Porcupine Tree – Stars Die: The Delerium Years

25 March 2002
1994-1997 box set, February 2016
1991-1993 box set, January 2017

This post comes in two unrelated parts.

A Side

Potentially unpopular opinion time: the worst critics are the ones with opinions that you agree with. You go to a critic for one of two things: to determine if you ought to spend money on a piece of media, or for a perspective on that media that is perpendicular to your own, that offers fresh insights or picks out interesting nuances that you may have missed. No one ever goes to a music critic for the first thing anymore, or at least I don’t. If I want to do something like that, I deliberately seek out the positive reviews, so I’m then motivated to listen to the thing on Spotify, and then if I like what I hear, I’ll go out and buy the record. Although this is how I got into pretty much every musical artist I listened to of my own volition for the past ten years, it’s still based on a fractured understanding of what the critic is doing versus what I want the critic to do.

The second thing is an altogether different beast, and does a better job of justifying the music critic’s existence. The thing that makes a blog like, say, Pushing Ahead of the Dame interesting is not Chris O’Leary’s audacity in covering David Bowie’s discography song by song. It’s that O’Leary has unpopular opinions. The first indication that his blog was gonna be great was the moment where (a) he declared that The Laughing Gnome was actually a good song, and, critically, (b) justified this declaration by appealing to multiple elements of the song’s composition that made it work.

I disagree, of course. I still maintain The Laughing Gnome is a cringefest. But I still learned more about how that song was pulled together than I would have from a million critical reviews going LOL CHIPMUNK VOICES BOWIE CORPSING ISN’T THIS AN EMBARRASSING EPHEMERUM, to which I would have nodded placidly along as they went in one ear and out the other. The point is that the value of a critic is directly tied to their willingness to go against conventional wisdom once in a while.

Tying this back to the blog, I am on record as saying that the worst Porcupine Tree album rankings are the ones that have In Absentia and Stupid Dream and Fear of a Blank Planet on top and On the Sunday of Life and The Incident on bottom, because that’s solid proof that the people responsible for those rankings have never had an original thought about Porcupine Tree in their entire lives. Which then got me wondering what the Ultimate Iconoclastic Porcupine Tree Hot Take would be.

A good starting point would be the contention that an album thought of as Good is actually Bad, or that a Bad album is actually Good. I’ve already done Stupid Dream, so that’s out, and I can’t with a straight face say that In Absentia and Fear of a Blank Planet are bad. (Well, you can with the latter, the lyrics are clearly Steven Wilson yelling at the kids to get off his lawn, but that’s not something I can sell to anyone when that’s the album that got me into Wilson’s music in the first place.) On the flip side, saying The Incident is good is properly incendiary, given its general reputation amongst the faithful, but it’s just enough of a piece with the rest of Porcupine Tree’s discography that such a take wouldn’t be very interesting. We need a true oddball.

This leaves On the Sunday of Life. The first Porcupine Tree album, stitched together from stuff released when we still kept up the fiction that this was an actual band who went gallivanting about Europe on drug-fueled exploits so scandalous and offensive to polite society they’d be near-indistinguishable from Situationist culture-jamming. That weird old thing. In his unauthorized biography of Porcupine Tree, Rick Wilson politely describes it as scattershot, but with potential; the conventional wisdom. It’s long and silly and bizarre, a greatest hits of psychedelic lunacy. Let’s see what we can cough up.

On the Sunday of Life is startlingly unique amongst Porcupine Tree’s discography. It’s the lone studio album in the Space Era that was clearly more influenced by psychedelic rock than space rock (by the time we hit Up the Downstair, Wilson was already deep in The Orb and Ozric Tentacles, and it shows). It’s structured like a Boards of Canada album, with full-length songs like Jupiter Island and Linton Samuel Dawson separated by instrumental interludes like Hymn or Music for the Head. The lyrics are nonsense Alan Duffy-isms. The album has a particular surreal humor about it, from the pitched-up chipmunk voices on Jupiter Island to Wilson’s off-the-rails Geddy Lee impression on Linton Samuel Dawson to the infamous, terminally aggrieved “I want you to put Felix’s penis on me” from And the Swallows Dance Above the Sun. This is Wilson’s own Laughing Gnome, refracted through the sensory-overload uncanny valley fog of a bad LSD trip.

It’s not hard to cast these elements of Porcupine Tree’s sound as essential. If you’re going to have a Porcupine Tree album, it should be unfiltered, overstuffed, trippy, incomprehensible, and subtly funny. So then we get to Up the Downstair and excuse me what’s this trance crap doing in my psychedelia? Hopping on trends, are you, like you’re doing with your other band? This feels so workmanlike, too. The last album crackled with so much energy and life; this one feels like they dragged Wilson to the studio at gunpoint. He’s even managed to ruin his own songs, no less; this version of Small Fish feels like it was recorded while he was doped up on Xanax. The only good part of this album is the first track’s transition from the spooky ambient noises to the dryly snarky voiceover, everything else is garbage.

Don’t even get me started on The Sky Moves Sideways or [shudder] Stupid Dream.

Thus do we arrive at the ultimate Porcupine Tree hot take: not only is On the Sunday of Life a good Porcupine Tree album, it’s the only good Porcupine Tree album.

This is not a good take for a blog to adopt for a few reasons. First, it precipitates a conceptual collapse. The blog blows its load early and spends the rest of its meager existence whining. It’s an extreme variant of whenever someone complains about a band not having produced anything good for however many-odd decades. (Also why, going back to Chris O’Leary, why we’re all very grateful he didn’t go with his original choice of blog subject and do Pete Townshend song by song.) Slogging through so many years of mediocrity is taxing on the author and taxing on the reader and just isn’t a worthwhile endeavor for anyone.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Todd in the Shadows’ retrospective of Madonna’s filmography and Seb Patrick’s posts on Weezer come immediately to mind. However, Cinemadonna is working with a medium primed to pick apart terrible bodies of work, and Weezerology would be considerably less pleasant to read if Everything Will Be Alright in the End didn’t exist. The lessons from those projects can’t be ported to one about Porcupine Tree, who would dive back into the Sunday aesthetic well extremely rarely.

The second reason that take ruins a blog is it reveals something troubling about the tastes of the blogger. Porcupine Tree, and Wilson’s post-PT solo work more broadly, had a diverse and eclectic sound that evolved along with Wilson’s tastes and influences. There’s something to appreciate in every era, and which period of their discography you prefer says more about you than it does them. A blogger who straight-up declares that Sunday is the only good Porcupine Tree album clearly demands that Steven Wilson rerecord Sunday again and again till he dies of excessive coerced jollity.

B Side

The Space Era may be properly dead and buried, but that doesn’t mean we can’t reminisce and memorialize. Stars Die: the Delirium Years, Porcupine Tree’s only strict compilation album, is a fairly straightforward record: a double album that is meant to serve as an introduction to Porcupine Tree’s 90s work.

