Tag Archives: Chris Maitland

May 2000 – album reviews – Porcupine Tree’s ‘Lightbulb Sun’ (“the late flowering of Steve Wilson’s pure songwriting”)

24 May

Porcupine Tree: 'Lightbulb Sun'

Porcupine Tree: ‘Lightbulb Sun’

Porcupine Tree have had a funny time of it in their decade of existence. Maybe they asked for it: psych-rock underground heroes with a pipeline to rave, then prog hopefuls loudly damning the prog scene, then heading determinedly towards an indie sector that’s unprepared (to put it mildly) for music and musicians of their ilk. But their journey’s maintained its upward curve free of busts and inner bust-ups; and the sidelines and brother projects thronging round them – No-Man and Jansen Barbieri Karn’s art-pop, Bass Communion‘s ambient electronic gubbins, Ex-Wise-Heads’ world music, even IEM’s scraggly Krautrock and plunderphonic cut-ups – show that Porcupine Tree are no stick-in-the-mud rockers, and that between them they’ve got a mind that flies far and wide across the musical landscape.

 
I reckon, though, that were you to cut the Porkies’ headman Steve Wilson open right down to the core and take a look at his heart, you’d find “songs” written on it in flowing, joined-up writing. And for ‘Lightbulb Sun’ (as with its equally song-heavy predecessor ‘Stupid Dream’), Wilson’s made a pronounced effort to finally yank his band clear of that neo-Pink Floyd, instrumental tag that’s dogged them for years. The extended melodic jams of old have taken a back seat to sharply-wrought melodic pop songs; and the rackety Hillage/Khan riffery of that abrasive 4 Chords That Made a Million single sits oddly on an album that’s as distinctively English as cucumber sandwiches. By the river. In Winchester. Plus with Dave Gregory welcomed into the production proceedings (mostly for string arrangements but, one suspects, in general spirit as well) large parts of ‘Lightbulb Sun’ harken towards XTC’s English pastoralism.

 
Although any XTC guile which might’ve adhered to these wistful songs of love and lost summers has been filtered out en route. Last Chance To Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled plays at mixing the first stirrings of adolescent love with the grandiose deathwish of the Heaven’s Gate cult, but it gets no more ambitious than that. Directness is the hallmark of ‘Lightbulb Sun’ – perhaps the title track (about a sick schoolboy coddled and recuperating in bed, enthralled with the unreality of fever vision) has a drug subtext with lines like “I’ll only take medicine if it’s followed by sweets”, but it’s just as likely to be no more than it seems.

 
Episodes of childhood that stick in the memory are as much part of the thoughtful nostalgia anchoring the album as the retrospective daydreaming of Where We Would Be (ending on a bewildered-but-wiser note of “strange how you never become / the person you see when you’re young”). Or the lover’s angst in songs like Feel So Low; in which our Steven, playing that “who breaks the wounded silence first?” game, loses outright (although it was probably worth it to hear that string quartet cry with you, Steve).

 
And though it has its dark side, ‘Lightbulb Sun’ is a record that welcomes little gushes of warmth. The sound’s warmer than anything Porcupine Tree have tried before: with a big fresh drum sound plus acoustic guitars, banjos and hammer dulcimers to change the previous clean space-rock to something more homespun. Wilson’s electric guitar heroism’s not as overwhelming as before, though reaching new expressive peaks. There’s room for Turkish and African lutes from bassist Colin Edwin‘s collection, and the infamous Richard Barbieri spends more time on classic keyboards like the Rhodes, Hammond and Mellotron than he does on cooking up his unearthly synth textures. Also, with Wilson’s urges towards futurism and post-rock held back this time, the band concentrate on banging out songs that’ll move people instead of just critics (ahem).

