitious first track, but after that spends the rest of its runtime attempting to recapture the magic of Man of a Thousand Faces with mixed results. This album hits rock bottom with An Accidental Man and Hope for the Future. The former is Hogarth whining that because he’s male he can’t be in touch with his emotions, which could have been reworked into an interesting take on masculinity if we trusted him to know anything about feminism in 1997; while the latter is the distaff counterpart to Fish’s Emperor’s Song, an exercise in children’s-show bounciness treading perilously close to saccharine We-Are-the-World charity single territory. It’s really a shame the album ends like this, because everything up till then is at least decent (and Estonia is genuinely moving). Also, the less said about Radiation the better.

In the middle of all this, though, is 1994’s Brave, which was the first true post-Fish album and the moment at which it becomes abundantly clear why Marillion slowly declined in popularity through the decade. It’s nothing to do with the album itself, an almost Floydian epic about alienation, isolation, depression, and insanity that in a lot of ways prefigures Fear of a Blank Planet and is generally regarded as the band’s return to form after spending the previous two albums flailing. It’s actually quite good. But let’s be real here; while a lot of bands were writing stuff like that at the time (cough-Parklife-cough), they didn’t couch those themes in the tragic tale of a young amnesiac girl who was found wandering the bridge where Richey James Edwards would ascend to godhood exactly one year after their album’s release.

Contrast with Misplaced Childhood and Kayleigh. This was a very accessible prog album with a few theatrical stadium anthems, released in a year when vaguely prog-inflected stadium anthems were A Thing, especially when sung by people who sounded quite, er, Fishy. The year after Misplaced Childhood would see the release of both So and Invisible Touch, so if anything Marillion were the beneficiaries of a brief, happy moment where the music they made converged with the tastes of the record-buying public. Thus, Fish onstage with Phil Collins.

Problem is, when you get lucky in that particular way, that level of fame is unsustainable, because the music you make after that brief collision will slowly fall out of sync with what’s popular. So of course Afraid of Sunlight and This Strange Engine didn’t do as well; the former was released right before the Battle of Britpop and the latter was released after Oasis swallowed mainstream rock whole and remade it in their own image. (And Radiation, meanwhile, was unequivocally a stinker, although a lot of that could be chalked up to lousy mixing. That said, even the 2013 remaster struggles to distinguish itself from the albums on either side of it.) Even if those two albums were as good as Brave, it still wouldn’t have arrested their decline.

M A R I L L I O N . C O M

And now we arrive back at 18 October 1999. Tom Ewing’s Popular tells me Christina Aguilera is at #1 with Genie in a Bottle, duking it out with Britney in a distant ripple of the Oasis-Blur rivalry. Topping the Rock Singles chart is Def Leppard with Goodbye, a long holdover from the hair metal days. Marillion are four years gone from being dropped by EMI, are on their third self-released album via a distributor that by all accounts aren’t doing them right, and are stuck with a label that couldn’t cough up the money for a North America tour. They still manage to release an album, about half of which Steven Wilson co-produces. This record barely grazes the charts and doesn’t even come close to reaching the UK Top 40.

I don’t often comment on the stuff on the album that’s not the actual music, but…just look at that album art. A long-exposure photograph of a girl holding a computer in the middle of a busy city intersection at twilight. The exact adjective I used upon encountering the album art for the first time was “Oasis-ass.” And that title, too. From the perspective of twenty years later, having a title like that feels like the musical equivalent of stodgy old Peter Mannion protesting that he’s “modern.” So I’m already of a mind to think of this thing in terms of “is this Britpop?”

So, is it? Not really. The music in general owes more to Radiation and This Strange Engine and Marillion’s evolution as a band than any trends that were in the air at the time. That said, like Alternative-Era Porcupine Tree, if they wrote something like Rich or Built-in Bastard Radar or Tumble Down the Years five years earlier, and released it as a single, there’s a nonzero chance that lightning would have struck twice and the press would have had a few words to spare for the band’s “reinvention” and sudden swing back to hipness.

Instead, we get an album generally regarded as one of Marillion’s weaker efforts. I question this stance somewhat. marillion.com doesn’t have the conceptual sweep of Brave, or even the more modest thematic ambitions of Afraid of Sunlight, but neither does it have the stumbling of their first two Hogarth albums or the truly atrocious production of Radiation. From the perspective of 1999, this is mid-tier Marillion more than anything else, about what you’d expect when a progressive rock band makes an album full of songs with more of a modern pop sensibility. These are, at root, good pop songs with a slight progressive sheen on them, and from that perspective it makes sense why this album would have a cool reception amongst the more prog-oriented faithful.

But then we get to the final two tracks. The last song on the album, House, is a stab at trip hop that sounds less like straight trip hop and more like very minimalist trip hop-inflected jazz, and the only song on marillion.com that explicitly nods to any current trends (the previous year saw the release of Massive Attack’s Mezzanine and Portishead’s Roseland NYC Live). The trumpet and the echoing pianos in particular are quite chill and lovely, the whole song a rather unprecedented stab at pure atmosphere. It’s probably my favorite on the album.

The other song is Interior Lulu, which is your typical Long Marillion Song/Suite, and would be otherwise uninteresting for our purposes but for one line. Toward the end there’s a line that goes “thank God for the internet,” with a particular ironic/skeptical inflection. But those five words were an incantation if there ever was one.

Back again we go to 1997 and the North America tour that might not happen. Enter Jeff Pelletier, a Massachusetts optical engineer, who organized a fundraising drive on Marillion’s message boards (on which keyboardist Mark Kelly was a regular) to bring the band across the pond when their US label couldn’t. The goal was $30,000. They made almost twice that.

Clearly, then, despite Interior Lulu’s blather about how technology turns people into alienated zombies, this was a band that was very well aware of the positive potential of the internet (exhibit B: that they even had message boards in 1997). This successful experiment in crowdfunding before it was crowdfunding must have been rolling around in their heads after they fulfilled their contract with their distributor and once again found themselves adrift.

