Ten classic tracks from the early albums from On The Sunday of Life (1992) to Stupid Dream (1999)
In November 2022, Porcupine Tree made a triumphant return to London to play live at London Arena in front of over 12,000 fans after a hiatus of over twelve years. The event was described by The Times as ‘a prog-rock comeback of propulsive perfection.’
Porcupine Tree began essentially as a solo project for Steven Wilson, a fictitious band he had created to amuse himself. On the band’s first album, On The Sunday Of Life, some of the lyrics were written by his friend Alan Duffy, but otherwise Wilson wrote and performed the whole record. By the second album, Up The Downstair he began to be joined by other musicians and by the third album The Sky Moves Sideways Porcupine Tree had become a full band, largely so that Wilson could have his music played live.
Two decades later, the band began a run of classic albums that began with In Absentia in 2002. But the early albums have a great deal to offer, not just because they show the fascinating development of the band from psychedelia to their mature style, but also because they contain some very strong songs that demonstrate Wilson’s excellent songwriting, producing and arranging skills from the very start of his career.
On The Sunday of Life (1992)
A song about nuclear war. The ‘radioactive toy’ which provides the ‘freedom to destroy’ suggests the words of Robert Oppenheimer, the ‘father of the atomic bomb’, who quoted from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’ when he witnessed the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on 16 July 1945. The following month, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The track is closely related to ‘A Smart Kid’ from Porcupine Tree’s fifth album Stupid Dream, which describes the effects of nuclear war.
Lyrically ‘Radioactive Toy’ is very sophisticated. It shows Wilson’s early ability to write poetic lyrics that encapsulate a mood or an idea very elegantly and with great economy, as in the bleak line describing disposal of a body after a nuclear war,
Pour me into a hole, inform my next of kin
The same level of sophistication can be found in the musical structure and feel of the song; only the first few minutes feature vocals, after which it becomes a long instrumental. The long form song has been a feature of Wilson’s writing throughout his career, both with Porcupine Tree and his later solo projects.
The bass line of ‘Radioactive Toy’ is very reminiscent of ‘Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 2’ from Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1979); it is in the same key as well, although it is slower, bringing a more ominous feel. The guitar parts are in a similar style to those of David Gilmour and lyrically the dark theme is very Floydian, leading some early fans of Porcupine Tree to hope that the band would be the next Pink Floyd.
Whether or not the Pink Floyd comparison is valid, the track is the most satisfying on the album, a real highlight, and it gives a fascinating insight into the future direction the band would take. The fact that it is a personal favourite of Wilson’s is shown by his choice of the song for the setlist for the first ever live gig that Porcupine Tree played, in December 1993. He was still playing it twenty years later, on the 2013 tour supporting his solo album The Raven that Refused to Sing.
And The Swallows Dance Above The Sun
The lyrics for this early track were written by Alan Duffy. According to the sleeve notes for the Stars Die compilation, they form a psychedelic poem about, ‘the contradictions of being trapped in boredom while surrounded by wonder.’ Duffy originally called the song ‘Like Ice On The Sun’ when he sent it to Wilson, but the name was changed later.
Wilson’s vocal delivery perfectly conjures up the mood of the lyrics, sounding breathless with excitement but bored at the same time, the repetition of the same rhythmic and lyrical pattern creating a trance-like effect. The rhythm is provided by a drum machine, with a similar feel to the drum break in James Brown’s 1970 song Funky Drummer. With its funky bassline and heavy echo on the voice, smooth synth pads and inventive guitar parts, the song has something of a long-lost early 1990s dance classic. The track also has a pleasing set of falling chords as it drifts languidly towards the words, ‘and the swallows dance above the sun.’ Although it is very different from most of the songs Wilson has written in the three decades since, there are signs here of a great songwriter finding his voice.
Up The Downstair (1993)
This is one of a number of tracks on the album with lyrics by Alan Duffy. The song is about the different stages of a relationship, compressed into two lines,
I love you sometimes
The relationship is over now, and the narrator feels completely alienated from the addressee of the song and has become emotionally detached.
This track marks the debut of Colin Edwin as bass player. The bass line is less prominent than on many of the songs from later albums, but it is an auspicious start, demonstrating the inventiveness and great musicality that characterised Colin’s work throughout his career with the band. The song also features a riff that unites the guitar and bass, around two minutes in, that could have come from one of the much later albums if more distortion had been added, again an early sign of the much more heavy metal sound the band would later adopt.