 
The late flowering of Steve Wilson’s pure songwriting (in strong evidence on ‘Stupid Dream’, a hard fact on this follow-up) is producing gentle gems. Like the immaculate acceptance of love’s end on Shesmovedon, an acoustics-driven sigher with a chorus harmony (over which any of our neo-classic British rock bands would bite their fingers off rather than admit they couldn’t do it themselves – hello Ocean Colour Scene! hello Noel!) Or the majestic yet soft-sung healing touch of The Rest Will Flow, sweeping along on a flood of heart-gladdening strings. At the other end, the snakey and resentful undertones of Hatesong (a polite pissed-off English hiss, evil fretless bass and eardrum punches being swung nearby) and the eerie, let’s-pretend-things-are-better fairground tune of How Is Your Life Today?, rotating on carousels of piano and Barbieri calliope effects. On these, Wilson sounds spooked and heartsick – deserted in the yawning void of an empty house and too stricken to even pick up the mail.

 
Songs like these seem far more rewarding than backsliders like the lengthy Russia On Ice, which risks catapulting the band straight back into the “baby Floyd” box: being a bit of a ‘Mope On You Sulky Diamond’, long prog touches and all. Porcupine Tree are beyond this wielding of obvious weightiness now. Singing about houses and failing handholds instead of stars and corrupted sermons often means the songs go deeper, and if this means Wilson and co are domesticated and lost to the cosmic fraternity, so be it. I prefer them like this, under the changing sun rather than swirling in inner space chasing a dubious light up their own navels.

 
Porcupine Tree: ‘Lightbulb Sun’
Snapper Music/K-Scope, SMASCD827 (6 36551 28272 7)
CD-only album
Released:
22nd May 2000
Get it from: Burning Shed
Porcupine Tree online:
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May 2000 – single & track reviews – Badly Drawn Boy’s ‘Disillusion’; Inter’s ‘Radio Finland’; Porcupine Tree’s ‘4 Chords That Made a Million’

8 May

Badly Drawn Boy: 'Disillusion'

Badly Drawn Boy: ‘Disillusion’

For someone with such a reputation for being ramshackle, unpredictable, accidental, awkward (insert your favourite anti-star adjective here) and so on, that there Badly Drawn Boy doesn’t half make polished pop records when he wants to.

The Boy – Darren Gough, when he’s out of uniform – positively thrives on that kind of early Beck slacker/random “just rolled out of bed and made this record” image that wins over the crowds of reluctant punka-monkeys, for whom professionalism’s a suspicious word at best. Doesn’t change the fact that his last single (Once Around the Block) sounded suspiciously like that Latino swing that used to punctuate ‘Sesame Street’ and made you want to check if he had an Astrid Gilberto LP hidden under his battered old mixing desk underneath all the crumpled tape and cigarette butts. Most of the similarly-touted Manc alt-rockers Doves back him up on this one, and guess what? it does sound like a slightly crumpled take on mid-’70s soul-pop. Sort of like Hall & Oates refried for that crate-digger’s Latin funk angle plus a New York thrift-shop feel.


 
I like it – it’s hard not to enjoy all those vintage sounds bouncing up and down together like a smiling, sweaty block party – but it’s becoming a little difficult not to see Badly Drawn Boy as a lovable cottage-industry faker of slightly worn urban folk. Or as someone who likes smudging his own messy fingerprints on the records in a ‘Mojo’ buried-treasure box. OK, perhaps I’m being a little unfair. Bottle of Tears seems to restore your faith in the boy Gough’s image – a slightly Beta Band-style stoned skiffle, loaded up with boo-bams and other things that go clonk and with all the recording levels cheekily whacked up to a crunchily chewable wall of treble. There’s a bit of hoodlum science on the menu too. Wrecking the Stage is a yobbish rockabilly riff slamming headfirst into some sampler boffin’s cut-up experiment, so you get to hear big stoopid guitar and drums duking it out with primitive electronic froth and a colossal roll of psychedelic bell tones.



 
There is some kind of split genius here – on the one hand, for postmodern pop pastiche; on the other, for mating cheery tunes with outrageously back-to-front “who gives a fuck?” production. But as regards that carefully-constructed image of the lovable neighbourhood eccentric stumbling brilliantly into music, the game’s well and truly up. There’s a mainstream pop talent here dressing down for effect; and if he’s trying to disguise that with silly hats and goofy chuckles, methinks the Boy doth protest too much.

