Porcupine Tree - Stars Die Special
The Delerium Years 91-97
Track list Disc B - 1994-97: Stars Die (5.06), The Sky Moves Sideways - Phase One (18.37), Men of Wood (3.34), Waiting (4.28), The Sound of No-one Listening (8.12), Colourflow in Mind (3.49), Fuse the Sky (4.33), Signify II (6.04), Every Home is Wired (5.13), Sever (5.31), Dark Matter (8.12)
Announced a long time ago and delayed several times, but now it has finally arrived: Porcupine Tree's compilation album Stars Die. This superbly packaged double album collects the band's most important tracks of the years with their original record label Delerium. This isn't just a good opportunity to do a review of the double album itself, but also to have a look at the band's earlier releases.
On The Sunday of Life (1988 - 1991)
On The Sunday of Life has never been my favourite PT album. You could easily say that On The Sunday of Life is to Porcupine Tree what Piper at the Gates of Dawn is to Pink Floyd (and I don't particularly like the Floyd's debut album). Steve Wilson himself once said: "Anybody who listens to this music now will probably have a hard time reconciling where Porcupine Tree started and where they arrived - with the exception of one or two tracks there is little to indicate the direction the band would take later on."
The album contains loads of psychedelic and downright weird stuff. It combined experiments by Steve Wilson and his companion in psychedelia Malcom Stocks (a.k.a. Solomon St. Jemain) with lyrics written by an old school friend of Wilson, Alan Duffy, with whom Wilson had been in a teenage band called Karma. My biggest problem with the album however, is that on the vocal tracks the vocals have most of the time been fiddled with in such a way (increasing or decreasing the speed, adding strange effects, etc) that at times you think you're listening to a Chipmunks or Smurfs album ! The Nostalgia Factory is a perfect example of this, even though the music is quite interesting.
All of this fiddling with the vocals was done because Steve Wilson, at the time, was quite uneasy with the quality of his vocals, and not without a reason, as the version on Nine Cats appearing on On The Sunday of Life and this compilation album shows. And that's a real pity because Nine Cats is a truly lovely song. If only they would have included the acoustic version that appeared on the Insignificance cassette and Pure Narcotic 7".
Still, On The Sunday of Life featured the occasional gem as well, which would hint at the musical direction Steve Wilson would take in later years. The atmospheric Radioactive Toy, re-recorded for On The Sunday of Life - still a favourite of mine and many other PT fans - is probably the best example.
And The Swallows Dance Above The Sun is another weird tune from the first album. Musically it's not too far removed from the material on the second album (Up The Downstairs) since it already experiments with drum and bass rhythms. On top of this Wilson recites a long list of lyrics in an almost rap-like manner. Incidentally this is Wilson's favourite track from On The Sunday of Life.
Considering all of this I think the four tracks that represent On The Sunday of Life are chosen quite wisely. Both Radioactive Toy and Nine Cats remain favourites until today and The Nostalgia Factory and And The Swallows Dance Above The Sun are some of the less extreme examples of 'the other side' of early Porcupine Tree. These latter will never be favourites of mine, but I admit they make sense on this compilation, if only from historical perspective. People who are new to the early Porcupine Tree stuff and who like this material should definitely check out the rest of On The Sunday of Life and Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape (if you can find a copy).
Voyage 34 / Up The Downstairs / Staircase Infinities (1992 - 1994)
Voyage 34 had initially been meant for Wilson's first real studio album, which he wanted to make a double album. Instead however it was decided to release the two parts of the song as the mentioned 12" and make Up The Downstairs a single album. Some of the remaining material later appeared on an EP called Staircase Infinities. The rest of the first disc of Stars Die focuses on this interesting period in which Wilson let go of the psychedelia influences and used tracks like Radioactive Toy, combined with several new musical approaches to move The Tree in a different direction.
Synesthesia, the first actual song on the new album, sounded like a logical step from On The Sunday Of Life (being reminiscent of tracks like This Long Silence) towards the other material on Up The Downstairs. It is presented on the compilation album in a full length version, which is almost 3 minutes longer. It features the song's intro, which on Up The Downstairs was replaced by the What You Are Listening To ..., and a longer guitar solo.
Two other splendid tracks from the album which appear on Stars Die are the title track Up The Downstairs - in which funky bass lines, ambient synth textures by Richard Barbieri and sharp guitar riffs compete for the attention of the listener - and Fadeaway. The latter is an hauntingly beautiful atmospheric ballad that already hinted at the style of later ballads like Dark Matter and Stop Swimming, while Up The Downstairs is still a live favourite of the band. Together with Synesthesia they represent some of the highlights of the second album (Always Never, Burning Sky and Not Beautiful Anymore being other ones).
