If there is one band that has been pushing the bounderies of progressive rock in the nineties, it'd definitely Porcupine Tree. Starting out as a psychedelic venture, the band has been mixing various kinds of musical genres in their music, as diverse as dance, ambient, heavy metal and pop. They are progressive in the true sense of the word, whereas most bands seem to be regressing to the seventies. Porcupine Tree frontman Steve Wilson: "I hate that new wave ['70s-styled prog-rock] kind of music. They obviously assume that I must love that approach, and I hate it! I don't quite understand why, as we don't make any music like that, as far as I can hear. I don't like that kind of thing at all, but I have a great love of the original wave of progressive bands. What I like about the original bands is that they were all so completely different."
This final chapter in the original series of Counting Out Time is an homage to Porcupine Tree and their 1999 album Stupid Dream.
The history of Porcupine Tree goes back quite some time, all the way to the dark and damp eighties when a young teenager named Steve Wilson started making home recordings inspired by psychedilic and Kraut Rock bands. Wilson: "It started off as a solo project. It was something that I started doing as soon as I had the money to buy my own studio equipment. When you've got a studio in your house you tend to do things you wouldn't do when you're paying to go into a professional studio, where you're watching the clock all the time. The one thing I wanted to do, because I had a great love of late '60s/early ' 70s psychedelic and progressive music, was to make my own slant on that."
"When I decided to let other people hear the music, the first thing I did was to put together a cassette just to send out to a few people, and also to sell through a few companies who would put you on their mailing list. At the time I was paranoid that if I was honest about the source of the music, people would think that it was just another guy in his bedroom messing about."
"So to go with the first cassette I created a booklet, which related a bogus history of an imaginary band to try and give the tape a bit more weight so as to make people take it a bit more seriously. It was very tongue in cheek! It was suggested that the `band' met in the early `70s at a rock festival, they'd been in and out of prison and they'd been busted on various occasions! It was a bit of fun. But of course like anything that starts as a joke, people started to take it all seriously!"
The cassette with 80 minutes of home recorded tracks Wilson refers to was called Tarquin's Seaweed Farm and came with an 8-page inlay, containing information about obscure (imaginary) band members like Sir Tarquin Underspoon and Timothy Tadpole-Jones, not to mention crew members like Linton Samuel Dawson (note the initials). The cassette, privately released in 1989 in an edition of only 50 copies, contained an early version of the classic Radioactive Toy.
Some of the lyrics for the early Porcupine Tree music were written by one Alan Duffy, with whom Steve shared an interest in Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, something that was clearly noticeable in the strange lyrics.
Two other tapes, Love Death and Mussolini (a rare, 40 minute long private pressing of 10 copies) and The Nostalgia Factory (70 minutes) followed in 1990. Richard Allen of Freakbeat magazine had launched a psychadelic record label called Delerium Records around this time and Porcupine Tree became the label's first signing. Delerium first released the Tarquin's Seaweed Farm and Nostalgia Factory tapes in a limited edition of 200 and 300 copies. In 1992 they released a double album with the best tracks from both tapes under the name On the Sunday of Life, later to be released on CD as well.
This first real album contained a lot of weird material, but also some tracks that would grow to be Tree classics. On the Sunday of Life was to Porcupine Tree what The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was to Pink Floyd.
Steve's music took a new direction with the release of the 12" Voyage 34 in 1992. The music on this 30+ minute EP consisted of a daring mixture of dance rhythms with ambient soundscapes, spoken narrations and Floydian guitar (obviously inspired by Run Like Hell and Another Brick In The Wall (part 1)). The topic of the record were the negative (Phase I) and positive sides (Phase II) of LSD trips.
A second 12" with two additional ambient remixes (Phase III and IV) was released a year later. Voyage 34 has grown into a real live favourite and all four phases will soon be released on a full length CD.
The direction of mixed ambient, synth and guitar rock was further explored on the 1993 album Up the Downstair. On this diverse album Steve worked with ex-Japan keyboard player Richard Barbieri and old school friend and bassist Colin Edwin for the first time. Both musicians play on one track each, but would later become permanent band members. Together with Chris Maitland, who had played live with Wilson's other band (No Man), the three musicians made their live debut on the 4th December 1993 at the Nag's Head in High Wycombe, followed by a handful of live shows in London. A session the band played on the 6th for Radio One was later released on the promo cassette Spiral Circus that was given away for free when fans subscribed to the 'Transmission' newsletter. (Other such subscription freebies would later be the cassette with outtakes from the Signify sessions, called Insignificance and some left-overs from the live recordings of Coma Divine, called - you guessed it - Coma Divine II).
1994 saw two releases with rare material; Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape, a CD containing the remaining material of the early cassettes that didn't make it to On the Sunday of Life, and Staircase Infinities with outtakes from the Up the Downstairs sessions.