The album is arranged in strict chronological order, with the first disc covering 1991-1993 and the second covering 1994-1997. Disc One is self-evidently stronger, with a good balance between short and long songs and material from Sunday and Up the Downstair. Disc Two is much less so, with only three songs from The Sky Moves Sideways era and the rest coming from the Signify era. This might have something to do with how the former is, of all Porcupine Tree’s albums, the one most hostile to being split up into its constituent parts. There just aren’t very many songs on that album that wouldn’t ruin a compilation album. Disc Two’s unevenness might also have something to do with how the Signify era is the band’s weakest, and about half of those songs are from the Waiting single, itself the weakest portion of that era. Right up until it hits Signify, though, Stars Die is an excellent survey of Porcupine Tree’s Space-Era work, clearly showcasing the band’s evolution throughout the nineties. I’d unreservedly recommend it to anyone whose knowledge of Porcupine Tree’s discography goes back to the seeming hard-reset of Stupid Dream and no further.

But anyway, the new stuff. Stars Die features a couple of songs (and alternate remixes) that were previously only available through file-sharing or a seriously rare deluxe edition pressing or something. Disc One has Phantoms and the extended version of Synesthesia, while Disc Two has Men of Wood and Signify II. First, Phantoms. This song is an outtake from Up the Downstair, available only through metaphorical tape-circulation before it showed up here. It’s basically a very trippy unplugged song, with Wilson’s vox and mainly lethargic acoustic guitar serving as an anchor as creepy tape loop noises and fuzzed-out electric guitars swirl around him. Of the previously-unreleased songs on this compilation, this one’s probably the worst. Wilson strums his guitar like it’s strictly out of contractual obligation. About a minute and a half in, right when most of the instrumentation drops out as Wilson sings “I’m sorry I treat you this way,” the song hits a brick wall and has to spend a few excruciating seconds recovering. It’s an early, half-formed attempt at something more songwriterly, and it’s obvious why (a) he eventually moved more organically into this more personal lyrical mode, and (b) it took him until the late 90s to actually do it. Whatever fruits came out of Phantoms were not immediately obvious at the time of writing, whereas The Sky Moves Sideways was right there, ready to be born. (And thank God, because The Sky Moves Sideways is much more interesting.) Basically, it gave him something to work with once the space well ran dry around the time of Signify. For all that Phantoms itself is unremarkable, it allows Disappear and the Alternative Era to exist.

The extended version of Synesthesia is generally similar to the studio version, but the goofy What You Are Listening To intro switched out for something more contextually appropriate where the main riff eases its way in as opposed to bursting onstage after cutting off the guy describing psychedelic music played while on LSD. I can sort of understand why this decision was made, the What You Are Listening To intro works best when opening an album, and that’s what Synesthesia isn’t doing anymore. But at the same time, literally the only representative of Porcupine Tree’s goofy early work on Stars Die is And The Swallows Put Felix’s Penis On Me, so replacing What You Are Listening To with something more in-character, especially in a world with Have Come For Your Children in it, feels like they’re treating that part of themselves the way a millennial thinks of their embarrassing scene kid phase.

Speaking of which, Men of Wood. Of all of Porcupine Tree’s songs featuring Alan Duffy’s lyrics in some capacity (he’s credited as a co-writer along with Wilson), this one is chronologically the latest. Like Disappear, this is one of those songs that knocked around the studio across multiple album cycles but was always too different from the atmosphere of the albums themselves to see a major studio release. In this song’s case, it almost made it on The Sky Moves Sideways, showing up on promo cassettes but not on the final release. It’s an interesting holdover from when Wilson was edging out of Sunday weirdness and into Downstair trancery. Between it and stuff like Linton Samuel Dawson, Access Denied, Escalator to Christmas, and How Big the Space, there might be enough material for a separate compilation for all the light, goofy songs Wilson’s done throughout his career. The normies who want him to be a brooding emo boy would hate it, of course, wondering why we’re celebrating what they feel are Wilson’s mediocrities, but there’s still artistry here, and more importantly, anything that irritates the normies is inherently worth doing.

This leaves Signify II. It’s a fairly standard krautrock song, yet more proof that the direction Porcupine Tree were attempting to go in for Signify was a dead end. My immediate reaction toward this song (and OG Signify, for that matter) was that it wasn’t good because it didn’t sound like Porcupine Tree. But that couldn’t be it; they’ve released lots of songs where they’re trying to be something they’re not (e.g. Access Denied) and they sound great. Nor is the issue that other bands have done straight-no-chaser krautrock better than they have; Wilson himself submitted a masterful entry in that genre with the self-titled I.E.M. album.

And then we reach Signify II’s religious mix, available on the expanded version of this compilation. If it made it onto Signify it would have been another anti-religious song in the same vein as Sever and Intermediate Jesus, but for whatever reason it didn’t. Years later, Wilson offered the possibility that the religious mix was left off Signify because it was just a bit too heavy-handed. There’s certainly some truth to that; the samples in this case came from a young hotshot televangelist who, when he’s not celebrating his flock of suckers’ destruction of their old Satanic secular music, gleefully tells anyone who calls in they’re insufficiently Christian and God hates them and they’re going to Hell.

I’m actually kind of glad it was left off; it would have ended the album, and Dark Matter honestly makes a perfect closer on its own. Signify II would have been superfluous. If it went anywhere on Signify, it should have replaced the title track, because Signify II works much better as a statement of the album’s themes instead of as a summation. It would have also made a pretty good segue into The Sleep Of No Dreaming, which focuses on Wilson’s rejection of all that garbage.

However. Those samples are what make Signify II unique. They’re what elevate the song from a transparent Hallogallo ripoff to something truly special. The samples and the instrumentation play off each other perfectly, with each one reinforcing the other. Of particular note here is the moment after the preacher asks if a caller really wants to accept Jesus into their life, and the music drops out completely for him to ask, “Why,” on some level inviting the listener to wonder why they should do the same, if this is what mainstream Christianity has to offer. The secular mix of Signify II is transparently bog-standard, but the religious mix is one of the best songs Porcupine Tree released during the Signify era. (Not exactly high praise coming from me, yes, but I’ll take what I can get from this point in their history.)

It is genuinely irritating whenever mainstream people talk about Porcupine Tree but either don’t talk about the Space Era or discount it for whatever reason. I’d typically chalk this up to the normies just wanting Steve to be this mopey depressed dude, but it’s slightly deeper than that. It probably has more to do with them, and we’ve talked about this before, putting him into a box. Not only is it an incomplete understanding of what Steven Wilson is about, but a demand that Wilson spend his life solely writing emo anthems for people who were too cool for actual emo.

Furthermore, Porcupine Tree were doing space rock longer than they did anything else. The Space Era is full of masterpieces, from Voyage 34 to all the funny stuff on Sunday to the title tracks of Up the Downstair and The Sky Moves Sideways. It’s a chunk of Porcupine Tree’s history that’s every bit as varied and multiplicitous as what they’d do later, and it’s done a great disservice when it’s treated as a footnote. The Stars Die compilation is essential largely because it’s a reminder that it isn’t, even as it’s radically different to what they’re doing now. What you think of the Space Era, ultimately, says more about you than it does about it, and if you believe the Space Era has little to offer compared to the other half of Porcupine Tree’s discography, then maybe Stars Die can change that a little.

GUEST: Ange – Culinaire Lingus

November 2001

Nice pun, guys.

My monolingualism strikes again. Ange is a band that’s been active for fifty years and released dozens of albums and is considered one of the titans of seventies prog…but they’re from France, sing in French, and aren’t very well-known within the Anglosphere. This means there are basically zero online sources about the band in English, and very, very few sources that talk about the 70s prog scene in France for more than a few paragraphs. This means that we have a band that we need to invent the universe to make full sense of, but the necessary contours of this universe remains elusive.

