Review – Porcupine Tree Closure/Continuation

*****

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.

Review – Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets

Friday 6 May 2022

O₂ Apollo Manchester

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.

How I found Steven Wilson

Steven Wilson is known as ‘The most successful British musician most people have never heard of’. So how did I find him? (updated April 2022)

Steven Wilson and Nick Holmes at a book signing in Manchester in April 2022

In February 2009, Steven Wilson did something uncharacteristically violent; he destroyed five iPods. He shot the first one, smiling ‘wow’ when he hit it first time, but sensibly wearing ear defenders. He took a blow torch to the next one, wearing a mask that might be worn by a member of a heavy metal band (a new look for Slipknot?) or perhaps by a professional welder. The third iPod was murdered by Steven wielding a hammer; walking away from the scene of the crime in a smart black suit, he could be a star of a Scandinavian drama. In the fourth crime scene, Steven drives over the ipod in a small blue sensibly-priced car; to make sure it’s dead he stamps on it.  In the fifth crime scene, Steven takes a sledge hammer to his final victim.

These crimes against technology didn’t lead to an appearance on Crimewatch; no reconstruction was necessary as all the incidents had been filmed for YouTube. The first video did attract nearly 58,000 views (as at October 2019). Each video ended with a reference to an album called Insurgentes. Maybe he was just promoting the album? 

In 2015, I found out about Steven’s activities when I was researching a radio programme I was making. I was looking for a musician who was passionate about high quality sound. Neil Young was a possibility as he was developing a new device called a Pono (yes, without an r in the middle) to play back high-quality music files. I reached out to Neil (or his people) but presumably he was washing his hair (there is quite a lot of it). After a bit more searching, I found another hirsute musician called Steven Wilson. I had never heard of him, but I was intrigued by his crimes against iPods and also the things he was saying in interviews then, 

Unfortunately for me, I live in a world where download and streaming culture are here to stay; iPods are the dominant form in which people listen to music. I can no longer kid myself that people are listening to vinyl records at home or 5.1. There is a small group of audiophiles that have always listened to those things, and of which I am a part, but the majority of people listen to music streaming on their laptops or on MP3s on their iPods; I have to accept that, I can’t cut myself off to it, but I don’t have to like it, and I still think that it’s a very poor substitute for a high quality experience. 

I have never smashed any iPods but I shared Steven’s passion for high quality music reproduction. My Presenter and I duly went to Steven’s house to interview Steven. My Presenter had never heard of him either, but then my Presenter hasn’t heard of most of the people we interview. 

Steven opened the door of his house. He wasn’t wearing any shoes. I found out later that this was A Thing for Steven but at the time I didn’t think it odd that he asked us to remove our shoes – we had walked through the garden to get to the house and obviously he didn’t want us to get mud on his carpet. 

Steven was charming and articulate, and spoke passionately about his love of high-quality sound. He used a striking analogy; listening to a low-quality MP3 file compared to listening to a high-quality file was like looking at a work of art reproduced as a jpeg compared to going to an art gallery to see the original painting. He was quietly persuasive, firm in his views but gentle and thoughtful in delivery. 

I went back to the studio to edit and mix the programme which involved listening over and over again to the same bits of audio; and then listening to them again. I wanted to put in some of Steven’s music to illustrate the style. His most recent album then was the intriguingly titled The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories (true fans call the album simply The Raven). It sounded like a concept album from the 1970s such as Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, or Tales from Topographic Oceans.  I found out later that Steven had set out to write a 1970s-style concept album, which was fine with me…not only did I buy Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl, then cd, then on cd again for the 30th anniversary, then on remastered cd, but I also bought a triple live album by Yes called Yessongs. The latter sounded if it was recorded on wet socks (which is maybe why Steven doesn’t wear any) but the musicianship is amazing and it introduced me to long form rock music, otherwise known as Progressive Rock. 

Back in the radio studio, I was listening again and again to the title track of The Raven That Refused to Sing; there was something really haunting about Steven’s delicate vocals, and the repeating piano motif which kept switching from major to minor and back again. One of the joys of working in radio is that sometimes you can just sit in the studio and listen to good music on decent loudspeakers just for the pleasure of it and nobody can tell you off as it’s part of the Day Job. So I did…and realised that I found the piece very moving. Something about the sparse lyrics and the repeating piano chords spoke to me, 

Sing for me, 
Sing for me.
You can come with meYou can live with me. 
Heal my soul, 
Make me whole.

As the poet William Wordsworth once wrote, it felt like ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’. There was something of the Romantic Poet in Steven’s music. 

On the table in the smart little waiting room in Steven’s house there was a coffee table with a single item on it – a copy of the latest issue of Prog magazine. It’s possible that it had a picture of Steven on the front; I can’t remember now but I found out later that he has been on the cover a few times. Sometimes, reading Prog magazine every month as I now do, it seems to me that he is seen as the saviour of  prog rock, preventing it from becoming a comfortable branch of the nostalgia industry through all the remasters and reissues; why buy one remastered cd when you can buy a box with 12 cds of slightly different versions and multiple out-takes and live recordings? Why buy any new music at all? (I confess I am as guilty of this as anyone else of my generation; I admit that I turn first to the re-issues pages in the music magazines I read, but I have never spent £400 on a Pink Floyd box set). 

Before meeting Steven, I discovered that he had a healthy side-line in remixing classic prog albums. I bought one of these and was relieved to discover that he had made excellent work on an album that I had always enjoyed musically but could barely listen to because the sound was so piercing. As were leaving his house, I thanked him for making a great album so good to listen to at last. I should point out that I tend to avoid letting interviewees know that I am a fan of their work; the objective journalist in me tells me that I should keep a professional distance. Also, I have never forgotten a line from the Peter Hammill song, Energy Vampires about the extreme view some fans have of their heroes 

Excuse me while I suck your blood,
Excuse me when I phone you,
I’ve got every one of your records, man, 
Doesn’t that mean that I own you? 

