GUEST: Fish – Raingods with Zippos

19 April 1999

Fellini Days

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

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

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

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

Field of Crows

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

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

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

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

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

13th Star

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

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

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

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

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

A Feast of Consequences

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

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

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

Weltschmerz

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

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

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Porcupine Tree – Stupid Dream

March 1999

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

A body is washed up on a Norfolk beach…”

Kaboom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With stuff. Thanks, Reagan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intro to the Alternative Era: 1999-2007

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

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

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

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

Porcupine Tree – Stars Die: Rare & Unreleased

February 1999

Here’s an ephemerum for you. This is a Polish cassette anthology entirely unrelated to the Stars Die compilation released in 2002. Given its rarity, and the fact that every song on here can be found elsewhere, it only got its own entry because I’d confused it with its more well-known counterpart. Fortunately, though, some of the songs on here come from the Waiting single, which was folded into the Signify entry and, thanks to that post’s focus on something else entirely, not covered at all. So here’s an excuse to sort them out while we wrap up the Space Era.

The album title is a bit of a misnomer, as all of these songs were previously released in some form or another. Most of Side A is sourced from the Waiting single, with the exception of the live version of Up the Downstair, which comes from Coma Divine II, released the previous month. Side B is basically Insignificance cut down to cassette length. From the Waiting single we have three tracks we’ve not covered before: The Sound of No-One Listening, Colourflow in Mind, and Fuse the Sky.

The Sound of No-One Listening is an eight-minute instrumental that both does and does not sound like an alternate-universe version of The Sky Moves Sideways, in that they sound nothing alike, but they share similar aesthetic sensibilities and an ambient-quiet-loud-quiet-ambient sound structure. After this, Colourflow in Mind, a quintessential slow Space Era song. In the context of the Waiting single it already feels…not quite old, but certainly of a slightly earlier time. In the context of this compilation, and this compilation specifically, it also feels like the Space Era mourning itself.

Fuse the Sky…now here’s an interesting one. We’re already familiar with the alternate demo version of The Sky Moves Sideways, the thirty-five minute single track that feels decidedly unfinished. Fuse the Sky presents a markedly different way to complete it: make it sound a bit like Bass Communion instead. This largely comes from the lone synthesized horn that appears about a minute in and carries us through to the lazy, bubbly guitars that signal the song’s about to actually start. There’s also some other electronic flourishes sprinkled here and there, and the thing starts with the sound of waves breaking on a shore, and it’s all very relaxed and lovely. I’m not sure if this particular remix’s aesthetic could be sustained throughout the whole of The Sky Moves Sideways, but it’s a neat trick nonetheless.

I should probably note here that the mystical significance of Fuse the Sky comes entirely from its status as a reworking of a demo of a landmark song in the band’s discography, and thus the basic satisfaction that comes with reshaping something old into something new. Its placement on this collection therefore serves essentially as a commentary on the ritual now that it’s done. This may pale in comparison to the grand acts of destruction and creation occurring alongside it, but that’s okay. A magical ritual need not have some grand purpose for being carried out. The one I’m writing certainly doesn’t.

Now, as for the magical ritual that does…we’ve already established that Insignificance was an effort to stake out what exactly constitutes the “Space Era” that needs to be destroyed. We’ve also already established that Nine Cats is significant in this whole affair, as a song that has existed both before the Space Era’s beginning and at the Space Era’s end. So, it’s only fitting that here, long after the Space Era’s been destroyed and its ruins are sinking back into the earth, that we find Nine Cats reprised one last time, as the final track on the final Porcupine Tree release before Stupid Dream and the Alternative Era come storming in. The instrumentation remains sparse, the lyrics remain incomprehensible. I still don’t know what all this meant. I still don’t know why I was sent.

I was not sent. I stumbled upon Porcupine Tree by pure happenstance thanks to a Wikipedia-walk that landed on Steven Wilson’s page, and I was bored/curious enough to check his music out. Wilson was not sent. That his demo tape was rescued from the Delerium slush pile instead of anyone else’s can be chalked up to sheer chance. None of this means anything. Alan Duffy’s lyrics exist to communicate a feeling of storybook whimsy, of tangerine trees and marmalade skies, versus anything concrete about his life or the human condition or the world at large. This tape is an entirely insignificant (ayyy) and extraneous entry in Porcupine Tree’s discography, to the point where I’d be surprised if they’d have known about its release had Häberle not mentioned it in his discography and brought it to their attention. In the absence of any external meaning, we’re left to construct our own.

