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Porcupine Tree –The ’90s Era (Phase–I) [Finely Tuned]

To their followers, Porcupine Tree aren’t merely a music group. Their art is a way of life. A treasure that enriches the soul, one cannot expect it to waltz its way into your world. If fulfillment is what you crave, you must delve beyond the classics—the songs everyone knows—and search for what resonates with your innermost feelings.

For some, it could be a verse that reads like it was written just for them. A line that perfectly describes the storm building up in their heart. For others, it could be a solo that helps them break free of the cobwebs confining them to their sorrow. There’s one thing all these people have in common – a mutual adulation for Steven Wilson. A man whose very sight reminds followers of countless nights spent emptily staring off into oblivion. His voice, swirling around them in a whirlwind of notes, sweeping them away from reality like feathers in the wind.

Porcupine Tree’s line-up until 2000’s ‘Lightbulb Sun’.
L to R: Steven Wilson (vocals, guitars), Colin Edwin (bass), Chris Maitland (drums), and Richard Barbieri (synth)

Rise as they did from beneath the veil of obscurity, to say success bloomed late for them would be a colossal understatement. Their arrival into the mainstream was made possible only by In Absentia and the infamous single it churned out, Trains. Those in the know would tell you that the six albums preceding it are essentially the best-kept secrets in possibly any band’s history. In this article, we offer a chance to taste what you never knew you had been starved of your entire life.

On the Sunday of Life (1992)

By: Afridi Majeed

When you release your first album, it essentially took your entire life up until that point to write it. With a time frame like that, nothing less than the absolute best of one’s efforts can be expected. Steven Wilson did not fail to disappoint in this regard with Porcupine Tree’s debut studio album.

Initially intended to be nothing more than an elaborately conspired hoax – replete with fictional band members to go with a contrived backstory of how the band was formed – Wilson decided to begin writing songs to support The Porcupine Tree’s mythical existence. When it occurred to him that he had material worthy of being released by a legitimate band, he got ahold of his contacts and thus, ‘On the Sunday of Life’ was born.

Steven Wilson has always held the belief that not listening to the songs of an album in order of the track list is tantamount to starting a novel from chapter 6. Each song was arranged in that manner because the artist intended for it to be listened to after its predecessor. This is why he deliberately put many short tracks before the lengthier songs in many Porcupine Tree albums.

Cover art for ‘On the Sunday of Life’. One could be wont to think this man is descending onto Jupiter Island.

Often times, these would be little more than a haphazard arrangement of sound effects or spoken word, but flowed right into the next track. This compels the listener to backtrack as close to the beginning of the album as possible.

Taking us by surprise, the tell-tale placid thumping of a kick drum pedal bring us to ‘Radioactive Toy’, the pièce de résistance of this album. This song is a window into Wilson’s sullen side that solidified Porcupine Tree’s place among the most indelible progressive rock bands of all time. In a subdued tone, he depicts a portrait of wandering through a forest with a dastardly intent. This “radioactive toy” could be a nuclear weapon he seeks to forge away from the public eye, and use as his plaything to wreak mass destruction.

To his chagrin, he drinks from a stream that turns out to be lethal. As his skin gets razed by the scorching sun, he laments not having anyone around to even honor him with a proper burial. This is followed by moments of utmost tranquility, where all we can hear are meek highly distorted effects on the guitar.

At long last, this demented spirit no longer resides amidst us. The body of the very same man who sought to obliterate the Earth, now lies in a state of perpetual decay, returning its nutrients to whither they came. Each string picked in the next riff resounds in the air – not as a ballad to mourn the loss of this soul – but to commemorate how many more had been saved in lieu of it.

Evidently the strongest section of the album, what follows next is yet another marvel – ‘Nine Cats’.  A permanent resident in the hearts of all Steven Wilson fans, it is a nod towards his abundant Pink Floyd influence. Everything from the pacifyingly strummed chord propelling the song throughout – to the restful harmony with which he takes us wading through his incomprehensible musings – is a nod to the band he grew up with.

A litany of enthralling fillers lead up to the final track – one that leaves us with a lasting impression, ‘It will Rain for a Million Years’. The first six minutes of this masterpiece is an absolutely incredulous guitar solo – something mindless shredders of today could stand to learn a thing or two from.

Each string is released only after being bent till it wails, the sentiment expressed becoming all the more flagrant with deft use of a whammy bar. An astral-sounding synth mingles fluidly with the rhythmic hammering of bass drums.

A voice fatigued from the gruels of traversing through time and space, hands us a looking glass into his war-weary eyes. This interstellar nomad tells us of his visits to lands and eras aplenty, as we are left gaping in stunned silence. In the milieu, flutes play to add to the mystifying aura that permeates through.

When at last this track draws to a close, it becomes apparent that it is perhaps the most fully fledged song on an album that was meant to be a travesty. Porcupine Tree would go on to be the sole bastion of the psychedelic rock era that had been brought into genesis by Pink Floyd. For a band of their eminence, this was more than worthy of being their first formal offering to the world of music.

Up the Downstair (1993)

By: Adhiraj Ghosh

To correct one’s mistakes and strive for perfection fabricates something beautiful. Steven Wilson had produced a majority of “On the Sunday of Life” by himself, his first ever full-length album. Despite resembling “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” in a melodic apprehension and churning out memorable tracks like “Radioactive Toy” and “Nine Cats”, the album failed to strike a chord in terms of cohesiveness of the music. He made amends, almost determined to produce the best music he would be associated with.

Essentially exemplifying transition and change, “Up the Downstair” holds significance as being the album that initiated the collaboration of Steven Wilson with future band-mates Richard Barbieri and Colin Edwin who effectively made the sound more crisp and real. Richard aided Steven significantly in deciding which sound suits the album theme best and also took his wife over to the studio to record the vocals of the title track.