The vocals in the verse sound completely resigned, reflecting the emptiness of the narrator’s feelings. The chorus is livelier, illustrating the fast movement of the relationship from beginning to end. It could be the chorus from a simple pop song, and sticks in the mind in the way that pop choruses often do. If the song stopped at three minutes, then it could be a single, but there are another four minutes of largely instrumental music to follow. After treading water for a while before the final verse is delivered, the track picks up momentum with a long guitar solo as it hurtles towards the conclusion, where again there is a brief moment of stasis leading into the title track.
Up The Downstair
According to the sleeve notes for Stars Die, this track is a ‘menacing trance epic.’ The song marks the introduction of keyboard player Richard Barbieri to the band. The track also features spoken words from Richard’s wife Suzanne, a writer and musician.
The spoken words are a stream of consciousness written by Wilson, including phrases like ‘Monuments burn into moments’ (the title of an earlier short track on the album) and
Black Sunday of sleep
Open for small angel escapes
The words are buried quite deep in the mix and are meant to create a surreal impression rather than being analysed in a conventional way.
The track begins with an ominous low drone which is joined by dystopian synth lines and a Mellotron choir which sounds like morose monks chanting. The synthesized bass line is trancelike, euphoric and mesmeric, endlessly looping back on itself. The heavily sequenced synth chords sparkle and glitter. The guitar part that arrives with a sudden change of key around four minutes is urgent, driving, and viscerally exciting.
At around seven minutes, the bass drops out and there is brief passage of introspection before the rhythm picks up again and tension builds as the track ascends to a climax, before dropping back into contemplation as the monks briefly return.
Being able to build up the dynamics over a long track (ten minutes in this case) has stood Wilson in good stead over his very long and productive career.
The Sky Moves Sideways (1995)
Although not on the original UK album release, this track did appear on the US release in 1995. It is a very strong track, suggesting the direction the band was heading in future albums, and it therefore seems strange that it was left off the original UK release. The track gives its name to the 2002 compilation Stars Die: The Delerium Years 1991–1997, which is an excellent introduction to Porcupine Tree’s early years.
The song is beautifully melancholy, with a simple but haunting chorus that consists of only the two words of the title, in a two-note rising phrase with luxurious backing vocals. The concept of stars dying suggests that in the long term everything dies, that humanity is fragile and ephemeral and that the Earth itself will eventually perish.
The sample at around 2:30 is of President Richard Nixon speaking from the Oval Office in the White House to the Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during the first Moon Landing in 1969. In what he describes as ‘the most historic telephone call ever made’, the President says that the astronauts’ achievements have inspired mankind to ‘redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquillity to Earth.’
Perhaps the mission to the Moon brings hope. Although the song itself does not suggest that ‘peace and tranquillity’ will come to Earth, it does end with an image of humanity blasting away into space, astronauts in ‘hyper sleep’, the deep coma-like sleep that is essential for long-distance space travel.
A Dislocated Day
On the original 1995 album all instruments on this track are performed by Wilson. Drums were added later by Gavin Harrison (who joined the band in 2002) for the 2004 re-release.
The track begins with a phone call which is not answered until the end, when Wilson is heard leaving a message. The rhythm is quite uneven and jerky, expertly creating a physical impression of the dislocation in the title. At the same time the sense of metaphorical dislocation from the rest of the world is beautifully expressed by the floating synthesisers and the detached vocals, drifting downwards as the track progresses. The surreal lyrics suggest that Wilson was still under the influence of Alan Duffy, retaining also some of Duffy’s quirky wit,
Stood beside an inlet
A starfish leads a dance
It dreams it is a human
And falls into a trance
The song ends with the recorded telephone message, in which Wilson gives us a glimpse of his thought processes about how the track could end, but rather than replacing that thought with music he leaves the raw material,
…acoustic guitar … feeding back towards the end. I think that would make quite an interesting ending. Anyway, let me know what you think and I’ll speak to you soon. Bye.
This track was originally called ‘Toursong.’ According to the notes for the Stars Die compilation, it began life as, ‘a fairly drab account of life on the road and its attendant boredoms’, but the band’s manager Richard Allen and the other members of Porcupine Tree objected to the lyrics which amounted to, ‘came off stage, had a cup of tea, went to bed’. Wilson changed them so that they were, ‘about the business of being a musician and a product’, to make it a haunting meditation on the futility and emptiness of the life of touring artist.