I'm not selling you my soul
Try to put it in the records
But I've got to keep my life my own

When fans suck all the energy from their heroes, it can lead to the kind of extreme alienation that Roger Waters experienced, leading him to spit at a fan and build a wall (and write a Wall). I can confirm that Steven Wilson didn’t spit at me. 

While in his home studio (not like your average home studio – it had high quality speakers, an original Mellotron and the a guitar pedal board the size of a small car) I was intrigued to see that the record that Steven was remixing on the day we met him was not by some Prog Hero, but by Tears for Fears. When his last album To the Bone came out later that suddenly made a lot of sense. He said 

My fifth [solo] record is in many ways inspired by the hugely ambitious progressive pop records that I loved in my youth. I grew up listening to a lot of very smart pop records by artists like Kate Bush, Talk Talk, Peter Gabriel, Prince, Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, The The. 

So at that time he saw himself as a progressive artist, but was he the King of Prog Rock as some people have viewed him? When I asked him if he saw himself as a Prog Rocker, his answer was more interesting than the question. He said he saw himself as a story teller, whose records were not a collection of 10 three-minute songs, but long form narratives, like a film or a novel. 

That was a good answer. It’s sometimes helpful to put music into a neat little box (like the little instructions to record shop staff on the back of records that used to say File under Progressive Thrash Metal etc.) But I was pleased that Steven didn’t want to be categorised. All he wanted to do was re-invent himself with every record he made, an ambition that is rarer than it should be, although no doubt David Bowie would have approved. 

It’s strange how music can find you sometimes, rather than you actively seeking it out. I found Steven Wilson’s music by accident, too. You could say it was Fate, but I wouldn’t believe you. I could put in one of my favourite quotes about Fate from John Lennon here 

Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans 

It turns out that the original quote is attributed to someone else who may have been called Allen Saunders. I may never Google anything again, to save future disappointment. 

In any case, I was making other plans when Steven Wilson (or at least his music) came to find me, 

Heal my soul
Make me whole 

Now, you should stop reading this for the next 10 minutes or so, to give you time to listen to The Raven that Refused to Sing. It’s on all the major streaming services, and also there’s a beautiful animated video on YouTube, made by Jess Cope from Owl House Studios.

I have started listening to the song on Spotify to as I write this, but I will stop now to listen properly. See you shortly… 

The comments about the song on YouTube suggest that it has created a river of tears in its listeners and viewers. I will pick only one, followed by an extract for the lyrics of the song 

My older sister died few years ago, so I can’t describe how it felt when I listened this masterpiece for the very first time, at some point it felt like the song was written for me.

Sister, I lost you, 
When you were still a child,
But I need you now,
And I need our former life.
I'm afraid to wake,
I'm afraid to love. 

The song ends with a very simple line on the piano. I can reach my piano keyboard from here to pick out the notes. They are easy to play, but also profoundly moving. 

That was a slight diversion; I hadn’t intended to stop and listen at this point, or to reveal the effect that Steven Wilson’s music can have, but I don’t feel embarrassed. Otherwise, as somebody once said (and you can spend an hour researching it if you want to find out who, and still not be sure who said it) 

writing about music is like dancing about architecture 

See you next time. 

Review – The Australian Pink Floyd Show

The Apollo, Manchester

Saturday 27 November 2021

Classic Pink Floyd songs brought to life with an Australian twist

****

The last time Pink Floyd played an indoor concert venue in Manchester was nearly 50 years ago at the Palace Theatre on 10 December 1974. It seems unlikely that the three surviving members will ever play live together again, although Nick Mason has already played the Apollo with his band Saucerful of Secrets and is returning next year to play more of the band’s early material. In the meantime, fans of the band can enjoy the Australian Pink Floyd Show, a chance to hear live versions of songs that are too good never to be heard live again.

The potential problem with a tribute band is that they can earnestly replicate the exact notes that the original band played without really capturing the spirit of that band. This can sometimes happen with the Australian Pink Floyd Show, but at their best they take flight and their passion and energy lift the songs so they become less of a high quality reproduction of an Old Master and more like the original, with all the depth of the brushstrokes and the subtlety of the colour intact. Guitarist David Domminney Fowler in particular is able to lift a song, both with his soulful vocals and the fluid grace of his soloing. And the vocals throughout were excellent – lead vocalist Chris Barnes (a Salford University graduate) was always passionate and polished, and Ricky Howard brought the rougher edge of Dave Gilmour’s vocals to life. And a special mention for Lorelei McBroom, Emily Lynn and Lara Smiles who provided warm and energetic backing vocals throughout and all shone in their solos in The Great Gig in the Sky.

The other dilemma faced by a tribute band is whether they should faithfully play every note of the original songs from the albums, or whether they should allow themselves to improvise when playing the songs live. Pink Floyd themselves, particularly in later years, added extended guitar solos and Money had a breakdown jam section that was absent from the Australian Floyd’s version and would perhaps have lifted it. So it was great to hear Another Brick in the Wall Part II in a longer version, with added guitar parts at the end, while the grotesque inflatable teacher nodded along menacingly. Another highlight was a modified version of One of These Days, which made great use of the guitars appearing at either side of the stereo picture. It also featured an inflatable, a pink kangaroo with a disturbingly rat like smile. There were several other witty references to the band’s Australian origin, including the famous image from Wish You Were Here of the man on fire shaking now shaking hands with a kangaroo, and the radio station browsing at the start of that song being replaced by TV channel-hopping shows including Neighbours. But there was more poignant imagery on the circular screen behind the band too, early pictures of the original band with the haunted face of Syd Barrett providing a moving backdrop to an excellent rendition of Shine on You Crazy Diamond.

Amongst all the ‘hits’, it was good to hear some slightly lesser-known songs. The second half opened with a superb version of Astronomy Domine which featured on ‘Ummagumma’ in a live version recorded over 50 years ago in 1969. And there was a blistering version of Sheep from the 1977 album ‘Animals’, featuring the bizarre mangling of spoken words from Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, He converteth me to lamb cutlets.’