So when the time came to make a new record, the band went to their fans once again and asked who’d preorder an unrecorded album, and fortunately, quite a lot of them did. Another crowdfunding campaign started, and the money it raised got the album recorded, and brought them back into EMI’s good books. Although the result, Anoraknophobia, is clearly inferior to its predecessor and shows the limits of their sound more than it moves anything forward, it still was a landmark in its own way, in that it gave the heretofore financially floundering band a way to exist in the new century. Marillion would go on to crowdfund the majority of their albums in the following years. Thank God for the internet, indeed.

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Bass Communion – Bass Communion V Muslimgauze

September 1999
Bass Communion V Muslimgauze EP, July 2000

Hooboy.

Bryn “Muslimgauze” Jones is one of those guys who probably should have a song-by-song retrospective written about his work, ideally by some underground music nerd who’s written a dissertation on recent Middle Eastern history. Over the course of his twenty-year career he’d release well over a hundred studio albums, mostly atmospheric loop-based electronic pieces (swinging between ambient and dub and noise and everywhere in between) with vocal samples and traditional Middle Eastern instruments thrown in, all laser-focused on conflict in the Muslim world. The music of Muslimgauze, and the way it interacts with the person who created it, is full of apparent contradictions, and is worth engaging with because of them.

Let us, then, engage. Famously, Jones himself was a nonreligious white guy from Manchester who never visited the Mideast on the grounds that it was (and is) occupied territory. His impetus for starting the project was the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and over the next seventeen years he’d develop an encyclopedic knowledge of Middle Eastern politics and history, but his perspective on that history never progressed beyond “aggressively woke Tumblr teenager.” Even more bizarrely, outside of his strident opposition to Western imperialism and adventurism in the Mideast, his politics were apparently wildly incoherent, to the point where the creator of an album titled Fuck Israel happened to also be, of all things, a Thatcher supporter.

This is actually perfectly ideologically consistent. The mistake here is assuming that an anti-imperialist position is exclusively leftist when it’s not hard to come up with counterexamples. (To pick one immediately to hand, Khomeini. He may have called the US the Great Satan but that doesn’t mean his post-revolution goal was a secular, moneyless, propertyless utopia.) This myopia can be partially explained through Jones’ nationality: he lived in a country whose late empire remains lamented amongst its right wing. Meanwhile, in a country that was the victim of empire, it’s not hard for a conservative nationalist anti-imperialism to develop, perhaps centering around an idealized vision of how the land was before the Westerners started marching in with their tanks and their decadence and their arbitrarily drawn lines.

(Tangent 1: So it’s clear that leftist and rightist anti-imperialisms can bleed into each other pretty easily. Going back to Iran, for instance, both socialists and theocrats had a hand in toppling the Shah in 1979. That said, it’s probably best to leave the question of how to deal with the uncomfortable ways left and right intersect here to those actually on the ground.)

(Tangent 2: And that, by the way, is how Ostalgie-riddled ex-Communist East Germany fell hard for the AfD.)

(Tangent 3: That for all his militancy Jones was apparently very awkward and introverted in real life should also not be surprising, as anyone who actually knows militant Internet people can testify.)

It is this sort of conservative anti-imperialism that the music of Muslimgauze easily lends itself to. Many of the album and song titles—when they’re not referencing a specific person or event or blasting a nation complicit in the systematic oppression of Muslim people—reference a traditional aspect of Islamic society and culture. The field recordings and use of traditional instruments paint a picture of a traditional society that has had modernity—in the form of oil-thirsty empire—imposed on it from outside and which is suffering for it.

(Tangent 4: The most immediate critique—the West ≠ modernity—is obvious and essential. This conflation we can probably chalk up to the way Britain thought of its empire as a civilizing force instead of the destructive force it actually was.)

If we’re being unkind, we might even call this a fetishization of Middle Eastern culture, and speculate that Jones’ refusal to actually visit the Mideast might also have been subconsciously fueled by a desire to not have this very intricate idea of the Muslim world, silted into existence over years and years of research and music production, collapse in on itself after coming into contact with reality. That’s a fair critique. It certainly reads that way to someone like me whose mental image of the Mideast is less Hebron and more Dubai. Either way, though, there’s extremely little in the way of any broader anti-capitalist sentiment here.

Nevertheless, the field recordings are evocative, the dronework unsettling, the electronics abrasive and challenging. The questionable politics are there, yes, but they’re questionable in very specific and idiosyncratic ways that demand polysyllabic engagement. This remains, fundamentally, very well-made music.

(Tangent 5: Besides, if I only listened to music that aligned with my specific politics I’d only listen to anarchist crust punk recorded in squats, and that’s no way to go through life.)

(Tangent 6: And no, I have no idea how you’d make an explicitly leftist counterpoint to Muslimgauze. Perhaps ask someone who’s actually from the Mideast.)

Steven Wilson has a longstanding policy of not caring about an artist’s politics, so long as the music is good. (Not unrelatedly, Steven Wilson is a cisgender white man.) And this music is extremely good, and more importantly, extremely good in an off-kilter left-field way that’s right up his alley. So, when Wilson discovered Bryn Jones and his considerable discography, he wrote to him, they met, and he gave Jones some of his own music, which Jones then heavily edited to fit his own style and sent back.

The two of them would fling remixes and remixes of remixes back and forth until an album emerged. The result is something that would be a lighter Muslimgauze offering if it didn’t sound like Muslimgauze run [further] through the William S. Burroughs cut-up method. There’s not much in the way of Jones’ usual trademarks, like the vocal samples or the percussion, but there’s a lot of distortion and artistic brickwalling. It’s like if someone dunked the Muslimgauze machine in water and then let it rip. As for Bass Communion, their (“their”) more pronounced contributions generally show up toward the back, with Moonloop leftovers showing up in Four and Six, and their penchant for slow, incremental change (not, critically, a Muslimgauze staple) appearing in Five.

