New 5.1 mix places the listener in the middle of a dystopian farmyard.
Pink Floyd recorded Animals in 1976 and it was released early the following year. It sits uncomfortably in the band’s catalogue, preceded by the pristine, aching absences of Wish You Were Here and followed by the sprawling psychodrama of The Wall. The production is very different from other classic Pink Floyd albums recorded in the 1970s. The Dark Side of the Moon is warm, rich, multi-layered. Wish You Here is clean, sparse and still sounds contemporary. The Wall sounds luxuriant and epic, matching the album’s vast ambition and narrative sweep. In contrast, Animals is brutal and – by Pink Floyd’s standards – unvarnished.
So why is Animals, sonically so different from its peers? The band’s drummer Nick Mason, in his witty and revealing memoir Inside Out provides some clues. The band had just built its own studios at Britannia Row in North London. The walls were covered in lignacite, a breeze-block like material which efficiently absorbed sound but made the studio look, in Roger Waters’ words, like a ‘prison’. Mason says the studio, with its cramped control room had, ‘the grim and claustrophobic qualities of a nuclear bunker – although obviously much more stressful…’
The band had also abandoned the luxury of using a tape operator/expert engineer, hoping to bring a new immediacy to the recording process. Incidentally, when Mason and Waters engineered the recording of a guitar solo by David Gilmour they managed to erase it. The austere approach and atmosphere created, in Mason’s words, ‘a workman-like mood’ in the studio.
The simplicity of the mix was perhaps also influenced by external factors. Punk rock had launched a vicious but perhaps necessary assault on the excesses of prog rock. Pink Floyd, darlings of counter-culture in the 1960s were now seen as irrelevant dinosaurs. Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols famously sported a Pink Floyd tee-shirt with the words ‘I hate ‘ scrawled with apparent venom above the band’s name (although he later admitted that this was more a piece of theatre than a statement of fact.) Pink Floyd’s response – perhaps unconscious – was to create an album that is as dark and cynical as anything that punk produced. Adopting the anthropomorphic satire of George Orwell’s 1945 novella Animal Farm, the album divides humankind into dogs, pigs and sheep. While Johnny Rotten claimed to be an anarchist, Waters created a dystopian view of society that was equally bleak. And while Rotten sang that the ‘The fascist regime…made [the Queen] a moron’, Waters addressed moral arbiter Mary Whitehouse as a ‘charade’ and a ‘house proud town mouse.’
It is perhaps strange that Animals hasn’t been released in a surround sound mix until now. Pink Floyd pioneered the use of surround sound in a live setting – according to Far Out magazine the world’s first ever surround sound concert was performed by the band in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in May 1967. (The band had a quadraphonic sound system which used the wonderfully-named Azimuth Co-ordinator, a kind of joystick, to send the sound flying around the audience’s heads). Eventually in 2018 Waters announced a surround sound mix of the album, which was further delayed until 2022 due to a dispute about the liner notes. Ironically, the 16-page booklet that comes with the DVD-audio of the album reviewed here doesn’t include liner notes.
As well as the 5.1 mix, the DVD includes the 2018 stereo remix, both by James Guthrie. It also features the original 1977 stereo mix by Brian Humphries. The remix strips back the original, making it at times even simpler. For instance on the two short Pigs on the Wing tracks that bookend the album, Waters’ vocals are much drier than on the original 1997 mix. This gives a greater sense of emotional intimacy to the only songs that provide an escape from the violent dystopia of the rest of the album.
The surround sound experience on the DVD is enhanced by the gorgeous photograph on the TV screen which updates the classic image from the original album cover, which looks like an Old Master oil painting perhaps from the Dutch School of the seventeenth century. It’s replaced by a luminous contemporary portrait of Battersea Power Station, which has recently re-opened as a shopping and leisure destination with new apartments. Cleverly, the lighting of the photograph gradually changes as the songs progress.
The longest track on the album is Dogs, the only one which is co-written by Gilmour with Waters, all the others being written by Waters alone. The first part of the song features one of Gilmour’s best vocal performance – raw, cynical, bleak. The surround sound mix places the main band either in front or sometimes at the sides. The mix builds on this solid platform and highlights the two double-guitar solos that appear in the rear speakers. But the visceral single guitar solo remains resolutely in front. The revelation here is Rick Wright’s keyboards – they appear in the rear speakers with a new clarity, or fly across the surround sound image. Their most imaginative use is in the extended instrumental section played as the protagonist is dragged down to his death by drowning. While Mason provides a measured rock beat, Wright’s keening keyboards provide anguished and mesmeric Tangerine Dream-like instrumental fireworks which are all the more effective for being isolated behind the listener. The track ends with Waters taking over vocal duties from Gilmour, with a repeated mantra beginning with the words ‘Who was…’ at the beginning of each line, almost a photographic negative of Eclipse the final track of The Dark Side of the Moon. The epic richness of the latter contrasts with the bitterness of the former track with Waters’ vocals so heavily compressed they leave the listener emotionally drained.
Pigsdemonstrates the efficacy of the new surround sound mix – instruments are well separated, making them much clearer than in the original stereo mix. The guitar is now so well-defined that you can almost touch it, and the vocals feel much more intimate, particularly in the chorus. The sound world is unremittingly bleak; the synths as they drift downwards seem to provide a glimpse into the abyss. If there is a weakness in the track, it’s the extended instrumental section which is rather repetitive and lacking in musical interest, and now feels dated with its use of a vocoder. The track picks up again however with swirling keyboards which perhaps imitate the flying pig, and an almost funky third verse. Gilmour’s guitar solo is one of the simplest he has ever played, focused, anguished and less bluesy than his usual style.
The last long track on the album, Sheep begins with the listener in a field of those ruminant animals, soon joined by Wright’s gloriously luminous keyboards in the rear speakers. Waters provides a simple bassline and appropriately histrionic vocals which become dehumanised as they morph into synth parts. Gilmour’s guitar parts are brutally funky. The instrumental section marks a return of the drowning section from Dogs, with the ‘stone’ that drags down the dying man haunting the mix. A majestic synth duet leads to the ‘prayer’ section as the song drifts into a reverie of contemplation. The spoken prayer – much clearer now than in the original mix – is a vicious parody of Psalm 23 (‘The Lord is my shepherd…’). And while the sheep at first seem to accept that they will become ‘lamb cutlets’, it soon becomes clear that a time of quiet prayer – ‘quiet reflection, and great dedication’ – gives the humble sheep chance to rise up against the dogs. The sheep attack one of the dogs, ‘Bleating and babbling we fell on his neck with a scream’; the final word ‘scream’ is suitably terrifying in surround sound. The track ends with the death of the dogs, Gilmour’s shimmering and triumphant guitar giving the track an epic feeling of rock’n’roll celebration.
There’s a lot to admire in this new surround sound mix, which gives the album a new clarity and foregrounds many of the instrumental parts. The raw power of the album is undeniable. But perhaps it’s still a little difficult to love.
Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd by Nick Mason (Weidenfeld & Nicolson September 2011)
John Lydon: I don’t hate Pink Floyd by Sean Michaels The Guardian February 2010
Revisiting the moment Pink Floyd delivered the world’s first surround sound concert by Joe Taysom Far Out Magazine May 2020
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 DanceAbove 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.
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)
Deluxe re-issue of Porcupine Tree’s 2005 album casts new light on a classic
Deadwing is the second album in a run of three classic releases from Porcupine Tree, starting with In Absentia in 2002 and ending with Fear of a Blank Planet in 2007. It was released in the middle of that sequence, in 2005. The new Deluxe Edition on CD is housed in a handsome hardback book of around a hundred pages, including photos and artwork by Lasse Hoile and Mike Bennion, and detailed articles by Stephen Humphries. In 2017, the band’s singer, guitarist and main songwriter Steven Wilson remastered the album for release on vinyl, and that mix is included here for the first time on CD. The first CD contains the full album and the second CD includes five B-sides. The third has 13 demos, the first seven of which were recorded by Wilson, the eighth by Wilson and drummer Gavin Harrison and the rest by the full band with Richard Barbieri on keyboards and Colin Edwin on bass. The generous fourth disc is a Blu-Ray which includes: a new documentary Never Stop the Car on a Drive in the Dark – the Making of Deadwing directed by Jeremy George; the album and B-sides remastered in high resolution stereo (96/24 LPCM); a 5.1 surround sound mix including four B-sides; a concert video recorded for the German Rockpalast television series at Live Music Hall, Köln, Germany in November 2005.
The Deadwing Film Script
Many of the songs on the album relate to a film script of the same name, written by Wilson and the director Mike Bennion, with whom Wilson had collaborated, writing music for several TV commercials directed by Bennion. The film of Deadwing script was never made, although it did resurface in 2020 in a new, simpler version called And No Birds Sing. A short teaser (featuring a brief cameo of Wilson as a rough sleeper) was released on YouTube in September of that year, but to date the film hasn’t been completed.
In the meantime, the Deadwing album was released partly to help the film get made – Wilson and Bennion were having difficulty creating any interest in their script. The irony is that the album is based, as Wilson admits in the fascinating documentary in this Deluxe Edition, on a script of a film that no-one has ever seen, and on characters that are known only to Wilson and Bennion. Wilson enjoys the irony, but does admit that the problem – if there is one – is that the album is impenetrable both ‘lyrically and conceptually.’ What has made the album even more difficult to interpret – until now – is that it has never been entirely clear which of the songs on the album relate to the film script. Wilson admits that around half of the nine tracks on the album are taken from the script, including the title track, Lazarus, Open Car, and Arriving Somewhere But Not Here. He gives tantalising glimpses of parts of the plot of the film, admitting to Humphries for instance that the eerie spoken words on the title track ‘Like a cancer scare/In a dentist’s chair’ are taken directly from the script. The images and photography, which are extensively and beautifully presented in the lavish book are also almost entirely based on the film script.
In the documentary, Wilson refers to the two main characters in the script, David and Elizabeth. David works in a sound studio in Soho, London. As I mention in my book On Track … Porcupine Tree (Sonicbond Publishing, 2021) the first 15 pages of the Deadwing script were posted online, but are no longer available. For a detailed summary, please see page 86 of the book, but briefly David is seen working on the sound for a video and is horrified when he glimpses a small boy who appears mysteriously in one of the scenes he is editing. He later meets Elizabeth on a Tube train platform – it’s unclear who she is, although we are told that she is a young woman in her late twenties, with a long red coat and red high heels.
