Looking at the list of albums still to come, I notice there’s about to be a ten year gap in release dates, which does in a way reflect what was going on in my life, although – thanks to my insistence on sticking to release dates – the gap in me listening to new music actually covers a different ten year span, so that this one and, to a degree, the next one, are out of place in my personal chronology.
Still, there was a ten year gap in my listening habits, and I should probably explore that a bit.
Otherwise, I’ll just suddenly say something like “so, after several years living in Canada…”
The gap comes, pretty much, in the first decade of the 21st century. Not, as I later discovered, that it was a quiet decade for new music, but it was a chaotic and turbulent time in my life – in all our lives – and if I bought new music, it was by artists I already knew and loved (and are therefore already on this list), or classical recordings.
Or downloads, which became a thing in those ten years. I’ll be coming to streaming and downloads, I think.
So, in the last six years of my time at Ferrero, I not only became a properly qualified IT person, but became responsible for a number of significant projects, the details of which need not detain us. Over those six years, my working life evolved from the occasional trip around the UK, to the occasional trip around Europe (mainly to Luxembourg or Italy), to - in the last 18 months – regular and somewhat draining trips to Italy (or Germany, or Poland, but mainly Italy) as I worked on the UK part of a genuinely global and transformative IT project.
It's a curious part of my life, that 18 months. From a work perspective, I wouldn’t change a minute of it; I learned so much which has served me well in later years, and was exposed to a vast amount of experiences (and food) which I’ll never forget, but it was tough on a fledgling parent, to be away as much as I was. Even on the weeks when all I did was drive in to work in the morning and home again at night, I was often out of the house for 12 hours at a time. The boys were young, and I felt I only saw them at weekends.
Eventually, with the UK part of the project complete, and focus turning to the Canadian rollout (and the Russian one, and the Mexican one), the prospect of my travel becoming more global or my responsibilities in the UK becoming more onerous, we upped sticks and moved to Canada.
That is, of course, a long and complicated story, and one I’ve told on here before. We moved to northern BC in April 2006, roughly in the middle of my decade of not hearing new music, and my life changed utterly – from full-time and then some IT and Project Manager, to primary parent and part-time (when I could fit it in) IT technician.
Our parenting roles reversed, and I became the one doing the school run, making the meals, filling the endless days of Spring Break or summer holiday, and - I may have mentioned this a bit – coaching soccer. It’s tempting to be a little blasé about the whole thing now, but it was a big upheaval, and looking back, I was taking refuge in familiar music, and not seeking out the new.
So, I missed this (and a great many other things) when it first came out, and I might never have encountered Porcupine Tree, or Steven Wilson, or all the associated side-projects, were it not for my love of Prog, and Glasgow Airport.
Over the first years in Canada, we went back to the UK (to Scotland, mainly) several times. Sometimes we all went, flying from Vancouver to Glasgow and back, and sometimes Zoe or I would go alone, for various reasons. On one of our trips back (I covered some of the detail of this in the last set of memories, ten years ago; I’m not going to elaborate here for now), I was perusing WH Smith in Glasgow Airport and spotted an early copy of what would eventually become Prog magazine.
I think it’s fair to say that the magazine market was in an uncertain phase, one it may well still be in, and it seemed that one of the ways the industry was addressing this was by spinning niche interest publications off more established titles – I think this was a spinoff of the more widely-read Classic Rock magazine - but it intrigued me.
It intrigued me because in all of the revisiting and ‘comfort listening’ I had been doing, I has been gradually reintroducing myself to some of my mid-seventies favourites. I went through a significant ‘rediscovering Rush’ period around this time, and plundered iTunes for digital copies of, firstly, all the albums I’d owned and loved back then, and then all the other ones I’d not paid enough attention to, hearing many of them in clear digital sound, often as if for the first time.
I also had come to realise that my thinking about music had changed – I think that while the British music scene (if such a thing even exists) is keen to label and classify things, while there didn’t seem to be any of that going on in Canada. Aside from the clear (and mandatory) bias towards Canadian music, all kinds of music sat cheek by jowl with things which to my ear sounded incongruous. The landscape was different, and the conversations I’d have with people were also different. Being a fan of Rush was a given – I think you get a Rush fan club membership with your Canadian passport – but owning up to those early ELP albums would prompt earnest discussion rather than sniggering.
The reason I bought that copy of Prog magazine was that it promised a countdown of the top 50 (or top 100; I really should have figured this out by now) Prog albums ‘of all time’. As I’ve said before, nine of the top ten were familiar to me, although I disagreed with the order, naturally.
I read the thing cover to cover on the flight back; I made notes in the margin of things I’d like to explore a little more, and – mainly, I think, because I didn’t know anything about it – I went and downloaded myself a copy of In Absentia, which was the one exception in that top ten.
I think it and the next album in this list were what brought me firmly back to ‘new music’ as a concept; everything which follows from here is music I heard for the first time more or less as it came out – in my fifties, I rediscovered the joy of new sounds which had faded out of my life when all the other supposedly more important things crowded in.