In general, though, this collaboration still feels like a watering down of each artists’ respective strengths. As I write this I still find myself drawn to the punchier stuff Jones released solo instead of what this collaboration produced. Bass Communion fares slightly better, but that may have more to do with the way their identity is less subsumed into the collective muck than anything. In that respect, this EP feels somewhat unbalanced, and one would expect a months-long remix and re-remix effort to eventually produce something that both retained each artist’s individual identity and molded them together into something distinctive. That didn’t quite happen.

It’s probably inaccurate to say it’s a “missed opportunity.” That would imply there’s some ideal way for a Bass Communion/Muslimgauze collaboration to sound, and given the two projects approach ambient and experimental music from perpendicular directions (loosely: BC plays up the alien-ness of its soundscapes, whereas Muslimgauze is firmly rooted in the real world), if there is one, this is probably it. But it doesn’t really matter, because the two artists wouldn’t have the chance to collaborate again. Bryn Jones died of a rare blood disease in 1999, leaving behind a Tupac-sized mountain of unreleased work that took over fifteen years to fully sift through. (Fortunately, it’s all on Spotify. My personal recommendation is to start with Gun Aramaic and work your way outwards from there.) Wilson, meanwhile, would go on to collaborate with multiple Israeli artists (one of whom is related to Moshe Dayan), have a second home in Tel Aviv, and describe other musicians’ support of BDS as performative ego-stroking. Go figure.

Bass Communion – Bass Communion II

July 1999

  • Advert. Like an advert, except with beeps. (When did he stop doing these?)
  • 16 Second Swarm. Melancholy horns over static fuzz. More reconstructed memories (what was happening in 1999?). Not a memory—a ghost (do the Hokey Cokey). Record scratch fades out, ambient shimmers fade in. 6’00” in…violins. Cellos. (A mourning.) Ágætis byrjun, abstracted. A call of alien animals across the highland hills.
  • Grammatic Oil. Thumping, thrumming, all-consuming low humming. Not quite JBK-tribal but close. Electronic echolocation. All blends together into a coalescing, oppressive wall of noise. Which then fades out to alien whispering distant alien shrieking.
  • Drugged III. Back to the shoreline saxophonic well. Intro feels like a tension-riddled Japanese tea ceremony. Ambient swells kick in early. (Kyoto—outside of time—akin to the timeless London whose Thames bridge Gull jumped off in From Hell’s penultimate chapter. (A memory of an imaginary city.)) Sax from before, accentuated with guitar (see above). Fades out in favor of soundscapes and whalesong, the suite collapsing in on itself and reconstituting. Travis’ sax becomes disembodied from itself, as we drift slowly upward.
  • Dwarf Artillery. Twitchy, glitchy, and full of radar. Voyage 34, Phase IV, if Brian was a conspiracy nut. (This time the paranoia is palpable.) (It has direction.) Distorted guitar ambience in the background in the midsection.
  • Wide Open Killingfeld. Wind above metal shacks. Future civilization camping in amongst the ruins of ours—communicating in song (sounds like birds). Abstracted seagull calls. First part sounds the way a Lasse Hoile photograph looks. Radio static, rusted flagpoles. After this, only the mood.

————

A central concept of the first volume of Phonogram, the Gillen/McKelvie not-quite-love-letter to music nerdery, is the memory kingdom. It’s exactly what it says on the tin, a scene, something like Swinging London or Madchester or Britpop, as it exists in the culture’s collective memory.

Entering a memory kingdom isn’t shown to be exceptionally difficult, as it’s the natural extension of the sort of things people do when they listen to a ton of music that they associate with a particular time and place (eg. Burial and New York, Pendulum and Hong Kong, Space-Era Porcupine Tree and Taipei). There’s some ceremonial set and setting stuff that needs to be done in the beginning, but the core of the whole process is this: listen to something of that time and get into it. Everybody does that.

Bass Communion II presents itself as an invitation to do something similar. The transition point is pretty clearly the moment on the second track where the record static fades out and the barrier between the listener and the soundscape has been shattered, and we spend the rest of the album wandering aimlessly around a strange new world.

The kingdom we’ve entered, though, isn’t a collective memory, or even Wilson’s memory specifically. This is an oblique heterotopia; green England’s fields turned upside-down and inside-out, an ominous hellscape populated with bird-men and glitch-dogs and other, more alien creatures that hum and drone beyond the horizon. They go about their dark work not even knowing or caring you’re there, safe in the knowledge that if a tourist were to pierce the separation between worlds and stumble into theirs, you’d have no idea what they’re doing and would be too scared/dumbfounded to ask. You are a dream, wandering a world of dreams made real.

This is part of why music is magic. You may not be able to physically reach out and touch the glitch-beasts in the last track on the second disc, and they may not have existed in any meaningful sense before July of 1999, but there they are, to quote Alan Moore, real beyond refute, in all their grandeur and monstrosity. Steven Wilson sketched an entire world and packed it into 87 minutes of music, and you have filled in the details. A, uh, communion, if you will, between musician and listener.

But here’s the thing: there’s nothing inherent about Wilson’s soundscapes in this album, or even about Wilson as a musician, that allows this to happen. This is just an example of the magical properties of an aesthetic. Listen to a song, ideally one that carries a particular weight for you, and you’ll find this exact thing happening again. I’m doing it right now, with a different record, as I write this.

In other words, everybody does that.

  1. Bass Communion II
  2. Bass Communion I

————

  • A Grapefruit in the World of Park. Based on Robert Fripp soundscape. Oscillating burbles come in so loud they make the surrounding radio antennas hum. Music which has a concrete effect upon the world. Metallic hum resolves to cello. Individual elements slowly stretched apart.
  • Snakebird. Square Root of Sub remix. Spiritual sequel to Sleep, &c. Airships above a bog. At the center, a crystal shimmering. Mesmerizing. Drawing all in. Drugged reprise. Splashing, bitcrushed howling. Glitchy. Distorted beyond all recognition. Artificial, but very real and very threatening. But the brightness remains, beckoning. Something about the light’s true nature?