The show ended with two encores, a powerful version of Run Like Hell and a rousing Comfortably Numb for which the audience was on its feet, a thrilling ending to a very good evening.

Porcupine Tree – Hidden Treasures

Excellent songs that didn’t make the final cut

Some very strong songs were left off Porcupine Tree’s ten studio albums for reasons of space, changes of style … or in at least one case due to what the band’s leader Steven Wilson now regards as a mistake on his part.

I discovered some of these while writing my new book On Track … Porcupine Tree, a detailed analysis of the band’s songs. Many fans will already know them all, but to others I hope they will provide unexpected moments of joy.

The Sound of No-One Listening

This song starts with ominous soundscaping and sound effects, including the sound of an ice cream van, which has become a common horror film trope, though it may have a sense of nostalgia for some listeners. Although the band may have changed style by the time it was recorded, it’s an excellent track that stands up very well in retrospect, with a simple compelling bass riff and a lovely flute motif. Synth arpeggios provide a glittering, hopeful backdrop, as the song reaches a climax with very energetic drumming before falling back into a darkly disturbing noise-scape again.

Men of Wood

Steven Wilson said he found it difficult to find a home for this track. It was considered for two albums and as a single, but didn’t quite fit the band’s changing style, ‘It was almost a throwback to (the band’s) psychedelic pop, and that just wasn’t quite right – it was a context thing.’ The theme is the vacuity of modern society, sharing a sentiment with T. S. Eliot’s poem, ‘The Hollow Men’. The song begins with a dirty-sounding guitar, then heads for a memorable chorus with a nicely psychedelic key-change, giving it a rather wistful feel.

Buying New Soul

This track was recorded in writing sessions at Foel Studios, Wales, in March 2000, just after Porcupine Tree’s sixth studio album Lightbulb Sun was completed. It’s a gorgeous, poignant song with a haunting chorus. It follows the theme of the band’s fifth album Stupid Dream, the difficulty of balancing artistic integrity and commercial success. A highly personal song, it reflects Steven Wilson’s continuing fight against the music industry – ‘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 circling synthesizer motif that opens and closes the song perfectly matches the melancholy lyric and jazz-like upright bass. There is one moment of rage, but the feeling is generally one of resignation.

Cure for Optimism

This is a Steven Wilson solo performance at his home studio, No Man’s Land. The meaning of the song is just out of reach, but the track is still very evocative, with ghostly echoed piano motifs and subtle acoustic guitars. Mental health appears to be a theme here. The reference to a ‘serpent on a mobile phone’ could suggest a record company executive.

Drown With Me

In an interview in 2020, Steven Wilson told Lasse Hoile that he thought this song was going to be ‘one of the highlights’ of In Absentia, the band’s seventh studio album. He replaced it with ‘Prodigal’, ‘which I think is one of the weaker songs’, although he stressed this was a very personal opinion that others might disagree with. The reason for the substitution was that he felt ‘Prodigal’ was a better recording, although he regretted the decision later. ‘Drown With Me’ is a gorgeous, upbeat song in which the music contrasts sharply with the lyrics. The protagonist’s plan to drown the song’s addressee and her family seems to refer to the world of serial killers, one of the main themes of In Absentia.

Futile

This is the strongest example of the band’s interest in the music of Swedish heavy metal band, Meshuggah. The band’s drummer Gavin Harrison told Lasse Hoile that he wanted to write a Meshuggah-inspired track, that he could use as a challenge at his drum clinics, as he was finding it hard to play heavy metal. Gavin invited Steven Wilson to add guitar parts to the demo, resulting in ‘one of the heaviest pieces we ever recorded’. Lyrically, we may be back in the world of the serial killer that is so strong on In Absentia, ‘You were the one that made her cry … the world went black … lost my head.’ The chorus is fiercely dark, the metallic guitars almost burying the vocals. What makes the song remarkable is the contrast between the main guitar riff’s ferocity and the yearning delicacy of the backing vocals.

Nil Recurring

This and the next song were recorded during the sessions for Porcupine Tree’s ninth studio album Fear of a Blank Planet, which many fans consider to be their best. Both tracks feature on the band’s 2007 EP Nil Recurring. The title track of the EP is an instrumental featuring King Crimson’s Robert Fripp on lead guitar. After two minutes of guitar tapping and heavy riffing, a lovely, spacious breakdown highlights Colin Edwin’s bass and Richard Barbieri’s keyboards. Then, at around 3:20, the track gathers momentum, and a lovely riff cuts across a punchy one-note bass section. At around five minutes in, the opening echoed tapped-guitar theme returns, with a manic guitar solo and further heavy riffing, until the track suddenly dissolves.

What Happens Now?

This song’s protagonist seems to be suffering an existential crisis, rather like the main character in Fear of a Blank Planet. Material possessions mean nothing to him and they bore him, ‘So I got all these things, but so what?’ As he says, ‘You can’t take them with you’, and instead he seeks meaning through religion, asking the song’s mystery addressee, ‘You think you can save my soul?’ The answer – given in verse 2 – seems to be that he could die as a result of a suicide bombing, although the link between verses one and two is oblique. He boards a plane, in which somebody has concealed a bomb in a briefcase, as a result of which, ‘My body will spread through the heavens, across the sky/And my ashes will fall through the cloudburst.’ It’s a surprising and poetic image, despite its bleak suggestion that the answer is oblivion. Instrumentally, the track is very strong. Of particular note is the rhythmic illusion: beginning at about five minutes in, becoming much clearer at around six minutes, when the drums appear to move at half the speed of the other instruments, before the whole track slows down to an epic feeling of finality.

On Track: Porcupine Tree…every album, every song, published by Sonicbond, is out at the end of September and is available to order now at Burning Shed and other good bookshops.

