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
It’s a strange coincidence that all four members of the prog rock band Porcupine Tree have brought out solo albums during the past few months of lockdown in the UK; first drummer Gavin Harrison released Chemical Reactions (with Antoine Fafard); in January it was guitarist and singer Steven Wilson’s turn with The Future Bites; bass player Colin Edwin followed in February with Once Only with Eternal Return. Finally, keyboard player Richard Barbieri completes the set with Under a Spell.
Of the four albums, Richard’s is the most direct reaction to lockdown, as the other three albums were largely complete before the pandemic hit. He had planned to collaborate with different musicians in several studios across the world, and had recorded some of these performances in early sessions. But he was then left to complete the album on his own in his home studio, surrounded by vintage synths and effects pedals. In strange and troubling times which were tragic for many, he was plagued by returning dreams of walking along a pathway through a wood towards a light. When he awoke, the dreams hung over him like a surreal shadow and shaped the album into what he has described as ‘this weird, self-contained dream-state album’ reacting to ‘all this strangeness going on outside’.
Richard is perhaps best-placed of any keyboard player to create a soundtrack to his lockdown dreams. By his own admission, he is not a technical, virtuosic player; he has never been known for the astonishing keyboard runs of other prog rock musicians like Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson. His strength lies in a different kind of virtuosity, the ability to create unique and evocative sound worlds; listen to the opening of Ghosts from 40 years ago with art rock band Japan, or any of his work with Porcupine Tree.
Richard has said that the key to understanding his new album is to listen to the opening and closing tracks, the title track Under a Spell and the final track Lucid.
The opening track begins in a fairly oblique way, with gentle vibraphone from Klas Assarsson and bass from Axel Crone, as the spell begins to be cast and we enter the forest. Richard has said that the use of vibraphone here is inspired by Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta’s soundtrack from The Man Who Fell to Earth, Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film starring David Bowie. In the opening scene, Bowie’s space craft lands and he is seen walking down a hill in what is, for him, an alien landscape. In a similar way, Barbieri draws us in to the alien landscape of the forest he saw in his dreams. Urgent percussion joins to create a sense of unease, with fragments of melody weaving a compelling spell. It could easily be the soundtrack to a horror film, and Richard has mentioned the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project as the surreal, deserted environment he had in mind. There is also a parallel with John Carpenter’s Lost Themes recording project; having written music for his own films, most famously the soundtrack to Halloween in 1978, Carpenter is now writing very effective music for imaginary films.
If much of the album lives in a disturbing, rather nightmarish landscape, the closing track Lucid brings some hope. It describes a ‘comforting lucid dream’ from which the listener gradually withdraws as a voice whispers ‘wake up…come back alive’. It’s a gentle, mesmeric ending with a repeated interlocking keyboard figure as we come out of the dream-state, leaving the wood as we return to the sunlight.
But the journey through the wood has not been easy. A highlight of the album is the fifth track, Serpentine which features some stunning bass playing from Percy Jones who played with the jazz fusion band Brand X (featuring a certain Phil Collins on drums). There are more vibraphone sounds but this time created by Richard himself using keyboard samples. The track describes the forest seen from the point of view of a snake (hence the track’s title) and there’s a superb 360 degree video to accompany the song, created by Miles Skarin (who also made the recent ground-breaking video for Steven Wilson’s Self). It’s worth watching the video for Serpentine to the end to see exactly where the path through the forest and across a bridge leads you…
An album written during the lockdown caused by a global pandemic could be a depressing listen, but Richard Barbieri has created an evocative, ultimately uplifting journey into his dreams, beautifully recorded with unique and enchanting soundscapes. It’s the last of a recent quartet of excellent solo albums from members of Porcupine Tree, which may leave fans of the band wondering what these four superb musicians might create if they were ever to work together again.
Under a Spell is out now on Kscope.
1. Under A Spell 2. Clockwork 3. Flare 2 4. A Star Light 5. Serpentine 6. Sleep Will Find You 7. Sketch 6 8. Darkness Will Find You 9. Lucid
An atmospheric debut from an international progressive rock ensemble
Eternal Return is a new prog rock band made up of five members, based around two duos who have worked together in the past; the Australian bass player Colin Edwin (Porcupine Tree, No-Man, O.R.k.) who has often worked with the Estonian guitarist Robert Jürjendal (Toyah Wilcox, Fripp’s Crafty Guitar School); and Dogon, made up of the Miguel Noya, (Venezuelan electronic musician) and Paul Godwin (composer/singer based in California). The two duos are joined on drums by Miguel Toro (Royal Dust) who was born in Venezuela and is now based in Berlin.
Once Only was recorded in Berlin in 2019, when this new international band all descended on The Famous Gold Watch Studio (a former munitions factory and Stasi HQ). The aim was to record the whole album in a live situation, to be spontaneous in the moment with the musicians in one room together, in a time before Covid suspended international travel and face-to-face collaboration.
The theme of the album is ‘nomadism’, inspired according to the band, ‘by Noya’s status as part of Venezuelan economic and political diaspora’.