GUEST: Fish – Raingods with Zippos

19 April 1999

Fellini Days

The concept of the “imperial phase” is generally not useful for outlining the general trends of an artist’s discography. It’s too limited; by invoking the concept you’re fitting everything the artist has ever done into exactly three periods: the period during which they achieved the greatest critical and commercial acclaim, and the period on either side. Bowie, for instance. His imperial phase lasted roughly from Space Oddity to about Dancing in the Street. Staking out those singles as both sides of a distinct era says very little about what he was doing with either song, and the way he’d evolved as an artist during that period. Steven Wilson’s imperial phase, meanwhile, begins with In Absentia and ends with The Incident, and that point in his career says more about what people expect from him than what he himself was actually up to. This taxonomy is fundamentally more about people’s reactions to the music than about the music itself. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try for a quick salvage job.

The imperial phase is generally something built up to and expanded outward from. You can, in retrospect, tell that the man responsible for The Laughing Gnome would eventually go on to write Space Oddity. Likewise, it’s also clear that the man who unleashed Linton Samuel Dawson upon the world would grow and evolve to the point where he’d also give us Blackest Eyes. Those two songs definitely existed in their respective artists’ ideaspaces when they were just starting out, albeit formless and void, low on the horizon. They just needed to be whacked into shape, a process largely facilitated not by conscious thought but through the particular ways in which their careers would take shape over the years, through their influences and life experiences.

The post-imperial phase, meanwhile, can go one of two ways: the sound can either ossify or diversify. Sellout-era Genesis and Phil Collins’ solo career together represent a notorious example of the former. Bowie was fortunate enough to have the latter; his post-imperial discography includes gems such as I’m Afraid of Americans, his collaborations with Placebo and Arcade Fire, and, of course, the Thomas Ligotti fever dream that is Blackstar. A diversified artist’s post-imperial work may not be as consistently good as their imperial work, but it is often just as interesting, if not more so.

(This is related, though distinct, to the universe-is-a-hyperboloid concept tossed around earlier, as a good candidate for a musician’s inflection point is the moment their imperial phase ends. The subject of this post, for example, has one sometime in October 1988.)

Field of Crows

Fish, then. His imperial phase consists of his last two albums with Marillion, the ones that gave us Kayleigh and The Last Straw and multiple UK Top 40 singles and the associated megastardom. His post-imperial phase consists of his entire solo career. Everything he produced from when he left Marillion up to this album could be adequately described as Fish Figuring Out Himself, expelling everything he couldn’t do with Marillion, trying on different styles, and finally stripping himself back to rediscover what made him a great musician in the first place. The results are uneven, but Fish’s evolution as a solo artist is clear and we still got some excellent songs out of it.

Hence, Raingods With Zippos, the best album of Fish’s solo career. In some ways it’s a counterpoint to Stupid Dream. Where Stupid Dream starts out strong and begins to flounder about halfway through, Raingods starts out rocky (Tumbledown is one of those songs that has a spectacular intro—in this case a beautiful piano piece—but when it actually kicks in it’s such a step down that you feel you’re the victim of a bait-and-switch; fortunately the piano returns at the end of Rites of Passage) but two or three songs in it finds its footing and we get, all in a row, the low thrum of Incomplete, the folk-inflected masochism tango of Tilted Cross, and the demented, off-kilter Faith Healer and its twitchy violin solo.

Which brings us to the Plague of Ghosts suite. Out of everything here, it’s probably the most…forward-thinking, as it took all the electronic experiments from his previous albums and brought them to their natural conclusion. The point of progressive music is to progress, and here’s Fish taking his music in a direction that might not be traditionally progressive, and may have 1999 written all over it, but here he does something interesting with it. Here’s 90s No-Man-inflected trip-hop in Digging Deep, burbling ambience in Chocolate Frogs, and a transition to a frenetic drum-n-bass beat in Waving at Stars, a bridge between the psychedelia-soaked origins of electronic music and its present. It’s only with the piano-driven Raingods Dancing and Wake-Up Call that we’re brought back to more familiar territory. This is Fish showing off the new stuff he’s learned in this vein over the past decade, and it’s great. It’s science fair presentations like this that are the bread and butter of a proper post-imperial phase.

Wilson takes more of a step back with this one, this time playing guitar on about half the album. With the exception of the more funky touches he brings to Digging Deep, much of his guitar work makes the suite feel like Fish’s own interpretation of The Sky Moves Sideways, Phase I. It’s a nice effect, giving the Plague of Ghosts suite a solid psychedelic foundation for Fish to play around with.

Postscript: yes, that Rick Astley co-wrote Mission Statement.

13th Star

Going forward, well, most of Fish’s direct collaborations with Wilson this century involve bear hugs in bars and that’s about it. Nevertheless, Fish’s and Wilson’s stories would intersect two more times.

Sometime between Lightbulb Sun and In Absentia, as Wilson was winding down I.E.M., Fish would release Fellini Days. This was a darker and less baroque record than its predecessor, with Fish himself depending more on his lower register, continually straying further from the superficial light poppiness that early critics had saddled him with. The track from this album that sticks in my head the most is The Pilgrim’s Address, in which Fish positions himself as a not-entirely-naive war veteran faux-innocently making a mockery of his commander-in-chief by turning his own empty patriotism and hollow invocation of American Values back on him. He knows the wars he fought were in the service of unchecked greed and imperialist aggression more than anything else, but what he wants is a public acknowledgement that Mister President realizes this on some level as well.

Here’s why this song works: whenever Wilson plays a character in a song it’s always at somewhat of a remove, like he’s more interested in psychoanalyzing than acting. This is fine for what he’s setting out to do, for the record, as most of his characters are rather repulsive people; a rogue’s gallery of terrorists, serial killers, cult leaders, shut-ins, and various other creeps and weirdos. Fish’s characters, meanwhile, are generally innocent people who’ve fallen victim to circumstance in some fashion, whether it be something as small as a breakup or as large as a war. We’re invited to place ourselves in their shoes and sympathize with them, and the effect is palpable. The Pilgrim’s Address is the rawest song on Fellini Days, and upon realizing precisely how much power he’s tapped in to with this particular lyricism, Fish would eventually start doing the same trick at least once an album. Where in the World off 13th Star, the central suite of A Feast of Consequences, and Waverley Steps off Weltschmerz are especially gut-punching.

