by Nick Holmes
Excellent songs that didn’t make the final cut
Some very strong songs were left off Porcupine Tree’s ten studio albums for reasons of space, changes of style … or in at least one case due to what the band’s leader Steven Wilson now regards as a mistake on his part.
I discovered some of these while writing my new book On Track … Porcupine Tree, a detailed analysis of the band’s songs. Many fans will already know them all, but to others I hope they will provide unexpected moments of joy.
The Sound of No-One Listening
This song starts with ominous soundscaping and sound effects, including the sound of an ice cream van, which has become a common horror film trope, though it may have a sense of nostalgia for some listeners. Although the band may have changed style by the time it was recorded, it’s an excellent track that stands up very well in retrospect, with a simple compelling bass riff and a lovely flute motif. Synth arpeggios provide a glittering, hopeful backdrop, as the song reaches a climax with very energetic drumming before falling back into a darkly disturbing noise-scape again.
Men of Wood
Steven Wilson said he found it difficult to find a home for this track. It was considered for two albums and as a single, but didn’t quite fit the band’s changing style, ‘It was almost a throwback to (the band’s) psychedelic pop, and that just wasn’t quite right – it was a context thing.’ The theme is the vacuity of modern society, sharing a sentiment with T. S. Eliot’s poem, ‘The Hollow Men’. The song begins with a dirty-sounding guitar, then heads for a memorable chorus with a nicely psychedelic key-change, giving it a rather wistful feel.
Buying New Soul
This track was recorded in writing sessions at Foel Studios, Wales, in March 2000, just after Porcupine Tree’s sixth studio album Lightbulb Sun was completed. It’s a gorgeous, poignant song with a haunting chorus. It follows the theme of the band’s fifth album Stupid Dream, the difficulty of balancing artistic integrity and commercial success. A highly personal song, it reflects Steven Wilson’s continuing fight against the music industry – ‘I still rage and wage my little war’ – but it ends with the depressing concept of selling out, of buying a ‘new soul at the start of every year’. The circling synthesizer motif that opens and closes the song perfectly matches the melancholy lyric and jazz-like upright bass. There is one moment of rage, but the feeling is generally one of resignation.
Cure for Optimism
This is a Steven Wilson solo performance at his home studio, No Man’s Land. The meaning of the song is just out of reach, but the track is still very evocative, with ghostly echoed piano motifs and subtle acoustic guitars. Mental health appears to be a theme here. The reference to a ‘serpent on a mobile phone’ could suggest a record company executive.
Drown With Me
In an interview in 2020, Steven Wilson told Lasse Hoile that he thought this song was going to be ‘one of the highlights’ of In Absentia, the band’s seventh studio album. He replaced it with ‘Prodigal’, ‘which I think is one of the weaker songs’, although he stressed this was a very personal opinion that others might disagree with. The reason for the substitution was that he felt ‘Prodigal’ was a better recording, although he regretted the decision later. ‘Drown With Me’ is a gorgeous, upbeat song in which the music contrasts sharply with the lyrics. The protagonist’s plan to drown the song’s addressee and her family seems to refer to the world of serial killers, one of the main themes of In Absentia.
This is the strongest example of the band’s interest in the music of Swedish heavy metal band, Meshuggah. The band’s drummer Gavin Harrison told Lasse Hoile that he wanted to write a Meshuggah-inspired track, that he could use as a challenge at his drum clinics, as he was finding it hard to play heavy metal. Gavin invited Steven Wilson to add guitar parts to the demo, resulting in ‘one of the heaviest pieces we ever recorded’. Lyrically, we may be back in the world of the serial killer that is so strong on In Absentia, ‘You were the one that made her cry … the world went black … lost my head.’ The chorus is fiercely dark, the metallic guitars almost burying the vocals. What makes the song remarkable is the contrast between the main guitar riff’s ferocity and the yearning delicacy of the backing vocals.
This and the next song were recorded during the sessions for Porcupine Tree’s ninth studio album Fear of a Blank Planet, which many fans consider to be their best. Both tracks feature on the band’s 2007 EP Nil Recurring. The title track of the EP is an instrumental featuring King Crimson’s Robert Fripp on lead guitar. After two minutes of guitar tapping and heavy riffing, a lovely, spacious breakdown highlights Colin Edwin’s bass and Richard Barbieri’s keyboards. Then, at around 3:20, the track gathers momentum, and a lovely riff cuts across a punchy one-note bass section. At around five minutes in, the opening echoed tapped-guitar theme returns, with a manic guitar solo and further heavy riffing, until the track suddenly dissolves.
What Happens Now?
This song’s protagonist seems to be suffering an existential crisis, rather like the main character in Fear of a Blank Planet. Material possessions mean nothing to him and they bore him, ‘So I got all these things, but so what?’ As he says, ‘You can’t take them with you’, and instead he seeks meaning through religion, asking the song’s mystery addressee, ‘You think you can save my soul?’ The answer – given in verse 2 – seems to be that he could die as a result of a suicide bombing, although the link between verses one and two is oblique. He boards a plane, in which somebody has concealed a bomb in a briefcase, as a result of which, ‘My body will spread through the heavens, across the sky/And my ashes will fall through the cloudburst.’ It’s a surprising and poetic image, despite its bleak suggestion that the answer is oblivion. Instrumentally, the track is very strong. Of particular note is the rhythmic illusion: beginning at about five minutes in, becoming much clearer at around six minutes, when the drums appear to move at half the speed of the other instruments, before the whole track slows down to an epic feeling of finality.
On Track: Porcupine Tree…every album, every song, published by Sonicbond, is out at the end of September and is available to order now at Burning Shed and other good bookshops.
Sleeve notes to Stars Die: The Delerium Years 1991-1997 (2002)
Interviews with Steven Wilson and Gavin Harrison filmed for the In Absentia Deluxe Edition of 2020 by Lasse Hoile
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!
A spell-binding journey through lockdown dreams
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
3. Flare 2
4. A Star Light
6. Sleep Will Find You
7. Sketch 6
8. Darkness Will Find You
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 say Fear 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 Terminally bored 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’
John Wesley: backing vocals
London Session Orchestra: strings