There were three different tastemakers in French progressive rock in the early to mid 70s, each of which we’ll talk about in turn to get an idea of precisely where Ange came from. The first is Gong, a collective whose prime mover was Australian expatriate village eccentric par excellence Daevid Allen. Allen had spent the early-to-mid sixties in England, playing in a few bands before finally winding up with Soft Machine and becoming an influential figure in the Canterbury scene, a loose group of musicians who were playing broadly the same kind of music, upbeat psychedelic rock with whimsical lyrics, a sense of exploratory wonder, and the good kind of jazz improvisation. In 1967, Allen was denied re-entry to the UK because of a visa overstay and was exiled to France, bringing the Canterbury sound sensibilities to the Continent with him.

In Paris, he would assemble what would become Gong, an international group of musicians who would play goofy concept albums influenced by Canterbury-style psychedelia and jazz, but with more of a cosmic, transcendent, polysyllabically hippie-spiritual feel to them. The most essential Gong albums are the Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy: three albums (Flying Teapot, Angel’s Egg, and You) released in 1973 and 1974 built around the consciousness-expanding adventures of Zero the Hero, featuring stuff like cats that are actually witches, propeller-headed pixies who fly around in teapots, a massive concert during which everyone’s third eye will be switched on, and the trilogy’s thematic centerpiece: the great Planet Gong, accessible only through mind-expanding Substances, home to the One Invisible Center and the ultimate source of human self-actualization. The words draw heavily from Buddhist themes, not just enlightenment but also the search for self, the denial of absolute reality, and reincarnation, while the music sounds like if someone mashed up The Piper at the Gates of Dawn with a more developed version of Porcupine Tree’s demo tapes.

Allen left Gong a year after the trilogy was released, and the band moved in more of a jazz-fusion direction without him. He would eventually return in 1992 and continue to perform with a reunited Gong (whose revolving door of members would include Theo Travis and Dave Sturt) until his death in 2015. I personally appreciate Gong more than I like them, but the way the band drew from both English and Continental musical traditions cemented their cross-cultural appeal and their legacy as one of the most unique and important progressive rock bands in history. Although their music is not quite to my taste, they’re light and fun and I’m glad they’re around.

In contrast to the unequivocally positive feelings I have about Gong, I’m honestly rather mixed about Magma, which is frustrating because they’re easily the most influential of the three bands we’re surveying here. Magma describe their general sound as “zeuhl,” a term which would eventually describe an entire subgenre drawing from their musical style. Zeuhl is bombastic, symphonic, and theatrical, more or less what would happen if a rock band were commissioned to write an opera (and not, like, a rock opera, but an actual opera). That’s actually kind of appropriate, as Magma albums are all space-opera epics sung in an invented language (think Simlish or Hopelandic) about a group of refugees fleeing a doomed Earth and settling on the planet Kobaïa, and the struggles and conflicts they experience during their time there. Their third album, Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh, is generally regarded as the pinnacle of their musical style and a cornerstone of not just French prog but prog music period.

Would that Christian Vander, Magma’s founder and main creative force, wasn’t a fascist.

To be clear, I’m not drawing this conclusion from the music itself. Yes, the operatic elements are distinctly authoritarian, with all the choruses and militaristic drumbeats and shouted faux-German, so it’s easy to say “they’re fascist because their music sounds fascist” and call it a day, but that’s lazy. Laibach and Rammstein do the same thing, and the former band is satirical and the latter is left-wing. When I say Vander is fascist, I’m talking about what Vander got up to offstage, like having Nazi flags in his bedroom and saying things about black people and Indians so horrifically racist they make Clapton’s infamous “keep Britain white” rant sound level-headed and reasonable.

At least Clapton–who supports Enoch Powell to this day–has just enough self-awareness to pretend he isn’t racist when called on it. When Vander was called on his past he (through his wife) attempted to dodge the question by going on this long spiel about how Magma’s about life and the struggles of life and how horrible it is that these censorious SJWs are attempting to crucify him for things he might have said when the music is brilliant and what actually matters, man. No denials. No retractions. Fuck that noise.

(To those who say Vander couldn’t possibly be fascist because his wife is Jewish and he’s an admirer of John Coltrane; you sound like the people who defend Milo Yiannopoulos because his partner is black. Cut it out.)

Moving on to less bile-inducing waters, Ange themselves. Of the Big Three Of French Prog, these guys, fronted by brothers Chrstian and Francis Décamps, are probably the most conventional, opting for a style of prog more influenced by medieval and folk music than anything more arcane or psychedelic. One listens to Ange and gets the sense that unlike, say, Gong, these are more intellectual musicians who’ve never touched a mind-altering chemical in their lives. As a consequence, they sound more or less like the sort of music Jethro Tull was making–and mocking–at roughly the same time, all mandolins and flutes and violins and classical guitars. That said, they do have one huge trick up their sleeve: Christian Décamps’ pipes. That man can belt and wail and howl like nobody’s business. This elevates what would typically sound like normal wizardshit (which, to be honest, it still does at times) into something with all of Magma’s operatic pretensions but none of the latent authoritarianism. This is music for the theatre, yes, but less the Paris Opéra and more the Globe.

(I have also been informed in multiple places that Décamps’ lyrics are pretty good, too, but since I haven’t found a place that translates them to English, I’ll just take that on faith.)

In a lot of respects, Ange are a typical progressive rock band. They reached the peak of their popularity with 1974’s Au-Delà Du Délire, which also just so happens to be the fullest realization of their sound at the time. This, coupled with the way their sound went out of its way to be progressive but not alienating, catapulted them to superstardom, becoming the most popular progressive rock band in France. (Of course, because they sung in French, they had trouble breaking into the Anglophone market; their one stab at releasing an album in English flopped horribly.) Then, as the 70s drifted into the 80s and progressive music entered a terminal decline, Ange entered a fallow period, with numerous lineup changes and albums that were, to put it politely, unfavorably compared to what they released in their prime, until they finally limped into a hiatus in 1995.

Something vaguely Ange-like reformed in 1997 as “Christian Décamps et Fils,” with Francis replaced by Christian’s son Tristan and a mostly new (and quite stable!) band lineup, before dropping all pretensions and taking on the name Ange in 1999. This version of the band still tours and records, albeit to a smaller but more devoted audience, and seems to have found a balance between pushing their sound forward but not so forward they’ll alienate the core group of people who know them for what they did in the 70s. (Contrast Wilson, who does what he wants and doesn’t care who he alienates.) This is not a second imperial phase, but it is that period in a prog band’s history where it reassembles itself and finds its footing in a world where the mainstream doesn’t care about them anymore. (e.g. pretty much everything Marillion did after Fish left.)

Here’s where Steven Wilson comes in, tapped to mix two tracks off 2001’s Culinaire Lingus. On this outing at least, Ange’s music has become darker and harsher, to the point where in certain cases (Jusqu’où Iront-ils ?, Cueillir Les Fruits Du Sérail, the title track, Univers Et Nirvana, and parts of Gargantua) it’s practically metal. Décamps, blessed with a vocal style that ages like wine, isn’t theatrically bouncing his vox around the stage as much as he did before, but his voice has compensated by becoming deeper, fuller, and more controlled as he got older.