As mentioned, there were quite a few leftovers and outtakes from the Up The Downstairs sessions. Most of these appeared on the Staircase Infinities mini-album. Among these tracks was also a remake of Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape, an interesting song which speeds up while it proceeds (a technique which Wilson used on several other early tracks as well, although never in such an extreme way as taking it from 92 to 150 beats per minute as in this track !). It's a shame that this interesting piece isn't present on the Stars Die compilation. Instead we get the dreamy organ experiment Rainy Taxi, inspired by Ashra Tempel, which although a bit of an untypical side-step for Porcupine Tree, is very enjoyable as well.
Another outtake which strange enough didn't make it to the Staircase Infinities EP was Phantoms. It has since been published on the Internet and circulated as an MP2 track. Although it's good to finally have it on CD, I consider it to be a rather weak composition. The fact that it was neither included on Up The Downstairs or Staircase Infinities seems to confirm that Wilson had his doubts about the track as well.
Moonloop - The Sky Moves Sideways (1994-1995)
Wilson obviously liked the approach of a full band a lot, especially since it helped him get rid of the drum computers he had been using previously. In the summer of 1994 the band (minus Barbieri) would enter the studio to perform a 40+ minute jam (the full 40 minute recording has recently been released as a CD accompanying the now defunct PT newsletter Transmission). This jam gave birth to two new tracks that were released in
October 1994 on another EP called Moonloop. This CD and 12" release included two tracks: Stars Die and the 18 minute long title track Moonloop. Borrowing it from a friend, this was actually the first thing I ever heard of Porcupine Tree, and it stimulated me to buy The Sky Moves Sideways (but more about that later).
Stars Die, of course also included on this compilation album, was a wonderful composition which clearly hinted at the more song-based approach the band would take starting with Signify. Not including it on The Sky Moves Sideways has always been considered one of his biggest mistakes ever made by Steve Wilson. It's a good thing that it is finally widely available again on this compilation album.
Moonloop itself turned into an 18 minute long composition. Although this composition clearly hinted at the early Floydian influences that would be further explored on The Sky Moves Sideways it did have it's own very specific atmospheric identity. Although a milestone in the band's early repertoire, I have always considered Moonloop to be a rather too drawn out piece. Although it's hypnotising in its own way, it's sometimes hard to maintain attention in the first 2/3rd of the track. Therefore I have always thought that the shorter live version that appeared on Coma Divine in 1997 was much better. It's a real shame that version wasn't included on this Stars Die compilation album.
As mentioned, The Sky Moves Sideways was my first ever PT purchase, and I think the same goes for many other prog fans. This album, released in early 1995, was the band's big breakthrough to a 'larger' audience, especially prog rock aficionados and has therefore been pivotal to the further success of the band. As a matter of fact, Wilson still refers to it as 'the progressive rock album'.
Besides the Moonloop composition the album also contained 2 song-based tracks (Dislocated Day and The Moon Touches Your Shoulder), a short instrumental introduction to Moonloop (Prepare Yourself), all of them sandwiched between the two parts of the title track The Sky Moves Sideways, both clocking in around 17 minutes. Moonloop and the title track were full band performances, the other songs were still Wilson-only recordings.
The album is represented on Stars Die by the first part of the title track: The Sky Moves Sideways Phase One. After all of these years I still think it's a brilliant piece of work and quite often pull it out of the CD collection for another spin. It could therefore not be missed on this compilation. The Sky Moves Sideways as a whole composition has been both complimented and criticized for sounding a lot like Pink Floyd. I admit that there clearly are similarities in the approach of arrangements and composing of the track, but stylistically I think it is quite different from the track it's been compared to most, Shine On You Crazy Diamond. The Sky Moves Sideways is both much more ambient and aggressive than Pink Floyd's piece. Then again, this is one of the most popular PT albums among Floyd fans, which has resulted in a certain disliking of the album by Steve Wilson.
The Sky Moves Sideways Phase One actually consists of 4 segments, which on some versions of the CD have been named separately (The Colour of Air, I Find That I'm Not There, Wire the Drum and Spiral Circus). The track moves from an ambient introduction with lots of (indeed Dark Side of The Moon-like) sound effects, echoing drums and guitar to a vocal section, to a powerful and aggressive section to another ambient closing. The advantages of the full band with Maitland's drumming and percussion, the prominent bass lines by Edwin and Barbieri's tasteful synth textures are displayed to their full advantage in this track.
A song that was both considered for the Up The Downstairs album and The Sky Moves Sideways but never made it to either of the album, Man of Wood, also appears here. It's a good thing that it wasn't used for the mentioned albums because the style much more resembles the Chipmunk-style of the On The Sunday of Life album and therefore feels quite out of place between the Sky Moves Sideways and Signify material. It does however contain real drums by Maitland and the guitarist-gone-berserk approach and Kraut Rock which would reappear on Signify and therefore makes an interesting rarity.