A fascinating revelation made by Wilson in the documentary is that David is the only survivor of a religious cult after the rest of them died in a mass suicide twenty years before the start of the film. He fled the cult as a child, and the opening scene of the film script shows a three-year-old boy running, barefoot, through the woods at night wearing a nightshirt. Just before this, we see the boy’s mother singing a lullaby to him; are we to assume that his mother was a member of the cult and died in the mass suicide? The song Lazarus seems to be a dialogue between the boy and his dead mother – David is mentioned by name in the song.
Wilson has often written about religion in his lyrics for Porcupine Tree, and Halo on this album is about the holier-than-thou attitude of a born-again Christian,
I’m not the same as you Cause I’ve seen the light
Wilson has also shown his fascination with religious cults. The track Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled (Lightbulb Sun 2000) features real spoken word footage from the leader of the Heaven’s Gate religious cult, 39 of whom committed suicide in March 1997 in the tragic belief that they had left their bodies to return to the ‘Level Above Human in Distant Space.’ Wilson revisited the theme in The Blind House (The Incident 2009) which is again based on a real-life case, when a police raid in 2008 on the Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas led to the release of 400 children, some of whom had married the polygamist cult leader who is now serving a long prison sentence for sexual activities with minors. It’s intriguing to note that in the interview with Humphries, Wilson says that in the film script the ghosts of the dead cult members are now coming back to reclaim David. This combines Wilson’s scepticism about religion (inherited from his scientist father as Wilson says in his book Limited Edition of One (Constable 2022)) with his love of ghost stories – as shown on his solo album The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) from 2013, which is based on a series of ghost stories that Wilson wrote.
Despite the revelation about David and the cult from which he escaped, Wilson admitted to Humphries that using a film script that very few people have ever seen (although Barbieri and Edwin did read it when recording the album) could make the album ‘a little unrelatable.’ He said that ‘nobody knew who David was’. We may have to wait until the film is released to find out more about him. But the film script is not crucial to an understanding of the album and an appreciation of its emotional resonance. In a revealing section of the documentary, Wilson says that songs like Lazarus have universal themes, such as childhood nostalgia and regret, lyrical themes which have continued to haunt his solo albums including The Raven … and Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015). He modestly fails to mention the fact that the success of Lazarus (with over 18 million plays on Spotify it’s the band’s third most popular song and Wilson has played it live nearly 500 times) is partly due to the gorgeous melody and the vocals which are delivered with sweet sincerity. Critics may agonise over the exact meaning of a lyric, whereas listeners may respond to the emotional truth of a song which is revealed as much by the music as by the words.
The Demo tracks
Another revelation – perhaps more startling – is that Lazarus originally contained extra material as can be heard on the demo version on CD2. From around 2:25 to 3:10 there’s a very strange bridge section which sounds completely incongruous, much more like the early psychedelic pastiches of Porcupine Tree when the band was still Wilson’s solo project. It’s a very unusual lapse of judgment on Wilson’s part – most of his demos are very similar to the final versions, but in this case Andy Karp from the record company said that the demo version of the song ‘suddenly went haywire with a real curveball of a middle part.’ Karp and the band’s manager Andy Leff shared the same reaction to the middle section. Their role was to turn a good piece of art into a great piece of art, just as poet Ezra Pound did when editing T. S. Eliot’s masterpiece The Waste Land (1922).
Another, more subtle but equally important difference between the demo and the final version of a song is Arriving Somewhere But Not Here. The demo begins with two minutes of ethereal choirs and the sound of a church organ. As Barbieri says in the documentary, Wilson asked him to add his distinctive sound design to the opening of the track, replacing the demo version with a ‘slowly building backdrop’ that leads much more effectively to the ‘dramatic moment’ when the main guitar theme first appears. Barbieri adds the ticking of a grandfather clock, electronic bleeps, backwards piano and a synth patch called Arab Soft Synth to create a richly enigmatic soundscape which creates, as he told Humphries, a ‘serene but portentous mood.’
The other demos are mostly versions of tracks which appear on the final album or as B-sides which are already reviewed in detail in On Track … Porcupine Tree. The B-sides on CD 2 are also covered in the book, mostly as tracks on the Stars Die compilation (see pages 130 – 132). There are however four new demo songs in the Deluxe Edition which aren’t reviewed elsewhere:
Godfearing (Wilson) [04:57]
This track has been available for about ten years on Wilson’s SoundCloud account, where he says that he’s not sure which album it belongs to, ‘while it shares lyrical themes with the songs on In Absentia, one of the melodies seems to relate to another piece from [the] Deadwing era.’ It now seems he has decided that it belongs to Deadwing.
This is an archetypal Porcupine Tree track from the band’s later era, with opening metal riffs that could have come from Swedish prog metal band Opeth (with whom Wilson was working around this time); lovely delicate vocals in the verses contrasting with an epic earworm of a chorus; a very heavy riff that could have come from Deadwing; a contemplative section with heavily echoed piano; imaginative use of hammered dulcimer and a taste of Mellotron … all beautifully combined into less than five minutes.It’s good that the track has finally found a home on an official release.
Not to be confused with the single Vapour Trail Lullaby which was written before the sessions for In Absentia but wasn’t released until 2010, when it was given away as a single with copies of Wilson’s solo DVD Insurgentes.
The song is a reminder (if one is needed) of Wilson’s supreme ability to write a simple, heartfelt ballad – recent examples include 12 Things I Forgot from his solo album The Future Bites (2021) or Of The New Day from the Porcupine Tree album Closure / Continuation (2022). Its status as a demo is shown by the slightly strained vocals, and the very simple arrangement mostly based around strummed acoustic guitar. But there’s some lovely George Harrison-like guitar later in the song, and at 3:30 there’s a heart-stopping moment when the instruments briefly drop out, leaving emotive multi-layered vocals hanging in the air like perfume.
Instrumental Demo 1 (Porcupine Tree) [05.19]
This is one of five demos featuring the complete band. Wilson had previously presented the band with songs in the form of completed demos on which he played and sang all the parts, but on Deadwing he was beginning to relax control a little and allow other band members into the writing process. On the main album, Halo and Glass Arm Shattering are written by the whole band, and The Start Of Something Beautiful is co-written with Gavin Harrison.
This song is notable for a typically melodic, wide ranging bass line from Colin Edwin in the verse, robust and intelligent drumming from Harrison, some spacious soundscaping from Barbieri, and rocky guitar from Wilson.
Instrumental Demo 2 (Porcupine Tree) [05.23]
Harrison says that the danger of a whole band writing together in a room is that they end up playing for half an hour in E major, but this song features an uplifting and imaginative sequence of key changes from around 1:15 which lift the song beyond the most basic of demos. With more work, this could have been turned into a classic Porcupine Tree song. From around 3:30 Wilson shows off his skills as a guitarist and at 4:00 Barbieri adds evocative keyboards.
The Surround Sound Mix
The Deluxe Edition provides an opportunity to hear Deadwing in a surround sound mix in 5.1 only – it was much later that Wilson began to mix in the more immersive and sophisticated Dolby Atmos format. The first Porcupine Tree album to benefit from 5.1 surround sound was In Absentia, mixed by Elliot Scheiner. Wilson worked with Scheiner on the 5.1 mix of Deadwing and by the next album Fear of a Blank Planet (2007) he had learned the art so well that his surround sound mix was nominated for a Grammy award, as was his mix of the next album The Incident (2009). Wilson has since become the go-to surround sound mixer for classic albums by bands such as King Crimson, Roxy Music, Jethro Tull, Yes, Gentle Giant, XTC and Tears For Fears. More recently he mixed his latest solo album The Future Bites (2021) and the new Porcupine Tree album Closure/Continuation (2022) in Dolby Atmos as well, adding more precise placement of instruments in the surround sound picture and height information as well.
The 5.1 mix provides a coherent, immersive experience that creates a unique sound world, strengthening some of the weaker tracks by drawing them into a creative whole. Backing vocals become much better defined in the surround sound image. Heavy metal guitar riffs are visceral. Fizzing synths that are hidden in the stereo mix lurk menacingly. Excellent use is made of the rear speakers, with the spoken word passages in the title track leaping out to startle the listener. Two tracks in particular benefit from the mix. Mellotron Scratch brings out the beauty and the pain of the song. The bass drum at the start is much more prominent, the syncopated rhythm creating a deliciously uneasy effect. The harmony voices are gorgeous. Later in the song guitars and drums join in a moment of sudden robustness as the bass drum returns. The final track, Glass Arm Shattering, provides a lovely relaxation of tension after the visceral onslaught of much of the rest of the album. In stereo, the simplicity of the track is what is most noticeable after the proggy polyrhythms of the previous track, Start Of Something Beautiful. The surround sound mix turns the track into more of an epic, a climax like Eclipse, the closing track of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon. The track begins with nostalgic vinyl crackles, which lead to lush drums and electronics. Slide guitars in the rear speakers add to the richness of the picture, and the multi-layered vocals take the listener to a new heights of emotion. The track ends with a touch of subtle humour, the sound of a stylus in a crackly groove on a record circling around the surround sound image turning the whole room into a vast record player.
Deadwing is in some ways a transitional album. It consolidated the distinctive Porcupine Tree blueprint, a hybrid of progressive metal riffs, melodic strength and rich vocal harmonies that had been a feature of the previous album, In Absentia. Perhaps what Deadwing lacks compared to that album is conceptual coherence. The next album, Fear Of A Blank Planet used the same musical formula and added a very strong concept, making it the band’s masterpiece. But Deadwing does contain two classic Porcupine Tree tracks, Arriving Somewhere But Not Here and Lazarus, and most of the other material is strong. The Deluxe Edition adds a great deal to the enjoyment of the album, an insight into the creative process and an excellent surround sound mix. So, **** for the music itself and an extra * for the rest of the new package. Following the release of the In Absentia Deluxe Edition in 2020, a Deluxe Edition of Fear Of A Blank Planet would complete the trilogy nicely.