This doesn’t mean the whole of Culinaire Lingus is doom and gloom, of course. Cueillir Les Fruits Du Sérail crashes into Adrénaline, a jaunty Celtic tune that lays on the fiddle thick and is almost Riverdanceable. Two thirds of Farces Et Attrapes sounds like a children’s song. Intérieur-nuit is a haunting lonely piano ballad. Les Odeurs De Cousine is clearly an excuse for Tristan Décamps to show off on the keyboard. And, of course, Décamps and Caroline Crozat clearly had a lot of fun tag-teaming On Sexe (although given the subject matter I can’t help but imagine them both naked while singing this). Although “heavy” is the album’s baseline, it’s clearly one of those records that’s more interested in showing off the band’s range than sticking to one particular atmosphere.

But, again, Wilson only mixed two tracks from one album out of twenty-two. Ange never shows up again on Wilson’s radar. But they’re worth mentioning not just for completion’s sake, not just because they’re our connection to the parallel universe of French prog, but because they’re one of quite a few connections Wilson has amassed that go off the beaten path a little bit. Yes, it’s cool when Wilson and Fripp or Alex Lifeson or Ian Anderson or some other mainstream prog luminary show up together, because Star Power, but those collaborations are expected. What’s really interesting is when Wilson shows up on the record of someone in a part of the music world we’d think he’d have absolutely no interest in.

This will pay a dividend in two years’ time.

GUEST: Henry Fool – Henry Fool

October 2001

“Ah, British seaside towns. There are three things that connect them all together. One is despair. Two is hepatitis. And three…” –Stuart Ashen

Henry Fool is a group that crystallizes a particular way of thinking about Bowness’ discography, one which forms an interesting contrast to Wilson’s. Wilson’s musical projects are rather discrete; although what he’s doing with one project will inform another, there’s no confusing a Porcupine Tree song with a Blackfield song or a No-Man song or a Bass Communion song. Bowness’ projects, meanwhile, will jumble together into a particular intense, right-brained aesthetic sensibility so completely it’s hard to believe two adjacent albums were technically made by two different groups. A lot of this has to do with the serious personnel cross-pollination between Bowness’ various musical projects; any given major Bowness album is likely to also feature Michael Bearpark, Peter Chilvers, and/or Stephen Bennett, and so having these people together for two different records means they will have a very clear thematic progression between them, even if those two records are released as part of different projects.

That is to say: Henry Fool, a group whose prime movers are the Bowness/Bennett/Bearpark/Chilvers core, released two albums, a self-titled record in 2001, the subject of this post, and a follow-up in 2013. This first record has more in common with the records released on either side of it than it does with its successor.

The self-titled Henry Fool record touts itself as drawing from classic prog and post-punk, but only three songs–Bass Pig, Poppy Z, and The David Warner Wish List–could be described as fitting that label. In practice, Henry Fool is the second album in a loose art-rock trilogy beginning with Samuel Smiles’ World of Bright Futures in 1999 and concluding with the Bowness/Chilvers California, Norfolk collaboration in 2002. Some of the songs carry over in some form or other from one album to the next–Dreamer’s Song, for instance, is slightly rearranged for acoustic guitar on California, Norfolk–but all three records represent the crystallization of a particular quiet sadness that had become Bowness’ main lyrical and instrumental mode in the new century, all ambient moans and twinkling pianos and acoustic guitars and lyrics written largely in the second person mourning slowly disintegrating relationships. This is music to stare wistfully out train windows to.

This sensibility is further refined on California, Norfolk. This is Bowness’ version of Lightbulb Sun, a raw, almost visceral dive into the way depression affects people and the way they interact with the world and each other. Many of the songs are sad snapshots of gray people stuck in gray existences by the gray East Anglia seaside, drifting through life without meaning or purpose. These are people trapped by circumstance, with no power to affect their immediate surroundings; they don’t make things happen as much as passively allow things to happen to them. They’re unable to connect or communicate with others to the point that whatever relationships they do have are in a perpetual slow-motion collapse. They are afflicted with an alienation so severe they’re practically catatonic. It’s brutal and heartbreaking and a worthy culmination of the themes explored on World of Bright Futures and Henry Fool.

Men Singing, the second Henry Fool record, sounds nothing like that. It’s a considerably jazzier, more upbeat album than its predecessor, notably featuring no vocals and a lot of what sound like improvisational passages. It doesn’t even sound like the Bowness albums (Warm Winter, with Giancarlo Erra, and Abandoned Dancehall Dreams) that are on either side of it. Some of the proggier songs on the last album gesture toward a throughline between that record and this one, but that’s the extent of the connection between them. I’m not sure how I feel about it. One the one hand, I very much prefer their self-titled album, because it’s cozy and intimate in a way that Men Singing isn’t, and I’m not into that sort of prog at all, but on the other hand, I also realize that my perception of Men Singing is colored by how little it sounds like the first record, and it might rate a bit higher once I listen to it in a vacuum.

Wilson’s entire contribution to the Henry Fool oeuvre is mixing two rather unremarkable songs on the self-titled album. But here’s the thing: a blog about Steven Wilson, by its very nature, isn’t going to be a blog solely about Steven Wilson, because he’s actually a very collaborative artist. Many of his main projects were collaborations with another person (No-Man, Storm Corrosion) or full bands (Porcupine Tree, Blackfield). Even when he’s exercising dictatorial control over a project (Porcupine Tree at times, his solo work) and writing all the songs and performing most of the instruments, much of the time there’s still an outside influence that comes in to make the songs complete. Theo Travis is the lynchpin of the Drugged suite. Porcupine Tree wouldn’t be Porcupine Tree without the unique contributions of the other members. Wilson went out of his way to describe The Raven that Refused to Sing as a band record instead of a solo record.

In reality, the story of Steven Wilson is just one of many, colliding and intersecting with the stories of other musicians as they collaborate and influence each other. Some, like the subject of the next post, flit in and out only briefly but have extensive backstories of their own. Others, like Tim Bowness, are so intertwined that it’s neither possible nor desirable to fully extricate them from each other. In fact, Wilson himself has said multiple times that he doesn’t rate himself all that well as a musician or a vocalist, but his real talent comes from the production side of things, from taking the different parts that he and other musicians recorded in studio and creating something amazing out of them.

In other words, to paraphrase Travis Scott, who put this shit together, he’s the glue.

I.E.M. – Have Come For Your Children

September 2001
Untitled (Complete IEM), June 2010

“I think by the time I’d done I.E.M. I realised there were a whole lot of other people who were doing it a whole lot better, because I didn’t have the time or the inclination to really commit myself fully to it. […] But I suppose I.E.M., because it was all done in the spirit of fun, was never going to be anything particularly substantial to me.” –Steven Wilson

“Yeah, it had some nice moments.”

We have arrived at yet another ending. Apart from a pair of compilations and box sets released in 2005 and 2010, this will be the last original IEM record. As this album and Arcadia Son were recorded at the same time and form a sort of diptych, it’s probably worth comparing the two side-by-side.