Inter: 'Radio Finland'

Inter: ‘Radio Finland’

It’s been a long time since Inter‘s ‘National Paranoia’ showed up (with its coltish Wonder Stuff-y bite), but here comes the follow-up single, straight down the turnpike. ‘Radio Finland’ is slyly anthemic: smoother, laced with chimey Celt-rock chords, stronger on the skat hooks and harmonies, but it’s another “we’ve already discovered that rock delusions suck” songs, worldly-wise behind the “da doo da da dit”s. As lines like “every hour of every day / I’ve got a direct line into your brain” lock horns with self-referential gibes like “what a show, but you’re nothing new”, Inter seem to be deconstructing and sending themselves up before they’re even under scrutiny.


 
The venomous sideswipe of You Lose shows they can still muster simple brat bile when they want to: perhaps when they hit the big time they’ll’ve gone full circle and gotten all naive and sellably arrogant again. But You Can Always Depend On Me, brazening out the confessions of a self-aware blunderer, suggests there’s fat chance of that – “I’ve wasted my potential trying hard to sound too sincere / and I don’t wanna get myself in deeper saying things you don’t want to hear / …I’m way too shameless to ever get it right.” In Inter’s songs, pop bursts out in tuneful flash-flowers of ballsy resistance. The good new is that even if they have rooted their sound in The Wonder Stuff, they’ve also matched the Stuffies’ tuneful urchin aggression and cracklingly sharp lyrics too. Nice to see a set of heirs that don’t let the old firm down for once.

Porcupine Tree: '4 Chords That Made a Million'

Porcupine Tree: ‘4 Chords That Made a Million’

A side effect of Porcupine Tree‘s inexorable rise to the forefront of British psych-rock has been the consensus that’s set into their previously unbounded music. But they can still surprise us. Last year it was the dry wit of the ‘Piano Lessons’ single: this year it’s something less subtle, but still a jump away from the strummed ’70s friendly psych-anthems which Steven Wilson comes up with on an average day.

At the root, ‘4 Chords That Made A Million’ still stomps along with big mainstream boots on. But the sound is something new for them: aggressive raga-rock riffs with guitar wails like huge bloodstained battle-axes and a brutally cynical adventurist swagger to it that’s more ‘Definitely Maybe’ than ‘Wish You Were Here’. The effect’s a sort of explosive post-Anokha heavy metal: laden with tabla lines and drones, and with Richard Barbieri spurting out dirty synth lines like someone spunking up into a pot of orchids. The subject matter’s the one thing that unites arena-rock and punk lurkers – that standard disaffection with the biz. “Another moron with a chequebook / will take you out to lunch, who knows? / He will tell you you’re the saviour / and then he’ll drop you like a stone.” Mind you, what does it mean when you’re writing lyrics about the futility and emptiness of arena-rock and you then do your level best to set them in a full-on mosher of an arena-rock crowd pleaser? Has Wilson gone all Manic Street Preachers “we’ll have our cake but claim we’re dieting” on us, all of a sudden?

 
The B-sides are more familiar Tree twiglets. Disappear is almost unplugged, Wilson’s lazy swirl of flyaway harmonies, licks of luscious sombre wah and the blissful final surge of organ, Mellotron and drums notwithstanding. And it’s another fame story, this time the tale of someone wilfully giving up on the threshold: “I gatecrashed parties and just stood and stared / I moved to London and stayed in all year… / You’ll be famous and I’ll disappear. / I erase myself again.”


 
In Formaldehyde sounds like one of Radiohead’s disintegrating nearly-ballads fed through Camel: a lovely, helpless, descending Wilson melody to match the boring, frustrating pain of a decaying love. The sonic decorations, an enchanting swirl of dulcimer scratches and NASA blips, enhance a prime piece of trademark Porcupine Tree gliss-guitaring sky-glide. But while back in the ’70s this kind of psychedelic lament would’ve accompanied spliffed-out stargazing, here it’s soundtracking the miserable chill that settles into comfy middle-class apartments as they crumble into broken homes and even the drugs become unsatisfying toys. “Dust in the kitchen – coffee pot, microdot. / Now we are constant: / talking less, breeding stress.”