CD1 Deadwing (2018 remaster)
1 Deadwing [09:46]
2 Shallow [04:17]
3 Lazarus [04:19]
4 Halo [04:39]
5 Arriving Somewhere But Not Here [12:02]
6 Mellotron Scratch [06:57]
7 Open Car [03:44]
8 Start Of Something Beautiful [07:43]
9 Glass Arm Shattering [06:08]
1 Revenant [03:05]
2 So Called Friend [04:49]
3 Shesmovedon [04:55]
4 Mother And Child Divided [05:00]
5 Half Light [06:38]
1 Arriving Somewhere But Not Here (demo) [13:03]
2 Godfearing (demo) [04:57]
3 Lazarus (demo) [04:10]
4 Open Car (demo) [05:08]
5 Vapour Trails (demo) [03:53]
6 Shallow (demo) [04:15]
7 Deadwing (demo) [10:35]
8 Mother And Child Divided (demo) [05:02]
9 Instrumental Demo 1 [05:19]
10 Halo (demo) [04:50]
11 Instrumental Demo 2 [05:23]
12 So Called Friend (demo) [05:01]
13 Glass Arm Jam [04:19]
Documentary Film, Rockpalast Broadcast & Extras
1 Never Stop the Car on a Drive in the Dark (Deadwing documentary [54:20]
2 Lazarus (promo video) [04:19]
3 Deadwing (remastered album 96/24 LPCM stereo) [59:37]
4 Deadwing B-sides (96/24 LPCM stereo) [25:25]
5 Deadwing 5.1 surround sound mix (including 4 bonus tracks) 48/24 (2005 by Elliot Scheiner and Steven Wilson) [59:37]
6 Additional 5.1 mixes of B-sides Revenant, Mother and Child Divided, Half-Light and Shesmovedon [19.47]
Rockpalast WDR TV broadcast:
7 Intro [00:35]
8 Blackest Eyes [04:33] In Absentia
9 Lazarus [03:58] Deadwing
10 Futile [02:31] In Absentia bonus track
11 Interview [06:02]
12 Mother And Child Divided [04:50] Deadwing B-side
13 So Called Friend [05:00] Deadwing B-side
14 Arriving Somewhere But Not Here [12:24] Deadwing
15 Sound Of Muzak [05:06] In Absentia
16 Interview 2 [01:20]
17 Start Of Something Beautiful [07:24] Deadwing
18 Halo [05:03] Deadwing
19 Interview 3 [03:35]
20 Radioactive Toy [06:05] On The Sunday Of Life
21 Trains [07.18] In Absentia
Never Stop the Car on a Drive in the Dark – the Making of Deadwing directed by Jeremy George
Deadwing: The History and track-by-track by Stephen Humphries (Deadwing book)
In his 2004 song ‘The Happy Goth’, Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy sang ‘She wears Dr. Martens and a heavy cross/But on the inside she’s a happy goth.’ Back in the dark days of the last century, going to a concert by The Cure meant seeing many goths in the audience – happy or unhappy. Although there were a few in the audience tonight, including a man who dramatically removed his Robert Smith wig after the gig, there were probably more Goths onstage than off it. But Robert Smith himself is a happy Goth now, musing on his ‘Friday night disco’ music and apologising for starting the concert with such resolutely undanceable songs as Alone (from the new album Songs of a Lost World which hasn’t yet been released) and Pictures of You. It would be a long wait for fans who had come to hear the poppier side of The Cure, ageless pop masterpieces such as Friday I’m in Love and Boys Don’t Cry which didn’t appear until the second encore nearly three hours later.
Referring to the fever dream of Shake Dog Shake, Smith said he finally understood the song, although when he turned to the next page of the lyrics he didn’t recognise the hand that wrote them because of his ‘seven second memory’ (although perhaps he meant Seventeen Seconds, after the title of the band’s second album from 1980). But despite the whimsy of Smith’s genial banter, and the disorganised tangle of his Goth hair, what is most striking about the immaculately delivered set of songs from across the decades is the precision of his songwriting; he manages to achieve a rare combination of lyrical and musical simplicity, simple instrumental lines interlocking perfectly like the mechanism of the theoretical perpetual motion machine. If that machine is impossible because it defies the laws of physics, then Smith’s voice is also a thing of wonder, that of a man 30 years younger.
If Smith still sounds like a young man, some of his new material seems to come from the bitter experience of a much older man. This lyrical theme of songs of experience that follow songs of innocence (as in William Blake’s poetry collection of 1789) began around the turn of the millennium when he wrote ‘It used to be so easy/I never even tried … All that I feel for or trust in or love/All that is gone’ (The Last Day of Summer). In much earlier times, Smith wrote almost cheerfully about death, with the insouciance of youth, ‘It doesn’t matter if we all die’ (from One Hundred Years, played elsewhere on this tour but not tonight). On the new song I can Never Say Goodbye he reflects on the cruel reality of death that has recently taken away both his parents and his brother, poignantly singing ‘Something wicked this way comes/To steal away my brother’s life.’
Simon Gallup, Smith’s long-time partner on bass still retains his youthful energy. A one-man rock and roll show, he wears his bass low-slung like Peter Hook, prowling around the stage while other members of the band are almost statuesque, sometimes putting one foot on a monitor in classic rock star pose. But Gallup’s playing is far from cliched; his bass tone is superb tonight, and his melodic and inventive guitar lines are always a joy to hear. He has fun on A Forest, duetting with Smith at the end as Smith improvises guitar chords over the iconic bass line, ending with a solo blast of distortion.
‘New’ member Reeves Gabrels on guitar, who incredibly has now been part of The Cure for ten years, provides respectful backup but occasionally produces florid and virtuosic solos that remind us of his avant-garde work with David Bowie. Drummer Jason Cooper is never showy but remains the rock on which The Cure’s Gothic edifice securely stands. And Roger O’Donnell fills in the spaces between the stark guitar lines with rich keyboard washes. The sound throughout the evening is beautifully clear, revealing the interlocking textures of the instrumental part while Smith’s distinctive tenor soars above. Despite Smith’s plaintive cry of ‘it used to be so easy’, the band still make playing live sound easy – the mark of a great live band who may or may not have been playing for one hundred years already.
Swedish prog metal band celebrate three decades of music with audience choices
A work colleague was bemused when I told her I was going to London on Friday to see a prog metal band, ‘didn’t you do that last week?’ she said. I explained that I had been to see Porcupine Tree, who are prog rock rather than prog metal. But both bands transcend their genre labels, as demonstrated in this concert by opener Ghost of Perdition which begins with death metal vocals and guitars but soon embraces pastoral folk. Both bands also feature leaders who are endlessly restless, refusing to repeat themselves. As Opeth’s leader Mikael Åkerfeldt said during the gig, he could easily have rewritten the band’s classic album Blackwater Park (2001) for every subsequent album, just as Steven Wilson could have carried on writing new versions of Porcupine Tree’s classic Fear of a Blank Planet (2007). But both men have refused to compromise, sometimes alienating fans but also gaining new ones by constantly changing. The two men have also been close friends since Wilson worked on Blackwater Park and more recently their Storm Corrosion album (2012).
Åkerfeldt did please fans however by allowing them to choose the setlist by picking one song from each of the band’s 13 studio albums to celebrate Opeth’s 30th anniversary. This led to the slightly strange choice of Black Rose Immortal from the 1996 album Morningrise. Åkerfeldt admitted that his aim was to write a song for the first album which was over twenty minutes long. It wasn’t ready in time so he put it on the second album. He conceded that he built the track by stitching together short sections. The resulting song is episodic almost to the point of being disjointed, but the band made a good effort at playing it live for the first time.
Elsewhere, long-form structures worked much better, as on The Moor (from 1999’s Still Life) with its dreamy opening followed by driving metal riffs, and closing number Deliverance (from the 2002 album of the same name) with its mesmerising syncopated final section. And throughout the concert Åkerfeldt’s endlessly inventive songwriting was illustrated by songs that – remarkably – he began writing at the age of 19, obtaining the band’s first record deal by sending a cassette to a record company with 15 seconds of rehearsal footage on it. His amazing ear for unusual chord progressions and rich harmonies was evident throughout, particularly in the beautiful harmony vocals for Eternal Rains will Come (from Pale Communion 2014).
Åkerfeldt has worked very hard to get Opeth to its current level of success, and he is obviously enjoying it; his onstage persona was relaxed, taking time to tune his guitar and chat amiably to the audience between songs. His singing voice was equally relaxed, his death metal growls rich and evocative and his clean vocals searing and potent, often within the same song. The audience were in good voice too, joyfully singing along when Åkerfeldt played a short excerpt from a song by another great singer – George Michael’s Faith. New drummer Waltteri Väyrynen (Paradise Lost, Bodom After Midnight and Bloodbath) was equally relaxed, and seems to have fitted into his new band really well already, happily embracing Opeth’s prog metal, blues, jazz and folk with equal aplomb.
The video screens were vertically split into three, meaning that from the balcony seats it looked at times as if Väyrynen and keyboard player Joakim Svalberg were swimming in a sea of fire or water. The images occasionally felt slightly generic but there was a stunning video for The Devil’s Orchard (from Heritage 2011) with a terrifying opening image of a woman falling from a high building into the abyss, matching the existential despair of the Nietzschean cry, ‘God is Dead.’
Like so many gigs, this one was delayed due to Covid, so the band are now in their 32nd year. Let’s hope that Åkerfeldt and friends continue to record and perform great music for many years to come.
Triumphant return of the band to London after 12 year hiatus
Image credit: Mike Holmes
Last time Porcupine Tree played in London was just over 12 years ago, in October 2010. As band leader and main songwriter Steven Wilson recounts in detail in his new book Limited Edition of One, what should have been a career highlight performing in front of a sold-out Royal Albert Hall left him feeling empty. He walked away to pursue an increasingly successful solo career, leaving fans and critics wondering whether the band would ever record together or play live again. Then in June 2022 a new album appeared, Closure/Continuation followed by a tour that ended, appropriately in London again, at a packed Wembley Arena.