Arcadia Son is the more diverse record, building as it does on Escalator to Christmas’ mishmash of krautrock, pure psychedelia, and spoken-word samples. As such, its main strength is its diversity and willingness to careen abruptly from one idea to another and to experiment with all sorts of different genres, sounds, moods, and textures. Have Come For Your Children, meanwhile, sticks mostly to doing one thing. Every piece on this album, with the possible exception of the untitled hammered dulcimer/mellotron choir piece at the end, is much more interested in a very particular gloomy, rhythmic atmosphere and stretching it out and abstracting it as much as possible…to the point where it’s practically of a piece with what Bass Communion is doing. In fact, Have Come For Your Children goes a long way toward explaining why Bass Communion would become Wilson’s primary weird/experimental musical outlet after this. Even though it doesn’t sound like Bass Communion at all, as there’s still percussion and a sense of rhythm, that project still represents a natural and attractive endpoint for the sort of thing IEM is doing on this record.

In that respect, then, Have Come For Your Children is honestly a huge disappointment. The sense of infinite possibility that Arcadia Son represented has been closed off, the opportunities for Wilson to go in new and bizarre directions have not been taken, and instead we get something that sounds more or less like what he’s already been doing. There’s no uniqueness to Have Come For Your Children the way there was with Arcadia Son or An Escalator to Christmas, and as such there’s also no corresponding sense of fun and wonder. This, more than anything else, is a funeral dirge.

Some of this is inherent in endings as a concept. Part of the reason endings are so tough to do in more narrative-based mediums is you are foreclosing on that wealth of possibilities that the story could have gone. It’s why many of the best story endings still have a sense of ambiguity about them. Bands don’t have that luxury, not only because it’s not (necessarily) a narrative-based medium but also because most albums aren’t meant to be The Last Ones. They just record an album, and go on hiatus, and sometimes that hiatus becomes permanent. Oops. To the extent this affects IEM, which has already established itself as a fractal clusterfuck of a project, the obvious way to wrap this thing up would be to disintegrate completely, to be such a jarring, abrasive goulash of styles and genres that it’s practically unlistenable. This didn’t happen.

What we do have is well-made, of course. This was culled from some improvisations that were recorded around the same time as Arcadia Son, the sort of extended jam session that produces things like Moonloop and Metanoia. All pieces are untitled. The first one is thirty-five minutes long, and is measured and tightly structured, almost ritualistic, ebbing and flowing hypnotically like the tides. Untitled 2 continues in a similar vein, providing the raw material for much of the rest of the album, with each successive piece piling on more and more jazz and noise elements until we get Untitled 5, a glorious, cacophonic sensory barrage unlike anything Wilson had ever made up to that point. This is what the whole rest of the album should have sounded like.

For as much as Untitled 5 is the best thing on the album, it also demonstrates the limits of Moonloop-esque improvisations as a source of good Steven Wilson music. Moonloop itself was a masterpiece. Metanoia and Have Come For Your Children feel like retreads. This is troubling, because a return to the Moonloop well suggests that he took IEM as far as he felt it could have gone in the Escalator/Arcadia mode, as if he didn’t have any further interest in exploring the outer reaches of krautrock or harsh noise or proto-vaporwave or whatever other oddball out-of-character idea popped into his head this week.

What makes it even worse is there’s no aspect of IEM that continues after the project’s demise. Most other concluded Steven Wilson projects contain the seeds of the future within them. IEM itself is the product of the experiments Teen Wilson did as Altamont. Karma, easily Wilson’s worst band, recorded really early versions of Small Fish and Nine Cats. Porcupine Tree transitions shockingly well into Wilson’s solo career. When No-Man went on a decade-long hiatus, it found a spiritual successor in Tim Bowness’ solo albums. In addition, when Wilson is working on multiple projects simultaneously, the results tend to bleed into each other. His work producing Opeth informs every Porcupine Tree record from In Absentia onward. Grace for Drowning forms a loose trilogy with Heritage and Storm Corrosion. A good way of figuring out what a new Steven Wilson record will sound like is seeing what albums he’s been remixing lately. Just about everything Wilson records has some sort of connection with something else.

IEM, meanwhile, just stops. There’s no legacy for it to carry on, nothing within it that informed anything Wilson did after this. With this album, everything IEM could have become was reduced to the sort of thing Bass Communion was already doing anyway. All we have after this are a few compilations, and that’s it. Have Come For Your Children doesn’t just feel like a foreclosing of IEM’s possibilities, it feels like a foreclosing of an entire chunk of Steven Wilson’s personality. Whether he realizes it or not, he needs something like IEM to play around with. I miss it tremendously.

  1. Arcadia Son
  2. I.E.M.
  3. Have Come For Your Children

GUEST: Jansen Barbieri Karn – Playing in a Room with People

September 2001
Bandcamp rerelease, 27 February 2016
LP edition, 5 February 2020

Past

There are three albums that lie between where we last left off with the ex-Japan people and now. The first is Barbieri and Jansen’s Other Worlds in a Small Room, released in 1996. It’s an absolutely delightful ambient record that’s more than a worthy sequel to the similarly-titled album from a decade earlier, encompassing the whole spectrum of emotions that ambient music is really good at articulating. Light Years in particular comes highly recommended.

A year later, Barbieri and Jansen got together with Nobukazu Takemura and released Changing Hands, a little atmospheric record that fits comfortably into the other stuff they were doing at the time. It’s also, quite frankly, rather unmemorable. I listened to it twice now, and each time it went in one ear and out the other, another data point in favor of me just thoroughly bouncing off this particular style of music. (See also: much of Mick Karn’s discography.) At least we’re not sounding like a computer game soundtrack anymore.

1998’s _ism, on the other hand, is probably the best record an ex-Japan collective have ever made, with lots of abrasive guitars over trip-hop-esque drums with heavy layers of electronics and a general noirish atmosphere. It’s not JBK does Mezzanine, exactly, since the two albums were recorded and released at roughly the same time, but since super-dark trip hop was in the air at the time, something like this was inevitable. And thank God. JBK always came off as slightly dated, but once in a while it can be parlayed into something wonderfully dated, and _ism is a perfect example of that.

_ism’s other revelation comes through the particular ways in which it illustrates an optimum for JBK as a project. Or: this thing has vocals. Very nice ones, thanks largely to Zoe Niblett. She elevates whatever she’s doing into complete songs as opposed to, well, playing in a room. Her voice ties the song together, and this suggests that more JBK albums should have had songs amenable to having vocals in them.

From this vantage point, then, we can get a better idea of the arc of JBK’s career, and it’s only occasionally pretty. After Rain Tree Crow comes a post-imperial phase profoundly susceptible to ossification, as much of their 90s work seems like an extended, somewhat meandering jam session more than anything else. There are exceptions, of course– Beginning to Melt, The Wilderness, Sleepers Awake, and so forth–but it was only with _ism that we hit on something definitive that could give an idea of what the group could sound like in the new century.

_ism was also the last collaborative studio release involving more than one ex-Japan person, and Playing in a Room With People is that last original release from the ex-Japan collective period.

Present

The way this bleeds over into JB (and occasionally K)’s live performance is a fraught one, largely because they didn’t perform live all that much. The first signpost here is obviously Lumen, recorded in 1996, released 2015, and apparently thrown up on Spotify when I wasn’t looking. Recorded in Amsterdam, and featuring Steven Wilson on guitar and synethesizer, it’s the only time JB performed live as JB. (Although K did come along for the ride.)