 
Perhaps it shows just how everyday the psychedelic has become today (with an acid trip in every other advert), but it also shows that, whatever spaceman noises and Big Rock Issues Porcupine Tree want to play with, they can still bring themselves off the spangly podium and home to the heart when they need to.

Badly Drawn Boy: ‘Disillusion’
XL Recordings/Twisted Nerve, TNXL005CD (6 34904 10052 0)
CD/10″ vinyl single
Released:
3rd May 2000
Get it from: (2020 update) Original single best obtained second-hand; Disillusion appears on the debut Badly Drawn Boy album ‘The Hour of Bewilderbeast’.
Badly Drawn Boy online:
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Inter: ‘Radio Finland’
Yoshiko Records, YR 002 CDS002
CD/7-inch vinyl single
Released:
8th May 2000
Get it from: (2020 update) Original single best obtained second-hand; Radio Finland appears on the lone Inter album ‘Got My Nine’.
Inter online:
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Porcupine Tree: ‘4 Chords That Made A Million’
Snapper Music/K-Scope, SMASCD111/SMAXCD111/SMAS7111 (6 36551 21112 3)
CD/7-inch vinyl single
Released:
2nd May 2000
Get it from: (2020 update) Original single best obtained second-hand: ‘4 Chords That Made a Million’ is included on Porcupine Tree’s ‘Lightbulb Sun’ album, while the others made it onto the ‘Recordings’ compilation.
Porcupine Tree online:
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December 1998 – album reviews – Porcupine Tree’s ‘Metanoia’ (“the possibilities which the band’s music has while it’s still at the point of wide-eyed, newborn naivety”)

27 Dec

Porcupine Tree: 'Metanoia'

Porcupine Tree: ‘Metanoia’

As Porcupine Tree straighten out their more obviously exploratory aspects and firm up into a more solid rock configuration, Steven Wilson seems concerned to show us that although his psychedelic prog band is solidifying, it’s not becoming rigid. After last year’s live album ‘Coma Divine‘, here’s ‘Metanoia’: a collector’s set of band improvisations from the rehearsal studio during the making of ‘Signify’.

Obviously intended to illustrate the possibilities which the band’s music has while it’s still at the point of wide-eyed, newborn naivety, it’s also a window into the band’s uncensored enjoyment of music-making. At the beginning of Mesmer III you can hear drummer Chris Maitland enthusing like a schoolboy – “Brilliant, Richard… That’s really evil!” – while Richard Barbieri unwraps a particularly ominous electronic texture from his mysterious lash-up of analogue synths. Compared to the carefully-honed concert expansions of ‘Coma Divine’ (allowing the band to play out loud without ever getting too self-indulgent), ‘Metanoia’ takes Porcupine Tree’s live freedom off in a different direction, where the only limitations (or necessary brakes) are the musicians’ awareness of those specific moments in time.

Mesmer II is the most confident (and consequently least yielding) of the improvs. It begins as a Frippish guitar fanfare over Prince-style boom-bat drums; it gradually psyches itself up into more familar Porcupine Tree planetarium music, with orrery twinkles and rolls from Barbieri. But it’s an exploration in which the influences seem to have blended naturally into the moment – a good sign.


 
Of most obvious interest to regular Porcupine Tree followers will be the Metanoia I/Intermediate Jesus medley, featuring a first draft of the Intermediate Jesus instrumental from ‘Signify’. This version emerges out of a typical raw Porkies atmospheric. Dreamy, swampy psych-rock fragments flicker in and out of a quiet power-station ambience: Colin Edwin‘s small, arching bass hook becomes the keel over which Wilson decorates the distance with echo-guitar details. The music eventually settles down into a dark-tinged, broody, space-psych flavour with a backwash of drowsy sonic fabric: reminiscent of the beautiful golden haze which U2’s Eno-assisted ‘Unforgettable Fire’ revelled in, in between the rock hits. At this point, still uncertain of itself, the music of Porcupine Tree has an uncontrived innocence to it; something that’s rare anywhere in the current prog canon, let alone in their own history.