The band also cite ‘seminal progressive ambient-jazz-popinfluences’ such as Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden and David Sylvian’s solo work after he left the art-rock band Japan.
The opening track Nomad bursts in with piano and some inventive bass playing from Colin Edwin, who shines throughout the album. The song introduces the album’s theme of nomadism, with its repeated phrase ‘who am I?’ It ends with a lovely piano coda, accompanied by synths which eventually fade into the background like a nomad travelling to find a distant home.
The Void is the track which is closest to David Sylvian’s work; the gorgeous horn solo at the beginning is similar to the solos on tracks such as ‘The Ink in the Well’ and ‘Nostalgia’ from Brilliant Trees, with heart-breaking cracks. But the vocals, when they arrive, are quite different from Sylvian’s lovely, tremulous baritone or the fragile tenor of the late Mark Hollis of Talk Talk. A more valid comparison would be with the beautifully understated vocals of Tim Bowness. The track is the highlight of the album.
A Medium-Sized Village opens with atmospheric harmonics, and a whispered voice saying ‘what did you see’, which could have come from one of the later albums by Colin Edwin’s most famous previous band, Porcupine Tree. Robert Jürjendal’s intense guitar line is reminiscent of his mentor Robert Fripp. Colin’s languid, relaxed fretless bass parts run amiably below, while lively percussion completes the picture.
The Triggering Town begins with a lovely piano part, a real earworm. The theme of nomadism returns, ‘where there was a face/memories erased’. Robert Jürjendal’s quietly virtuosic guitar line provides an anxious backdrop.
The Bottom of the Pond is a livelier, largely instrumental track with distorted vocals buried deep in the mix, the climax of the album in terms of dynamics after the more contemplative feel of the earlier tracks.
The final track on the album The Sky returns to the quieter feel of the rest of the album, with richly-layered backing vocals and sparkling guitar parts; again Tim Bowness springs to mind in the vocal style. The song gathers itself and gains momentum as it builds to the album’s final climax.
The album repays careful listening as tracks which appear sparse are more multi-layered and complex than first appears. It recalls the late-night, introspective atmosphere of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, which was recorded in a studio that was shrouded in darkness. So close the curtains, turn out the lights and enjoy a night-time treat.
In the early years Steven Wilson’s band, Porcupine Tree, were often compared to Pink Floyd and Steven himself admitted the importance of that musical influence although he later distanced himself from the Floyd, moving towards a more distinctive sound. It is not surprising that he came to be regarded as a new hero in the genre of Progressive Rock, even though again he has often tried to distance himself from that label.
But as he says on his website, Steven grew up not only listening to Dark Side of the Moon but also to Love to Love You Baby by Donna Summer, produced by disco and electronic dance music pioneer Giorgio Moroder. So the fact that his latest album The Future Bites™ heavily features electronics and very little electric guitar should not come as a surprise, although some of his fans have been upset by the change of direction.
Steven announced a while ago that he would be working with producer David Kosten, who makes dance music and electronica under the name Faultline, which suggested that another change in direction was coming. Steven doesn’t like standing still or repeating himself musically, which means that over his very long and varied career he has written music which could be defined as, at various times…psychedelia, space rock, trip-hop, jazz fusion, progressive rock, progressive metal, pop, ambient, art rock, alternative rock, pop rock, drone music and trance. The theme that unites Steven’s music in all these different styles is his searching musical intelligence, a gift for melody, the willingness to innovate even at the risk of alienating some of his fans, and the ability to write songs that sound sophisticated yet familiar. Like the film director Stanley Kubrick, one of Steven’s cultural heroes, he likes each piece of work to be different from anything else he has produced.
What is rather surprising is that Steven admitted in a recent interview to promote the new album that he is no longer inspired by the guitar,
I got to the point where I would sit with a guitar on my knee and I didn’t know what else I could do…I’ve done everything with this thing.
He has spent the last few years collecting vintage keyboards, which he has now installed in his new studio, and he has based most of the songs on the new album around these keyboards rather than around the guitars that feature heavily in most of his music to date.
Steven has also written an album which is feels very contemporary from a musical point of view; previous solo albums have sometimes been consciously nostalgic, such as the superb 2013 album The Raven That Refused to Sing which referenced the peak of 1970s progressive rock story-telling, and To the Bone (2017) which was influenced by 1980s art rock. His current abandonment of the guitar as his main instrument perhaps reflects its demise in the 21st century – and certainly the demise of the guitar band. It will be interesting to see whether the increase in guitar sales during lockdown will lead to new guitar bands being formed.
But if Steven has moved on from the guitar at present, one of the themes of the album is one that has troubled him for many years, the way that the human brain has evolved in the internet era. He first explored the possible negative effect of the technology 25 years ago, while he was still with Porcupine Tree, in the song ‘Every Home is Wired’ on the album Signify and on Fear of a Blank Planet in 2007 (see review here).
The other major theme of the album is consumerism, and in particular the urge to buy vastly overpriced ‘designer’ products. He set up a website selling products branded with the TFB™ logo, mostly items which would usually be inexpensive. The site was a well-executed concept, a sarcastic joke, although some of the products were genuinely for sale such as volcanic ash soap. The branded toilet rolls suddenly took on an unexpected and highly ironic resonance during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic when there were shortages of toilet paper in the UK and elsewhere.
The opening pair of tracks Unself and Self are a bitter commentary on self-identity in the age of social media. Unself, which is only a minute long, starts with a gently-strummed acoustic guitar, sounding distant as it’s drenched in echo, perhaps a nostalgic nod to Steven’s past as a guitarist. The instruments fall away and his solo voice is brought sharply into focus with the words ‘the self can only love itself’ leading to the industrial funk and pulsating sequencers of Self, a fierce critique of the effects of social media,
Self sees a billion stars
But still can only see self regard
Richard Barbieri, former keyboard player with Japan and Porcupine Tree provides atmospheric soundscapes on the track.
King Ghost is one of the most beautiful songs Steven has ever written, with poetic lyrics, haunting synthesiser lines, and soaring falsetto vocals which create an atmosphere of sparkling luminosity perfectly matched by Jess Cope in the official video.
12 Things I Forgot shows that one of the things that Steven has not forgotten is how to write simple, catchy pop songs just as he did with Porcupine Tree (‘Lazarus’and ‘Trains’), on his solo albums (‘Pariah’) and with Blackfield (pick almost any song).
Eminent Sleaze is crisp, dystopian, industrial funk, similar in style to the equally satisfying ‘Song of I’ from his last album To the Bone. The song features very few electronic instruments. It includes cameos from Nick Beggs on bass and Chapman Stick, Adam Holzman on keyboards, and strings from the London Session Orchestra. Yet the production cleverly combines these elements to create an electronic sound. The central character, as shown in the official video, encapsulates Steven’s fears that social media and technology companies have more power now than politicians; the title of the song is a play on the term éminence grise, the hidden power behind politicians.
Politicians don’t escape Steven’s searching gaze either. In Man of the People he adopts the point of view of a member of the family of a politician who has been damaged by a scandal, the long-suffering partner who stands beside them with a fixed smile for the cameras. It’s a gentle, poignant song which shows some degree of sympathy for the victims who stay with the disgraced politician even though they know that the love and trust they receive are fake. The song includes some of the most powerful lines on the album,
Ambition froze me out
Like a demonic winter.
The centre-piece of the album, both in terms of concept and length, is Personal Shopper. It’s a powerful satire, urging us to buy things we don’t need and can’t afford, to ‘have now, pay in another life’. It has the melancholy disco feel of Steven’s most recent album with no-man, love you to bits (see review here).
The middle section of the track includes a list of pointless items which the modern consumer can buy, read out by perhaps the most famous shopper of all, Sir Elton John. The list of possible items to buy has been approved by Sir Elton himself – for instance he rejected a reference to ‘mobile phone skins’ as he doesn’t own mobile phone himself so wouldn’t buy a cover for it. The list includes obvious examples like ‘designer trainers’ and ‘monogrammed luggage’, but also ‘deluxe edition box sets’. Ironically, Steven Wilson has released a deluxe edition of this album, limited to 5000. This is done with great self-awareness of course. Steven has also admitted that he does enjoy shopping, including buying box sets…
In Follower the target is social media again, and in particular social media influencers. It’s the most direct song on the album, and the one that sounds most like a conventional rock song, showing Steven’s anger at the influencers with their needy cry ‘Oh follow me, follow me’. These lines show Steven’s view of the vitriol that the internet (or more accurately the people that use it) can generate.
Steven has often ended his albums, both as a solo artist and with Porcupine Tree, with a transcendent ballad. For instance in 2002 he ended In Absentia, one of Porcupine Tree’s heaviest and most disturbing albums, with the beautiful solo ballad ‘Collapse the Light Into Earth’ (recently revisited in one his Future Bites Sessions recorded in lockdown). After the fury and satire of much of the rest of the album Count of Unease plays a similar role. Steven plays all the instruments here, except for the ‘drone’ credited to co-producer David Kosten. It’s a lovely end to the album.
On The Future Bites, Steven seems to have found a new musical language as he stares the future in the face. As is always the case with his work, the album is superbly recorded and produced. Where it differs from much of his previous work is that he has eliminated the signs of musical virtuosity that were so spectacularly and thrillingly present before, and has created music that serves his message as directly and compellingly as possible. Does that mean his music is no longer ‘progressive’? Perhaps in the narrow sense of the musical genre that is Prog Rock, this album marks a departure, but in terms of Steven’s musical journey, this album shows that he is continuing to make progress, constantly moving forward into the future.
Gavin Harrison and Antoine Fafard prove that fusing jazz, rock and classical music does work
In music, the words ‘fusion’ or ‘crossover’ used to a warning for any sensible music lover to run for the hills. Very fast. Musical genres such as classical, rock, pop and jazz have worked independently of each other, very successfully, for decades if not centuries, but attempting to splice their DNA together has sometimes resulted in disturbing mutations. It is therefore a pleasure to report that fusing the muscular but subtle and intelligent drumming of Gavin Harrison, and the jazz bass playing of Antoine Fafard, with a string quartet and even an orchestra, actually works.
It helps that Gavin is probably one of the best drummers in the world at present, having performed as a session musician but also as a member of Porcupine Tree and more recently King Crimson, also releasing a stunning solo album of big band arrangements Cheating the Polygraph a few years ago. To appreciate the quality of his drumming, listen to the opening of the second track on this new album, Atonic Water which begins with half-speed, laconic, almost lazy drumming which is joined by fast, buzzing strings, creating the illusion of two time frames running in parallel. Gavin has written about rhythmic illusions in the past and here he puts his theory into thrilling practice.
Antoine shows what a fine jazz bass player he is in the opening track Transmutation Circle, making fast runs high up the fretboard when he is soloing, sounding almost like a jazz guitarist at times, but also providing a solid underpinning when the music demands that he sounds more like a conventional rock player.
The first five tracks of the album, which also include Vision of a Lost Orbit, Pair of a Perfect Four and Proto Mundi feature a string quartet, made up of Maria Grigwho overdubbed all the violin and viola parts and Jonathan Gerstner on cello. They bring great precision and intensity to these opening tracks. Gavin also plays marimba, helping to create a mellower vibe to balance the intensity.
The sixth track Singular Quartz adds Jerry Goodman on electric and acoustic violins, sometimes recalling the virtuosic performances of Eddie Jobson, who played violin for Frank Zappa and Roxy Music among many others.
In the last two tracks on the album Holding Back the Clock and Chemical Reactions the landscape suddenly up opens much wider, a lovely way to end an album that began with the intimate intensity of the string quartet and gradually opened out as more instruments are added. Both tracks feature the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armore, recorded in Ostrava in the Czech Republic as long ago as March 2016. They have a cinematic sweep that makes a superb climax to the album. In the documentary about the making of the album, Antoine says that he wanted real players rather than samples because of the subtleties that can bring. Gavin says he had worked with sampled instruments before but enjoyed working with ‘the living breathing organic unity’ that a real orchestra can provide. You can almost sense the joy in the playing of both musicians, particularly Antoine’s inspired bass soloing in the title track Chemical Reactions, and Gavin’s passionately animated drumming around four minutes in. The track rounds off a highly satisfying album that repays repeated listening to reveal all its subtle pleasures; listen on decent speakers or headphones if you can to enjoy its riches in full.
1 Transmutation Circle
2 Atonic Water
3 Vision of a Lost Orbit
4 Pair of a Perfect Four
5 Proto Mundi
6 Singular Quartz
7 Holding Back the Clock
8 Chemical Reactions
Gavin Harrison drums and marimba (tracks 1 – 5) drums (tracks 6 – 8)
Antoine Fafard bass (all tracks)
Maria Grig violins and viola (tracks 1 – 5)
Jonathan Gerstner cello (tracks 1 – 5)
Jerry Goodman acoustic and electric violin (track 6)
Avigail Arad Cello (track 6)
Reinaldo Ocando marimba and vibraphone (track 6)
Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armore (tracks 7 – 8)
Chemical Reactions is released on 11 December on the Harmonic Heresy label.
iamthemorning are a Russian chamber prog duo consisting of Gleb Kolyadin on piano and Marjana Semkina on vocals. According to their Bandcamp web page they specialise in writing songs about ‘dead Victorian girls and premature burials’. Their last album The Bell was inspired by 19th century song cycles in the style of Schubert, and drew themes from Victorian art and culture. The title of the album referred to the safety coffin which allowed anyone who had accidentally been buried prematurely to alert those above ground by ringing a bell which
‘when the poor soul awoke and on realizing he’s been buried alive, could ring to let the people outside know what has happened‘ (from the band’s website).
iamthemorning have also released the albums Belighted, Lighthouse and Ocean Sounds (with a DVD filmed in a studio on a remote Norwegian island), all on the Kscope label.
The duo have now released a Christmas-themed EP, Counting the Ghosts, which consists of four tracks. It was recorded in lockdown with Marjana in England, Gleb in Russia, and their sound engineer (and guitarist on this EP) in Canada.
The first track I Wonder as I Wander was written in 1933 by John Jacob Niles, based on a fragment of traditional song he collected in Cherokee County, North Carolina, and published in his ‘Songs of the Hill-Folk’ in 1934. It has become a Christmas carol, and there is a lovely arrangement by John Rutter in ‘100 Carols for Choirs’ for solo voice and unaccompanied choir. The arrangement on this EP is beautiful, with Marjana’s wistful, folky vocals multi-tracked to provide the vocal harmonies, with subtle instruments coming in towards the end.
Cradle Song is the first of two songs written specially for the EP. Marjana told Prog magazine that the words are based on the poem of the same name by William Blake, which is not a Christmas poem but has in her view ‘a nice, cosy feeling’,
Sweet dreams, form a shade O'er my lovely infant's head! Sweet dreams of pleasant streams By happy, silent, moony beams!
from Songs of Innocence: A Cradle Song
Presumably she was referring to the version of the poem in Blake’s Songs of Innocence, quoted above; the poem of the same name in Songs of Experience is much more cynical about the sleeping baby,
O the cunning wiles that creep In thy little heart asleep! When thy little heart doth wake, Then the dreadful light shall break.
from Songs of Experience: A Cradle Song
The song starts gently enough, but soon takes a dark turn just over 30 seconds in , with a deliciously bleak key change, creating the sense that all is not well around the cradle, a gloomy tale to warm up Christmas around the fire like a ghost story.
The third track on the EP, Counting the Ghosts starts with ambiguous chords on the guitar and piano, immediately creating a sense of unease which is appropriate for a song that is about the ghosts of our Christmas past, and also about the people that have been lost during this tragic year. Marjana sings with fierce passion, revealing the depth of her feeling about a year that most of us would like to forget. The track ends suddenly, as if it has run out of things to say about 2020.
The final track Veni, Veni Emmanuel is a modern version of a very old carol, with Latin words that date back to around the eighth century, and a simple plainsong melody which dates back to around the twelfth or thirteenth century. Marjana sings the carol unaccompanied and in Latin, beginning with the first verse which is the melody alone and gradually adding more and more harmonies in another charming arrangement, ideally suited to her pure, crystalline voice. The heavy use of echo gives the recording a wintry feel, somehow appropriate to a singer who describes herself (on Twitter) as a ‘dead Victorian girl’.
Previous albums by iamthemorning have combined fine musicianship from Gleb with precise but soulful vocals from Marjana; there is always something deeper lurking in the shadows beneath the attractive surface of their songs. Counting the Ghosts continues in this vein, but adds a little Christmas spirit. It’s a real treat.
Counting the Ghosts is released on 4 December via Bandcamp.
The 2007 classic album finally appears on streaming services
Within Porcupine Tree’s canon of ten studio albums, their 2007 album Fear of a Blank Planet has a similar status to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon within the Pink Floyd catalogue, a cohesive and deeply-satisfying concept album about alienation in modern life. So it has been a source of surprise and frustration to fans of Porcupine Tree that arguably their best album has been unavailable to stream, despite the fact that most of their albums have been on Spotify and other services for some time. Hopefully its availability will bring new listeners to a record which was Classic Rock Magazine’s Album of the Year in 2007.
The album takes its title from Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, a hip-hop album greatly admired by Steven Wilson, Porcupine Tree’s band leader and principal song-writer until the band ceased to exist following their final album The Incident in 2009.
The fear of a ‘blank planet’ expressed in the album’s title reflects Steven Wilson’s deep concern about the effect that technology was having, particularity on teenagers who he felt were failing to connect with the real world as a result of their obsession with their computers, their iPods, mobile phones and gaming platforms. Writing the lyrics for the album in 2006, Steven may have been unaware that smartphones and social media were about to become ubiquitous. His fears seem prescient, bearing in mind for instance the recent Netflix docudrama The Social Dilemma in which former employees of major tech companies make serious allegations about the monetization of social networks, and the dopamine hits that engaging with them can apparently bring.
Steven Wilson said that the album’s theme of alienated teenagers was strongly influenced by the novel Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho. The novel features a character called Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho, and is a strange but weirdly compelling amalgam of partial autobiography, satire, fantasy, horror and satire. Steven was intrigued by the central character’s son Robby, who spends his time in his room playing games and watching TV, or hanging out at the shopping mall with his equally vacuous friends. According to Steven Wilson’s website,
The lyrics deal with two typical neurobehavioural developmental disorders affecting teenagers in the 21st century: bipolar disorder and attention deficit disorder, and also with other common behaviour tendencies of youth like escapism through prescription drugs, social alienation caused by technology, and a feeling of vacuity—a product of information overload by the mass media.
In Lunar Park, the over-reliance of parents on prescription drugs to control their children (and themselves) is satirised mercilessly in a scene in which a birthday party features six-year-olds who are so over-medicated that they move lethargically and speak monotonously, chewing their fingernails until they bleed. A paediatrician stands by in case further medical intervention is needed.
Steven’s lyrics for the album are largely quite earnest rather than satirical, although the odd turn of phrase expressing teenage angst can be witty:
Your mouth should be boarded up
Talking all day
With nothing to sayFear of a Blank Planet
I'm trying to forget you
And I know that I will
In a thousand years, or maybe a week
Way Out of Here
In interviews around the time of the album’s release, Steven Wilson expressed deep disquiet about the effect of teenagers’ access not just to drugs but to guns, which he related to the massacres at Columbine and Virginia. He also referred to the links between violence and obsession with fame fostered by reality TV, and the shootings at the Westroads Mall in Omaha where the protagonist apparently left a suicide note to say this would make him famous.
All this makes the album seem very serious and heavy, and in some ways it is. But as with many great rock albums the lyrics serve the music, which is a perfect example of Porcupine Tree’s mature style. Steven Wilson has said that at that time he was strongly influenced by the Swedish extreme metal band Meshuggah, who inspired him to write heavy riffs. But in an interview with Dutch Prog Rock headed Fear of a Dull Band there is an amusing discussion involving all four band members trying to decide exactly how heavy they had become. Steven decides that even he isn’t sure,
I think Fear Of A Blank Planet gives the impression that it is heavy because it starts with a long heavy song, and then there is Anesthetize which has this long heavy section. But I don’t know, you’d have to analyse it. ‘My Ashes’ [track two] is pretty mellow as is the last section of ‘Anesthetize‘ [track three]…
You can sense the frustration he feels in his music being categorised, something he has always resisted as his musical taste and influences have always been very wide. The fact that the whole album consists of only six songs, made into one continuous suite of around 50 minutes sounds suspiciously like Prog rock, a label which Steven has often resisted with some degree of irritation both for his work with Porcupine Tree and his later work as a solo artist.
Perhaps the best way to describe the music is a unique combination of heavy rock, melodic pop and art rock and metal with classical strings and gorgeous vocal harmonies. Progressive rock doesn’t really do it justice, except to the extent that it gives some idea of the scope of ambition…and the length of some of the songs.
The first track Fear Of A Blank Planet immediately establishes the album’s theme, beginning with the sound of keys on a vintage computer keyboard. The opening riff, on acoustic guitar, begins with a repeating octave interspersed with a tritone – an interval known as the ‘devil in music’ often used in heavy metal as in the song Black Sabbath.
Gavin Harrison, one of the finest rock drummers in the world (now with King Crimson and the Pineapple Thief) enters with a syncopated rhythm which sets up the dystopian mood of the song.
But this being a Porcupine Tree song, the heavy suddenly morphs into a beautiful moment of introspection, an instrumental at around four minutes in, still using the opening guitar riff but with atmospheric synth playing from Richard Barbieri and languid drumming from Gavin Harrison.
The driving urgency of much the song is paradoxically at odds with the lyrics that often express the torpor of the teenage boy’s life
I'm stoned in the mall again
Shuffling round the stores...
The sense of boredom is felt so keenly felt that it bursts out into the burning rage that perfectly captures the hormonal maelstrom of a teenage boy. This is combined with a sense of cynical detachment and the sedative effect that prescription drugs have on him ‘my face is mogadon…I’m tuning out desires’. The effect is heightened by the heavy compression applied to Steven’s vocals in the verse, creating a sense of detachment.
Most of the music for My Ashes was written by the band’s keyboard player, Richard Barbieri, who was previously a member of Japan and its spin-off project Rain Tree Crow.
In keeping with the theme of the album, the song is shot through with melancholy resignation but also with a degree of bitterness; the central character is presumably the teenage boy who is the protagonist in the opening track, based on the character in Lunar Park. In the novel, the relationship between the narrator (who happens to be called Brett Easton Ellis) and his son Bobby is very strained, and in the song the boy blames his problems on his parents
When a mother and father Gave me their problems I accepted them all
After the simplicity of the previous song, this track is of epic proportions and length. Various YouTubers, who have usually not heard of Porcupine Tree, can be seen reacting with genuine surprise and delight when hearing the song for the first time, and for those who are new to the band it could be a good place to start. To fans of the band it has become a classic.
The first section of the song features a guitar solo from Alex Lifeson of Rush (around four minutes in). Steven Wilson told Prog Archives that that he read a magazine article that mentioned that Lifeson was a fan of Porcupine Tree, causing him almost to fall off his chair as he had grown up listening to Rush. Steven got in touch with him via the journalist who had written the article and asked him to contribute the solo to the album.
The second section features astounding drumming from Gavin Harrison, which is isolated in the video below.
Most bands would have ended the song at this point, perhaps with a metallic flourish or a faded final chorus repeating itself as it disappears into the ether, but Steven Wilson takes us in to a completely different world in the final section, with lovely vocal harmonies and a gorgeous melancholic feel.
On 4 June 2007, NPR (National Public Radio) in America picked this track as their Song of the Day, which means that it was picked up by over 1000 public radio stations in the US. Cecile Clouthier reviewed the song under the heading Progressive Rock Gets Mordantly Witty and her description is not only pleasingly witty but very accurate.
The wit arises mainly from tension between the charmingly calm atmosphere of the chorus, particularly the third time with smooth backing vocals from John Wesley, and the words which describe the ‘sullen and bored’ kids who are ‘stoned in the mall’ again, returning to the theme of teenage alienation.
Way Out Of Here
This song perfectly demonstrates two of Steven Wilson’s favourite and most successful vocal techniques. It begins with one of his most beautiful vocal lines, intimate, delicately poised between speech and melody, creating a great sense of empathy with the subject of the song, dreaming of escape. The chorus then changes focus completely with a full-voiced, almost epic delivery, to express the main character’s desperate need for escape, to find a way out of here’.
The final song on the album remains one of Steven Wilson’s favourites, as shown by the fact that he played it on his huge tour to support the release of his 2017 solo album To the Bone. It appears on the Home Invasion: In Concert at the Royal Albert Hall live DVD released in 2018 (track 17).
Generally, Steven Wilson unconsciously absorbs his musical influences but as he told Roy Povarchik of Alternative Zine ‘there is one exception, which is that I wanted the track Sleep Together to sound like Nine Inch Nails, with John Bonham [of Led Zeppelin] on drums, and produced by Massive Attack!’
So ends a classic album, with six very strong but very different tracks; you are in for a treat if you haven’t heard it before. And if you want more of the same, also try Nil Recurring, the companion EP of material recorded during the Fear of a Blank Planet Sessions.
See you next time.
Steven Wilson: vocals, guitars, piano, keyboards
Richard Barbieri: keyboards and synthesizers
Colin Edwin: bass guitars
Gavin Harrison: drums
Alex Lifeson (Rush): guitar solo on ‘Anesthetize’
Robert Fripp (King Crimson): soundscapes on ‘Way Out of Here’
Manchester Collective were last heard playing in public on 14 March (see review here) the final date of their Cries and Whispers tour. It may be a little while before we are able to enjoy their electrifying and fiercely intimate live performances in person again. In the meantime they are about to release a new EP, Recreation. This is the first of a series of recordings on the Bedroom Community, the Icelandic record label/collective formed in 2006 described by Drowned in Sound as ‘the best record label in the whole of Iceland and maybe even the entire world’.
The title ‘Recreation’ presumably has a double meaning here – the EP creates pleasure in a recreational sense, but also recreates the music of Bach and Vivaldi in a contemporary context.
The Collective describe listening to the EP as like ‘picking up something warm, soft and familiar, and pricking your finger’. So the familiar warmth of Vivaldi’s ‘Summer’ from the Four Seasons’ is savagely punctured by Bartókian night music from György Ligeti’s first string quartet Métamorphoses nocturnes. The Collective’s music director, Rakhi Singh, describes the experience as ‘like being in a forest, where light and shade alternate…full of life but also dark and mysterious’. It’s an apt description; the EP is a dangerous journey through a magical forest.
The Prologue begins with a burst of electronic noise which very soon metamorphoses into a dreamlike rendition, heavily drenched in reverberation, of Bach’s chorale Du großer Schmerzensmann BWV 300 which describes the agony of Christ on the cross. The voices come into focus, as if the dream is turning into reality, and the strings of the Collective appear out of the mist, playing a gently-falling motif written by Paul Clark. The music gathers energy and pace and we are thrown into the icy landscape of Vivaldi’s Winter from his Four Seasons. As Rakhi Singh told Valgeir Sigurðsson in a recent interview, ‘Baroque music can be so vivid and electrifying, so colourful’, and the playing of the Collective exemplifies this – you can just imagine the absorbed concentration of the players as they watch each intently as they play.
The bitter cold of Winter ends and The First Day ofSummer takes us to an excerpt from Vivaldi’s Summer from the Four Seasons. The drowsiness of long summer days is beautifully expressed by the languid playing of the Collective, which suddenly explodes into bright, vivid and sparkling sunlight, with virtuosic solo playing from Rakhi Singh.
The scurrying strings of the Vivaldi are brutally mirrored in the excerpts from Ligeti’s first String Quartet, in Métamorphoses Nocturnes – First and Second Vignettes. This is where the Collective excels, finding links between musical genres and styles that are apparently unrelated, bringing new light and meaning to each. From the Baroque elegance of Vivaldi we are thrown into the nightmarish world of the ‘night music’ used by Béla Bartók in many of his pieces, particularly his String Quartets and orchestral pieces such as Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. But in this recording Ligeti and Vivaldi feed off one another, so that Vivaldi gains some of the urgent modernity of Ligeti, and in return Ligeti gains some of the Baroque grace of Vivaldi.
The two Ligeti Vignettes are linked by a short, skilfully-written Interlude written by Paul Clark.
Finally, in the Last Day of Summer we are back with Vivaldi’s Summer, with a close-miced and raw in production, always living on the edge, making regular listeners long for the intimacy of live performances at the White Hotel in Salford where the audience is so close to the performers that the can read their music over their shoulders.
Hopefully this EP will be the beginning of a long a fruitful relationship between Manchester Collective and the Bedroom Community. It is certainly a thrilling start, that fully captures the visceral excitement of the Collective’s live performances.
First Day of Summer
Métamorphoses Nocturnes – First Vignette
Métamorphoses Nocturnes – Second Vignette
Last Day of Summer
Brendan Williams – Production, Recording/Mix Engineer Adam Szabo – Producer
Rakhi Singh – Solo Violin/Music Director Caroline Pether – Violin Will Newell – Violin Helena Buckie – Violin Steve Proctor – Violin Will McGahon – Violin Ruth Gibson – Viola Kimi Makino – Viola Kay Stephen – Viola Peggy Nolan – Cello Will Hewer – Cello Sam Becker – Double Bass
Love you to bits is the seventh studio album by No-Man the long-running collaboration between Steven Wilson former frontman of Porcupine Tree and now a solo artist, and singer Tim Bowness. The band was formed in the late 1980s and signed to the label that also featured Björk, and for a little while it appeared that the band would be the most successful of Steven Wilson’s many projects. Steven went on to have far more success with Porcupine Tree whose final album The Incident reached number 23 in the charts. Steven’s most recent solo album To the Bone reached number 3, and by comparison Love you to bits reached number 94 when it was released late in 2019. But don’t let that put you off; the album is a masterpiece of moody electronica and disco beats.
The album has taken 25 years to complete. It was begun in 1994 and then left languishing on a hard drive until its completion in the summer of 2019. It’s divided into two parts, love you to bits (bits 1-5) and love you to pieces (pieces 1-5). It describes the breakup of a relationship from the perspective of both protagonists separately, and sometimes both at once. Helpfully, the lyrics in the cd booklet are colour-coded to make it clear which point of view is being expressed.
On the surface, the album is very simple. It’s basically one song repeated many times, with an earworm of a chorus. But on repeated listening the album reveals great richness and subtlety. Each of the two tracks is divided into five segued sections, and the structure of each track feels more like a suite of classical pieces, a theme and variations, than a standard pop album. Listening to it feels like climbing up a hill – there seems to be little change as you walk higher up the hill, but glancing back over your shoulder you realise how far you have travelled and how the landscape has changed. It’s a journey well worth taking.
Part 1 Love you to bits
Bit 1 starts deep in the heart of an industrial soundscape, out of which emerges a muscular disco bassline and a four-to-the floor insistent drum beat. This contrasts with Tim Bowness’ heart-wrenching vocals as he looks back over a broken relationship,
who are you holding?
how are you coping?
did you move on, or stay behind?
Here, as throughout the album Tim’s vocals are gentle, intimate and contemplative, beautifully expressing sorrow and heartache.
In Bit 2 the disco bass line continues with a mournful synth line floats about, while the vocals submit to the misery and exhaustion of weeping for lost love, eventually fading out completely as if the protagonist has given up, while the instruments continue playing.
Bit 3 is perhaps the highlight of the whole album, a thrillingly visceral guitar break, effortlessly funky, a minute of pure joy before the vocals stutter back in.
Bit 4 begins with a similar instrumental feel to the electronica of Steven Wilson’s most recent release, the track Personal Shopper, perhaps suggesting the new musical direction he will pursue on his next album, The Future Bites (now postponed until next January due to Covid-19). Ash Soan’s virtuoso rolling drums bring a sense of drama to the track; his playing is superb throughout the album. The guitar solo from David Kollar is startlingly angular, summoning up the spirit of King Crimson at their most deliciously dystopian. Appropriately enough, David has (according to his website) been described by King Crimson guitarist Pat Mastelotto as ‘one of the most innovative and driven young guitarists on the scene today’.
Bit 5 begins with enthusiastic sequenced synthesisers and a powerful drum break, and haunting echoing background vocals repeating the words ‘I love you’ that gradually morph into a gorgeously melancholic brass band arrangement that perfectly expresses the ‘heartache’ described in the lyrics.
Part 2 Love you to pieces
Part 2 is in some ways more inward-looking and contemplative than Part 1, and perhaps not as immediately accessible, but it repays repeated listening.
Piece 1 begins in a very gentle, soul-searching mood and gradually comes to life, with heavy use of evocative echo effects as the track progresses.
In Piece 2 we are suddenly thrown into a very dark place, with an oppressive, pulsating bass line as the two former lovers argue bitterly, ‘we got everything right’…’and everything wrong’. A frenetic electric piano solo takes us into the world of jazz, and in particular Miles Davis in his later electronic period – not surprising as it’s played by Adam Holzman who also played in Miles’ band on Tutu. The track is another highlight of the album.
Piece 3 arrives like a ray of light in out of the gloom of Piece 2. Glittering synthesisers sparkle like the ‘stardust’ in the lover’s eyes, quelling for the moment ‘my constant sense of dread’.
In Piece 4 for a moment as everything goes right in the relationship we seem to be floating in the ether, although the occasional slightly discordant note suggests the ‘dread’ that lurks far below on the earth. The dream ends as it implodes in on itself with a sound like a cassette tape unspooling as the music unravels.
Piece 5 ends in the depths of despair – one love refers to ‘fights in the hallway’ and the other says ‘you got colder and colder’. We are in an emotional Arctic, Tim’s desolate vocals accompanied by a slow, lugubrious piano. Finally, ‘time disappears’, and our journey has ended; how did we get here?
Steven Wilson – all instruments except as listed below
Tim Bowness – Vocals
Written and Produced by No-Man
The Dave Desmond Brass Quintet (Brass on track 1 bits)
Ash Soan (Drums)
Pete Morgan (Electric Bass on track 1 pieces)
Adam Holzman (Electric Piano Solo on track 2 pieces)