After the release of the Moonloop E.P. in October 1994, Porcupine Tree would bring their 'breakthrough album' to the market in 1995; The Sky Moves Sideways became a big success among prog fans and the Tree was hailed as the Pink Floyd of the nineties, something Wilson would later regret: "I can't help that. It's true that during the period of 'The Sky Moves Sideways', I had done a little too much of it in the sense of satisfying, in a way, the fans of Pink Floyd who were listening to us because that group doesn't make albums any more. Moreover, I regret it". Regret it or not, the CD did attact a lot of new fans.
Barbieri, Edwin and Maitland played as session musicians on most of the CD. It was around this time that Wilson decided that it was time to turn his solo project into a real band. Wilson: "Obviously the practical concern of being able to play the music live was the instigating factor. But I think subconsciously I also felt that I'd taken the solo years as far as I'd wanted to because I never really enjoyed working with drum machines. On 'The Sky Moves Sideways' I had a couple of tracks where I did actually bring Chris and Colin in for the first time; 'Stars Die' and 'Moonloop'. And they were a turning point for me because I realized that those two tracks for me were the best from the whole sessions. And I realized from that point on I never wanted to go back to having to use drum machines. But also, I think I've always kind of been in love with the idea of, y'know, the rock band'. Because bands have a kind of glamour, and appeal, and a romance about them the solo projects just don't have."
And so Porcupine Tree started working on their next album, Signify, as a band. The musicians even got some writing credits, most noteably on the track Intermediate Jesus, which evolved from a jam session (parts of which would be released on the limited edition double LP Metanoia in the end of 1998). Wilson: "Signify was slightly odd in the way it was recorded in the sense that although it is a band album, because we were never able to actually all be in the same room at the same time, because of physical limitations, with the exception of one track, "Intermediate Jesus", which was done outside, I tended to demo the tracks to a fairly high level and they would just replace the parts that I'd played on synthesizers with the real thing. So there wasn't a great deal of input from the other guys."
After the release of the first real Porcupine Tree single Waiting, Signify finally hit the shops in September 1996. More than ever the album was a mixture of instrumental tracks and more song-oriented tunes, nevertheless still providing that wonderful mixture of dreamy melodies and raw power or dark moods. "For me tracks like 'Every Home Is Wired' and 'Dark Matter' totally transcend both genre and comparison. Finally, I think we are making a completely original and 90s form of music, but which still has its root in progressive music."
Meanwhile the fanbase of the band kept on growing, especially in Italy where airplay on a popular radio show had turned the band into a teenagers' favourite, a remarkable crowd compared to the more prog rock oriented listeners elsewhere. The band recorded some of the shows they played in Rome in 1997 and released it as the live CD Coma Divine. This wonderful live album contained great new live versions of such classics as Signify, The Sky Moves Sideways, Radioactive Toy and Moonloop.
In the meantime Steve Wilson's band had not gone unnoticed by the rest of the music industry. In 1997 Wilson was asked by ex-Marillion singer Fish if he would be interested cooperating on his new album. Wilson would end up co-writing, playing on and producing Fish' Sunsets on Empire, the best album the Scotsman had releaesed in years.
Interestingly enough, two years later Marillion would ask Wilson to mix part of their new album marillion.com. Working with both camps of one of his favourite teenage bands was a dream come true for Wilson.
In 1998 Porcupine Tree would embark on another tour. During this tour they played three new songs, being the 15+ minutes long Even Less, the raw This is no Rehearsal and the instrumental Ambulance Chasing. These tracks were a small preview of what was to come ....
Just before Christmas 1998 Steve Wilson closed a new recording deal with record label Snapper music, resulting in the founding of new subsidiary label K-Scope. At Delerium, Porcupine Tree had always been the 'big fish in the small pond'. It had now reached the stage where the label could no longer finance the further development of the band. Wilson: "Because the problem was that we needed, with this album, a lot of money spent up front. We needed to make a video, we needed to release three singles from the album. All the bullshit, and all the games you have to play... I mean I don't like the fact that you have to do all that but the reality is you do have to do that if you want to get to people. And there's no way Delerium could possibly have bankrolled that so we had to move."
"Signify was recorded for a total of 2000 Pounds, which is a pretty pathetic budget. We had a lot more money for this, we spent about 15,000 Pounds on this album, which is still pretty small when you compare it to the budgets that some bands have."
The direction of song-oriented tracks that the band had ventured into with the Signify album was further developed on Stupid Dream; the CD featured 11 tracks (not counting the 28 seconds long title track) ranging from just over 3 to 8 and a half minutes. Wilson: "Pieces like "Every Home Is Wired" and "Waiting Phase One" is obviously a move to more song-oriented material on that album. So I see Stupid Dream as a continuation of that."