 
Mesmer I builds from minimal, grudging soundscapes of cymbal tones, electrosculpture and flanged guitar effects. Eventually, it’s been shaped into a disjointed groove (a gawkier, rockier take on ‘In A Silent Way’, maybe) up to the point where it’s hit U2 funk and a dance-groove recalling Porcupine Tree’s own ‘Voyage 34’. Here, Barbieri’s inventiveness plays foil to the brasher edge of Wilson’s stadium-rock guitar flourishes, brushing in and out of the mix with scratchily tender gusts of electronics like the wet coronas around streetlights. Metanoia II, like its predecessor, is anchored by a little Edwin bass hook around which Maitland lays haphazardly tremorous drumming, Wilson a fragmentary glissando, and Barbieri abuses his wibbling VCS3 in full On the Run tradition. This piece will subsequently (a) blossom lyrically and (b) accelerate into a kind of soft-edged speed-metal, with the same sort of instinctive flow as Porcupine Tree’s own ‘Moonloop’.


 
It’s Mesmer III/Coma Divine, though, that allows Porcupine Tree to insinuate themselves into the improvising tradition. “Do something completely different” suggests a restless Wilson. Time out for meditation – and already Steven is bored… Someone fiddles with a shortwave radio but, ending up with dull afternoon cut-ups, abandons it. Behind tiny touches from a dormant rhythm section, the band start to induce shifting planes of sound. A Barbieri noise (an orchestra haunting a train tunnel) ebbing in and out; hardly there, like kettle steam. A suspicion of an introverted ’70s jazz-rock, melted down in ’90s solvent, draining out in a Barbieri wing-flutter. A section which has the lonely looping meander of Bark Psychosis‘ Bloodrush. At last, a return to a very soft take on the band’s psych-rock drift, Wilson’s guitar trailing over rocking-chair drum and bass, transparent synth swathing a shroud of narcosis around it. A band usually lumped in with Marillion and Gong has just paid visits to the post-rock haunts of Tortoise, Labradford and beyond, without contrivance, drawing up natural sound from the source. When they finish, it’s like the shift in reality at the end of a sleepwalk.


 
As an afterthought, there’s Milan – Porcupine Tree out of the studio and captured in conversation during one of those bleached, interminable spare moments on tour. They’re uncomfortable, travel-blurred, in unfamiliar suits and ineptly trying to organise their Italian meal. In the “gastronomic capital of the world… known for its joi-de-vivre,” they’re ill-at-ease, messed around, trying to cope, teasing each other. “I just feel stupid,” is the final aggrieved statement of the album – a moment of Spinal Tap bathos to counter the explorations elsewhere. Displaced from normal patterns, they’re forced to improvise again, in the way we all have to. They’re surviving.

Porcupine Tree: ‘Metanoia’
Delerium Records/Chromatic Records, CHRM 003 (no barcode)
10-inch vinyl-only double album
Released:
December 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) Original vinyl version best obtained second-hand; album was later reissued on CD.
Porcupine Tree online:
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October 1997 – live album reviews – Porcupine Tree’s ‘Coma Divine (“driving performances, captured with crystal clarity… showing what the band can be like when removed from Wilson’s zealous studio-bound quality control”)

27 Oct

Porcupine Tree: 'Coma Divine'

Porcupine Tree: ‘Coma Divine’

In the eleven years that he’s been developing it, Steven Wilson has guided his Porcupine Tree project along a path of sinuous, gentle, considered swerves. We’ve seen it emerge from a clutch of playful one-man bedroom-band attempts to emulate the psychedelic heroism of the Gong/Floyd/Hillage/Can era, and go on to flirt with the wide-eyed double dawn of acid-house and rave while dipping in and out of experimental sonic abstractions. Eventually it established itself as a full-figured four-man contemporary rock group, and today’s band is a much sleeker, more professional thing than its origins suggested. Solid and melodic, rocking effortlessly, drawing on the pellucid visions of psychedelic sound and the soaring space-blues solos of ‘Wish You Were Here’, reweaving them into the starfield sweeps of ’90s rave and trance-techno, and allowing them to blossom out of the heart of spectral English pop and folk dreams.

