No-Man – Carolina Skeletons

August 1998

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Porcupine Tree – Signify

30 September 1996

Waiting, May 1996
2-CD edition, July 2003
Remastered 2-LP edition, May 2004
Delerium Years remaster, 2017

“You’ve just had a heavy session of electroshock therapy, and you’re more relaxed than you’ve been in weeks! All those childhood traumas magically wiped away, along with most of your personality!”

“The brainwashed do not know they are brainwashed.”

You’re Not As Messed Up As You Think You Are

I was brought up evangelical. Like most people who were brought up evangelical, after a certain point you realize that no God worth worshipping would mandate the brainwashing/oppression/extermination of queer people. Like most people who were brought up evangelical, after a certain point you realize that the institutional edifice[s] propping up middle-class American Protestant Christianity are fundamentally, systematically rotten from top to bottom. Middle-class American Christianity is not a belief system that survives any sustained contact with the beauty and diversity of the outside world that we were told God loathes (and somehow loves) so much.

And, like most people who were brought up evangelical, I ran facefirst into the outside world right around my eighteenth birthday, and you can probably guess how things would eventually shake loose afterward.

I should probably be very specific about what it is that so fundamentally bothers me about religion. Of course, when I talk about “religion,” I am going to primarily reference the one I was raised in, but I’m pretty sure a lot of these same issues are universal. For starters, one person or group of people quite simply has no business holding formal authority over people’s spirituality…especially when aforesaid person/group of people are primarily white men who’re middle-aged or older. In fact, an individual or a church’s collective spirituality is just too important to be trusted to anything that has any sort of implicit or explicit hierarchical structure.

Because with that power, naturally, comes abuse. The mountain of sex abuse scandals emanating from within Christianity speaks for itself and is a more damning indictment of the faith and of religious authority than Christ himself ever came up with. But it’s not just that, it’s also spiritual abuse. It’s rooting out anyone who dares question the stranglehold you have over your audience. It’s about projecting your own prejudices onto a messy collection of books written thousands of years ago in a time and place that, unless you’re Palestinian, is not yours, and which already have their own prejudices baked in. It’s hell, a concept that suddenly becomes horrifying if even a modicum of thought is applied to it. It’s teaching women that they’re lesser than men. It’s teaching people they shouldn’t have sex until marriage or they should remain in abusive relationships, and all the emotional damage that follows. It’s teaching queer people that they should be “converted” to a compulsory cisgenderness or heterosexuality. It’s a sick, twisted white supremacist nationalism—God, guns, and Trump—that in America has a robust history dating all the way back to when these very same preachers were defending (and, in at least once case, advocating for the imposition of) slavery. Say the right vaguely churchy words in the right order once in a while and the suckers just come rolling in.

Scaling up from the individual church level, it’s terrorist attacks on Planned Parenthood clinics. It’s missionaries tromping around the Third World reenacting the quest of their imperialist ancestors from two centuries previous to Bring Civilization To The Savage Peoples. It’s the Crusades, and the associated deep-rooted anti-Semitism and Islamophobia that leeched onto and sprung from them. It’s the teachings of an insignificant nomadic prophet, corralled into the service of innumerable bloodthirsty empires since at least the conversion of Constantine. It’s, fundamentally, the belief that anyone who’s not Christian ought to be brainwashed, intellectually lobotomized, or killed. Kant had a rare moment of lucidity if he did indeed say something like “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest,” because Christianity is fundamentally Satanic.

Moving on to the freakish assemblage of texts that spawned this faith, the Bible. Nothing in the Bible really happened except possibly a few of the Pauline epistles. Much of the Old Testament exists specifically to advance particular political agendas. That we got the four Gospels we have today can be chalked up to historical accident, and none of them are factually accurate accounts of the life of Jesus…a figure about whom we know nothing beyond that he was almost certainly a real person.

And even beyond historical inaccuracy, there’s a ton of stuff in the Bible that is legitimately horrifying. People center around those long lists of things that deserve the death penalty in Leviticus and Deuteronomy for good reason, but check out how God himself behaves in the Bible if you really want to send a chill down your spine. And in the New Testament, Paul himself is a real piece of work, to the point where one suspects that his conversion experience didn’t change a whole lot besides his religious affiliation.