Sources:

Sleeve notes to Stars Die: The Delerium Years 1991-1997 (2002)

Interviews with Steven Wilson and Gavin Harrison filmed for the In Absentia Deluxe Edition of 2020 by Lasse Hoile

Album Review – Departure Tapes by Giancarlo Erra

Music inspired by a ‘hard but healing’ experience

****

Requiems in music come in many forms, from the operatic grandeur of Giuseppe Verdi, to the serenity of Gabriel Fauré, and the fiercely anti-war War Requiem of Benjamin Britten. These all use Latin words from the Requiem Mass, but a wordless requiem can also be effective. The Italian composer, multi-instrumentalist and visual artist, Giancarlo Erra has now released Departure Tapes, an instrumental album which is not a formal requiem but is dedicated to his father, who passed away from cancer recently. Perhaps the nearest musical comparison is not the formal requiems of Verdi, Mozart and Fauré but The Disintegration Loops by the American composer William Basinski, dedicated to the victims of 9/11. Basinski’s music was created using tape loops that gradually deteriorated as they passed over the tape heads. Erra’s music shares some of that rich analogue sound world. As he charmingly notes on the CD sleeve, ‘Please note, unusual loud vinyl noise, skips and distortions, are part of the samples I created for this album and are not audio problems.’

Giancarlo Erra began the band Nosound as a solo studio project and later expanded it into a full band to play his music live (exactly as Steven Wilson did with Porcupine Tree). He released his first solo album Ends in 2019. He had already started thinking about his second solo album, which he was planning to make more experimental, when, ‘my father suddenly got ill…and everything changed.’ His father had left the family when Giancarlo was 14. The two of them spent more time together during the final few months than they had done for years. Giancarlo found the experience, ‘hard but at the same time healing’, bringing a sense of closure. This is reflected in the music, which is uncompromising, deeply personal but also strangely uplifting. The album was written when Giancarlo was travelling between his home in England and his father in Italy. Most of the material was improvised live in the studio, with Giancarlo playing all the instruments.

The opening track, Dawn Tape, features a melancholy repeated piano figure, with vinyl static, a long synth pad and a slowly evolving bass drone. Shimmering strings describe the sun rising slowly as the dawn creeps in.

The short Previous Tape is a simple, evocative, slow-moving melody over gentle arpeggios. The track has a nostalgic feel, with the sound of a horn heard from a distant mountain top.

169th Tape features cinematic strings which distort and decay sadly, like Basinki’s Disintegration Loops, the number of the tape perhaps suggesting that it has been through several iterations which have gradually worn it out. The key change in the chords around half way through suggests a moment of hope in the weary feeling of resignation.

Departure Tape

By far the longest track on the album (the video is an extract). Like the album itself, the video is dedicated to Giancarlo’s father. He recorded the song after his first visit to his father in Italy, after finding out about his father’s illness. He describes how he was ‘exhausted and down.’ He began playing live, experimental music in his studio as he tried to face his conflicted feelings which came out as a, ‘free subconscious stream of thoughts.’

The song begins with a haunting solo voice, sounding rather like Jónsi from Icelandic band Sigur Rós. It feels like an incantation, a wordless prayer, or a plainsong chant. It is soon accompanied by the sound of a harmonium, the closest we get on the album to the sound of a requiem sung in a church. The voice is gradually overwhelmed by a sea of ambient strings.

The piano then takes on the central role, filling a cathedral-like space with resolute chords. The piano melody then searches for meaning, gradually finding hope as it accelerates until it begins to lose confidence; eventually it falls over itself in a tumult of grief.

The solo voice returns, appearing out of a haze of buzzing strings, before the track ends in ambiguity with uncertain piano motifs, fading into obscurity.

The closing track, A Blues for my Father, finally pays direct tribute to Giancarlo’s father. The video for the song features nostalgic, happy family scenes, shot mostly in black and white, interspersed with contemporary autumn leaves which seem to be sodden with tears. The music gradually resolves into another haunting theme, melancholy and contemplative, a bittersweet and moving tribute to a lost father.

Remixed Review – Steven Wilson B Sides and Bonus Tracks

Additional content on up-to-date media

****

The recent release of a new song by Steven Wilson, Anyone But Me is an opportunity to review some of the recent bonus material and B-sides associated with his top 5 album THE FUTURE BITES™

Update – June 2021 – the Scottish rock-band have remixed Personal Shopper, turning it into a rock anthem.

The B-Sides Collection

1 Eyewitness

Steven Wilson has often spoken about growing up in a household in which his father listened to Pink Floyd and his mother listened to the disco music of Donna Summer, and this track begins with an instrumental homage to the latter’s 1977 song ‘I Feel Love’. Both tracks open with a burst of noise, followed by sequenced synthesisers on the same note (c). But whereas Donna Summer’s disco epic runs at a fairly stately 120 bpm, Steven Wilson’s propulsive song powers along at around 150 bpm. There is an obvious debt to the classic disco of Giorgio Moroder, but Steven Wilson adds an urgent modern take to 1980s style synth-pop. As usual, the production is very imaginative – listen to the middle eight (repeated) at around 3.30 into the track, when the driving instruments drop out and there is a sudden moment of tenderness in the vocals. 

The theme of the track is one that Steven explored in detail with Porcupine Tree on their 2007 classic Fear of a Blank Planet, the failure of many people to engage with life, preferring to remain drugged up and passive, ‘Now take your meds and stay in bed/It’s all gonna happen to you anyway.’

2 In Floral Green

The first cover that Steven Wilson has released since his 2014 album Cover Version, this song was written by John Mitchell (leader of prog/pop band It Bites since 2006) and released in 2017 as part of his solo project Lonely Robot. John told Prog magazine that the song was about the loss of social connection in the modern world, and that, ‘we as a species probably need to be around a lot less drab grey and a lot more rustic green’.

Unusually, Steven Wilson approached John Mitchell for permission to use the original backing tracks for the song rather than creating his own, which is why the two versions sound very similar. Steven told Rob Skarin that, ‘it felt like my song’.

Both versions use spoken word extracts from the speeches of the British writer, Alan Watts, whose writings helped introduce Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism to a wider Western audience. John Mitchell told Grant Moon of Prog magazine that Watts was, ‘a great advocate of this idea of, ‘the solipsistic haze’ – that are we all a part of somebody else’s imagining, that life is a great conspiracy, a grand design, a dream.’