Most of what’s on Lumen comes from the Stories Across Borders album from 1991, their saving throw after the disaster that was The Dolphin Brothers. Maybe it’s the way the album came directly after Dolphin Brothers that elevated my initial perceptions, but Stories Across Borders isn’t exactly successful at distinguishing itself in a vacuum. It’s mid-tier ex-Japan at best, and their live renditions don’t add much, either. The best songs off Lumen are Sleepers Awake and Beginning to Melt, which already sounded amazing in the studio.

Playing in a Room with People, meanwhile, pulls not just from JB’s discography but also from Rain Tree Crow and Mick Karn’s solo work. Interestingly, although they picked more middle-of-the-road stuff to represent JB and Rain Tree Crow, the Karn stuff on display here is actually pretty good, particularly Saday Maday (accentuated with Wilson’s guitar and Theo Travis’ saxophone toward the end) and Plaster the Magic Tongue (Travis again, this time on that wonderful flute solo). The album opener, Walkabout, which appears to be an original Barbieri composition, is also quite good, moody and atmospheric, yet also industrial and abrasive. There should have been a whole album of stuff like that.

As a sendoff, though, Playing in a Room With People works great. Even though it’s far from a complete survey of JB and K’s numerous musical collaborations, it’s still an excellent summation of their post-Japan collaborations. Just like with the parent project, though, there’s still that sense of aborted possibility, that we’re going our separate ways right as we’re about to make a sort of breakthrough, either in terms of popularity or our evolution as musicians.

Future

Since we don’t see much of these people after this, it might be worth taking a quick look at where the individual players went from here. Barbieri would spend the aughts focusing primarily on Porcupine Tree, although he would still release the occasional solo album, some of which we’ll take a look at as we move forward.

Steve Jansen and Mick Karn, meanwhile, would mostly keep to their solo careers after this. The most relevant album in Jansen’s case is his debut solo album, 2007’s Slope, a record that suggests a glitchier, jazzier, more experimental direction that JBK could have taken…in other words, something that sounds like an Anja Garbarek record. That’s kind of fitting, as she guests on this album, along with other familiar names like Theo Travis and David Sylvian.

As for Mick Karn, his first post-JBK records of note is Endless, a 2009 album by Italian prog rock outfit Fjieri. In addition to Karn, who plays bass on two songs, one of which sees him reunite with Richard Barbieri, Endless boasts a guest list that’s a who’s-who of Wilson-adjacent people, like Tim Bowness, Peter Chilvers, and Gavin Harrison. This means the album benefits by-proxy from the incredible chemistry that Porcupine Tree had, as though a chunk of that band broke off and found its way here. This happens whenever two ex-PT members get together and start playing, like when Harrison reunited with Colin Edwin in 2016 for iamthemorning’s Lighthouse, or when Wilson and Barbieri briefly played together during Wilson’s three-night Royal Albert Hall residency in 2018. The song that Karn, Barbieri, and Harrison all play on, Ad Occhi Chiusi, sounds like a spicy Italian remix of a Porcupine Tree song, and is absolutely delightful.

The other Karn album worth mentioning here is what would have been the second full-length collaboration between Karn and Peter Murphy. I say “would have been” because before they were to head into the studio, Karn was diagnosed with an unspecified but aggressive form of cancer. Fundraisers were announced, benefit concerts were organized, and Porcupine Tree would release a live album, with the profits going to Karn’s medical expenses. These appeals allowed Karn, who was living in Cyprus at the time, to move back to London for treatment. Unfortunately the cancer proved too aggressive and Karn died in January of 2011. At the time of his death, Karn and Murphy had recorded five songs from what would have been their latest album, and it was these songs that would be released as InGladAloneness, an EP dedicated to Karn’s memory. So it goes.

Coda: Far Future

Finally, there’s the elephant in the room. Playing in a Room with People was released the month of 9/11. This album, like any album released that month, has nothing to do with 9/11, except that it too sits right on the fulcrum between a known past and an unknown future. JBK will not exist after this record. Neither will a lot of people’s understanding of the international order. These two things aren’t even remotely equivalent, but since they still happened simultaneously there’s still a temptation, however wrongheaded, to connect them somehow.

9/11 will not have a serious impact on Steven Wilson’s story for a few years, as its repercussions on politics and culture ripple outward and reach endpoints that are even more horrific than the act itself. Nevertheless, here we are now, in real time, as it’s happening, as a civilization convulses in great collective trauma, and we begin to understand that the familiar world of the nineties is truly dead and gone, and although it may not have been peaceful it sure as hell is going to feel like it compared to what’s coming, and now is the time of monsters.

It is the first day of April 2020, and I am writing this in the middle of a pandemic. My county is on lockdown. It is illegal for me to leave my house except to go to work or to go grocery shopping. Hospitals are overwhelmed, small businesses are collapsing, and state and local governments will soon have to amputate entire limbs for spare change. Current projections place the eventual American death toll at anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions. The Hungarian parliament voted to allow its fascist tyrant of a Prime Minister to rule by decree indefinitely. More nations may follow. The governor of Idaho signed legislation severely restricting the rights of trans people. It won’t be the last. The barbarisms of the new decade are becoming clearer by the day, and they are terrifying.

And from this whirlwind emerges the same sense of existential fear and anxiety that was in the air after 9/11, the climate in which Playing in a Room with People suddenly found itself. What should have been a nice little live album celebrating the collective discography of three men about to go their separate ways has instead been marked out prematurely as an artifact from an earlier age, a reminder of precisely what we’re losing.

GUEST: Theo Travis – Heart of the Sun

August 2001

I don’t get jazz.

This is largely for the same reason I don’t get a lot of metal: I already bounce off a lot of the conventions of the genre, so while I like stuff that incorporates elements of jazz (to a point, anyway), when I listen to the straight dope I very rarely get anything out of it beyond an intellectual appreciation for the musicianship and the improvisation and the way the individual members of the band play off each other. And that’s nice, but I generally don’t listen to music to appreciate it intellectually. I listen to music to feel things, and–again, generally–when I listen to jazz I don’t feel things.

The one exception is when it’s background noise and I’m doing something else. That’s a big reason why the jazz in, say, the SimCity soundtrack managed to stick when a lot of other jazz doesn’t: I’ve associated it with very particular and very fond memories of playing the game. That’s also why, to me, literally every Theo Travis solo album up to Heart of the Sun sounds like this. That is my primary reference point for a lot of the jazz I’ve been listening to, and the thing against which I compare any jazz I listen to that isn’t, say, New York, New York. (I realize that’s unfair to jazz as a whole, whose history is as complex and multifaceted as any other genre, but it is what it is.)

So this one was always going to be tough to get through, because the fact of the matter is Theo Travis is right up there with Tim Bowness and Mikael Akerfeldt as one of the most important people in Steven Wilson’s musical circles. He’s already showed up in a lot of places: Stupid Dream and all three Bass Communion releases thus far, most importantly, but also on:

  • Recordings (sax on Ambulance Chasing)
  • Returning Jesus (sax on Slow It All Down, flute on Lighthouse)
  • Lost Songs, Vol. 1 (sax and flute on Gothgirl Killer and Samaritan Snare)
  • No Ordinary Man, his collaboration with Dave Sturt as Cipher
  • Indigo Falls (soprano sax on Falling Into Years)
  • Smiling and Waving (sax on Big Mouth)

 

…and that’s what we’ve covered here in some capacity. He’s also worked with JBK (_ism), Steve Jansen and Yukihiro Takahashi (Pulse), and Japan associate Masami Tsuchiya (Forest People). It was inevitable that Wilson would eventually show up on one of his solo albums.