But here’s the fun part: a lot of what I just said about the Bible is what people learn in their first few weeks at seminary. This is literally Christianity 101. So the appropriate Christian reaction to a New Atheist type bloviating about how the Bible is false is “well…duh.”

And, of course, let’s not forget that despite Christianity’s long and storied relationship with white supremacy, it’s not like atheism’s much better. For every atheist whose rejection of a supreme being also serves as a rejection of divinely supported oppressive power structures, you’ve got an atheist whose rejection of a supreme being serves as an excuse to justify keeping their blessedly secular Europe free of muddle-headed Muslims. And really, that’s frustrating. Atheism is awful, and has been awful for a very long time, because in the West it too, like Christianity, has been co-opted to serve the whims of empire, and has been since the days of the Enlightenment. The only reasons atheism can’t be considered As Bad as Christianity is (a) the predominant tradition has only been around for about four or five hundred years, and (b) there’s still a strand of atheism that’s legitimately liberatory.

You can thank the anarchists for that. You know the slogan: no gods, no masters. But it is an anarchistic atheism, an atheism that includes within it critiques of not just religion but also racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic power structures and of capitalism, authoritarianism, and authority in general. Give me an atheism whose denial of God is based on rejecting the divine right of kings any day over a monosyllabic atheism that sits in its own drool saying “invisible sky fairy” over and over. And this is just as important as rejecting God, because an atheism that rejects the worst impulses of Christianity only replicates them when it fails to interrogate anything else. Just ask Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or their intellectual forebear H. L. Mencken.

But, really, this is a level of intellectual complexity that’s beyond Western atheism, whose avatar is the cisgender heterosexual white guy who’s never quite gotten past that zeal of the deconverted phase where he constantly gets himself off over how he’s outgrown such silly superstitions. And, really, if there’s one thing Western atheists need to not do, it’s be impressed with themselves for learning there’s no God or afterlife and we’re only a cosmic dust mite winking briefly in and out of existence and life has no inherent meaning beyond what we invest in it from our own experiences and desires. Like, it may seem like it is in whatever one-horse cult you’ve managed to escape from, but this is not esoteric, revealed knowledge. So you think you’re special? Coming down from the mountain with the new Ten Commandments from The God Delusion etched in stone tablets? Well, good job in learning what the rest of us did a long time ago.

Thus, to Signify, the album that more or less describes that moment when you’ve joined the rest of the human race and wondering what to do now. It’s also the only Porcupine Tree record I don’t like.

She’s Not As Pretty As She Thinks She Is

I mentioned in the Up the Downstair review that Porcupine Tree records generally come in pairs, where the first album changes the band’s sound and the second refines it. This schema comes the closest to breaking entirely with The Sky Moves Sideways and Signify, because both albums represent a pretty substantial sonic shift, and in completely different directions: The Sky Moves Sideways expands the music’s psychedelic elements to territories not seen since Voyage 34, whereas Signify is the point at which we start putting the Space Era to bed.

The Space Era’s far from over, mind. Most of the tracks on this album retain the sensibilities that Porcupine Tree is known for, most notably The Sleep of No Dreaming, Sever, Every Home is Wired, Intermediate Jesus, and Dark Matter. Moving into the Alternative Era will ultimately be a three-year process involving the Insignificance demos and a final orgasmic explosion of pure psychedelia in Metanoia, but it’s pretty clear from what we have here that we’ve reached the limit of what we can do with our currently-established sound and we have to try something different. That and we’re gelling more and more as a studio band, so we’re creating more band-oriented tracks, and those will be a bit shorter and less spaced-out than what we’re known for. Also our frontman’s still listening to loads of krautrock and that’s gonna bleed over, too. (Check out that spectacular motorik in the title track.)