So how’s Wilson involved in all this? He isn’t. At least, not directly. However, as it happens, during this time Fish had cultivated a nice working relationship with a gentleman who’d opened for him on several world tours, and who would co-write and play guitar on this album. This is, of course, Mr John Wesley, the same gentleman who’d soon become a touring member of and occasional studio presence with Porcupine Tree.

Wilson’s most recent intersection with Fish’s world comes through his remix of Misplaced Childhood in 2017, which, as it’s also the earliest album of his that he’s directly, materially interacted with, feels like the closing of a circle.

A Feast of Consequences

Fish is retiring from music. He’s hit sixty now, and he’s been having some health problems, and he’s been spending a lot of time tending to his garden, and besides he thinks of himself more as a writer who sings than a singer and it’s Just Time. The current plan is one last tour and one last album, and then he’s done for good. He’s released a preview EP, A Parley with Angels, and what’s there sounds like an evolution of what’s appeared on 13th Star and A Field of Consequences. I’m cautiously optimistic about how the finished product will sound, especially since during the recording process it’s apparently spiraled out of control and become a double album.

It’s not quite accurate to say that a double album is a tricky beast to pull off. An album is as long as it needs to be, after all. But creating a double album does present two unique and not unrelated challenges: the ability to make it cohere such that it doesn’t seem like a scattershot braindump with no quality control, and the ability to consistently hold the listener’s attention. From what I’ve heard, it sounds like the result will land anywhere from “particularly good late Derek Dick” to “bloated hot mess.” It’ll probably be a little of both. Fish wants this to be the defining record of his career, but “overstuffed” was never a mode he really operated in before now. This will be new and exciting for both artist and listener.

The current date to tie everything off is 2020. Once he retires, I imagine he may pop up for little one-off gigs here and there, but mostly he’ll be puttering away out at the greenhouse.

Weltschmerz

Honestly, though, I’m not sure a final album necessarily needs to be a Defining Statement. The chunks of Weltschmerz released on Parley with Angels doesn’t sound like a transcendently beautiful statement of purpose that sums up not just the musical career but in fact the very essence of the man called Derek Dick, but that’s okay. Neither was Blackstar or Tim Drum or Clutching at Straws. A final album only needs to be, in the words of Kieron Gillen, a full stop with ideas above its station.

Besides, Fish’s already written his magnum opus. Much of the front half of Raingods with Zippos sounds like something from Fish’s earlier solo career, while the back half—from about Faith Healer on—sounds like Fish discovering where he wants to go from there. As a result, Raingods encapsulates Fish’s solo career more completely than Weltschmerz ever could. The album’s overall effect is of a man walking audibly from the past to the future, and as the final song fades out on Nicola King’s repeated “we can make it happen,” we too are left behind as we move into a different future of our own making.

Porcupine Tree – Stupid Dream

March 1999

Piano Lessons, April 1999
Stranger by the Minute, October 1999
Pure Narcotic, November 1999
London, September 2000
Expanded 2CD edition, 15 May 2006

A body is washed up on a Norfolk beach…”

Kaboom.

To understand Stupid Dream, we have to return to the unfortunate misfire that was Porcupine Tree’s previous album. Signify is an odd duck in Porcupine Tree’s back catalogue, one that is clearly tired of the conventions of the Space Era, but as the conventions of the Alternative Era were just barely sketched out, instead finds itself struggling for something, anything, to build a sound on. Unfortunately, straight Neu-esque krautrock, heretofore the most promising candidate, didn’t get them very far; it barely sustained them for one song. Nevertheless, the futile grasping at a new sound did inspire some more fruitful experiments as 1996 crashed into 1997 and the future slowly but dispassionately advanced.

Of those early demos, the one that holds the most in the way of any mystical significance was Disappear, endlessly recorded and rerecorded amidst the white swirling heat coalescing around the Italy tour and Coma Divine. We’ve talked about it in that entry mostly in terms of its position in history and what it prefigured, how it was the Alternative Era sound in its most unpolished form. But we neglected to touch on something more salient: yes, the lyrics are the usual stuff about alienation and isolation, a well Wilson’d return to again and again as the decades wear on, but let’s look at the way this song interprets those themes. They’re sung to a lover, a poet, an individual more extroverted and more willing to take chances than the narrator. The narrator’s wish is that she grow and blossom and take on the world, while he fades into the background and, yes, disappears. One thing retreats, while at the same time another advances. Likewise, the Space and Alternative Eras.

It could be argued that the power of this song directly comes from the band’s inability to figure out how to make the song work, as many of the other demos are significant primarily in relation to what they would (or wouldn’t) mutate into later. I Fail, for instance, the very very first demo recorded for the Stupid Dream sessions, has no significance to the ritual whatsoever because this whole three-year process technically kicked off with Signify. We’re already in the thick of it when I Fail first appears, and so its role in this thing is to be the source from which Wilson could gank some of the lyrics for Buying New Soul. Likewise, London, which is just an extremely early version of Don’t Hate Me. The 1997 version of Even Less is essentially yet another attack on religion (“and Jesus was crucified for doing nothing, and God is worshipped for even less”), which after an album that was partially about bashing religion would have just been beating a dead horse. The more oblique and thematically complex versions we find on Stupid Dream and Recordings are vastly superior. All of these songs are primarily defined in relation to something else, so there’s not much of interest to be found here for our purposes beyond the start of a new sound.