It would be presumptuous to assume any intimate knowledge of Wilson’s inner psyche, but he seemed to be in a very different mood this time. The fact that the band have already announced they are playing more dates at summer festivals next year suggests that he’s enjoying himself again. He seemed relaxed and happy to be onstage. He had every right to be. The sound was very good, the video back projections were varied and interesting, the lighting impressive, and the audience attentive. Most importantly, Wilson was in excellent voice, and the band at times were so locked in with each other they felt like the limbs of a single creature rather than individuals.
During Collapse the Light into Earth, mobile phone torches were raised by the audience, gently swaying in a sea of lights. Wilson, playing keyboards in this gentle, melancholy ballad was distracted by such a moving sight, saying that he forgot the words as a result. Some audience members turned away from the stage to survey the communal emotion. Near the end, Wilson tried to introduce a song and the persistent applause stopped him from speaking. He has been on a 30 year journey, always carving his out own path but sometimes wondering why his exceptional songwriting ability, fine musicianship, stunning work as a producer and re-mixer and surround-sound guru, deep insights into the contemporary condition and ability to attract virtuoso musicians to work with him have not resulted in the commercial success he deserves. So it was poignant that he chose to play Buying New Soul, one of Porcupine Tree’s hidden treasures, which describes Wilson’s continuing fight against the music industry – ‘I still rage and wage my little war’. The song ends with the depressing concept of selling out, of buying a ‘new soul at the start of every year’. Wilson no longer needs to worry about compromising his artistic integrity – his last two solo albums and the new Porcupine Tree album all made the top five in the UK. And he played to over 12,000 fans tonight, despite mostly being ignored by the media, television and radio.
The new album represents the first time Wilson collaborated with other band members in writing songs, and the concert felt like a true band effort rather than Wilson with a backing band. Richard Barbieri on keyboards provided his usual atmospheric synth washes but also some prominent solos, worthy of Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright. Gavin Harrison on drums was subtle and loose-limbed, organic and human, never showy but always virtuosic. Wilson jovially announced the two new members of the touring band, American musicians Randy McStine and Nate Navarro as coming from New York and Texas (which apparently are now part of the British Isles … who knew?) McStine was a revelation, a superb guitarist who provided distinctive solos. He not only contributed backing vocals but at times shared lead vocal duties with Wilson, testament to the quality of his singing, and the deserved confidence Wilson placed in him. Navarro brought tasteful bass playing, successfully filling the gap left by the band’s previous bass player Colin Edwin. The performances were excellent throughout, but highlights included Sleep Together and Halo when the band locked tightly into Harrison’s drumming to create rhythmic perfection. And it was a joy to hear the long prog rock anthem Anesthetize played live in full, just as Nick Mason recently toured the Pink Floyd epic Echoes .
The new album was well-represented and the tracks stood up well in comparison with older classics from Fear of a Blank Planet and In Absentia. It might have been better to have grouped together more of the tracks from different albums for the sake of stylistic consistency but that was a very minor issue. The backing videos added a greater emotional depth to many of the songs. Herd Culling showed a wolf drenched in blood-red light, a miniature horror film.
The video for Sleep Together depicted multiple robotic creatures like the monster in Alien. The title track from Fear of a Blank Planet illustrated the song as an anthem for doomed youth. Perhaps the most moving of all was a new black and white video for Dignity based on the lyrics ‘Lost soul/Camped at the side of the road’ reminding us that rough sleepers still live on the street in the twenty-first century.
Wilson said the band would end the concert with a medley of rock classics including Sweet Home Alabama, Free Bird and Purple Rain. Before the audience recovered from its surprise at this, Wilson announced that the band would instead play the nearest that any of his ‘failures’ has been to being a hit, Trains, which has now been streamed over 27 million times on Spotify. Wilson has proved that he no longer needs to worry about ‘buying a new soul’ every year; his refusal to compromise has finally led to chart success, a loyal and devoted following, a reputation as one of the best re-mixers … and one of the best live experiences around.
Porcupine Tree return after 12 years’ hiatus with their new album which reached number 2 in the UK charts
Pink Floyd once satirised the music industry executive who said, ‘You gotta get an album out/You owe it to the people’ (Have a Cigar from their 1975 album Wish You Were Here). When Porcupine Tree went on an extended hiatus after their last concert in 2010, there was no pressure on them from a record company to ‘get an album out’. Band leader Steven Wilson had already launched what became an increasingly successful solo career. The other members of what is now known in copyright terms as ‘Porcupine Three’ were also pursuing their own careers. Keyboard player Richard Barbieri released a series of solo albums, most recently the troubled lockdown masterpiece Under a Spell. Drummer Gavin Harrison toured with King Crimson and became a member of The Pineapple Thief, and recorded a superb jazz fusion album Chemical Reactions with bass player Antoine Fafard.
In the meantime, another bass player was writing new material with Gavin Harrison – Steven Wilson himself. As long ago as 2012, Steven went round to Gavin’s house for a cup of tea and a chat. Gavin suggested that they should jam together, and the only instrument in Gavin’s home studio that resembled a lead guitar was a bass guitar. Pragmatism is the mother of creativity, so Steven picked up the bass and played it like a guitar player. Many years later, when promoting his most recent solo album, last year’s The Future Bites he said that he had fallen out of love with the guitar as the main source of his creativity, preferring to write on keyboards, particularly analogue synthesisers. When asked about the possible return of Porcupine Tree, he naturally always deflected the interviewer towards the solo work that he was promoting at the time, although a careful re-reading of some of those interviews now reveals that he was sometimes dropping hints that Porcupine Tree might come back at some stage, perhaps as a side-project to his solo career.
So, without any pressure or expectation, the three band members quietly wrote an album, now released under the intriguing title Closure/Continuation, suggesting that this could be the final chapter of the Porcupine Tree saga, or it could be the start of a new chapter. The lack of commercial or artistic pressure meant that the band were able to work in a completely new way. Previously, Steven Wilson had delivered songs to the band as fully completed demos which the band rerecorded. For the latest album, for the first time Steven wrote songs with the other band members, and all the instruments and vocals were performed by the three of them without any external collaborators. When their work was complete, they then offered it to several record companies, eventually going with the independent label Music for Nations who describe themselves as the ‘naughty corner of Sony Music UK, proving people wrong since 1983.’
The album has seven tracks, which are reviewed in more detail below, although streaming versions add another three tracks, Population Three, Never Have and Love in the Past Tense that are taken from the Deluxe Edition Box Set. The album is unusual in the band’s catalogue in the there is no over-arching concept as there is with many of their previous albums such as Fear of a Blank Planet. Steven Wilson’s own solo albums to date are based on a strong concept, except for the first album Insurgentes released in 2008. Perhaps the fact that songs were written piecemeal over a long period of time, and by all three band members rather than Steven Wilson on his own, meant that a concept was not appropriate this time, although the lyrics are all written by Steven Wilson and express some of the concerns he has visited on previous albums. To use a literary analogy, each song can be viewed as a self-contained short story rather than a chapter from a novel.
01 Harridan (Harrison, Wilson)
The title of this song has caused some online commentators to reach for their dictionary to discover that it means a haggard old woman. It’s an insult, or as the Oxford English Dictionary politely puts it, ‘usually a term of vituperation.’ Perhaps it leads listeners to expect a misogynistic rant, but instead the song is addressed to a man, making the term neutral. The man in question is a ‘gold man’, perhaps like the mythical King Midas whose every touch turned objects into gold, with a ‘silver tongue’ suggesting a powerful man who uses his eloquence to hide the truth which he keeps to himself. The truth in this case is that ‘you can only save yourself’. The chorus refers to hiding our cuts and our hurt from the world, appearing strong even at the point of death, ‘when we bite the dust’. The central character of the song could be a politician of the like that is dismantled in the third song on the album ‘Rats Return’, but it’s not made clear.
But the song is not completely bleak. The bridge section is much more tender, a gorgeous depiction of the ‘time of the almost rain’ which the next song Of the New Day reveals to be dawn. The beauty of the scene is poignantly combined with an expression of deep loss and regret; having ‘gone to earth’ to find love, the protagonist laments lost love, ‘and what is left without you?’ Wilson sings with a remarkable tenderness here, expressing a new vulnerability in his voice which seems to have begun on his previous solo album The Future Bites, showing a new confidence in his ability to use his voice as an expressive instrument.
The song was chosen as the first single from the album, and it was a good choice to relaunch the band on an unsuspecting world. It contains all the elements that became associated with the later Porcupine Tree, metal riffs, rich sound design, a wide range of dynamics, strong melodies, evocative lyrics and a sense of development as the track progresses. But there’s a new simplicity on this album, with pared-down production that bears a close relationship to the production style on The Future Bites. There’s less in the way of overt musical virtuosity than on previous Porcupine Tree albums, except unsurprisingly from Gavin Harrison on drums. At a recent Q&A session with the band in Leeds, Wilson and Barbieri amusingly recounted the arguments they had about who was the worst musician in the band, each trying to claim the crown and both (rightly) agreeing that Harrison is definitely the best musician in the band.
The track starts with Wilson playing perhaps the funkiest bass line ever heard on a Porcupine Tree record, with lovely ambient keyboards from Barbieri and fierce vocals from Wilson. In common with some of the other tracks on the album, the chorus is very short, giving a real sense of urgency. There’s also a yearning quality in the chords that lead up to the chorus. The song seems to have reached its end only about three minutes in after the contemplative bridge section, but it gathers itself again with fizzing guitar and a thunderous metal riff with driving guitar chords. The sound drops out with bubbling synths flying across the stereo picture, followed by a whimsical jazz section with Wilson almost scat singing in falsetto above. Another driving chromatic section follows with a triumphant return of the chorus and its matching riff. The coda to the song is a repeat of the bridge section, ending on an unresolved chord which disappears into noise. An inspiring ending to a superb opening song, announcing the group’s exultant return as if In Absentia was released only a year or two ago rather than 20 years ago.
02 Of The New Day (Wilson)
After the onslaught of the previous song, there follows a gentle ballad which expresses hope and optimism at the breaking of dawn, described by the Greek poet Homer as ‘rosy-fingered dawn’, a memorable image of a time here described by Wilson as ‘the hour of almost rain/When night becomes the day.’ It’s an image of rebirth, but as this is a Porcupine Tree song there are ‘tinges of darkness around the edges’ as Wilson admitted in a Twitter Listening Party with Tim Burgess of The Charlatans on 29 June. The darkness here seems to be the protagonist’s old life, which is still there despite the breaking dawn, ‘the old days that line up behind/The monolith of the new day.’