3 Move Like a Fever

A fiercely electronic track, uncompromising in its presentation and message, this song follows the theme of the effects of social media and empty fame on modern life that is so important on the FUTURE BITES album. The vocals are almost brutal in their delivery on lines such as, ‘The American idol/Is dead on arrival.’ Some fans have baulked at this new directness in Steven Wilson’s work, far from the loving, meticulous recreation of 1970s prog on The Raven That Refused to Sing (2013), but it is undeniably effective. As always, he moves forward in a way that is truly progressive, not worrying about alienating some of his fans whilst satisfying others and finding new ones. As he told Electronic Sound magazine, ‘I recognise that I’ve repeatedly shot myself in the foot by doing the thing that was least expected.’

4 King Ghost – Tangerine Dream Mix

A radical remix of the track from THE FUTURE BITES, over twice as long as the original, expertly done by Thorsten Quaeschning and Paul Frick, both of whom are in the current incarnation of Tangerine Dream. Although they were only a few years old during the 1970s, the period that many consider the most productive and innovative of the band, they manage to recreate a superbly authentic version of Tangerine Dream from that era. The relevant section begins around three minutes into the track, until around 7.30 when it wittily grinds to a brief halt. The Tangerine Dream section is bookended by a few minutes that take material from the original track, taking Steven Wilson’s haunting, stratospheric falsetto vocals as a theme, but never allowing the vocals to break through fully, creating a magical new track.   

Single – Anyone But Me

This gorgeous song was a very last-minute casualty of COVID-19. It was due to be released as the final track of THE FUTURE BITES. The album had even been mastered and cut, but as Steven Wilson says on his YouTube channel the delay in the album’s release caused by the pandemic gave him a chance to re-evaluate. The record was eventually released several months later but the song had been replaced with the, ‘more laid back and atmospheric’ Count Of Unease.

A demo of the song was released as part of the Limited Edition Deluxe Box Set of the album on ‘obsolete media’ (cassette; although sales of cassettes have increased recently). The song features Fyfe Dangerfield from Guillemots on lovely ELO-style backing vocals.

Single – Personal Shopper (Nile Rodgers remix)

On his YouTube channel Steven Wilson says he grew up listening to disco, including the music of Chic, featuring Nile Rodgers so, ‘it’s an absolute thrill to have Nile stamp his legendary signature sound on the track.’ This version of the song combines the European electronic pop of Giorgio Moroder with Nile Rodgers’ funky guitar, emphasising the disco elements and placing less emphasis on the pensive melancholy of the original from the FUTURE BITES album (review here).

Single – Personal Shopper Biffy Clyro Remix 

Biffy Clyro’s remix of this largely electronic song opens with a ethereal vocals and a mesmerizing drone, with a new percussion track and heavy guitars that transports the song to an unexpected world. The almost clinical disco of the original track is replaced with driving, dirty distortion. The melancholy, anti-consumerism message of the original song now becomes urgent.

Towards the end of the song, where the Elton John voice-over appears, a fierce, almost metal-like riff kicks in, sounding like some of the heavier Porcupine Tree riffs. As Steven Wilson says on his YouTube channel, ‘Perhaps one for those that missed hearing the guitars in my recent music!’ It allows shows that a great song is open to multiple interpretations; both the original and the cover version are superb.

Bonus ReviewKey of Skeleton

It seems appropriate that a review of bonus tracks should include a bonus review. This is a demo track that recently appeared on streaming services as part of the Super Deluxe edition of Steven Wilson’s 2015 album Hand.Cannot.Erase. This instrumental track begins with keyboards and strings similar to those at the start of I Am The Walrus from the Beatles’ 1967 double EP Magical Mystery Tour. Muscular drums soon join in, with a pleasantly 1960s feel to the guitar. The song has that feeling of inevitability that some of the best instrumental tracks have, until it is nicely subverted towards the end when it takes a dark turn. A hidden gem in Steven Wilson’s extensive discography.

Sources:

Steven Wilson’s YouTube channel

Martin Kielty, Lonely Robot release In Floral Green video, Prog Magazine

Rob Skarin, THE FUTURE BITES: A Conversation With Steven Wilson, YouTube

Alan Watts, The Power of Space Part 4

Grant Moon, Lonely Robot: Space-themed exploration and sonic sounds, Prog Magazine

Mark Roland, An Article about Steven Wilson, Electronic Sound Magazine, Issue 73

Remixed Review – Steven Wilson B Sides and Bonus Tracks

Additional content on up-to-date media

****

The recent release of a new song by Steven Wilson, Anyone But Me is an opportunity to review some of the recent bonus material and B-sides associated with his top 5 album THE FUTURE BITES™

Update – June 2021 – the Scottish rock-band have remixed Personal Shopper, turning it into a rock anthem.

The B-Sides Collection

1 Eyewitness

Steven Wilson has often spoken about growing up in a household in which his father listened to Pink Floyd and his mother listened to the disco music of Donna Summer, and this track begins with an instrumental homage to the latter’s 1977 song ‘I Feel Love’. Both tracks open with a burst of noise, followed by sequenced synthesisers on the same note (c). But whereas Donna Summer’s disco epic runs at a fairly stately 120 bpm, Steven Wilson’s propulsive song powers along at around 150 bpm. There is an obvious debt to the classic disco of Giorgio Moroder, but Steven Wilson adds an urgent modern take to 1980s style synth-pop. As usual, the production is very imaginative – listen to the middle eight (repeated) at around 3.30 into the track, when the driving instruments drop out and there is a sudden moment of tenderness in the vocals. 

The theme of the track is one that Steven explored in detail with Porcupine Tree on their 2007 classic Fear of a Blank Planet, the failure of many people to engage with life, preferring to remain drugged up and passive, ‘Now take your meds and stay in bed/It’s all gonna happen to you anyway.’