To this decidedly non-jazz-head, Heart of the Sun, his fourth solo album and the first one Wilson was directly involved in, is the best of his solo albums thus far…or at least the one most successful at delivering a musical palette more varied than the usual “Manhattan at night” mode he operates in. When you don’t get jazz, this is a godsend.

Heart of the Sun loosely alternates between pieces that are straight jazz and pieces that are shaped vaguely like more familiar progressive rock. Northern Lights, for instance, has a distinct ambient bent to it, while Barking Dogs and Caravans starts out in typical Travis jazz fashion but about six minutes in the sax drops out and in comes David Gordon’s piano and Mark Wood’s guitar, delivering a tension-addled solo that wouldn’t be out of place on a Porcupine Tree album. That Old Smile does something similar; here the piano and guitar are skittering and frantic, threatening to dissolve the song almost completely, before Travis’ sax comes back to restore some sense of sanity and cohesion. Last Flight From Tinwood is barely jazz at all, built instead around Wood’s squealing, echoing guitar; with Palle Mikkelborg’s swirling trumpet coming in to accentuate certain key moments.

This probably says something about the nature of progressive rock in general. Prog’s main thing is the way it absorbs and assimilates other genres, taking cues from folk, classical, and (yes) jazz. There is a very strong case to be made that Last Flight From Tinwood is fundamentally a rock song. A profoundly avant-garde rock song, yes, but a rock song nevertheless. The boundary between rock music and jazz music can be rather porous, and a big reason progressive rock collapses into jazz-fusion as often as it does is the way jazz emphasizes the sort of virtuosity that prog musicians are really good at.

Unfortunately, to someone like me who lacks the musical vocabulary necessary to get what jazz musicians are doing when they reel off really long improvisational solos, this can be profoundly alienating. At its most extreme, this registers as a distinct sense that heavily improvisational music is fundamentally antithetical to the guitar-keyboards-bass-drums setup of the typical rock band, and the real value in progressive rock comes when it pushes against the boundaries of how rock is defined in ways that retain a fundamental underlying structure. In other words, the apotheosis of progressive rock is the sort of tightly-wound Swiss-watch compositions that happens to be Porcupine Tree’s bread and butter.

Of all the different periods Wilson’s career has drifted in and out of, the one running from Grace for Drowning through is probably my least favorite, because it’s the one that leans closest into the sort of jazz-fusion abyss that represents progressive rock’s well-publicized failure mode. That this is also the portion of his career that most heavily features Theo Travis isn’t exactly a coincidence. Nevertheless, Travis is definitely not a harbinger of doom, where his presence automatically means what an Extremely Online proghead might call “wizardshit.” Before we hit Wilson’s solo career proper, he’s gonna show up on No-Man, Bass Communion (again), and in collaboration with Robert Fripp and one other very unlikely artist. But the fact remains that to a pleb like me, the concept of fusing jazz and rock works better when the fusion is based on the former instead of the latter, and Heart of the Sun is a perfect example of that.

Porcupine Tree – Live at Nearfest

green day 100% pure uncut rock23 June 2001

“The boy bands have won.” –Chumbawamaba

The third annual North East Art Rock Festival was held at its usual location in the Zoellner Arts Center, on the campus of Lehigh University in Bethlehem. Nearfest was a progressive rock festival that ran from 1999 to 2012, mostly in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. Porcupine Tree performed on the first day. These are all mundane details, but together they make my head explode because I live pretty close to the Lehigh Valley, and was up there fairly often as a kid, so I’m retroactively wondering why Porcupine Tree did a show near where I live and no one thought to tell nine-year-old me, who was listening mostly to boy bands and 1970s classic rock, and wouldn’t have known what a Porcupine Tree was, and wouldn’t have appreciated anything they were playing anyway.

As for what it was they were playing, it is surprising to learn that Porcupine Tree occasionally made extremely boneheaded decisions about how to adapt some of their songs to a live setting. We’ve encountered this before; Up the Downstair’s bass, for instance, is done no favors when Edwin’s playing it. It’s not quite synthetic enough; it feels like it should be something Barbieri constructs and then throws on a loop so he can focus on more involved soundscapes. (Nice that it gives Edwin something to do, though.) At Nearfest, the main victim is Even Less, a song that Wilson has only ever barely managed to get a handle on playing live. Here, the song plunges into that weird uncanny valley that live performances can occasionally fall into where it’s tremendously faithful to the studio version but the differences are just prominent enough that the whole performance sounds off, somehow. In this case, it’s the guitar’s odd tuning and the way it doesn’t sound quite crisp enough, although that might be flaws in the recording itself. Combined with that weird warble thing Wilson’s voice occasionally did at the time where he sounded twice his age, the intervention is toxic.

(The one really good live version of Even Less was performed during soundcheck in Los Angeles during the Incident tour (and possibly elsewhere; but the LA performance is what we have video evidence of). There, we had Wilson on vox and acoustic backing guitar, with Jordan Rudess playing the main guitar part on the piano, in that full grand Steinway mode he’s really good at, with the pastoral, flowery flourishes and bone-shattering low end and everything. It sounds amazing. This was then butchered into what appears on Home Invasion, where Wilson essentially is trying to play an acoustic arrangement of the song on an electric guitar, and the result sounds like it should be a discarded demo more than anything else…doubly frustrating because Adam Holzman could have replicated Rudess’ piano without too much trouble.)

Most of the time, though, the Nearfest gig doesn’t do that. The performance is pretty decent, if you’re into generally note-perfect renditions souped up here and there by the slightly looser dynamics of the live setting, Barbieri’s correctly rated and Maitland’s criminally underrated ability to bring space and atmosphere to a song, Edwin’s unflappable island time energy, and Wilson’s prowess at busting out some killer solos when called upon to do so. It’s not their best, but at this stage in their career “their best” is something they’re still working toward.

That said, there are some interesting facets of the band dynamics at the time that the Nearfest performance brings out. Toward the end of Shesmovedon, for instance, the camera lingers on Maitland and Edwin for a bit, marveling at the contrast between the two musicians. Maitland is improvising a spectacular drum solo and is going at it like a maniac, while Edwin picks at his bass the same way a middle-class office worker picks at a cocktail while sprawled out on a lounge chair at a Bahamas all-inclusive resort, and just looks happy to be there. Wilson, meanwhile, is still trying to construct a stage presence, and 2001 finds him wearing crop tops, cargo pants, and little hippie sunglasses, looking for all the world like a teenager for whom this is an after-school side gig. He’s still not fully comfortable onstage; whenever he has to speak to the audience he sounds like he’s about to die of stage fright.

This leads us neatly into what everything up there was a preamble for: before the band dives into Hatesong, Wilson steps up to the microphone and says the following:

“I don’t know how closely you guys follow the news, what’s going on in the United Kingdom at the moment, or in fact recently. We’ve had a pretty terrible disease sweeping the country, sweeping the nation, you know about that?”

Muted “yeah!” response from an audience conditioned Pavlovly to respond that way to any question posed by a musician onstage.

“Yeah, I am of course talking about boy bands and girl bands.”

Applause.