Fortunately, we’ve already built a small legendarium around this portion of Porcupine Tree’s history. In addition, the ritual to destroy the Space Era and replace it with the Alternative Era is basically complete, as all we need to do with Stupid Dream is actually release the damn thing. Now what.

Let’s try this. The reinvocation of Nine Cats, here amongst the ruins, serves a twofold purpose. The first is to contain the ritual within itself. This was necessary, as the ritual to destroy the Space Era required a Space Era to draw its individual elements from. Essentially, Wilson made the Space Era destroy itself, and this was a way to tie everything off. The second is a corollary to the first: reinvoking Nine Cats here changes the song’s purpose within the ritual. Alan Duffy’s nonsense lyrics are no longer just the landmark through which we sketch out the borders of this thing called the “Space Era.” They’re now the incantation through which its bloated, twitching corpse is finally cremated, allowing the Alternative Era to rise from its ashes. It is, in essence, the mechanism through which we create a rupture.

We are going to build a new world, and we are going to build it wrong.

Happy New Year. Catalogue. Preserve. Amass. will return in February.

I.E.M. — An Escalator to Christmas

It’s been a while. Steven, New Jersey, New York, Kyoto, and Tokyo were all lovely. More housekeeping notes:

  • This is two days late. Mea culpa. I was, in my defense, traveling. Last Space Era post will be up next weekend, likely on the 30th. After this, a monthlong retrenchment to get ahead of the queue (as I write this I’m at the Bass Communion/Muslimgauze EP and it’s taking forever, as have the past several posts) followed by Stupid Dream.
  • The Auditory Dérive photoblog has wrapped on Tumblr, but will eventually continue elsewhere in the new year, once I figure out where and how. In the meantime, do take a look before the algorithm hoovers it up.

24 January 1999
I.E.M. 1996-1999, October 2005

“A, B, C, D, E, F, G…H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P…Q–”

And now for something completely different.

“…yes, indeed it would, for me to in fact introduce myself. I am Mister B. Cranswick, of the legendary alternative poetry band Boris the Cow. And, er, this cassette is in fact being compiled today, this afternoon, in aid of a certain S. Wilson, who apparently appreciates this particular art medium. Without much further ado, some poetry.”

An Escalator to Christmas is a very odd record. It seems somehow fitting that the next thing Wilson would follow up Metanoia and its subtly freakish closing track with this, a sixteen-minute affair that is completely, unashamedly off in every conceivable way.

For starters, consider how it’s split up into two sides. Side A features the ten-minute Escalator to Christmas mini-suite, and Side B features Headphone Dust in its original habitat.

Side A is less something that flows from beginning to end and more like a strange collage of samples and fragments. Everything’s cut up and jagged and oddly panned, to the point where sometimes it feels like we’re listening not to the original record but instead of somebody’s condensed YouTube Poop remix. The only thing on this suite that feels like a full song is Sign Language, three minutes of what I can only describe as some damn fine krautrock.

But here’s what’s brilliant in all this. Because of all the abrupt changes in mood and tone, from switching from songs and interludes to spoken word samples and studio chatter, Wilson managed to squeeze an entire album experience into the space of ten minutes. There’s even a point where two back-to-back spoken word samples—one from what feels like an old 60s/70s children’s cartoon, another from studio chatter at an orchestra—essentially functions as a halfway mark, the point at which you’re implored to turn the cassette over…even though the whole thing is all on one side.

And that’s the value in something like Escalator to Christmas. It’s a weird little piece of Wilson ephemera, true, and something that he would rarely build upon in the years since, but it does represent an expansion of his capabilities. This is not something we really figured Steven Wilson could do, till now.

“Say, you remember last week when I promised to tell you today how to become a space cadet and get your official class ring and your shoulder patch? Well, we’re not quite ready. I thought we would be, but we’re not. The things we’re getting together for you are really going to be somethin’. So watch for it next week, okay? Okay!”

[Please Turn Me Over]

“Here we go. Just, just…[unintelligible]. Just any note you want, not a harmonic, actual starting…”

—may objectively be the best song on the record, but the most interesting song is Extract From “4 Ways,” which is some discordant jangling guitar followed by a single rubber duck squeak. It’s three seconds long, and as such is probably the shortest song in Wilson’s discography and one of the shortest songs ever recorded. I’m left wondering what 4 Ways itself sounded like.