Although it’s superficially a simple song, behind the balladry lies the rhythmic genius of Gavin Harrison. Apparently Wilson told the band’s drummer that he wanted to write a song that had multiple time changes. This means that the song has a slightly stop-start feel but it’s so well executed that after the initial slight shock of the time changes it soon resides in the brain as a classic Steven Wilson ballad.
03 Rats Return (Harrison, Wilson)
This song is about politicians who ‘leave their principles at the door’ who ‘purge [their] guilt for nameless hoards’ (pedants will note that the correct spelling of the word is ‘hordes’). The idea of rats returning ties in with the more common image of rats leaving a sinking ship; in the song the rats are presumably returning to celebrate their complete control over the places they have laid waste by their policies. The hint of a nautical image becomes more of a theme as the album progresses.
The idea of psychopaths running society is something that preoccupies Wilson; in the video for the track Eminent Sleaze on The Future Bites he plays a character who represents the ultimate extremes of Capitalism as he watches the world end, leaving him as the sole survivor.
In Rats Return, the line ‘a conscience won’t help you win the war’ perfectly encapsulates the level of psychopathy that politicians often appear to need in order to be leaders. It’s a concept explored by journalist and broadcaster Jon Ronson in his fascinating book, The Psychopath Test, which looks at the lack of empathy in public figures,
“Serial killers ruin families,’ shrugged Bob. ‘Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.”
The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson (Picador 2012)
Wilson makes it clear that he is referring to real political and military leaders when he lists ‘Genghis K’ (Genghis Kahn, the military leader who was responsible for the deaths of millions), ‘Pinochet’ (the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet) and ‘Mao Tse Tung’ (Chairman Mao, responsible for countless Chinese deaths during the Cultural Revolution).
The song is another exercise in rhythmic mastery from Harrison. On Twitter he pointed out that the rhythmic pattern is so complex it takes, ‘at least half the song before people realise that there is a repeat of a four-bar syncopation, in which every bar is different.’ As a result, the rhythm is ‘spiky’, which suits the song’s sentiments perfectly. The main guitar riff could have come from the progressive metal style of some of the songs on the previous three Porcupine Tree albums, but the song also has a contemporary feel due to the sparse production. It feels like another classic Porcupine Tree song in the making.
04 Dignity (Barbieri, Wilson)
This song addresses one of Wilson’s favourite themes, the role of ambition in our lives and the failure to achieve our dreams – the ‘stupid dream’ described in the album of the same name in 1999. On the Twitter Listening Party he said that Dignity describes a guy who ‘really used to be someone’, a film star or a CEO who is now living on the street, and ‘all the pathos that goes with that downfall.’ But there is also hope – the central character retains his dignity despite his downfall, ‘your dignity will never go and your mind is pretty sound’
The song includes a reference to the final section of T. S. Eliot’s epic poem The Waste Land, What the thunder said, in the line ‘Tell yourself it’s just what the thunder said.’ The first part of that section of the poem refers to the aridity and sterility of life in the 20th century (the poem was written in 1922, so is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year). The poem ends with the Sanskrit word ‘Shantih’ repeated three times. The word Shantih, used at the end of Hindu religious texts the Upanishads, means peace. Eliot himself in his Notes to the poem described it as the equivalent of the Christian concept of ‘The Peace which passeth understanding’ or the Peace that God brings. In the context of the song, which has no overt religious message, the fact that the poem ends on an ineffably positive note could suggest that if the protagonist in the song ignores what the thunder said, and instead follows the final message of the poem, this could provide hope despite his downfall. Whether Wilson had the poem in mind when he wrote the song is unclear, although the final section also has a reference to hooded hordes swarming over endless plains, which could relate to the anonymous ‘nameless hordes’ referred to in Rats Return.
The song starts with the sound of children playing, rather like opening of First Regret from Wilson’s fourth solo album Hand.Cannot.Erase, a brief evocation of the nostalgic theme that has often appeared in his work. A haunting wordless vocal, pure in tone, is provided by the Swedish singer and multi-instrumentalist Lisen Rylander Löve who has worked with Richard Barbieri. A cascading rock guitar line leads to a syncopated vocal line with folky backing vocals provided by Wilson himself. The chorus has a soaring lead synth line which rises in gentle euphoria. The chord structure uses a classic songwriting technique beloved of The Beatles and others, the change from major to minor on the words ‘you stare at the sun’, here describing a moment of hope as the sun breaks through, followed by a return to melancholy on the final word ‘done’. These chord progressions give the song an instant feeling of warm nostalgia, as if the song had already been heard many times before in a dream.
05 Herd Culling (Harrison, Barbieri, Wilson)
The track opens with the visceral lines, ‘Son, go fetch the rifle now/There’s something in the yard’, throwing us immediately into a compelling psychodrama. As a lyricist, Steven has a poet or script writer’s ability to enter a story in medias res, half way through a story, the nature of which is gradually revealed as the song progresses, teasing the listener to extract the meaning of the song. In a fascinating and very detailed interview by the ever-perceptive Anil Prasad of Innerviews.org, Steven Wilson revealed the meaning of this song. He later retracted, saying he would prefer listeners to make up their own minds, so those who prefer their views not to be influenced by the lyric writer’s thoughts should skip to the next paragraph now. Wilson told Prasad that the song was inspired by the story of Skinwalker Ranch, near Ballard, Utah. Several accounts suggest that the ranch has been plagued by paranormal activities and UFOs, and a slew of books, films and documentaries have been published about it. The song describes the family’s attempts to defend themselves against aliens, ‘strange gods above the earth’ who may have landed to ‘cull a herd’ of cattle on the ranch. He told Prasad, ‘I remain skeptical [sic] when it comes to the UFO stuff and government coverups. But I love the stories.’ His fascination with ghost stories led him to write a collection of them that made up his third solo album, The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) released in 2013. On that album he used the stories to illustrate his thoughts about the human condition, and emotions such as regret and feelings of loss, rather than a scientific exploration of the existence or otherwise of ghosts. His scepticism is echoed in the chorus of the song, which consists of the single word ‘liar’, resentfully muttered at first then viciously spat out as his venom increases.
06 Walk the Plank (Barbieri, Wilson)
Another song about the corruption of power in the 21st century. On the Twitter Listening Party, Richard Barbieri described the song as being about ‘the sort of characters that are causing global trouble, a sign-of-the times commentary’. The nautical imagery is much more overt than on Rats Return; this time the rats have abandoned the sunken ship and ‘will never find their way back again.’
The song is very unusual in the Porcupine Tree canon in that it features almost entirely keyboards and drums, with very little if any guitar. To an extent, it shares the fiercely electronic sound of some of the songs on The Future Bites, particularly Eminent Sleaze although ironically much of that song was recorded using real instruments. If some of the songs on this new album feel like closure, finishing a chapter in the band’s previous history, this one feels forward-looking to new territories the band might explore in future if they carry on writing and recording together. Interestingly, on Twitter Richard Barbieri described the track as ‘the joker in the pack… if it went further it wouldn’t be Porcupine Tree.’ Steven Wilson said that if the band did work together again they would probably push towards a more keyboard-based sound with less prominence given to the guitar.
07 Chimera’s Wreck (Harrison, Wilson)
On Twitter, Wilson described this as ‘perhaps the most personal song on the album.’ It addresses a subject that has often troubled him, the nature of success and what we imagine that would look like when we are young. The ‘chimera’ described here is the illusion of the future, ‘what we imagine we want from life when we’re young probably wouldn’t have made us happy anyway.’ As mentioned above this was the theme of the Stupid Dream album, and it was also the theme of one of the hidden treasures of the Porcupine Tree back catalogue, ‘Buying New Soul’ which was recorded during the sessions for Lightbulb Sun which was released in 2000. In that song, Wilson describes his battle with the recording industry and his attempt to retain artistic integrity, ‘I still rage and wage my little war’ – but it ends with the depressing concept of selling out, of buying a ‘new soul at the start of every year’.
The personal nature of the song is emphasised by the reference to Wilson’s father, who passed away in 2011, and to whom he dedicated his second solo album Grace for Drowning, which was released later that year. Wilson began working on Chimera’s Wreck shortly after that, and the image of his father smiling at a child encapsulates their relationship in one short line. The reference to ‘A new town in the 60s’ is presumably Wilson’s home town of Hemel Hempstead, England. The new part of the existing town was completed in 1962, ‘out of concrete a design made for tomorrow’, and Wilson himself was born five years later in 1967.
The song uses sea imagery as on other parts of the album. It’s interesting that some of the imagery and language is quite archaic, almost arcane at times. This contrasts with the use of language on Wilson’s last two solo albums, which is much more direct. The final verse of this song refers to slipping the ‘wreck’ into a bottle, which presumably refers to the old practice of putting a model ship into a bottle. In this case the wrecked ship that has washed up on a shore is perhaps sealed in a bottle to because it’s no longer needed – a hopeful note on which to end the album. The robust backing vocals that appear at just over two minutes into the track have the feel of a sea shanty, and giving the song a nautical feel, a curious throwback to the 19th century. Musically, a strange but perhaps valid comparison is the music of Van der Graaf Generator, and in particular another epic track with a nautical theme, A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers from the 1971 album Pawn Hearts.Chimera’s Wreck shares the driving, repeated riffs of many of the Van der Graaf Generator songs, and their episodic nature, making it the most prog-rock song on the album.
Wilson has said that this is the best Porcupine Tree album, along with Fear of a Blank Planet and In Absentia. He also admits that ‘time will tell.’ It’s certainly by far the most collaborative album the band have ever released. The lack of an over-arching concept perhaps makes it more difficult to grasp initially than many of the previous albums, but individual tracks are very strong and as with most of Steven Wilson’s work it takes a while to give up its secrets, so repeated listens are recommended. It also maintains the consistently excellent levels of production that have characterised Wilson’s work for decades now, both as a producer and as an expert remixer of classic albums. Let’s hope that the new album, to quote one of the band’s own song titles, is the ‘Start of Something Beautiful’ rather than a final coda to their work.