Moving deeper into 1997, we find Sunsets on Empire, the Alternative Era’s midwife. This is a record that has not benefited from hindsight, as its strengths are quiet and subtle and its missteps (the first few lines of The Perception of Johnny Punter, the entire concept of Brother 52) are massive and glaring. But it did serve two very important purposes in Fish and Wilson’s respective careers. First, it gave Derek Dick a general aesthetic that he could settle into and build on for his masterpiece of a follow-up. And second, it conclusively demonstrated that a sound similar to what would define the Alternative Era could indeed be sustained across an entire album, that the demos Wilson and the band were kicking around at the time could indeed become something polished and complete.

And so here we are, the building blocks of the Alternative Era in place, and how we just have to spend 1998 assembling them into something worth calling a big-A Album. We sign a record deal at the end of that year, and in March of 1999, as the cultural zeitgeist of the decade ossifies, curdles, and ultimately flames out in ways both constructive (The Matrix) and destructive (Columbine), we get Stupid Dream, a sell-out album about the horrors of selling out.

This is a provocative way of putting it, yes, but lest we forget how obsessed we were in the 90s about authenticity, man. Even the big iconoclastic, stridently anticapitalist band of the decade, Rage Against the Machine, got flak because they belonged to a major label. This was stupid. It was stupid then, it’s extremely stupid now. As Wilson will tell you, and has told interviewers during the press rigmarole surrounding the release of Stupid Dream, the role of the musician in the record industry is to be exploited. It’s to have your singular vision twisted into something commercial and marketable. Even if the people Steve Albini once memorably described as “front office bulletheads” don’t touch a single note of what you’ve created, they’re still working overtime to figure out how to extract as much money from your product—and it is a product—as possible. This is their job. This is their role in the structures of capitalism. This is how your label is going to operate. Forget your own agenda, get ready to be sold.

The point is, the people who pitched a fit at the supposed inauthenticity of major-label stars Rage Against the Machine shouldn’t have got pissy at Zack and Tom for signing with Sony. They should have instead directed their anger at Sony for existing.

(Tangent the first: I’d be remiss here if I didn’t mention the packaging for Godspeed’s Yanqui U.X.O., which featured a chart showing the various connections between the Big Four record labels and various arms manufacturers.)

(Tangent the second: Zack is legit, by the way. Just wanted to make that clear.)

But it was the 90s. A breather decade between Cold War lunacy on one end and War on Terror lunacy on the other. (That this was also the decade that gave us such happy fun times as Rodney King, welfare reform, the DMCA, the Yugoslav Wars, and the Rwandan Genocide should give you an idea of just how absolutely insane the 1980s and the 2000s were.) The general narrative was that We Had It Good in the 90s. We are, of course, aware that implicit in this recollection is the “We” here refers to, all together now, middle-class cisgender heterosexual white men, but we’ll leave the truly ghastly implications of that to one side for now. We have a privileged class who were sitting particularly pretty this decade, buffeted by an economic situation that benefited them, and since the Cold War and the sense of Purpose that naturally sprung from it was over, they’re now left with something missing and are cast adrift. So how do we fill that hole?

With stuff. Thanks, Reagan.

Consumerism, then. A culture and society built entirely around spending all your money on things you don’t need under the false promise that all this fancy stuff will make you happy. Your life revolves not around self-growth or building relationships with other humans, but your stuff. That’s what keeps the economy going, after all. This is a philosophy that, in our understanding of the word, could best be described with that famously pithy line from Fight Club: “the things you own end up owning you.”

We are exceptionally close to arriving at a decent critique of capitalism here. We need only decenter the consumer in this whole system and focus instead on the worker. Who’s making all that stuff you don’t need? What are their working conditions? Bringing it closer to home, what about your working conditions? You, presumably, if you can afford all this stuff, are an anonymous white-collar drone working in an anonymous cube in an anonymous edge-city office building. You’re no longer human, but a number plugged into the system, defined entirely by your value to your bosses. Extrapolate this to every worker in every industry and boom. Instant radicalization.

Here’s the problem: we are trapped in our own myopia. Although we are alienated and exploited workers, we still have a decent house in a decent neighborhood, and, well…look at all this stuff we have! We are benefiting from capitalism in some small way, so that can’t possibly be the problem. Surely my experience as a worker isn’t in some way applicable to every worker in every industry. The thing that’s hollowing out our society and our experience of the world and reducing everything to dollar signs isn’t something so overarching as capitalism. That would mean the alternative is living under Stalin’s bootheel, and look how that turned out. No, this is a wart that we need to freeze off, and once that’s done everything will be A-OK.

Thus does the main critique of consumerism become not that it perpetuates the capitalist meat grinder but that it’s inauthentic. We are not a “woke” people in the 90s, far from it, but we have enough sense rattling around in our coddled skulls that corporations primarily exist to make money. Anything produced by a corporation primarily exists to make money, and any warmth and personal connection offered by that thing is what David Foster Wallace would describe as a “professional smile,” the insincere, plastered-on rictus people give you when they want something from you.

Let’s slowly circle back and narrow this down to music. Record labels, like any other corporation, primarily exist to make money. So with that in mind, what sort of music was big in the late 90s? Tons and tons of manufactured, plastic pop music. Think the Spice Girls or the Backstreet Boys: music that’s catchy, accessible, and ultimately disposable. Made to sell units, not to communicate any genuine emotions. (And, tangentially, a clearly unworthy inheritor of the throne vacated by grunge and britpop.) This was the sort of thing we were absolutely terrified of our faves settling into. And what could be a more perfect first step down the slippery slope than signing to a major label or releasing music that dared to be a little more accessible. Because accessible = commercial, and commercial = bad.