The problem is Signify hit at basically the worst possible time in the bands evolution: the point where it’s pretty clear that the current sound is netting them diminishing returns, but the new sound is still very much under construction. The title track is nice enough, but it grew out of a cover of Hallogallo and it shows. Probably the only song that reaches the heights we’re used to from Porcupine Tree is Dark Matter. All the other spacey songs are pretty clearly the band returning to the same wells they’ve plumbed before, only this time with samples of some unhinged preacher types thrown in for thematic flavour.

Speaking of lyrics and sonic elements that’re still under construction, this is the first time Wilson’s actually consistently had lyrics that were something besides mouth noises or random words pulled from a hat Kid A-style. (Usually. Sever still has some of that old bad-trip magic.) And, well…

He’s Not As Clever As He Likes To Think

Okay, I’m going to be polite here, and then I won’t. I’m generally neutral-to-positive on Wilson’s lyrics. He’s pretty good at putting words in a particular order (“as the world in my TV leaked on to my shoes” is a killer line, for instance), but in my book his style has consistently been better than his substance. What’s more, there are very few subjects less fruitful for Babby’s First Stab At Comprehensibility than the first time it fully sinks in that you’re gonna die.

I don’t know how much of this is me writing from my temporal vantage point. I don’t know how picked-over this topic actually was in 1996. But really…there just are not very many places to go with this particular subject. So, life is finite. You will one day cease to exist. All signs point to this life being all there is. Now what.

You might, if we use a godawful New Atheist line, stick your head in the sand and say there really is something after death. Only way to survive is on your knees, after all. You might instead turn to the hedonism of drugs or sex, or this weird new thing called the Internet wiring every home. Or you might try and create something that you hope and pray (“pray”) will outlast you, and if the drudgery of schlepping from no-name English town to no-name English town on a bus while playing to fifty people in miserable, dank, sweaty bar basements is what we need to do to get the job done, then so bloody be it.

Here’s where the anxiety over leaving a legacy comes from. You might say that religious people who long for a heaven are denying the finitude of existence, but if you’re concerned that a chunk of you will somehow remain after you’re gone…you’re worrying about the same thing, mate. It may not be a literal afterlife you seek, but it’s an afterlife nonetheless.

If you’re a creative person, and you define your legacy as something you make that lives on after you die, the pitfalls are everywhere. If the path to an afterlife is popularity, there’s more pressure to appeal to what’s popular (which rarely if ever works). If the path to an afterlife is making something that sticks out, then it’s a crapshoot because it might not reach enough people. Ultimately, the people who become immortal are the people who get lucky. Either they have connections through family or friends, someone powerful noticed them at exactly the right time and liked what they heard, or what they were doing resonated with the contemporary musical zeitgeist. And even if you manage to Get Big, records and CDs scratch. Tapes warp. Storage media decay. Some works have somehow managed to last hundreds of years but ultimately no catalog is permanent. The product is sold, the memory fades. There’s no escape hatch forthcoming here.

I’m Not As Awesome As This Song Makes Out

At least not yet. There’s another English bloke wot’s good at the wordsmithing who twelve years later short-circuited this entire conversation without even realizing it. In 2008, ex-Million Dead boy Frank Turner released folk-punk masterpiece Love, Ire & Song, whose second track, Reasons Not To Be An Idiot, is a cheery dope-slap for everyone caught Wilsonly within their own thoughts.

In the song, Turner surveys a series of people (including himself and the listener) who’ve become neurotically obsessed over themselves, their appearance, their intellect, whatever, and shakes them around a bit to remind them that they (and, by extension, we) are not freighted with any uniquely insurmountable woes and that “deep down, you’re just like everybody else.” The last person he addresses is someone called Amy, who’s gotten sucked into all sorts of superficial faux-spiritual gobbledygook because “she’s scared that life won’t leave any traces.” Sound familiar?

His prescription is simple. Right after describing Amy’s situation he cuts the entire Gordian knot both she and Signify got themselves stuck in with five little words: “That’s not the point anyway.” All you really need in life is right there in the album’s title–love, ire, and song–and notice that immortality and leaving a legacy are conspicuously not mentioned among them. It’s nice out. Enjoy some fresh air. Go for a pint. See some friends. For once in your life, get your head out of your ass and relax.