The title ‘Dark Matter’ refers to the release of recordings which the record companies regard as ‘product’, something ephemeral, rather than of lasting artistic significance, a theme to which Wilson returned on the next album Stupid Dream,
Dark matter flowing out on to a tape
Is only as loud as the silence it breaks
Most things decay in a matter of days
The product is sold the memory fades
The song begins with darkly atmospheric synth washes, evoking the permafrost inside the tour bus,
Inside the vehicle the cold is extreme
The cold is a metaphor for a failure to engage with the outside world,
I fail to connect, it’s a tragic divide
The protagonist ruminates on the fact that music has become a full-time career, but that there are other, quicker ways to become famous when you are young,
To die young would take only 21 years
Gun down a school or blow up a car
The media circus would make you a star
The song features some gorgeous Hammond organ playing from Richard Barbieri, showing his love of vintage keyboards rather than using emulation software to recreate sounds digitally. Wilson’s vocals are very closely-mic’d in the verses, giving the impression that the listener is on the tour bus with him. Most unusually for a Porcupine Tree song, the verses feature backing vocals, presumably from Chris Maitland (although he does not receive a specific credit for this track); usually the lush vocal harmonies that are so characteristic of many of the band’s songs appear only in the choruses, although the chorus of this song also features rich harmonies.
The song includes an extended guitar solo section which lasts around two minutes, culminating in a short section where the bass and the guitar join each other for a riff in unison, not as heavy as on many of the later albums but perhaps a little taster of the heavier, riff-driven style.
Waiting (Phase One)
This track begins with the protagonist waiting to be ‘born again’, perhaps hoping for redemption, or at least for life to have some meaning. The repeated line, ‘Waiting … for the day when I will crawl away’ suggests hopelessness, even a desire for death.
According to the sleeve notes for Stars Die, drummer Chris Maitland loved singing the vocal harmonies on the song, but if forced to take only one of the tracks to a desert island he would choose Colin Edwin’s bass line because, ‘it’s so hypnotic and subtle.’ Wilson’s guitar playing is another highlight, beginning with gentle strummed acoustic guitar chords, with spacey, psychedelic electric guitar which explodes towards the end in a manic solo that seems to express the frustration felt by the protagonist.
Stupid Dream (1999)
The song begins with a single held A on the strings, the note that classical orchestras always tune to, as if the orchestra were tuning up in anticipation. Slide guitars evoke a sunlit, humid American desert landscape, similar to that evoked by Ry Cooder’s soundtrack to the 1984 movie Paris, Texas. The guitars are doubled across the stereo channels so that they appear in both ears at once, a technique used extensively on later Porcupine Tree albums, particularly on heavy metal guitars, to add richness and bite.
But instead of remaining in an American setting, the song swiftly moves to an English landscape, as the same chords move from slide guitar to elemental distorted chords, almost punk-like in the simplicity of the chord progression. Acoustic guitar and piano accompany the description of a body being washed up on a Norfolk beach, a friend who, ‘could not be reached’, who has presumably committed suicide. There follows an even more disturbing image of another body, ‘a choirboy buried on the moor.’
The song ends with a series of heavy guitar chords in ‘Drop D’ tuning, where the bottom note of the guitar is tuned down by a whole note, a technique beloved of heavy metal bands and used extensively on later Porcupine Tree albums. As such, the song marks an important transition for the band, from earlier psychedelia to later progressive metal. But Wilson has not moved away from psychedelia yet – above the brutal, visceral crunch of the heavy metal chords floats a lovely Floydian guitar solo, complete with string bends, a technique often used by David Gilmour.
Wilson reprised the song at the Royal Albert Hall in London on his To the Bone Tour in March 2018 (Track eighteen on the Home Invasion concert DVD). He dedicated the song to people who had been listening to his music before the 21st century. Channelling his inner Billy Bragg, he reminded the audience what a great rhythm guitarist he is, and by stripping the track to the bone, what a powerful song writer he is.
Don’t Hate Me
This is the final song in a trilogy of songs on Stupid Dream about unrequited love. It begins with an image of a deserted London as light snow falls. The image of a train, often elsewhere a symbol of Wilson’s nostalgia for his childhood, here represents the emptiness of the scene as no-one get on or off the train. A relationship has broken up, and weary resignation that haunts the verses of the song. The chorus is more impassioned, as the unrequited lover, who is so, ‘tired and alone’, pleads not to be hated, a plea which is moderated by the deeply sarcastic line, ‘I’m not special like you.’
This is one of Porcupine Tree’s most atmospheric songs, with a jazz-inflected interlude switching between a laid-back flute solo and a more anguished saxophone, both played by Theo Travis, moving from resignation to bitter anger. The long instrumental interlude would be perfectly suited to a film noir movie, conjuring up an atmosphere of dark streets with silhouetted figures, and cigarette smoke curling through darkened rooms. Wilson has often spoken of his songs being like short films and this is a perfect example.
Porcupine Tree review — a prog-rock comeback of propulsive perfection by Dominic Maxwell, The Times 14 November 2022
Notes from Porcupine Tree – Stars Die: The Delerium Years 1991–1997 (Kscope 2002)
On Track … Porcupine Tree by Nick Holmes (Sonicbond September 2021)