For a detailed, track-by-track analysis of the previous 10 studio albums, bonus tracks, live albums and compilations see Porcupine Tree On Track by Nick Holmes, published in September 2021 by Sonicbond.
Ms Amy Birks is an award-winning vocalist and songwriter, and also produces and arranges her own music. She previously sang with the acclaimed band Beatrix Players, and she released her first solo album All That I am & All That I Wasin 2020. Now she returns with her new album In Our Souls. In an in-depth interview with Nick Holmes Music, she talks about how she writes and records her music and the inspiration for songs on her album, including the Brontë sisters and their home at the Parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire.
PART I Writing and Recording
I think I know who I am and what I want to do with my life and what my purpose is. So maybe that comes through.
Nick Holmes Music: To someone who doesn’t know your music, how would you describe the style?
Ms Amy Birks: I would say it was a mixture of classical meets songwriter and it has a kind of haunting and theatrical presence. And I definitely don’t get stuck in one genre. You know it’s whatever comes naturally, but definitely the theatrics, drama, songwriter, classical with a dash of rock in there.
Nick Holmes Music: There’s something quite theatrical about some of the spoken word introductions to some of the songs on the album.
Maybe it was lockdown that sent me very internal … It wasn’t a planned thing. I would just come up into my studio, really working and reworking the tracks and with Brothers and The Woman in White it just felt natural to add an extra layer of drama on there, so it was just me locked in a room with, ‘How can I really put myself into it?’ I remember from my last album with Jamaica Inn when I did the video, I really enjoyed a bit of acting for the video, so I think that’s in me and the performer in me came out.
Nick Holmes Music: How would you describe your voice? It’s quite distinctive, isn’t it? Have you had any formal training?
Ms Amy Birks: Oh no, I was only speaking to John Hackett [flautist on the album and younger brother of Steve Hackett] about that the other day and he said, ‘of course you’ve had training haven’t you’ and I said, ‘no, not one hour, one day, nothing.’ I’ve always sang since I can remember … I was in the church choir, just up from the family house. As soon as I could sing in front of the school audience, I was up there and then I did Music Tech at university, so all the way through my life I’ve had opportunities to sing, but no formal training – piano, yes, but not vocals.
Nick Holmes Music: So it just came out naturally, that really rich sort of mezzo soprano?
Ms Amy Birks: Yeah, it’s maybe because of the people that I’ve listened to in the past. I would religiously listen to Eddi Reader of Fairground Attraction when I was in my younger teens, and I can hear sometimes in my pronunciation that you can tell certain artists that I’ve listened to. So it was like Eddi Reader, Alanis Morissette, and Tori Amos. Those sorts of guys. Never really Kate Bush to be honest, even though that tends to come up quite a bit, I was more into Joni Mitchell, Natalie Merchant and Suzanne Vega, very much. It’s that world and the storytelling.
Nick Holmes Music: How and when do you actually write?
Ms Amy Birks: This might sound odd, but I don’t plan it. I feel like something comes to me and I have to very quickly go up to my room or grab some paper and the song comes very quickly, or the idea. Sometimes the piano riff comes first, but I generally feel like someone’s going, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get this down now’, if that doesn’t sound weird. I never say, ‘Right, this weekend, on Saturday and Sunday, I’m going to go and sit and just wait and see what happens. It doesn’t work like that. I have to wait for it to come to me and then I disappear for a while.
Nick Holmes Music: And which comes first, the words or the music?
Ms Amy Birks: A lot of the time it’s all at the same time. So I can kind of hear a finished piece, but then have to decipher, break it down, ‘Okay, my lyrics are coming.’ I’m writing it down and the melody and the structures are all coming at the same time, unless I’m sat at my piano, I think, ‘Well, actually I like this piece, I’ve got a good idea coming here.’ And then I’ll write lyrics. But the main vocal melody and the lyric tends to come at the same time, and sometimes cello, piano, and bass and everything all at the same time.
Nick Holmes Music: Do you write at the piano, or does it come into your head?
Ms Amy Birks: It comes into my head and then I have to find it on the piano because I’m not a naturally gifted pianist. Not at all. I would find it very daunting playing in front of anybody. I’m very different when it comes to my voice, I can sing in front of anybody but piano, totally opposite. I see it very much as a vehicle to get my ideas out, rather than me being a pianist. So, it comes into my head and then I have to work through and work out, ‘What is that, what note is that?’
Nick Holmes Music: Is it fair to say that in some ways In Our Souls is a less personal album than your first album All That I am and All That I was?
Ms Amy Birks: Yes. I think so, but there are a couple of songs that are deeply personal on this, Brothers being one of them, I needed to just get that off my chest and out there. The Woman in White is definitely about me and my past marriage. But the rest, I kind of just wanted to have more fun with the music. And I suppose I’m in a better place. So, not so many horrendously charged songs. Hopefully it feels a little bit more uplifting this time.
Nick Holmes Music: You recorded, produced and mixed the album. How did you find that? Did you find it difficult to be objective and step back from it all?
Ms Amy Birks: I suppose it was actually but, Tom Manning [guitarist] listened to the mixes towards the end and also my manager Ian Blackaby. So, I had those guys to just tell me, ‘Is this okay or tell me to stop now!’ But I felt like I was in a much better position to understand what I was doing this time compared to the last album. I spent hours and hours on really understanding sound and the soundscape and positioning. I try if I can to structure a lot of my music based on an orchestra. You know where they would sit naturally within the orchestra, which is I suppose natural for my music because it always seems to have cello or violin or viola in. And so that kind of creates my base. But I did find it easier this time. It was hard, the first album. I was really quite worried, I didn’t know whether it was going to be good enough, how people were going to react to it, but for this one I felt more confident and I’m proud of it, even before it went out the door so that was a good test for me, I think.
Nick Holmes Music: You did all the arrangements yourself? They feel quite a lot more complex than the previous album.
Ms Amy Birks: That’s probably just my brain becoming more complex, but arranging is one of my favourite things to do. I love layering and working out how to build the tracks. I spent a hell of a lot more time on arranging than I did actually writing the songs, that’s for sure. Definitely a favourite part of the whole process.
Nick Holmes Music: It feels that there’s a new kind of maturity and richness both about your singing and your song writing compared with the first album, which was excellent by the way …
Ms Amy Birks: Thank you!
Nick Holmes Music: What’s changed? How did that come about?
Ms Amy Birks: I’m less stressed about everything, I think because I’ve just matured and realised what life is about a bit more. And I have a really solid partner in crime in my now husband, Simon, so I just have the headspace that I never had before. And now I think – I know this sounds a bit deep – but I think I know who I am and what I want to do with my life and what my purpose is. So maybe that comes through.
Nick Holmes Music: So does your husband contribute creatively?
Ms Amy Birks: No, he’s just got a really good way of looking at life. He’s a crazy passionate ultrarunner and he’s really wonderful to talk through ideas with. Actually he’s got a really good voice, and he introduced me to bands like Depeche Mode that I never really listened to before, so maybe that had some sort of influence …. there were some electronic sounds actually that came through, and that’s probably off the of the back of me listening to some of the Depeche Mode records, but no creative input. It’s just good to chat through ideas at the end of the day.
Nick Holmes Music: You did virtually all the backing vocals yourself; how important was it to you that that you had this multi layered approach to the backing vocals?
Ms Amy Birks: It’s something I do naturally. I love harmonising off the cuff. I would never write a melody down or really take that much time. I just press record and see what happens. So there’s a lot of that on my record where it’s just of the moment. I put down what comes into my head and see what happens. There’s quite a bit of that on the album and I just enjoy it. I enjoy the build-up of layers of vocals. Maybe it comes back to my roots singing in choirs, and growing up in a house where my dad could sing. My mum can, but she would never admit it. So there’s always voices around. But for me, I kind of challenge myself, ‘Let’s see how obscure I can make this next vocal line’, and then see if I can interweave it; I like clashes, but it’s still got to make sense when it’s there.
Nick Holmes Music: Steven Wilson has said that he was very strongly influenced by The Beach Boys in terms of layering vocals, and he does most of his backing vocals. Was there any particular band that influenced you?
Ms Amy Birks: I think if you listen to some of Eddi Reader’s records, I always loved her atmospheric sort of vocals, and it was always her. So I assume it’s probably come from that. I used to, from 13 or 14 years old, put her records on; this is how I taught myself that how to be able to harmonise with anything on the spot is to listen to records, like the stuff from Eddi Reader and just never hit her main note, and just train my brain to very quickly snap into what that chord could be. So I should imagine it’s from that.
Nick Holmes Music: And there’s a male voice that creeps in occasionally; is that your dad?
Ms Amy Birks: That’s my dad, yes. He got up on Saturday actually and sang at the album launch which was beautiful and I cried a little bit at the end. He sang Say Something [from the first album] with me, which is really poignant because the lyrics kind of point to my dad saying that to me, ‘Why didn’t you say something?’ So it was a real moment that we caught, but yeah I love his voice. Say Something was about two things that happened in my childhood. One, I was attacked by a boy in my music class when I was 14 and he got expelled; and the next was I used to do quite a bit of modelling and at the age of 17, I worked with a photographer, and he was horrendous to be around, and the sort of stuff that he was encouraging me to try and do was just… no one should be faced with that sort of behaviour at the age of 17. There was a lot of nude photography around me, and just things that happened and were said to me and done around me that I should never have experienced. But for some reason at the time, because he was kind of trying to be my manager, music wise, I didn’t say anything because I was scared of losing out on something. And I opened up to my parents later on and said, you know, he was a horrible man and the things that he said and did should never have been allowed to happen. I know it’s pretty hard and awful for my dad to hear, so then I wrote the chorus of Say Something from his perspective. So then to get up and sing together was emotional, to say the least.
Nick Holmes Music: Are you happy to talk about this?
Ms Amy Birks: I think you have to be open. If I’ve written a song about it then I’ve got to talk about it.
Nick Holmes Music: It’s in the public domain isn’t it?
Ms Amy Birks: Yes.