Signify / Coma Divine (1996-1997)
Three additional tracks were released on the CD and 12" version of Waiting, which all appear on this compilation. The Sound of No-one Listening is an instrumental track that also includes a riff also appearing in Neural Rust, an outtake that surfaced on the limited edition Insignificance cassette release. It's a fine example of the high quality material that has appeared as B-sides on PT single releases over the years to follow (some of which has been released on the Recordings compilation last year).
Colourflow in Mind is a Wilson-only track that was turned down for inclusion on the new album by the rest of the band. It's a rather simple short composition, very peaceful and soothing without too much happening (besides a louder section at the end). It therefore fits well in the category of songs that aren't all that special, but are good to finally have on a CD.
Fuse the Sky is an interesting remake of the opening section of The Sky Moves Sideways Phase One (a.k.a. The Colour of Air). It is basically a guitar and keyboards only version by Wilson and Barbieri with lots of additional new sounds, including a prominent clarinet-like synth. As on the Recordings compilation (which included both Untitled and Buying New Soul) it's a bit strange to hear two versions of the same song so closely together on one CD. Then again, it's a good thing that this atmospheric remake is finally available again.
And that brings us to the last studio album released through Delerium. This album was a clear transferral phase from the period of long instrumental compositions (Up The Downstairs and The Sky Moves Sideways) to the very song-based approach the band would develop on the Stupid Dream album.
Signify was the first album that could be considered a full band effort. As with Moonloop, 4 songs on Signify were (co-)written by the other band members. As a matter of fact, the free formed Intermediate Jesus originated from another jam session. Other parts of this same session would later be released on the limited edition cassette Insignificance and 10" Metanoia.
Signify both included lots of songs and some fine instrumental pieces as well. Besides Waiting (Phase One), the album featured 4 more vocal tracks, three of which can also be found on this Stars Die compilation. Wilson's lyrics also began to transform from relatively meaningless poems into songs that actually tried to get a story or opinion across. Every Home is Wired is Wilson's initial bleak attitude towards the Internet featuring another early use of vocal harmonies, while the ballad Dark Matter concerns the less attractive sides of the touring experience. Sever is a rather experimental track featuring lots of spooky effects and overdubs.
Besides the songs Signify also featured several powerful instrumentals, most importantly Idiot Prayer, Waiting Phase Two and the title track Signify. The latter, which could almost be described as 'Porcupine Tree go metal', became a real concert favourite and one would therefore expect to find it on this compilation album. However, instead of Signify, we are treated to Signify II, which was originally intended to close the album but got axed in order to get a friendlier running time for the CD. This makes one of the most interesting rarities on the compilation. Signify II isn't that much different from Signify (I). It is based on the same guitar riffs, although played less raw and therefore closer to Neu's Hallogallo, which inspired the track. Signify II also includes the segment that is played live at the end of Signify (I); the riff of ascending chords that can also be heard on Coma Divine.
Talking about Coma Divine, this splendid live album became the band's last release for Delerium records, since Wilson would sign a new record deal with Snapper Music in 1998. Coma Divine is worthy closer of a period in which Porcupine Tree developed from a one man band experimenting in a bedroom studio to a full fledged studio & live outfit with a growing number of followers. The album was recorded during a tour in Italy and captures some of the band's most important songs in their live version (e.g. Radioactive Toy, The Sky Moves Sideways (Phase One), Waiting (Phase One & Two), Signify and Moonloop). It's a shame that no material from this album was used for the Stars Die compilation. Moonloop or Dislocated Day would have made worthy additions.
Stars Die comes in one of the best packagings I have seen in years. Both CDs are stored in coloured plastic sleeves, which in turn, together with a thick booklet, are enclosed in a sturdy cardboard box with the original artwork of the Stars Die EP. Now, that booklet needs some extra attention since it's actually a very extensive biography of the band's history, covering no less than 40 pages ! These pages also include loads of photographs and elaborate liner notes on the individual tracks with interesting background information and credits for the individual musicians. An extremely professional presentation to say the least.
As always with compilation albums, one could have lengthy discussions about which tracks should and should not have been included, especially in the case of double albums. As I've already mentioned, some of the rarities and bonus tracks are of inferior quality to some tracks which could have been included instead. Then again, at the same any PT collector like me will of course be delighted about the inclusion of these hard-to-get or even unreleased wanna-haves. At the same time, the track listing of Stars Die includes most of the all-time favourites from the Delerium period (making it a must have for people who are not yet familiar with the band's pre-Stupid Dream music) and some interesting rarities and collector items (making it a must-have for long time fans as well).
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10.
For additional information about PT album releases after their Delerium period, check out the following DPRP reviews and articles: