Album Review – Fragments by Trifecta

*****

New Prog supergroup bring joy in fragmented times

Drummer Craig Blundell, keyboard player Adam Holzman and bass player Nick Beggs began playing together on Steven Wilson’s Hand. Cannot. Erase tour in 2015. They also joined Steven on his To the Bone tour in 2018 and 2019. When Steven went off for a cup of tea after a brief soundcheck, the three others would remain on stage to jam together, creating what they described as a ‘jazz club’. They recorded each other on their phones as they played, and decided to use these recordings as the basis of some of the songs for the new Trifecta project. The result is a version of jazz rock fusion, almost entirely instrumental, in a style described by Nick Beggs as ‘Fission! It’s like Fusion but less efficient and more dangerous … with fall out.’ The outcome is an explosion of joyful, melodic virtuosity.

Beggs and Holzman were due to tour with Steven Wilson again but tours due in 2020 and again in 2021 were cancelled due to Covid-19. Like many artists, the three members of Trifecta collaborated remotely during lockdown – Beggs and Blundell in England and Holzman in New York. But whereas the work of another Steven Wilson alumnus Richard Barbieri Under a Spell described darkly trouble dreams in lockdown, Trifecta cast a genial spell on tracks that they each completed at home before Holzman mixed the heady brew in his home studio. Further magic was sprinkled by expert mastering engineer Andy VanDette (who also worked on some of the Porcupine Tree albums). The light-hearted nature of the collaboration is shown by some of the tiles of the 15 ‘fragments’ that make up the album, such as ‘Clean Up On Aisle Five’ and ‘Nightmare In Shining Armour’. But don’t let that distract you from the serious levels of musicianship on display here.

Nick Beggs’ dry humour is evident on the only track that features vocals, the gently enticing Pavlov’s Dog Killed Schrodinger’s Cat, the lyrics of which he describes as ‘written from the perspective of a layman trying to understand quantum mechanics … and failing’. They include such memorable lines as ‘Wrestled to the ground by your quantum theory/ I’ve listened to your talk until my eyes grew weary’.

Despite the consistently high level of inventiveness and virtuosity shown by all three players, planting them firmly in prog rock territory, none of the songs are prog epics in terms of length; all of the 15 tracks are beautifully-crafted miniatures of around 3 minutes. The whole album is only 45 minutes long. Steven Wilson has recently called for a return to the shorter-form album, and his latest release The Future Bites lasts 42 minutes.

Opening track Clean Up On Aisle Five with its swirling keyboards, strong melody and powerful drumming is reminiscent of another prog rock supergroup, U.K. (John Wetton, Bill Bruford, Eddie Jobson and Alan Holdsworth) on their track ‘In the Dead of Night’, although without the impassioned vocals.

Other highlights include Proto Molecule with its amazingly funky bassline – worthy of Jaco Pastorius – evocative keyboard lines, syncopated jazz-funk riffing, and a delightful interplay between both instruments. There is more Jaco-style bass at the start of Nightmare in Shining Armor.

The Enigma of Mr Fripp cheerfully acknowledges its debt to Robert Fripp of King Crimson. It encapsulates all that is great about that band in less than three minutes. Nick Beggs plays Chapman Stick with Fripp-like intensity, the lines spiralling around each other. There are dystopian drums, sudden key changes, warm mellotron washes and rhythmic illusions. A complete King Crimson album in miniature. The track suddenly stops, delightfully segueing into the ultra-cool jazz keyboards of the next track Sally Doo-Dally.

Have You Seen What the Neighbours are Doing refers to the house next to Adam Holzman’s in the North Bronx, left empty when the man living there disappeared. It could easily have come from the soundtrack to a 1970s movie like Shaft. It begins with a disturbing film-noir scenario, with a looping funky bassline and luminous synths. There’s dirty distortion on the Fender Rhodes-like solo, adding to the sleaze. Holzman uses a similar sound on his recent live album The Last Gig.

The whole album is an unexpected lockdown delight that reveals its deep treasures with repeated listening. Two important questions remain. Are Trifecta working on new material, and will they ever tour? Hopefully the answer to both questions is yes!

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.

Review – The Last Gig by Adam Holzman and Brave New World

Impeccable live jazz-rock from former Miles Davis music director and Steven Wilson’s keyboard player

*****

On 12 March 2020, keyboard player Adam Holzman and his band Brave New World drove to the Nublu club to soundcheck for a gig that night. The global pandemic was about to close New York City. Broadway had just shut down, but as Adam said later, ‘we decided to play anyway. Something big was coming, and who knew when we’d be able to perform again?… Only about 18 hardcore fans showed up.’