PART II Individual Songs on In our Souls
The less control you have I think from external sources the more creative you can be
Nick Holmes Music: So let’s talk about individual tracks on the new album, starting with Brothers. It has really anguished opening spoken words, ‘Do you do you know why?’ And it’s about the relationship with your estranged brothers…
Ms Amy Birks: My twin and my younger brother. We’ve just had a very, very difficult relationship. I think maybe with my twin it probably started … I was never competitive with him, but I think it was the other way around. I even think it probably started when we were children in school. We were very good at sport so teachers would put us up against each other in things like swimming races, so that competition emerged. So maybe it started there. But really very sad, really, because you think twins are going to be close, but I’ve just had the most difficult relationship; it’s the most difficult one I’ve ever had in my life, and I’ve had a few difficult ones, and it’s upsetting. And really, I can’t put my finger on what it is, which is why I say, ‘do you know? Do you know why?’ Because I really don’t, and I don’t know why … There’s a lot of hatred between us and it is hate. I wouldn’t say it’s a dislike, and the same with my younger brother. We were very, very close until maybe six or seven years ago, something like that. And then relationships happen and people go off and meet partners and form their own opinion of life and how things should happen and – so yes, two very, very difficult relationships – heart breaking up to the point where a couple of years ago I thought it was going to break me … Probably why there was a lot coming through on my last album, I thought I was going to have a breakdown. It was that hard for me. But in the last three years I’ve realised that when things like this happen, you send them love and you send them on their way because certain people are not supposed to be in your life, whether they’re family or not. So if you can recognise that, you’re in a much better position then to enjoy your own life.
Nick Holmes Music: So do you feel to an extent that writing tracks like this and some of the more personal tracks on your previous album is almost a form of therapy for you?
Ms Amy Birks: Massively, yes! It’s cheaper too! Yes it’s a way of just almost putting something to bed, too. It’s like, ‘Yes, okay that’s out of my system now.’ I hope even with Brothers … it could come across as harsh, yes, because it’s been a hard relationship. However, there’s a lot of sadness in there too, so I try with all my lyrics not to … you know they can be quite close to the bone, but hopefully never go over that line because a lot of my songs are actually written about people, actual people. So I have to be careful.
Nick Holmes Music: And talking of that, who is Elsa? Is that a real person?
Ms Amy Birks: No, no. So I wrote that song when I was about 19, so I’ve got a couple of songs on this album that are really quite old now, well sort of old! It’s fictitious, just a lady that was very aware of her needs. I was 19 or 20 when I wrote that. Maybe it was a little of me in there. I don’t know. But some songs are very deeply personal; others, I suppose like The Beatles did, right – they just made things up and they just turned them into songs. So no, I don’t know an Elsa – I never met an Elsa!
Nick Holmes Music: There are three songs on the album which use words by the Brontës; why did you choose to go for their poetry rather than their perhaps more famous novels?
Ms Amy Birks: I suppose because the natural one was Wuthering Heights being, you know, Kate Bush, she’s kind of conquered that one. So don’t go near that. Actually Jane Eyre is my favourite, but I think when I read their poetry, I just thought, well, this fits so easily into pieces of music because there’s so much structure there already. There’s so much rhythm and I just remember seeing Evening Solace, which is In Our Souls and straight away I was getting a melody to it. So it’s a natural thing that I never really thought to tackle a Jane Eyre. I don’t know, it’s a natural thing to go towards. Maybe I was being lazy! It’s much easier to say the poems than to come to try and capture such incredible stories, but who knows, I might just do that next. I almost think it could be a concept album, you know the bigger pieces.
Nick Holmes Music: Let’s just talk through the individual songs, starting with In Our Souls by Charlotte Brontë.
Ms Amy Birks: So with this there was a lot of the just singular lines that resonated with me, and to me it just sounded like the sunshine, something like a real spring morning. I do a lot of gardening, I’m in an allotment a lot, and I tried to capture something that sounded like a celebration of something beautiful, something full of life. So when that piano part came to me, the big piano riff, it was like, ‘Yes! This has to be for that track.’ So that came separately, the piece of piano, but knowing that I was already looking at poems from the Brontës. So I think it’s more about bringing out the words and trying to bring out some of the character as well of each of the Brontë sisters. And so hopefully In Our Souls does sound like a kind of celebration and something that feels really fresh, uplifting and very English.
Nick Holmes Music: Then the next one is A Death Scene, which is Emily Brontë?
Ms Amy Birks: With what Emily’s written in terms of … well, the only novel … but her poetry was dark. And from what I’ve read she seemed a feisty character, so I wanted that to come through, I think, in A Death Scene. I love the instrumentation on A Death Scene. Some of that track is definitely up there with my favourite parts of the album, normally when I’m not singing to be honest – I can sit back and listen to John Hackett, with the flute and Tom Manning with the guitar. I didn’t actually write that guitar part. I said to Tom, ‘Make people weak with this section.’ And then he sent that through, ‘Wow! That really is beautiful. You’ve hit the brief.’ And so where I could I have just said to the musicians on the album, ‘Really listen’. This is telling them what it is, what the song’s about, and then they’ve had freedom to express themselves. I think Tom Manning especially really comes through strong on this album. I can hear Tom in the music, which is great.
Nick Holmes Music: And finally, there’s The Dream, with words by Anne Brontë?
I wanted this to sound intimate and personal, just like your dreams. Through reading about the sisters I saw that Anne preferred vocal music, so this has more of a traditional singer-songwriter feel to it than the other two Brontë poems on the album. But it’s not without its drama, where she awakes in the middle eight,
But then to wake and find it flown, The dream of happiness destroyed.
Nick Holmes Music: And for the Brontës you actually went to Haworth to do some research. How did those visits go what? What did you find out that inspired you?
Ms Amy Birks: To be honest, I’ve been going to Haworth since I was a young girl. My mum and dad took me there when I was probably seven or eight years old. I’ve always been drawn to it and there’s such a darkness around their house – the sound of black crows all around sends shiver down my spine. But I always love to just go and be still. I’m very much into the energies of the place and the House [the Brontë Parsonage Museum] and I think you can absorb so much from just being in a place where they would write and create and go through turmoil and have happy memories. So I visited there, and I did my research to try and work out what sort of music and what sort of classical music they were all like listening to, like Liszt for example. But for me it’s about feeling the energies in that house, and I think it’s full of them. I’ve been there probably six or seven times and will keep going back. And it’s amazing that you know if you’ve seen some of the clothes they wore and how tiny they were, and Charlotte was absolutely minute. It’s fascinating to see some of their miniatures. I resonate a lot with them in lots of different ways. I have a doll’s house which is filled with antique miniatures and so there are lots of different reasons why I’m drawn to the Brontës.
Nick Holmes Music: And so striking that they lived in a small village, in a parsonage, and yet their imaginations were so vivid.
Ms Amy Birks: Yeah, absolutely wild. But then again, you go to the back of the House, and you step foot into the Moors. And it’s barren up there and you can imagine what … you have to dig deep and find happiness in a different way. I don’t really watch the TV so I tend to go inwards and do a lot, and the less control you have I think from external sources the more creative you can be. So I get it – once you’re there, I think you can understand where they did get those ideas from and the fact that there were three of them bouncing ideas and encouraging I think that’s incredible.
Nick Holmes Music: Is there a link between your musical influences and Iamthemorning, and the solo work of their vocalist Marjana Semkina?
Ms Amy Birks: I’m aware of their work, yeah. I’m not sure if I’m aware of the sort of music that they would listen to you, but I know of those guys yeah and I’ve got their albums.
Nick Holmes Music: I was more thinking in terms of the fact that they have quite a Victorian sensibility. And I wonder if that that relates to what we’ve been talking about in terms of the Brontës and looking back in time to that era.
Ms Amy Birks: There’s a romance there, isn’t there, looking back through history. Maybe it’s because of the simpleness of it – complicated for other reasons, and hardships. But we lose ourselves in silly things these days and I think they didn’t, so everything was said because it needed to be said. I think we’re too soft these days and we would get distracted and controlled too easily. So I think if there is a romance, I’ve always been drawn to that era. I’ve collected Victorian clothes since I was at university, where I’d go to Manchester, to Affleck’s palace. The Victorian cape I have on the front cover of In Our Souls, that was something I bought when I about 18. So I always had a fascination with that era.
Nick Holmes Music: Mariana on her Twitter feed describes herself as a ‘dead Victorian girl.’
Ms Amy Birks: Yeah, and her artwork’s beautiful and the whole vibe is wonderful.
Nick Holmes Music: TheWoman in White – is there a literary connection? Or did you just take the title from the Wilkie Collins novel?
Ms Amy Birks: I think I read it around the time of actually writing Woman in White but that’s literally where the connection stops, because TheWoman in White was definitely about me and my kind of split life of, ‘Who the hell is that woman over there. Oh, that’s me!’ So it’s that, but I do remember reading The Woman in White at that same moment. Actually I found that hard work. I found that book really hard work. It just jumps around so much, but I got to the end of it!
Nick Holmes Music: So just looking now at Hold On, which is another real highlight of the album…
Ms Amy Birks: Thank you.
Nick Holmes Music: … It shows a kind of new sophistication in writing and arranging – the way it starts with a gentle piano and a very sweet violin, and then rises to this huge epic guitar climax. Is that something you’re aiming at now, that kind of development within a song?
Ms Amy Birks: Yeah, more dynamics, so you really feel the quiet moments because again, that middle eight and the way that it drops, and you’ve got the guitar that’s really present, but it’s a quiet presence. Playing with those dynamics, is absolutely what I’ll do in the future. I want to really go for that. I wrote that song when I was sat by the lake in Coniston. And my husband was in the fells doing one of his runs, so it’s written about him. So this song is for Simon. So it was quite a personal song. He had … not the easiest start in life, but he’s found and channels a lot of his energy into running and he was up there in the fells when I wrote this. Again, a song that came very quickly and written on the back of a bookmark. I think I will play more and more with dynamics because I think you feel the words, you feel the presence in the song much more.
Nick Holmes Music: And why did you choose to end the album, to bookend it with an instrumental version of the title track?