Stupid Dream did indeed contain more 'songs' and was definitely the most commercial album the band had ever made. At the same time, all of the typical Porcupine Tree ingredients were still present.
"Basically, I wanted to make an album full of good songs. I'm much more interested now than I was in songwriting as an art form, as opposed to soundscape development. When started making Porcupine Tree albums, it was as much about how the albums flowed and fitted together. It still is to an extent, but it's a tighter sound now, in the sense that the song is paramount."
"What I was listening to at the time when I was writing this album was a lot more vocally oriented. I would say the major influence on that would be my interest in Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. I was listening a lot to stuff like Pet Sounds and all that kind of harmony singing. Also stuff like Todd Rundgren, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, anything with really good ensemble singing. I was particularly into that stuff when I was writing this album. And I kind of got interested in the idea of the pop song as a kind of experimental symphony if you like."
Lyrically the album was much more personal than the previous ones. Wilson: "I just wrote about myself this time, certain insecurities and feelings - all the usual miserable singer-songwriter stuff. I've come round to the idea that the most affecting lyrics are always written from a personal point of view."
Steve Wilson explained the album title as follows: "When I was writing some of the songs of the album I was very much aware of this contradiction between being an artist, being a musician, trying to be creative and write songs and, then, at the point you finish an album, the music is finished, the creative side is finished, you then have to go out and sell and market and promote. And that's like a completely different experience. It's not a very creative process. It's quite - in some ways - a cynical process going on having to sell your music. But you have to do it. I mean, if a modern musician is going to survive as a musician, you have to - in a sense - 'prostitute yourself' to try and sell your music and your art. And I was very much aware of that contradiction. If you think about that too much, it can drive you crazy, you know. It's an absurd thing to be doing. That kind of led me thinking about when I was a teenager, when I was just starting out and I was interested in being a musician. And I think a lot of teenage kids have this dream of being pop stars, of being a professional musician. This 'stupid dream' of being famous and 'life is a ball and everything is wonderful'. And, of course, actually the reality is that being a professional musician is a very hard work. It can be very heartbraking, there's a lot of disappointment, there's a lot of hard work, there's a lot of travelling".
The album cover is linked to this concept as well. "Like sitting down with the record company to discuss how we're gonna market this album. And at that point your record becomes a product. And I just had this image of these CD's just coming off this conveyor belt. And obviously it's at complete odds with the music. But I wanted to have this kind of contradictory feel to the color. The bottom line is, the people that get into Porcupine Tree know that we're exactly not the kind of band that ever consider our music in terms of product and shifting units. So I thought it would kind of be fun to put an image on the album which is a comment on that. What could be a more stupid dream than wanting to make music and sell it."
Even Less was already played live in 1998, as a 15+ minute epic. Wilson: "That track originally was seventeen minutes long and was recorded as a seventeen minute long track, and it had everything on it. Just ridiculous amounts of overdubs on that track."
Eventually Wilson only used the first half of the song on the album. There initially were plans to release the full length version on an EP, but in the end the second part of the song was added as a bonus track on the CD Single of Stranger by the Minute.
Even Less ends with a woman reading out some mysterious numbers. Wilson: "The counting in 'Even Less' is taken from a recording of a shortwave numbers station. It is understood that these stations are used by intelligence agencies to transmit coded messages to overseas operatives, although no government agency has ever acknowledged the existence of these stations or what their actual purpose might be. They are virually impossible to decode without the key since the message and it's key are generated at random."
Piano Lessons. Wilson: "Piano Lessons" is, the most psychedelic Porcupine Tree recording since the early days. The band will be shooting a suitably bizarre promotional film to accompany this warped pop song."
And bizarre it was. The weird video showed the band shambling around in weird masks and holding up signs with obvious marketing terminology. It therefore fitted in quite well with Wilson's concept, as did the lyrics for this first single from the album: Forget you own agenda, Get ready to be sold (...) I come in value packs of ten, (in five varieties).
Stupid Dream. Just a little mood piece of 28 seconds with a tuning orchestra and some sound effects.
Pure Narcotic. The second single from the album. This track featured acoustic guitars, close harmony vocals, glockenspiel, pastoral piano and wonderful lyrics. The CD single also featured a live version of Tinto Brass, another track from Stupid Dream.
Slave Called Shiver. Wilson: "It's a very perverse love song, yeah. I mean, it's an unrequired love song. It's a love song with somebody who's obsessed with someone else, but none of that affection is returned. It relates very closely to Don't Hate Me, which is a song again about someone who's obsessed with someone from afar. 'Don't Hate Me' is an even more extreme version, because here this person actually begins to to follow and make phone calls and, you know, it becomes very unhealthy. 'Slave Called Shiver' is slightly less extreme. It's about someone who's very much in love and obsessed with somebody else. That love is not returned and so there's a slightly violent perverse undercurrent. Pure Narcotic also is very much the same subject".