Wilson has an ambiguous, on-off relationship with progressive rock. One month he’ll be asserting himself as the British prog scene’s lone saviour amongst a swill of sub-Genesis, the next rebranding his work as “modern rock” among the likes of The Verve, Korn or Mansun. Something which belies the simple truth that Porcupine Tree are, in essence, a contemporary prog-rock band. But if so, they’re one which is practising what the scene ought to be practising. They’re leaning to past traditions of impeccable extended musicianship and structural ambition, but eschewing podgy FM blandness and looking instead to contemporary musical motifs, technologies and methodologies.


 
That said, 1996’s ‘Signify’ was almost too accomplished. Sixty-odd minutes of polished, grooving songs and sleek instrumental blowouts that went down like a little pinch of manna with a worldwide prog audience, but which also ensured the Porkies’ ascendency at the expense (to this reviewer, at least) of their warmth and their mutable possibilities. ‘Coma Divine’ redresses the balance a bit – not just by being a particularly good live album (driving performances, captured with crystal clarity) but by showing what the band can be like when removed from Wilson’s zealous studio-bound quality control. Recorded during the band’s Italian tour in 1997, it captures them in ripping form, tearing through the likes of ravening distorted acid-rocker Not Beautiful Anymore and the stabbing, mathematical Neu!-style thrash of Signify, expounding on the dreamy rock tone-poem of The Sky Moves Sideways, and delivering a poised, hypnotic Radioactive Toy to an ecstatic audience.



 
Porcupine Tree draw frequent Pink Floyd comparisons, invited by the band’s preference for atmosphere and solid construction over any temptations to proggy twiddles and busyness. And also by the cushioning synthesizers, Wilson’s quiet vocals and his protracted, articulate bluesy guitar leads. When you hear them live, the parallels don’t hold nearly as much water. Floyd have never really rocked out with such intensity as this band, and have always possessed a certain English stolidity which Porcupine Tree avoid (in spite of Wilson’s nonchalant approach to front-man duties). Waiting – previously no more than a Tree-by-numbers single – is reborn here, jauntified by Wilson’s jangling electric twelve-string. And even if The Sleep of No Dreaming strays dangerously near to the despised neo-prog (it’s just a little too close to a half-hearted ‘Dark Side of the Moon’), Wilson’s unusually raw wail on the chorus gives the live version all the authority it needs.



 
It’s the live freedom offered to other members of the band that makes the most difference. Colin Edwin‘s fretless bass, reliable but uninspired on record, becomes a looming stretchy presence on ‘The Sky Moves Sideways’. When he steps on his mutron pedal, he’s more Bootsy Collins than Roger Waters. Dislocated Day (always one of the Tree’s most thrilling moments) gets a huge boost from his interaction with Chris Maitland‘s hissing cymbals and turbocharged drums, the rhythm section taking the song and running with it. Although it’s keyboardist Richard Barbieri who proves to be the Tree’s ace-in-the-hole when he’s let off the leash. He matches Wilson blast for blast as he wrenches blistering melodies, frayed foaming tones and astonishingly vocal burbles out of his armoury of old analogue synths; or embraces the band in a sea of marble-sheened electronics.


 
And while Wilson’s guitar takes centre stage, it’s Barbieri’s utter mastery of sonics which gives Porcupine Tree their robe of starlight as – at their most liberated – they swell through the long, trancey second section of Waiting, the mesmerised improvisations that extend Radioactive Toy. Or the highlight of ‘Coma Divine’: a beautifully fluid journey through Moonloop which evolves through honey-warm ambience, glittering astronomical detail, guitar explorations that sleepwalk and levitate, to the final joyous rampage through spacey, ornamental, Ozrics-y riffing at the climax. Splendid.

Porcupine Tree: ‘Coma Divine’
Delerium Records, DELEC CD 067 (5 032966 096723)
CD-only album
Released:
October 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Original CD best obtained second-hand; expanded 2016 double CD edition available from Burning Shed.
Porcupine Tree online:
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