Ms Amy Birks: I think it’s me growing as an artist in terms of confidence to be able to not sing on a track and believe that the music that I write is as strong as the lyric. And I love that piece of music without me on it, so I thought it would be a nice way of ending the album with the bookend.
PART III Musical Collaborations
There’s been a lot of natural input from the musicians on this album, and maybe that’s because there’s flexibility there, but I’m like, ‘Come on, inject your personality in there’, and they have.
Nick Holmes Music: Tell me a little bit about the collaborators you worked with on In Our Souls
Ms Amy Birks: John Hackett [flute] of course, he was on the last record. Everything I send to him, the stuff that you get back, I just think he’s a beautiful player. He’s very much melody and song first and he wants to complement and doesn’t want to get in the way. He’s very much that and I’m like, ‘Please get in the way sometimes, John, it’s fine.’ I could listen to him all day. But it’s an absolute pleasure to work with someone like John, he’s great and I spent a bit of time with him with the gigs just lately. So finally after all the lockdown, it’s nice to get to know these people, but you kind of get a sense of who they are through working together with the music.
Tom Manning [guitar] I met when I was 19. I think Tom was just 18. We both did music tech together at Staffordshire University. We formed the Beatrix Players together with Helena Dove. I’ve always loved Tom’s writing and playing, and Tom and I wrote Goodnight for Now when we were 19 or 20. So there are a couple of songs on that album that were right back from our university days.
Then there’s Kyle Welch, bass player. I think Kyle is 19 or 20. He’s so young and an absolutely beautiful energy, full of beans, and an incredible player. He’s so melodic and I love that fretless sound. He was recommended to me through another bass player that was my first ever bass player in my first band when I was about 16 or 17 and I said, ‘Hey, I really want a fretless bass on this record.’ He’s still playing, and he said, ‘I’m nowhere near as good as this guy.’ He’s young, keen, but my God is he good and I just think he is wonderful.
And then Andrew Booker, the drummer and percussionist. I met him when I supported Tim Bowness a couple of years ago in Camden. And I remember thinking then because I got up on stage with him, ‘Wow, this guy can really make me move’ and I’ve spent quite a few holidays and trips to South America, so I really love that sort of vibe and Andrew just gets it. He gets my direction and I love what he does. He’s so creative and absolutely magnetic to watch on stage, he really is. He’s a beautifully creative player.
Cellist Clare O’Connell, she’s lovely. I love to write for strings, so a lot of it is just sending scores, tweaking them and the guys record what I’ve played and written. She’s a beautifully sensitive player, very different to Caroline Lavelle [who played on the first album] who was really rock and roll in her playing. which I absolutely loved too!
And then, Frank van Essen, violin. Wow, he’s a powerhouse. So I sent ideas for Hold On. He messaged me saying, ‘ I’ve just put an idea down for Hold On, have a listen and see what you think.’ I cried when I heard it because I thought, ‘Wow, you’ve just taken this to another level’, so there’s been a lot of natural input from the musicians on this album, and maybe that’s because there’s flexibility there, but I’m like, ‘Come on, inject your personality in there’, and they have. There’s a lot of collaboration on this record.
I’ve basically written all the piano parts and then sent the majority to Moray Macdonald to rerecord properly. Because, like I say, I can play the piano, but I don’t wish to say that I’m a pianist. But I do love to write piano. And Nicole Reynolds, who has quite different style actually, she played on Hold On and In our Souls. But she’s a busy lady and also for the for the live tracks now I’ve decided to move away from the piano, because I really enjoy what the guitar brings to the sound, so all of the live gigs we’ll be doing are two guitars instead of piano. And so all the live stuff I’ve rewritten, rearranged, added, taken away things. So basically I had to rewrite the album again, so that’s tested me. But yes, a big group of wonderful musicians on this record here.
Ms Amy Birks will be performing at the Green Note on July 19 and at The Forum, Darlington (opening for John Hackett) on October 21. In Our Souls is out now.
Radiohead members bring new band The Smile to Manchester
Last time Radiohead played in Manchester was five years ago, when the Manchester Bombing forced the Arena to close and the gig was moved to Old Trafford Cricket Ground. It was an emotional evening, with the crowd singing Karma Police, ‘For a minute there I lost myself’, which became even more poignant in that context. Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood returned with their new band The Smile, and again there was a change of venue, from The Albert Hall to The Academy, but this time for a more benign reason, described as ‘production issues’.
This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Radiohead’s seminal album OK Computer, and many bands would have marked it with a world tour, promising to ‘play the whole classic album in full.’ It would be hard to criticise them if they had decided to do so, and many fans would certainly have appreciated it. Instead, Yorke and Greenwood decided to do something radically different, to form a new band with drummer Tom Skinner from the jazz group Sons of Kemet. Thom Yorke’s distinctive falsetto vocals and Jonny Greenwood’s intense guitar playing provide a strong link to Radiohead, but The Smile are far from being a slimmed-down version of the famous band. The most obvious musical link appears in the song You Will Never Work in Television Again which looks back to the post-punk of the early Radiohead era of The Bends.
But both men have moved on; it seems unlikely that they will ever write a song like Creep again. Thom Yorke has released some excellent solo albums, in particular Anima from 2019, and Jonny Greenwood has written Oscar-nominated film scores Phantom Thread and The Power of the Dog. So it’s no surprise that The Smile’s new album A Light for Attracting Attention has moved on from Radiohead in style. And to stress that they aren’t Radiohead, the new band didn’t play any songs from the band’s rich back catalogue, restricting themselves to playing only one song not written by The Smile, a compelling version of Thom Yorke’s solo single Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses in the encore.
The role that Tom Skinner plays in the band shouldn’t be underestimated. He brought a more loose-limbed, jazz style to many of the songs, and the rhythmic complexity and precision of the intertwining instrumental and vocal lines was a highlight of the evening, starting with the pulsating synths of The Same which opened the gig. Thom Yorke’s voice was a strong and emotive as it has ever been; sometimes it felt as he if was an ascetic solo troubadour in troubled times. Elsewhere he was nearly drowned out in a maelstrom of psychedelic sound that was reminiscent of early Pink Floyd instrumentals. Jonny Greenwood brought a funky swagger to some of his basslines, as well as his more familiar introspective guitar-playing. Sequenced synth lines wrapped around the band, weaving in and out like vines around a tree. The band have created their own style, making them hard to categorise, a mesmerizing mix of post-rock, math rock, contemplative balladry, and the complex time signatures of prog rock. The audience listened intensely, with some members gently swaying to the hypnotic beats. 30 years since Radiohead released Creep as their first single, members of the band continue to innovate, and to bring their audience with them as their musical journey continues.
Nick Mason’s band are more than just an echo of the past
Pink Floyd’s drummer Nick Mason announced that the band shared a stage in Manchester with Jimi Hendrix 55 years ago in 1967. It seems unlikely that the original band will ever tour again, not least because the band would no longer be complete – keyboard player Rick Wright went to the great gig in the sky in 2008. After curating the exhibition Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains at the V&A in 2017, Mason was worried that he would spend the rest of life as a branch of English Heritage, lovingly tending to a past that had happened decades before. Instead, he started a new band, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, to play some of Pink Floyd’s music. He deliberately avoided playing any music from the band’s classic run of albums that began with Dark Side of the Moon in 1973. Instead, he decided only to play songs from the early Syd Barrett era, and some material from the later albums after David Gilmour joined the band. The most recent album the band now perform is Meddle from 1971, including for the first time on this tour the epic 20-minute track Echoes which provides the title of the tour.
Mason is the only member of Pink Floyd to play in his Saucerful of Secrets band, although bass player Guy Pratt did play with the band in the 1990s after original bass player Roger Waters left. Gary Kemp from Spandau Ballet sings and plays guitar – at one point Mason joked that Kemp had expected to play with Roger Waters and that Mason himself had expected to play with Tony Hadley. Lee Harris, previously of Ian Dury’s band The Blockheads plays guitar and composer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Dom Beken is on keyboards.
It would have been tempting for the band to be a high quality tribute band, like The Australian Pink Floyd who last played at the Apollo in November 2021. They give audiences the chance to hear classic Pink Floyd songs live, played to a very high standard. But Mason’s band offer something different and fresh, bringing new life to music that is over 50 years old. The songs are delivered with propulsive enthusiasm, sometimes approaching joy. None of the band members attempt to recreate the exact sound of the original band – except Mason himself who is playing his own parts. Whilst they are respectful to the original songs, the other band members add their own touches, often subtle but always inspiring. Guy Pratt provides lovely, melodic basslines and can also drive the band to be deliciously funky at times. He also provides heartfelt vocals. Gary Kemp brings his acting skills to his vocals, colouring the sound to match each song. He’s also a fine guitarist. Lee Harris on guitar is a superb player, bringing his own style rather than merely copying David Gilmour’s soulful string-bending or Syd Barrett’s eccentric playing. Dom Beken contributes excellent keyboard solos that are more blues-tinged than the jazz stylings of Rick Wright.
The highlight of the first set was a tightly-constructed series extracts from the Atom Heart Mother suite from the 1970 album of the same name. It was bookended by If from the same album, a beautifully delicate ballad on which Kemp and Pratt shared vocals, which includes the incredibly moving line ‘If I go insane, please don’t put your wires in my brain.’ The highlight of the second set was Echoes, which forms side two of Meddle. This is a fascinating track in the original Pink Floyd catalogue, the first time they had successfully created a long-form prog track after the departure of Syd Barrett, pointing forward to the new style that would mature of the next album Dark Side of the Moon. Nick Mason’s band at times turned it into a psychedelic track so that fitted perfectly with the other songs in the gig. There was a wonderfully funky swagger to the passage around six minutes in, and near the end a lovely, spacious guitar jam. Another second-set highlight was the instrumental Interstellar Overdrive, which the original band played in Manchester in 1969. Guy Pratt said Manchester is his favourite city – his son is at university here – and for a brief moment he and Lee Harris improvised around another song associated with Manchester, Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart.
The Encore began with a lively version of See Emily Play, and a melodic Saucerful of Secrets. The final track was Bike which ends with the words,
I know a room of musical tunes…
Let’s go into the other room and make them work
Rather than sitting at home curating his past, Nick Mason has decided to go into the other room, and make early Pink Floyd songs work again.