It’s not a coincidence that this later flourishing of new things coincides with the rise of streaming services and downloads, and more recently, and to my endless joy, with the revival of the record store (record shop, the teenaged me would have insisted). I can overlook the way the current generation seem to mangle the terminology (what on earth is a ‘vinyl’?) because the sheer joy of being able to go into a shop and flick through the new releases, and be transported back to The Other Record Shop as I decide whether or not I can afford this new album I’ve only vaguely heard about, but which looks like it would be right up my street.
I first heard In Absentia after flying back form Glasgow that day in 2009, but I first properly heard it when I bought my own vinyl copy. Even though it wasn’t recorded with the intention of being played on vinyl, that’s how it sounds best. To me, at least.
But is it Prog? Let’s find out.
I had no idea what to expect on first listen, so the spacey guitar line with sound effects shifting between speakers in no way prepared me for the kind of aural assault I hadn‘t heard since the days of listening to Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath albums. Blackest Eyes, of course, quickly settles into a more gentle, almost acoustic melody with a ridiculously catchy chorus about…
Well, it seems to be about a stalker or serial killer, or something. The lyric certainly reflects the duality of the musical approach; at once melodic and soothing before exploding with the sort of riff in weird time signatures which suddenly made me realise what I’d been missing all these years. Honestly, one track in, I was on board.
Which is, of course, appropriate, as the second track is Trains, which pulls off the same trick of being calm and melodic before opening out into a much wider and expansive soundscape, with some of the same riffs going, but there’s so much more to hear in this – there’s a plangent guitar solo, which seems to somehow migrate from electric to acoustic as it goes, and then some dense but gorgeous vocal harmonies and a second instrumental section with syncopated handclaps and what definitely sounds like a banjo before the chorus comes back in, heralding the return of the full band and the maddeningly catchy riff. Again, it’s not entirely clear what it’s about – it’s vaguely disturbing, but not something you can out your finger on, then the handclaps are buried under a fair approximation of a peal of church bells, and…
And we’re off into Lips of Ashes, which had a spaced-out guitar sound and a doubled vocal surrounded by reverberating effects which make the whole thing eerie and hard to pin down. It’s not the pop-inflected sound of the opening two tracks; it’s more of a soundscape with disturbing imagery than a verse-chorus-verse kind of song, but it also boasts a terrific guitar solo, and – look, let’s just get this out of the way, shall we – it’s most definitely Prog, although not in the way I remember it, which was much more about showing off and cramming as many instruments as possible in there.
Side two (sides are shorter these days, as everything is spread over two discs but only lasts about an hour) starts with The Sound of Muzak, which has a remarkable lopsided rhythm going on under a lush melody and a vocal about the cheapening and corporatizing of music. Right about here is when I thought “yup, they’re playing my tune”.
The song is deceptively straightforward in its blunt message, but in absolutely nothing else – Gavin Harrison’s drum track is impossible to air-drum along with, in the way that the best of Neil Peart’s were, and every time you think you’ve got a handle on this song, it shifts gear subtly, and dares you to follow along. If you want to know what’s wrong with the pre-packaged and soulless music of today at the same time as hearing what could be done about it, this is the song for you.
Gravity Eyelids is produced to sound lie it’s playing in a nearby room with the door shut, although the vocal is right there with you, almost sitting on your shoulder. Steven Wilson (of whom more later) has developed as a vocalist over the twenty years or so since this was recorded, but there’s something to be said for the way his voice here is pushing against the limits, almost falsetto in places – it lends a tension to the song which is entirely in keeping with its – again – unsettling lyrics. The scratchy aesthetic of the sound lasts until the instrumental break, when the guitars emerge into the same space as the voice and tear through the kind of break where the riff (and the laser gun sound effects) are more important than the actual solo, which seems to be happening quietly in the background.
Once out the other side, all the instruments start pulling together, and it’s now the voice which appears to be treated and less distinct. It’s a superb transition, and lends the song that most Prog of traits, an actual progression. It, of course, all fades back into the underground from whence it came, giving the impression that the band had been plugging away in that locked room this whole time.
Wedding Nails is the kind of instrumental wig-out which is hard to pull off unless you’re as talented as these four. Again, I find myself thinking of the later-period Rush instrumentals, which mined much the same seam, just for the joy of playing together and making as much noise as possible in shifting time signatures.
Since I don’t have lyrics to worry about, I’ll just take the opportunity of observing that I’m reviewing this only a couple of weeks after OK computer, and the inner sleeve design, with the reversed typewritten words, complete with crossing out are, well – unlike everything else on this album – a little derivative.
Or maybe it’s an homage.
Flipping over again, it’s another of those catchy melodies. This time, Prodigal hooks you with a narrative verse pulled along with two separate guitar lines – one which works as a kind of drone, and the other breaking in from time to time with a gentle riff illustrating as much as it is accompanying. There’s a chorus of sorts with more of those lush harmonies, an instrumental sort-of-middle-eight which threatens to break into a bridge section then unfurls a distorted solo before dropping us back into a verse section which has a single line designed to make you re-eveluate everything you’ve heard so far, and cast the narrator in a totally different light, befgore bursting out into the actual solo which had only been threatened before.