(It’s probably also worth pointing out that Wilson and Turner are both cisgender white men from solidly middle-class English backgrounds—Wilson’s father was an electronic engineer at Philips, Turner’s father was an investment banker—which itself speaks volumes about who has the wherewithal to tie themselves into knots like this, thinking about whether they’ll leave behind anything that will last.)

Which brings us back around to, what do you do upon discovering that life is finite and has no inherent meaning? If you’re western, and don’t have an actual degree in philosophy, there are two ways this conversation can go: a simplistic nihilism, or a corny be-excellent-to-each-other pop platitudinism. Both these routes invite nothing in the way of nuance or complexity, and are just flat boring. This is not a conversation in which anyone comes away enlightened. Instead, realize that worrying about this crap is bourgeois faux-intellectual masturbation, and get up, get down, and get outside.

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

GUEST: Mick Karn – The Tooth Mother

18 April 1995

When Richard Barbieri was first introduced to the history constructed in this blog, I thought it would be a good idea to rip through every album he’s done up to Beginning to Melt, to get a sense of context to what he was doing on that album and what Wilson was doing there. Since I was decidedly less than impressed with The Tooth Mother, I figured a similar revisit would help nail down what I was missing…even as the possibility of doing the same for every artist SW collaborates with gives your author the howling fantods.

So, what’s Mick been up to, since Japan collapsed in on itself?

  • First up, Titles. It’s…well, it’s okay. There’s some good stuff here, like Saviour, Are You With Me? and The Sound of Waves, but one nevertheless gets the impression that its modest yet respectable showing on the UK album charts in 1982 was in large part due to ex-Japan curiosity.
  • In 1984 Karn teamed up with Mister Peter “Bauhaus” Murphy and, as Dalis Car, released The Waking Hour. Fact magazine says it’s one of the 20 greatest goth records ever made. Whatever you say, bruv. If you ask me, the most goth this thing gets is on Cornwall Stones, the soundtrack of nerds playing DnD in basements. (As a friend of mine said, “I want to stuff [Murphy] in a locker.” That’s how much Mister Bela Lugosi’s Dead has debased himself here.) The extended improvisation of Artemis, which is basically four and a half minutes of Karn warping his bass back in on itself, is pretty sweet, if you’re into that sort of thing.
  • In 1987, Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters. Naturally, given the title and cover, this’ll be somewhat darker than what we’ve seen up till now. (Certainly more gothic than Waking Hour, I’ll say that much.) The most complete (and, therefore, best) songs here have good old David Sylvian on vocals. When Love Walks In comes especially highly recommended, thanks to those loud, heavily distorted synths in the midsection.
  • 1990 saw a collaboration between Karn, Michael White, Michel Lambert, and David “The Next Day” Torn, called Lonely Universe. This album is a decent enough bit of dark experimental jazz, the sort of thing I imagine university music professors listen to on their downtime.
  • 1993, Bestial Cluster. This was evidently re-released in tandem with The Tooth Mother at some point later on. Of the two, this album is definitely the more complete, polished work, by which I mean the songs sound like songs and not just extended improvisations. The wall of sound that is the title track is a particular standout.
  • In 1994, Karn once again teamed up with David Torn, and this time they tagged in Terry Bozzio for something called Polytown. I would like to emphasize that these are all excellent musicians, some of the best at their craft. However, I have just listened to this album and I remember absolutely nothing about it.

So, what’d I learn? How to pad a blog entry, but that’s about it. If we want to be really mean, I finally understand where Wilson was coming from in that one interview where he says that technically gifted musicians, when left to their own devices, often produce rather boring music. The only non-Japan chunks of what he’d release up to 1995 that I’d recommend in any way are probably Bestial Cluster and some cuts from Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters.