Hence, the knives come out for Rage Against the Machine since they signed to a major label. And while Stupid Dream was extremely well received, one can very easily imagine a certain contingent of the fandom faithful bringing out knives of their own because the band released a record considerably less psychedelic and abstract and more songwriter-oriented than what they were known for. Here, though, is the catch: just as there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, there is no authentic consumption under capitalism, either. It’s not just the major-label records that are fundamentally inauthentic. Every record ever released exists on some level to make money. Even if it was pushed out by some ramshackle indie vanity label run out of somebody’s bedroom, where the budget is so shoestring that no one can cough up the money for color packaging or a pressing greater than 100 units and the greatest business expenses are weed and cheap alcohol. Even if it’s released for free or pay-what-you-want. Even if 100% of the proceeds are donated to charity. An album like Stupid Dream couldn’t be evidence of Wilson selling out because he sold out the instant people he didn’t personally know started listening to his music. What’s more, at around this time, our precious, ostensibly commercially untainted psychedelic prog god literally had a side job making music meant to be used in advertisements. In other words: he sold his soul to make a record, dipshit, and you bought one.

But what about that record? Well…it’s fine.

This isn’t me turning around and being a massive hypocrite about accessible music. My favorite of Wilson’s solo albums is To the Bone, for God’s sake. The issue here is twofold. First, pacing. We start off with a solid run of great songs: Even Less, Piano Lessons, Pure Narcotic. But then we hit Slave Called Shiver and the album starts to sputter. After that the album is distractingly uneven, with what seems like an eternity between Don’t Hate Me and A Smart Kid, the two best songs after that point. And we close out with Stop Swimming, which, Wilson likes to say that the saddest songs are the most beautiful, but like all statements about quality that privilege substance over style, he’s only occasionally correct. Good sad songs can be transcendently beautiful (Feel So Low, for example), but Stop Swimming is not one of those.

Second: Stupid Dream is only almost a concept album. It’s probably worth picking at what is and isn’t a concept album here. The Wall is self-evidently a concept album, a self-exorcism in which a Roger Waters stand-in mentally isolates himself from the world and thus becomes a monster. Thick as a Brick is a concept album, albeit one lampooning concept albums, and like any great parody, it managed to anticipate the genre becoming a parody of itself. Sergeant Pepper’s, meanwhile, only pretends to be a concept album, as the pretense that the whole album is a performance by the eponymous fictional band is effectively abandoned around the third track. OK Computer is accidentally a concept album. Yorke and the band have always sworn up and down it isn’t one—largely because anyone who made a concept album in 1997 would be a pretentious git—but thanks to the way the tracks collectively paint an eschatologically nightmarish picture of what really awaited Britain at the dawn of New Labour, that’s how things shook loose anyway.

This level of thematic and narrative unity is largely absent from Stupid Dream. For all that the album is ostensibly about the music industry, only Piano Lessons and Stop Swimming unequivocally have the titular stupid dream as a subject; everything else has to be bent to fit the theme. Sometimes it doesn’t take a lot of work. Even Less may originally have been yet another broadside against religion, but in the end the narrator believes himself to be wasting his life pursuing stardom as much as the believers he sneers at. (This comes through better in the extended version that shows up on Recordings, whose essential final verse features the line “and I had a stupid dream that I could change things, but I’m a martyr to even less.”) You could take A Smart Kid, on the surface a quasi-sequel and resolution to Radioactive Toy, and turn it into another metaphor about alienation and isolation. But good luck trying to do the same with This Is No Rehearsal (about the murder of James Bulger) or Stranger by the Minute (which sounds like it belongs on In Absentia). Folding Slave Called Shiver (despite the “I’ll have more followers than Jesus Christ” line) and Don’t Hate Me into the album concept requires treating the frankly creepy and entitled narrator of those songs as the same as the one singing Even Less and Piano Lessons…and that’s an approach that runs into trouble when we hit Baby Dream in Cellophane, which is 90s rebellion taken to a natural conclusion: a song about a rebellious baby.

The point is, this album doesn’t quite cohere. It often seems like there are multiple concept albums jostling for space in here—one about the music industry, one about twisted, fractured relationships, and one about modern society in general—with none fully winning out and giving the album a sense of purpose.

This was, and occasionally still is, an issue with Steven Wilson “concept albums.” Very often it feels as though there just aren’t enough songs to fully flesh out the concept, and thus we have songs thrown in almost as filler. In fact, for as much as Wilson attempts to create fully realized concept albums, he wouldn’t actually be successful in that endeavor until Fear of a Blank Planet. This is far from the sole metric of how good a Steven Wilson album is—Lightbulb Sun, which has no concept as such, is the best Porcupine Tree album of the Alternative Era—but a complete concept does have the potential to rescue an album that’s meh in other respects. Usually.

In the case of Stupid Dream, this is a consequence of Wilson’s newly-rearranged songwriting process. Where much of Porcupine Tree’s Space Era work focused more on the album as a whole, and thus emphasized sounds and textures, here was Wilson’s first serious stab at writing actual songs. With a shift that massive, it’s only natural that there’s an overcorrection, and thus we have an album with quite a few great individual songs that don’t quite string together properly.

But on the flip side, we got quite a few great songs out of it. Even Less, even in its current form, cruelly hacked in half with numbers station footage stapled on to cover up the wound, remains a deliciously arrogant statement of purpose, the cocky spring from which the rest of the Alternative Era flows. Piano Lessons is an effective salvo for a reason, weaponizing the conventions of the four-minute pop song and turning an industry focused on profit, packaging, and disposability above artistic expression against itself (and that video!). Pure Narcotic has that lovely pastoral piano and Edwin’s modest yet booming bass kicking in after the first chorus. Don’t Hate Me has Theo Travis’ unbelievable saxophone. A Smart Kid was and is a fan favorite for a reason, thanks especially to the desolate instrumentation and the muted two-note chime accentuating certain verses and piano parts. The live version from ’03 with Mikael Akerfeldt singing the first verse is particularly interesting, especially because it’s the first halting instance of that recurring thing with PT/SW covers where having someone else sing the verses complicates the meaning of the song.

All of this pushes Stupid Dream slightly higher in the ranking than that extended slagging off up there would suggest. It may not fully work as an album, but of Porcupine Tree’s 90s material it’s still one of the ones I come back to the most, which is in some respects a better suggestion of how good the album actually is than an objective assessment of its positives and negatives. It won’t save it from sinking in the rankings as Porcupine Tree finds more of a balance between songwriting and conceptual unity, but it’s not a bad start.