Sometimes in Porcupine Tree music, you get the feeling there are two songs going on at once. The end of Prodigal is one of those times for me.
Immediately we’re into .3 which is all about Colin Edwin’s sinuous and muscular bass line. It introduces us to the broken rhythm of the song and then refuses to settle back down into being part of the accompaniment; it stays there throughout, insistent and purposeful. It’s almost an instrumental, this, with sweeping strings (arranged by Dave Gregory, who we’ll be meeting again soon) and assorted noises off before it drops into a very distinctive Porcupine Tree acoustic guitar riff under the kind of lyric last heard in the early eighties nuclear paranoia. Never fear, though, here comes that bass again to return us to the feeling of being…
Well, of being unsettled and off-balance, to be honest. .3 is not a cheery singalong kind of track, to be honest, but that’s nothing compared to the industrial barrage of The Creator Has a Mastertape which bleeps and yowls over a treated, half-spoken kind of lyric which makes you think of strange, half-remembered experimental European movies you used to watch at one in the morning when you were a student.
Well, it does that to me, anyway. It’s absolutely riveting, but not for the faint of heart. It’s Prog, but it’s not exactly the way I remember it being. I can also report that it is the kind of song which makes you take corners too fast, and is not recommended for when you’re driving down narrow country lanes.
Heartattack in a Layby is a song about – well, have a guess. Appropriately reflective and mournful, it’s an existential crisis of a song, which is quite an achievement for something which namechecks Baldock.
Is there another song anywhere which mentions Baldock? It’s the kind of place which only Steven Wilson would think to set to music, I think, but if he’s referring to a specific lay-by (rest area for those non-Brits among you), then I’ve probably driven past it several times. It eventually turns into a kind of round, with the lyrics interweaving in a way designed to invoke a kind of out-of-body experience. It might also provoke one, under the right circumstances. Not to be listened ot in a lay-by east of Baldock, I’d suggest.
More muscular bass introduces Strip the Soul, which – look, if this is an album about anything, it’s about the sociopath and the serial killer, and while that’s not exactly the first thing you think of when dreaming up a concept, it gives the whole album a kind of ominous sense, which perhaps reaches its apogee in this song. Not for the first time, the protagonist hints at his ‘faulty wiring’, and there’s definitely a through line to a number of these songs which the music illustrates, being appropriately dark and menacing when needed, which in Strip the Soul is pretty much the whole time. It’s dense and dark, and thank goodness it’s not the last track on the album.
We do need to have something more hopeful to end on, and while I’m not convinced that Collapse the Light into Earth provides it lyrically, it certainly does the job musically. Starting from a simple piano line, it gradually fills in the spaces around the voice as it pleads for a little understanding and human company. I don’t think you can stretch the concept of this album to the point here each song is delivered by the same protagonist, and in fact, I’d go so far as to hope not, as the previous narrators have confessed to some things which can’t just be forgiven by a sumptuous melody and a full-figured string accompaniment.
But it’s a magnificent way to go out – this most remarkable album ending on an emotional and musical hope for redemption and acceptance which becomes almost spiritual in the end, as everyone seems to ascend out of sight, borne aloft on strings and harmonies, leaving only the dogged pianist behind to provide an anchor.
I’ve already alluded to the visual similarity between this and OK Computer; I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that the two albums had a similar effect on me – in both cases, I was fully immersed in the world of the band’s imagination, and in both cases, challenged to think again about music I thought I knew and understood. I may not have heard it until it was several years old, and established as perhaps the pinnacle (perhaps; see below), but it shook me out of my musical complacency, and everything which follows in this list is here because I took a punt on In Absentia.
I’m going to miss music magazines if they eventually go.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Several. I think, other than this, Deadwing is my favourite, but you should definitely also listen ot Fear of a Blank Planet. Delightfully, and somewhat surprisingly, there’s actually a new Porcupine Tree album, Closure / Continuation, which I recommend wholeheartedly. A hiatus of more than ten years doesn’t seemed to have done them any harm at all, and it’s a spectacular return to form.
Compilations to consider?
Now this is tricky. Porcupine Tree compilations emerge from time to time, but they are almost exclusively offcuts, b-sides and rarities. There isn’t any such thing as a full PT retrospective. As with most Prog bands, it’s probably best to dive in to the albums anyway.
All sorts of DVDs, and strange limited edition things exist. See below for the DVD recommendation, but there’s a live download-only album called Atlanta which behaves the way traditional live albums used to, and an actual album called Octane Twisted which is basically a live version of the The Incident album, but some versions of which include other tracks. I have a suspicion that there will be a live album following the Closure/Continuation tour later this year, though…
Well, if you wait a couple of weeks, I’ll have all sorts of Steven Wilson stuff to recommend, but in the meantime, I do recommend the Anesthetize live DVD, which is broadly a live rendition of the Fear of a Blank Planet album. There will be more in a couple of weeks, though – watch this space…