The Tooth Mother is your usual Mick Karn outing: leisurely, vaguely jazzy instrumental jams, peppered with occasional world music influences, that sound like they belong on a 1990s strategy game soundtrack. We’ve been here before, so in that respect it’s a disappointment. Anyway, because most of this album is, quite frankly, a snoozer, here’s are the high points instead:

First, Mick Karn is at best a mediocre singer. Not damning in and of itself, no; no one would ever give awards to Dylan or Springsteen for their singing, but they also make up for it by being two of the greatest lyricists in music history. Karn on The Tooth Mother doesn’t have that level of lyrical prowess, but at the same time he doesn’t strain or warble or do anything particularly embarrassing. His vocals are low and rumbling, as close to spoken world as you can get without actually being spoken word. Think Spiderland without the narrative and you’re about there.

Second, Plaster the Magic Tongue clearly works its magic when it gets ahold of a flute. Dang. You can thank Gary Barnacle for summoning the spirit of Ian Anderson to further accentuate what is already a delightfully goofy, off-kilter song. It’s like the intro to Lampshades On Fire if I didn’t have the uncontrollable urge to punch Isaac Brock in the face every time I heard it.

Third, There Was Not Anything But Nothing sounds a lot like a reworking of JBK’s In the Black of Desire (or is it the other way round?). Makes sense, Karn wrote both.

Fourth, those first two tracks are funk-ay. They sound less like something you’d hear in Age of Empires and more like something you’d hear in a 70s/80s exploitation movie. This is somewhat surprising, given that this never really registered as a mode for any of the ex-Japan guys…but even more surprising is that it’s Wilson, of all people, bringing the funk here.

We, or at least I, or at least the mental construction I have of the man’s Anglophone audience, have mentally imprisoned Steven Wilson in a box. We think of Wilson almost exclusively as a maker of Dour Prog Songs. This when he’s said countless times that he doesn’t think of himself in those terms and actually has a considerably wider range of influences than something like The Raven that Refused to Sing lets on. This when he’s made drone music as Bass Communion, krautrock as I.E.M. and on Signify, dream pop and ambient music with No-Man, and, most critically for our purposes, pop music with Blackfield and on To the Bone. The existence of a song like Permanating should have put paid to the idea that he’s comfortable being the Dour Prog Man, and that in reality he’s just as influenced by Prince as he is by, say, Pink Floyd. You know, Prince. The artist whose songs he’s covered on multiple occasions, dating back to the old Porcupine Tree demo tapes. The artist whose name is, was, and is again, Prince. And who is funky. That guy.

In that context, that funky wah guitar he threw in Thundergirl Mutation and Plaster the Magic Tongue becomes much more explicable. Just because he doesn’t bust out that part of his personality very often doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Porcupine Tree – Staircase Infinities

December 1994
Remastered 2004

We’re gonna step out of time for a second here. Technically, the next release after Flame should be the Moonloop E.P., released October 1994, but that’s a not-really-preview of The Sky Moves Sideways, and I don’t want to go on before tying off the last little bits of the Up the Downstair era with a neat little bow.

Once in a while, following an album, Porcupine Tree will release a supplemental EP consisting of some worthy leftovers from the album sessions. Futile followed In Absentia, for example, Nil Recurring followed Fear of a Blank Planet, and The Incident has its second disc. Up the Downstair has Staircase Infinities, which was originally supposed to be the album’s other other back half, and yes we do ~geddit~, with the title, you can stop nudging me now.

There’s five tracks. Cloud Zero, the opener, is an interesting little number, in that it opens and closes with these weird haunting strings and synth noises, with a breezy guitar jam in the middle. Normally those two aspects of the song would clash, but the way the jam fades in in the beginning makes it seem like a very literal definition of escapism.

It’s pretty clear why The Joke’s On You was ultimately left off Up the Downstair: in the same album as Always Never, it would come off as a bit repetitive. But its real antecedent isn’t that song or the otherwise unrelated Karma misfire that gave the song its name, but (of all things) Footprints. The structure is similar: verses sung in the lower register with acoustic backing, while the choruses are more psychedelic and not sung so much as wailed. But here—and like with Small Fish, a lot of this can be attributed to the more polished production—it is as though we’ve rejoined our journeyman from Footprints after an absence of several years, during which time he’s sobered up and matured. It’s like he’s reflecting upon his drug-addled youth, mostly shaking his head at his attempt to find an enlightenment that he now realizes wasn’t there…but at the same time he still feels a twinge of nostalgia for those days and some of the things he’s experienced along the way. There was no destination, but some of the memories are still worth salvaging. I’d say something corny here about where the true enlightenment lies but it’s pretty clear that despite the occasional flashes of light and radiance it was all rather crap.