“It is a fucking disease. And showing no signs of slowing up, either. The infection keeps spreading. And I know you have a particular problem with this disease in the United States as well, and in fact, you’ve sent your disease over to us as well! Thanks!”

Laughter.

“So, what we’re gonna do for you now is a song which is kind of our antidote to the likes of Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, ‘N-Sync, Christine Agwilera [sic], &c. &c. &c. And the thing about all these…musicians…”

Wilson highlights the word “musicians” with giant air quotes.

“…about these ‘artists,’ is that they purport to perform ‘love’ ‘songs,’ and they don’t make me feel very romantic somehow. So this is Porcupine Tree’s antidote to all of those pointless love songs, and this is called HATEsong.”

So obviously there’s a lot going on here. On the kneejerk surface-text level, Wilson is grossly overgeneralizing. Boy bands like Backstreet Boys and “girl bands” (WTF?) like Britney Spears don’t make “love songs” (although they do make those) as much as they do “songs about love.” Something like Oops I Did It Again isn’t meant to make the listener feel romantic because it’s a much more cynical (yet simultaneously empowering!) approach to the whole business of romance, an approach that works entirely because it trades on the song’s (and genre’s) sense of artifice and Spears’ own image as a (not that–) innocent teenybopper pop princess.

(I would, of course, be remiss if I didn’t mention here that “songs about love” is a spectacularly broad label and includes not just what was on the pop charts in 2001 but over half of Lightbulb Sun–including, in its own sick, twisted way, Hatesong. Pot, kettle, &c.)

Speaking of artifice, we’ve gone briefly over the issue with authenticity in pop music w/r/t popularity and the ethics of “selling out” and participating in the exploitative meat grinder that is the recording industry back in the Stupid Dream post, but Wilson’s roast of boy bands here introduces a new wrinkle: the trouble with pop music is that it’s shallow and manufactured lovey-dovey fluff. This implies there’s a music that serves as a counterpoint in its depth and authenticity. Music like, say, Porcupine Tree, who proudly write not love songs but Hatesongs. Never mind that he’s currently wearing a crop top and touring his most obviously please-make-me-famous record to date and the fandom tore him a new asshole for apparently selling out with the last album two years ago, Steven Wilson is the real deal. Honest.

Here’s the issue, though: if we take it as a truth that any artist sells out the instant they’re able to have complete strangers listen to their music, then artists who claim to value authenticity don’t actually value authenticity but the appearance of authenticity. They’re saying “we’re not trying to sell you something, man” while shamelessly trying to sell us something, and the people who get huffy about authenticity in music (aka “suckers”) bought the lie look line and sinker. Any music that claims it’s “real” is lying to you. Pop music is fake, too, of course, but it doesn’t care, and so is more preoccupied with other things. The true value of pop music, and music in general, lies elsewhere, in the meaning it creates for the listener.

This is, in microcosm, the deeper engagement with the boy band rant, which hits one of the defining fault lines in music criticism: rockism versus poptimism. Kieron Gillen has an excellent (and charitable) definition of the former, stating that “Rockism is the belief that some forms of music are more authentic and real than other forms of music and authenticity and realness are virtues in and of themselves,” leaving pregnantly unspoken the implication that the more “authentic” and “real” forms of music happen to feature white men with electric guitars. Poptimism, meanwhile, is a celebration of music in all its forms, deemphasizing concerns about authenticity through recognizing that music is an expansive, multifaceted thing, containing within it all sorts of multitudes and innovations and dynamisms…even the stuff that appears on the pop charts. There are nuances, contradictions, and fuzzy borders, of course, but in broad strokes that’s where the lines are drawn.

It should be pretty obvious where I stand. Rockism is fundamentally a regressive, reactionary position because treating that old time rock ‘n roll as the pinnacle of what music can offer completely ignores the other musical currents that were brewing in the 60s, 70s, and 80s: stuff like synthpop and punk and funk and soul and hip hop. These genres all had just as much youthful energy and innovative spirit as anything that would become standards on classic rock radio in the following decades. In addition…let’s be honest. Rockism also ignores that most classic rock is unlistenable dreck. Rockist snobbery is the only possible explanation for why artists like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bad Company and Steve Miller and the Allman Brothers still have cachet in this year of our Lord 2020. It is a celebration of bland white mediocrity as the peak of the musical art form, and a disparagement of anything that fails to worship at its feet. It’s Morrissey saying reggae is vile. It’s Bohemian Rhapsody’s Best Picture nomination. It is a school of thought that has no business existing in contemporary music criticism.

Steven Wilson, meanwhile, isn’t quite either a rockist or a poptimist. He’s absolutely without question a rock musician, and those are the traditions he holds in highest esteem…but he also has an appreciation for pop music healthy enough that it resulted in Blackfield and To the Bone and Billie Eilish showing up on last year’s year-end recommendations list. His attitude toward music criticism could best be illustrated through his onstage banter during the To The Bone Tour, where on one hand we get the rant about how millennials don’t know what an electric guitar is, while on the other hand we get the rant about how people who turn their nose up at pop music should really get over themselves. We could probably describe Wilson’s attitudes toward music as a particular synthesis of rockism and poptimism, where the snobbery is largely displaced away from rock music (although not gone away entirely, see his withering comments about Greta Van Fleet, for instance) and toward pop music. When he’s criticising boy bands, he’s not using boy bands as a synecdoche for all pop music and saying pop music sucks, he’s saying boy bands make bad pop music.

Though I staunchly disagree, that’s at least a defensible position. Here, though, is where his approach runs into trouble: Steven Wilson may have grown up with both Pink Floyd and Donna Summer, and he may be musically omnivorous and take inspiration from all sorts of genres, but he is not a pop musician. He’s a rock musician. Therefore, any criticisms of pop music he makes will be perceived as coming from an outsider…and all the troubling dynamics that implies when Wilson is a white man, working in a genre dominated by white men, casting aspersions on a genre that’s considerably less dominated by white men and typically looked down upon by white men. It is perfectly reasonable to listen to Wilson ranting about boy bands and think he’s a rockist snob saying all pop music is terrible. This means that when Steven Wilson goes onstage and says Backstreet Boys suck, whatever nuances are lent to this argument from his particular relationship with pop music will sail right over the heads of everyone in the audience, generally rockist snobs themselves, and anything he says will register as “durr pop music bad.” Oopsie.

(This is a broader issue than one would think. When Todd Nathanson started reviewing pop songs we automatically assumed that, like most Internet Males of a Certain Age, he came out of the rockist tradition and bashed pop songs because he hated pop songs, even after we had annual best-of lists and his repeated protests, in detail, that he loved pop music. It was only after One-Hit Wonderland started and he got to regularly show off his knowledge of pop history that the idea of Todd Nathanson, Pop Music Lover finally landed.)

As an unfortunate consequence, every rockist snob at Nearfest now thinks of Wilson as one of their own, even when he isn’t. This wasn’t a perception Wilson would seriously push back on for over a decade and a half, instead choosing to yammer on about iPods and music streaming and other such things that record store owners in Rush t-shirts could nod dumbly along to. Thus does the Wilson-as-rockist-snob meme grow and metastasize until 2017, when Permanating is released and half his audience starts screaming betrayal at the top of their lungs. The backlash was a self-own, yes, but if they were to think a little bit about Wilson’s musical background, they would have at least seen it coming and recognized Wilson for who he is: a man with better and wider taste in music than they will ever have.