2 In Floral Green

The first cover that Steven Wilson has released since his 2014 album Cover Version, this song was written by John Mitchell (leader of prog/pop band It Bites since 2006) and released in 2017 as part of his solo project Lonely Robot. John told Prog magazine that the song was about the loss of social connection in the modern world, and that, ‘we as a species probably need to be around a lot less drab grey and a lot more rustic green’.

Unusually, Steven Wilson approached John Mitchell for permission to use the original backing tracks for the song rather than creating his own, which is why the two versions sound very similar. Steven told Rob Skarin that, ‘it felt like my song’.

Both versions use spoken word extracts from the speeches of the British writer, Alan Watts, whose writings helped introduce Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism to a wider Western audience. John Mitchell told Grant Moon of Prog magazine that Watts was, ‘a great advocate of this idea of, ‘the solipsistic haze’ – that are we all a part of somebody else’s imagining, that life is a great conspiracy, a grand design, a dream.’

3 Move Like a Fever

A fiercely electronic track, uncompromising in its presentation and message, this song follows the theme of the effects of social media and empty fame on modern life that is so important on the FUTURE BITES album. The vocals are almost brutal in their delivery on lines such as, ‘The American idol/Is dead on arrival.’ Some fans have baulked at this new directness in Steven Wilson’s work, far from the loving, meticulous recreation of 1970s prog on The Raven That Refused to Sing (2013), but it is undeniably effective. As always, he moves forward in a way that is truly progressive, not worrying about alienating some of his fans whilst satisfying others and finding new ones. As he told Electronic Sound magazine, ‘I recognise that I’ve repeatedly shot myself in the foot by doing the thing that was least expected.’

4 King Ghost – Tangerine Dream Mix

A radical remix of the track from THE FUTURE BITES, over twice as long as the original, expertly done by Thorsten Quaeschning and Paul Frick, both of whom are in the current incarnation of Tangerine Dream. Although they were only a few years old during the 1970s, the period that many consider the most productive and innovative of the band, they manage to recreate a superbly authentic version of Tangerine Dream from that era. The relevant section begins around three minutes into the track, until around 7.30 when it wittily grinds to a brief halt. The Tangerine Dream section is bookended by a few minutes that take material from the original track, taking Steven Wilson’s haunting, stratospheric falsetto vocals as a theme, but never allowing the vocals to break through fully, creating a magical new track.   

Single – Anyone But Me

This gorgeous song was a very last-minute casualty of COVID-19. It was due to be released as the final track of THE FUTURE BITES. The album had even been mastered and cut, but as Steven Wilson says on his YouTube channel the delay in the album’s release caused by the pandemic gave him a chance to re-evaluate. The record was eventually released several months later but the song had been replaced with the, ‘more laid back and atmospheric’ Count Of Unease.

A demo of the song was released as part of the Limited Edition Deluxe Box Set of the album on ‘obsolete media’ (cassette; although sales of cassettes have increased recently). The song features Fyfe Dangerfield from Guillemots on lovely ELO-style backing vocals.

Single – Personal Shopper (Nile Rodgers remix)

On his YouTube channel Steven Wilson says he grew up listening to disco, including the music of Chic, featuring Nile Rodgers so, ‘it’s an absolute thrill to have Nile stamp his legendary signature sound on the track.’ This version of the song combines the European electronic pop of Giorgio Moroder with Nile Rodgers’ funky guitar, emphasising the disco elements and placing less emphasis on the pensive melancholy of the original from the FUTURE BITES album (review here).

Single – Personal Shopper Biffy Clyro Remix 

Biffy Clyro’s remix of this largely electronic song opens with a ethereal vocals and a mesmerizing drone, with a new percussion track and heavy guitars that transports the song to an unexpected world. The almost clinical disco of the original track is replaced with driving, dirty distortion. The melancholy, anti-consumerism message of the original song now becomes urgent.

Towards the end of the song, where the Elton John voice-over appears, a fierce, almost metal-like riff kicks in, sounding like some of the heavier Porcupine Tree riffs. As Steven Wilson says on his YouTube channel, ‘Perhaps one for those that missed hearing the guitars in my recent music!’ It allows shows that a great song is open to multiple interpretations; both the original and the cover version are superb.

Bonus ReviewKey of Skeleton

It seems appropriate that a review of bonus tracks should include a bonus review. This is a demo track that recently appeared on streaming services as part of the Super Deluxe edition of Steven Wilson’s 2015 album Hand.Cannot.Erase. This instrumental track begins with keyboards and strings similar to those at the start of I Am The Walrus from the Beatles’ 1967 double EP Magical Mystery Tour. Muscular drums soon join in, with a pleasantly 1960s feel to the guitar. The song has that feeling of inevitability that some of the best instrumental tracks have, until it is nicely subverted towards the end when it takes a dark turn. A hidden gem in Steven Wilson’s extensive discography.

Sources:

Steven Wilson’s YouTube channel

Martin Kielty, Lonely Robot release In Floral Green video, Prog Magazine

Rob Skarin, THE FUTURE BITES: A Conversation With Steven Wilson, YouTube

Alan Watts, The Power of Space Part 4

Grant Moon, Lonely Robot: Space-themed exploration and sonic sounds, Prog Magazine

Mark Roland, An Article about Steven Wilson, Electronic Sound Magazine, Issue 73

Steven Wilson and the Art of the Home Studio

No Man’s Land

When No Man’s Land Studio finally gets the Blue Plaque it deserves in recognition of the artistic endeavour that took place there, the people who arrive to mount it on the wall it won’t find a palace like Paisley Park. They will find a suburban bungalow in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, England. Unlike Prince, who was able to record in any room in his Paisley Park complex, Steven Wilson had one room in which to record – his childhood bedroom.

The original No Man’s Land studio (Sound on Sound magazine 2010)

It was in No Man’s Land Studio/Steven’s bedroom that the first two Porcupine Tree albums, On the Sunday of Life and Up the Downstair were recorded in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But as the decades progressed and the band began to record in better and better studios – Foel Studio in Wales, Avatar Studios in New York, and AIR Studios in Lyndhurst Hall, London – Steven still returned to his childhood home to record and mix Porcupine Tree’s albums. It was not until the summer of 2009 that he moved his studio into his own house, and even then, it was an in an ordinary room. Steven told Sound on Sound magazine in 2010 that, ‘People always ask if they can see or photograph my studio and I say, ‘you might be disappointed.’