Toying with several clichés of music composers, the songs in the album are diverse in their genre and length. While tracks are more than ten minutes long, exploring the depths of psychedelia “What You Are Listening To”, “Monuments Burn into Moments” and “Siren” are short and do not contribute much to the effect of the album.

The cryptic cover of ‘Up the Downstairs’. The figure in the centre bears an eerie resemblance to Sirius Black.

“Up the Downstair” took its cue from the sombre, troubled atmosphere of “Radioactive Toy”, the baleful standout track of the first album and finds Wilson still flirting with dance rhythms and psychedelia to create an ambience of serenity. In his quest for musical variety, Steven stumbled upon the concept of glorification of space rock; something he fused with psychedelic rock and found the winning permutation.

Beginning his tribute to the by-gone era of musical supremacy, the album kicks off on a musically cheery note with “Synesthesia”. In direct contrast to the music is the message the song tries to convey – where death becomes so mundane that it simply acts as a meaningless statistic to determine the number of casualties during war. Despite all this, Steven believes that death stands for something as he paints a picture of a child-like soul whose innocence is being crushed.

Delusion. Madness. Confusion. The pain that the human mind embraces is beautifully explained in the self-contradictory, brutally honest lyrics of “Always Never”. Pessimism is reflected in the slow, ambient music as Steven fights with the pangs of love, being completely lost in the complexities of a heartbreak. He fights with several dilemmas, effectively constructed in three words – “Sometimes, always, never.” Aggressive and affable all at once, this song serves as anthem for a generation of youth to vent their frustrations on.

Being the title track, “Up the Downstair” provides a flow to the album making the songs seem connected in the grand scheme of things. Richard’s experimentation with electronic sound just as soothing as his wife, Suzanne’s, hauntingly beautiful narration during the course of the song. A song about the limitlessness of dreams, these few words successfully drive home the point the band has been trying to make throughout the album.

Glorifying the concept of the interference of drugs in daily interactions, is “Not Beautiful Anymore” – a song that propagates anti-materialism. The brilliant space-rock sound is best revealed in “Burning Sky”, a song with some of the best Steven Wilson guitar works to date. Purely instrumental with a brooding tune, various sonic devices like the ticking of the clock is used to enhance the aesthetic value of the track. “Small Fish” serves as the calm before the storm; a track whose lyrics resembles “Nine Cats” significantly. Analogies to death in “time stopped in the silence to watch the burning sky” serves as the perfect pre-cursor to “Burning Sky”.

There could not have been a better way to conclude the album than with “Fadeaway”. With lyrical references to “Brain Damage” by Pink Floyd, the song serves as a brilliant way of summarising an album that talks about an influenced, troubled mind. Various complexities of thought that echo throughout the stretched riffs of psychedelic rock bring darker thoughts and contemplations out of everyone – the message that the album has managed to convey to all of us. The lunatic is, indeed, in my head.

 

The Sky Moves Sideways (1995)

By: Adhiraj Ghosh

Behind every successful act is an inspiration. This statement is especially true in the music industry. Several musicians, throughout the elaborate history of music, have taken a muse from others, which often reflects in the music they produce. Steven Wilson is proud to derive virtual tutelage from some of the greatest musicians to have ever graced the stage. A band that wowed generations with iconic music and artwork – four men whose creative genius reached its zenith with the widespread propagation of psychedelic rock – Pink Floyd.

“Sky Moves Sideways” is a special album in the discography of Porcupine Tree. The album marked the awaited union of Steven Wilson with Chris Maitland, Colin Edwin and Richard Barbieri after two albums of relatively solo development by Steven. Quite evidently, structured after “Wish You Were Here”, the title track has even drawn similarities to “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond” – a cult track that encompasses the psychedelic era.

Arriving at a winning musical style and sticking to it is not something Porcupine Tree professes. They have this uncanny talent of changing their soundscape with every passing album, something that was strikingly evident before the turn of the millennium. The album, through its ambient music, paints a surreal land­scape of unconventional guitar licks, melan­cholic vocals and lyrics and trademark fusions of elec­tronic synth with the essentials of rock.

Without delving deep into the vagaries of concept albums, this album is better known for its diverse instrumental section. They constructed the title track, dissecting the song into two and placing the parts at the beginning and end of the album. Producing a dark atmosphere with deep philosophy in the lyrics, quickly transitions into a space-rock environment, quite similar to several Pink Floyd songs like “Echoes”. It is here that the true value of Richard Barbieri – the wizard of the synthesizer comes to the fore. As soon as you enter a psychedelic haze, the ever-unpredictable Wilson uses the flute to change the environment all-together. After a minute of absolute silence, a mellow tune ends the tune with a sense of calm and melancholy.

Props to the artist for coming up with artwork befitting the album’s ethereal title.

With “Dislocated Day” and “The Moon Touches Your Shoulder”, two very contrasting tracks, the band produces music surrounding the lyrics. The former track may seem repetitive, with a monotonous singing and the same riff being played throughout, but it was done to illuminate the beauty of the message the song delivers. Deep thought ensues in poetry, with phrases like “Dislocated day/I will find a way/to make you say/the name of your forgiver” forming the crux of the song. The latter track delves into a mellow atmosphere with a melancholic message, depicting how good times do not last forever and one must embrace the darkness as it comes.

“Prepare Yourself” is a short instrumental which is followed by “Moonloop”, the pinnacle of Porcupine Tree’s improvised works. Cut short from a forty minute live performance, this instrumental explains how a song progresses, just like the plot of a story, from humble beginnings to a dramatic climax. All in all, this album, while not being as perfect as some of the band’s later works, is a wonderful rendition of Pink Floyd’s classics. Roger Waters must be smiling from the heavens above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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