Navigator is a decent little instrumental that would have been one instrumental too many if it were included on the album. The one big thing Rainy Taxi has going for it is its mood—the title is very appropriate—and one of the earliest appearances of the Patented Porcupine Tree Heavy Vocoder Voice, here repeating “this rainy taxi” or somesuch like a malfunctioning numbers station.

And, of course, there’s Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape. Part of me doesn’t believe this song was ever seriously considered for Up the Downstair because there’s no earthly way it could be included on that album and not cause severe whiplash. Yes, some stuff has changed—there’s a bit more atmospherics, and the on-stage banter is now so distorted it’s unintelligible—but this is in general the same song we remember from Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm. Including the applause. Just like with The Joke’s On You, it’s like we’re checking back in on the fake band after a few years, this time discovering that they’ve graduated from mid-size venues to stadiums. We’re proud of them.

Here’s a nugget. Staircase Infinities was recorded between February 1992 and May 1993. Porcupine Tree became a proper, fully formed band in December 1993, in the middle of recording The Sky Moves Sideways. Between Staircase Infinities and The Sky Moves Sideways only one other thing would be recorded under the Porcupine Tree name: the final two phases, technically remixes, of Voyage 34. Therefore, one could argue that this update of Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape, recorded as it was at this particular fulcrum of the band’s career, released as the final track on the final record Porcupine Tree would make strictly as a solo project, suddenly harkening back to the Fake Band Days long after those pretenses were dropped, was in fact a magical ritual meant to transform Porcupine Tree into a real band.

Yes, Wilson’s not a magical thinker. Neither am I, really. But sometimes you don’t know your own strength.

No-Man – Ocean Song

September 1992

Gotta say, after covering a little Porcupine Tree after three No-Man posts in a row, coming back to No-Man feels like coming home, in a weird way. Ocean Song is a three-track single thingy, so this joint is gonna be a bit shorter.

The single’s structured beautifully. You have the main event right front and center, and then after that is a shortish ambient interlude, and then the B-side. So, first up, title track. Ocean Song is based off the melody of Donovan’s “Turquoise.” This is literally the only thing the two songs have in common. I listened to Ocean Song and Turquoise back-to-back and I can only faintly hear Leitch’s influence, probably because the bits from Turquoise are so radically altered from their original context (60s folk vs. 90s trip-hop) that they may as well be original to No-Man. (This is in contrast to Colours, where more of the original’s essence was retained in the transition.) The song itself is quite good; turns out that if you don’t have an ambient expanse to give your song a soul, a few acoustic guitar bits and Ben Coleman’s violin will do almost as well.

The ambient interlude, Back to the Burning Shed, is small and sweet and gets the job done. The B-side is Swirl, an eight-minute wander that is decidedly not single-worthy. Much of it proceeds in typical No-Man fashion, but this time with some decidedly Porcupine Tree touches like the guitar solo in the first half and the feedback swells accentuating the “let it all hang out” spoken word piece at the end. And actually, suddenly throwing PT in there like that was a bit jarring. 90s No-Man sounds very little like anything else Wilson’s done, and at this point I’m so used to the two bands’ sounds being so different and—more importantly—discrete, that I have to consciously remember that Wilson isn’t just there to look pretty.

But the song’s high point, once again, is the violin that kicks in at four minutes. Honestly, in a typical No-Man song the violin is doing quite a bit of the work; Ben Coleman has the superhuman ability to salvage a terrible song and kick a good No-Man song into the upper atmosphere. He is, at this stage, the glue holding No-Man’s artistic output together, and I think I’m going to sorely miss him once he’s gone.

But of course the absolutely best part of this record is the drag queen on the cover. How could it not be.