The professional studio

What is remarkable about No Man’s Land is that Steven continued to work in his bedroom studio despite its obvious limitations. Technology now allows very high-quality recordings to be made in bedrooms using laptops and highly sophisticated software, mixing ‘inside the box’ as the sound engineers say.There was a time, before mixing desks became automated (able to replicate the engineer’s skilled finger on the fader with ghostly precision) when a small orchestra of musicians used to line up along the length of the mixing board to do the final mix, which was a performance in itself. But in the late 1980s when Steven started writing and recording music the technology was primitive and most aspiring musicians craved a record deal, partly because it meant that they had access to a decent recording studio.

Eventually, by the time of Porcupine Tree’s seventh studio album In Absentia, Steven did get a deal with a major American record label and did have access to a major American studio (Avatar in New York) but didn’t achieve the sales that he and the record company expected (and frankly deserved).

But the fact that Steven continued to use a bedroom studio so much, even when Porcupine Tree became increasingly successful, says a great deal about him as a musician and producer.

The autodidact

Steven Wilson is an autodidact and he was lucky enough to have a father who was an electronics engineer who when Steven was an early teenager helped the young adventurer by building him eccentric electronic delights; a sequencer that divided the notes into units of three when most rock songs have four beats in each bar, maybe instilling in the young Steven an unconscious love of the unusual time signatures that kept the world of Prog Rock turning for the last 50 or 60 years; a four-track recorder on which the erase head didn’t work so everything had to be recorded in one take . He told Sound on Sound that he would play his father a record and say, ‘Dad, how do you make that sound? And he’d go off and figure it out.’ Steven’s dad was also a musical influence on his son, as was his mother. He recalls hearing his father listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and his mother to Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby, two albums that had a huge musical impact on him at the age of eight.

Re-Mixing

What is remarkable about Steven is that he has built up a reputation as a producer and re-mixer of some of the greatest prog rock bands ever while still working in his studio at home. It probably didn’t do any harm that his surround sound mix of 2007’s classic Porcupine Tree album Fear of a Blank Planet was nominated for a Grammy. The list of artists he has remixed in stereo and/or surround sound is impressive, including Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Marillion, Roxy Music, Rush, Simple Minds, Tangerine Dream, Tears for Fears, XTC and Yes. He told Sound on Sound that his work on these classic records was ‘The equivalent of polishing the Sistine Chapel’; to continue his metaphor no paint fell off the ceiling, and the colours were brighter, the lines clearer but still true to Michelangelo’s original vision. His remixes are respectful, revealing the beauty of what is already there rather than imposing his own personality.

No-man’s Land studio (Sound on Sound magazine 2010)

Storm Corrosion

Steven Wilson has had a long association with Mikael Åkerfeldt from the Swedish heavy metal band Opeth, producing several of the band’s albums starting with Blackwater Park in 2001. The partnership between Steven and Mikael bore musical fruit in 2012 with their Storm Corrosion collaboration and the album of the same name, recorded at No Man’s Land. The album includes the remarkable song ‘Drag Ropes’, a disturbingly, bewitchingly, discordantly melodic epic with some of the most gorgeous vocals ever recorded by either of them. Its terrible beauty is matched by the official video made by Jess Cope, who also created some of best videos for Steven’s solo work for songs such as ‘Routine’ (from Hand.Cannot.Erase) and ‘Drive Home’ and ‘The Raven That Refused to Sing’ (from the album of the same name). 

The video for Drag Ropes, directed by Directed by Jess Cope

Steven’s 5.1 mix of the Storm Corrosion album was nominated for Best Surround Sound Album in the 55th Grammy Awards. So how has he achieved all this often without going into a professional studio? He has admitted that he often found it confusing to go into a professional studio with a proper mixing desk and speakers. He got worse results in the studio rather than recording and mixing at home because as he told Sound on Sound he had, ‘no idea what I was hearing’. Getting to know how his room sounds is the most important thing, even though it doesn’t have state of the art acoustic treatment and an analogue mixing desk with 384 faders (in 2005 the Harrison installed a console with 384 inputs which was over 30 feet long into Universal’s Dub Room 4 a.k.a. Alfred Hitchcock Theater, but it looks more like a stadium than a home studio). Having a consistent internal audio reference point is more important to him than using an expensive studio, because although it will sound impressive it will also sound confusingly different from what his ears are used to.

Loudness Wars

Steven has often mastered his own mixes, and one reason he has avoided sending them to a mastering engineer is that audio compression is often applied by the engineer. This evens out the differences between quiet passages and loud passages so that the song sounds consistently, excitingly loud throughout. A member of Deep Purple can be heard saying to the sound engineer on the iconic Made in Japan live album, ‘Can I have everything louder than everything else?’ And this witty comment sums up the problem; if everything is louder, then nothing is louder. The so-called Loudness Wars began; ears bled, brains fried and for some listeners the music was ruined. Metallica’s fans complained that the 2008 album Death Magnetic sounded compressed and lifeless. In response to the criticism, the band’s drummer Lars Ulrich said the album was designed to sound loud in your car; he had listened to it in his car and in his view, it sounded ‘smokin’.

Compression can make songs cut through on the radio, but the point about many of Porcupine Tree’s songs is that they are often long-form stories, with dynamic contrast between loud and soft parts throughout, more like a piece of classical music than a radio-friendly pop song. Perhaps a better comparison is a song like ‘Echoes’ from Pink Floyd’s 1971 album Meddle, which at over 23 minutes fills the whole of side two on vinyl. This starts with the gentle sound of Richard Wright’s amplified piano passing through a Hammond Organ speaker, leading to beautifully delicate vocal harmonies, a monumentally funky section with a raging distorted guitar, an abstract stormy section with anguished seagull cries, finally returning to the opening piano motif, via an explosion of sunlit hope, then a nostalgic return to the beautiful vocal harmonies, rising finally into the stratosphere with a repeating theme that rises forever and ever. The longer songs of Porcupine Tree share some of Pink Floyd’s epic length and ambitious journeys.