Adam Holzman has been Steven Wilson’s regular keyboard player since he joined the Grace for Drowning tour in late 2011 in support of Steven’s second solo album.

But Adam’s musical pedigree goes back much further than that; most notably he was with Miles Davis’ band for nearly five years, eventually becoming Miles’ musical director. And going back further still, Adam’s father is Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records (who signed The Doors) and Nonesuch Records (who began by specialising in European Early Music, but also commissioned the pioneering electronic album Silver Apples of the Moon, by the American composer Morton Subotnick in 1967). Adam tells stories of when he was a boy and Jim Morrison came to the house, and Adam showed Jim his toy keyboard and tape recorder; quiet moments when Jim was far from his rebellious and controversial public persona. Young Adam was also hugely influenced by The Doors’ keyboard player Ray Manzarek.

The album opens with Intro – The Age of Fear with dystopian synth noises, and ominous voices intoning, ‘The age of fear; the creative spirit must fight to stay alive’, words that take on a poignant significance in this context. But since the 1980s, Adam has made music under the title ‘Optimistic music in the time of fear’, so perhaps there is hope, and the vigorous drum solo from Gene Lake, with bubbling analogue synth sounds suggest that there is still life in music.

On the tour to support Steven Wilson’s third solo album, The Raven That Refused to Sing,  Adam began to do piano improvisations each night at the start of Deform to Form a Star, a song from Steven’s second solo album Grace for Drowning. He collected them together on The Deform Variations in 2015. The second track Pianodemic is another in that tradition, a moment of optimism despite the reference to the Pandemic in the title.

The next three tracks are taken from Adam’s 2018 album Truth Decay. As is often the case with jazz, the live versions have more power and energy than the studio versions, good though they are. The first of these, Ectoplasm, bursts into life with fierce drumming and cool Fender Rhodes keyboards. On the NewEars Prog Show podcast Adam described the Fender as ‘the electric guitar of jazz’, and it plays an important role on this album (although the instrument Adam plays is a Korg SV1 Stage Vintage piano). Throughout the album, Adam gives space to the other players in the band rather than just showing off his keyboard skills, virtuosic as they are, so the album feels like a true band album.

The next track, Phobia has a lovely, spacey, open feel with an atmospheric main theme with evocative harmonies. It gives all the band their chance to shine above the backbeat – first Adam with some distorted Fender Rhodes sounds, then Ofer Assaf, with evocative saxophone, then Jane Getter on heavily echoed guitar. An excellent track.

Growing up as the son of a record company executive, Adam could easily have had a very cynical view of the music industry, the kind of view expressed by a relative who might have said, Good Luck with your Music, in the way that we might say, ‘good luck with that.’ But Adam’s father has been supportive of his son, and it seems that Adam has retained his joy in music making. This is a seriously funky track with an earworm for a chorus, featuring excellent rumbling bass playing from Freddy Cash jr.

Adam originally recorded Maze, a Miles Davis song in 1985, live in the studio just before the sessions for Miles’ 1986 album Tutu. The track finally appeared on the Rubberband album released in 2019. Adam described the track as having, ‘a killer groove…with a flat-out burning solo.’

The final song, Abandoner is a cover of a track from Steven Wilson’s first solo album Insurgentes. The original track begins with a lovely, introspective quality, and Steven’s plaintive vocals are replaced here with soulful saxophone playing from Ofer Assaf. As the title suggests, the song is about loss and abandonment, and Adam’s version perfectly captures this. Steven’s song descends into terrifying noise, perhaps reflecting bitterness and anger at being abandoned. Adam’s version takes a slightly quieter, but equally effective approach.

This is a stunning live album, although it often sounds like a studio album both because of the quality of the playing and the recording, and the fact that the audience is small due to the Pandemic. Holzman says, ‘As of now, it’s still the last gig’. Let’s hope it’s not too long before he is able to tour again.

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.

Album Review – Under A Spell by Richard Barbieri

A spell-binding journey through lockdown dreams

*****

Image credit Kscope/Richard Barbieri

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.

Chosen Spells – a selection of tracks from Under a Spell

Under a Spell is out now on Kscope.

Track list:

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

Album Review – Once Only by Eternal Return

An atmospheric debut from an international progressive rock ensemble

****

Once Only by Eternal Return

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-pop influences’ 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.

Once Only is available now on NEWdOG Records