  1. The Sky Moves Sideways
  2. Up the Downstair
  3. Stupid Dream
  4. On the Sunday of Life
  5. Signify

Intro to the Alternative Era: 1999-2007

The Alternative Era is pretty easily defined: it’s the period in Porcupine Tree’s history where they were primarily influenced by music that was more accessible, straightforward, and song-oriented. Most people would say that this period ended in 2002 with the release of In Absentia. Most people also don’t believe Steven Wilson is a witch.

I choose to extend the Alternative Era all the way to 2007, because although In Absentia and Deadwing both have significant metal elements within them, they generally don’t predominate. I personally, for example, can only describe about a third of the songs off In Absentia as metal, and the heaviest chunks of Deadwing are generally not its strongest. Both albums have a relationship to heavy music that’s closer to Weezer (of all bands) than, say, Meshuggah, where most of time it’s an accessory rather than a centerpiece. Quite simply, neither album registers as “metal” to me. Fear of a Blank Planet does. This may have something to do with how I listened to Porcupine Tree’s discography backward, so this assessment may not reflect objective reality, but (a) we’re not about objectivity in this space, and (b) my blog, my rules. My Alternative Era is longer than yours.

More to the point, though, this is the period during which the musical constellation surrounding Steven Wilson that we’re all familiar with properly coalesces. Bass Communion starts ramping up. Porcupine Tree ramps up even more. No-Man’s sound stabilizes. Blackfield is formed. Blackwater Park is released. And, most critically for the future, Wilson for the first time releases a record under his own name. Here is where the past starts colliding with the present, resulting in the songs you probably think of when you think of Steven Wilson songs.

As such, then, the Alternative Era is our baseline for the Steven Wilson Sound, the wellspring from which future experiments in metal, jazz, and pop would emerge, and therefore the most important era of Wilson’s career. Let’s begin.

Porcupine Tree – Moonloop EP

October 1994
Transmission IV, December 2001

We aren’t going to talk a whole lot about the Moonloop EP in the post we’ve explicitly dedicated to the Moonloop EP because the EP itself is not all that interesting. It’s got two tracks: Stars Die and Moonloop, both of which can be found in some capacity on some version of The Sky Moves Sideways. We are instead going to talk about the song that gave the EP its name.

But first, Stars Die, because this is technically the song’s canonical appearance in Porcupine Tree’s discography (it only shows up on The Sky Moves Sideways’ American release). It’s one of the Space Era’s signature songs, popular enough to name a 2002 compilation album, the American release of this EP, and a preeminent PT/SW fansite, back in the day. I rate it highly. It is indeed a chilled-out space-rock tune that crystallizes the more ethereal aspects of PT’s sound at the time. I feel like I’m at peace, calmly floating in a warm void when I listen to it. But it still isn’t the best thing Porcupine Tree had made up to that point.

No, the real standout of the late Space Era is Moonloop. On 28 June 1994, Wilson, Edwin, Maitland, and special guests Rick Edwards and Markus Butler marched into the Doghouse recording studio outside of Henley and pounded out forty solid minutes of gold, which Wilson then banged into shape two days later at the home recording studio he carved out of his childhood bedroom. Chunks of the result would be released piecemeal for the rest of the 90s until the fan club release of Transmission IV in 2001.

If Voyage 34 is the best thing Space-Era Porcupine Tree released period, the full Moonloop improvisation is the best thing Space-Era Porcupine Tree released as a band. Most of us are already familiar with the cut that shows up on The Sky Moves Sideways, a nice spot of jazzy, trancey space rock that leisurely builds and releases over Edwin’s bass and Edwards’ percussion, and which fades out to archive audio of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. (Hence the name.) It’s great. And, critically, it forms a complete song on its own that fits right in with the atmosphere The Sky Moves Sideways is going for. If the whole forty-minute improvisation showed up on the album it would have overpowered everything else. But just this movement…perfect.

No, the whole schmeer is meant to be enjoyed on its own. The Sky Moves Sideways version fades out after the moon landing, but the Transmission IV version follows that sample up with Richard “Dingbat” Nixon’s phone call to the astronauts, the one that would find a home on Stars Die. This may partially explain why that song stayed off The Sky Moves Sideways’ UK release; two songs in a row ending with audio from the moon landing is probably only appropriate when they’re the only two songs in an EP about the moon landing. But anyway, after the second moon landing sample we move into the song’s second movement, which is basically similar to the first movement except the trancey elements are switched out for something bluesier and funkier, accentuated with harmonica, organ, and chunks of the moon landing sample buried so far back in the mix it sounds like the guitar at first listen. While the bass in the first movement was deliberate and methodical and repetitive, allowing for a template upon which the guitar can squeal however it wants, the bass in the second movement joins in the fun, skipping and jumping and clearly enjoying its newfound freedom…while at the same time remaining the song’s rhythmic backbone. The overall effect is eye-opening. We’re amazed that this was something the song was capable of doing, while at the same time wondering where this had been for the past seven years.

After that, an ambient segue into the song’s third and final movement, a coda in the “traditional-rock-freakout” subgenre. Think the last part of Godspeed’s Providence or Pendulum’s The Tempest and you’re about there. This bit would eventually evolve into the coda found on the 2-CD edition of The Sky Moves Sideways, and in many ways the version there is superior, but what we have here gels better with the song it’s ending, so I can’t complain too much.

In many respects, Moonloop, both song and EP, are pretty good indications of where Wilson and co were headed going into The Sky Moves Sideways; bringing back those Voyage 34 influences (there it is again) and producing something more jazzy and trancey than what we got up till now. And out of it we got the band proper’s first masterpiece and the signature song of the Space Era. This is also the point where Porcupine Tree finally, finally completely severed all links to its joke-band past. Both songs were a full-band endeavor. Both songs were new compositions instead of something dusted off after lying around for a few years. And neither song has lyrics by Alan Duffy.

But we’re still warming up. The true masterpiece is yet to come.