Home demos

Steven’s early albums under the Porcupine Tree name were largely solo efforts, but even when Porcupine Tree became a proper band a lot of the material began as very detailed demos recorded in his home studio. He created the drums, bass and synthesizer parts using computer software, then added piano, guitars and vocals over the top. When the band could eventually afford to go into world-class recording studios, he would then ask them to replace the parts he had programmed into his computer with real drums, bass and synthesizers. It’s a very unusual band dynamic, and what is more remarkable in some ways is the fact that despite the amount of control he had over the whole process Steven had the musical intelligence to allow the other superb musicians in the band  to bring their own personalities to the recordings – all of them are distinctively themselves but also fit perfectly into the band’s overall dynamic. 

While preparing the demos in his home studio, Steven took the very prescient step of recording everything in the highest possible quality, particularly the vocals. He kept most of the vocals from the demo versions because at the time he wrote the song he felt closest to it emotionally. The poet William Wordsworth took a very different approach, ‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.’ Steven didn’t need to recall the raw emotion he felt in the white heat of creativity; he had already recorded it on tape. By doing so, he was able to solve the problem that many bands have, of trying to capture the raw emotion of the initial demo that somehow slips through the fingers like an eel. A possible way round that is to do what 1980s band T-coy did with their song Cariño. Lacking a master tape of the song, they simply pressed copies straight from the original demo they had recorded on cassette.

The new studio

Steven Wilson’s new home studio

Steven Wilson recently moved house and has had a lovely new home studio built. The studio can be seen in several home recordings he made during lockdown of classic Porcupine Tree songs on the Future Bites sessions, released on YouTube. He now has the facility to mix in Dolby Atmos surround sound, which is more sophisticated than the 5.1 sound system he had in his previous home studio. His most recent album The Future Bites is available in a Dolby Atmos mix, and he has just completed a tenth-anniversary surround sound mix of the Storm Corrosion album in both 5.1 and Atmos. He has also brought hope to fans of the project by telling Jerry Ewing of Prog magazine that he may make another album with Mikael Åkerfeldt, but only if they can work together in his home studio again.

References:

Tom Flint, Steven Wilson: Recording & Marketing Porcupine Tree (Sound on Sound magazine, June 2010); Jerry Ewing, Steven Wilson discusses possible Storm Corrosion II (Prog magazine)

Album Review – Isolated Dreams by Ghost Echo

A bold and accomplished debut from the Dutch duo

****

Many lockdown albums will be released in the next few months. Some of the recent highlights include Richard Barbieri’s Under a Spell , and Steven Wilson’s The Future Bites, recorded before lockdown but released in January. Now Dutch musicians Remy de Wal and Karel Witte have recorded Isolated Dreams, their first album together as Ghost Echo, with almost all the music being made by the two musicians remotely. The album was written and recorded between March last year and February this year in their home studios. Remy and Karel exchanged demos and did all the mixing and production themselves, an impressive achievement.

The album opens with Black Era with Eighties-sounding drum machines and synths, an anthemic chorus and vocals that are slightly reminiscent of the pure tones Morten Harket of the Norwegian pop group A-ha (although without reaching his stratospheric heights). But this is not a straightforward pop song; although it starts in that style, it soon embraces an almost prog metal style with metallic guitars and screeching synth lines. It is a promising and mature start to the album, immediately demanding the listener’s attention.

Dust begins with a gorgeous keyboard motif, influenced as the band admit partly by the soundtracks to both of the Blade Runner films. The song features lo-fi trip hop beats and a lovely, introspective vocal line delivered with great emotion.

Late Night is the highlight of the album, an atmospherically dystopian tale of a man haunted by demons in the small hours of the night. The band openly acknowledge the song’s debt to the more recent electronic work of Steven Wilson, but the gorgeous harmonies in the chorus also hark back to Wilson’s earlier work with his band Porcupine Tree. The disturbing animated video, with a touch of psychedelia, was created by Tiago Araújo; it also has an indirect link to Steven Wilson in that it is similar to the work of Jess Cope in her animation for The People Who Eat Darkness from Wilson’s solo album To The Bone.

Tiago Araújo’s video is based on a script by Karel Witte

Null Void begins with a dark trip-hop soundscape and heavily compressed vocals, like the soundtrack to a bleak science fiction film, perhaps set in the dystopian near future when the planet has been devasted by some cataclysmic event and an oppressive regime has come to power. The song ends with a prog rock style epic guitar solo, and the repeated words ‘I see you watching me’, suggesting the protagonist is now living in a totalitarian state, before the track stutters to a halt.

Another stand-out track is Pitfalls which closes the album, beginning with a slow-burning ambient sound, building to another epic guitar solo, accompanied by Giorgio Moroder-style synth chords and prog metal guitar chords, with emotionally wrought vocals; a powerful climax to the album.

It is to the band’s credit that even at this early stage in their career they have sequenced an album of emotional highs and lows, and taken the listener on a journey of discovery. They even left off the song Conspiracy Leader described by the band as ‘a dark synthpop-goes-progmetal track featuring acoustic drums (!) by Kay Ketting’,  as they did not feel that it fitted into the sequencing of the album, a brave but important artistic decision so early on.

It would be hard to tell that the album was recorded in lockdown except for the reference in the title to ‘isolated’ dreams. It is an accomplished and bold debut, immediately establishing an exciting new voice, a very effective combination of pop, prog, metal and trip-hop. Apparently, they are already writing new material which provides hope for the band’s future when they can get together in person.

Ghost Echo are:

Remy de Wal – Guitars, synthesizers, programming and backing vocals

Karel Witte – Lead vocals, guitars, synthesizers and programming

Isolated Dreams is out now.