Don't Hate Made featured the first use of saxophone in the music of Porcupine Tree.
This Is No Rehearsal was already played live during the 1998 European tour. Wilson: "This song was directly inspired by a tragic UK event a few years ago. A child was taken from a shopping mall while his mother was momentarily distracted and was later found dead and tortured near a railway track. The most disturbing thing about the story was that the two abductors/murderers turned out to be children themselves." The song is a marvellous mixture of semi-acoustic segments with desperate vocals and heavy metal raves.
Baby Dream In Cellophane. Wilson: "The baby in the song is basically singing the song: "I am in my pram". And it's quite a cynical song because he's basically saying that the boy's life is almost mapped out already as the child is born, it's already predetermined by society and the baby's kind of singing from the pram if you like, saying "well, actually no, I'm not going to go down this path that's been laid out for me. I'm gonna break out". It's almost like a very surreal teen rebellian song. If you imagine Nirvana, if they wrote about rebellious teenagers, I write songs for rebellious babies".
This short psychadelic track sounds a lot like early Pink Floyd, especially the rare Floyd track The Embryo and the middle piece of Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.
Stranger by the Minute became the second single from the album. The CD single of this song is a very interesting item since it doesn't only contain the second part of Even Less but an enhanced PC section with the promotion video of Piano Lessons as well. The song itself is a nice poppy tune with wonderful close harmony vocals.
A Smart Kid. With this song Wilson returns to a topic he has touch on before in Radioactive Toy. The lyrics deal with a sole survivor after a (nuclear or chemical ?) war that gets picked up by an exploring spaceship.
Tinto Brass is the only band composition on the album. This typical piece of instrumental Porcupine Tree was seemingly inspired by Italian director Tinto Brass and starts out with some Japanase spoken text. Wilson: "Oh, yes, it's spoken in Japanese! It's my girlfriend who's Japanese and she's got a film book. I tell you it's so difficult to find anything on Tinto Brass in England. He's completely unknown. I mean, I didn't know who he was. I just saw his name by accident on a video cover. So I'm gradually finding out more and more about him. I kept looking for stuff about Tinto Brass on English film-books and film-guides, but I couldn't find anything at all. And then my girlfriend has some japanese film-books and so I asked her to have a look in them to see if she could find Tinto Brass' name. And she did. She found this little biography: where he was born, the films he made. So she said "well, should I translate that for you?" (because I wanted it to be spoken in the track) and I said "No, it's great" - I thought - "I'll have it in Japanese". So she just read it in Japanese. But it's just a list of his films and where he's from… It's nothing interesting".
Stop Swimming. According to some this song was heavily inspired by one of Steve Wilson's favourite bands; Talk Talk. Wilson: "I found that when I was writing the music for this album a lot of the songs were about me and my relationship with the music industry and how I felt about where I was going in the music business and all that. Things like "Stop Swimming"... maybe it's time to stop swimming... and this kind of whole impulse to just give up and go with the flow can be very strong sometimes. I mean I've never given into it. I never will."
So far the album. To read the writerof the article's own opinion about it, check out the DPRP Review. The responses from the fans of Porcupine Tree were very diverse, dismissing Stupid Dream as being too commercial or just not Sky Moves Sideways, to being the best thing the band has done.
Steve Wilson and his band are already working on the follow-up album of Stupid Dream, which is said to become a bit more daring than its predecessor. The album, currently listening to the working title Russia on Ice will also contain some longer tracks and people who have heard some of the new songs live speak of promising material.
In the meantime Wilson is trying to shake off the label of progressive rock. "Porcupine Tree music is very very simple. There's nothing complex about it at all. The complexity is in the production. The complexity is in the way the albums are constructed. All of the work goes into creating the texture and the sound, and making it sound right. There's nothing complicated about the music at all. And that's really why I have to take issue when people describe us as progressive rock. I don't think we are a progressive rock band. I think we're just a rock band. I think what leads people to give it that kind of progressive tag is the way the songs are produced."
As we've seen, another reason why Wilson does not want to be associated with progressive rock anymore is because of the regressive nature of the genre, and I must say I kind of agree with him. Besides that, labelling a band or album as progressive rock is about the same as shooting it right at the spot. None of the musical press or media will want anything to do with it anymore and will avoid it like the plague, especially in the UK. Which makes 'prostituting yourself' (read: marketing your product) extremely difficult .....
Written by Ed Sander
Steve Wilson quotes taken from various interviews (see sources).
• Aural Innovations, issue 7 July 1999
• Progression Magazine, issue 30, Winter/Spring 1999
• Biography, Snapper, Spring 1999
• Classic Rock, May/June, 1999
• Wonderous Stories issue n. 12
• Hard n'Heavy magazine, France, Issue 49, May 1999
• Record Collector: November 1996, issue 207