There’s also the matter of what the quack segues immediately into: B.C. I’m not entirely sure who’s speaking here. I very strongly suspect it’s Wilson himself, with his voice slightly distorted, because Wilson and “Cranswick” share delivery and speech patterns…but at the same time, so do a lot of people. The first time I listened to this, for instance, Cranswick sounded like he shared the speaking style of Eruditorum-adjacent writer/podcaster James Murphy, which isn’t indicative of much beyond the way universes collide. The only reason I suspect it might not be Steven is he once hinted that other people have played on IEM records, and said outright that a full band was there for Arcadia Son and …Have Come For Your Children, which were recorded not long after the release of this EP.
The true identity of the speaker aside, B.C. is also, I think, indicative of the humor this EP displays, a sort of paradoxically disciplined goofiness harkening back to the days of the fake band. It’s something I wish Wilson busted out more often, especially in the aughts and tens, but given how perilously close the proceedings here edge toward “novelty,” there’s probably a reason he doesn’t.

However, the spoken word bits do serve a purpose beyond yuks; they do an excellent job linking together the songs and fragments-of-songs on this suite. B.C.’s role in all this is obvious: we’re being introduced to poetry in the form of Sign Language. Space Cadet and Any Note You Want work as a pair, with a stopping-and-starting duality to them that today comes off like a creative way to segue into a midroll on a mid-2010s internet video review. But the most interesting interlude isn’t actually found on the EP itself, but on the bonus material of the 1996-1999 compilation. I speak, of course, of Interview. It’s a very short one, but its brilliance can be found in—

“Let’s look at the mind for a moment, just as its physical values as a physical organ.”

An earlier draft of this essay had yet another mention of Headphone Dust in the first section and how unlucky it is. The song featured on the CD edition of I.E.M.’s self-titled album, but I didn’t talk about it too much because it wasn’t on the original release and it didn’t fit into the cliff-notes history of krautrock that made up the bulk of that post. Here’s where it originally appeared, and it once again got shafted, in favor of the much more interesting title suite. Nevertheless, this is a song Wilson’s liked enough that he went and named his online store after it, so let’s take a quick peek at it here.

It’s about six minutes of parched acoustickey goodness, pretty much. The shimmering guitars in the background makes me think of something recorded on the front porch of a desert shack, similar to his cover of The Cross. There’s a real Godspeed-esque sense of beauty among the ruins here. And for that reason its success has been quiet and low-key, the sort of thing that suffers when contrasted with louder, flashier, or more experimental work like the Escalator to Christmas suite or Deafman. This should have been a single. That way, the suite can take up Side A and B and be the album-in-a-bottle is so very badly wants to be, and this song can stand on its own the way it was meant to.

“Er, well, I feel the recording quality has a lot to answer for, and I hated the producer at the time…”

In 2005, IEM released the 1996-1999 compilation, featuring both the self-titled album and this EP, and throwing in some bonus material in the form of Interview and the extended mix of this EP’s almost-title track. What was originally a three-and-a-half minute splash of psychedelia has now ballooned into this thirteen-minute monstrosity. The original abruptly cuts off just as it was really starting to gather steam, but here our consciousness has once again been expanded.

At around the four-and-a-half minute mark, the percussion slowly fades out in such a way that it becomes less psychedelic and a bit more industrial, like the song is being performed in a factory after-hours. At five and a half minutes, a flute comes in, playing something low and mournful, serving both as a warning and a celebration of the song’s general aesthetic. And then at nine minutes, the flute is abstracted, and other sounds start swarming and pulsing around, a wham threatening to rumble in in the background, and a single low synth harmonic that at times sounds almost like a Gregorian choir. As we continue toward the song’s ending, and superficialities are further stripped away, the choir reveals itself as such and starts singing slowly and reverentially, implying that we’ve arrived here, far away from the suite’s gentle, buttoned-up lunacy, at the song’s throbbing heart. And fade out.

In a lot of respects, the extended version feels like something esoteric, even occult. It’s almost as if Wilson made a value judgment here. Those with weak or closed minds get the three-minute EP version, because that’s all they can handle. Those who’ve been already initiated get the compilation version, because the compilation version is an experience, a journey deep into a song’s guts, something that might drive lesser people insane.

This does not necessarily constitute a magical ritual in the same sense that his major releases from Signify to Stupid Dream are a magical ritual. But it is at the very least an illustration of one; a demonstration of how a quiet frog-in-boiling-water sensory overload can alter one’s state of consciousness. The effects here are temporary, as the objective of An Escalator to Xmas is only to demonstrate itself. But they still happened, and as such serve as a reminder of the inherent power of music.

Stupid Dream is two months away. Welcome once again to the cult of the Tree.

“–R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z.”

Porcupine Tree – Metanoia

December 1998

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.